Oct 12, 2014: A New Odyssey!

Well, it’s been an eventful week around here! Lots of good…but some decidedly not good. Such is life, right? But more on that later….

First of all, it’s still hot! When is that going to end? Supposedly tomorrow, and then we drop down to highs in the 70s, which sounds positively lovely. My hot flashes and I are just about ready to be done with this heat.

We had a very full weekend around here! On Saturday morning, we had a park playdate with Theo’s friend, Tico. Sam ran all over the place at the park (as did Theo and Tico, though I think Sam covered more ground than either of the older boys did!), which was a good thing because he was strapped in the Ergo (baby carrier) or stroller for most of the rest of the day. After two hours at the park, we hopped on BART and rode the train into San Francisco for Fleet Week, so we could see the Blue Angels fly! We had thought about driving, but in addition to the million people (that was the estimated attendance for Fleet Week) crowding the city, Obama was in town and so some roads were supposed to be blocked for the motorcade. Sitting in traffic for hours didn’t sound one bit appealing, so we opted for BART—much to the boys’ delight! And it was a good call—the trains actually weren’t very crowded, and we got seats for most of both trips. However, BART doesn’t drop off anywhere near where the Fleet Week festivities were happening, so we did a lot of walking! About five miles total, according to my FitBit—with one of us pushing Theo in the stroller and one of us carrying Sam on our back. (We were hoping Sam would fall asleep in the Ergo—he never sleeps in the stroller. And since we had a free stroller, we let Theo ride. He’s getting heavy to push, though!)

Anyway, BART does happen to drop off near the Ferry Building, so we went there for lunch. Oysters and more oysters for me, and BLTs for the boys (well, the ones who eat, anyway). Had a thought-provoking experience at the Ferry Building, which you can read about here if you’d like.

After we finished eating, we trekked down the Embarcadero toward Aquatic Park, which was supposed to have great views of the Blue Angels. Alas, we didn’t quite make it—we were still a few blocks away when the planes roared overhead. So instead, we diverted down an alley and watched the show from the back parking lot of a restaurant, near the dumpsters. Not much ambience, but a great view! A lot of other people had the same idea, so we were in good company.

I had thought Theo would love the show, but he actually wasn’t very interested. He was a lot more interested in some rusty old boat floating in the harbor. Sam, however, very much enjoyed seeing the planes roar overhead, and I was in heaven! I haven’t gotten to see the Blue Angels perform in more than 30 years—I’ve seen them fly overhead briefly a couple of times over the years, but I haven’t actually seen their performance in more than 30 years. It was excellent! Their precision flying just amazes me. Well worth the endless trekking—and it was a beautiful day in the city, so no complaints! We arrived home tired and grimy by about 7, ending a successful day!

Then on Sunday morning, we headed down to San Jose. Chris’s cousin is expecting a baby girl next month, so I attended her baby shower with Grandma Kathy and Aunt Tanya, while Chris and the boys stayed at Grandma and Papa’s house with Papa, Uncle Steve, and cousin Nik. I got to meet the current newest member of the family, baby Aubrienne. So cute—she’s 3 1/2 months old, and just a doll! And I won a lovely hydrangea in the baby-word scramble game, so hey—another good day!

That was actually our third long day in a row—on Friday, Chris, Sam, and I dropped Theo at school and then headed up to Sacramento for Sam to participate in the MIND Institute’s research study on environmental factors that may contribute to autism. I think I mentioned this study on an earlier blog. It is looking at three groups of children: typically developing kids age 0–3, kids with autism age 0–3, and kids with developmental delays but not autism age 0–3. Sam is, of course, in the latter group. It was a pretty painless study, with the exception of the blood draw, and Sam had fun playing the games with the developmental pediatrician who saw us. She was impressed by his receptive language skills and even his expressive skills (which are significantly less than his receptive skills), which makes me say HA! As I think I mentioned, his most recent developmental evaluation showed his expressive and receptive language skills as equal, which I disagree with—I think his receptive are much higher than they scored him. So I was pleased to see that the developmental pediatrician recognized his receptive language ability. 🙂

As most people are, she was utterly charmed by Sam. He was at his Sam finest—flirting and smiling and being a goofball! My favorite moment was when she placed a dollhouse-furniture table on top of the table where Sam was sitting, and then handed Sam a small toy bear. “Sam,” she said, “Can you put the bear under the table?” Obviously she intended for him to put the bear under the dollhouse table, but he looked right at her, grinned, and threw the bear under the main table he was sitting at. She started laughing and said, “Okay, well, that is a table…” Well played, Sam…well played. 🙂

We finished up the study at a reasonable time, so we stopped by Grandma Diane’s house for an hour or so before heading back home to pick up Theo. Sam was tired but chipper, so we had a nice, albeit quick, visit!

