Friday, August 30, 2013

What I Did on my Summer Vacation - Part 3

(Previous post: "What I Did on my Summer Vacation - Part 2") 

Aunt Dawn and Lily had a good day while we were at Universal.  We occasionally checked in, or she'd text us a picture of Lily playing by the pool.  I think it all more or less went as planned.  Except buying the groceries for the house, I'd sort of neglected lunch.  I'm not sure why, but I think I thought we'd just buy it at the park or drive out to get it, or decide later and buy more stuff...but whatever the reason, it amounted to lots of breakfast stuff in the house, and very little lunch stuff.  So Dawn fed herself leftover pizza for lunch, and when we still hadn't arrived for dinner...she fed herself leftover pizza for dinner too. 

Sorry about that.

Revisiting "The Plan":

First Day/Night (Saturday):  Travel, unpack, get settled, put together a grocery list, order pizza, play by the pool.
Day 2 (Sunday):  Universal
Day 3 (Monday):  Rest/recuperate/pool day
Day 4 (Tuesday):  Disney
Day 5 (Wednesday):  Rest/recuperate/pool day
Day 6 (Thursday):  Sea World
Day 7 (Friday):  Pool day/pack up/clean up/travel home.

We were on Day and recuperate by the pool...and that's how the day started.  The rationale behind getting Universal out of the way was that we'd have Dawn's support.  She was flying back out on Wednesday, bright and early.  Dawn decided it made sense to get a rental car.  This was a ginormous help from our standpoint, because her flight was to leave Wednesday but she needed to be at the airport at like 6:30 in the morning.

What we figured though was that if we were going to pick up the rental car, there'd be no way we could pick it up on Tuesday if we were at Disney.  We shifted the plan and decided to go Monday instead.  Then we could pick up the car Tuesday on a rest day, and Dawn could drive herself to the airport Wednesday. 

I kind of want to recap this for a second.  Dawn flew down to Orlando to help us with Lily...we didn't pay for her ticket.  She ate leftover pizza because we refused to buy her food (okay...not refused, know).  Then she rented a car so that we wouldn't have to drive her to the airport...we didn't pay for the car.  This was all her idea.  I thanked her in about as bubbly a fashion as I'm capable, but I always look back and think...I really did not thank her enough.   The universe will recognize it though, no doubt, and owes her massive karma points.  YOU KNOW YOU OWE HER, UNIVERSE!  And we do too.


This pushed our plans to Disney from Tuesday to Monday...and while we weren't completely prepared (ie, didn't get up at the ass-crack of dawn...ugh...unfortunate choice of expressions, Dawn, sorry) we also weren't worried, because Lily is sleepy by 8:00, and we knew we weren't going to be able to drag out a whole day at Disney without her being completely exhausted.  So whether we got there early and left early, or got there late and left late, it really made no difference to us.

So we went to Disney.  Did you ever see the Sponge Bob episode where it's like a Krusty Krab employee training video?  At the end they get to the part where it's time to make the Krabby Patty, and they show this Krabby Patty out in the distance, and it gets closer and closer, but only incrementally so, slowly growing in the frame as the voice over guy does this fanfare...duh-duddle ut duh, dut dut dut dut duh du-duddle ut duh....for an uncomfortably long time.  If you haven't seen that, perhaps you've seen the scene in Monty Python's "The Holy Grail" where Lancelot storms the castle...and they show him off in the distance and he gets larger and larger in frame accompanied by tympani background music...they flash back to two guards who look curiously out at him, then back to Lancelot, who is inexplicably further out then he was the last time we saw him...again charging...again moving closer...back to guards, back to Lancelot...etc.

Going into Disney is like that.  There are exits for miles.  You finally take the ramp, then you're actually on like...Disney Freeway or something because there are no off ramps, it's just an asphalt vein pumping tourists into Disney, and an artery pumping them back out...with no tributaries of any kind.  And you drive on this desolate highway that must be all Disney property for miles and miles.  And in the background you hear...duh-duddle ut duh, dut dut dut dut duh du-duddle ut duh....for an uncomfortably long time.  Until you see a sign!

And you're like, "Sweet!  We've made it!"  But this is just Lancelot, and you still have to glance back at the guards...and still the fanfare...duh-duddle ut duh, dut dut dut dut duh du-duddle ut duh....for an uncomfortably long time...

And then at last you reach THIS sign...

And then you've arrived.  Sort of.  Because you still have to keep driving to get to the parking lot.  duh-duddle ut duh, dut dut dut dut duh du-duddle ut duh....

And then you've arrived.  In a way.  Because you have to board the trolley to take you to the gate. duh-duddle ut duh, dut dut dut dut duh du-duddle ut duh....

And then you've arrived.  Mostly.  Because you have to board either the train or the ferry to take you to the actual entrance.  duh-duddle ut duh, dut dut dut dut duh du-duddle ut duh....

And then you've arrived.  No...I'm serious this time.  No, come back.  You're at the Magic Kingdom.  COME BACK!  IT'S FUCKING MAGICAL!!!

Okay, if you get the impression that I was frustrated by the Magic Kingdom, then I'm an awesome writer, because I was frustrated by the Magic Kingdom, but until now, I didn't actually "say" that...WRITING!!

Let's back up to the train/ferry.  I wasn't prepared for this.  We weren't prepared for this.  Here's the devil's bargain:  Take the ferry and squish together with throngs of smelly sweating passengers on a slow boat ride over a lake into the park...OR...stand in line with throngs of smelly sweating passengers to take a fast ride into the park in an air conditioned train that makes two stops before it gets to the park.  Yeah...I know I said "then you've arrived"...and you have...because once you leave the train you're at the entrance, but your train has a couple stops first.  To pick up more money for Disney...I mean passengers.

