Today is the first day of school. Adam and Beth got out the uniforms this morning for the first time in almost three months, and started a new chapter in their lives.

For Adam, it’s first grade. These days the jump from kindergarten to first grade isn’t much different from first to second. The era of standardized testing and school “accountability” has leached most of the fun from learning, as schools standardize curriculums, and reduce every moment between bells to drill English and math into childrens’ heads with the subtlety of a jack-hammer.

It’s why Adam is in private school, although his school isn’t immune to the pressure to kickstart the academics early. Private schools aren’t “accountable” the way public schools are. Florida’s ultra-conservative state government says it’s because private schools are held to an even higher standard: “the free market.” Oh the irony! Private schools lack the woeful standards of “accountability” of public schools, allowing them to devote more time to a rounded education. They can dabble in frivolous things like music, art, and the study of foreign languages and cultures – all the things I got from my public education in Florida before the “accountability movement” started.

Heaven fucking forbid.

Beth starts high school today, though she too will remain at the same, private school she attended last year. As you may recall, our hand was forced when it became clear “accountability” didn’t apply to kids with Aspergers.

I didn’t mean to begin this post with a rant about the school system. It just kind of happened. I guess I still have unresolved issues.

What I really wanted to say is I’m really proud of my kids.

Beth has her first interview today. She’s starting ninth grade, so we were a little leery of her working in her spare time. However, it’s not about money. Beth wants to volunteer at the YMCA, watching the little kids after school and working the front desk.

How could I say no to that? I’m a little worried. Social skills are not her strong point, but if this works out it could be a great experience for her.

Here’s what warmed my heart: she came up with this on her own. While we were there working out one day, she sought out the director, spoke to him, and came home with an application – without any prompting from us. Hell, we didn’t even know she could volunteer at her age.

Lots of kids have good hearts and take initiative to do good things. What surprises me is I’ve brought up one of those kids.

No, she isn’t working to solve the problem of world hunger, but she is willingly giving her time to do something she enjoys – helping other people.

Proud doesn’t begin to explain how I feel. Pretty damn lucky comes close.


Kids grow

Yesterday was Beth’s last day of school. It also marked Beth’s last day of middle school.

Beth slideThis little girl…
Will start high school this fall.

Christmas 2010Our resident young-adult pulled straight As for the year again, not that I’m bragging, of course. Think of it more as a statement of fact that doesn’t reflect poorly on the author or the subject.

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I’ve got Santa on my mind

First of all I want to say, with all the humility and grace I can muster, we are WAY cooler than you are. We got a box filled with A TON of chocolate from Germany today.

Insert insane jealousy here

Sorry, I had to get that out of my system. I’ve got the mother of all sugar highs going. The kids are only sleeping because they rocketed right past sugar high to sugar coma.

The issue of Santa came up today, or this evening I should say. Today I was embroiled in the mother of all court days. Who woulda thunk EVERYONE would show for a docket on the eve of (government observed) Christmas? It was one of those days when you don’t see the sun. Maybe that’s not saying much if you live in close proximity to one of the poles, but in subtropical Florida it’s a 10+ hour ordeal, filled with people on both sides of the Petition unhappy with the Final Judgement.

But enough about the legal system, this was supposed to be a post about youth, wonder, and the Christmas way. No, I’m not talking about virgin births or babies on the run from the law. I’m talking about his Jolliness, St Nick. (He lets me call him Nick because we go way back.)

Every now and then my wife asks the tough questions… why don’t you shave more often, what’s that God awful smell, etc. Tonight she asked me if I believed in Santa Claus when I was a kid. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t remember believing. I know my parents never made a big deal about Santa. My parents weren’t Big Deal kind of people. Some people would come up to us and ask, “Are you excited about Santa coming this week?!?” Even as a kid I remember thinking there was a thick layer of saccharine on that enthusiasm. Now, I admit I had no idea what saccharine was, but I had an acute sense for it (if that makes any sense). If there was an opposite for the saccharine afflicted, it was my parents. They made half-hearted attempts at gifts from Santa, but we caught on pretty early it was no coincidence Santa used the same wrapping paper as mom and dad, not to mention he had the exact same handwriting. If you’d seen my dad’s handwriting, a polite way of describing it would be “unique.”

