Being a Dad…the best role I've ever had.

20171020_211957 (1)So, every year, from about mid September to the end of October, theme and amusement parks around the country do their Halloween haunts.  These haunts are full of haunted mazes, houses, ‘scare zones’ and shows. People generally attend these events for the purpose of getting scared and being entertained. Seems reasonable, right?  I thought so, until the last few years, anyway.

Cedar Fair, the parent company of one of my local theme parks, Kings Dominion, started selling ‘No Boo’ necklaces for ten dollars.  The purpose of the necklace is simple: when worn and turned on (they light up) the ‘scare actors’ are not supposed to ‘come after’ the wearer.

What?

So, I’m going to spend forty to fifty dollars for park entrance and another ten for a necklace so I WON’T get scared? Seriously?  Who do they think I am? Why in the world would I do that? Its Halloween, right? 20171014_212046

Well, on a recent visit, I found out why one would purchase them.  See, these events are not for children or people with certain conditions, like PTSD or weak hearts.  It was the child aspect, however, that made me aware.

Years ago, when my oldest son was about five or six, my late wife and I took him to his first ‘haunt’ experience at Kings Dominion.  The two had this bond with Halloween: Chase LOVED dressing up and going around the block and then giving out the candy. Jo Ellen LOVED it too, but she loved the being scared part as well.  So, naturally, the Halloween event at the park would be perfect. Only, it wasn’t.

Chase got so upset after the second maze, I took him aside and rode a few rides and walked around with him to get him calmed down.  I had to avoid things so he could still have a good time.  That no boo necklace would have been perfect.

The next year, however, was quite different. He WANTED to go and loved being scared. But, that first year, yeah, that was a big fat mistake.  Had we had the boo necklace, though, it may have been different.

That recent visit, though, showed me the necessity of the necklace as well as the quality of the people that the park hired.  While watching Chase scare (yes, that same frightened little boy grew up and now does the scaring) people, we saw a family walk through the ‘Cleaver Brothers’ scare zone.  Cleaver Brothers represents a circus show full of evil clowns.  Scary clowns. 

This family consisted of the mother, father and three children of various ages, but no older than maybe seven.  As they went through the zone, each of the actors would stop and interact with the children. Every time, those kids were smiling and laughing and having a wonderful time.  I was amazed at how well the actors managed to be scary to guests near the children, yet not scare the hell out of the kids.  It was obvious that both the kids and the actors were enjoying it.

Not to be cliche, but it was a wonderful sight and heartwarming. It was very nice to see and these young people, as well as the park, deserve major kudos for walking a very fine line.  It would have been very easy for the actors to ignore the children and go after the adults. They didn’t and it was nice to see.

I even saw some actors in the ‘Ironworx’ zone interact with some adults who were wearing the necklaces. While not as nice to see as the kids, it was a welcome sight nonetheless. I don’t know why those people wore them, nor do I need to know. They had reasons and that’s OK. 

Did I say ‘heartwarming’?

Oh…I did.

Heartwarming and Halloween don’t seem to go together.

They did. This time.

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Remember, context is king

Sometimes, it is difficult to remember how well you really have it when things are seemingly going wrong.  Just today, I found out that a co-worker of mine may not be with us for much longer.  I cannot imagine how this person must feel, knowing that, in a matter of months, they may not be here. 

So, when I heard that my nine year old was having a difficult day, I thought-initially-boy, he doesn’t know how great his life really is.

That thought, though, only lasted a few moment…until I heard him on the phone. See, while Preston is not eaten up with cancer, in his mind, at that moment, he may as well be.  In my talks with him, and from reading the blog posts of others who are also ‘on the spectrum’, they describe the same thing: the world is, basically, ending for them.

With Preston, getting him calm is paramount and THEN finding out what put him over the edge. It is a delicate and very fine line and, once in a while, we break it and things can get much worse before it gets better.

Today seems to be a little different.  I wasn’t home to help him cope and couldn’t really handle it on the phone, so he did the best he could.

