Monday, April 28, 2008

The Alex Report- #1

The very early days, Alex is the one who is sleeping. 4 months old at Christmas.

Our fabulous boy and friends at 6 months old. Valentines day.

Alex and friends his first Spring. Having an off morning- about 9 months old.

It is well and truly time for the first of The Alex Reports. I have put up his picture, and a few snippits, but there are fans out there ready for more. First off, a little background. Okay, a lot of background. Alex is a lovely boy. Bright and funny and loving. A real sweetheart at home and deeply enamored of many of his little friends. He also has been diagnosed with Autism-mild in nature, Expressive Language Disorder, and Developmental Delay. This, as you might guess, rocked our world. It has taken Kevin and I about a year to come to terms with the concept of Autism. What it means and does not mean, what to worry about and not worry about, who to go to and where to go from here.

It all started because we have a huge and wonderful group of friends who all seemed to have kids at about the same time. Alex was in with a mix of babies from the start, and he just seemed to be moving at his own pace. Now, I have never been one to worry about the mainstream, but when my friend Sam (who is an early childhood specialist) gently suggested we have him evaluated at 18 months due to his unique pacing I could not ignore it. I tried. We dragged our feet. That first phone call was really hard to make. But made it was, and we were on our way. We started with the schools, and they have been excellent. Early on it was just Speech Delay that we were working on and worried about. Before age 3 the specialists came to our house(it's never been so clean), and since he turned 3 Alex has been going to school. When he started taking the bus he was too little to climb the steps! There have been adjustments of program and diagnosis along the way and he is just about to finish up with his second year in the classroom. We got the Autism diagnosis about a year ago, in April, when Alex was 3 1/2 years old.

Why Autism? Well, it all really comes down to social abilities for Alex, and learning style. He does not learn effortlessly, like most typical kids. He never played and experimented with toys. He did not pick up language. He did not point, or imitate, or want to be with other children. Groups stressed him out, and unfamiliar people freaked him out. Basically, he had to be taught how to speak, and play, and socialize. The good news is that he is an excellent learner. Once he learns something he has it, but he has to be taught. Everything. And he is not a big fan of change. Plus he does not really speak the language. It is as if you were dropped into the middle of a foreign country and knew not a single word. You would smile and nod at people if they were nice and moved slow and concentrated on you, but you certainly could not jump into the middle of a sporting event or the market place and understand what was going on. Much less be successful and communicative. His peers are currently light years beyond him in language comprehension and acquisition. And he does not yet understand emotions, his own or others. He is beginning to, but is not at all sophisticated. He will likely have difficulty all his life with that one. A hallmark of Autism Spectrum Disorders is not being able to easily read the multitude of subtle emotional cues, therefore not understanding what people are really saying. They say that verbal communication is actually only 7% the words that are said, and 93% the tone, rate, volume, context, and body language used.

So, there is a lot of work to be done with our little guy. But, like I said, he is an excellent learner. And we are learning to be where he is at so we can be better teachers. The Scottish Rite Language Clinic has been the most helpful with this one. There are amazing people there, and they even have a great blog. It is called autismgames and is all about how to play to get into the autism world, and then bring that world closer to the typical world. Playing those games with Alex likely has a lot to do with his recent and excellent progress. That and all the great teaching at his school. Plus his wonderful little self growing older. He is learning and succeeding every day, picking up new things, and getting more in step with his little friends. We are in a delightful stage at home, no opposition to speak of and always wanting to "play Mama". This is HUGE! So huge that I will have to save the details for my next blog. But rest assured, there is plenty more to come.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Winter Returns

Well, Lake Superior will not be freezing today (like it did for this photo in Feb. 2007) but we are due rain and snow tonight. Yes, living in Duluth is always exciting. I have learned to expect to write off one season every year. One of them will be a bust, either no snow in winter, or too much precip in the spring, summer, or fall. Occasionally we even get a hot summer. And every seven years we get descended upon by Army Worms, but that will have to wait until there are actually leaves budded. For now I would say we are having the Spring that Wasn't.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tragedy at the Outdoor Pursuits Centre