This brought on a mini-debate between me and my wife. I won of course. I may be sleeping on the couch, but sometimes that’s the price for victory. Did we lose something essential to childhood? Does Santa worship foster a sense of wonder, magic, and creativity that’s unrivaled in child development? I can’t say, but I pose this counter argument: when a child does learn there is no Santa – and we all know where we were when we learned there was no Santa (well, I guess I don’t, but don’t let that ruin a perfectly good point) – does he or she feel betrayed by their parents? Think of the YEARS of deception and outright lying. How does this affect the child/parent relationship? Does it poison the well? Are kids who believe in Santa more likely to grow up to be rebellious, delinquents, or worse: Wall Street Bankers?

I have to say I’m undecided on this one. I don’t discourage others (including my wife) from perpetuating the lie. I’m ashamed to admit that once, on cross-examination by my relentless, then three year old daughter, I did not dispute the existence of Santa. She was concerned about the physics behind Santa and his achievements, growing more skeptical without quite crossing over to Santa denial, but I remained silent. However, at the time my silence was interpreted as acknowledgment – and I let it happen. My pants were stuck on the ideological fence, and it didn’t help the frakking thing was chain link.

The seeds of doubt sprouted early with Beth, but Adam’s still going strong at six. I can’t help but wonder what he’ll think of us when he knows the truth about society’s Santa Conspiracy Machine. Will he ever trust us again? Once again I’m feeling pretty awkward astride that chain link. It’s a vulnerable position for a father with a bad sense of balance.

The kids

What can I say? Both my kids continue their run of academic stardom. It feels like a source of (partial) absolution for my personal failings, seeing my DNA has some value.

Beth continues to excel, outpacing all the other kids in her class. I just wish it brought her peace. While it was an asset when she was the oldest kid last year (her small school has mixed grade classrooms), there’s a different dynamic being the youngest.

She still finishes before everyone else, and she still wants to help the other students who are having trouble. However, unlike the younger students last year, the older kids don’t want help from the “little-smart kid.”

As you may know, Beth falls into the autism spectrum, so she can be a little oblivious to subtle reactions from her classmates. She doesn’t always read the resentment on the older kids’ faces. It came to the point where her teacher told her it might be best for her to sit quietly and leave the other kids alone, physically nudging her back to her desk.

Being the smart kid has gone from being the hero (she was always the first pick for teams in class games), to the little brat who can’t mind her own business.

While I’m proud of Beth’s mind and big heart, I find this a sad commentary on human nature. Ah, but they’re just kids right? Kids will be kids, after all. Childhood is supposed to be when we learn how to be adults. Childhood is supposed to be when we learn responsibility and civility – sometimes by trial and error. Beth just happens to be the subject of a little more than her share of errors. (By now your sarcasm detector should be working overtime.)

It hurts. The good news is it’s getting better – now that she doesn’t try to help anyone. What a crappy lesson to have to learn.

Adam has been another story. It seems everyone knows Adam at school – and not for bad reasons. Just being “Adam’s dad” feels like being a minor celebrity.

When his teacher called Cheryl in for a conference, she said he’s way out ahead of the other kids in kindergarten (not to mention some of the kids in first grade). She told Cheryl she’s been giving Adam extra work, so he stays stimulated.

So, while the other kids continue to work on their alphabet, Adam reads books and works on math word problems (and gets them all right). This weekend he started reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. Beth read it in fourth grade.

A few folks have asked when Adam will have an IQ test, to which I reply, “maybe never.” There’s no formal “gifted program” at Adam’s private school. They don’t need one. They just teach and give work according to what students are capable of, based on their performance in class. The supposedly good label of an exceptionally high IQ didn’t always serve Beth well, so I’m in no rush to force the same label on Adam.