In other Sam news this week, I had a follow-up phone appointment with his naturopath. She is extremely pleased with all of his bloodwork numbers and his symptoms of hypothyroidism, which are significantly less now that we’ve started treatment. So for the time being, he will stay on his current dose of desiccated thyroid medicine, because it appears to be doing the trick! And we’re going to add some supplements into the mix, too. Supplements are kind of a controversial topic in the DS world. I haven’t heard anything negative about them, but they’re controversial in that some people think they’re very effective and an excellent treatment, and other people think they’re just a waste of money and don’t really have much effect.

We don’t really have any money to waste right now (more on that later), but I talked to her about what the most important supplements for him would be, in her mind. So, we’ll be starting vitamins C and E, as well as fish oil and folinic acid.

There are a lot of reasons why people do supplements. Some feel it helps with cognitive development, some do it to help strengthen immunity, and some do it for targeted purposes (for example, issues of dry skin, constipation, or whatever). We are trying it for a couple of reasons. One: immunity. Sam has been healthy in a large sense—we haven’t had any major illnesses. But he catches every little bug that goes around, and I’d love to see his immune system be a bit stronger. And second: oxidative stress. I’m not a scientist, but here’s how I understand it in layperson’s terms: Hypothyroidism doesn’t happen for no reason. And in people with Down syndrome, the underlying cause is often oxidative stress. And even when it’s not, oxidative stress is a bad thing, because it’s a contributing factor to early dementia and potentially Alzheimer’s disease (both of which are common in people with DS). Bottom line is the oxidative stress is hard on the body and hard on the cells, and people with DS are known to have high levels of oxidative stress. There is evidence that supplements can help lower oxidative stress in the long term, and that is beneficial for many reasons. So, that’s why we’ll be adding in the supplements. Will they do anything? I don’t know, but they won’t hurt Sam, and if they can possibly help his oxidative stress levels, I’m all for that. As the naturopath explained it, trying to keep those oxidative stress levels in check will keep his cells healthier, and healthy cells are important.

I’m talking a lot about Sam here, so how about Theo? He’s doing well. School is up and down. He seems to have settled in fairly well, and he certainly doesn’t hate it. But he does feel comfortable enough now to stir up a bit of mischief. 🙂 And he doesn’t eat his lunch (he’d rather go play), which means he comes home cranky and emotional. I can’t force the kid to eat his lunch, so…what can ya do? We’ve tried packing different things, letting him pack his own lunch, packing a minimal number of things so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by too many choices, rewarding him for eating his lunch…you name it, we’ve tried it. I guess he’s just going to have to come around on his own. And in the meantime, we stuff food into him ASAP when he gets home from after-school care, or all hell breaks loose. 😉

But here’s my most fun news of the week: You’re looking at the new Odyssey of the Mind coach for one of the K-2 teams!! I have a team of seven kids: three kindergartners, three second-graders, and one first-grader (Theo). I’m so excited!

So if you’re like me a year ago, you’re wondering what the heck Odyssey of the Mind is. Well, it’s really hard to explain, but I’ll try. (The rep from OotM who led the meeting I went to this week said trying to explain it without visuals is “like trying to explain to someone over the phone how to tie shoelaces.” Indeed…)

OotM was apparently started in the 1970s by an MIT professor who was dismayed at the lack of creative problem-solving he saw in students. The first OotM problem was to build a craft to cross a lake. The teams (which can have a maximum of seven participants) mostly built different types of boats and paddleboards. But the winner of the competition was a man who took a folding stepladder, attached innertubes to each of the legs, and created a sort of “water spider” that “walked” across the water inchworm-like. He didn’t make it all the way across the lake (fell in halfway through), but he won the competition because his invention was the most creative.

From the OotM website: “Odyssey of the Mind is an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Team members apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. They then bring their solutions to competition on the local, state, and world level. Thousands of teams from throughout the U.S. and from about 25 other countries participate in the program.”

Theo’s old school had OotM (and in fact they won a prize in last year’s regional competition), and I was so disappointed that Theo wouldn’t be able to participate when we left the school. So I was delighted to find out that his new school has decided to offer OotM this year! I went to the parent meeting and ended up volunteering to coach because they didn’t have enough parent volunteers to coach all of the kids who were interested. But I actually kind of wanted to coach anyway, so I was glad to volunteer. 🙂

In grades K-2, the competition is friendly—there are no losers. But starting in grade 3, it’s an actual competition. The “problem” for the K-2 group is also a little less intense than for older groups. Grades 3 and up get to choose the problem they want to work on from a list of five, but the K-2 group just has one option. This year it’s “wacky weather.” The kids have to deliver an eight-minute (maximum) wacky weather forecast that covers three types of wacky weather and is delivered all in rhyme. They also have to build a weather-forecasting device and delivery method, as well as create a weather map. Most problems are like this, in that they involve some sort of performance aspect, some sort of building aspect, some sort of engineering aspect, etc. And frankly, some are so unusual that we adults looked at them and said, “Um…how on earth would you do that?” But the OotM rep said that adults tend to overthink things, and we’ll be amazed at what the kids come up with when they brainstorm. (Gee, us overthink?! I can’t even imagine—HA!)

