Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ethan's Battles

I know when it's about to begin because I hear the rummaging in one of our toy bins. Then, often, the cardboard block towers going up. There are grunts, groans, and various other guttural sounds. And the music, of course, that sounds a little bit like a movie sound track, during the fight scene.

Even Chloe knows. The other day as she came down the stairs and stopped to listen to what was happening in the playroom, she said matter-of-factly, "Ethan's doing a battle again."

Yes, Ethan and his battles, his epic fights between little superhero figurines or whatever he finds (this includes kitchen utensils like cheese graters or slotted spoons). They are the same almost every single time, and I absolutely love them.

When Ethan was little, he had an extremely difficult time with pretend play. This is no surprise, as it's often a challenge with people on the autism spectrum. But even compared to kids with autism, Ethan had very, very limited pretend play skills. We would try. I did, his therapists did, Anna did. We knew part of this was all about introducing ideas and possibilities. I've written about this before: the way we'd take out the farm and the animals, or build something very simple with Legos and put some people inside, or try to push around cars.

He just.didn' Not in that way. Ethan loved to run and jump and climb through tunnels; he loved music; he enjoyed books and puzzles; he was of course especially fond of anything with buttons or a screen. And over time I realized that while in many ways Ethan showed quite mild symptoms of autism, in these two respects: lack of play skills and an absolute inability to become interested in something that did not interest him, he was very much autistic.

We made our peace with that. We had to, because there is nothing worse than trying to make a child play and making a child miserable. It's just wrong. So while other boys his age built up huge arsenals of those Matchbox cars or trains or superhero guys with the little sets, Ethan did other things. He became interested in sports. He spent a lot of time listening to CDs and memorizing every song he'd sing at VBS (or Transiberian Orchestra!). He learned to read -- well. And of course he became very, very interested in video games.

About a year or two ago I heard some commotion in the other room. Specifically, I heard Ethan talking in other voices. The voices seemed to be threatening each other. When I peeked in I saw him on the floor with two little guys (from our meager selection of superheroes) in each hand. Then, they started killing each other.

Ethan's "battles" had begun. He was actually pretend playing, and none of us had said a word or given him a single suggestion.

Yes, Ethan's battles. They are always set to dramatic music that he sings in the background. They usually are repeating something he's seen in a video game or on TV -- but not always. They used to always involve the cardboard blocks somehow knocking over and killing someone -- but not anymore. It's taken a long time, but the plots are getting a little more elaborate. The battles sometimes take place outside, sometimes in the shower, and yes, they sometimes involve "unconventional" items like potato mashers.

Ethan has mixed emotions about his battle play. On the one hand, when he sees me watching him, he tells me he "needs his privacy" and to stop looking. But then sometimes he'll ask me to take a video of him and put it on Facebook.

I do not have mixed emotions about his battle play. I think it's awesome. I wasn't sure if I'd ever see him play like this. And while it's not exactly the way a typical kid would play, that's okay. I use to build the same Lego house over and over and then have it destroyed by a tornado (don't ask; guess I'm on the quirky side, too).

Kids on the spectrum are always learning. And I believe autistic adults are, too, because we all are. I'm done believing all of that stuff about our brains being more pliable only up to a certain age. You just never know. I'm still going to take piano lessons and I'm yeah, I'll say it, middle-aged. We are all always learning, and have the capacity to start doing something we never thought we'd do.

So battle on, Ethan. We're all excited to see what you discover next.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Remembering in the Storms

Last night seemed very, very long.

We've been plagued by a stretch of oppressively hot, humid weather that's been punctuated by thunderstorms. Last night we got the worst of them so far. At first Chloe and Ethan (who has a robust fear of lightning and particularly power outages that might affect his time on Wii) slept through it. But when a crash shook our house I heard both of them stirring and saw Ethan cowering in bed, shielding his eyes. We're not used to bad storms here. Dan and I have an ongoing joke that thunderstorms seem to purposely miss our part of town, so the kids haven't had much practice coping with them.

This storm was decidedly NOT passing us by. I can't remember the last time I saw so much lightning. For a little while I just sat in the dark and watched night momentarily become day, over and over and over. Then I tried to urge them to go back to sleep.

"Mommy, mommy, mommy!" I heard from the hallway, where Chloe was standing forlornly, clutching a book. Dan caved first.

"Would you like to come in our bed?" he asked. She haphazardly climbed up next to us and sprawled out.