And yet, it seems like Adam is one of those kids everyone likes. Everyone seems to take notice when he enters or leaves the room – accompanied by a chorus of friendly greetings or farewells. It’s a huge relief, after living through Beth’s problems.

I have hope things will continue to go smoothly from here on out.

‘Twas the night before today

The house is getting its first showing this morning, and I feel like a thirty-nine year old man going out on his first date.

We got an email from our realtor yesterday evening saying he’d received a query from another realtor, asking to show the house this morning at 9 a.m.

No problem, right? A nibble from someone this soon, in this market, is something.

Oh, did I mention it’s the middle of the night? Did I mention I’ve had a sinus headache for the better part of the last twenty-four hours? Did I mention Beth just got sick… all over her bed, the floor between her room and the bathroom….

I’m the third load into the all night laundrypallooza, and somehow I’m at peace. It might be the fatigue talking. I might not have any energy left to be anything but at peace.

I’m also a little proud of myself. I figured I was already a lost cause today, so I handled this one solo. The wife stayed in bed, asleep I hope. Three cheers for citizen John, hero of the household!

Hip-hip… oh forget it.

There’s an instinctual calm that comes over me when I’m faced with a sick child in the middle of the night. I don’t know why. Take the same circumstances, but with the Sun somewhere above, and any range of emotions is possible. But there’s something about the night that’s soothing, even when I know I’ll pay dearly later. It seems to have the opposite effect on the kids… and maybe that’s why I’m calmer… something in the DNA – an adaptive trait that made our branch of the evolutionary tree blossom. Calm. It’s what brings the kids down from the edge. Here’s another adaptive trait for the disciples of Darwin out there keeping score: the ability to breathe through your mouth, or more specifically: NOT breathing through your nose.

That may be the most important evolutionary hurdle of all for the strange creature known as: the new parent.

Well it’s late. I hope you won’t hold it against me if I skip the proof reading – or if this is unreadable.

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Looking up

Everyone knows life has its ups and downs. Well, except for some folks who aren’t right somehow. Perpetual happiness isn’t normal. I think it’s a little creepy. But look at me, talking about right minds. Aren’t I just adorable?

I’ve been down. Hell, I’ve been riding the trench so long I can barely remember what the plateau looks like. Does the grass grow lush and green up there? Maybe it’s not so great after all. I really don’t like yard work.

Tonight’s an up night. The weather has cooled. It’s not much, but enough to notice a difference. It’s enough to be comfortable outside when the sun isn’t up. Hell, it’s seven o’clock and my thermometer says it’s 80F. Eighty, where have you been all my life? There’s a breeze no less. This outdoor, front porch post is brought to you by eighty – the makers of a relieved soul.

About a month ago some friends of Cheryl gave us a telescope. It isn’t huge. It isn’t motorized and it doesn’t have a computer guidance system. It’s a 60mm refractor. What makes it a gift from the Gods is the light it collects compared to my little, 30 year old reflector that’s a toy by comparison. Squint your eyes, use a little imagination, and you can just barely make out the rings of Saturn on my old telescope.

Saturn isn’t out right now, but you may have heard Earth is at its closest point to Jupiter on its leisurely, annual lap around the sun (or it was late last month).

It was still pretty darn close a week or two ago when I hurried Beth out to the back yard to watch the eastern sky. The brightest star in the sky wasn’t a star at all. It was Jupiter. The light captured from moons of Jupiter with our new telescope was spectacular. We shared an astronomy moment, awed by an image seen much clearer in too many magazines to count. We could make out bands around the magnified point in the sky, revealed as the relatively near object it really is, and looked upon the clouds of Jupiter.

An otherwise mundane Monday was transformed into an event we’ll share forever.

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Interpreting Beth

Many of you know Beth has high functioning autism. Some of you know Beth. A few of you are familiar with Beth’s low tolerance for discomfort of any kind, and the hypochondria that accompanies it.
More than once we’ve played the town’s folk as Beth cried wolf, only to find later the wolf was real – and caught up to her.

