Arithmophobia

I am terrible at math. I can do your standard arithmetic, and I can calculate a percentage like nobody’s business (that sweater is 30% off? Sweet!) but once you start talking algebra and calculus and crap, I’m done.

I wasn’t always this way- I started out doing just fine in math, getting As and such through the halcyon days of first and second grade. Then came third grade and Sr. Mary Seton. She was not necessarily a bad teacher, but she was unforgiving and a taskmaster. You would have thought we were a boot camp for the Marine Corps instead of a bunch of 8 year old Catholic kids fresh off our First Communion and therefore still terrified of hell. I was out sick for a couple of days at one point, and I missed the initial explanation of what multiplication was as well as the first five multiplication tables. When I returned she refused to explain what I had missed. I tried my hardest to deconstruct what was going on, but I was eight. And I certainly didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what was going on- I was a ‘smart kid’ and I liked being a ‘smart kid’ and didn’t want to mess up that impression.

Milo and Tick, the Dog who Tocks; or Tock, the Dog who Ticks. I'm not sure.

Milo and Tick, the Dog who Tocks; or Tock, the Dog who Ticks. I’m not sure which.

Anyways, I moved on and eventually figured out multiplication and its evil twin division, but I was somehow scarred. In college I took a financial accounting course (don’t ask) and I just could not get my mind to wrap around it. Ask me about the corruption of women’s basic rights as the precursor on The Handmaid’s Tale and I could write you a dissertation- ask me about accrual vs. cash accounting and its impact on the balance sheet and I would look at you like you had nine heads. It was so bad that the professor pulled me aside and asked me what happened around third grade. I was stunned and I sputtered out my tale of multiplication woe and he gave a knowing smile- “I’ve taught plenty of students like you who struggle with this material and they’ve all had some kind of run-in with math right around that age. Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.” So I’m not alone, and he was tremendously helpful to me in eking out a very painful “C” in that class.

I have always been more attracted to language and words. That’s part of why The Phantom Tollbooth is one of my favorite books- the plot revolves about the tension between math and language, and it is ultimately resolved by the beauty of language (King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician being forced to finally agree on one thing- to disagree).  I love puns and wordplay and how a book is invariably better than the movie. My brain operates best in the colorful, grey areas of words and meaning, not the boring black and white of math, where 2 plus 2 is always 4. Where’s the fun in that?

That’s the thing about math- I can do it, I’ve just never understood it. It is the difference for me between reading words on a page and truly understanding the story. Why on earth did I need to know what a cosign was? Who uses this in real life? (answer: no one. Ever.). By the time I reached high school I would look my algebra teacher in the eye and say “I am going to law school. I don’t need to know this.” She was kindhearted enough to give me extra credit on a final exam basically for spelling my name right. Also, law school was hell, but that’s a topic for another time.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I can now see what was actually being taught. It was not so much “doing the math”, it was problem-solving and critical thinking skills. What is PEMDAS other than a structure under which to analyze and tackle a problem? It is the math equivalent of diagramming a sentence (and I can diagram the shit out of a sentence. Sentences cross the street when they see me coming). Algebra is simply an attempt to solve a crime with only some of the evidence available. Geometry explains how (most) buildings don’t fall down. I don’t recall math ever being presented in that kind of context, it was just something we were supposed to learn based on its intrinsic value. Why do I have to know this? Because I said so.

I know how we teach math has evolved significantly over the years, but with my oldest daughter starting kindergarten this year I’m nervous about helping her with homework as she progresses and it becomes more difficult. She is very interested in science and engineering- loves astronomy, and learning how things are made- and I think I’m overly sensitive to the “girls aren’t good at math” stereotype because I am a walking example of it.  We’re cool with counting and basic math, but when we get to manipulating fractions that’s going to be a rough one for mom. I think contextualizing the why? of math is truly the key to understanding it, and that’s the element that was missing for me in the beginning stages of my math education.