A few minutes later Ethan was standing over us. He in particular had not liked the way thunder had crashed, then the power had gone out for a half-second before surging back on. For a while he just hung out at the foot of the bed, his head half-slumping. I could see how tired he was.

"Do you want to come up?" I asked. I knew he was especially enjoying the coolness of the room, as the kids only had a fan, not an air conditioner and most of the house felt like a sauna.

He climbed to the foot of the bed. Before I knew it, he had managed to stretch out width-wise across the foot of the bed, just below our feet. He was out cold.

Chloe kept twisting and turning and performing near acrobatics. Was this what this girl always did in order to fall asleep? She kept mumbling about last week, and the thunder we'd encountered on top of a mountain in Maine. "The thunder is going to the mountain," she said, as it started to die down.

Somehow as time went by Dan and I were pushed to the far edges of the bed while Chloe took over a large section in the middle. Then the cat decided to hop on the bed and yowl in my ear, then look around for a spot.

My eyelids were drooping. I just wanted to sleep. With all of the feet and arms and elbows in my face an old song I remembered singing in grade school by John Denver started running through my head, over and over:

It'd hold eight kids, four hound dogs
And a piggy we stole from the shed
We didn't get much sleep but we had a lot of fun
On Grandma's feather bed

Yes, John Denver running through my head at midnight...that and I kept plunging in and out of a dream that involved, for some reason, moving to Seattle.

It was a fitful night's sleep, and I wanted to be annoyed. I wanted to be annoyed because of the heat and humidity and the kids bickering all week and about rarely getting a good night's sleep. I wanted to, but I couldn't. I was thinking of Jacob.

Jacob, my friend's son, has been fighting a very aggressive type of brain cancer. His parents have been so strong. His fight seems to be becoming more and more difficult.

His mom has been very diligent about providing many updates about what Jacob is going through on Facebook, these past four months. And I'll always remember -- I can't forget -- something she wrote early on, when all of this had just started.

She talked about how she remembered just a little while before Jacob was diagnosed, they were having a real issue with him climbing into his parents' bed at night. Maybe it was more than one kid; I'm not sure. She said they'd really been cracking down on that, that she had been concerned about it becoming a bad habit.

She was writing and looking back to the time when THAT had been her biggest concern. And she said how much she was longing to have that time back, how much she was looking forward to a time of just snuggling with her kids in bed. She reminded us to hold onto our kids, to enjoy them, to spend time with them, to remember those times that sometimes feel draining are also so precious.

I was thinking of Jacob.

And so I scrunched myself up to avoid falling off the bed and looked at their peaceful little selves as they slept, remembering they are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I remembered that a night of thunderstorms really would be over in just a blink.

And eventually, I fell asleep.

Please, friends...pray for Jacob and his family.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Playdate Conundrum

I need to start this post by just saying how much I love the word conundrum. Say it slowly...isn't it beautiful??

Okay, now that I've gotten that off my we are, smack dab in the middle of summer, and Ethan's been driving me up a wall begging for a playdate with a friend from school.

This in itself is awesome. He has a friend (several, actually)! He misses him! For years Ethan seemed to only tolerate kids other than Anna or his cousins. Okay, so he wants the friend to come over so they can play Wii together, but still.

We'll call him "Bob," since that's the random boy name Anna assigns to male creatures. Ethan's known Bob since kindergarten. He's attended his birthday parties. He was on Ethan's baseball team a few times. I've chatted with his mom, in that polite, classroom-moms-chatting sort of way.

For the last weeks of school, Ethan kept asking for Bob to come over, and I kept forgetting about it. When I saw Bob's mom at a school event I knew I HAD to get her contact information so I could set something up over the summer. She sheepishly admitted she wasn't really a computer person and the best way to reach her was to call. She gave me a number. I made sure to enter it into my phone instead of scribbling it on a random wrapper and losing it in my purse, the way I usually do.

Then we went away for two different weeks and Ethan had VBS and swimming lessons and finally this week he remembered Bob and insisted he HAD to have a playdate this week, that it wasn't fair, that Anna had seen her friends several times this summer.

I knew he was right. I said I'd call the next day.

"Why not now?" he demanded.

"It's past nine o'clock. I don't like to call people much past eight."

The next morning, he bounded down the stairs at 6 a.m. and wanted to know if I'd called yet.

