Archive for August, 2012

Informed Consent Parenting

A friend of mine and I were talking this evening about our kids. She is a fellow physician with a similar situation: she and her husband are gifted and highly educated, and they have four gifted kids, all elementary-school age. We like to meet frequently and hash over the parenting and educational decisions we’re struggling to make. We met at the park (where predictably, none of them played on the actual playground), ate some dessert she so thoughtfully brought, and watched the kids expend significant amounts of energy as the sun set over the mountains and the lake. It was a great way to end the evening.

One of the topics we visit frequently is whether or not we are making the “right” decisions for our gifted kids. By way of explanation, these would be the decisions that are the best fit for each individual, and eventually result in them leading happy lives with deep personal significance. No pressure there.

The usual parenting mantra explains that we shouldn’t take any of these decisions too seriously, because we can always choose to change the path we’re on, and kids are resilient creatures. Land the helicopter, moms, the kids will be just fine without you.

Interestingly, though, she and I are two of the more laid-back moms we know. I’ve never figured out if this is because we’re both physicians, but we aren’t really the hovering type. We let the kids wander further than most folks, and trust that they’ll make good decisions, because they usually do. And, when they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. We both expect our kids to take personal responsibility for themselves and the things around them. In general, the seven of them are incredibly well-behaved when they are together. They also have several casts and sets of stitches between them.

So why, then, do we mull over the educational decisions so much? Why not just let them roam and trust that they will find their way?

The only reasoning I can give for our behavior is a medical analogy. She and I encounter many issues throughout our day that are low-risk: simple skin tears requiring basic skin care, gout in a knee that will respond well to some medication, or a mild sleep disorder treatable with lifestyle changes. A quick explanation to our patient on the condition, followed by reassurances that the condition will likely be better in a few days or weeks. And, if it’s not, there are always opportunities to go back and change the treatment plan.  Not much deep thought into the decisions, because the stakes aren’t that high. Just listening to our patient is often what they need the most in these cases.

We also encounter, albeit less frequently, issues that are high-risk: the chest pain as a first sign of a heart attack, the shortness of breath from a new blood clot in the lung, or the discovery of a cancer that requires chemotherapy to eradicate. And, for each of these decisions, there’s a point of no return. The point where we have to explain to the patient what the next steps are going to be, offer our support through the process, and guide the process so that everything goes smoothly for our patient. We recruit our specialist colleagues for their expertise.  We research different options and present these to our patient and their families. We make sure we’ve explained it enough times, and with enough detail, that our patient understands the implications. In short, once the decision is made, it’s made. And there’s (usually) no going back. No second chances to get it right.

I’ve decided that the hardest part for us, the two physicians, is that when it comes to our kids, we’re not sure which bucket our educational decisions fall into. We have no way of knowing whether there’s time or opportunity to go back and redo it, or change our path. It feels as though some of the decisions might be the high-risk type, the ones where we don’t get a second chance to get it right. What if we present the options to our kids, and we all make the wrong decision together? What if we can’t change it later, and we somehow missed the opportunity to help them be truly happy?  It’s hard enough for she and I to live with a missed diagnosis in our patient. It’s almost impossible for us to live with a missed decision in our own child.

I’m eternally grateful, then, for the opportunity to bend the ear of my friend and fellow physician-mom-of-gifted-kids every chance we get.  It makes the burden of the decisions lighter, even if their weight is unchanged.

I Am Number Eighteen

HALF-PRICE BRONCOS TICKET PACKAGE!, the email offer read. It was one of the ubiquitous Groupon-style things that shows up in my inbox every morning, shilling everything from discounted food to cheap overnight stays, and just for fun, I clicked on it. And almost threw up. My son is just now to the age when I’d consider taking him to a Broncos game, let alone the semi-disinterested girls, and so I haven’t really kept tabs on what game tickets cost. One decent seat, in this package, was going for $250 each.  At half-price. Surely that couldn’t be right, so on to StubHub I went, and sure enough, a decent Broncos game ticket is around $500. To take all five of us to a game would be $2,500, unless I want to sit in a nosebleed seat.

Later that day, I happened to run across Laughing at Chaos’ blog post, which sent me to this article, after which I held my breath and did as she asked; I looked at the comments. Sure enough, all the usual outpouring of vitriol was there. I snipped a few of the best ones for your viewing pleasure (below)

What, you’re asking, do Bronco season ticket prices have to do with gifted blog-post comment venom? Simple. As a country, we’ll pay insane ticket prices to see #18 wing a ball around the field, but we’ll take time out of our day to log on and trash a woman who dared to suggest that raising a gifted child is often a challenging process. We love gifted in this country, as long as it’s an entertaining kind of gifted. Anything else merits little more than thinly-disguised scorn and outright disbelief. The same people that blasted poor Chandra Moseley to smithereens in the comments section will probably sit down to watch a preseason game this weekend, or perhaps take in some So You Think You Can Dance on DVR, or head down to Comedy Works here in Denver for a show. And not one of them will have anything nearly as vitriolic to say about the  talents on display in those settings.

