We’ll call him Billy

The stop sign just up the street from our house does more than control vehicle traffic. It controls a little piece of my kids’ lives. A stop sign should add an element of predictability to the cars passing by. It should slow them down. It should make drivers more aware of pedestrians and the kids who swarm the neighborhood.

It doesn’t.

If anything it makes traffic less predictable. If we lived on a straight stretch of neighborhood road, with no impediment to travel at all, you could count on fewer variables. In fact, it would be quite simple. Cars would either be traveling fast or slow. With experience, you could judge relative speed and ETA – not that you’d ever want to take the ETA for granted.

The stop sign makes things a little too interesting. It means some cars MIGHT stop. It means some MIGHT slow down a little. It means some MIGHT do the impatient, yet afraid of a ticket, “roll-through.” It means some MIGHT shoot through the intersection like a stray bullet in a shootout.

Now imagine you had an autistic child – even high functioning like Beth. With her attention issues, how would you feel about her stepping from the relative safety of our driveway into the zone of mortal unpredictability that is a neighborhood intersection? The stop sign, combined with her Aspergers, keeps Beth on our side of the street by decree. Violations are dealt with swiftly and severely.

Fair or not, this paranoia rubbed off on Adam.

Our intelligent six year old boy is deprived the opportunity to explore his habitat. Kids come to find him, not the other way around. When kids get bored of our yard they move on, but Adam doesn’t.

We are terrible parents.

There’s one kid who came around a lot. He’s a kid Adam likes quite a bit. He’s older than Adam, but you couldn’t tell from his behavior or apparent education level. Billy is autistic and doesn’t function as well as Beth.

Billy lives with both parents but they both don’t seem to be around much, or so we hear. He’s watched mostly by a baby sitter – a neighbor who’s been willing to help the family. I’ve talked to his mom on the phone several times, and Cheryl and I have spoken with the babysitter in person. Many of the kids in the neighborhood met them too, and their opinion includes words I can’t or won’t repeat here. I won’t dignify their comments with any further details, other than to say some are really bad. You need to know this much to understand my feelings about Billy and the neighborhood.

I only know Billy’s parents by the sound of their voice. They’re rarely around when we are, working long hours. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was to pay for Billy’s care. I know first hand a child with special needs can be a challenge – under the best of circumstances. I also know how cruel kids (and adults) can be to someone who’s different. I may not have much first hand knowledge of Billy’s home environment, but I see how the neighborhood treats him, and poorly is putting it kindly. My untrained eye sees a good kid at heart, in the process of having that goodness beaten out of him (if not literally then figuratively).

I tried to show the patience and kindness he may not get from the rest of the neighborhood, while showing him respect by speaking to him as I would an adult. I tried to make our house a safe haven, a place where he could come without fear of judgement, based on a label purchased in bulk and carried like a yoke. I believe I succeeded at both.

Like I said, Billy seems like a good kid, so it’s not hard. His mother says Billy doesn’t play with other kids, he plays in the vicinity of other kids. For some reason he does play and interact with Adam. In fact, unless something comes up requiring problem solving, written language, or interacting with anyone but Adam, Billy seems almost like any other kid.

I’d been letting Adam play out in the front yard with Billy, giving him more freedom to explore the neighborhood on this side of the stop sign.

I haven’t met a kid who likes rules, and Billy is not an exception. He was constantly asking if Adam could come across the street with him to his friend’s house. I’m a mean, terrible parent, so I always said no.

Billy and Adam were playing on the front porch when some neighborhood kids rolled past. Adam and Billy knew most of them. Adam was friends with most of them. Adam makes friends pretty easily. Billy does not.

Before I knew it, Adam followed Billy and his other friends across the street, and the trouble was just starting.

Despite deposing all involved (except Billy, who wasn’t available), I still don’t know exactly what happened. There were some rather fantastic, inconsistent stories, but Adam and his friends tell one consistent story:

Billy tripped over a toy laying on the sidewalk, blamed the other kids, and blew up. He swore at the other kids. He lashed out physically at a couple. He told Adam he was going to call the police on him.

Like I said, I don’t know what happened first hand, but Adam came home hysterical, worried the police we’re coming for him. All of the other kids said Adam wasn’t even around when Billy fell.