"You can't call people this early. It's not polite." I realized we had to have a little chat about appropriate phone usage. More than that, we really need to sit down with Ethan and practice having him dial and talk on the phone.

That afternoon I dialed Bob's mom and listened as it went straight to voice mail. I left a message. Three minutes later, Ethan was at my side. "Did she call back yet?"

"Give it time, Eeth."

About hourly after that, Ethan asked if I'd heard anything. In school, as part of the social skills curriculum, they learn about a character named Rock Brain who gets "stuck" on certain ideas and can't let them go. I could see we'd entered Rock Brain territory. I also had no idea what to do about it.

"Why can't you call her back?" Ethan asked that evening.

"Ethan, we have to give her more time. I can't leave a message and just call back a few hours later. They might have been away this weekend. Maybe she doesn't check her voice-mail that often."

Once again, I realized we had delved into a whole new territory with unspoken rules. This was a doozy: how persistent to be when trying to make plans with someone? Stories of over-eager, well-meaning people on the spectrum who couldn't take no for an answer and were ridiculed danced in my mind. Anna voiced my concerns, in her own way:

"Ethan, you can't have mom keep calling that woman. It'll be weird. She'll think she's a stalker."

I tried to explain a little about why we shouldn't pester people non-stop when we're trying to reach them. I'm not sure how much sunk in, but the next morning, at 6 a.m., Ethan demanded: "You have to call her again!"

"Let's give it until the end of the day," I begged off, checking my phone again for any missed messages.

Throughout the day Ethan bemoaned the unfairness of Anna getting to see friends while he couldn't. I offered up other ideas. There was another friend he hadn't seen for a while -- what if they got together? Rock Brain wasn't having it. This certain friend knew how to play both of his favorite games on Wii, and that's what he wanted to do. That was it.

The following morning I left another message that went straight to voice-mail. I wondered: was this even the right number? There was no identifying info in the message. Had I even written the number down correctly? Where was this woman??

Another day dragged by. More interrogation by Ethan. No return calls.

"WHY can't you find her so I can play with him?!" Ethan wailed at one point. "With Anna you set up playdates so quickly."

"Well then tell your friend's mom to get into the 21st century and go online to interact with people!" I shouted back, exasperated.

"There's only one thing left to do. We're going to have to go to his house," Ethan said earnestly. I could just imagine that...Googling these people, attempting to figure out their address in town, scoping out the house and meandering to the front door. Ummm, no.

"There are other friends you can play with..." I started again.

"No! I really want to see HIM!"

"You can't be this inflexible and then be upset when it's not working out!!" I tried to explain, tired. Summers have a way of doing that to mothers.

I said it before and I'll say it again -- I'm so grateful he even wants to play with another kiddo. And we've been blessed to have two boys his age who live in the houses right next door. They just happen to be away right now, I think. And Ethan just happens to want to have one certain type of play with one certain person right now.

We are about to head up to Maine (in the words of Ethan: "Awww. Now I don't get to play Wii!!"). The quest for "Bob" will be temporarily suspended. But I'm pretty sure I know what's going to happen when we return, especially if Anna starts getting together with friends...

"...But what about MY playdate?"

"But his mom's not responding to my messages. What about another friend?"

"No. I only want THIS friend."

"...then you can't have a playdate."

"Then it's not fair!"

That's the conundrum. Ahhh, how I love that word.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Rocking the Bathing Suit

It's summer, it's July, and that means as it has for the past who-know-how-many years, it's time for the kids to take swimming lessons.

Every year since both Anna and Ethan have taken lessons, it's been the same: they never seem to have classes at the same time, so for two weeks we spend two hours at the town pool nearly every day. For the last two years, we had Chloe with us, too, of course, and those first years it was fairly easy to distract her with the playground nearby so she really didn't notice big brother and sister were swimming.

I knew this year that would NOT be the case.

I knew I'd need to sign her up for a class, too (Parent-Tot, which goes through age 3).

That meant...sigh...I knew I'D need to go to swimming lessons, too.

Okay, so let's just cut to the chase here. I've never been one of those people to walk around in a bikini. I've never been stunningly slim. I've never really rocked a bathing suit, and for the most part, I haven't really cared. But...yeah. The last few years I've put on some weight. Having a baby in your late thirties will do that. Who am I kidding? I'm not going to blame Chloe. Loving food too much and exercise too little will do that.