The worst I could imagine when I was working at the Outdoor Pursuits Centre of New Zealand has happened. A young woman instructor took a group of students on a Centre approved adventure last week, and 6 students and their teacher died. The instructor and 3 students lived. Were mistakes made? Of course. Death is never an acceptable adventure outcome and this was not just "an act of God". Risks were taken that in hindsight look totally inappropriate. An adventure was undertaken that we could not even attempt as part of an insured center in the US. But the fact is hindsight is too easy, and I was a part of that system. Something similar could have happened on my watch.

What this group was doing was "canyoning". Going into a restricted, boulder strewn canyon with a river running through it. I was in that very canyon several times. I wore my wet suit, helmet, and life jacket, just like this group. It was always spooky and exciting. I never did take my own group there, and that was okay with me. I rappeled in with staff for training and group building, spending several hours boulder hopping, wading, swimming, climbing, and scrambling back out again. The tragic group walked up from the bottom, for an up and back down again trip. While they were in there a drought breaking storm hit the volcanoes 4km away and the river rose very high, very fast. As they attempted to exit the gorge most of the group was swept over a dam and further down river. There is a full investigation happening now and it will continue for months. The families and friends of the victims are devastated, as are the OPC staff and the greater community. This is a complete tragedy in all senses of the word. I feel deeply for that instructor. The situation is horrifying.

I survived my time at the Outdoor Pursuits Centre, as did all of my students. Not just survived but thrived. There were marvelous adventures had, growth galore, lives changed and uplifted. It was a peak experience in many ways. The OPC has given so much to the world, that Sir Edmund Hillary was willing to lend it his name. He was the first to summit Everest and of course knew all about the risks of adventures. New Zealanders in general are fantastically adventurous folks, and their country one of the best places on earth for adventures. In our world today, I believe that outdoor pursuits are an antidote to many of societies ills. They bring out the best in people and put society into great perspective. But. But they must always be weighed and measured. And this is the tricky part. This is what will really be investigated. Were the risks appropriate. For the students, the instructor, the staff, the Centre itself. Was the chain of decision making appropriate. Were all of the risk mitigating factors and systems in place correctly. Huge questions and many will be answered philosophically because they cannot be fully answered technically. If we looked at all the risks in the world we would never go anywhere. And what kind of life is that? But now that I am a mom I see it all more clearly, or maybe life is held more dearly. I have always been a safety nut, while at the same time pursuing adventure sports. I have lived that delicate balance. Now that I have a son, it is all getting re-weighed. I know the rewards of the outdoors (they are fantastic), and I try to take into account all the risks (they are vast). I hope to pass along both of those areas of knowledge, and keep getting out there myself. When done right it is still all less risky than getting into a car. But the fact is there are seven young people who died last week due to outdoor adventures, and many others left behind to sort it all out. I feel for everyone, and especially that instructor.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

I love Earth Day, but it also leaves me feeling guilty too. Like I should be doing more. Well, as an American that is not hard to consider. Perhaps I should move to another country and live off $1 a day by farming, hunting, and gathering while living off the grid. Sure would make blogging hard... Instead I guess I will celebrate how I usually do, by drinking almost Fair Trade and mostly Shade Grown, with a high percentage of Organic, coffee and listing to myself the ways that I am not too hard on the earth.