So we’ll see what happens over the next couple of years. Thank goodness for online tutorials for parents like me, and my husband’s mathematical capability.

After all, what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.

Explaining Death

Maggie Herself

Maggie Herself

Yesterday morning while the girls were milling about and husband was getting ready for work, I was looking at the morning’s news when the CNN headline announcing Margaret Thatcher’s death popped up.

“Oh,” I said absentmindedly to husband, “Margaret Thatcher died today.”

“How old was she?”

“In her eighties. 87 actually.”

End of conversation, for about 30 seconds. Maeve, my five and a half year old daughter, suddenly asked how old I am. I swear that she hadn’t even been in the room a nanosecond ago.  36, I replied. Now if you don’t know a five year old, they have a pretty decent, but imperfect, grasp of numbers. To her, 36 and 87 end one number apart and are therefore close. So a person close in age to her mother died.

Oh shit.

I could see the little wheels starting to turn in her head and she started to sob a bit, not really saying anything but I knew where this was coming from and where it was going. I scooped her up onto my lap and kept repeating the numbers, I’m 36 and she was 87, that’s a big difference okay? Mommy’s not going anywhere, everything is okay.

She seemed to calm down, and I didn’t want to keep talking if what I said was enough to comfort her. Soon she and her sister were running around the coffee table like it was a NASCAR track and that was that.

Throughout the day though I thought about how I could have handled it better, explained it more in terms she could understand. In some ways Maeve has been lucky- all of her grandparents and even one great-grandparent are still alive. She has not experienced the death of a family member or a pet. However, a schoolmate of hers died last spring from complications of the flu. He was three years old. So her only reference point of death thus far is of someone her age, another kid. It’s a lot easier (in my very humble opinion) to explain the death of an older person to a child. That makes more sense to all of us, really, as it is the natural course of things. I don’t give myself a lot of credit for being a super-intuitive mom but my spidey-sense was tingling that this conversation and process of understanding wasn’t over for her.

I thought about what I could say and reference points I could use. Thatcher was 50 birthdays older than mommy and daddy. She was older than mommy and daddy’s ages combined. She was older than all of Maeve’s grandparents. I was prepared to write down every number between 36 and 87 with her just so she could visualize and realize the difference.

All was well after I picked Maeve and Bridget up from school. We played in the yard, made and had dinner, even cupcakes for a treat before bath time. Then, out of nowhere (I had just put her pajama shirt on and was holding the pants so she could step into them), she burst into tears and wailed “I don’t want you to die!”. Ugh.

I scooped her up again and told everything was going to be okay. She asked again how old Marc and are I. And I told her as plainly as I could all the things I thought about earlier- 50 birthdays, older than anyone she knows, etc. She calmed down and I think it helped her understand better. I just told her that no one was dying anytime soon and she and her family were okay.

I have no idea how effective all of this was- I would not be surprised if there’s another outburst tomorrow and I wouldn’t be surprised if I never hear another question about death from her.

Now might be a good time to mention that my husband and I are not religious. We both grew up catholic but for various reasons float somewhere in the atheist/agnostic spectrum. So I wasn’t about to start in on the heaven and going home to god and angels bullshit (and to me, that’s what it is). I wanted to be honest but not scare her, follow her lead but not hide reality behind a fairy tale.

I do wonder if I should have said more about how this is what happens to us- we age, we become frailer, and eventually die. But I think that would have made her think about her own mortality, and that’s the last thing anyone wants. I will never be 100% sure about this conversation, but I feel like we did pretty well. We were honest, we were straightforward, we answered her questions and didn’t frighten her. Most importantly though, I believe we responded in a way that showed her we cared and would deal with tough situations so in the future she’ll know she can talk to us and we will be honest with her. And that may be the most important lesson we could have taught her.

What has been your experience talking with young children about death? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear how other parents handle this, especially from a non-religious perspective.