When I got home, he was fine. The house was in one piece and his brother was still kicking.  All in all, a great outcome.

In talking with him about his bad day, I realized that it isn’t just what happens in the same day, but it could also be from the previous day.  Last night, we had Stevi B’s pizza, Sweet Frog and a short cooling down period before bedtime. A lot was crammed into one evening. He also has not had his ‘daddy time’ as he was sick during the time his father would normally have picked him up.

It is the little things like can add up to a major event and sometimes we forget that. 

And, context is key.  Something I need to keep in mind.  Here I was, Concerned and upset over my co-worker’s condition, dismissing what my step son was going through. But, in Preston’s mind, he may as well have been that co-worker.

While I am glad it was good out come for a melt down day, I am heartbroken over my friend..

I am a father who has hit and passed the half century mark. I remember when I was child, my mother-who was not my biological mother-was a very doting mother. I could do no wrong and was sheltered from quite bit for a long time. But, even so, she never thought twice about letting me go outside and play. I would go out and play by myself or with any number of the other foster children for which she cared. At one point, I had ten ‘brothers and sisters’ to play with. We lived in an old, two story house sitting on a major thoroughfare in Richmond, Virginia.

We played with matches. We shot off model rockets. Rode our bikes through the woods behind the house. She even let the teenagers walk us across the street to the Minit-Mart to buy ‘penny candy’. We were each given two dollars and, with that, could buy about 100 pieces of candy AND get a soda with change left over. Sometimes, we would pool all of the candy use it as prizes in some stupid playing card game we made up.

We did much of this unsupervised.

And, that’s just the way it was, in the early to mid 1970’s.

Fast forward to 1997. I’m married, fat and have a child. I was probably starting to lose my hair too. I was a far cry that skinny, pasty, lanky and nerdy kid. Well, I was still pasty.

In holding my newborn, I remember all of the things I got away with, wondering how in hell I survived. If you believe everything you read then or now, I never should have it through puberty, let alone become a fat, middle aged father. But, I did. And so did many others.

Of course, all of the reminiscing I did at the time, led me and my late wife to shelter our child, much like my mother did to me. But, the difference, this time, was that we never let Chase go out and play unsupervised. Not that he really ever wanted to, unless he was with his cousins. We lived in a nice neighborhood in Chesterfield County, but it was one that did not have many children, especially those his age.

Even if it had, I don’t know that we would have changed.

As time went on, we loosened our parental grips and allowed him to do more. To our delight or dismay, I’m not sure which, the worst thing he ever wanted to do was watch the TV show COPS. Otherwise, he wanted to immerse himself in video games, the Weather Channel and Nickelodeon. Spongebob and ‘All That’. Yeah, we raised quite the rebel, we did.

Fast forward a few more years and I now have two more children. I live in a neighborhood full of kids of many age groups. April and I aren’t quite as stringent, but…yeah, we still don’t like the kids being out by themselves, we do keep an eye on them. We are very careful about whose homes that they are allowed in (for some reason, other parents are that way toward us…) but, we don’t shelter them quite as much.

I don’t want them to watch COPS. I don’t want them walking up and down the road without us. Did I say ‘i’? I meant ‘we’. Anyway, WE don’t want them seeing most of the crap WE watch. I don’t explain everthing to them…they don’t need to know. Right? Right?

I walk around a local theme park and see all of these kids with out parental units and bemuse ‘I would never let MY kids do that.’ Truth is, if we felt comfortable with the friends they hang with AND there are adults with them SOMEWHERE is that park, I probably would. I see those same kids with smartphones and think ‘I’m NOT spending that kind of money for phones for them’ when, in fact, we probably would. I see the young guys acting all dumb and goofy when the girls are around and think ‘MY son won’t be THAT way’, when, yeah, he will be.

No matter how much we protest ‘well, I did that and look at me’ the truth is you won’t know until it is that time.