A train was unsafe, or being serviced or something, so they were only partially filling it.  But we didn't know that.  The wait to get on the train was thirty minutes.  There is no disability pass to get on the train sooner.  There are no strollers or wheel chairs offered in order to make wait times for low muscle tone legs any less...this set the tone for our entrance into the Magic Kingdom, and it was less than magical.  Lily was slowly spinning out of control.  She was upset and hot and waiting and we had no idea what was taking so long, or when we'd get on a train.  We watched from the line as a train boarded and took off...several cars were completely empty.  I was getting more and more pissed off.  But we got on...and we got to the entrance, and NOW let the magic commence!

Someone smarter than I am will have to figure out a tip to help kids like Lily prepare for that sort of initial adventure...maybe rent a stroller somewhere else and bring it...maybe keep her cool with spray bottle...I don't know.  I just know that saying, "Be prepared to stand in a long-ass line for a train" is not a useful tip.  Still, it's nice to know it's coming.

So everyone's first tip for Disney is to get the Guest Access Card.  So I'm not going to bother listing it as a tip.  I'll get to part B of that in a minute.

Tip 1:  If your child needs/will use a stroller or wheelchair, get one/rent one.  It's a long hot day.  Christ, if they'd have made a stroller big enough for me, I'd have rented one and had Leslie push me around.  Before we left a couple people suggested this, and I said, essentially, "Lily won't sit in one."  I was wrong.  I'm really glad nobody listened to me and they rented it anyway, it saved our ass more than once.

Aunt Dawn went to rent a stroller while I went to "City Hall" to get the Guest Access Card, and Leslie loaded Lily into it and they walked around while I ran ahead to stand in line. 

Okay, so the magical Guest Access Card thing. Here it is:

This is what it looks like.  I suppose if rich housewives truly understood how easy these things are to obtain, then adults with disabilities looking to make extra dollars as tour guides would be out of money.  I'm referring to the recent scandal that surfaced where rich Manhattan moms would pay disabled tour guides in order to allow their children to bypass long lines at Disney using the guide's guest assistance card. 

How easy was it to get the card?  I went into City Hall to stand in line.  A staff member stood next to the line and I had a quick question for him.  Essentially, I'd been led to believe that the GAC allowed the guest and three adults (for a total of four) to use the alternate entrance.  My question, "Can four adults (Leslie, Emma, Aunt Dawn, and myself) use it?"  As I stood in line, I asked him, "Quick question about the Guest Assistance Card?"  Before I could even ask my specific question though, though, he'd launched into a summary of what it was and what it did, and included in his summary was..."the guest and up to five accompanying adults".  Question answered, I was satisfied and prepared to stand in line.

At this point, though, he said, "You need to get a card?" 

I answered yes, and he pulled me out of the line and filled one out on his clipboard.  I asked if I needed to have Lily with us in order to get the card and he said no.  So...strictly speaking, if you're rich and morally bankrupt, there's really no reason to pay anyone anything in order to obtain a GAC, because they won't require that you present the person with the disability during the interview process, and they don't ask to see documentation of diagnosis.  You didn't get rich by paying people a bunch of money, am I right?  Am I right???  So, you're welcome, rich people.

Tip 2:  Get the disability sticker for your stroller.  We did not initially do this.  What does that mean?  What it means is, you leave your stroller at the gate then go back and retrieve it when you're done.  Some of the alternative access points still require a decent wait, and so if the stroller or wheelchair is being used to aid your son or daughter's ability to wait in long're hosed.  You can't do it.  We didn't know this was even an option.  Leslie, pissed off at how the day was going, went to give the good people in City Hall a piece of her mind (this comes later, so I'm jumping ahead in the story a bit) and during the course of her diatribe was provided with this sticker to loop through the handle of the stroller, and allow us to keep Lily seated and in shade as we pushed her down the path toward whatever the next attraction was.  This proved very helpful and really probably saved the day, because by about 3:00 (about 2 hours after we got into Disney) we were considering leaving.  But as I said, this comes later.

My friend Bec writes the most informative and insightful blog about autism that I've come across.  Before we took the trip, she sent me a list of tips.  Bec knows enough about our family to be able to tailor the experiences she'd had at Disney to our family's needs.  The very first stupid thing we did was a direct violation of one of Bec's first tips, "Familiarize yourself with the map."  Yeah, yeah, Bec, whatever...I don't need no stinkin' map.  So we were figuring it out on the fly...but that was okay, right?  It worked at Universal, why wouldn't it work at Disney?

Because Disney is immense. 

Tip 3:  (With apologies to Bec for not paying attention and further apologies for stealing her idea, but really since we didn't use it and learned from our own mistakes, it's like it's our own tip) Familiarize yourself with the map.  Figure out what attractions you most want to see and see them first.

Doing this on the fly, we decided to go to Pirates of the Carribean.  Seriously it's going to sound like we listen to nobody, but Dawn kept asking..."Is she okay with it being dark?  Is she okay with skeletons?  Pirates and stuff?"  Yes, yes, Jesus...we know our own kid okay???  Now shut up and go look pretty.  After an initial flight on Aladdin's magic carpet, which was the standard amusement park fare...prop attached to hydraulic arm...pull up on handle, prop rises...spins in circle...exit ride.  In this case it was a giant magic carpet.

After this, we stood in line for Pirates...and Lily started to lose it.  It was dark in the line, and the wait (despite the GAC) was long, and she got impatient and tired, and if it would have stayed there, that would have been fine, but once on the ride she spiraled into terror.  Darkness.  Loud noises.  Scary faces.  She was horrified.  She was in absolute misery from the moment she got on the ride until maybe an hour afterward.  In our defense...neither Leslie nor I (I was 12 when I rode it in Disney Land) recalled it being as dark or as loud...but we still should have known better.  Aunt Dawn, to her credit, did not say, "See???" Which was good.