And right there, in that one word, is the rub, isn’t it? Talented we like; gifted we don’t. Consider the sheer number of reality-based talent shows that bombard the airwaves, from American Idol to The X Factor to America’s Got Talent to The Voice to the abovementioned SYTYCD. Hell, we LOVE talent. But gifted, from the perspective of these people, somehow sends a flat statement of my kid can do something your kid can’t. And that just sends their hackles into full bristle mode, despite the fact that I’m sure ten-year-old Peyton Manning could throw a football into a trash can from twenty yards away while their own kid probably couldn’t do the same from three yards away. You’re not going to see the Internet’s army of trolls camping out on ESPN to debate whether or not Peyton Manning is an accomplished quarterback, or whether Peyton Manning can do things we can’t. They might camp out to troll a team, or cast aspersions as to whether Peyton Manning is washed up or prone to injury or overexposed in the media, but they don’t troll his actual talent, or argue whether it exists, or whether or not all everyone can do what Peyton can do – a la the ‘all children are gifted’ comment listed above. No, they all save their vitriol for the intellectually gifted, because they don’t show up on TV much, and they don’t contribute much in the way of mass-market entertainment, and no one is walking around in a Neil DeGrasse Tyson jersey1. And in our society, in the United States, in the twenty-first century, that’s the last bastion of safe sniping; the smart kids always have been, and (unless we do something about it) always will be targets of this sort of selective aggression.

Worse, I think, is what this has done to us as the parents of gifted children. We live in a country that will barely tolerate blog posts in which we occasionally bemoan the difficulties of raising these exceptional kids. Imagine if we did a post on the joy of raising them! And so we have responded, in Pavlovian fashion, to this: we have slowly, slowly, become a nation of victim parents, because being a victim parent minimizes the amount of flaming oil hurled our way from the trebuchets of the neurotypical. In the absence of the freedom to discuss the positives of raising gifted children, for fear of having to chicken-wire our blog platforms, we’ve chosen to play up the bitterly exhausting effort of parenting them.

Well, I for one am weary of it. Kath and I began this blog, in part, so that there would be ‘breadcrumbs’ for our children someday; that they could look back and see what our mindset was, what our decision-making process looked like, and why we did what we did. The last thing I would want to see is any sense of apologizing to the public for who they were, or turning the experience of raising them into a woe-is-me exercise in trembly navel-gazing. I’ve never apologized for who they were or what they could do, and I don’t have any intention of starting to do so now.  My kid can do things your kid can’t do, and that does come with a package of bizarre wiring that will occasionally take them into some dark territory, but the things they can do are as awesome and inspirational and differentiated as the feats of any singing, dancing, trashcan-throwing football prodigy you can offer up in response. I don’t really care that you think my child is ‘retarded,’ or ‘bratty,’ or ‘overly sensitive,’ and I’m not interested in attempting to sell the gifted parenting experience as a soul-crushing exercise in weariness and despair. Does it have those moments? Sure, but every parent has those moments, and in churning out whinefest after whinefest, what we tell our own children is this: the difference between raising a neurotypical child and raising a gifted child is entirely negative. And that’s not true. 

And so, to the ‘every child is gifted’ crowd, what I would say it this: you’re probably right, in the sense that many children have particular talents…but the word ‘gifted’ is kind of…reserved. It means a very specific thing, and while the package of wiring it describes is often wonky and strange from the outsider’s perspective, gifted children are capable of amazing, awe-inspiring thoughts and actions, just like other talented children are – children we celebrate (even as they grow into talented adults.) Gifted is different, and gifted is apart from, other talents and abilities – so please keep this particular ‘all children are gifted’ opinion to yourself, or consider revising your perspective on it. We need this definition, this delineation, so that we can communicate clearly among ourselves. And so, CNN comments nation, I feel compelled to directly contradict you: not every child is gifted. For, in smearing the meaning of that word, this would imply that all children somehow share all of the same particular abilities. And if every child is gifted in similar ways, doesn’t that mean every adult is gifted in similar ways? And if we all share these same gifts and talents, can’t I go around saying ludicrous things like, ‘well, EVERY adult is a starting NFL quarterback?’

Oh, by the way, your kid can probably do things my kid can’t do either. But you don’t see me camped out on CNN, sniping at parents whose kids took home the state gymnastics medal or won a 4-H prize. I’m not shouting BULLSHIT and SPOILED BRAT at proud parents of Pee-Wee football champs and tae kwon do tournament winners. I won’t hurl epithets like WHINER at parents of other special-needs kids, because I have a sense of what you’re dealing with. I solemnly pledge to leave your kids’ accomplishments and challenges alone, because I’m confident those accomplishments came at the cost of a very real challenge, in the form of effort and inconvenience on your part. Maybe you were up at dawn all winter to drive to hockey games in distant towns, or to help slop the prize 4-H pig when the GI bug of the week had your kid in bed shivering. Maybe you’re taking your child to physical therapy twice a week. In turn, I’d like to ask for the same respect. We’re each hiking our own trail, and I’m not going to question how difficult yours is, or whether I might have a harder or easier path; I’ve got my own hike to worry about. I’d like you to do the same.

