Saturday, July 22, 2017

Culinary alchemy

All I want is to be able to turn lead into gold.  Culinarily speaking, that is.  I want to be able to pick up the same basic staples from the store -- ground beef, chicken thighs, potatoes, rice -- and somehow magically have something totally different and interesting for dinner every night.  But it has to be ready in 30 minutes or less.



I might even be able to do that, too, if it weren't for all these troublesome restrictions.  For instance, dinners in our family are gluten-free, because John is home for those and I want him to have something he can eat without relying on pitiful substitutes (i.e. no burgers in buns for everyone else and plain burger on a plate for him).  Marko and Michael now both dislike chicken, though they will accept chicken breasts because they don't have "gristly bits."  Marko also hates pork of all kinds except sausage.  John and Michael both hate spicy foods, and Marko hates soy sauce.  Oh and Marko also hates pretty nearly all vegetables, so even if the meal is otherwise perfect there is always a bit of fuss over the vegetables.

Basically I've had to compromise on all of my ideals from time to time -- some days Marko complains, some days Michael complains, some days (okay, all the days) Miriam leaves her potatoes or rice on her plate, some days John's meal is a little pitiful, and some days I'm bored.  But I try to make sure everyone has something they like at least fairly often.

So here are a few meals I've made lately that made everyone happy:

Cheeseburger casserole

I looked online for something by that name and they all had noodles or biscuit dough or something.  So I made up my own thing, and it goes like this: a layer of potatoes.  Cooked ground beef.  Cheese.  Rings of onion.  Tomatoes (sliced would be better, but I used diced canned.)  Pickles.  Ketchup and mustard squiggled around.  Another layer of potatoes, and some more cheese.  I put that in the oven for 20 minutes or so and it was pretty good.

Tamale pie

The usual way to do it is to put some chili (or similar meat & bean mix: I usually just throw in cooked ground beef, black beans, canned diced tomatoes, frozen corn, and seasonings) in a casserole dish and dot spoonfuls of cornbread batter on the top.  But last time I tried pressing the cornbread dough into my cast iron pan to make a crust, and filled it up with chili, and that was great too.  I put some cheese on top too.  Cheese isn't cheap but it has this way of silencing any objections anyone might offer and magically ferrying the food into their mouths.  Can't put a price on no whining at the table.

Fajitas

I just do chicken, cumin, lime juice, onions, and peppers.  John can have a corn tortilla while the rest have wheat and everyone's reasonably happy.   Especially if there's sour cream.

Chicken nuggets

I chop chicken breasts in small pieces, dip them in egg, and roll them in gluten-free flour or corn flour.  Some seasonings in there are nice, though I can't tell you what exactly I throw in there.  Adobo mostly.  I would like to pretend that I use adobo to introduce the kids to their Dominican heritage rather than because it's all in one shaker and tastes okay.  There is always some leftover breading, so I put it in the freezer for next time.  I wish I could make them in the oven and have them taste as good, but let's get real: the only reason anyone even likes chicken nuggets is because they are fried.  That, and because you are allowed to use your hands and dip them in ketchup.  Marko really struggles with a fork and everyone loves ketchup.  I like to serve them alongside oven-roasted potatoes.  French fries would be better but I'm not up for frying TWO things for one dinner.

Sausage and potato casserole

I brown up some ground sausage (the Aldi kind tastes of sage I think?) and onions in my giant skillet.  Then I mix in some frozen peas or spinach.  I layer some potato slices on top and pour in about a cup and a half of milk, with 3 Tbs of cornstarch mixed in along with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Then it goes in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked and the sauce has thickened.  In a hurry, you can boil the potatoes in a pot and layer them on after they're cooked, in which case you can thicken the sauce on the stove.  But it isn't quite as good.

Sweet and sour chicken

I roll some chicken pieces in gluten-free flour, panfry, and serve with rice, broccoli, and sweet-and-sour sauce.

Ranch chicken

I had this complicated way of making ranch gravy, but it turns out all the children really want is for chicken to be cut into manageable pieces and served with with ranch alongside.  Typical sides are mashed potatoes and sliced cucumbers.

Turkey meatballs/meatloaf/patties

My kids have not yet discerned the difference between ground turkey and ground beef.  (The difference is one whole dollar per pound.)  I also find it needs a bit more seasoning than beef.  To make meatloaf and meatballs without breadcrumbs, I use mashed potato flakes.  I don't rehydrate them (or else I get clumps of mashed potato) but I sometimes make the meat more liquidy by thoroughly mixing in some milk before sprinkling in the flakes.  I also include an egg.  I've tried lots of recipes and this is what holds together best and doesn't taste bad.

The above are the winners, of the stuff I've tried.  None of the crockpot meals I've tried have been any good.  And the stuff I most commonly make -- deconstructed hamburgers, chicken and rice with various seasonings (soy sauce, curry, or adobo), and bolognese sauce over rice or gluten-free pasta -- is too boring to even describe.  The kids are bored, I'm bored, John is never bored but he's not keen either.  So that's why I've been doing more "fancy stuff" lately.  Sometimes John even pitches in.  He made a good goulash the other day.  Another time he made twice-baked potatoes, and they were delicious but a bit too hard for the kids to eat.


This post is brought to you courtesy of my new tablet keyboard, and inspired by Simcha Fisher's "What's For Supper?" posts.  Simcha is a more adventurous cook than I am, but in fairness, her family has no allergies and doesn't seem too daunted by spices.  I feel like I do pretty well with what I have to work with!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hobbesian parenting


Years ago I wrote a post about libertarian parenting.  I still believe in giving kids freedom to do what they want within reason, but experience showed that there's only so libertarian you can be as a parent.  I don't just mean "kids are a bit dumb and would forget to eat or sleep if we weren't there to make them," which is true as far as it goes.  A little gentle direction usually is about enough, so actual forceful interventions don't have to be an everyday occurrence.

However, I never could figure out how to deal with violence in a "libertarian" way.  Nobody should have the liberty to hurt anybody else.  I asked in my libertarian parenting group what you do when kids fight, and they mostly just said, "Fighting is against the non-aggression principle so I don't allow it."  Well, yeah, but what do you do to stop it?  Do you (as some libertarians argue) have the right to take any action you want so long as you weren't the one to initiate aggression?  On the other hand, since you weren't the one attacked, perhaps you have to right to intervene and your bullied toddler has to duke it out on their own.

I did try, for awhile, the "just let them work it out" approach.  I thought that perhaps they fought so fiercely because they were relying on me to swoop in and sort things out, and thus if I kept out of it they would eventually realize they should watch their behavior.  But it didn't help at all.  Things got worse and it seemed every day the kids woke up with a chip on their shoulder against the other one.  It was a textbook example of a cycle of violence, enacted daily by preschoolers.  Not good.

(Anarchists often call themselves "libertarian," but real libertarians usually agree that the government has a role of defense and crime prevention, so I'm going to leave the libertarians alone from here on and speak specifically to anarchists, who made up 90% of my "libertarian parenting" group.)  From watching my kids, I learned the flaws of or anarchy:

1.  Not everyone follows the non-aggression principle.  This is obvious, right?  The reason no anarchist utopia has ever worked out is that people keep conquering anybody that tries.  Of course anarchy tries to deal with this, by claiming that when bad guys attack, anarchists will voluntarily band together to defend themselves.  But ...

2.  Not everyone is equally strong.  So a sufficiently powerful enemy can wipe you out.  This is easily observed when my kids get in a fight.  Do I really want things to settle into a "peace" where the bigger or more aggressive kid beats up everyone else?  Because kids are kind of famous for getting into these social hierarchies when they're left alone.  (In some cases, they don't, and I'm not entirely sure why, but suffice it to say that whatever I was doing was insufficient.)

3.  Not everyone agrees on what aggression is.  Is humming while someone else is trying to play the piano aggression?  What about breathing on someone?  What about eating their food when you thought they were finished with it, but it turns out they're not?  What if you accidentally brush against them and they think you bumped them on purpose and clobber you, does that make them the aggressor and are you allowed to hit them back?  These questions come up ... kind of a lot around here.

4.  People (children especially) are not always rational, and sometimes they get carried away.  So rather than simply defending themselves, they try to avenge themselves.  Or they see a sibling coming and panic and hit first.  Adults do the same, cf. Afghanistan.