She cried throughout the ride.  Complicating things was that people weren't getting off the end of the ride quickly enough, and the boats stopped...three times...we listened to one particular script three times before the boats started moving again.  We bumped into the boat in front of us and waited, becalmed, until they got the ride moving again.  This just prolonged her agony.

We left Pirates pissed off at ourselves, pissed off at Disney, and feeling so guilty about Lily.  And here's where I want to share what I'll say is my most important tip.

Tip 4:  Know your child.  Throughout our relatively successful 'careers' parenting, we occasionally forget this.  We think...we're here...let's just try this.  Where "this" is anything that you should know in your heart of hearts is not something your child would ordinarily like, but you do it anyway to push boundaries.  To challenge your child.  To seek growth through experience, perhaps.  Or even, as my father was always so fond of saying, "to build character".  Disney is not the place to fucking build character.  The obscenity is directed at me.  What does Lily like?  We knew the answer to that question.  Time and time again over this vacation (Disney and Seaworld) we ignored the answer to the question in order to push boundaries because we were there.  Because when would we get another chance to push that boundary?  When will we ever be back to Disney?  When will she have another chance to ride Pirates of the Caribbean?  Who knows..."let's just try this." 

No.  If this is truly a vacation for the kids, as we said over and over that it was, then it's a vacation for both kids.  What does Lily like?  Let's find that stuff.  Let's do that stuff.  We'll go back home in a week and she's be up to her eyeballs in therapy and school and day camp and TSS and OT and all the other shit that we put that poor kid through just to play catch up with the 'deficit' system that is in place in public school...give her a vacation that she can enjoy.

I'm being too hard on myself.  In hindsight it's easy to see she wasn't going to like Pirates.  At the time we truly didn't think it would be as big a deal as it turned out, and the guilt I feel about how much she suffered on that ride is translated into a rant against myself.  But really it's a different take on a familiar theme with autism parents regarding true acceptance of your child.  If your kid is 15 and loves to play with Barbies?  Then give the fucking kid a Barbie.  That is what acceptance is...not giving a shit about social 'norms' and saying, "I want my kid to be happy."  So maybe I'm applying that same lesson to the ride.  If Lily wants to ride the magic carpet a thousand times in a row...why not?  If she likes Dumbo?  Why not?  We eventually found rides and attractions and joy for Lily in the Magic Kingdom.  But that time was still a ways off, and I was mad enough at Disney and myself and the world at large that in my head and heart all Leslie had to say was, "I think we should leave" and I'd have walked back to the train and left Disney behind for greener pastures.

And one more sort of backpedal on this... I'm not saying that "knowing your child" means you should never push boundaries or never try new things, or never expose them to new experiences.  I think it probably reads like that a little bit.  But there are times to push boundaries and maybe vacation isn't the ideal time.

We tried to regroup.  A bunch of stuff happened and I'll probably screw up the timeline, but we went to see Belle in the Beast's Castle.  We found a sympathetic staff member wearing a "From Pittsburgh" (all the name tags list hometowns on them) name tag and we bent his ear with out story of woe.  He got us into a line for the Castle and we went inside where it was cool and quiet(er).  It was still not Lily's favorite, but at least she wasn't screaming about how she wanted to go home. 

The storyline was this...The Beast is throwing Belle a surprise party.  We need you (all the people there for the attraction) to help us!  We need soldiers to march.  Everyone march.  (all the people marched) YOU!  You will be a soldier.  (person comes out and grabs ME out of the goddamn crowd, hands me a cardboard cutout of a knight, and tells me to hold it up to my  face and march in place at a certain time.)  This proceeded...Lily was tagged to be Mrs. Potts, but she threw Mrs. Potts' cardboard cutout on the floor in silent protest.  IN YOUR FACE, MRS. POTTS!  Emma declined more politely and the role was offered to someone else.

But I was stuck.  So throughout the performance I was called upon to march, or bow or say, "merci" or "HURRAY!"  or whatever and I did.  I daresay I was the best they ever saw.
The tummy pooch was part of the act...they told me I HAD to do that.

Lily sat through the performance but was not in love with seeing her beloved Belle in person.  Not that she minded.  She just didn't seem to love it.

After Belle, we found a place that sold cold drinks and re-regrouped.
sippin' on gin and juice, laid back, with my mind on my money and my money on my mind...

We got something to eat at a diner in Futureland and Lily was smitten with the performer, a dinosaur looking alien who played music and who she could dance along with.  Then we found Dumbo and road him.  Then there was a performance at Cinderella's Castle that really had Lily enthralled.  Aunt Dawn took Emma to Space Mountain so Emma could ride, and we took Lily to Dumbo, and then Leslie went to City Hall to give them a piece of her mind, and that's when got the sticker for the stroller.

And we kept stringing little victories together until the Kingdom started to feel a little more magical.

captivated by Mickey

She IS thrilled, maybe the camera doesn't show it...

Yes...I KNOW I'm in trouble.

Nothing says romance like Dumbo's ass.

oh my god...she was SUCH a bad driver.

We capped the visit off with Small World.  We probably should have started the visit that way too.  She was captivated.  Small World has come a long way...and stayed exactly the same all at the same time.  When I visited it, I remember it being dingy and old and faded.  This was BRIGHT.  The music was cheerful.  There were pretty colors wherever you looked, and  And Lily loves music, and color...sigh.
It's a small, small, world...
Disney was alright.  In retrospect I give it a B-.  Looking back at what I've written, you're missing a lot of what I didn't love about Disney.  You're getting a bit of it, but not all.  Rides were down for maintenance, people were everywhere.  I don't mean there were a lot of people.  I mean there were so many people that at times I felt overwhelmed by the sheer closeness and ...muchness of the humanity around us.  I was constantly stressed out.  People would stop en masse not just to take pictures, but to pose for them.  Just...right where they were without any regard for the people walking behind them around them between many people.  Like maybe if they sold out the know...and kept the crowds manageable.  But they won't.  They make too much money.