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1 But I want one.

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

This post was originally posted on the blog, An Intense Life, as “Back to School?” on August 20th, 2012. Dave and Kathy are guest bloggers on the site.

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For the past few years, our preparations for the school year begin by having a discussion with our kids about whether they want to go to school at all. Our default is to discuss full-time homeschooling, since we could get learning done in less time, and not be constrained by the school calendar. We both have flexible jobs where we could make it work. But the kids have their own ideas.

Our kids all still really, really want to attend school – for at least part of the day. Of course,  our kids really, really want to have ice cream for breakfast, but we don’t let them. So I suppose I’d have to clarify that they really, really want to go to school, and we have researched this option and think that it’s a good idea.

To be fair, we have a good situation as these things go. The public elementary school they attend has a full-time gifted program, and all of them are accelerated an additional year within the program. The district and the school have been very flexible with allowing E (profoundly gifted) and H (highly gifted/2e) to both homeschool part-time. The teachers, kids and parents in the program are great, too.

But, we’ve learned from our mistakes and discoveries. E’s learning speed is so fast that we have to reevaluate every 3 months where she is at. (Dave describes it as running full-speed from a train and throwing furniture back to try – unsuccessfully – and slow it down.) Last year, she homeschooled in the morning instead of attending for literacy and math, and she and Dave covered an incredible number of topics and projects, all fueled by her desire to learn. I taught her some basic science, too. When we sat down to document what she had covered over the nine month period, we discovered that she had completed most of a freshman year of high school – at age 9. We were stunned.

As I said, it would actually be easier for us to homeschool full-time, but we would like our kids to attend school for as long as they want. I don’t want to pull them out unless it’s something they really, really want. Which so far they don’t. So, we live between two worlds for now, and it’s doable. (Our only rule: no whining about school.)

So, we’ve decided – based on the above- that it’s a good idea to send them to school at all. The next question we discuss is: what do we all want to get out of the time spent at school?

The school has its own goals: to have our children perform well in class and on their standardized exams. To socialize them, and to teach them gym, music, art, science and social studies. To have them eat lunch and get exercise. It’s also to keep the kids stimulated and occupied for the better part of the day until their parents can come and pick them up.

What are our goals and our children’s goals for school? They are usually not the same. There is some overlap, certainly. Our kids want to see their friends, play at recess, read, learn some interesting math, do some cool art, and bond with their teachers. Dave and I want our kids to discover passions, learn from teachers and classmates, and be as social as they’d prefer to be. We try to communicate that our expectation is for them to be respectful at school, but also allow that we, as a family, have different priorities. Off the yellow brick road, so to speak.

In addition, we continue to work with all of them on nurturing and managing their multiple intensities. E is managing how to relate to other highly gifted kids who may not share her exact level of intellectual intensity about a subject. At the same time, teaching H not to take on emotional water during the day at school is a huge challenge. She’s like a gigantic sponge taking it all in as the day goes on, and it makes it challenging for her to get anything done at school. A, meanwhile, is learning to balance his need to be social, active and imaginative while at school with his desire to learn subjects they don’t teach much – like science and robotics.

The outcome of the discussion is how we get ready for the school year. E is starting some high school classes in earnest this year, and she wants this to be her priority. So we’ll probably skip some elementary school days when she’s focused and wanting to complete a project. H is trying a creative writing class for gifted kids more at her level, and a math class specifically for kids with a math LD. She’d like to feel more comfortable with her talents. A is excited to have one of the girls’ favorite teachers this coming year, who thankfully also likes to teach lots of math. He also knows he’s going to have to work hard to keep his intensities under control at school.

So far, our kids have responded in a positive way to the discussions. It helps that we are supporting them in something they would like to continue, as opposed to forcing them into a decision. We plan to keep wandering along in the grass, keeping the yellow brick road in sight for now, but not taking it.

Oh, and we still have to get school supplies, clothes, shoes and haircuts. Because, highly gifted or not, they’re still kids.

Gen Two

Back to school brings with it a particularly content-looking smile in the hallways of our local school, particularly among parents of kids newly admitted to the GT program. It’s a dreamy  facial expression that we’ve seen dozens of times before – a surge of inner confidence and joy, the child in question having suddenly shaken forth an apparent pinata-like trove of new delights: our child is smart! Brilliant, even! Cash the 529 out and call the realtor! We’re on our way to full-ride scholarship land! And once our kid invents the next iPad, we’ll be set for life!