Anarchy provides principles which would work if everyone followed them, mostly, but it has no way to get people to follow them, to account for human nature, or to de-escalate violence once it's begun.  So it's not really very useful for this.  (Anarchist communes that take place under the auspices of some other government sound lovely, but of course they rely on the government defending their title to the land, arresting trespassers and other offenders, and generally providing a safe place to be an anarchist.)

Hobbes has the answer to all this, and I never knew it because my poli-sci class was mostly spittle-flecked rants that you could safely tune out because the professor wanted you to just find an old test and memorize the answers.  *still bitter*  And we spent, like, one day on Hobbes.

Hobbes gives three reasons why conflict begins: competition, defense, and reputation.  Let's take a few kid examples:

Competition, or gain: Michael sees a toy Marko has and wants it.  He's hoping he can get away with taking it, so he snatches it.

Defense: Marko sees Michael going for his toy, so he shoves him away from it.  Quizzed about it after, he'll say, "I wasn't TRYING to hurt him, I was just trying to make him stop taking my toy!"

Reputation: After having been shoved by Marko, Michael leaps to his feet.  He knows that if Marko hits him and gets away with it, he's going to do it more, so he punches Marko in revenge.  His revenge is disproportionate to the amount he was hurt, partly because he's angry and not in good control of himself, and partly because he rationally wants to let Marko know he's not to be messed with.

Once the fight has started, it's bound to continue to escalate.  Each becomes suspicious of the other and sees the worst in all the other's behavior.  If they tried nonviolence, it would surely help, but they're all afraid to because they might be taken advantage of.

There is one thing that can help: the Leviathan.  I mean me.  In a family, the parent takes the role of government.  I can prevent all three causes of violence.

Gain: Every time one child steals from another, I can make them give the toy back.  That way snatching ceases to be a useful behavior, and children do it less.

Defense: They know that if they are attacked, I will help them.  If I were faster it would help even more, but even at my delayed response rate, they are assured that yelling "Mama" will get me to come peel the attacker off them.  So about half the time at least, they choose that approach over the attack-back (or pre-emptive attack) method.

Reputation: If they revenge their own wrongs, they always overdo it.  But if I assure them that I will give some kind of consequence to the attacker, they are more willing to accept it.  I still think that the desire for vengeance is one of the dark sides of human nature, but it's there.  If I don't punish the offender, they will.  The goal is to reassure the child that you've done what it will take to convince their attacker not to do it again.  When I'm not going to punish the child -- like when Miriam was the attacker and I know she's just being tired and cranky so a timeout isn't really going to be helpful -- I still take her out of the room so the boys think she is getting punished.  And when the attacker is someone completely irrational -- like Jackie, or the dog -- I still give them a little lecture: "Gilbert, you must be more careful!  No stepping on people's feet!"  Somehow the kids consider this satisfactory.  But they do demand that something is done, and I'm beginning to see the sense in it -- they fear that if their attacker is allowed to get off scot-free, they'll do it again.

The Better Angels of Our Nature explained this stuff a lot, pointing out that honor culture flourishes in places where there is little or no government, whereas a strong government gets wronged people to press charges, file a lawsuit, or mutter "there oughta be a law."  When there is no higher authority for people to appeal to -- like in a corrupt state, or when kids are left unattended -- people feel they must create fairness for themselves through vengeance and preemptive attacks.

It's important that the Leviathan is separate from the parties it's arbitrating among, and that it is stronger than any of them.  Obviously an arbitrator that is obviously partial, or which can't enforce its judgments, is no different from none at all.  That's pretty easy in my case, though -- I am definitely a lot bigger than my kids, and I'm not a part of any of their fights.

The embarrassing part is that it took me so many years after first "studying" Hobbes to figure this out.  I had thought Hobbes was the bad guy.  Turns out all he was saying was, "Without some way to arbitrate disputes, life is going to be nasty, brutish, and short."  Or,  ya know, full of squabbles over toys wherein everyone winds up covered in teeth marks.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Why I'm finally vaccinating my kids

Part 1: My story

As regular readers know, until recently, all of my kids were unvaccinated.  That was for a lot of reasons, but the main was that John was strongly opposed.  He believed that vaccines caused autism, and he didn't have much trust in doctors.  I didn't have a strong opinion on that matter at the time, so I said that would be fine.  Later, when I began to research the issue, I admit that my reasoning was somewhat motivated -- since I had already agreed not to vaccinate the kids, I didn't really want to find anything that would convince me differently.  However I did think that I might reopen a discussion the subject when the kids were a little older -- perhaps a few vaccines after the age of two.

My main worries with vaccines were serious reactions or death.  I saw a photo of a child that had died of a severe allergy to the Hepatitis B shot, and it really horrified me.  It just seemed to me that giving a vaccine shortly after birth means you don't know what allergies they might have, whereas if the baby had been vaccinated at six months or a year old, the parents surely would have discovered his allergy by then.  Another worry was SIDS, because I'd read some articles suggesting that vaccines at two and four months were the real cause of SIDS.  And I do know that encephalitis can be a real vaccine reaction -- albeit a very rare one.

I spent some time trying to find out which was more likely, a vaccine reaction or my child catching a vaccine-preventable disease.  But this was impossible to discover, because official sources (like the CDC) claimed that serious vaccine reactions were extremely rare, while more "alternative" sources said they were extremely common and covered up by the medical establishment.  In some cases they also denied that vaccine-preventable diseases were dangerous, or that they were even caused by viruses at all (for instance, they claimed that polio was actually caused by pesticides).  So if I chose a source to listen to, the decision would be easy; each had quite a convincing argument with the facts they had.  But I couldn't find any common ground on the facts, which I could use to prove one or the other correct.

At the time, though, I was pretty anti-authoritarian, and the idea that the entire medical establishment was in a conspiracy to poison my children seemed pretty credible.  After all, I knew just how flawed the medical community could be where childbirth was concerned, so why not vaccines?  You don't need to be an evil person to be part of a conspiracy like this.  You just have to be convinced it's for the greater good.

And then, of course, I read Evidence of Harm and it definitely played up the conspiracy angle.  There are things that don't quite fit in that book, but it's just so packed with difficult scientific ideas it can be a little hard to catch.  Whether vaccines caused autism wasn't really a big question for me, because, I mean, autism isn't death, and if it was a choice between having an autistic kid and having a kid die of tetanus, I'd pick having an ALIVE kid.  But it did make me think there might be a connection.  I mean, look at those skyrocketing rates!

The shift in my thinking happened very slowly.  I started occasionally finding out that the government, for instance, wasn't all evil, and that some regulations actually had good reasons for existing.  John won a seat on town council and immediately started finding out that government wasn't so evil as all that.  Yes, sometimes it was incompetent and slow, but the people meant well and what's more, sometimes I found the right answer was the government answer.  Like the way this town has tons of unsafe slums, which the free market hasn't done a thing to fix -- rental codes probably are the answer, even if someone looking at them for the first time might think they were too burdensome and detailed.

I started to feel more friendly to the medical establishment thanks to having good doctors instead of that mean one who fired Marko from his practice for not being caught up on vaccines.  Our current doctor is a really sweet guy who respects my decisions as a parent and never pressured me to vaccinate.  Yet many times when my kids had minor problems, he helped in ways I couldn't have on my own.  He knew that Michael's round rash was ringworm and not Lyme disease.  When Miriam had impetigo, he prescribed antibiotics that started working within a day, after my home remedies had failed.  I started to realize that he (like most doctors) cared about his patients and had knowledge I didn't.  They're not all that nasty obstetrician who wanted to give me an episiotomy without asking.

I also learned how science works, something that I wasn't really taught in school. In school they teach you the conclusions that science has come to, but they don't really explain where each discovery comes from.  I learned how to read a study, that a review of many studies is better than an individual study, that a large sample size is better than a small one, that a randomized, controlled trial is better than an epidemiological study.  I learned that it's possible to "chop" the data you get in a study to get the results you want, and that peer review helps catch that sort of shenanigans.  And I did start to notice that most of the really high-value studies were on the side of "vaccines are safe and effective" while many of the anti-vaccine studies were small and weak.