Leslie asked whether the characters ever came out into the park and they just laughed at her.

"They'd be mobbed"

They're right.  They would be.  I read on Wiki Answers that 46,000 visitors visit the Magic Kingdom each day (it's just an average of the annual total divided by days, but still).  That's so.  many.  people. 
It was the worst part of the park.

And it was hot.  I can't blame Disney for the temperature, and really, if I blame anyone it should be the asshole who booked the trip in August.  But it just made the experience that much less of an "A" and that much more of a "B". 

The train trip back was faster and better, and there was relatively little traffic on the way home.  Day over, we could focus on healing from all that magic.  Everyone ended up having fun.  But we had to work pretty hard to find it.

(Continued Here:  What I Did on my Summer Vacation Part 4 )

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What I Did on my Summer Vacation - Part 2

(Previous post: "What I Did on my Summer Vacation - Part 1")

One of the best parts of the vacation was the house.  I mean, that sounds pretty lame when you consider we went to Disney and Universal and Sea World, but honestly it was the one constant throughout the entire trip that was always positive.  Clean house, nice (though small) pool, relatively inexpensive, in a nice gated was our refuge.  We really felt at home there.  Without skipping ahead, for the most part we knew that whether our plans fell flat or we were too exhausted to go on...we could always cool down in the pool, have a beer, play pool, or watch TV, grab a glass of wine, smoke a cigar or just veg, and maybe part of us thought..."well, shit, we could do that at home," (minus the pool), but whenever the voice whispered that I would shut it up by responding, "but we never ever do."  Sometimes just the very nature of "being on vacation" is enough to allow you to observe the conventions of vacationry.  And so it was with the house, "Pepper" (we didn't know at the time, but that appears to be the owner's name, it was written on the key fob that plopped into my hand).

We pulled into the driveway of the house.  We'd lucked out and piggy-backed through the community's gate since we had no idea what the access code was, trailing behind the vehicle just in front of us as the gates slowly swung shut.  We followed the road through the neighborhood, slowing as the numbers climbed until we found the address.  I pulled the minvan into the driveway and, with the information from the rental agency in hand, follwed the sidewalk to the front door where a lock box was set into the wall to the left of the door.  I punched in the key code written on the paper and the lock box spilled a key into my palm.  I put it in the lock, turned the key and pushed open the door.

Orlando is a warm wet blanket of muggy heat in August, so that cool dry gust of air that pushes out the door when you first open it is such a kiss of relief.  I left the door open, pocketed the key, and walked back to the minivan to unpack.  I'd glanced inside and told everyone I thought they'd be happy.

We toured the house.  It was, as previously indicated, very nice.  Pool table, air hockey, TV's in all the rooms, clean, new, table set with wine glasses and nice linens, the master bedroom complete with swans sculpted from bath towels a la cruise was "move in" condition.  The pool was vaguely pear/kidney shaped and had a shallow end that was shallow enough for Lily to stand in and a 'hot tub' that overflowed into the shallow end.  The pool area itself was inside a netted enclosure so the bugs/lizards couldn't get in.  There was a table with cushioned straight-back chairs arrayed around it, and over by the hot tub were two reclining chairs.

This was home base, and probably my first "tip" to anyone doing this...

Tip 1:  Get a house.  If you're far enough off Disney property a vacation house is really affordable.  We were probably 20 minutes from Disney and the price was great.  We could cook meals for the kids (who are both picky) and everyone slept great (for the most part).  Both kids love the pool so we knew even if the day was a bust we could play all day in the pool and be relatively happy on off days, and we never had to worry about sharing with others.  (not that I have a problem sharing...but you know)

We had set the vacation up roughly as follows:

First Day/Night (Saturday):  Travel, unpack, get settled, put together a grocery list, order pizza, play by the pool.
Day 2 (Sunday):  Universal
Day 3 (Monday):  Rest/recuperate/pool day
Day 4 (Tuesday):  Disney
Day 5 (Wednesday):  Rest/recuperate/pool day
Day 6 (Thursday):  Sea World
Day 7 (Friday):  Pool day/pack up/clean up/travel home.

The idea was that we, not so much the kids, would need time to regroup after a day at an amusement park.  My sister had offered to help us by acting as support for Lily.  The entire family is very supportive of Lily but sometimes when we're encouraged to do things with the understanding that there'll be help to support Lily...we still end up focusing most of our attention on Lily and not on the thing we are trying to enjoy.  Sometimes it's just because we can be overbearing and "take over", sometimes it's because while everyone is enjoying whatever it is...they lose sight of what Lily's into, and if someone's not taking the lead on Lily, then the hive mind just assumes someone else is in charge.  But for whatever reason...this vacation did not go down that road.

My sister's kids were on vacation with their dad, and so Dawn was free (sorry if I'm not supposed to out you, Dawn, but I can edit it out later) and after a conversation with Leslie had offered to fly down for the first few days of our vacation...more or less to allow us more flexibility to pursue things that were geared for Emma but less likely to appeal to Lily.  Or for us just to go out and have dinner as a couple.  One of the highlights of the trip for me was just how smitten Lily became with Dawn being around.  The house, which was obviously not our house, became "Dawn's house".  When we were returning from something it was to go to Dawn's house.  Dawn used our "first/then" scheduling without really formally referring to it as such, which is always better with Lily..."First the storm has to be over...THEN we can go to the pool" and Lily would check in dozens of times..."Dawn?  Is the storm over?"  She'd climb into her lap and get uncomfortably close to her face and ask "When is pool time?"  It was nice to the see the interaction because Dawn's schedule is extremely hectic, and ours isn't much better, so their time together is birthdays and holidays for the most part.