What I want to do is pull these parents aside and gently, gently, tell them something important; it’s not all good news. In fact, their lives probably just got a lot harder – and so did their kid’s. But I don’t; we should all have that one day.  And then, we need to set these ideas firmly aside – and move from what Kath and I call ‘the Gen-1 perspective’ to ‘the Gen-2 perspective.’ For Gen-1 parents, the notification letter they received looked a lot like a finish line. Gen-2 parents know it for what it is: a starting line, and one for a very long race.

Gen-1 Gifted parents may or may not be gifted themselves; many times they are, but were never identified as such in childhood and, as a result, may or may not consider themselves gifted. Or they may have not had much of a gifted education experience – perhaps some enrichment here and there, but little more. Perhaps they got ‘missed’ when bright children were identified in their classes; this happens very commonly, even more so for 2e kids. Gen-1 parents of gifted kids start at very different places along the philosophical continuum, but the Gen-1 perspective usually contains some, if not all, of the following points:

They largely consider a gifted education program in a public school to be a comprehensive panacea for their child’s proper education. They’re genuinely glad for their child that s/he will grow up in an environment tailored specifically for his/her needs. They’re profoundly relieved to know that their child is, in fact, gifted; life is easier for smart people, after all, and their child is likely to find good employment easier to come by, and will probably have a happier life than an ordinary kid. They’re also looking forward to seeing the amazing ‘outputs’ that their gifted child will produce – songs, screenplays, mathematical formulae, fantastic inventions, amazing works of fiction, and more. 

Not one sentence in that previous paragraph is guaranteed to be true, and many are flat-out false – but that’s unlikely to bother blissfully optimistic Gen-1 Gifted parents. It will, however, someday greatly bother the children, and will probably color the way they – as Gen-2 gifted parents themselves- go about things. It is also a sure-fire recipe for creating resentment and exhaustion in Gen-1 parents as things unfold very differently than they expected. That’s why it’s critical to jettison these societally-encouraged viewpoints as quickly as possible. You’re wasting your time, and your child’s, every minute you hold onto them.

Let’s take the Gen-1 Gifted core belief set apart one component at a time.

  • They largely consider a gifted education program in a public school to be a comprehensive panacea for their child’s proper education.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but classroom-based gifted education is – at best – a foundation for the education of a gifted child. Not everything a gifted child needs to grow and thrive intellectually is going to be present in a classroom environment, and intellectual intensity is just one of the five intensities; what’s to be done about the other four, if present in your kid? What’s to be done if your child is asynchronous in one or more subject areas? Subject-based and whole-grade acceleration are good tools for keeping your child involved in the local school, but if their passions take them into astronomy, or Mandarin Chinese, or theater, you’re likely going to have to look elsewhere.
  • …s/he will grow up in an environment tailored specifically for his/her needs… Again, sorry, but no. I have tremendous respect for the educators who work in our local GT Center Program school, but there’s nothing you can possibly build for 25 that will fit any one of those 25 exactly. Classroom GT education is targeted at a point somewhere among the children in the room, but like most averages, it’s not itself part of the dataset, any more than that amalgam is actually one of the kids in the class. Educators can perform miraculous feats in terms of moving that point around within the classroom during the course of the year, reading one year’s kids as more creative, another year’s as slightly in need of more focus on math, another year’s grateful for an extra round of repetition. But the odds that your kid is the amalgam are slightly less than one in 25, given that curricula are built year over year based on experience, not foresight. So while a GT classroom is likely to be closer to your kid’s needs than a traditional classroom might be, it is not designed for your kid.
  • Life is easier for smart people, after all, and their child is likely to find good employment easier to come by… Well, he or she might; we’d like to think so, anyway. But will s/he end up fulfilled with the work? Gifted adults often end up underemployed and many find it difficult to navigate the traditional path of corporate worklife. Even if your child does find good work in a fulfilling field, is s/he really going to be able to hold down a traditional job? Because…remember…there is substantial work to be done outside the school setting to fully engage your child’s gifted children. And on and on the cycle goes!
  • …and will probably have a happier life than an ordinary kid. This one is, perhaps, the most important issue from which to clear the fog. Gifted kids grow into gifted adolescents, a group at substantially higher risk of depression and suicidal action than neurotypical children. Those gifted adolescents who mercifully survive the turbulent teen years can look forward to a lifetime of ongoing risk of depression – and the truly lucky ones will be identified as such and receive care. The more sigmas separate your child from the norm, the greater those risks become.
  • They’re also looking forward to seeing the amazing ‘outputs’ that their gifted child will produce – songs, screenplays, mathematical formulae, fantastic inventions, amazing works of fiction, and more. Gifted children aren’t necessarily laser printers, or chess-playing automatons, or manufacturing robots. Some gifted children do enjoy creating things, but some are equally comfortable contemplating concepts and turning over ideas in their minds without ever putting pen to paper. Others are creatures of pure imagination, and the mundane boundaries and bonds of our world will never allow them to fully realize their visions. Still others see relationships between and among systems – grasping the ‘big picture’ in all of its vast richness, but seeing no need to attempt to document the infinite.

