A summertime education

It’s not officially summer until next week, but since I live in the desert, it’s been summer here for weeks. I’m pretty sure the forecast for my town on June 20, summer’s first day, is 110 degrees.

When I think of summer, I think of children running through a field of waist-high grass. The sun setting behind a barn in the background and lightning bugs just beginning their nightly dance. American flags standing at attention and red, white and blue bunting draped on porches. Sparklers and sunburns. Barbecues and the beach.

None of that is representational of what my childhood looked like.

Except for one all-American summer.

The summer I was 14-years-old I took an epic– and utterly ridiculous– road trip with my father and step mom.

Few times have I made my sister laugh harder than when I’m telling her stories of that fateful vacation.

In order to remotely understand how insane the entire trip was, I have to give a little background on my dad.

My parents divorced when I was 5 and my mother and I moved 300 miles away. He followed shortly after and rented the  condo across the street (my mom totally loved that).

Every morning he’d stand on the front porch with a bowl of cereal and wave goodbye as my mom left for work. He sort of had that I’m-probably-a-stalker-but-probably-harmless-thing going on.

He was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism to impress his third wife. His fourth wife wasn’t impressed, so he became “spiritual.” His fifth wife– the step mom that went with us on our trip– was Catholic….you can see where this is going.

He didn’t graduate from high school but could put a truck engine together in mere hours, solve logic problems like no one’s business and was a meticulous restorer of old crap. He was one of the most unintelligent and smartest people I’ve known.

The summer between middle school and high school was one of a lot of change for me; we’d just moved to a new town. A 14-year-old girl starting high school in a new town should have time to unpack, get settled, meet people….so my mom sent me on a road trip with the father I rarely talked to.

Here are just a few of the things that happened:

My father and step mom lived in a trailer, as in, the kind you hook to a truck and pull (you should hear about the summer I lived with him at the KOA campground in Porterville, Calif., also known as “the summer I spent with the carnies.”). He had a cargo van that he spent months retrofitting with a “luxury” chair he got from a junkyard, a screened-window that slid open and a little table with “two different size cup holders!” For most of the trip I slept on the floor of the van and let the dog sleep in the luxury chair because 1. I was convinced that someone had died in it and 2. I was 14 (I quickly figured out that this seating arrangement made him very mad. So I kept it up.).

Just weeks before the trip I’d been introduced to musical theatre-magic when I saw a production of The Who’s Tommy. I listened to the sound track on my Walkman from California to Tennessee. Whenever he said anything I’d yell, “I can’t hear you!” Pointing to my headphones, I’d say, “He’s a pinball wizard dad. Do you know any pinball wizards?”

My father drove three hours off the route we were taking so we could go to the home of Amelia Earhart’s grandparents. She was born in that house. I was named after the woman. He didn’t want to spend the $7 for me to take the tour so we hit the road again….and later that day ended up at the Wizard of Oz Museum. Of course we paid the entrance fee for that.

We had to stop at every air museum we came across because the man was convinced he was an airplane aficionado.

I got in trouble for running the video camera batteries down filming his bald spot for an hour while we drove around Nashville. In the background you could hear him saying things like, “Face the camera out the window, you’re missing the sights” to which I would reply, “Nope, this bald spot is about as good as this trip’s gonna get.” Did I mention I was 14?

The day we spent in a library in Idaho. For no conceivable reason.

There was the time, at a campground in Mississippi, when my step mom blindfolded herself with a handkerchief claiming it would help her tired eyes and then proceeded to try to make dinner… OVER AN OPEN FIRE! This is an absolute, hand-over-my-heart, true story.

Or when the man dragged me to Dollywood and later told all the family we visited that I wanted to go. It cost about $60 for the three of us to get in there and I wasn’t named after Dolly Parton. (However, on a recent episode of The Bachelorette, I was slightly excited when a date was filmed in the theater at Dollywood. “I’ve totally been there,” I said out loud to no one as I was watching it.)

The whole trip came to a screeching halt when we returned to California and, instead of going to see an Elvis impersonator with my dad and step mom, I chose to go back home a couple of days early. My step mom actually said this to my mom: “I just can’t believe she doesn’t want to see Elvis. How ungrateful!”

I do have some special memories of that trip though.

Using a giant field in Tyler, Texas as a runway and flying in a tin can-airplane with a friend of my dad’s.

Sitting alone on a porch in Illinois watching lightning bugs. I’d never seen them before and haven’t seen them since, but the magic of them made me cry. I want my children to see lightning bugs before they’re adults. Better yet, when they’re exactly 14 and think everything sucks and no one understands them.

Walking through the woods in Flagstaff, Ariz. in a torrential downpour.

The morning I sat at the end of a pier on a lake in Mississippi and watched mist rise up off the water and birds diving for fish. Surrounding the lake were willow trees, their branches dancing a weeping waltz. That scene is forever-etched in my mind.