I know I keep referring to Disney, but one of the biggest parts of the trip was centered around visiting the Harry Potter attraction at Univeral.  Because Leslie, Emma and I are all fans, and because we wanted to be able to ride the rides together, and not split apart so someone could be with Lily, Dawn's offer to help allowed the three of us to visit Universal while Lily and Dawn stayed behind and played in the pool.  If Dawn blogged, perhaps she could tell you how her day went...but ours was spectacular.

I feel like this almost needs its own Part...Part 3:  Universal, but I think I'm going to have at least one or two more parts as it is, so if this post gets a bit long, I apologize.  (I don't really care, but I think it's polite to apologize when inconveniencing other people.  Leslie's not here to counsel me on this...she's my moral/emotional compass.)


With Lily safely in Aunt Dawn's care, we set off for Universal.  For me, Universal was probably the highlight of the vacation.  This is written with no small amount of guilt.  To say that Universal was the highlight is to imply that "being without Lily was the highlight", so I want to make sure I qualify this properly.  Being at Universal, and doing all the fun things that *I* wanted to do, rather than standing on the sidelines while others did it and I watched, or consoled, or redirected, was for me...a bit of a vacation.  I'm not a big rider, but I rode several moderately tame rides, most of which were virtual and so didn't scare the witless shit out of me.  So I actually "enjoyed" the park itself where typically I'm just an observer.  So despite the guilt of saying it...Universal was more fun than Disney, and more fun than Sea World.  And although the pool play was awesome...I can play in the pool with the kids in Pittsburgh.  So Universal it is.

Jurassic Parking
Tip 2:  Pay for preferred parking.  At Universal (and Sea World) they offer you the possibility of parking closer to the entrance.   This option ended up costing us another $6...but it was either $16 or $22, and in the end, as the Orlando sky opened up and relieved itself of all the pent up humidity via nightly paid for itself in that we remained undrenched.

Tip 3:  Take some time to go over the map of whatever park you're in.  Identify the rides you think will be fun, or are appropriate, and plan your progression through the park based on that.  I probably could have done a better job of that throughout the vacation, but where we did it best was at Universal.  And to be fair, Universal is probably the easiest to do that with, since Disney is immense.

Universal is split into two parks...Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.  We elected to follow the route that would take us to Harry Potter quickest, which meant going to Islands of Adventure first.

The very first attraction was Suess Landing, and because I'm a chickenshit rider, we all felt confident that if I rode nothing else all day, at least I would be brave enough to tackle Suess Landing's offerings.  And I was.  I kicked ass at those rides.  But there was deep pang of regret as we climbed aboard what I felt (at the time) was a ride Lily would not only be capable of riding, but would enjoy.  And I started second-guessing leaving her behind.  And I felt like we were on a family vacation, but the family wasn't together.  And I felt like I'd betrayed her.  That I, her chiefest advocate (in a tie with her mother, of course) had taken the path of least resistance.

I think after Disney I could put aside those feelings, and indeed even as we progressed through Universal I was more and more comfortable with our decision as the park got progressively more intense heading toward Hogwarts.  But accompanying us on those first couple rides guilt rode passenger.  I managed to put on a brave face regardless.

The next attraction was The Lost Continent, and we stood in the long line to visit "Poseidon's Fury" which ended up being a moderately campy interactive "tour" of a lost tomb complete with story line in which we (the throngs of people crowding the darkened chamber) were playing the role of tourists trapped by circumstance in a war of gods.  It did my heart good that this was the next stop on our visit, because there is no way in hell Lily could have managed this.  Very crowded, very noisy, periods of prolonged darkness, thunder and lightning (big fear factor for Lily), fire...she'd have been traumatized.

That said...the end of Poseidon's Fury was actually pretty cool...campy or not.

There's so much to be said about how Universal shook out.  But I'm going to try to encapsulate it as briefly as I can and then just bombard you with pictures.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was awesome.  Lots of pictures of that.  There are a few rides, and many attractions and lots of picture-worthy nooks and crannies.  We visited Ollivander's wand shop for a presentation of "How the wand chooses the wizard".  Emma got picked as the young wizard who would demonstrate, which was great...we bought the wand, of course.

Hogwarts and the half virtual-half actual ride was awesome.  It got pretty intense for me, but if I can handle it, anyone can.

We had butterbeer and bought chocolate frogs and we all left with souvenirs...some of us more than one.

We could probably have spent more time there, but the ticket got us into both parks, and I wasn't really sure how we were going to accomplish that anyway, so we moved through the park.  Emma and Leslie rode some rides I didn't think I could handle, then we all rode the Spider-man virtual ride (also a bit intense at times, but okay for me) and ended Islands of Adventure with "The Hulk" which had just reopened and had NO line.  Really, the lack of crowd was great.

We meandered over to the other park, and ate dinner at Hard Rock (I ate a ridiculous hamburger) before visiting the Transformers ride (also fun) and then (when we found that ET was closed) wandering back over the bridge to our car as the rain started falling.

It was probably more than I've ever participated in an amusement park.  Coincidentally it was probably the best time I've had at an amusement park. 

Our day ended, we drove back home through the storm and arrived safely at "Pepper".

Story continued here:  Day 3: Disney's "magic"

Some eye candy:

Monday, August 26, 2013

What I Did on my Summer Vacation - Part 1

Our first grown up vacation.  By this I mean the first vacation that was not a part of someone else's vacation where we piggy-backed our vacation on top of it.  We've taken family vacations for longer than the kids have been alive, and while we pay our own way and drive our own car and pack our own bags...someone else was always doing most of the planning or at the very least it was much more of a cooperative effort, with assigned roles (this person brings laundry supplies, that person brings paper products, etc.).

This vacation was ours entirely, and we decided to go to Orlando.  It's hard not to say Disney.  We went to Disney.  But really it was Orlando, and Disney was to be the centerpiece.  It's like people who become geographically confused regarding which is the state, Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.  Orlando is not Disney...Disney is not Orlando.  But yeah, a vacation to Orlando.