I want to be understanding, but I’m disappointed in Billy. It’s not just the fight I’m worried about (Billy never touched Adam), but both he and Adam knew I didn’t want them crossing the street. I know it won’t be the last time Adam faces pressure from his friends to do something he shouldn’t (like walking off without permission), but Billy is four years older than Adam, and I wonder if it creates more pressure.

Since then Adam and Billy reconciled. They weren’t allowed to play out front anymore though. However, they played together like nothing happened… for a while.

Then Billy stole something.

At first we weren’t sure and I wanted to give him every benefit of doubt. A six year old and an autistic kid do not make the best eye-witnesses. However, it became apparent Billy probably did steal it, and it was pretty expensive – something we couldn’t ignore. We haven’t seen or heard from Billy in a few months now. Cheryl told him he could come back when he returned the item, told us what he did with it, or give us some idea where it might be.

He hasn’t come back.

I feel terrible. What if he didn’t take it? We can’t be certain. We didn’t see him take it. He didn’t admit to taking it. Adam says he took it, but he’s six. He usually accuses someone of stealing any time anything goes missing. Beth said Billy was playing a hiding game with Adam – and Adam was not a willing participant.

I feel like we’re just as bad as the rest of the neighborhood.

There’s a balance to be met, and I’m not sure where it is. We have a responsibility to our families as well as our community. Billy is part of our community, but without that sense of balance I’m lost. I’m haunted by the thought of our community discarding a lost child.

I wonder if it’s time for another chance, or a first chance to prove we were wrong to assume the worst.

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A little pinch of pain

Cheryl is with Adam today at the Magic Kingdom, outside of Orlando. Around here this is nothing special, particularly for the last year. A little over a year ago we cashed in a few years of reward points on our Chase Disney Visa Card and bought annual passes. The kids have loved it. It’s meant almost unlimited Disney. We’ve used every discretionary dollar to indulge their inner mouse, doing several character breakfasts/dinners – where you and a select group of diners sit, relax, eat pretty decent food, and hug the Disney characters as they walk around having fun with the guests.

Even for a mouse doubter like myself, it’s pretty cool… especially when you see the kids’ reactions, particularly Adam. Beth’s reached the stage of teen reserve, where anything they see as below them is tolerated rather than enjoyed. Superficially anyway.

You may know this is the last weekend in February. What you may not know is our annual passes are good through this February. With school next week and church obligations tomorrow, the Disney window closes this evening.

Cheryl has been a world class mother these last few months, going way beyond the call of duty. She’s done the over and back, single day trip to the Magic Kingdom with the kids almost every Saturday since January, milking every bit of value and magic from the passes, and the kids have been anything but unenthusiastic participants. They haven’t tired a bit of it all. Since I have trouble walking ten minutes, let alone all day, I’ve had Saturday’s to myself at home. But that’s ok. I knew the kids were having a great time. Before Beth started a confirmation class this fall, requiring she attend an early Mass on Sundays, our Disney trips were weekend mini-vacations, staying over with my sister in Orlando.

Now it’s over. Adam and Cheryl are probably in the car now, driving home knowing it could be the last time in a LONG time. With financial uncertainties the coming year, we’re not sure we’ll be able to keep the house, let alone renew our passes.

Beth had her somber farewell last week, knowing she had a church function all day today.

This is not a tragedy however. Obviously no notes of sympathy are necessary. Everyone’s healthy. They may not even need all five of Kübler-Ross’ stages.

But anytime my kids feel bad, a little of it rubs off on me.

It’s all part of the package we call parenthood.


Back seat passenger

You’ll be happy to know I’m a passive passenger (or maybe you won’t care). It’s an irrefutable fact. I am every driver’s dream. I do not speak unless spoken to. I am blessed with innate, directional savvy, but I only share it upon request. Most importantly, I am willing to travel in the back seat. Not only am I willing, it was my idea.

Increasingly, our thirteen year old and our six year old don’t travel well together. The tension comes from pretty common sibling stock. Longer drives are filled with territorial disputes, arguments about the first amendment (and wether it applies to song or random noises), asserting property rights, and wether touching constitutes assault.

Ah, it all brings me back….

They have no idea how good they have it. I remember when we had to drive to school in the snow, uphill both ways. I remember when my two sisters and I had to share a back seat, three across. Now THAT was a recipe for disaster. Nothing good comes from three kids in the back seat, shoulders touching at the outset. Epic battles were fought over feet placement.