Most of all, I realized that alternative medicine practitioners are no less likely to be sleazy than real doctors, and in fact there are fewer safeguards to prevent them from being sleazy.  "Follow the money" is often used to mean "look, these studies can't be trusted because some of them were funded by pharmaceutical companies," and yet very often alternative practitioners make huge amounts of money from the treatments they peddle.  Desperate people, who have been taught to be afraid of conventional medicine, pay more than they can afford in the hopes of curing ailments which conventional doctors have told them can't be cured.  The quacks take their money and over-advertise their treatments, trying to convince sick people that they can cure things which have no cure.  Today I read a sad article about people with ALS or other incurable conditions being told they had "chronic Lyme" and spending tens of thousands of dollars on treatment that did nothing and sometimes caused harm.

Basically, no one is entirely to be trusted, but if you have to trust somebody, doctors are probably a better choice because they have more oversight.  Scientists work to create a standard of care for each condition which is proven to be safe and effective; a doctor who doesn't follow it or who is careless is subject to malpractice suits or even jail time.  Whereas alternative practitioners sometimes don't have any oversight at all.  And when you hear of this guy going to jail for malpractice, and that guy losing his license, and this guy is marketing cyanide for cancer treatments, and so on,  you start losing faith in the alternative medicine community.  You might not have proof that they are lying about vaccines being dangerous, but when they lie about so much other stuff (or are just dead wrong in obvious ways) you don't have a lot of confidence.

The last step was when, two years ago or so, I started making serious efforts to be more rational in my decisionmaking.  I realized that my instinctive fear of needles and medical stuff was affecting my judgment.  I also had reasoned in the past that it was better to run the risk of my child dying from something I didn't do than from something I didn't do, because I would feel more at fault in the latter case.  But I realized that whether I would feel more at fault wasn't actually a moral consideration, it was simply an emotion of mine which had no bearing on whether or not I was actually responsible.  We're responsible for our actions and our omissions; inaction isn't a guarantee of not making a moral error.  I also got into Kant a little bit.  Kant says that we should always act in a way we would like everyone to take as a moral rule.  I didn't want everyone to not vaccinate -- I wanted them to continue vaccinating so polio and diphtheria didn't circulate, while at the same time personally opting out.  And that is just not fair.

There was awhile there where I thought vaccination wasn't dangerous but thought John disagreed with me.  And then I found out he also had changed his mind about it, but I was too overwhelmed with life to do anything about it.  And then I found out that if we wanted to put the boys in school, we had to get on it Right Away, and actually Yesterday.  They're not going to be fully vaccinated in time for school to start, because of how they have to be spaced.  But the health department has been wonderful working with us -- they made a nice catch-up schedule for us (at their age they don't need so many doses as a baby would) and will certify for the school that the kids are in process to be vaccinated and should be allowed to attend school.  There was zero judgment about having waited this long and they have respected my right to choose what they get when.  The health department is ten minutes from my house, has lots of available appointment slots, and gives all legally mandated vaccines for free to all uninsured patients, or if your insurance does not pay for them.  I highly recommend your local health department if you need to get any vaccines.

Part 2: Answers to objections

So that's the personal-journey part of this post: the main reasons why I, personally, came to change my mind.  But of course there are facts in question, too, so I wanted to address some of the specific arguments that I found convincing against vaccines, and explain why they don't bother me anymore.

1.  Vaccines and all-cause death

If vaccines increased the risk of death, one would expect infant and child mortality to be increasing right now.  But as the number of vaccines has risen, infant and child mortality have dropped.  These charts start in the 80's, so we're not talking about the invention of sanitation and antibiotics.  There have been many medical advances in that time, but that does include vaccines, so it seems plausible to me that some of the reduction in mortality is due to them.  Certainly wishing for a vanished time when everything was better and people were healthier is not based in fact.




2.  Vaccines and autism

In this case it passes the test the previous chart missed: vaccines and autism are both increasing.  The original connection was supposed to be mercury: thimerosol preservatives in vaccines contain tiny amounts of mercury, and that was hypothesized to cause brain damage.  An alternative link was in the immune system -- Dr. Andrew Wakefield thought that it was the MMR, specifically the measles virus, which was somehow active in the gut and then damaging the brain.  His study is generally agreed to be junk, but that doesn't prove his theory is wrong.  And, I mean, look at the graph!

 At first blush it's pretty convincing.  The CDC keeps adding more vaccines to the schedule, and at the same time autism is increasing --- a lot.

But let's see if we can place some important dates on this graph.  I couldn't find a graph with these dates, so we'll have to eyeball it.

1971: Invention of MMR vaccine
1989: A second dose was added to the schedule
After this, the doses of MMR remained steady at two.  So if the MMR caused autism, we would expect one jump in 1971 (or a bit after) and a second jump in 1989 (or a bit after) and then the rates of autism remain steady.  As fascinating as the gut-brain-immune system connection is, I think the MMR theory is a flop.  It can't explain the rise in autism rates.

1930's: Thimerosal first used
2001: Thimerosal is removed from all children's vaccines except for the flu vaccine.  Children get significantly less thimerosal than before, and some get none (since not all kids even get the flu vaccine; it's not usually required).
So thimerosal was present in vaccines long before the autism rates started increasing, and its removal had no effect on autism rates.  I can totally understand why people might have thought it was connected, but the past 16 years have pretty much destroyed that theory.

1980: The DSM-III (the official manual of psychological disorders) includes autism for the first time.
1987: The definition of autism is expanded in the DSM-III-R.
1988: The movie Rain Man is released, making most people aware of autism for the first time.
1991: The IDEA act makes autistic children eligible for special services.  While previously parents would try to avoid a diagnosis to keep their child from being denied an education, now they started to seek a diagnosis in order to get their children services.
2013: Asperger's Syndrome is reclassified as autism spectrum disorder and the definition of autism is expanded again.
In short, there are very good reasons why more and more kids who are no more disabled than before are getting the autism label.  Marko is one of those kids -- he is not really any more quirky than some of the older members of my family, but to get services he's been assessed a lot more thoroughly.

An objection to the increased-diagnosis theory is, "But where are all the autistic adults?  Why did I never see any severely autistic kids when I was younger?"  The answer to the second question, sadly, is "in institutions or denied any education at all."  Before 1991 it was not illegal for a school to simply tell a child's parents they couldn't provide an education for him, and that would be that.  And in answer to the first question, autistic people do continue to develop as they age.  Most autistic children grow into adults who are capable of interacting more-or-less as other people do, so you might not notice them.  They're your quirky neighbor or uncle.  I certainly know autistic adults, diagnosed or not.   And the ones who still aren't able to speak or handle a job or house ... well, where do you expect to meet them?  Interacting with you is the main thing they're not able to do!  But you can find them on Twitter and the blogosphere.  They're certainly around.

A lot of autistic children, as well, would previously have been diagnosed as intellectually disabled.  Check out this chart: as autism rose, intellectual disability decreased.  Vaccines don't cure intellectual disability -- it's almost certainly the same kids just getting reclassified.  Plus, of course, more mildly autistic children who wouldn't previously have been diagnosed with anything.  That can be shown by a study cited here showing that the average autistic child has a much milder case than the average of years ago.

Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/07/autism-rates-are-it-really-rise

Of course when one theory is debunked, the vaccines-and-autism crowd moves to a new explanation.  So when mercury was removed, they pointed out that aluminum had been added and maybe it was causing the same brain damage.  But that doesn't make sense, because aluminum does not act in the way mercury does in the brain.  Aluminum poisoning seems to affect memory, if anything; there is no reason to expect it to act exactly the way mercury does.  I haven't yet heard a plausible theory connecting vaccines and autism besides the ones I've debunked here.

And of course anecdotal evidence can be the most powerful kind.  One single story about a child having an autistic regression after shots can outweigh all the studies you've ever read.  But in my case the anecdotal evidence is on the side of vaccines being harmless.  Marko has always been just as quirky as he is, despite not having had a single vaccine.  I will admit I was a wreck the day of the shots, terrified Marko would have a massive regression and stop speaking.  But nope.  He's had three batches of shots (including MMR, DTaP, polio, Hep B, and varicella) and is exactly as autistic as he was before.  Maybe less, because he's had a ton of gains lately, especially in verbal fluency and social skills.  It's been a huge relief to me.