What’s to be done, then? Am I really attempting to vacuum out all the pride and hope you have for your newly-anointed gifted child? Far from it. Ahead of you lie unimaginably rich experiences – just not the ones you’re thinking of today as you dreamily help your child put school supplies away and fill out paperwork. Some of those experiences will exhaust you mentally; others will exhaust you physically and emotionally.  But all will leave you the better for having gone through them.

What I am trying to do is temper both the procedural and outcome-based expectations for raising a gifted child. Gifted kids aren’t easier to raise; they’re harder. They’re not guaranteed to become particle physicists and bestselling authors and brilliant surgeons. They might – don’t get me wrong – but they might not. Case in point: last year, Kath and I had a bathroom retiled by a contractor referred to us by a friend. He showed up on time, worked promptly and skilfully (and was overjoyed when I told him I had no problem if he blasted Five Finger Death Punch while he worked). On his lunch break, he asked if it would be all right if he ate at the kitchen table, and I of course confirmed that it would – at which point he pulled out a copy of Infinite Jest bookmarked at around the two-thirds mark,  and set about an hour’s read, his sandwich receiving only the sparsest of attention. “Great book,” I commented. “I miss him already. Wish we could have one more from him.” My contractor nodded vigorously, returned the bookmark to the book, and spent the next fifteen minutes holding forth on his fervent wish that Wallace had tried something as toothsome as Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. “Doing this on the way to a master’s in lit?” I asked, immediately wishing – by the look on his face – that I hadn’t. “No,” he said with a shrug. “This is good work, and it leaves me plenty of time to think about my own books while I do it.” Did I have a Gen-1 moment there? I did. I’m sure his book, when finished, will contribute vastly more to society’s artistic enrichment than another night-school MFA would – and I was ashamed of my short-sighted shallowness in the question I asked.

The road to Gen-2 is hard, and it feels strange sometimes. You can look forward to many nights spent staring at the ceiling, because as Kath says, you’re departing from the Yellow-Brick Road – but in the end, we both believe it embraces the realities of gifted childhood more fully. Here’s a starter set of Gen-2 philosophical planks to get you going, if you’ve been thinking a change of perspective might help.

  • School is a backplane, not a comprehensive solution. I first heard this piece of advice years before I had children at all, and didn’t believe it; I didn’t want to believe it when our kids were, one by one (well, two by two and then one by one) accepted into the center program here. Couldn’t it be one complete solution? But the more data we got, and the more we understood about E (profoundly gifted and only barely within the parameters of the program at all) and H (2e, and simultaneously ahead of and behind her grade), the more completely I embraced the ‘backplane’ concept. It’s the basis of our annual ‘what are we getting out of this?’ discussion.
  • Gifted is wiring, not choice; gifted is existence, not output. Gifted is what our children are – not what they do. They didn’t ask to be gifted, and there are days I’m sure they’d rather not be. They have days where the paper dragon masks and parental invitations to tonight’s skit and Kindle purchase requests pile up thick and fast. They also have days during which they seem content to watch raindrops trickle down the panes of their room windows.  I don’t expect more ‘output’ from them on a day-to-day basis simply because they are gifted. They will show their gifts to the world in the way they choose, at the time they choose.
  • Your challenges will echo down the generations. You had a crazy-smart kid. Guess who s/he is likely to get along with best – and choose for a spouse themselves? That’s right – another crazy-smart person. They’re likely to have crazy-smart kids of their own, and around and around the loop will go, generation after generation. Show them how to do it in your life, and they’ll thank you later. Acknowledge that these are kids that need more room in your life – not less – because of  who they are.
  • Gifted is a package of positives and negatives. For better or worse – and usually a mix of both – your gifted kid has been handed a strange life, one destined to be full of understanding and alienation, imagination and isolation, triumph and tragedy and sensitivity and joy, all intertwined together. It’s not a passport to lifelong happiness and wealth, and it’s not a life sentence in intellectual solitary confinement, either; it’s a strange mix of pros and cons, a unique life experience different for every gifted child.

But the most important single message I can get across in moving to a Gen-2 perspective is this: misguided expectations create resentment. If we expect the experience of raising a gifted child to be easy, and handled effortlessly in a traditional classroom setting, and full of amazing ‘output,’ then we run the risk of becoming angry as our actual parenting lives unfold much differently than we’d thought. Knowing what is involved in parenting a gifted child – and being aware that the rewards of doing so may not take the form we think – is key to raising happy, emotionally healthy children.

Spraypainting the Time Machine

“Was your school like this, Dad?”