I KNOW I need to lose weight. I have a number of wonderful, were-overweight-but-are-now-fit friends who I know would be happy to help me. I realize this, and I realize I have to do something about my love affair with food (darned Italian genes!) but that's a story for another day. The point is, I was going to have to suit up and bring Chloe to swimming lessons.

First I had to ditch my plain black, threadbare, I'll-wear-this-boring-thing-and-try-to-be-inconspicuous bathing suit and actually get some new suits. After wildly contorting myself to squeeze into a few in a tiny dressing room with Chloe, I was happy to find two I liked, and on sale at that! (Sometimes I look at the price of bathing suits and want to pass out. One hundred bucks!? For something I'll wear for a few months each summer?! Craziness!).

I tried to think about all of those articles that have been floating around online. Okay, I'll be honest. I haven't even read the articles. I've seen so many now half the time I skim the intro and get the general point. You know what I'm talking about? The one about overcoming your aversion to putting on a bathing suit and putting one on so you can spend precious moments with your kids? Or the one about not being afraid to be photographed? Or about reaching your forties and saying, "Who cares?!" about so many things you used to care about?

Yeah, I tried to think about all of that. But as the week for swimming lessons drew closer I also thought about the pool. I thought about the fact that the way things were set up, if you went in to change you had to walk RIGHT PAST the gate entrance where all of the kids and parents of all ages were standing waiting for their respective lessons. And the way the Parent-Tot class was right in the shallow edge of the pool where other parents set up their chairs and look at their phones or read or possibly judge how crappy you look in a bathing suit.

Did I mention I refuse to wear one of those skirty old-lady bathing suits? To me, the only way to rock one of those is to spend more money than I wanted to spend. There are some cute styles, but they're not usually the ones you'll find at Kohl's.

I could see myself lumbering across the pavement, while some mom with her hair pulled up in a sophisticated messy bun in her work-out clothes sat in her chair on the other side of the chain-link fence and wrinkled her nose at the sight in front of her.

Sometimes I wonder if our middle school selves ever really leave us?

So, the day of swimming lessons finally arrived. Only it was cancelled at the last-minute due to thunderstorms. SO, the real first day of swimming lessons finally arrived. We got to the pool and I stealthily scoped out the situation. There was no one there I knew, except a grandma who brought her grandson to the town play groups sometimes. Good. Chloe and I slinked into the bathroom. Actually, I slinked and Chloe screeched because she wanted to jump into the pool. Immediately.

As we got out of there and I desperately tried to convince Chloe that we had to wait another 10 minutes for her lesson as she cried and drew all sorts of unnecessary attention our way, I realized something. I was darned hot. The week had been hot. And the week before. Our mostly non-air conditioned house was steamy. I wanted to get in the pool, badly.

Then I saw the other moms (and a few dads) coming through the gate. And wouldn't you know? Of course they were human, meaning all shapes and sizes. Yeah, some looked as if they were the types who just "forget" to eat sometimes, but most were just regular people, with all manner of body types and imperfections. Duh. And they were tending to their babies and toddlers. They were pretty much too distracted to check out my bathing suit.

I don't know how many times I tell my kids this, when they're agonizing over looking silly or people judging them. Most of the time, people are thinking about their own "stuff." They're not paying attention to us nearly as much as we think they are.

And another thing, even if they are...I remember hearing someone talk once about being nervous about inviting people over her house because it was not fancy and was rather messy. Then she told herself, maybe I'm not doing this for me. Maybe I'm doing this for someone else who needs to see someone else's house isn't perfect, so that they can let their guard down, so they can know they're not alone and it's okay.

Maybe someone needed to look at my spider veins and say, she's not caring, I can do this, too!

Maybe they weren't looking at all because they were busy with their own life, child, and self.

Or maybe they were judging and that's just life.

I know I need to get more in shape...not to impress anyone but to be healthy, to take care of myself a bit better.

I know I have never really rocked a bathing suit and probably never will.

I know that little by little, I am caring less.

And I know that that cool water on a sweltering day felt darned good. So did playing in the water with my child. Maybe I'm not rocking the bathing suit, but I can do my best to rock my forties and, like those articles keep saying, finally toss off the albatross of caring what everyone thinks. It's refreshing really, to finally stop realizing the world doesn't revolve around me.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Chasing Pokemon

I don't know. When we tell the kids to "go outside, get moving and find something to do" my first thought isn't that they will go outside, phone in hand, looking for digital creatures on a screen.