3.  Vaccines and SIDS

SIDS is terrifying because we still don't really understand what causes it.  And it's true there is a spike between 2-4 months, which is around when babies get the DTaP.  But I feel pretty well convinced it's not caused by vaccines, because the spike in SIDS deaths at that age has been well-known for over a century and is the case in all countries, regardless of when first vaccines are.  Here are a couple articles demonstrating this.


Part 3: Recommendations

So with all that said, does that mean I now will abide perfectly by the recommended schedule?  Eh, probably not.  I believe that the recommended schedule is safe and is probably the best choice from a public-health perspective.  But it is also true that part of the reason vaccines are given at such early ages is because the CDC thinks we might not show up to get them later, or because we'll already be bringing in the baby for a well check so we might as well.  Not every recommendation is "do this or children die."  In our state only MMR, DTaP, varicella, polio, and Hep B are required, and the rest are only recommended, so we're getting the required ones for now.  I would get the recommended ones if I had babies in daycare, because most of these are for illnesses that are only dangerous in infants, and my babies don't get out much.  I want to give Miriam vaccines soon (though I dread it, because she'll basically have to be hogtied) and I am not sure when to give Jackie some.  Probably soon I guess?  I still really recoil at the thought of poking a tiny little baaaaaby with a needle.  But on the other hand, she's not so tiny now, and the doctors do say it's safe, so I'm sure I'm just having an emotional reaction here.  And the nice thing about vaccinating infants is, you can nurse them as the needle goes in so they barely notice.

I would definitely recommend people get at least the DTaP, since those diseases are serious, and the MMR, since they have pretty horrifying complications in a small percentage of cases.  True, if your kid got the measles, they'd probably pull through fine, but ... they might not.  They might die of encephalitis or pneumonia as a complication, or become permanently deaf or sterile.  It's not quite like the chicken pox.  Polio, I understand you have a very, very small risk of being exposed to.  It's almost eradicated worldwide.  But on the other hand it isn't gone, and people travel to America all the time from foreign countries where it exists.  We really should be careful to maintain a high vaccination rate so it doesn't return here.  On the bright side, in a decade it may be completely gone, and then, like smallpox, there will be no need to keep vaccinating for it.

I think varicella and hep-B are kind of unnecessary.  I wouldn't have gotten them on my own.  But the state doesn't really give me a choice to pick and choose.  There is a religious exemption and a medical exemption available, but to obtain either of these I would have to lie.  I don't think that's right.  Many Catholics I know claim a religious exemption when really they just don't believe in vaccines.  The only part of this equation Catholicism forbids is the lying.

Now for some recommendations for vaccine advocates.  Because I don't think they quite realize just how unhelpful some of their activism has been.  Since it's mostly a matter of trust, attacking people just makes them close ranks and trust you less.  Getting fired by a pediatrician didn't make me go "oh, guess I'll get the shots then."  It made me mistrust doctors more.  Getting called a baby killer didn't help.  Getting called stupid didn't help.  Scary stories about babies dying of preventable illnesses just gave me more to keep myself awake at night with, keeping company with the picture of the baby dying of a vaccine reaction.  More fear made things worse; it made me afraid to even think about the subject.  I know not everyone reacts this way, but some do, and it's probably best not to amp up the fear.  I generally remind people that both vaccine reactions and vaccine-preventable diseases are rare, and the most likely result is that your kids grow up perfectly healthy whatever you choose.  So all you're doing with this decision is managing extremely small amounts of risk.  Of course the most responsible thing is to pick the smallest, but this isn't quite as high-stakes as it feels.  Most people do vaccinate, and because of them, these diseases aren't all over the place the way they used to be, so you have the luxury of waffling a bit.

What does help?  Respecting people's judgment.  Building up trusting relationships.  Encouraging baby steps like actually going to the doctor at all.  Doctors should mention vaccines and then drop it, not lecture endlessly and pile on the guilt.  And people who vaccinate partially should be encouraged rather than lumped in with people who don't vaccinate at all.

And I think everyone should remember that not every person who doesn't vaccinate is completely closed to new information.  I went on a comment thread that I knew was pro-vaccination and asked for information, because I was looking into starting to vaccinate and wanted to be convinced, and instead was demonized and called names because I hadn't done it already.  I was told I was responsible for the deaths of babies - even though my kids can't very well have infected babies with diseases they've never had or been exposed to.  I was sent a link to a CDC site which stated that vaccines are safe.  Well, of course the CDC would say that, wouldn't they?  But when I asked how I could know I could trust the CDC, I was sneered at and called a conspiracy theorist.  Isn't that just what someone in a conspiracy would say? ;) I wanted to know how I could know how to trust their studies and why I shouldn't trust the studies the anti-vaccine movement had, but no one even bothered to try.

This post is meant as a bit of a counter to that attitude.  But I think the best way to encourage someone who doesn't vaccinate to start doing it is simply to have a conversation.  Start by asking why the person doesn't vaccinate -- don't assume you know!  And if they are willing to discuss it with you, research their specific objections and offer the most objective answers you can.  Be kind and show that you are really listening, not dismissing their objections out of hand.

I'll close with a story from about a year ago.  Marko had gotten interested in the immune system, so we watched a bunch of YouTube videos about white blood cells and antibodies and various diseases.  There was one about measles, which explained that the virus attacks the immune system, leaving the person vulnerable to other diseases for months afterward.  Marko found it terrifying (although it wasn't graphic or scary) because he loves his immune system and hates being sick.  "Is there a cure for the measles?" he asked.  "No," I said, "but there's a vaccine.  If you get the measles shot, you won't get the measles."  He instantly demanded, "Get me that shot, Mama!"

I guess it really hit home to me then that I was assuming the whole time that my kids wouldn't want shots.  I hated getting shots, and of course if I'd given them when Marko was a baby, he wouldn't have understood the reason and would have cried.  But given a chance, he's actually come out in favor of vaccines.  It really soothed that feeling of "I can't let my baby get such a terrible thing!" and reminded me that this is something I do because I love my children, because I know it is best for them.  Even if sometimes there are a few tears.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

7 quick takes

1

I know I haven't been posting a lot lately.  I'm worried people will think I'm sick, or dead, or depressed, or pregnant, but that's not the case at all.  I'm actually doing pretty well, but the keyboard on my tablet is broken.  The h key doesn't work, but sometimes h's appear when I hit other keys.  Probably got spilled on one too many times.  I use the onscreen keyboard for my facebook posts, but it's maddeningly slow so I've had to be a lot quieter on the internet.  Which is very frustrating to me because typing is one of the main ways I get my thoughts out!  I could switch to vlogs, I guess, but I find my own face and voice embarrassing.

I'm on John's computer at the moment, but that's not a very good solution because it's a desktop and I can't stay in one corner of the house for very long.  Especially not when it's the non-air-conditioned corner!

2

I really want to fix or replace that keyboard, though, because I am starting to get ideas for stories again!  That's always a good sign about how my life is going, when I stop worrying about practical problems and start wondering about different methods of faster-than-light travel and their effects on plot development.

I don't know if I would have time to write any of this stuff out, but I still enjoy planning it out.  The stuff I'm working out right now is easier than my previous writing, because it isn't historical fantasy.  Working with history demands research.  I enjoy the research, but it takes a lot of time and the trouble is, if you don't write anything right away, you start to forget key details.  The two stories at the top of my mind right now are one about an alien coming to earth for the first time, and one about a girl raised in a post-apocalyptic survivalist cult.  They're both very exciting and I hope I sometime get a chance to write them all out.

3

Maybe after the boys start school.  I am still a little mixed about it, but mostly looking forward to the first day of school in the middle of August.  I'm hoping it gives me time to pay attention to Miriam and Jackie, as well as giving Marko and Michael some extra attention and interest.  They have been both acting very bored lately, which results in them either being at each other's throats or all over me.  I know they need more stimulation in their life -- more play dates, more outings, whatever -- but that just isn't in me right now.  As it is I'm taking them places at least twice a week!  It's fun but Jackie misses naps and I can't get the housework done if we're always running around.

Marko has agreed to give school a try in return for a reward.  After the first month of school, Marko will get a video camera and Michael will get a remote control car -- that is, they will each get the thing they've been wishing and dreaming for for years.  Michael didn't really need any motivation, but you can't reward one kid and not the other.  Marko has decided one month of school is worth it, but once he gets the camera, he says he's not going to school anymore.  I'm hoping by then he's found out it's not so scary after all.