It was a simple question, offhandedly delivered during one of the many commutes E and I take to the school, and I think I delivered some equally light and frothy response (in part because I didn’t want to begin anything deep while I was pulling into the dropoff lane). But the truth is that my own gifted experience growing up was very different from E’s – and not for the better.  Gifted programs when I was a kid – circa 1978-1988 – were uncoordinated, often-confused efforts, the first halting steps toward the programs of today. I don’t fault the educators at the time for trying – but when program staff weren’t busy treating us like cattle, or disembodied brains in jars, they treated us like Marvel Comics mutants, as if my fingertips were going to burst into flame, or I was going to walk through a wall at any moment.

I’ll give you two examples.

When I was in grade school, gifted education was a half-day pull-out; I left the friendly confines of C.B. Smith Elementary and went with my mom to Sunset Hills, where the gifted program was held. There, we got bombarded with a strange melange of traditional work assignments, some grade-accelerated material, and the occasional creative writing or skitmaking opportunity. It was a dog’s breakfast designed to occupy hands more than stimulate minds, and while I don’t recall much of what we did there, one exercise stood out as a paragon of missed opportunity. We all read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and when we received our assignment for the next week, my heart sank; these people didn’t get us. 

Now, there’s a zillion creative things to be done with Wells’ book. We could have described an imaginary time travel expedition to a different time, and discuss what we’d do there. We could have talked about the precautions we’d have to take in order to keep the timeline intact. We could have discussed the paradoxes involved in time travel and whether or not the past – or even the future – could be changed. We could have discussed free will, and whether or not it was possible to exist in two different places at the same time.

Our assignment was not one of those things. Our assignment was – I kid you not – to build our own time machine and explain how it worked.

This was a bullshit assignment1. First off, we’re not actually going to build a working time machine. We all know that; it was the elephant in the room. So, instantly, we’ve received an insult and a go-fetch assignment in a single package. Ha! There’s no way these kids can actually do this, because they’re just simply not that smart. But it will force them to cadge together some crap from the playroom and spin some fanciful yarn about its operation!  Second, with respect to describing the machine’s actual operation, it’s important to keep in mind that time travel is an unknown to us. As a species. We haven’t done it yet. Stephen Hawking hasn’t pulled it off, and neither has Freeman Dyson, or the other Dyson (the one with the vacuum cleaners), or the guy down the street who’s always puttering in his garage, or your Uncle Ed, or me, as an eight-year old in Central Illinois. As a result, this subject is just as unknowable to the brightest minds on the planet as it was to me, sitting on the rainbow carpet of Sunset Hills Elementary and instantly identifying an egregious and patronizing waste of time for what it was, maybe for the first time in my life. A quick look around the room provided me with confirmation that everyone else had the same “what the fuck?” reaction to this assignment. It would be like sitting in health class through the entire discussion of the circulatory and nervous systems, and having the assignment be, “go home and create life in your basement.” It was an utter non sequitur.

But there I was, fulfilling the letter of the law by cobbling together parts from every fighter plane model kit I had lying around the basement into a sort of flying monstrosity of multiple wings, cockpits, and appendages. I then spray-painted the whole thing deep metallic red, and went off to the Encyclopedia Britannica to hash up some nonsense about this thing’s operation. In the end, I mumbled something about particle acceleration using strontium-90 with a hardened F-16 fuselage as the basis for a human conveyance. Or something. Did it matter? Everyone else had some variant of this nonsense: magic horse (looking suspiciously like a My Little Pony), time pod (a plastic TIE Fighter with the wings pulled off), or, for the Mattel/Kenner-deprived, “temporal displacement chamber” – a shoebox with a forward observation port made of Saran Wrap. None of us really had any idea how to even mangle real science into sounding plausible – and, as a result, our stories fell apart quickly. The exercise asked us to know things we couldn’t know, no matter how gifted we were. In the end, we sat in a room looking at plastic bits of junk and listening to whatever madness our peers were able to come up with. As a project, it was a busywork dead-end of a time sinkhole; it wasn’t a basis for discussion, any more than a room full of creationists can hold an intelligent discussion on the fossil record. It was simply a wasted opportunity.

Flash forward to my high school gifted program experience, which I was a part of for oh, roughly sixty days before bagging the entire thing as another misguided and hopelessly confused effort. The entire TAG (“Talented and Gifted,” as if bright kids and kids who could spin a basketball on their pinky toe somehow belonged in the same homogeneous glob2) program was going – as a group – to the Pingree Park campus for some sort of uber-geeky cabin campout experience for a weekend, and I was gently shoved out the door by my parents to participate. Only on the bus, en route to this event, was it disclosed to us that we’d all be participating in a talent show when we arrived.

What?

This announcement immediately cleaved the bus in two: the gifted kids, who maybe could do long division quickly in their heads or conjugate Latin verbs at a precocious age, clung together in the icy grip of fear while the talented kids – who could, I don’t know,  play jazz flute or juggle flaming coconuts – beamed with glee. It was the clearest example yet of the error of gluing these two assemblages together, and sure enough, upon arrival, every gifted kid flamed out spectacularly while the talented kids had a banner moment in the sun doing…well, whatever it was they could do. As for me, I made up a fairly spontaneous comedy routine about how G.I. Joe was shrinking with each passing year while Barbie remained the same size. It didn’t exactly kill.