I am a huge fan of Reduce, Reuse, and then Recycle. Reduce, well that's an easy one. I usually avoid shopping and will go "without" for a long time before making a must have purchase. I live in a tiny house so can't fit a lot of stuff anyways. And I keep my income low so I wont be tempted to upgrade (just kidding). Reuse, this is a favorite. I have reused furniture, reused cars, a reused house, reused clothing, reused boats (mostly), and reused pets. I even sometimes remember my re-useable shopping bag. And then there is Recycle. I am rather a nut about this. I even pre-cycle by choosing some purchases in part due to their recycling potential... The thing that bugs me, however, is not knowing exactly what is happening to my recycling. I hear much of it is now going to China by the ship load, and onto a nefarious fate from there. It is kind of like when I worked at the Outdoor Pursuits Centre in New Zealand. We had the kids sort EVERYTHING for recycling. After two months working there I went on the final recycling journey with the maintenance guys. This was fun because it meant I got to surf in the back of the Ute (pick-up truck), but then we got to the tip, and into the pit went all the recycling. Just like all the garbage. To be burned. DAMN! It was the dirty little secret because there were no recycling facilities nearby. I am sure that has changed by now, but it points out how things aren't always as they seem. And progress is slow.

But I try to keep a good attitude. And keep living lightly on the earth. I have nothing on some people, and all the natural systems of the earth, but heck, you gotta start somewhere. As a species we will eventually learn to clean up after ourselves. Just like mom always said.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Day Hath Arrived

Well, here it is. The official first entry of my grandly opened blog. If I knew how, I would string up some of those plastic flags and put up a few giant balloons, like at a car dealership. To blog, a conversation with the world. It is not like I have all that much to say, or that I think people really want to listen to me. It is more that, if I could, I would pack up my little family for about three months of every year to go visit all of the fantastic people of our lives. I used to travel quite a bit, and I loved it. I thought nothing of taking off after a job or schooling finished and visiting where ever for extended periods. I was probably a bit of a nightmare for some. I routinely would show up unexpected places, unannounced. I wasn't trying to be rude, I just barely knew where I was headed and was willing to follow my wild hairs. I tried to be a good guest, and even wrote up a poster for friends in Vail with the House Pest rules. And it was not just traveling around when I had time off, I also moved quite a bit. Well, 21 times between ages 20 and 30, to be exact. For years it was just me, and my truck, or kayak, or mountain bike. I had a lot of fun in those days, and the best part was connecting with people, both new and old to my life. Of course I was always keeping my eye out for that someone special too. And someplace special to land. Amazingly I found both, and here I am today, in Duluth. The only problem with my chosen home is it's proximity to the ends of the earth. If a friend does not already live near Duluth, they will not be casually dropping by on their way to anywhere. Family makes a concerted effort to get here, and there is never enough time. And so, that leads us back to this blog. Since I am limited in my ability to road trip just now, this seems the next best thing to dropping in unannounced. And now that there is a little one in my life, to love and help grow, I want to share his story too. And the big guy too, of course. So read on, if you wish, and thanks for stopping by. I'll try to keep it interesting, and even amusing at times. Let me know what you think!

Almost There

It's kind of like that day the finish was finally dry in Alex's new room. All the prep work was done and it was time to move in and start living. Shortly I will send out a note to my entire e-mail address list, and this blog thing will be official. Officially crazy!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Grand Opening Date Set

April 21. This is my "Grand Opening" date. It is time. I have been blogging now for over a month. I feel I have my feet under me and am somewhat confident that I can keep up with this. Spring is pretty much here, time for the rains to come. This will leave me with time to clean up the details of the site and make it not too embarrassing. That is what I am doing with my house too, so it all fits nicely. Word has leaked out here and there and most reviews have been positive so it is time to jump into the deep end of the pool. Maybe some day I will take it out to the ocean with full public viewing, but for now will keep it to family and friends, and their associates.

Monday, April 14, 2008


We were making progress, we really were. This photo was taken 10 days ago before all the grey weather set in. Our little cupcake house was thawing out nicely. Spirits were rising with the sun.

Out back (well, actually on the side) of the house, the slide was becoming a viable option to play on. I was even dreaming of taking coffee outside once the temps were a tiny bit higher.