I still have to get them physicals, take them school shopping for backpacks and lunchboxes, and find out what supplies they will need for school.  What do you have to do to get ready for a year of school?  When do I find out who their teachers will be?  I feel really intimidated by the public-school scene -- I feel, just like when I was in school, like everyone else knows all the rules and I don't.

4

Jackie continues to get easier.  She sometimes takes a good long nap, and when she's awake she often is okay lying on a blanket.  She can roll over both ways and sometimes even gets on hands and knees.  She grabs toys and can sometimes put her pacifier back in if she drops it.  I'm so on top of life right now that I'm actually using cloth diapers for part of the day.  Which goes to show how my standards have shifted and how many things I used to think were important I have had to jettison.  But, so long as I eventually get back to those things, it's not so bad.



She took TWO hour-plus naps today. Pretty sure this is the first time that's ever happened!

5

Miriam is mostly a delight and sometimes terrible.  John calls her Destroyer of Souls because of how exhausting she is, especially at night.  She's almost three and still wakes most nights, sometimes several times.  And her bedtime can be really long.  However, last night I convinced her to let me sit with her for fifteen minutes and then leave, and she fell asleep on her own!  Fluke or the beginning of a wonderful trend?  I hope the latter.

In the daytime she is mostly very good for a kid her age.  She is a good talker and negotiates for what she wants.  Occasionally she has a total meltdown where she rejects all comfort and screams loudly over whatever you try to say to her.  She'll be screaming that she wants a cookie, and you can be trying to explain that she totally can have a cookie, and she won't listen to you.  This can go on for nearly an hour -- or, you can hand her the baby and she'll instantly calm down.  Nothing else in the whole world works, but her sister calms her right down to where she snuggles the baby and says in a sad voice, "I love my sister so much, I was so sad, I was crying, I had a sad face, Jackie makes me feel better."  It's super adorable.



6

As I write this, Michael is trying to look at a magazine by himself and Marko is trying to get up in his face for no apparent reason.  I have exiled Marko to one side of the couch and let Michael be on the other, but Marko is whining that he wants to get closer to Michael, and Michael is screeching at me that Marko is still too close.  Ugh.  These two.  Marko can be downright compulsive in his need to say over and over some ridiculous thing that upsets his brother, while Michael is amazingly oversensitive and goes bananas about the repetition of some innocuous thing.  So they had a fight a few minutes ago where Marko kept repeating "knights didn't have newspapers" and Michael was screaming and sobbing about it.  Sometimes it's just a noise Marko makes.  I hardly know who to blame for these fights because both are being so unreasonable!



The real solution is for them not to be with each other, but both are completely unwilling to be alone.  What they want is for me to lock up the other one so that they can stay with me.  But that's hardly fair, is it?  Especially when I too am getting annoyed by them.

And Michael is just really, really unhappy a lot of the time.  I don't understand it.  Some days he says his head hurts, which is something I'm definitely going to consult the doctor about.  But other times he's crabby for no reason and insists he's not feeling bad, it's just that everyone is being mean to him ... even when they're not.  I just don't get why he's always so unhappy!  But if I look back on his life, he's usually been like this.  He was a fussy baby unless he was nursing all the time, whined most of Miriam's first year of life because he wasn't getting to nurse and be held all the time, and while I thought he was cured of all that, I have to admit that he's getting awfully whiny again.  When he's happy he's just a delight -- he loves to help out, is super affectionate, and is always looking for new experiences and challenges.  But he often isn't, and I don't know why.  Not enough sleep maybe?  He gets the most sleep of anybody in the family, but that doesn't mean he doesn't need more.

Of course while I've been writing this they stopped fighting and collaborated for a bit -- to throw water on the dog.  I put a stop to that (no water play indoors, that's a hard and fast rule obviously) and now they are fighting because they both want to watch TV but can't agree on what they'd like to watch.  Marko wants a documentary about chromosomes and Michael wants a cartoon.  If I put on something Marko wants, Michael and Miriam try to watch it but get bored and start fighting (why don't they just go play???), but if I put on something Marko doesn't like (which is most things) he claps his arms over his ears and shrieks lest he accidentally hear a bit of a show he doesn't like.  These kids, I tell ya.

7

I forgot to mention that my family came to visit recently.  We had a really wonderful time.  It was just my mom and sister this time, but Juliana got along swimmingly with the kids.  Marko says she is his best friend now.  I really wish we could see them more often.



How have y'all been?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Review: Anne With an E

I finished watching Anne With an E last night.  I have to admit, I've never been an Anne of Green Gables fan.  Probably I just read the books too late in life; I read the first one as a teenager and three more as an adult.  It's hard at that age not to be put off by children's literature, because it doesn't have the subtlety you're used to.  The other reason I didn't like them is because I've had people telling me I'm "exactly like Anne of Green Gables" since I was about eight.  I read the books and was like -- that's how you see me?  As a girl who constantly says ridiculous things?

The books just seem to idealize what it's like to be an imaginative, talkative, impulsive girl growing up.  How come when Anne calls something "The Lake of Shining Waters" everyone just magically likes her, whereas when I said something fanciful as a kid, people laughed at me and said I was silly?  Why do bosom friends and helpful mentors spring out of the woodwork for her, while when I was her age I was getting bullied and adults mostly felt I was bringing it on myself by being so weird?

I guess I have learned in life to have a very negative feeling toward her type of romanticism, because I learned so thoroughly the lesson that it isn't appropriate and nobody likes it.  But maybe it's my bias that's wrong: maybe I shouldn't feel obligated to write in plain or ironic language for fear of embarrassing myself.  Other people manage to be a little florid or poetic without getting mocked.  I just worry because I've miscalculated in the past and it didn't win me any friends.

But when I heard Anne With an E was supposedly "grim and gritty" I figured I'd want to watch it.  The books are definitely written through rose-colored glasses; the tragedies are described with a bit of distance and euphemism, while the funny bits are played up.  I didn't like the romanticism, but I thought I might like the gritty version.

And I did!  However, it honestly was not that gritty.  It's gritty compared to Lucy Maud Montgomery, but not to anything else on television today.  There was no sex.  The scenes of Anne being beaten by Mr. Hammond or bullied by the orphanage girls weren't graphic or intense.  I wouldn't mind my kids watching it (though I might not actually let them, because Marko takes things to heart that I wouldn't always expect).  Yes, some tense scenes are added that aren't in the original; yes, at least one character dies who doesn't in the book.  Anne's friendly schoolteacher and the kindly preacher's wife don't make an entrance, at least in the first season.  Marilla and Matthew are given tragical pasts, just as Anne would have wanted.  But it's not bleak.  It's not, you know, Call the Midwife.

What the show mostly does is allow you to hear some of the tougher stuff from the book that maybe you didn't notice when you read it.  We all know Anne is an orphan, that she was raised by uncaring people who saw her as a source of free labor and then abandoned her when she was no longer convenient, that she is constantly told she is ugly ... but somehow it's easy for a modern reader to miss or undervalue that stuff.  I actually went back to the book after watching the show, wanting to see just how much the show was inventing, and was surprised to find most of the "dark stuff" was in there after all.  For instance, the following lines show the dark side pretty well:

"For pity's sake hold your tongue, you talk entirely too much for a little girl." -- Marilla
"I'll come back in a few minutes for the candle.  I daren't trust you to put it out yourself.   You'd likely set the place on fire."  -- Marilla
"What a starved, unloved life she had had -- a life of drudgery and neglect."
"Marilla looked at Anne and softened at the sight of the child's pale face with its look of mute misery--the misery of a helpless little creature who finds itself once more caught in the trap from which it had escaped.  Marilla felt an uncomfortable conviction that, if she denied the appeal of that look, it would haunt her to her dying day."
"If you'll take my advice... you'll do that 'talking to' you mention with a fair-sized birch switch."  -- Mrs. Rachel Lynde

The show doesn't always quote lines like this, but it does get across the impression of just how rough it is to be an orphan.  Somehow I never thought of Anne as particularly disadvantaged, but when I realize that she would have been, I feel a lot more friendly to her.  All the "stuff working out perfectly" is meant to be a little surprising, not just Mary Sue-ing.