Sense Memory

(Note: I wrote this for my non-fiction writing class a couple of months ago. Mangia!)

Magically delicious!

Magically delicious!-Short Ribs Tagliatelle

My parents are home in northern New Jersey, snowed in by a recent Nor’easter. My father posted the following on Facebook Friday evening:

The Carroll Center For Exceptional Grand Children reports that the storm is really roaring along here in Bloomfield! Below freezing now and headed down!!! Wind picking up!!!! I am under strict house arrest, so no out for dinner!!! But Mary’s home cooked dinner is full of old memories… Spaghetti and fish sticks and it isn’t even Lent yet!!! We are in the 6 to 12 area of the forecast!!! Throw another log on the fire!!!

There’s a lot to parse here- my parents have 8 (soon to be 10) grandchildren and said grandchildren occupy 92% of their time. My father is obsessed with his fireplace. He is also always freezing cold in the way that only those over 70 can be, and therefore the great room containing the fireplace is at a constant 85 degrees, rendering any visitors to pretend they are in Bali for the duration of their stay. And yes, he likes his exclamation points. I only recently got him to stop sending me texts in ALL CAPS so I am letting this one go for the time being.

But the salient point- fish sticks and spaghetti was a standard meal for me growing up- usually on Fridays during Lent but making sneaky appearances throughout the year. I didn’t realize how odd of a combination that was until relaying to my husband my childhood meals. He was not impressed. Well, impressed with the grossness perhaps. Honestly, I rather liked it- heavily breaded and baked fish accompanied by limp pasta, with any of those flavors drowned in overbearing sauce. If you liked Ragu, this dinner wasn’t a problem.

My mom is a first generation American, her parents straight off the boat from Ireland. My father claims that he taught my mother how to cook, her culinary knowledge not extending past the skill of boiling any taste, texture or life out of whatever items were available for a meal. It is important to note that my father is not exactly Julia Child. He once roasted a chicken on our grill without a pan underneath, allowing a grease fire to erupt and our neighbor to pronounce the chicken to be a fine looking London broil.
My father is the second youngest of five boys, sons of an NYPD officer and his homemaker wife. Dinner in his house was survival of the fittest. To this day he does not drink anything with dinner because pausing for a sip of milk meant opening your defenses for fraternal purloining of poultry. Red meat is a big deal to my dad; it was a rare treat as a child due to its cost. He loves filet mignon with a baked potato and some darkly sautéed onions. Once when I ate a deliciously massive veggie salad for dinner I was told that if a meal didn’t contain meat it wasn’t a meal at all- “it’s a saaalaaad”. He has also told many a waitperson to hold the lettuce and tomato for his burger because “if I wanted a salad I would have ordered one”. This same man also once ordered two vanilla Fribbles at Friendlys one evening- one for an appetizer, one as an entrée. He skipped dessert. Yes he has high cholesterol, why do you ask?

I remember Mary’s Hungarian Goulash! 1st time I had it, she made it. Still one of my Favorite dishes. Hope you enjoyed your sketty&sticks …
-From comment on my father’s above status update

Hungarian Goulash is the Benedict Arnold of meals to my sisters and me- notorious and widely reviled. I recall the stringy cubed beef, the brown sauce of unidentifiable origin, and the limp egg noodles creating a starchy nest of comfort that was not deserved by what was heaped atop it. I would desperately poke at the edges of this mass, searching in vain for virgin noodles unsullied by the insidious sauce.

I now understand that in many circles goulash is considered a delightful comfort food, even a delicacy. I see it on menus at very nouveau restaurants and diners. My mother-in-law (an excellent cook) assures me that it is indeed a lovely meal when made well. My sister once asked my mother what was in her goulash. An excerpt of the conversation:

Sister: “What exactly was in that?”
Mom: “Well, a whole bottle of ketchup…”
Sister: “I’m gonna stop you right there.”