Chase is a fine young man. Yes, I probably should have loosened up a bit before I did. But, I think he is who he is because, in part, of how he was raised. We weren’t perfect. We made a lot of mistakes and, I really wish a few things were different. And, while I made a point to spend an hour or two every night with only him, there are times I question whether or not I spent enough time with him. Once in a while, I feel the same now. Am I spending enough time with my kids? Probably not. But, what is ‘enough time’? With my four year old, it seems to vary on a minute by minute basis. With my nine year old, playing a game now and then and having that nightly bed time talk seems to be right.

Still, I wonder…if we were as care free about parenting today and our parents seem to have been, how would our kids turn out? Are we too protective? Should we give them more latitude as the ‘experts’ say?

I don’t know, but I think they will be fine either way.

 

Lookout Dollywood!

I am lucky to have a family who shares at least one of my passions: theme 20171002_121905parks. Since I can remember, I have LOVED the thrill of the rollercoaster. ANY rollercoaster.  Along with that, I have a fondness for amusement parks and theme parks (there is a difference.)  I remember the old Ocean View Amusement park in Norfolk, Virginia. I grew up going to Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. I recall going to a now forgotten theme park called Storybook Land, though there were no rollercoasters there, much to my dismay.  Along the way, I married and had a child…Chase. Chase shares my love of the thrill ride and, as he grew, we began to venture outside of our confines and went to places we had not gone…Carowinds in Charlotte, NC and Six Flags America in Maryland.  There were small amusement parks in or near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Included in them is the now defunct Hard Rock Park.

When I remarried, I gained another enthusiast.  Actually, I gained two…her son also likes the thrill ride.  And, now, we have a four year old who also loves the parks, but…his love of thrill rides has yet to develop. I am sure it will, though. 

Over the last couple of years, Chase and I have gone to parks in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  One park, though, to our west, had remained elusive: Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

An opportunity arose, recently, that would bring us to within a 45 minute drive of that park, so…we spent a day at Dollywood, though, ironically, Chase was not able to be with us.  We did, however, have a great time there.  We rode all but one of the rollercoasters and the kids did many of the ‘flat’, non coaster rides.

The kids LOVED it.

Which is both interesting and amazing. 

See, one of the kids, Preston, is autistic and the four year old has sensory issues.  While Xander eschews the rollercoasters, he loved the spinning rides. Interesting as he hates wind in his face. With the associated noise, light, crowd and wind, the amusement parks can be overwhelming. Even for neurotypical people, parks can be a bit too much.  Neither child had a significant problem, though, by the end of the day, they were done.

Preston rode several rollercoasters, each of which present sensory issues, yet, he rode them like a boss.  I think that without certain influences and the lack of a real crowd at the park, he was able to  soldier on and not let it get to him.

The key was the lack of a crowd.  Preston is easily distract and, thus, without the crowd, he focused on having fun.  Likewise, Xander was able  to cope as he, too, had few influences.20171003_123154

The long drive back to the Richmond area was a real challenge as we picked up a Dachsund puppy-the real point to the trip-who was worse than either child. He is adorable, so all is forgiven. The kids? Awesome.

Aside from Chase not being with us, it was a fantastic trip.

Seeing Dolly would have been the icing on the cake.

Maybe next time.

I have been a parent for twenty years. In all of those years, I have experienced a few times when it really, truly sucked.  The first time, Chase was in the hospital because he was not breathing well.  All kinds of scary words were bandied about by the doctors. Ultimately, is was an asthma attack, and he was fine. It was, up to that point, the most scared I ever felt. 

The second time, I had to tell Chase he was going to lose his mother.  That was an awful day and one I do not wish on any one. Watching your mate of nearly twenty years die is bad enough, telling your twelve year old is even worse.

While the third time isn’t quite the same, it was equally painful. That was the day Chase moved out and on his own.  While Preston and Xander still live us, and will for a few more years, having my first born move out was painful.  I never really thought it would be quite that bad, but, it was.  Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of him and am happy he can survive on his own. He is doing quite well. 

Even though he is a fine, 20 year old young man, Chase is still my little boy, and always will be.  He has been a rock for myself, indeed, our whole family.  We did quite a bit together, went to a NASCAR race (he hates them, that’s his biggest flaw), been on numerous trips together and, best of all, he shares my love of thrill rides and amusement parks. 