But the different focus of the show definitely gives a different impression of Anne.  Sometimes, true, she chatters because she is happy.  Other times, like on the ride back to see Miss Spencer, when she thinks the Cuthberts are going to give her up, she says she's "made her mind up firmly" to enjoy herself, and you get the impression that she's being as bright and winsome as she knows how, in the hopes of getting the Cuthberts to keep her.  It seems like maybe some of the relentless chipperness is put on, because she knows that as an orphan she owes it to people to charm them.  I find that a lot more sympathetic, myself.

Anne's first day at school hit me right in the feels, even though (or because) it's nothing like the book.  In the book, Anne gets along well with her peers (except of course for Gilbert), and though she's a little behind in some subjects, it doesn't appear to be a huge deal.  In the show, Anne tries hard to make a good impression but the other girls (apart from Diana) just think she's weird.  And it gets worse, because there are all kinds of unspoken rules (all lunches have to be shared!  don't steal someone else's spot for storing their milk!  don't talk to Gilbert Blythe because Ruby Gillis has a crush on him already!) that she keeps accidentally breaking.  It's equally embarrassing that she's so behind in math and that she's so ahead in literature.  She finally manages to impress them a bit with her superior (but completely inaccurate) knowledge of where babies come from, but she goes on a bit too much, egged on by their interest, and ends up causing a huge scandal.  It's an entirely fabricated episode, but felt very true to life for me.  This was exactly my experience, starting school so much later than everyone else and not knowing the rules.  And maybe I've got Asperger's too much on the brain, but Anne comes across in this part like a textbook case of it.  Talks to herself?  Check.  Sounds like a little professor?  Check.  Unusual intonation when she speaks?  Check.  Has exactly one friend, who tries and fails to shepherd her through her social life? Check.  I wonder if the show's writers were consciously trying to convey that -- it's certainly not something I think is in the book at all.

Anyway, it gives a lot more pathos to Anne's story.  When she hits Gilbert with her slate, gets in trouble with the teacher, and quits school, it no longer looks like she's being overdramatic.  It looks like she has been pushed past her ability to cope and is giving up.  And then when she starts winning people over after all, it's much more of a triumph.  Instead of thinking "Why is everyone falling all over Anne?" I thought, "At last people are giving her a chance."

Overall, I thought it was an improvement on the book.  It took out all the preachiness (except perhaps a bit on women's education, Montgomery was into that and so are the show's writers, apparently) and pumped up the drama, but I wouldn't say it's entirely alien to the book.  Like all good adaptations, it tried to keep the subtext intact (orphan makes good, kindness can win hearts, quirkiness should be celebrated rather than condemned) without being too slavish about the actual plot, because not all events work equally well in print and film.

I won't spoil it any further, but will just say, I recommend the show for both Anne fans and Anne critics like myself.  It's just a good show, whether you've read the books or not, full of historical detail, gorgeous scenery, and interesting characters. And the one season is not long, so it won't be too much to watch if you're busy like I am.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Adventures in grilling

One of the lovely things about this house is that it has a nice big back deck to grill on.  So we got a charcoal grill and I've been having some adventures with it.  I love, love, love grilled food, and I'm not willing to wait till John feels like grilling.  (Who made the rule that women don't grill?  Given that it takes hours, it seems a job for the person who's here all the time.)

But I'll tell you, grilling is not as easy as it sounds.  The first time I tried it, it took me about an hour to get the fire going.  The venison backstrap I grilled was DELICIOUS, but it was quite a bit late for dinner.  Since then, I've learned a lot of secrets that grilling recipes often don't mention.  They say "build a medium-sized, indirect fire" and leave it at that!

So here's a few things I've figured out.

First, you have to build the fire some time before you need to start cooking.  I can't tell you how long, because I don't know how tough a time you will have.  This is one of the reasons why grilling is usually done at weekend picnics, when everyone has plenty of time and chips or something to nosh on while they wait -- it is impossible to say how long it's going to take, so mealtime could be anytime within a window of an hour or more. 

You can't just light charcoal with a match, oh no.  (Unless you shell out the extra for "match light" charcoal, which is a very good idea and probably worth it.)  Otherwise, you need some kind of kindling or firestarter.  Crushed-up paper doesn't work very well.  Lighter fluid is better, but you need to really soak the coals with it.  Best of all is probably starter cubes or sticks, which you put under your pyramid of coals.  And you have to open up the vents at the bottom of the grill, or all your efforts will be in vain.

After a while, the middle of the heap will be glowing red, and there will be some white ash on the outside of the coals.  It might not be in 15 minutes like it says on the package, but however long it takes, you have to wait till it reaches that point.  Otherwise you might find yourself taking all the meat off the grill again to get at the fire and mess with it when you find it's not getting hot.

Once the coals are hot, you can spread them out a bit.  If you want direct heat (for something you want to cook quickly) you can spread them out all over, but if you want a two-zone fire, you should stack them up on one side only so that the other side is cooler.  Then all you have to do is oil your rack, put it on, and throw on the meat!


A whole spatchcocked chicken is challenging, though, maybe start with brats?

My favorite thing to do with meat for grilling is some kind of dry rub.  I think cayenne goes really well with the smoky taste, but do whatever suits your fancy.  It's important that the meat is entirely defrosted -- unless you're doing those super thin burger patties, in which case keeping them frozen keeps them from falling through the grate before they're cooked.  While the meat is cooking, keep the lid on -- this keeps the food cooking on all sides instead of just charring on the bottom while the rest stays raw.  Your temperature control is the air holes, both top and bottom -- less air restrains the fire for a cooler temperature, more air will make it hotter.

The one tool you absolutely cannot grill without is a meat thermometer.  Otherwise you may find yourself serving out meat that's cold and rubbery in the middle.  Or, like I did with this pork shoulder, drying it out because the recipe TOLD you four hours and it was done after three:


It was mostly still delicious, but a lot of the outside was charred.  Take that temperature!  Take it halfway through your expected cook time so you can see how fast it's cooking, take it a bit before you think it could possibly be finished, and keep taking it till you reach your target temperature.  Your recipe will tell you that: 165 for chicken, a bit less for beef if you don't like it well done, 195 for pork that shreds.

I'm also not certain you can grill without tongs.  In any event, when my kids wander off with them, I'll search however long it takes to find them before I grill.  You can move the coals around with them as well as grab the food off the grill without either burning yourself or dropping it in the ashes.

After you've taken the meat off the grill, it has to rest, if it's whole meat.  (Burgers and hot dogs will be fine either way.)  You can take the opportunity to grill some veggies, like corn on the cob or peppers on a skewer or whatever you like.  Eggplant and mushrooms are tasty grilled too.  After 15-30 minutes the meat will have cooled down enough that it retains its juices better when it's cut, so go ahead and serve it up!  The best part is getting compliments on the excellent seasoning when all you did was sprinkle it with salt.  The smoke does the rest.  I like to serve some sauce alongside, given that grilled meat can be a little dry on the outside, but it isn't obligatory.

Resist the urge to grill the entire meal, because grilled food is complemented by cool, fresh foods: green salad, three-bean salad with vinegar dressing, or maybe potato salad.  I promised ages ago I'd share my potato salad recipe, so here it is.  It's mutated a lot over time till it turned into a choose-your-own adventure.

Potato salad

Potatoes: boiled, completely cooled, peeled, and diced, in any order.  I like to boil them whole, cool them, rub the skins off, and dice them up, but if you'd rather peel them first, dice, and boil, that's fine too.  If you like your potatoes in firm, discrete chunks, you can add a tsp or two of vinegar to the boiling water.  I like mine to mash up a bit, so I don't.  Either way, boil them until just barely done, not falling apart.  Or you can even microwave them!  No one will know!

Dressing:
Good -- 50/50 mayo and sour cream, maybe with a dash of dijon mustard
Better -- ranch
Best -- homemade mayo

Here's how I make homemade mayo: I get a wide-mouth jar and put in an egg yolk, two tablespoons of lemon juice, a squirt of brown mustard, and some salt, pepper, and garlic powder.  Then I put the immersion blender in there and slowly drizzle in a cup of olive oil.  (Not extra-virgin, I hear that doesn't work -- regular olive oil.)  If you have a different kind of blender, or if you wonder if some other kind of oil would work, I refer you to the information superhighway, because I don't know.  I tried peanut oil once and the resulting mayo tasted like storebought, which in my mind is a total waste of effort.