Yes, my kids have jumped into the Pokémon Go phenomenon. Sort of. Anna doesn't have a real phone with a data plan, so it's more like a "borrow dad's phone for brief stints in the backyard" or "take a nice evening stroll as a family to look for Pokémon."


Don't get me wrong. I'd rather have them outside than lying upside down in a chair, pondering their next Minecraft move (as Ethan was doing for a dangerously long time the other day -- hello, head rush!). I'm just a little amazed at what constitutes as outdoor play these days.

I am going to try to not make this another one of those blog posts about how things were different, back in the day. We've heard it all before. But I've been thinking about play, freedom, and summertime a lot lately, especially as Anna has turned 12 and is simultaneously not wanting to "go outside and play" so much while asking for more freedom outdoors.

When I was a kid I remember riding my bike all around town and building forts in the woods. We played hide and seek and wandered from backyard to backyard, and it's only as I've become a parent that I've realized that meant there were big chunks of time when my parents had only the vaguest of ideas where I actually was.

And when I was Anna's age specifically I remember:
- Sitting in the car waiting for long periods of time while my mom was in the grocery store.
- Taking my brothers down the street to a field most people ignored and walking through a small patch of woods. Alone.
- Walking by myself a half-mile down a busy road with no sidewalk to buy a treat at 7-Eleven.
- (This one really gets me) When I was 13, I was dropped off at an amusement park for the first time with friends and we spent hours there by ourselves.

Yesterday Dan gave Anna his phone and told her to go chase Pokémon up on the hill/field behind our house. You can't see this area from our backyard. It's completely obstructed by trees. After a few minutes I started to get tense. What if there were some of those weirdos up who are luring kids with the game? What about the fact that I wasn't sure if I wanted her alone up there, anyway? How long was too long? I ended up going after her and of course she was annoyed, especially because she never found her Pokémon.

Later that evening a friend online was talking about how furious she was that her 12-year-old daughter's friend's mom dropped off the girls at the mall alone. Everyone agreed. "Maybe years ago, this was okay, but we live in a different world today," was the common theme.

I haven't left Anna at the mall with a friend, but I have let her and a friend wander the mall while I hung in the food court and they checked in with me.

It's really hard. We DO live in a different world. We live in a world where chasing electronic creatures is entertainment. When our kids have phones that expose them to way too much, yet aren't allowed to ride their bikes a few streets over.

Or DO we live in world not that much different than years of old, but thanks to technology and the media we hear of every horrifying story that happens thousands of miles away, and have become convinced that our kids just are not safe?

What about the fact that if we did decide to go "old school" with some of these parenting decisions, to let the kids go the "free range" route, we as parents could end up in trouble? I always wonder: if I leave the kids with Anna in charge in the car while I run into the post office, is someone going to report me?

Is Child Protective Services going to come knocking on my door if I let Anna and Ethan play alone on the playground behind our house? Which I wouldn't do. Because I can't even seem to let Anna go there alone.

How can we ever teach our kids responsibility and independence, in these times? Are the gripes about today's coddled millennials in part the result of such "helicopter parenting?"

There's a part in the movie Finding Nemo that's always stuck in my mind. Somewhere in the journey for his lost son Nemo's guilt-stricken dad laments to Dory,"I promised I'd never let anything happen to him." 

"Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise," she replies. "...You can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him."

That is the eternal question: How do we look out for our kids' safety, while simultaneously letting things happen to them, so that things happen to them?

Friday, July 1, 2016

On Politics and Plane Rides

"Mom," announced Ethan recently after returning from playing with a boy two yards over, "they have a Bernie Sanders sign in their yard!"

"Mmm-hmmm," I answered, "I know." Then I envisioned Ethan piping up next door to whomever would listen, "Do you like Bernie Sanders? Who are your parents voting for? In our house..."

Yes, as so often happens, new experiences and unchartered territories enlighten for us many of the unspoken rules people pick up after time -- rules that are especially hard for Ethan to grasp.

Rules like not asking people who they're voting for, not boisterously volunteering your own political leanings to people you've just met, and not announcing who you are voting for, either. Ugh, talking about politics is such a disaster, even for most adults.