What it did do was reinforce to me the extent to which the world as a whole expected gifted kids to be able to do something amazing, as if every one of us was our own personal Rain Man, counting matches at light speed while we contemplated the timing of our favorite pseudo-legal television shows and planned underwear shopping trips. (I still get this as a member of MENSA. If I divulge this, there’s almost an expectation that I will then burst forth with something unbelievable – I’ll pluck out L’inverno from The Four Seasons on my uvula, or bend office furniture with my mind, or recite the entire periodic table in under twenty-six seconds.)

Gifted education has come a long way in the past twenty years. We have more choices with respect to perspective (“gifted is wiring”) and philosophy. The training and preparation my kids’ teachers have in handling intensity, in sparking potential into action, in helping kids navigate a world not their own, is nothing short of remarkable. The very foundation of gifted education has changed for the better, and I hope that it will continue to grow and evolve. I hope, too, that by the time my kids have kids of their own, that we’re even further down the road, and that they marvel at the advances made in gifted education during their lifetimes. Sometimes I’m more hopeful; other times I see us moving in the wrong direction. But in the darkest of moments, I think back to my frantic Krylon-spraying of a model F-16, or the slow, churning cement-mixer of fear that grew in my gut on a school bus jouncing its way toward Pingree Park, and I’m optimistic.

Things are already better, and I think most of us want to keep working for improvement.

__________________________________________________________________________

1 And I remember my very visceral reaction to it to this day. Obviously.

2 This still persists in the form of the omnipresent references to ‘GT’ here in Colorado. Yet I notice with interest that we really don’t do much in the way of talent testing; admission to the program is by and large based on standardized IQ testing.

Roy G. Biv’s Breakfast Smörgåsbord

Around and around the styrofoam Comfort Suites bowl the spoon went, discarding an accumulated Froot Loop here and there as it went in search of the specific one needed. From time to time, there would be a sigh from next to me, and the spoon would be unceremoniously dumped, its contents deemed untenable, and a fresh effort would begin.

This process repeated itself for the better part of ten minutes. I was trying – with glazed eyes from moving one timezone east and then getting up at our NEW six AM – to read USA Today, without much success.

“What are you doing?”

H jumped a little; she does this from time to time when I interrupt an internal reverie, and I sort of regret it every time. Then she grinnned.

“I’m trying to get a complete rainbow in every spoonful,” she said. “Roy G. Biv. See?” She pointed out the current contents of her spoon, which did indeed salute Mr. Biv in his spectal entirety.

Meanwhile, to my other side, E had undertaken making a breakfast sandwich out of scrambled eggs and breakfast potatoes. I’d advised her – before I dove into the Olympic medal standings page – to ‘use a little cream cheese to adhere your eggs and potatoes to.’ I’d meant this more as a sort of sticky layer to be applied to the English muffin, followed by a heap of each substance, but she’d taken it literally, and was now carefully gluing each individual square of potato onto her muffin with Sistine Chapel care.

A wasn’t saying anything, because his mouth was full of Danish, a word he could not fathom being both the singular and plural of a food, and which breakfast item he had been fixated on since we’d left Omaha four days prior.

“Are we staying in Omaha on the way back?” he asked during a long, long stretch of I-80, populated mostly with Hell’s Angels en route to Sturgis and broken-down agricultural equipment.

“Yes,” I replied.

“At the same hotel?”

“Yes.”

“Good. That’s the only one that has had Danish for breakfast so far.”

Does it ever stop? Does it ever take a break? Not really. Intensity lives inside every nook and cranny of their existence; they awaken, and there’s an infinitesimally short period – just a moment or so – during which they’re just yawning, sleepy kids who need to pee, and then the Big Machines turn on – and stay on for the day. And that moment is very short; I opened the bathroom door accidentally on E one morning and found her seated on the toilet, reading the back of a shampoo bottle.

“I forgot my Kindle,” she said matter-of-factly, as if that explained everything; who can go to the bathroom and just stare into the porcelain nothingness of a Comfort Suites tile floor? Of course I need something to read, her expression said. Twenty minutes later, she was gluing potatoes onto a cream cheese-slathered English muffin, and then she was lost for the day, in one Agatha Christie novel after another, while H played the Game of Life on the iPad over and over until she triumphantly ended with our exact family configuration – down to our chosen professions – and A took crack after crack at Coconut Mall on Wii Mario Kart racing, determined to beat his previous time. If there was a way to turn gifted-child intensity into usable energy, I probably would never have needed to stop for gas anywhere between Denver and Chicago.

Roy –  our invisible sixth passenger – thankfully remained quiet until the next morning at breakfast.

The Joneses’ Coke Zero-Stuffed Abyss

I call it the Death Star Trench.