Whatever you choose, don't add the dressing till the potatoes are completely cool.

Veggies -- add one or all:
Peas
Cucumber slices
Diced green peppers
Cooked asparagus tips

Add-ins -- any, all, or none, I'm not the food police:
Chives
Parsley
Dill
Chopped hard-boiled eggs
Dill pickles
Pickled beets (will turn the whole salad pink, BE WARNED)
Red onion, cut very small

I have experimented a lot with this potato salad and have never gone wrong yet. The only part that's difficult is making sure you start on time so the potatoes can cool down.  An hour ahead is fine, but you can also do it the morning of a party, or the night before.  It will still be delicious.

If you grill this summer, I wish you a quick-starting fire and meat that's crispy on the outside, fully cooked in the middle, and smoky throughout.  Good luck!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

How neurotypical am I?

I said I'd write a post later about autism and me, so here we are.  It's understood by scientists that family members of autistic people often have some of the same traits, known as the "broader autism phenotype."  It's not Asperger's; we're talking even less autism than that, a level that wouldn't be diagnosible as anything.  So it's not like this discovery has clinical significance, it's more that it sheds light on the genetic origins of autism.  And I think it should be more broadly known, because it can cause parents not to seek a diagnosis for their child's autistic behaviors, because "all the kids in my family are like that!"  Certainly that was a reason I wrote off so many of Marko's behaviors, like stammering, fidgeting, and massive meltdowns -- that's pretty common stuff in my family of origin.

My knee-jerk reaction to the question of whether I have any autistic traits is "of course not!  I'm the normal one in my family!"  And this is true.  My brother was always the "space alien" and I was the normal child.  He couldn't sell candy for a fundraiser, so I sold his candy for him.  He claimed not to experience emotions; I had lots and was very introspective about what emotions they were.  I also have always been highly empathetic of other people's emotions.

However, not all that stuff is exactly defining of autism.  Being unemotional or unempathetic isn't an autistic trait -- though some autistic people have trouble identifying which emotions they or others are experiencing, and do not always express their emotions in a way others understand.  Even that, though, isn't characteristic of everyone on the autism spectrum.

I definitely do have sensory processing problems and have all my life.  I once tried writing out a list of all the sensory things that I can't stand and the list went for pages.  Stuff like cutting my nails, touching velvet, being jostled in a crowd, licking a wooden spoon, driving through partial shade so the sun flashes in my eyes, loud noises of almost any kind.  But most of my family is the same.  I initially said we were "highly sensitive" and this is true, but I think it does tend more to the "disorder" side because it's not just sensitivity, but trouble processing and distinguishing sensory data.  When I pay attention, I realize that I'm not actually distinguishing sounds (for instance) any better than anyone else -- they just bother me more.  And sometimes they bother me because I'm not distinguishing them well.  For instance, one of the reasons I hate the phone is because I often have trouble making out other people's words, and the focus I have to put in to understand the other person taxes my brain and makes me feel annoyed, especially if there are other distractions around.  Another issue is that I can't catch a ball well at all.  I track the ball very well when it's far away from me, but when it's close by and moving fast, it's like it disappears -- I can't see it for a second, and then it hits me in the face.  I cope by tracing the trajectory of the ball and guessing where it will be, but it doesn't work if things are moving and changing quickly.  I suck at basketball because I'm unathletic, but I suck at ping-pong too just because it ball goes too fast.  I think this is true of most of my family (with the exception of my one unusually normal sibling), because we are terrible at ball sports of all kinds but have done well at things like running, wrestling, and lifting weights.

But as far as I can see, no one has studied sensory processing problems in the parents of autistic children.  The studies currently done on the broader autism phenotype focus on language and social problems and excessive rigidity.  I have never had any kind of language delay.  I talked at the normal age and talked a lot.  I did have a stammer for awhile (which reappeared after boarding school for a few months).  And I wouldn't call myself rigid; sure, I like to put on my right shoe before my left, and to have my mornings and evenings go more or less the same way, but if you surprise me with an outing to a place I've never been, I'll generally be happy with that.

But social problems .... well.  How exactly do you tell if you have social problems versus social anxiety or introversion?  I know I like small groups better than big ones; so do about half of people.  I know I get very nervous before meeting people, but so does everyone.  What I really want to know is whether I am actually bad at social stuff, and I can't know that because I can't see what other people think of me.  I've reached an age where, if people think you are socially awkward, they don't tell you.  I took an Asperger's quiz the other day and it asked if I often miss social cues.  Well, how the heck could I know I missed it, if I missed it?  I don't know it ever happened if I missed it!

I grew up thinking of myself as extremely social, because I was always lonely, and I imagined if I had people to spend time with, I would never get tired of it.  I had two friends, my cousin and my parents' friend's daughter, and I adored them.  Both seemed so much more socially savvy than me; I was aware that my first-tier friends considered me more of an odd person they hung out with sometimes than their own best friend.  But, I mean, of course I wasn't adept socially, I was homeschooled.

When I went to school for the first time in fourth grade, I had a hard time adapting, but again -- homeschooled!  I had trouble realizing that the rules could occasionally be broken for good reason, like that it was okay to shout out to get the teacher's attention if you'd had your hand raised for twenty minutes and he wasn't looking up.  I cried if the teacher gently teased me.  I had several friends, but most of them kind of treated me like a pet.  I figured it was because I was the tiniest person in my class.  There was one kid who was really mean to me because she said I had a "staring problem."  I couldn't figure out where the line was between looking and staring; I knew that sometimes I zoned out with my eyes fixated on something, but it didn't seem to me like a big deal that someone should be mad about.

In fifth grade I was in Catholic school, where bullying was not really taken seriously.  So I got teased a lot.  I got teased for talking to myself, for being unfashionable, for having messy hair, for smelling bad, but honestly I couldn't figure out what exactly I was supposed to do to not get bullied.  One time all the "cool kids" randomly decided to be nice to me, and I was thrilled -- I'd finally made it past being "the new kid" and would now be popular!  But no, they just let me play Truth or Dare with them long enough to extract some new material to torment me with.  One time my teacher, very concerned for me, sat down with me for awhile to find out what my deal was.  I am not sure what made her think I had one, and I didn't know what to say, so I just broke down and sobbed for awhile and she was nice about it, and that was that.  A short time later she dismissed me early for lunch while keeping the rest of the class behind, and once they all came out to recess, they told me the teacher had told them they had to play with me because I didn't have any friends.

This wasn't quite true.  I had some friends.  They were mostly misfits of various kinds; I hung out with a crowd that was obsessed with Sailor Moon, a show I'd never watched.  Or I played with the third-graders who had recess along with us.  There was one girl I got along really well with; we wrote these space soap operas together where everyone had zillions of babies that all got married.  But I mostly didn't get along with anyone well enough to get invited over to their houses, or to be in the group they put together for the talent show.  I had one friend who I carpooled with, and she invited me over sometimes.  This followed the pattern of my closest friend at my previous school -- she would give me makeovers and instruct me on pop culture.  Again, I felt like a pet.  We had fun, but anytime there was another friend available, I got ditched.

I got in trouble with one of the sixth-grade teachers for staring at her too intensely -- she had told me I was wrong when I knew I was right, and I couldn't think of anything to say, so I just looked back at her and she said I was being insubordinate.  It made sense to me -- my mom, too, has a really intense stare when she's mad.  But I did think that, being twelve, I shouldn't be too scary for an adult to handle when I wasn't intentionally trying to intimidate her.

The other sixth-grade teacher called my mother one time, concerned, because I often hummed and rocked back and forth while I worked.  She asked me about it and I didn't really know what to say ... I figured I just wasn't used to sitting quietly in a classroom to do schoolwork,  because I was homeschooled.  And that was that.

I was homeschooled again for seventh and eighth grade, and those years were pretty great.  I had friends in the homeschool group, because it was really too small a group to have outcasts and everyone was pretty nice.  We were all a little offbeat in different ways and that was okay.  People were finally interested in some of the things I was.  I really came out of my shell a lot those two years.  I remember one time I drove five hours in a van with a bunch of other girls to go to a Regnum Christi retreat, and I talked the whole time.  I just couldn't seem to shut up, even when everyone else got tired and wound down.  At the end I was like "I can't believe I talked the whole five hours!" and everyone else was kind of like, "WE CAN."  I realized I had talked too much and bored them all.  It was embarrassing, but no one stopped being nice to me because of it or anything.