That love of amusement parks, the thrill rides and games have served as a bonding mechanism.  We can have fun doing other things, but nothing has compared to the trips we have taken to amusement parks.

The last two years we have made the trip from Richmond to Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina just to ride rollercoasters.  But, honestly, it wasn’t so much the destinations, for me, but the journey getting there.  We talked, shared things we had not shared in the past and just enjoyed the drives. 

Recently, I went to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with my family.  We all went…my wife, in-laws, Xander and Preston.  Chase, however, was unable to go.  This was the first time I went to a new to us park without him.  While I had aa great time with my family, there was something missing.  Seeing the joy and sense of wonder in Preston and Xander was awesome and reminded me of the same thing I saw in Chase–and still do–when he was a child.  The trip, though, just wasn’t the same.  And, that is something I need to get used to…going places without him.  He has his own life and will be doing things without us.  He still wants to do things with me, and that is just awesome. I will cherish those time as much as I do all of the years worth up to now. And, I have two more children to do so with, and that, too, is awesome.

I guess I should be happy with all of the memories, but, I am a selfish son of a bitch and don’t want to let go.  But, as with everything, I guess I have to…so, I guess that is the fourth time.

Man, this growing up thing is hard.

My wife is home schooling Preston, as the local school system could not really cope with his unique needs and abilities.  Children who are on ‘the spectrum’ are not like neurotypical children.  In Preston’s case, he not only is bright, but gets bored and pays attention to things that most people would not, like the order of books on a shelf or a sign that should not be up. Things like that. So, because his needs were not being sufficiently handled by the school system-and, don’t get me wrong, Hanover Schools are excellent, for most.  I have nothing against this school system or even Preston’s former school–they just are not equipped or staffed to handle one, let alone many-which they claim they do.

Anyway, as part of Preston’s home school curriculum, I am teaching him programming and how computers work.

To my delight, he has a knack for the programming part. I think he will for the hardware as well, though his mind wanders a great deal when I am teaching him about the hardware.  A good programmer should know the basics of how the computer works.

Along those lines, I dug up a small computer (one with very little capabilities called an ‘Arduino’, they are used for controlling things) and an old laptop and we made two LED’s blink in varying patterns and duration.  While he got a bit bored while I was setting it up, he got very excited when we made the LED’s do things. 

That was fun, but it also showed me a bit about his very anal attention:  those LED’s HAD to blink at precise intervals.  He could not cope with random intervals of on or off. He also did not like the brightness. I explained that, while we can control the brightness, we were not doing so then, that was for another lesson.  He, reluctantly, went along with that, but those LED’s blinking differently, he could not take that.  So, we changed the program so they would blink at a constant rate. I had him tell me how to do that.  With only a few lessons, he was able to do that. 

Of course, by that point, our four year old was interested and, he too, wanted to make the LED’s blink.  Preston and I changed the code so that you could type a number and make the LED’s blink at that rate.  Xander was just as excited as Preston.

It is amazing how Preston reasons things and how well he remembers. This was the first lesson in a couple of weeks and he remembered the last things we did–I did a verbal quiz and he was 100% correct. 

HIs tendency to be so anal, though, can be a slippery slope.  We will work through the rough spots, but I think he will be able to use it as a strength.  In this case, the randomness of the blinking LED’s  made him a bit nuts, but he worked through that and came up with a solution.

Of course, the notion that a dollar’s worth of parts would provide he and Xander with so much fun is, itself, amazing. Like his brain. 

I love that kid.

The Nightly Talk

As a parent to a child who has been deemed to be ‘on the spectrum’, things could get a bit tense at times.  Those ‘times’ are much less frequent they used to be and we are better equipped to handle them than we were just a couple of years ago. While labels are often hurtful or carry a ton of baggage, Autistic doesn’t have to be such a label.