The difference between then and now? My dad could scare us just with his presence or the disapproving look.

When I give my kids a withering stare they think it’s funny. It’s a terrible, helpless feeling. Any parent worth their weight in dirty diapers has a look. The look is a silent killer. My look is great comedy.

So we’ve fallen back to the weak parent solution: separation.

It’s so humiliating.

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.

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Trial, tribulation, and error

A few weeks ago, heresy showed it’s ugly face in the Kauffman household. Evil found a foothold in one of my vulnerable children. By now you know that when I speak of heresy I’m speaking of one thing: computers. Beth asked for a cheap Windows laptop.

In the name of Jobs, The Woz, and The Lost Partner, I beseech you: where have I gone wrong?

Because my parents were over at the time, my dad in particular, the collective shudder was almost enough to bring down the roof, bringing this insanity to a tragic end.

This has nothing to do with Windows, evil, or my family… but I find it amusing so I had to find a way to work it into the post. There’s a buzz word at my office – one of several steadying the rungs of the mythical ladder to Tally (if you have to ask, you ain’t getting there). The one that comes to mind is: root cause. Say it again: root cause. Don’t you feel smarter just saying it? All right, it’s really two words, so maybe you just feel silly, not to mention you’re talking to your computer again. You should probably see someone about that. But back to root cause: it is one concept. Applying the problem solving skills taught in offices around the world (and yet come naturally to our species as early as the pre-pubescent years), I sought to get to the bottom of this Windows virus before it got started. It turned out it was worse than I thought.

Beth infected my son too.

Both of them were obsessed with the idea of playing an online game created by Sony Entertainment called: Free Realms. This game only runs on PCs running Windows.

And before you ask, the answer is yes – the name itself is a sick, twisted joke. Entrance is free, but there are opportunities to spend once you’re inside.

Back to Windows, and computers in general.

Kids don’t always understand elegance, and when they do, sometimes they don’t particularly care. They don’t understand how little time daddy spends maintaining our relatively large family network of computers (none, not counting the voluntary tinkering – with more PCs than people), compared to other daddies. They don’t truly understand what the word “crash” can mean. They don’t know what a virus, worm, or malware is. They don’t know what Internet security software is.

Well, if you recall, a few posts back I contemplated a world where me and Beth shared an iPad an my MacBook. This presented an interesting test run. My MB runs Windows Vista in the latest version of Parallels (v5).

Vista may have been the dumbest software descision of my life (I shoulda had an XP!), but I needed something do the occasional bit of work at home and Vista gets it done (if painfully).

With a devious grin, I unleashed my kids on Vista – or was that the other way around? Right off the bat: “dad, what is Kaspersky, and what are virus definitions?” Then of course: “dad, Windows says it wants to restart to finish installing important updates. I hardly had time to get started yet.”

I’ll bet there are a few Windows appologists out there convinced I haven’t booted their ‘ole pal Vista since the install – thus the delays. They’d be wrong. I’d had it up the day before – with the software and definitions up to date.

Next, of course, we had to install Flash. Always Flash. Then there was a Sony browser plugin. Then there was an executable file from Sony.

It took us half an hour to get Windows set up to play a web based game. I think THAT should be in the Windows 7 ads.

I was setting up my laptop for my kids to play a simple web based game and it took me a freaking half an hour. So I sent the old Bald Ballmer an email telling him they oughta fix that. So yeah, Windows 7 was my idea.

Of course, for all I know Windows 7 could be an abomination worse than Windows 3.x – I’ve never seen it. So maybe it’s not my idea after all.

Here’s the best part. Although I’ve muddled through Vista relatively unscathed, it’s crashed – hard – beyond the three finger salute hard (control-alt-delete), every time the kids played their game. It’s never crashed right away, so they get a chance to play for a while – enough so they want to play again – and live through another crash.

Cheryl keeps saying they’re not going to be allowed to play on dad’s MacBook anymore, but I disagree.

Oh, how I disagree!

I think this is a great opportunity to learn a lesson in life, to learn how the harsh, real world works. It’s a time when very little is at stake, and there’s little to loose. Is it probably the game? Of course it’s probably the game. But what happened to Microsoft being so far ahead of Apple when it came to single apps crashing and not bringing down the whole system?

So my simple response to Cheryl is no. I’m going to give them Vista every time they ask for it, and let them see it for the ugly piece of software it is. Then they’ll know.