I drive it around once a week, visiting a good friend who lives in one of Colorado suburbia’s typical planned-community enclaves, and every single time, it confounds and confuses me. The Death Star Trench, you see, is a normal suburban residential street lined with nicely-landscaped homes, most of which have three-car garages – and every single car is parked in a driveway or on the street. Filling both sides of this street with cars – nice cars, at that – makes for something of a rural-road tractor dynamic; two cars can’t really occupy the choked-down center of the street, so there’s a system of nods and waves that has grown up around driving through the subdivision.

Every single time I make this particular run, the anthropologist in me picks up a mental sliver – an itchy little wedge of substance that refuses to be quieted or dismissed. And it’s a very simple question: what the fuck is in your garages?

I grew up in Venusian Central Illinois, where summer temperatures climbed to hellish, humid heights and winter temperatures plunged us into Stygian nights of frost-rimed gloom. Leave your car outside during the summer, and you’d cultivate third-degree burns on the backs of your thighs upon seating yourself within; leave your car outside during the winter, and odds are good it wouldn’t be starting for you in the morning. The random detritus every household accumulated got stored in the attic, or the unfinished section of the basement, or it got tossed – but it did not get stored in the garage, the sanctum sanctorum of motorized vehicles.

That’s what makes this particular sliver so intriguing. It’s clear that whatever occupies the garages of the Death Star Trench is immensely valuable – so valuable, in fact, that it has forced late-model automobiles and SUVs out onto the street. As I lay awake during one recent Colorado hailstorm (they’re pretty common here), my thoughts drifted to the DST. Were all those Infinitis and BMWs and Cadillacs really being pounded into cellulitic cottage cheese? Surely not. But my next trip up, there they were; claims adjusters by the dozens, nodding and smiling in pressed khakis and agency buttondowns as they took pictures of ruined cars and assured homeowners that help was on the way.

Just park your car in the goddamn garage, I thought. But apparently, this mystery bothered only me, as I found no urban-anthropology studies on the subject. This was, apparently, simply the lifestyle of the Jones, a measured ennui of affluence that I was supposed to be chasing – one in which my fabulous trove of Faberge eggs deserved a warm, enclosed home, while my luxury sedan shivered out in the cold. The Joneses, it seemed, were doing fine; so fine, in fact, that administrivia like the fate of a BMW in the elements were, at best, tertiary concerns.

Then I ran across this.

The Joneses, it seems, aren’t doing fine after all. They’re overworked, overwhelmed, and oversupplied; months of accumulative Costco runs have created the illusion of wealth, with flats of Sprite and tubs of Tide and crates of Cracklin’ Oat Bran piled to the garage rafters. The Joneses have it all – without the time to enjoy any of it. The money, it seems, should go somewhere tangible, somewhere visible, to feed back the value of too many hours spent at work; what better means to do so than to fill the garage with restaurant-sized sacks of coffee and boxes of Splenda? Yet there’s no time in this equation; the Joneses own a back yard they don’t visit, according to the study, and bring in cleaning teams weekly to dust and polish a dining table never occupied for a full family meal. The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ of household features unused for a lack of human presence, and I felt sad reading Life in the Twenty-First Century; this is the ultimate outcome of a society driven to consumerist madness over the course of four decades, beginning with the advent of modern advertising.

It’s also everything the Center for a New American Dream opposes. CNAD would have us eat what’s left in the garage, then park the damned car inside. Come home from work at a sane time, cook a meal with fresh ingredients, and sit down to enjoy it together. Go for a bike ride after dinner – or enjoy the deck you built. Boss not thrilled with seeing you exit the building at 5? Find a new job with some work-life balance – and earn less. Then spend less. Costco will still be there when you need cereal and Tide and Coke Zero; it’s not necessary to build a private Costco in one’s own garage. Stockpile time instead of laundry detergent; fill your home with memories, instead of stuff. In the end, those memories will be all you have, the Cheerios long since eaten, the very clothes the Tide cleaned packed off to Goodwill as the kids grew up.

In our house, we have to be doubly cautious about accumulation; there are intensities living in here that get easily overwhelmed with too much stimulation and clutter. Which is not to say that we don’t have our share of things that need to be cleaned out. But intense kids are like pack rats: everything they come across has a deep meaning to them. So teaching them to let it go, or not acquire it in the first place, is a great life skill. This way, they’ll have the time they need to spend with their families, and probably be happier as a result.

I suppose the mystery is solved, and I don’t think I’ll wonder anymore what could possibly have squeezed so much costly automotive technology out onto the streets of the DST. It’s nothing nearly so imposing as I might have thought; it’s simply the lonely efforts of overclocked consumers driven to reassure themselves with great heaps of grocery stores. They’re modern-day Mayans, displaying their wealth in the form of resources. And like the Mayans, they are whistling past the graveyard – for surely the first act of any civilization facing impending shortages of resources is to convince themselves that the Coke Zero shall never, ever run out.