My step son is proud of himself and he should be.  He is quite the accomplished young man, at the ripe old age of nine.  Indeed, he knows more, about many things, than many ‘normal’ adults I know. This can be as much of a problem as it is a plus.  The problem is that (and this is something I think most people in general all share) he honestly believes he is right and it can quite a shock when he realizes he was wrong.

One such incident led to what is now a nightly occurrence for us: nightly talks for us. On the night in question, Preston was already out of sorts. He had had a long, busy day and his wonderful brain was in overdrive. We were discussing something and he told me something that was not right.  So I explained that he misunderstood and, well, it was meltdown city. 

Fortunately, I had gotten to know how to deal with him and was able to calm him down. I sat with him for about an hour, talking about funny things we had done and assured him that I was not upset with him and that we all loved him very much.  He thanked me and told me that the talk helped him calm down.  He gave me a big hug and went right to sleep.

The next night, was easier.  He had a busy day, and, this time, when said something that wasn’t quite right, I said ‘well, I’m not sure about that, but will check it out and we will talk about it tomorrow.’  He then asked me to talk to him for a few minutes, that it might help him to calm down.  Sure enough, it did.  This was many months ago, I’ve lost track of when we started, but it has been a while.

Funny thing happened, though.  I got to know him a bit better.  We often have these really deep or very high level discussions about things as varied as cars to black holes in space. He loves space, science and pretty much anything technical.  Did I mention he is only nine years old (as of this writing)?  I also realized that this kid, who is not my biological child, is very much like me.  We share a lot of common interests and also have many of the same mannerisms.  I also realized that he is very much a nine year old BOY.  And, as a boy, he finds ‘boy things’ funny. Like burps, farts and other bodily sounds.  Yes, I know girls do too, so don’t get wonky on me.

As he is only nine and does ‘boy things’, we must keep that in mind when he acts up.  How much of it is being a kid and how much is because of the way he is wired.  It is a fine line, to be sure.  Sometimes, we get it right, sometimes we don’t.

This is as much an education for him as it is for us.  He lets us know, most of the time, what his mind is doing.  And…likewise, he uses that to his advantage. He is, after all, a very intelligent kid.

Back to the nightly talks.

Well, before we get back to Preston, let me share another side effect: my youngest son also wants me to talk to him at bedtime as well.  So, I talk a few minutes with him-usually about when I ‘was a kid.’  He loves it, but not every night.  That’s OK, I spend a lot of time on the weekends with him.  We talk a lot.

These talks, often times lasting thirty minutes or more, have become something I look forward to, even when I have something else I need or want to do. I miss them on the weekend as Preston spends that time with father.

I always start them out by asking how his day was.  Even though I often get the same answer, that’s OK.  I’d rather him repeat himself than not tell me anything. I also want him to know that I am, in fact, interested in what he does.  He is beginning to open up more and more.  I also have a couple of things I repeat every time, including a fake misunderstanding of Spongebob Squarepants.  I integrate that into a seemingly unconnected conversation…

“So, I saw this car today with a cute little bumper sticker. It was this yellow, boxy thing with pants and holes” He will look at me, smile and shout “SPONGEBOB!” to which I reply “oh, you’ve seen it!?”  It gets him smiling and makes him a bit more responsive. But, I think it is time to retire it and move on to something else. He got irritated with it the last time I did it.  He asked ‘why do you DO THAT!?’  I blame it on being old. It made him giggle.

Sometimes, though, I forget who I am talking to and say something that upsets him, like talking about sickness or something that has happened in the world. This usually begins with him asking about something related.  I can tell when he is starting to get upset and I quickly change the subject.  But…unfortunately, by that point, he is processing what was said. He may not mention it the next day or for days, but he will bring it up again.  Sometimes, he tries to rationalize it himself.  He does a great job with that, sound reasoning and conclusion…even when it is not right.

He looks at things very differently than I do.  It is refreshing and, to be honest, I would not have him any other way.  I hate what his mind goes through during a meltdown or when he begins to get upset, but, still, he is who he is because of the way he is wired and that’s what is important to remember.  I love that kid.

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