Windows bad. Mac good.

Get a Mac.

– – –

UPDATE: since I started writing this post a few days ago, the kids have stopped asking about Free Realms and Windows. They haven’t moved on to new games either. They went back to the old web games that worked – on the Mac. As for myself, I’m actually considering throwing good money after bad – buying 7. Lord help me, for I am about to sin.

Back to Disney

The Great Thunder MountainAnother Friday of fatigue. Another drive to Orlando. Another day in the world that Walt built.

My sister called on Thursday to warn us about the epidemic of colds working its way through the house. The implied message: “John comes at his own risk.”

But when have I ever given in to good sense?

We hit the parks with my standard equipment: a big floppy hat, sunglasses, my Nikon, and my afternoon meds. The day started with a textbook example of gluttony. It was an all you can stuff in your gut “character breakfast” at the Contemporary Resort known as “Chef Mickey.” I paid for every bite the rest of the morning.

We skipped lunch, the cement in our stomachs formerly known as “breakfast” still in place.

It wasn’t until a snack, an hour or two before dinner time – a frozen banana – that I got my groove back. After that we had a great time. We stayed through the evening to watch the fireworks, something we hadn’t done in several years.

Castle with colorThe kids had a great time though, throughout the day. The character breakfast, our second in as many months, didn’t lose any of it’s magic. Even Beth, 12 going on 25, enjoyed hangin’ with the Mouse and his crew. From there we ventured over to the Animal Kingdom.

I still can’t get over the center piece of the park: the man-made “Tree of Life.” How quintessentially Disney?

We hit a few of the attractions we missed the last time through. One turned out to be the best damn bird show I’ve ever seen. As it happens, this was only the second bird show I’ve ever seen, but still….

Then there was the “broadway style show about life in the Jungle.” I speak, of course, of the Lion King show. I expected it to be the single most corny thing I’d seen in my life. Maybe the low expectations colored my view, but it was actually pretty good. For a theme park show… heck, for any show, the singing was excellent.

Today I was back at it in the office, looking over orders and sniffing out solutions to problems. I was tired and my head hurt.

And you know what?

It was worth it.

Beth at sundown


Adam bomb

Maybe it’s his small body. Maybe it’s just hardwired into a four year old boy.

Adam is showing an early flair for maneuvering, pattern recognition, and tactics. I think he’s worked out every long approach to a padded landing in the house. “Adam, no running!” comes out of my mouth on autopilot, like “God bless you” when someone sneezes. It comes out a fraction of a second before his body makes impact. Sometimes I’m the target. Sometimes it’s a piece of furniture, or an unsuspecting (large) stuffed animal. He is afraid of the dark, but he’ll run across two rooms and launch his body at full speed, head first, into a Lazy Boy – sending boy and chair sliding across the floor into the wall.

He’s still a little big for his age, my ribs can vouch for his conditioning, and he’s signed up for soccer this winter.

Fellow parents, I pray for your children.

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Another last day

Sixth grade has been the worst so far, and it ends today. Next year Beth starts at another new school, a private school. Next year may be the year we go broke, but it may be worth it.

If it’s any better than this year it will be.

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First assisted ride

bike-sm.jpgAdam’s had a bike in waiting almost from the day he was born (a hand-me-down from a friend). It spent a lot of its time neglected on the front porch – until one afternoon I decided its time was nearing. Then it came inside to live with its brother and sisters.

This weekend I mustered enough enthusiasm and energy to take Adam for a helmet fitting and drag out my repair stand and tools. I spent the better part of this morning giving the old bike a once over – adjusting brake heads, checking cables, making sure everything was tight, removing unnecessary parts (fenders, chain guards – stuff that rattles, makes a lot of noise and adds weight, but is mostly unnecessary in Florida), and cleaning/lubing the chain. I thought about opening up the hubs, checking the bearings and repacking ’em, but I figured this was a transitional bike and not worth that much effort. It sounds a little like one or more of the bearings in the rear hub may be going, but so long as it’s the rear wheel and not the front one I’m not too worried (the worst that’ll happen is the hub will break down and the wheel will lock up – eventually). It still spins freely and I figure it’s got a year’s worth of use left in it (at least).

Anyway, seeing Adam riding it this afternoon, I wish I’d fixed it up sooner.

The blue foot

I asked Adam what he’d like all of you to see and this is the result:


No offense intended… I think.