Because that’s the kicker of the whole thing, and what I think makes it so awesome: The adults cannot help. At all. We have to sign a contract that we won’t. And at the competition, the judges quiz the kids on how they created the project, to make sure there wasn’t adult involvement. This entire project is masterminded and engineered by the kids, and the more creative the solution, the more points they earn. We have to go to a full-day coaching training to learn how to use Socratic questioning with the kids when they do ask for help (which they will undoubtedly do, since kids tend to be used to their parents doing stuff for them!).

So as coach, I’m there to get the kids together and focus them on the project, and I’m there to make sure no one gets hurt. But the kids do all the work. I’m not even allowed to help them assemble their project on competition day—I can’t even carry the pieces in. It’s all about the kids!

So how awesome is this?! At the meeting, we watched the kids whose parents had brought them (I wish I had brought Theo, but it was bedtime for him) work out a sample short project, and it was amazing to watch how they immediately got together and brainstormed a solution for building the tallest freestanding tower out of dry spaghetti and marshmallows. Each team ended up approaching it differently, and each one had varying degrees of success. But all of the approaches were interesting and valid approaches—some worked better than others, but all were well thought-out.

I think Theo is going to love this, because he’s always telling me solutions for things he wants to do. (A couple of days ago, it was how he was going to build a metal detector: “Let me explain, Mom. You need two things, okay? You need a radio—an old one, not an iPod. And you turn the dial as far as it will go, until it’s all static. And then you attach a calculator to it. And after you do that, you can turn on the calculator and use it as a metal detector.” I have no idea how that will work, but he clearly had it all thought out in his head.) And he loves nothing more than to do things independently. And lately, when I pick him up at after-school care, he’s always building these elaborate inventions out of Legos. Yet he doesn’t use his Legos at home—but when other kids are around, he enjoys sitting with them and building together. So I really think this is going to be right up his alley!

I’m ridiculously excited to see what the kids do! They don’t have to start working on their main project until after the holidays—this year’s competition is at the end of February. But we’ll meet several times before then to do warm-up problems and let the team gel and the kids get to know each other. I can’t wait to come up with some creative problems for them to work on!

Oh, the other cool thing about this is that they have a building budget that they cannot exceed (I think it’s $125), and if they use scrap parts that someone had on hand, they have to assign “garage sale” value to those and count them into the budget. So a team can’t build some super-elaborate expensive thing and then claim, “Oh, well, we just had all of this stuff laying around.” They have to account for it in their budget. I like how that levels the playing field.

So maybe you’re wondering how I have time for this. Because spare time is in short supply around here. Well, yes, that’s true…or rather, that was true. Now we come to the lousy part of the week. I can’t go into much detail at this point, but Chris and I found out we will likely be losing about 80% of my income, which equates to about 25% of our total income. Ouch. Like really, really ouch. We will survive; Chris’s income will pay for our rent and basic bills. So we don’t have to move, thank god. (Or at least, I don’t think we’ll have to move. We’ll be throwing ourselves on the mercy of our landlord not to raise our rent when our lease is up in a few months.) And our kids certainly won’t go hungry. But there’s not going to be any extra, which is so depressing because after six-plus years of living mostly paycheck to paycheck, we were finally in a position to start paying down debt! In the seven weeks since both Theo and Sam started back to school and I had a regular work schedule, we had paid off two of our six debts and were making great progress on the third. We were so excited! And now we’ll be back to the paycheck-to-paycheck life. We’ve already cancelled our weekly produce box, Chris is going to cut my hair tonight so I don’t have to waste $20 at Great Clips, we’re cancelling the paper except one day a week, the van door won’t be getting fixed anytime soon, Sam’s preschool options are more limited (click here to read an update on the preschool saga)…and on and on. So I can’t complain—those are all extras, and certainly far more than a lot of people have. We will still have a roof over our heads, we still have enough money to eat and to pay our bills. There is no room to complain about that! And on the bright side, less work means more time for things like coaching Odyssey of the Mind. I’m looking at the bright side here, because if I don’t I might just cry out of frustration, and there’s no reason to cry when you’ve got shelter, food, clothing, etc. I will suck it up and be happy about it as soon as I finish my little pity party about not being able to continue paying down debt. Such is life, right? It could be a whole lot worse. Just a setback…

Anyway! Let’s leave this on a happy note with a few pictures. Very few this week, because I didn’t lug the camera to San Francisco and I didn’t have it with me at the baby shower. More pictures next week! And in the meantime, cross your fingers that I can drum up some more work. I’ve got a few leads, so we’ll see whether I can make any of them work out.

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