I'm just going to come right out and say it: neither Dan nor I are particularly thrilled with any of the candidates that have come our way for president this year. But we're also political junkies. Or, at least in my case, I love to watch news coverage about politics. For me it's more of a journalism thing, but I do love the tradition, the history, the sparring during debates (when it's not about the size of people's, ahem, hands). And in our home, Dan and I of course have spoken freely our opinions on each candidate. We've been known to yell at the TV. We actually LIKE watching CNN's "Best Political Team on Television" and sometimes act like commentators ourselves. Our kids have gotten on board and will jump into the heated conversation sometimes...which is why Ethan must wonder why we can be so vocal about this stuff at home but then in public act so completely hush about all things political.

I took him with me voting once and didn't realize until we were almost at the door that I needed to tell him it was NOT okay to ask anyone who they were voting for or to announce how we'd voted. Before he could even ask why I said, unsatisfactorily, "Because it's private." What in the world does that even mean to an eight-year-old?

At school this year he told me someone in his class (and her mom) loved Hillary Clinton. I asked if he had contributed to the conversation at all and he said, "I just told them Jeb Bush wasn't going to win." Well, he certainly got that right.

I can only imagine how this fall is going to go, especially with the way our presidential campaign has gone thus far. As it was, when we were marching in a parade in town not long ago and everyone passed a house with Trump signs on the lawn kids left and right started yelling, "They have Trump signs! Aaaaaccckkk!" and making gagging sounds. I'm hoping we are sure to communicate to Ethan this isn't appropriate, either.

I guess, when I think about it, maybe we could explain to him that we are careful talking about politics because of the way it can make other people FEEL. We live in a free country and people are free to support whichever candidate they'd like. Gagging in disgust is implying (ugh, such a hard word in the autism world!) that they are not as smart as you are and should choose better. Demanding to know who they support is sort of a mental invasion of privacy, like barging into their mind rather than into them in the bathroom. As a general rule, we should try not to do things that make other people uncomfortable...which leads me to point number two:

Airplane rides.

Riding on an airplane has a whole other set of unspoken rules, doesn't it? Especially when it comes to safety. Especially these days. That's what I'd forgotten while prepping Ethan for our recent trip. I showed him videos about security, the check-in process, and how loud the plane was at take-off. I'd forgotten the whole thing about the fact that you aren't supposed to acknowledge out loud that the plane could actually (however miniscule the chance) crash.

You know how it is? The flight attendants do their spiel and no one pays attention, or they pretend not to pay attention. I do subtly pay attention because I am a tragedy guru who always wants to have a plan, thanks to the awesome book "The Unthinkable" about people who survive disasters and why. Plus, I have too many episodes of Air Disasters in my head. But I don't talk about it out loud, darn it! You can't do that. You have to cooly look for the emergency exits and count how many rows you'd have to pass in the smoking dark if there was some sort of not-immediately-fatal emergency. You have to smirk at notions like the seats being used as "flotation devices" rather than announce loudly, as Ethan did, "Why do they have emergency exits? If the plane crashes we're just all going to crash anyway, not get out."

Yes buddy, you're absolutely right.

He also asked what would happen if the plane was stuck and we couldn't get out of it, back through the tunnel. I told him all about the inflatable slide ("it would be really fun, you see?!") even though I didn't have a clue what I was actually talking about. There was a pilot hitching a ride back with us sitting right across the aisle who was probably rolling his eyes at all of this.

On the first flight, out of Boston, I'd warned him it could be bumpy at times, and that was normal. But I forgot to mention that sometimes the plane would just bank sharply to the left or right and that was okay, too.

"What's happening?!" he demanded, glancing anxiously out into the darkness.

"It's just turning," I said sweetly, a modicum of calm. He didn't need to know I was trying to avoid humming the sorrowful symphony that plays in one of my favorite movies, Fearless, when the plane they are on crashes into a cornfield. Fearless? The irony. That's the funny thing about planes. Everyone acts fearless. Except those with fewer pretensions.

That flight from Boston to Chicago was really, really smooth, I can say from my somewhat limited flying experience. But we still had some "drop offs" here and there. During the biggest one Ethan actually cried out, "No! We're going down!" Palm slap. You CANNOT say this on a plane. Thankfully he didn't say it too loudly. And again I reassured him with my Serene Parent routine. He began to look to me the way we look to flight attendants. If they're not nervous, I'm not nervous.

The thing is, I can just see how this conversation would have gone, if we'd tried to discuss it ahead of time...