When she was a newborn/toddler her way too frequent complaints turned out to be urinary tract infections brought about my a birth defect requiring surgery – and removal of half a kidney.

As she got older, the constant stomach pains turned out to be something we’d later learn was a classic symptom of autism: she didn’t “go” when she needed to go. As a result, she became spectacularly backed up – surprising her doctor with her steel resolve in the face of pain.

It all played out so contradictory, I was completely lost when it came to Beth and illness.

Fast forward to this morning. No I take that back. Fast forward to this year. Beth’s been spending a fair bit of time curled up on the couch in pain. A few specialists gave us their answers, and their advice seemed to work… for a while. We’ve been keeping a closer eye on her diet and exercise. But we still occasionally have mornings like today – Beth impersonating a fetus on the couch.

Sometimes she makes a miraculous recovery and goes to school. Sometimes it doesn’t last and one of us makes the trip to her school to pick her up. Other times we go to the doctor for a quick check and a new piece of advice. Sometimes it’s behavioral advice. Sometimes it’s medical.

This morning Beth was on the couch again. We decided to take her to one of several doctors again.

Are you familiar with the phrase, “one more thing?”

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for anxiety and depression.


Summer’s end

Beth starts school on Monday, and you know what’s crazy – besides the fact that we’re only half way through August and school’s already starting – I didn’t know.

That’s right, I’m such a lousy father I didn’t know when school started.

Well, today I’m feeling charitable. I like to think I’m just forgetful. Forgetful parents aren’t necessarily lousy, are they?

Anyhoo, I’m of a mind to see this as a great step forward for Beth. Not that her father didn’t know, but that I wasn’t worrying about it coming. Dreading is actually a better word.

You see, when most parents are rejoicing in school’s return, I’ve always dreaded it. School was a time of suffering for Beth, and I suffered with her. Asperger’s made Beth different, and school kids eat different for lunch. Of course, this was before we knew Beth had Asperger’s. For a couple years we just thought she was eccentric. We thought it came in the package with a high IQ. It took a while for us to realize how different. She was our only child, and she was cursed with shy parents (me anyway). I don’t do well with people myself, so I lacked another point of reference.

Then we went through years of therapists, doctor’s of varying specialties, and finally a psychiatrist or two.

It wasn’t until someone got us in to see the department head of psychiatry at the children’s hospital in St Pete, a year and a half ago, that we learned a form of autism was the likely candidate. It wasn’t until we lucked into a study with the local university that we saw any therapy that made a difference. It wasn’t until the psychiatrist recommended a small, private school we’d never heard of, which had success with high functioning autism kids, that Beth found respite from the bully squads of public school.

She was among her own, and she was as happy as I’ve ever seen her.

The neighborhood kids can be no better than the ones from school. Their parents seem to worry Beth’s quirks will rub off on their kids, so they don’t let her inside to play. It’s only at school that she’s among friends.

So you see, the school year isn’t just good for Beth – it’s a blessing.

So I think I get a pass for forgetting the first day of school. Now it’s just another day.


My ecumenical crisis

I hope I don’t offend many of you with this one. As you read it, please know I realize it only takes a few bad apples to sour one’s experience, and I’m trying not to paint with too broad a brush. Like they say in so many movie break-ups, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Unlike the movies, I hope I sound genuine.

– – –

Protestant boy meets good Catholic girl: it’s a classic story repeated through the ages.

Or not, exactly.

Cheryl and I went to church regularly growing up and as young adults, but she went to The Church, while I was raised Lutheran. It was the subject of a serious discussion early in our relationship. I think we both felt we were in it for the long haul, and it was a talk that needed having sooner rather than later. We learned we had similar thoughts about God and religion, and in the end Cheryl left to spend the years with me out in the Protestant wilderness.

Three years ago our blissful time in the wilderness started to come apart, and it was my fault.

It’s been three years since leukemia and I became acquainted. It marked the beginning of the end of my regular church going days, but it wasn’t the only reason. At first it was because my oncologist said I had to stay away from groups of people, after chemotherapy beat the stuffing out of my immune system. No people meant no church. Then it was momentum. Cheryl eventually pushed back, dragging me back for a little while, but then depression struck. I haven’t been back (much) since.