Then, of course, there was boarding school.  It is impossible to say how I functioned socially because none of us were supposed to have friends.  No one would have either bullied or praised another person.  My directors said I was "emotionally immature," but I don't know if that was something they really thought or something they said to everyone, because they had zero understanding of normal adolescent development.  I was aware, though, of a number of us who seemed socially behind in some ways -- who were more desperate for attention, less able to hide negative feelings, that sort of thing.  I knew I was in that group; I thought it was because I was the youngest child.

I remember one time I was told by one of the consecrated women that I should imagine I was looking down on the conversational group from above, and imagine what I looked like from the outside.  At the time it made me massively self-conscious and I became convinced that everyone else despised me.  But perhaps she was just trying to help me learn how to take turns talking.  That has always been hard for me.  In some contexts, you basically have to interrupt someone if you ever want a chance to talk at all, because people overlap; in others, that's horribly rude and you have leave a long, painfully awkward pause before you say anything.  There is no rule about how long you're allowed to talk before you give someone else a turn, and no real way to tell what kind of stories are generally interesting and which are interesting only to yourself.  Sometimes you can tell afterward that you bored people, but it is hard for me to simultaneously pay attention to what I'm saying and how other people are reacting.  It's not so tough when it's one on one, but one on one conversations weren't allowed -- all conversations were in groups of three to six.  I can roughly estimate whether I'm speaking more or less than half the time, but I cannot for the life of me calculate whether I'm talking more or less than one-sixth of the time.  And, of course, in reality a group of six people does not split the airtime equally; the extroverted, fun, entertaining people talk the whole time and the quieter people just watch.  I am not sure which I am supposed to be; I'm good at talking, but I don't know if I'm boring.

After boarding school I was a changed person.  Instead of being oblivious and a bit off, I was extremely cautious.  I knew I might make a social misstep, but I didn't know how to be sure I wasn't making one, so I didn't talk much.  I didn't want to wear the wrong clothes, so all my wardrobe choices were extremely conservative (and still wound up being wrong).  I ran a club for younger girls and did okay with giving the talks and so on, but I didn't make any friends at first.

And then I started emailing a girl I knew only slightly.  We'd always been in the same groups but she was very quiet, and now that I was quiet too, it was even harder to get to know each other.  But by email, we both opened up and built a friendship deeper than any I'd had previously.  I realized that when you took away the pressure and timing problems of real-life conversations, it was much easier to get to know someone.  No talking and listening at the same time, you did them separately and could go through your friend's email and pick out the things you wanted to respond to.  We were both way into The Lord of the Rings, so we talked about that by email every single day.

My social problems seemed to disappear in college.  Everyone was nice!  Nobody bullied me!  It was great!  I did have one person tell me I had a tendency to run on, but I felt that was unfair because I knew the guys in our social group always did way more than half the talking.  But in general, the conversations were about intellectual topics that interested me, everyone felt free to interrupt if they had something to say, and no one was taking me aside separately to tell me I was annoying everyone, so, success! I did have some confusion about rules; boarding school had loaded me up with a ton of social rules like "don't ever discuss your health" and "never lean against the wall" and "never say anything negative."  I knew that not all of these rules applied to the world outside, but I wasn't always sure which ones.  Like, apparently it's okay to lie on the floor at some kinds of parties, but not other kinds.  You're just supposed to know.  I am not sure if I always gauged this right.  But if I messed up, people generally didn't complain.  My social group was self-selected out of very nerdy and offbeat people, and you had to be pretty darn weird to get funny looks.

And now ... *shrug* I don't have a whole lot of a social life in meatspace.  I have a couple of friends I have playdates with a lot.  We have a good time; sometimes it's awkward, but I never know if it's them or me or both.  I have had some issues with humor; things I think are hilarious don't get laughs, and if I tell a dirty joke, people are shocked even if they were telling them too.  They don't expect it from me.  And I know my delivery of any kind of joke is bad, so I usually stick to "deadpan rendition of a funny story" or just laughing at other people's jokes.  I still struggle in groups; the other week I had a book club and I was actively paying attention to how I managed the conversation, and the answer was that I either monopolized the conversation, or I kind of checked out.  And I hate how this makes it look like I'm self-obsessed.  Like everyone, I'm interested in myself (see also: this whole blog post) but I'm not uninterested in other people.  It's just that it's hard to listen to what someone else says and come up with a response that goes off of that, on the fly.  Instead I tend to talk about whatever I was thinking about on the way there, and spend the way home thinking about all the things other people said, and what I might say in response to them next time.

I'm shy, shyer than I used to be, but I think it's because I'm more aware than I was then of all the ways you can go wrong socially.  I have gone to several meetups lately at the park, hoping to make friends, and sometimes I just chicken out and watch the people from a distance, not being sure how to approach.  And what if you approach and say "Is this the eclectic homeschooling group?" and they say "no, it's not"?  THEN what do you do?  I don't know!  Even if I do get up the guts to actually meet up with people, it's usually horribly awkward, we make boring small talk, we all go home, and I have exactly the same number of friends as before.  Like, how many of these unpleasant social occasions do I have to go to to make an actual friend that I could meet with one on one, as I prefer?  I have made ... oh ... two actual friends at these things, in the seven years I've been a parent, if you count a friend as someone you meet with individually.  And it's really hard to force yourself to go to things when you like the people, but you know that you're very likely to just stand there feeling stupid the whole time.  Couple that with how exhausting and overstimulating my life is without that stuff, and you have a recipe for never going anywhere.  And given how much easier and more fun online interaction often is, I'm not sure I even feel bad about that anymore.

Going over all this, it all seems obvious that I have social difficulties.  That it's not that I've just happened to have been bullied by such a wide array of people, but that maybe I am (as at least one teacher has said to me) bringing it on myself by being so weird.  I've learned to socialize at least well enough that people don't appear to be put off (but how would I KNOW??) but at the cost of so much anxiety that I'd usually rather not even try.  I don't know what it would take to get me to feel confident socially; and actually, if I could, wouldn't that just put me right back at "talks for five hours at people who are tired of listening"?

I just don't know if I should rewrite the narrative of my life from "I am socially anxious because I have had so many negative social experiences and too few positive ones, I should just put myself out there more" to "I am socially anxious because I am congenitally bad at socializing, it's possible that nothing will help."  On the one hand I feel more acceptance about it the latter way -- I don't have to be angry at everyone because they did not Ruin My Life.  But on the other, it absolutely increases my anxiety.  I worry that I am putting everyone off by something I don't even know I'm doing, that everyone knows I'm different but me, that they've been hinting at me that I'm doing something wrong and I've missed all the cues.  How, as an adult, would I find this out?  (John is no help; one reason I like him so much is that he isn't so much more socially competent than me as to make me feel inferior.)

Perhaps, as with Marko, this doesn't really have to change anything.  I can be easy on myself with things that are hard for me while occasionally seeking them out for the sake of my personal growth.  It does make me feel like I should put a higher value on convention and etiquette, realizing that my own inuition might not be as reliable a guide as I think.  I would rather trust my gut, but it's more important to know I'm not making other people uncomfortable.

A part of me feels like even talking about the broader autism phenotype is being a special snowflake, trying to appropriate a real diagnosis that belongs to other people.  I just read all these books and think, "But I do that.  And that.  And that."  Yet, I mean, it's like horoscopes -- you read the personality description and say "that sounds like me!" even if it turns out later it was the wrong one for you.  Because it's easy to see yourself in anything.  Still.  I think it does have some explanatory power for questions like "why is my family so smart but also weird?" and "why did I spend my entire childhood on the outskirts of kid society?"  And maybe that's all it is.  The good side of it is, I understand a lot of what Marko thinks and does.  Not all, by any means, but I think a little more than a lot of people do.  It's a bright side.

(The dark side is thinking, "His autism is my fault.  And John's fault.  Each of us should have found an extrovert to marry."  But, his autism is not a tragedy, so I try not to think that way.)

If you know me in real life, feel free to comment anonymously and tell you if you think I'm socially awkward.  If you say no, though, be aware that I will have no idea if you're just saying that to make me feel better.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...