Me: Now Ethan, when we're on the plane, we can't talk about things like the plane going down or crashing.
Ethan: What? The plane is going to CRASH?!
Me: No, no, it's not going to crash. But we can't talk about it.
Ethan: But what about that episode of Air Disasters and the plane that crashed into that bridge in Washington, D.C.? It COULD crash!
Me: I'm very, very sorry you saw part of that episode. You're not watching that show again. None of us are. Plane crashes are very, very, very rare. Like getting struck by lighting. So it's not going to happen, and it makes people uncomfortable to talk about it.
Ethan: Why?
Me: Because sometimes people are already a little nervous flying, and that doesn't help them.
Ethan: Why are they nervous? Because the plane could crash??! ...
...and so on and so forth.

Thankfully, Ethan did not incite a panic on the plane. And he hasn't gotten into any fights with anyone about politics. Yet. These are just more...potholes we've come across along the way lately. Sometimes you don't see one until you're just upon it, and you hit it with a bang. Other times, you swerve like that plane, dipping its wings daringly. With autism, with social interaction, with life, there are always opportunities for course correction, for introspection. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we communicate the way we communicate, with so many unspoken rules, with so many games? It's like trying to explain how a plane flies. Or the 2016 presidential campaign. Jeesh.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Roller Coasters and Redemption

Ethan sails under a bridge during our "BOAT riiiide!"

Fifteen summers ago Dan and I took a vacation out to Chicago and Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio. It was July 2001. I always think of that vacation as a different world, another time, before we had kids, before the planes hit the towers and things changed in big and little ways.

On that trip I remember our biggest concern -- our chief annoyance -- was when we attempted to go on a boat tour of Chicago. A pack of teenagers climbed on behind us and immediately began talking, loudly. This was a historical tour and somewhere up front the tour operator was educating us on the story of Chicago. We couldn't hear a word. We looked to change seats but all were full. All we could hear was who was dating who, and where they'd partied last and where they were going to party that night. All of that was interspersed with several of them shrieking out "BOAT Riiiide!" at intermittent points throughout the trip.

For years after it would be a private joke between the two of us, and if I knew Dan was annoyed about something I might throw a "BOAT riiiide!" out there just to make us both laugh.

That year we also went to Cedar Point, the roller coaster capital of the world, where I somehow managed to get on one of the tallest coasters in the world and didn't die.

For years, we always figured we'd get back out to that part of the country -- and that darn it, we were going to take a boat tour and get our money's worth this time.

We're a little unconventional, in our family. Our vacations aren't everyone's cup of tea. We don't tend to stay in one place or do some kind of "resort." We have yet to get to Disney. We test everyone's limits and maybe do some things people normally wouldn't consider doing with a toddler. I will go out of my way to drive to states I haven't seen...Dan will go out of his way for any sort of oddity, novelty, or thrill ride. Our vacations tend to not be relaxing (when are they ever, with kids?) as much as adventurous, in a very suburban kind of way. We're not hiking the Himalayas...but we have explored the White Mountains and Smoky Mountains. Baltimore. Last year, Virginia. And now the Midwest.

Last year we made a discovery upon arriving at Busch Gardens amusement park -- that Anna had developed an immense fear of roller coasters. This is always a fun thing to realize once you've dropped a ton of money on a major attraction and now have a child weeping in fear at the foot of a coaster. That was an interesting day. Pounding rain and the threat of storms closed half the rides. We left the park due to a 100 percent change of thunderstorms, yet a half-hour later the sun was shining and shone for the rest of the day. It was another "BOAT riiiide!" experience.

Over time I've realized:
- There will always be things you can't plan for.
- Sometimes the most irritating or disappointing moments make for the best stories and most laughter later on.
- Take lessons from what went wrong and attempt to plan better the next time (while acknowledging that something will still not go exactly your way).

Over time we've also realized:
You can't make your child do something they are terrified to do. You can encourage them, but they need to feel safe, and they need to feel they can "opt out."

And so, fast forward to the past week. Fifteen years later, we were back at Cedar Point, three kids in tow. We'd vowed not to push Anna onto roller coasters. Ethan said he was ready to ride them all. He and Dan got in line for this ridiculous coaster that was literally giving me heart palpitations just watching the people waiting to get shot 450-feet into the air in about 5 seconds. As we waited, Anna decided to go on a small coaster. Then she wanted to ride again. Then another one. These weren't huge coaters, but she was all smiles.