Or Fourth of July in McMinnville, Tenn. when my half-brothers poured a gallon of gasoline on a bucket of fireworks and lit it (In my mind I heard a banjo and the sound of rushing river water). “Oh, this is about to get good,” I remember thinking. My dad was pacing around, totally freaking out. The whole thing exploded and a lone firework shot across the street and hit my dad’s van. My comment of, “Too bad the door wasn’t open and the thing didn’t light up the chair,” was met with a volley of curse words.

I shook Al Gore’s hand in Chicago. I’m not an Al Gore fan, but it was still cool. My Repulican-father could be heard on the video saying, “Rush Limbaugh would hate this!” Oy.

That summer wasn’t all bad. If he did anything right, my dad gave me freedom– or he needed a break from the teenage daughter he rarely saw. He let me explore and wander and soak up the places we were visiting. It’s also possible he was hoping someone would abduct me.

One day, before our children know everything and think we’re totally un-cool, I hope my husband and I are able to take them on a family road trip.

I can envision my oldest son on that pier in Mississippi; my oldest daughter laughing as wind whips through her hair in a rickety, old airplane. My littlest boy lighting way too many fireworks on a rural road and the baby of the family fighting her fear of bugs in order to hold a little bit of light in her hands.

My biggest regret when thinking back on that summer? Tossing the videos in a hurried move. Those would have provided endless hours of entertainment.


The journey is long, but the lane is beautiful: Autism Spectrum Disorder

I like to joke about the first time I met Lane. The story becomes more verbose each time.

I like to say that Lane’s mom came running out of the bathroom with her pants barely buttoned, waving a pregnancy test around. I also like to say I had to duck to avoid being sprayed with stuff flying off of it.

Kristen did come running from the bathroom and I did back away in fear that the test had residual “specimen” on it, but her pants were on and my best friend’s pee did not end up anywhere on me.

Also, I was the first to know. Her husband came in from the garage and I was all, “Hey Travis, your wife’s knocked up again…by you!” I quickly added, in case he was concerned. He thought I was just coming over to hang out.

I was honored to be there for that moment.

It was Oct. 5, 2005. My oldest daughter was 364-days old and took her first steps in Kristen’s living room that night.

And that night I met Lane; a purple line under the window of a pregnancy test.

None of us knew then that the journey of Lane’s life would be painfully arduous at times.

Or so utterly beautiful.

Lane is autistic.

His diagnosis didn’t come easily; the road was fraught with sadness, denial (Kristen’s the first to admit that) and, eventually, a certain sense of relief.

It was also a journey that I was afraid to take; I recognized Lane’s “red flags” when he was about 15-months old.  

Telling Kristen that I suspected Lane was autistic was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Lane did a lot of things that concerned me, but one of the most obvious happened when he was about 24-months old and I was babysitting him. By then he had a baby sister so including my children, there were six kids at my house. The older ones were running around. It was loud and they were having a lot of fun.

Lane sat in the living room alone, rocking back and forth, playing with a string on his shirt. He did that for over an hour. There was total chaos all around him and he was completely unaware. I called him over to me. He walked about half way and stopped. There was a quarter-size spot on the carpet and he didn’t want to walk over it. He was so upset by the spot that it took me several minutes to calm him down.

Adding that to other things Lane did regularly, I was afraid he needed to be assessed.

How do you tell your best friend that you think their child is autistic?

On one hand I feared our relationship would be destroyed. What if I was wrong? What if she was offended?

On the other hand was Lane. If he was diagnosed, he would begin therapy and I knew the longer I waited to share my concerns, the greater the likelihood that some of his red flags would never go away.

The process was slow. I took baby steps until eventually, I ran at Kristen full-force.

For a couple of months I’d take her lead.

“Lane won’t stop playing with feet,” she’d say. “My feet especially, but other people’s too. Is that weird? It’s like he’s obsessed with toes. When I pull him away he screams and screams.”

“Hmmm, I don’t know if that’s totally normal,” I’d say tentatively.

After a few weeks I took the silent approach, hoping it would speak volumes.

“I wonder if Lane has something wrong with him,” Kristen would say. “He doesn’t respond to his name, ever.” 


My husband would ask me regularly whether I’d told Kristen my concerns. I’d tell him I was trying, but couldn’t.

Then Kristen took Lane to his pediatrician, who asked her a few diagnostic questions.

In denial, Kristen played down his symptoms. Now she regrets it. At the time she was just trying to make it go away.

Or she’d say something like, “I just have a gut feeling that he’s going to be fine.”

To be honest, it was maddening.  

When she arranged to have Lane assessed, I was relieved.

When the report came back that he was fine, I’d had enough.

“Kristen I love you and I love Lane, but I really think that report is wrong,” I told her. “The organization didn’t send people with enough experience. They didn’t even spend that much time with him. The report says, ‘mild red flags.’ What does that even mean?”

Lane was reassessed by a well-trained team of experts and was definitively diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He began therapies right away.  

He’s high-functioning.

He has a great sense of humor.

He loves to go to the RC track with his dad.

He’d live on peanut butter sandwiches if his mom let him.

He has good mornings, like this morning.

He can have horrible ones too, like yesterday.