At least that's how it started out.

But more on that later.

I have a really hard time even starting blog posts about huge events because I have trouble encapsulating the hugeness into bite size (post size) chunks, and when I start to contemplate the sheer 'muchness' that I need to cover...I get a little overwhelmed and just...don't write it.  I feel like I need to write this though, because it's big and more or less awesome and incorporates a bunch of firsts not just for Lily, but for Emma, and for Leslie and I.  So I'll cut the steak into bite sized chunks and feed it to you by the forkful.  Medium rare.

It all starts with the stress of air travel.

I am a reluctant flyer.  I hate the lines and the airport and the waiting, but I'm not autistic.  As much as I hate it...I can deal with it.  I can make sense of it.  So knowing what I know about the process of air travel (if not the actual terror I have of the flying itself) and knowing what I know about how tolerant Lily is of waiting in lines, remaining seated, being afraid of things (wasn't sure how she'd handle the jet noise or the take off/landing or the turbulence), confined spaces with crowds of people...I was absolutely dreading this trip. 

And by that I mean the travel part of the trip, not the actual vacation itself.

So we arrived at the airport and we used the "connector" with Lily just to keep her near us so we didn't stress about her wandering into crowds.  The connector (I'd mockingly referred to it as "the Freedom Tether") was like a mountain climbing rope with two belts.  The the rope itself was moderately elastic, and was attached to each belt via a carabiner.  The idea was that Lily would encounter resistance and become acclimatized to maintaining a certain distance from whomever she was connected and eventually settle into a blissful state of equilibrium, where she didn't struggle against the rope, but accepted it and began keeping step with us effortlessly.  The first time we'd discussed it I'd been...hostile.  I was still more than skeptical but reluctantly agreed that it made sense from a safety standpoint regardless of how it looked, and it even worked a little before Lily decided she's had enough and it stopped being a good fit for the adventure.  At one point I had it on in the airport McDonald's and she got the tether wrapped around her neck (not dangerously so) and I got freaked out and pissed off simultaneously...and my stress level ratcheted up yet another notch...but that comes later.

First was check in.  We'd been warned that Air Tran would strictly enforce the 50 pound bag limit.  much thought had been given to the selection of our luggage.  I took a scale up into our bathroom strictly to remove articles from one bag and pack them in another to balance out so that we'd have a 5 or 10 pound grace in each bag before getting to the airport.  We packed heavy items in the carry on.  We wore heavy shoes and packed light ones. 

They began checking us in.  I waited with a sick sense of foreboding.  They didn't weight bags.  They just put them on the fucking belt.  I very nearly stopped the lady and actually did say,"don't you need to w-...nevermind,"  before coming to my senses.  Like really???  Come ON!

Bags safely checked and on the flight, we were ready to tackle the next

Leslie walked ahead to the TSA agent and after a brief huddled discussion, waved to us to follow her.  There was no line.  There was no wait.  An agent was dispatched to walk with us, helping us carry bags.  She stopped the security line at one point and waived us through the X-ray-mahjigger so we could all get through together...and then we were done.  And I was like...huh?  That was awesome!

Where things got less awesome was at the gate.  Waiting for boarding.  Trying to keep Lily busy/happy.  Getting the kids fed.  Getting ourselves fed.  Snapping at each other.  The aforementioned tether/connector 'incident'.

We thought we had the right plan.  One of us would board early and get everything on the plane.  Then we'd follow with Lily at the absolute last minute so there was less time on the plane.  But in reality, Lily was melting down just outside the plane, slapping, pulling hair, trying to bite...and I felt so bad for her.  When she eventually did board, she was more or less fine.  And although she bounced back against the seat more than she kicked the seat in front of her (we bought seats so that Emma and I were sitting in front of Leslie and Lily for this very reason)...ultimately she quieted down nicely once we boarded and she was buckled in.

Emma got a treat
After that it was relatively smooth sailing.  We brought pads for the trip, and despite taking frequent potty breaks she had an accident during landing.  Without entirely skipping to the end of the story, we had a similar issue on the return trip to Pittsburgh.  Really, she was stellar throughout the week accident wise...but both landings.  And she was also a pill on both descents.  I think we chalked it up to the pressure.  She just didn't know what to do with it.  It hurt.  We tried feeding her fruit snacks and drinks, but when she got most uncomfortable she would refuse them.  And we couldn't explain in a way that made sense to her that if she'd just eat or drink it might help pop her ears.

When we landed things went smoothly.  My sister flew down to join us and provide us with some support, and we had to wait at the airport so we could share the minivan ride to the house we rented.  That seemed like more waiting...and more potential for trouble, but Lily loved the escalators, and the car rental place let me stuff all our luggage in the car so basically we just took turns showing Lily all the escalators.  She liked riding them up and down.  And Emma played Minecraft, but complained that her ears were hurting. 

My sister showed up, and after picking up her baggage, we all piled into the minivan and headed to the house.

Leaving the Orlando airport you have to pay tolls.  I knew this only because I'd had a project meeting there once, and had brought no cash (pretty typical for me, really) and had to stop at each toll plaza in order to fill out a form indicating I'd be responsible for sending the money or I could be arrested.  They don't take credit cards.  We brought cash.  We found ourselves and our home via three simultaneous smart phone searches and drove to the house to the competing voices of three separate GPS apps.

Continued in "Part 2".

Thursday, August 15, 2013

This One Time At ...Camp... Camp

My wife, after much thought and consideration (sangria) decided we were going camping for the first time with the entire family.  She informed the family on Tuesday, three days before we left, because it's not like our family requires time to transition or plan.

She immediately started packing and making ready all the supplies she felt we had (after consulting friends) and I scheduled a trip to REI to purchase the essentials we did not:  Gunpowder, ham hocks, and guitar strings. 