Ethan and Dan came back from the line, perturbed. They had gotten to the point where they were actually sitting in car, ready to be shot up, when the ride operator had forced them all off and told them the ride was closing due to high winds. Seriously? Ethan was approaching meltdown mode.

"Ethan," Dan encouraged, "We're not going to let this ruin our day. Let's do something else fun."

So Ethan jumped onto some rides with Anna. Then we decided to go together on the Magnum, a 215-foot steel coaster I'd ridden before. Anna chickened out and backed out of the line when she saw the hill. We bit our tongues and gave her her space. Ethan saw the coaster's size and got shaky. I kept reassuring him things were fine, even as we were heading up the endless hill...and then once we plunged down I started screaming. I screamed and screamed and didn't stop until the ride stopped. People behind and in front of me asked if I was okay. I realized I'd been having some kind of primal experience where I barely remembered who I was, nevermind that I had a child sitting next to me who had already been apprehensive. I also realized that it had been way too long since I'd been on a huge coaster and that maybe, just maybe, I was getting a little old for this.

After that experience, Ethan didn't want to go on anymore huge coasters. I felt guilty. I hadn't modeled calm. I'd freaked out. I'd forgotten I was a parent, seriously. After I'd done so well on the plane (I'm not the biggest fan of flying) I'd lost it on the coaster.

Take lessons from what went wrong and try to do better next time.

Just as we weren't going to push Anna on coasters, we couldn't push Ethan. Even if we'd paid way too much money on a pass for him and Dan to skip the lines. Anna, in the meantime, was open to riding more coasters, as long as they weren't huge. This, from the girl who had said all she wanted for her birthday that week was for no one to make her go on roller coasters.

Sometimes our kids surprise us...either in a good way or a bad way...but they always surprise us, don't they?

We left the park dirty, sweaty, tired, and satisfied. The day had not been perfect -- several coasters remained closed due to wind, the food was too overpriced to eat, and we'd still missed a ton of rides over the 8+ hours -- but that was okay. We'd tried. We'd made adjustments. We'd tried to be sensitive to each others' needs. That was the most important thing.

Five days later we were back at Six Flags at home (not our choice, so close to our other trip, but a company event). Ethan, Anna and I stood in line for the Thunderbolt, a small wooden coaster I remembered riding when I was Anna's age. It looked exactly the same. I could see my tween self standing in line. As we boarded the ride, I promised Ethan I wouldn't scream. Instead, any time he got nervous and looked at me, I'd smile. Just like on the plane. Just like I realized I had to do, because I'd let him see footage of a plane crash once and it freaked him out.

Take lessons from what went wrong and try to do better next time.

Back in Chicago, our first day there, we'd decided to attempt the boat ride once again. It was time to right history. We were going to soldier through this thing, darn it, and learn about the city once and for all. We got on the boat and I scoured our area for obnoxious loud people. None. Then I looked around me. We had three kids with us this time, including a two-year-old who could care less about Chicago's architecture. Who was I kidding? There would be interruptions. I wasn't going to sit peacefully, undistracted as in the years we were first married when we'd go somewhere as a couple. I had to readjust expectations.

There will always be things you can't plan for.

But you can plan to have things not perfect, and you can plan to keep a good attitude. As we sailed under bridges and looked up a soaring buildings, I felt a sense of freedom. Yes, my child was pulling on my arm and spilling food all over the floor, but I heard about 80 percent of what was said. That was a lot better than zero. We were here, with these amazing views, awake and in a relatively good mood despite a delayed flight and getting to bed at 2 in the morning. We were doing this boat ride, finally, and this trip that other people might think was a little too overreaching.

We were winning, not at perfection, but at doing this thing called life, with all of its curve balls and all of our fears and failures. By the grace of God. By our willingness to change and alter course when necessary.

I think there will still be times when I'll randomly call out "BOAT riiiide!" and have to smile. Sometimes the most irritating or disappointing moments make for the best stories and most laughter later on. There are days I wonder what happened to those teenagers on the boat. They may be married with kids of their own now. They may have had their boat ride ruined by someone else, or by their kids. And then they learn. Then the epiphany comes when they realize it's time to grow up, and growing up isn't everything they thought it was. It's a lot easier and a lot more complicated, all at the same time.