“It’s days like yesterday that drag me down,” Kristen told me on the phone earlier today.

He gets mad. He shuts down. He says whatever’s on his mind. Right now he’s especially fond of telling strangers what he thinks about their weight.

I want to take him to see all the mean girls from my high school years so he can express his opinions to them, but I don’t think Kristen would go for it.  

He has friends. He also thinks a lot of people are “boring” and he’ll tell them that.

He’s just, Lane.

Kristen’s faced with issues I’ll never have to face; Do we medicate or not? Do we mainstream or not? Do we request an aide or not? What’s the safest way to hold him when he’s angry? Do we explain his behavior in public by telling people he’s autistic?

Travis and Kristen have taken it in stride. They fought the diagnosis, now they fight the stigma. They’re advocates. They’re parents.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 110 children in the United States has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Those statistics are staggering.

Know the signs and symptoms. If you recognize them in your child, do something. If you recognize them in your best friend’s child, please don’t wait to compassionately and gently say something.

Lane and Kristen

This is totally different than a resolution

I don’t think new year’s resolutions work. I’m sure someone somewhere managed to lose weight or stop smoking or went a year without adopting an 82nd cat, or something. For me, they just don’t stick.

On Jan. 1, 2011 I joined the gym. My favorite things to do there were yoga and spin class. I stopped going to yoga after the instructor gave me the hairy eyeball for repeatedly checking my cell phone, which I’d hidden in my shoe. If he had any idea how hard it is to get a source to return a phone call, he probably would have let it slide.

I digress.

I vowed that I would go “at least three times a week.” I did, for the first six months. After that, pfft.

So this year, I didn’t really make any resolutions, but I am going to make an effort at being better, or different, in some areas (crap, those are resolutions, aren’t they?).

One of the biggest things has to do with my oldest son. He’s almost 9. He and I are so much alike, it’s sometimes shocking. I’m most annoyed with him when he does things that I know he learned from me, but I can’t admit it to him. It would be like saying, “Stop being annoying…like I am.”

I’ve learned in the last few months that he hates it when he thinks people are laughing at him. I know he gets this from me.

About two years ago I was taking a walk by my house and a man in a big truck sped up as I was crossing a street. I couldn’t make out his face, but I was sure he was laughing as I ran across the street. So, I flipped him off. I know, I know! I never do that. Seriously, I don’t (okay, I did it recently to my photographer-friend, but that was totally a joke). Anyway, as he got closer, I realized it was our pool guy, just speeding up to wave.

I kept meaning to apologize, tell him I’m not the type of person who flips people off; I’m just sort of a freak sometimes. That’s what I should have done. Instead I devised a way to wave with my middle finger up in the air so it looks like that’s just how I do it. I’ve been waving at him like that through our slider door for two years now. Whew! Awkward apology avoided.

Anyway, a couple of months ago my son got really, really upset about some silly thing and it turned into a potential run-away report when he packed his bag to “move out.”

me: What’s your deal?

him: I want to go play outside and you won’t let me. I’m leaving.

me: Leaving where?

him: I’m moving out.

Now here is where I actually got a little giddy because this is like, a quintessential  childhood issue. I thought I could take advantage of a teachable moment. Wrong.

me: Where are you going?

him: Mexico.

me: How will you get there?

him: My scooter. (Insert snotty tone of voice here)

me: So you’re going to ride your scooter to Mexico? Where will you sleep?

him: In a box mom! (He’s totally serious)

me: Do you have any idea what’s going on with the cartels in Mexico right now?

him: What, did you write an article about that or something?!

me: Oh! That would be a cool assignment.

He stalks off.

Jump ahead about 10 minutes. He’s coming down the stairs with his “go bag.” (As a sidenote, when I’d tell people the story, I kept accidentally referring to it as his “kill bag.” 1. It was freaking people out, 2. I should probably take a breather from watching Dexter).

me: Is that your bag?

him: Mmm hmm.

me: Can I look through it?

him: Fine, but don’t try to stop me from leaving.

me (going through the bag): Oh, you’re taking your Action Bible! This will help you, especially with the cartels….and your poster of Augusta National…some pencils…your Bible trading cards.

Then it happened. I got to the bottom and there was an old computer keyboard I’d cut the cord off of so the kids could play with it.

me again: What’s this for?

him: To email dad, duh!….STOP LAUGHING!

It was about two days before he was fully over it.

He’s his mother’s son.

This year, I will avoid his emotional landmines and remember that he’s a boy on the cusp of moving into youngman territory. He really is a wonderful son and I’m so blessed to be his mother. He gets good grades and is a hit with his teachers. As his mom, it’s my job not to antagonize him.

Also, he’s a phenomenal golfer and when I’m not laughing at the age-appropriate things he says, he’s promising that when he’s an adult, he’ll buy me and his dad a house. I’m not going to be the reason my husband doesn’t get to live at Pebble Beach.

My son's "go bag."
This is the table my daughter put in front of the door to keep my son from running away. Even the dog thinks it's stupid. Sigh...