Let me back up...

My wife hosted a "girl's night" at our house one night when she knew I would be gone and wouldn't eff it up.  So they met and she hosted, and by the time I got there they were all half lit up and had convinced Leslie that camping with the entire family would be not only fun, but good for her.  And honestly, given the group they probably had the best shot at convincing her because all of them work with Lily on a day-to-day basis during the school year.  They were going...built in support...why NOT go?

And of all the thousand reasons I would ordinarily have been able to dream up, I came up with..."but the laundry" and ..."but grocery shopping..." and I was ignored and we were going camping and that was fine.  And the reason it was fine is the same reason that the group we were going with had the best shot at convincing Leslie.  It wasn't just going to be us.  We'd have built-in support.

Emma was, of course, beside herself with joy.  She has wanted to go REAL camping for as long as we've been going backyard camping, so for her, this was the realization of all her desires.  Fishing/camping out/s'mores...

Friday I got home five or ten minutes early.  Leslie had essentially packed everything, and as is typical for our pre-trip organization and packing, she was stressed to the gills and finding it extremely difficult (I assume) to reply to any questions in any sort of..."civil" tone.

A blogging friend sent me a Facebook message telling me to have fun and not to drive my wife insane. I replied, "I promise not to drive her crazy if she lives through the fucking drive...her stress manifests itself in the form of excessive shrewery."  

Leslie gets stressed before trips or parties and then bites everyone who comes within range.  Fine...bites me when I come in range.  She gets over it very quickly and is apologetic and sweet, but I find that her stress level ratchets up higher the closer we get to departure.  And then once we depart, like a rubber band snapping, so too does her stress.  Meanwhile though, we were in the final minutes...

The blogger then asked, "how does your stress manifest itself?"  

"I start saying fuck a lot."

But really what happens is I get super defensive and immediately bite back and make whoever bit at me as absolutely miserable as possible, which is the exact best combination for building to a fight.  

When we arrived we put up two tents because we didn't have a big one, and Leslie and Lily took one while Emma and I took the other.  And it's probably for the best because we verbally bit and scratched halfheartedly at each other until...maybe Saturday.  Because....

Once we were all together, and at the campsite with tents set up and children fed, the rain began to fall.  And we huddled together, our three groups, under a canopy, drinking beer and getting soaking wet from about 9:00 until we dispersed to our respective tents a shorter time later than perhaps we would all have preferred had the weather been different.

Leslie took Lily at her usual bedtime but the patter of the rain, or perhaps the barking of dogs or happy shrills of playing children (you never think about how loud kids are until you're in a tent with paper thin walls trying to put your 7 year old to sleep) kept her awake.  Or maybe she just had to go to the bathroom.  An hour or so after we put her to 'bed' (Dora sleeping bag) she asked to go to the bathroom...and we rigged our potty seat in the corner of the tent for privacy and Lily, after much sitting, went...and then fell asleep.  

I'm trying to gauge whether this was "the low point".  It's close.  But maybe wait a bit...

That night the rain fell almost constantly.  At one point it was dripping inside Leslie and Lily's tent and I realized the rain flap that covered the mesh "vent" at the top of their tent was on sideways and left an opening.  We fixed that and fixed most of the problem...

Over in my tent, I slept like crap for the most part.  But I slept.  And where there was some water, at least there was no point where rain was just falling directly from the sky and into the tent.  There was some periodic dripping that came tap, tap, tapping on my sleeping bag...but I'd rearrange the flap, or move my sleeping bag to one side or slap the water away or whatever and it would be fine until it would find some other ingress and start again a half hour later.

Emma and I both woke several times when the rain fell heaviest, and I think I woke once and for all around six in the morning when the roaming leak found its way directly into my ear hole, with me playing Hamlet's father to mother nature's Claudius.  But unlike King Hamlet I woke, batting away at God's own wet willy before sitting up and realizing that this was 1) as much sleep as I was bound to get and 2)  I realllllly had to pee.

Leslie too was awake, texting me when she heard the rustle of my sleeping back against the air mattress.  I got up and wandered to the bathroom, leaving a sleeping Emma behind before relieving Leslie so she could go.

We assessed the damages in Leslie and Lily's tent...

Where the air mattress raised the sleeping bags off the ground they remained dry, so that should have been most of it, but the backpacks with all the dry clothes?  Those remained on the tent floor where the rain puddled and ponded and saturated everything that should and must remain dry (unless you go without clothing) while they slept.

All of Lily's clothes were soaked.

The adults gathered into an impromptu counsel of war...should we stay?  Should we go?  There was no consensus, but I was leaning toward going.  This might have been our low point had one of the groups not attempted to start their truck only to find the battery completely dead.  Nobody else in the group could drive up the wet grass of the hill to jump the vehicle, and with the battery dead, they couldn't shift it into neutral in order to push it down the hill to us.

This then...this was the low point.  Car dead, soaked clothes, rain still falling, sad children...

And Lily slept on...maybe that's the candle flickering in the night...because Lily just kept on sleeping.  And when she woke and Leslie began feeding her, I was taking clothes and backpacks in dripping bundles down to the front offices laundromat.  Who knew??  Camping/laundromat!  Victory is mine!

And then the rain stopped and the sun came out.  And we pulled the sleeping bags from the tents and drained the water, draping them over our vehicles and letting the sun dry them out.  We got coffee from the office and finished drying out our clothes.  The kids rode their bikes down to the playground, the fire was rekindled, and a fellow camper drove his four wheel drive up the hill and jump started the truck.  And the consensus more night.

It's going to be hard to lay it all out for you because so much got jammed into that day, and I've already put off posting this for so long because there was so much...and there's only so much you all will read before you're like..."Wall of words!  Done!!"  So many things I want to write about that would stretch this post out...the half whimsical purchase of the camp knife and thoughts of whittling away at drift wood by a camp fire, the remembered packs of wild kids, peddling off into adventure and away from the parents' watchful eyes...maybe another post another time.