I do not mean to pick upon my parents unfairly. My mother makes a delightful baked ziti that the neighborhood kids would devour. Chicken parmigiana was always delicious, and my father’s holiday turkey and potato stuffing are legendary. My sister attempts to re-create my mother’s meatloaf for her husband, only to be told time and time again that she’s close, but no cigar. Yet it is in many ways the foods I disliked that stay with me. I still harbor an aversion to fish, which given that all I had as a kid had been previously frozen into Piscean icebergs is rather understandable. I distrust sauces that don’t come with lengthy descriptions discounting ketchup as a main ingredient. I hate blue cheese, because blue cheese just sucks.

I’ve gotten to be an okay cook in the last few years. I can follow a recipe like nobody’s business, but I hope to someday be like my husband. He’s very good at just opening up the pantry and throwing some stuff together to make a meal. I have to plan, make sure I have all the ingredients, follow each step religiously to ensure an acceptable result. My current specialty is a short rib tagliatelle dish by Giada DeLaurentiis. It is a slow-cooked meal that simmers for hours, filling the house with the smell of rosemary, roasted tomatoes and basil. I usually make it on weekends so I can enjoy the aroma, and a glass of wine as it cooks. I have two little girls and I like to think they are absorbing it all- the flavors, the scent, the taste of the finished product. Perhaps it will be their food memory, helping me measure spices and stir the sauce, then spending the afternoon playing while dinner simmers away.

The girls are remarkably good eaters, but of course they like to whine every so often about what I’ve made. Perhaps I should give them something to complain about and make goulash tomorrow night for dinner. That’lll teach ‘em.

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

The house has been cleaned, de-cluttered and organized to the point of being useless. If everything is put away, how am I supposed to find it?

We are moving.

I am pregnant. Again.

I’m also not working.

It has been an eventful few months, culminating in our decision to leave the area where we’ve lived (individually and together) for 13 years.

You’ll recall my little depressive episode back in the fall. I’m being humorous, minimizing it, but it shook me terribly. A demon I thought I had under control with therapy and medication woke from its slumber with a vengeance. I landed in the ER at one point because I stood in front of our stupid Keurig coffee machine and could not remember the steps for using it. I have no idea how long I stood there, trying to remember what I came into the kitchen to do. My husband called and I couldn’t form sentences. Those commercials for anti-depressants show that little grey cloud following you around or a woman looking longingly out of a rainy window. They don’t tell you about losing all higher brain function, wanting to curl up in the fetal position and die while a doctor asks you who the president is and orders an MRI to make sure you didn’t have a stroke at the ripe old age of 35.

I made it through that incident and with therapy and medication adjustments. My husband and I took a trip to Ireland, something we had planned to do for our 5th anniversary the year before but too many other things got in the way. I love Ireland, and I think it loves me. The air makes it feel like my lungs open wider, the dampness is great for my skin (but terrible for my hair) and the music and beer make me so happy. And I love the soup and brown bread. I might open an irish soup and brown bread restaurant here in the states. I’m taking name suggestions.

My therapist and I had been working on figuring out why I had this particular break, at this particular moment in time. There were a number of stressors: kids, money, commutes, jobs, work travel. My life was out of whack and I knew it, but I was doing my best to hold it together with scotch tape and rubber bands. But I was exhausted and I was very unhappy at work. And like a cat chasing its tail the cycle just continued until I collapsed in a heap.

I was on a leave of absence from work while our trip, and getting away from the day to day provided some perspective and clarity. I resigned my position. This was not as easy as it might seem- my income was much needed. I made good money, slightly more than my husband. And where we live is very, very expensive. Two kids in daycare alone costs us almost $30,000 per year.

Between my husband’s job and some consulting work we’ve both been doing we have been able to make it work. I’ve kept the girls in school because frankly I expected to take a little time off and then find something new, perhaps a step down on the ladder but better for my work-life balance.