Even though the rest of us weren’t going on Sundays, Beth kept going to confirmation classes.

She’s stubborn that way.

Adam started going to pre-k a year ago at the Catholic School/Church where my in-laws attend Mass. Since I wasn’t going to church, Cheryl decided she’d start going to Mass with her parents. For a list of reasons I don’t have the energy to slog through right now, we decided Adam should stay at the Catholic school beyond pre-k. Then Cheryl joined The Church. She’d been going anyway, and membership came with a tuition discount.

Now she is once again… wait for it… a Catholic in good standing. She’s back in the fold with the One True Church (TM).

We kid because we love.

I like to think of myself as an enlightened guy, but you’ve probably already deduced I’ve got my prejudices like everyone else (though some are bigger or more grotesque than others). I’m not proud to admit it, but Cheryl’s return to The Church is part of the reason I haven’t been back.

The idea of splitting up the family along religious lines on Sundays seems wrong… and yet… I don’t want to go to a Catholic Mass. Some folks think it’s because I don’t understand Catholicism, but it’s really because I do. I grew up Lutheran/Protestant, which probably predisposes me to anti-Catholic bias, but I’m almost sure it’s more than that. I know the Lutheran Church has its problems too, but there are core principles of Catholicism I can’t accept, principles I’m reminded of every time I go to Mass.

Although I’m far from a biblical scholar, I studied various religions in school, under people who didn’t have an axe to grind or a product to sell. I’ve sat through my share of Catholic services. I was even married in one. It’s not a problem born of a lack of familiarity. There are many Catholics in the world who are wonderful people – people I’d be proud to worship with: like my wife, my in-laws, and my son’s old babysitter (who’s become a dear friend of the family). I try to respect their beliefs. I suspect there are more bad Protestants in the world than Catholics. Still, I don’t want to go. I won’t. I haven’t.

Before I get carried away, I have to say this wasn’t the biggest reason I stopped going to church. I hadn’t been going for a year or more before we reached this point, so it wasn’t exactly a grand stand on religious principles.

For a while we went through an awkward religious transition. Cheryl took the kids to Mass on Sundays, taking care of their weekly worship obligation, while I stayed home. Then on Wednesday nights we would ferry Beth over to the Lutheran Church for confirmation class. Cheryl tried taking her to the Catholic version, but she didn’t like it.

When Beth had a crisis of faith the working hypothesis was: it’s my fault too. Can you see a pattern developing? Beth’s a smart kid. We thought she saw me skipping church and figured dear ‘ole dad had gone atheist. If dad didn’t believe in God, one of the adults forcing her to go to church all these years, what was she supposed to believe?

It turns out we overestimated my influence (in my opinion). She’d been harboring doubts for a while.

One Sunday not so long ago, Beth went up to the priest after Mass and asked, “how can you accept what we learn from science and still believe in God?” It was a great question, but the poor priest wasn’t prepared to be ambushed by a twelve year old right after Mass. One thing I can say for Beth, she’s not afraid to ask the tough questions. I think she gets it from Asperger’s. She doesn’t get it from me.

Later, she approached our old pastor at the Lutheran Church after confirmation class and told him she didn’t think she believed in God anymore. Afterwards, he told us he didn’t think it was a good idea for her to come back. That stung, but he did give a reason – or try to. He said if she was going to continue going to Mass, it would be too confusing for her to continue taking confirmation classes at a Lutheran Church. I called bullshit, though admittedly I called it from a position of weakness. Beth’s a smart girl. Set aside a few sacraments, saints, the Pope, the attention given to Mary, the roles of women in worship, the rhythm method, and celibate priests, and it’s practically the same religion, right?

A crack formed in my nice, comfortable bias, and my objections to going to church crossed further over the religion line.

I’ve since had several Science v God talks with Beth. I’ve shared a few of the reasons why I stopped going to church. I’ve reassured her I DO believe in God (over and over), but I’m forced to admit actions speak louder than words.