So let me try to sum up:

S'mores, mountain pies, swimming pool, campfire, charades, wading, fishing, bike riding, basketball, whittling, beer, and a cloudless day with a cool night under starry skies, Lily, in pajamas, sitting on our laps and gobbling roasted marshmallow from the point of a fire-blackened stick, and then again sleeping peacefully until morning.  She really was a good girl throughout the whole thing and LOVED the dog (Chesney) who came along with one of the families.  It feels like I'm doing the actual camping part a huge injustice since most of this is about the rain...but it felt nostalgic, like a trip from MY childhood.  The kids riding together in a big pack...getting on their bikes to peddle down to office to buy something, and then racing them back to play basketball...everyone included...everyone watching out for each other. 

And Emma offered this, "This was probably the best weekend of my whole life."  Almost like she had that father's day backyard camping trip so many years before.

And so we'll try again next year, and hope for a better first night.  As for "real" camping...maybe this is as "real" as it needs to be, with a pond stocked with fish, a laundromat "just in case", clean bathrooms and showers, a playground, basketball courts, and a swimming pool.  We'll take the Montana camping trip when we have this version down to a science.

Entrance to camp

Emma and my quarters

Just prior to rainfall...

Day 2...She's "king of the world" the playground

I am mauled by a bear and made its bitch.

Lake which worms died to bring us fish.

Blue gill...Emma caught it but refused to kiss it and turn it into a prince.

The great white whale that I pulled from the depths at great personal risk.

pretty in the foreground, pretty in the background, pretty all around.

She did this without prompting

The camping crew...

Chesney bids farewell to Lily...

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Cell

The dance moms (I'm only an honorary member) formed a child will have a phone until her 13th birthday.  They shook on it and then caved en masse and promptly went to the local Verizon store to buy all their 9 year-old's cell phones.  For years Emma remained one of the few remaining un-celled.

After many repeated whining requests, but mostly in honor of all her hard work over this Summer, we too caved and decided to give our 11 year old a cell phone.  Two years prior to our promise to ourselves and to her that she would have a phone when she was 13, but two years AFTER most of the other dance moms and their broken there's that tiny victory. 

It's my old phone, but it's still a pretty sweet deal.  

There are all sorts of reasons why an 11 year old should have a cell phone.  And also a whole host of reasons (maybe more) why she shouldn't.  Emma's a pretty active kid, and she rides the bus home, and although a cell phone is not a will be pretty convenient her having it.  

We waited until Leslie got home from work and told Emma together.  To say she was touched would be a gross understatement.  We told her how proud we were of all the work she'd done.  We explained how even though sometimes it seems like all we see are the bad things, we've seen how hard she's worked all summer, volunteering, doing gymnastics and dance, CLO camp...she's exhausted every night, and we've both seen first hand how hard she works herself during the day.  We told her as soon as I'd copied her iTouch over to my old phone we'd give it to her.

Before giving it to her though, we wanted her to understand 'da rulez'.  I emailed her a copy and printed it out.  She read it out loud, happily and eagerly agreeing to each caveat, patiently listening as I explained what I'd meant as I'd written them.  

I tried to pull from various sources to come up with suggestions.  After comparing and contrasting them I added a couple, subtracted a few, and was left with what you'll see here. 

Many items copied, bastardized and adapted from the following articles:


Cell Phone Rules

My Responsibilities

I will:
  • Keep my phone charged at all times.  "My battery was dead" will never be an acceptable excuse for not answering an important phone call.
  • Always answer calls from my mother or father.  If I miss a call I will immediately call back.
  • Always obey my school's policies on cell phone use while at school, unless my parents' rules are more restrictive, in which case I will continue to follow them. 
  •  Immediately inform my parents if any of my friends or I am being harassed by cell phone, whether it is by text, call, email or social media.
  •  Alert my parents if I receive suspicious or alarming calls/texts/comments
    1.  unknown person (prior to replying)
    2.  harassing me or friends
    3.  embarrassing or inappropriate 
  • Know where my phone is at all times, and keep it in good condition
  • obey rules of etiquette regarding cell phones in public places. I will make sure my phone is turned off when I am in church, in restaurants, quiet settings or as requested by my parents.
  • hand my phone over to my parents when they wish it without argument, so that they can check the contents, email, social media and text.  "I forgot my password" will not be an acceptable response to parent's requests for access.
  • put my phone away when visiting with friends and family.
  • lose my phone if I fail to honor the terms of our agreement.

I will not:
  • send threatening or mean texts/emails/social media messages to others.  
  • take or share embarrassing or inappropriate pictures of myself or others.
  • use my cell phone to bully others.
  • participate in conversations where others are harassed or bullied.
  • text or place phone calls after 9 p.m.
  • bring my cell phone to the family dinner table

Some things to remember:

Don't post anything on social media or via email or text that you aren't willing to copy your parents on.  Don't say things on text/email/social media) that you aren't ready to say in person.  If the phone breaks or is lost, there will be no replacement.  If you want to replace or repair the phone you will have to pay for it.

happy kid
She has her phone at last.  She asked if there was anything she needed to sign, and I told her no, that her word was good with us.  I told her if she got confused she could always look at the copy I'd emailed her, and to ask us if she had questions.

We told her she'd have to use her money to buy a case, and when we drove to Best Buy, she purchased the absolute safest and most expensive cover she could find - three ply - with a screen protector under the screen protector.  She wants that phone SAFE.

Today she took her new phone to "work" volunteering.  This is her last week there, and she's sad to go.  We told her to take lots of pictures.  For the past two nights she's told us this is the best Summer that she's ever had.  She is a happy kid.