But then we found out I am pregnant. We were stunned. This was not planned. I had always wanted a third but the timing was near-disastrous. We walked around in a daze for a while before it sunk in. We are ultimately very excited for this baby, but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a rough couple of days.

We’ve been talking about leaving DC for a while now (full disclosure: we live in Maryland, about a mile from the DC border. To some of you this is an important distinction) but that’s easier said than done. We bought our home at the height of the housing boom and only recently is it worth more than we paid. This is also a very difficult area to leave- the people are so smart, the schools are excellent, the cultural offerings have no equal. It is an amazing place to raise children. But that all comes at steep price in terms of cost of living and the worst traffic in the nation. My husband works 13 miles from our house, and a 90 minute commute home is relatively common.

We have friends, family, a support system here. But still we feel like we aren’t being fair to ourselves or to the girls. Providing for your family is one thing, but providing for them to point of not seeing them is another issue entirely. I don’t want them growing up thinking that work and money is everything, and that’s the message I feel they’ve been getting.

So we’re leaving. This was not easy, a decision almost a year in the making. Charlottesville is about two hours away, nestled near the Shenandoah in a pretty little pocket of Virginia. Thanks to Mr. Jefferson and UVA it is a vibrant college town with a booming wine industry. It has many of the qualities we love about DC- history, intellectualism, educational opportunities. Good restaurants, used book stores, antique shops- it’s a great small city.

Our house hits the market on Friday. With any luck we will be in Charlottesville by June. We will rent for a year, make sure this works for us, and then hopefully buy a home. Maeve will start kindergarten there, Bridget can go to a pre-school that costs 30% less than what it does up here, and we shall see what happens with my work situation and baby Gus*. I do plan to go back to work, I will truly lose my mind if I don’t, but at this point it will have to wait until fall.

So much is happening but all of it is good. I am looking forward to the change of scenery and so are the girls. Maeve is telling everyone that we are moving so we can have a house that fits a bunk bed. The baby and I will have the opportunity to explore a new place together. Bridget will have a whole new set of people she can boss around.

Change is good.

*Baby is due August 2nd, hence Gus. It is another girl, so that name probably won’t stick.

Dear Sappy

Here at Braevehearts we aren’t all depression all the time. Because that would be depressing. So I am starting an advice column. Send me your dilemmas, questions, concerns, thoughts on life to siobhanxo@gmail.com. I will change any recognizable details to protect the guilty. I will cover any and all topics you send my way, from fashion to relationships to politics to your grandma’s creepy gentleman caller.

So send away! I need this people, for the depression. Feel guilty yet?

-Siobhan

Breathe Deeply

First of all, thank you for everyone who emailed, commented, sent me messages, prayers and wishes. Your support has buoyed me during this time more than you know. 

I have learned that many of you have experienced depression, either  personally or with a friend or family member. This disease is widespread, and I take comfort in the suggestions, recommendations and kind words, especially from people I don’t even know. It is amazing.

Also, I discovered that a lot of you are in the mental health field, which is good to know 🙂

We decided to get out of town for the weekend and headed down to Charlottesville, VA. We first went there for a wedding back in August and loved it, so decided to pack up the girls and go for a change of pace. We spent Saturday at the farmers’ market, where the girls got balloon animals and face paint, I got a delicious apple and some much needed fresh air and sunshine. And also a beer. That was key. We enjoyed a lovely walk around Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village (I like saying that) where I made a game out of saying the names of the students who live on the Lawn in a snooty voice (they have little plaques on the doors saying who lives there). Try it in your best Thurston Howell voice: “Landon Halliwell Forrester III”, “Abigail Rebecca Hainsworth”, “Willard Mitt Romney”. 

There were some kids walking a low tightrope they had strung between two trees. Maeve was fascinated. Bridget was appalled that they didn’t have shoes on and made her disapproval known by shouting “they no have shoes on!” several times. I think it was mostly out of respect that they could get away with it and she can’t- I promise you this now Bridget: when you go to college, you can take your shoes off any damn time you want.