I wonder if she believes me. I wonder if she senses I’m holding something back. I wonder how she’s been affected by my debates with the in-laws over religion, and specifically over Catholicism.

Sometimes I haven’t been very nice.
Sometimes I’ve been an ass.
Sometimes my wife has told me to stuff it.

It seems like a long time ago, but there was a time when I thought of myself as an optimist. I might not have always carried myself that way, and others might not have seen me that way, but I saw it. More importantly, I felt it. In between bouts of major depression – which weren’t that often, I generally thought things would work out. I didn’t have any reason not to. I was an upper-middle class white kid who didn’t have to work a day in his life, until he graduated from college. I did mow lawns in the neighborhood so I could buy a motorcycle suitable for tearing up the abandoned orange groves. I had a stable home life. I did well in school. Things did generally work out for me.

Over the last few years a few things seemed to pile up on top of each other. My mother’s horrifying fall into mental oblivion and institutionalization, my dance with cancer, my longer than expected tug of war with depression, the long road to finally finding a diagnosis for Beth, the headaches that bothered me for a while, the sleep disorder that has defied treatment, that keeps me perpetually tired, and the icing: cancer’s return – all have tested my optimism. Mostly, I’ve failed – under circumstances better people would shake off with relative ease.

My failure isn’t complete though. I haven’t lost my capacity to enjoy myself. When I’ve temporarily crawled out of depression’s grasp, I’ve regained enthusiasm. My sense of humor, such as it is, returns. Still, I always feel a little darker, and of all places I feel it acutely in church. It goes beyond Catholicism v Protestantism. No matter where I go, church goers seem to toss around certain platitudes and reassurances with no more thought than throwing beads at a Mardi Gras parade, but with feigned enthusiasm and absent genuine concern. It’s like everyone reads from the same script, and even they’re bored with it. It’s like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul.

“You just have to have faith.”
“It’s all part of God’s plan.”
“We’re all praying for you.”

It all sounds rote.

I do believe in God. In some way, I think he/she/it cares what happens to me – though I’m not sure I understand the relationship. Does God’s love mean what we think it does?

I do not believe God is going to swoop down and cure me because I’ve prayed the best, the hardest, or had the purest faith. God may have a plan, but I’m not sure this is ALL part it. (I think it’s more of a rough outline.)

I’ve been asked if I pray. I do, but not the way others do. I don’t see prayer as a shopping list. I don’t go in expecting miracles. I believe they’ve happened over time, but rarely. If you could just dial one up with a prayer wouldn’t it dilute the brand? No, I see prayer as more mundane – if speaking to your creator can be considered mundane. Prayer for me is more meditative. I ask for things, but often they’re things I have the capacity to do for myself. I ask for strength to cope with the challenges life brings. I ask for the opportunity to make a small difference in someone’s life. I ask that someone might be there when someone else finds a need.

I see the power of prayer suggested by others as a kind of faith trap. What happens when you ask and you don’t receive?

I’m not looking for a faith healing. When I offer my prayers to others, I’m not handing out empty reassurances that all of life’s challenges are a small cog in the machine of “greater good.” I’m praying that people, myself included, will do the right thing. I’m praying because I believe in God, but I have trouble believing in people.

You may not believe me, but I do. I believe in many of the teachings of the religion of my childhood (from what I remember – I am not a Lutheran in good standing). However, I sit in church looking around and I fear many of the messages preached won’t survive their passage through the doors. When I look at my family and friends near me, I feel warmth in my heart. But when I look around, I imagine town hall meetings in churches much like mine, over-run by Tea Party crazy. I see people with hate in their hearts, and hateful things spewing from their mouths with the spittle of fanaticism. That’s when the darkness settles in, when church stops being a celebration and starts pulling me down depression’s hole. I know it’s petty. I know it’s ungrateful. I know it’s cynical. I know I’m more than a touch hypocritical. After all, I’m judging – in many (if not most) cases unfairly.

I’m not proud of myself, but there it is.