We went to dinner and I walked back to the car with Maeve, Marc having taken Bridget a little earlier to check out a shop. As we walked along streets packed with students wearing orange pants or dresses that I fondly recall once being able to fit into, Maeve took my hand and said “Mama, it is a nice night for a stroll.” And it was.

On Sunday we headed home, stopping at a few wineries along the way. The girls were remarkably well behaved as their parents tried some of Virginia’s finest wines, although Bridget was rather upset to hear the grapes were not for eating.

I drove home, through winding backgrounds of Virginia countryside, past Montpelier, home of James Madison. The windows were open and it was all just what I needed: a tonic of sunshine, scenery and fresh air. I felt like all of me took a deep breath. 

We are back home now, with a chilly night of crisp autumn air and the smell of our neighbors’ fireplaces being used for the first time in months. When I wrote my original post I was probably around a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. Now I feel like I’m at a four. Each day has gotten a little easier, and this week I have appointments with my psychiatrist and therapist. I think I can get out of this. I can’t say that’s what I believed just a week ago.

A Confession

For how open and frank I am, there is something I almost never discuss. My family members know, a very select of handful of friends, and several members of the greater Washington, DC medical community.

I suffer from depression.

But wait, you say, you are so funny and snarky and such! However could you be depressed?!

Yeah well, tears of a clown and such. 

Right now I am in the midst of a major depressive episode. They hit me every six months or so and it is like being mowed over during the running of the bulls. They have gotten so bad that I am pretty sure my diagnosis is moving towards that of being clinically depressed. That means you are depressed all the time, not just when you hit what I call a wall. Something about this particular episode is different. I feel more despondent. I’ve barely left the house. I’m not interested in eating (which is usually my favorite contact sport). I just want to sleep, and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing.

As you can imagine the effect on my life is staggering. The idea of work is paralyzingly exhausting to me. It is all I can do to get up with my kids and get them out the door in the morning. Showering and changing clothes regularly are pipe dreams. 

No two people experience depression the same way. For me, I become completely hopeless. It’s like tomorrow doesn’t exist. I can’t adequately describe the exhaustion- it is bone crushing and comes out of nowhere. Take the most exhausted you have ever been, multiply it by 20, add in a gut-wrenching sadness that you can’t pin on anything in particular and you might have an idea of where I am now.

I have been on medication for five years now, ever since I had to pull my car over on my way to work because I couldn’t see through the hysterical tears I was crying. The medication controls things pretty well, with the exception of these crevasses every few months. I’ve been approaching and treating my depression as though it is these occasional episodes, but I’m realizing that it is more than that. I live with it daily, beating it back into the darkness from which it came, but every so often it wins. 

I told my husband today that I’d rather have cancer. People understand cancer. You can cut it out, you can radiate it or kill it with chemicals. Even if you succumb to cancer people understand. I don’t feel understood. How can I when I don’t get it myself? I have also said that I feel like there is something in my brain. I wouldn’t be surprised if you cracked it open and there was a little alien in there, like in Men in Black (“Orion’s belt!”).

I don’t want to be this person. Depression keeps me from being the best version of myself. It robs me of patience. My brain works slower and words don’t come as easily. I don’t enjoy things that I normally would. And I get so tired so easily. It sucks when you have two kids under 4 who just want to run and play and climb all over you.

I’m working with a psychiatrist to try and figure this out. I am hopeful that some medication changes and perhaps talk therapy will give me the tools to cope better. I’ve also decided to be more open about my struggle because I know so many people who are fighting the same battle, and perhaps this will give comfort to them. Plus, I’m done being ashamed and embarrassed of this- I think it feeds the little alien and ultimately makes things worse.

Thanks for reading, for listening. I appreciate it more than you can know.