And then the April Blizzard rolled in. The storm was heavily predicted so there was plenty of time for panic. The grocery stores were a mess, lines 20 deep. The hospital battened down. I was not scheduled the first night so was home as the storm approached. The wind was intense. At one point I stood out in the dark listening to it howl as the trees lashed madly, heard but barely seen. Snow came sideways with the rain and tiny hail, and sounds of surf filled the background. I live a good mile from the big lake so I knew the waves were rolling. We woke up Friday to wind, snow, and no power. No power means many things, but especially no toast. Sad for me. We learned that our new stove top will work, but not the oven. So Alex got his favorite oatmeal, but there would be no fresh baked bread. Not that there were plans for that, but even if there were it could not happen. The fridge was off, but we did not want to put food out in the cold because that would let what was left of the heat escape. Also there would be precious little hot water, no bathing for us. It's been a long time since the power went out, so this was a good reality check. I don't know that we have lost power in the winter before and it is a thought provoking experience. If we want to be able to weather any storms we will need to get a wood stove installed, and a tankless hot water heater would be ideal. The storm only lasted one full day, instead of the predicted two. Our power came back after about 10 hours off, others went for days. The roads and all were a mess for days and I picked up extra work thanks to our new (old) 4 wheel drive pickup, no problem getting into work for me. I even got put up in the Sheraton Hotel they built adjacent to the hospital on Friday night. The best part was getting an excellent midnight view of the wild waves on Lake Superior. Many topping 15 feet high. There are probably great pictures somewhere on the net. While I was working and away from home I was a little worried Daddy and Alex would be having a bad time or be missing me.
Why do i worry? They headed out into the storm with boots, snow suits, and our ski trailer. Where else would they go but a mile down to the neighborhood video and ice cream shop??

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Where There's a Will There's a Way - The First Family Camping Trip

The giant tent was courtesy of Kevin's wheelchair accessible tent design project. This design was eventually picked up by Eureka tents and is now marketed under the Freedom Tent.

Meera and Alex had great fun in the Condo. Eventually we had four babies hanging out.

Here is a high tech baby containment device for outside the tent. Happy Meera, nice and dry, and clean.

Lucas was practicing his Voyageur songs. Yes, there are Personal Flotation Devices for every size. But we did not need to find out how well they work. All babies went out on the water (in three canoes with eight parents), none went in.

I wont say this camping trip to the edge of the Boundary Waters in May of 2004 wasn't a lot of work, but it sure was memorable. Now that Alex is of an age where he can follow basic commands, sit relatively still, and walk on a portage, we will do a trip INTO the Boundary Waters this summer. Yahoo!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Grey Day Dreams

This is one of my favorite photos from when the Bean was tiny. And good for today because it is truly grey outside. It is grey today, and was yesterday and the day before. It is supposed to be grey tomorrow too. So it is a good day for dreams of summer to come. And it is time to plan the upcoming camping season. We have learned to get out early, or we might not get out at all.

When Alex was 10 months old we did a very ambitious venture, taking three other families with infants to the edge of the Boundary Waters. It was May. It was cold. And it rained quite a bit. Fortunately we had the entire campground to ourselves and set up just how we wanted things. Big tarps at one giant kitchen and space for everyone in the best sites. The kids took it in shifts to wake up crying every hour throughout the night, but no one in our group cared. During the day we put the kids in Tupperware tubs when we had to put them down, nice and dry. They were all too little to climb out. Plus they fit perfect in the canoes. And we did manage to get all four families and kids out on the water at same time. It was quite a fun trip, and the beginning of Alex's camping career. I'll post photos from old camping adventures as I get more organized.

For now it is time to get inspired and put some fun into the calendar. This year we may even get in a real canoe trip. Maybe, we'll see. But for sure we will camp. And canoe. And bike. And kayak. And hike. It will all happen, because we are planning ahead and the grey weather can't last forever. Can it??

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Party in the Pine Trees

Spring is here at last! It is a glorious day, blue sky and temperature above freezing. The yard is part brown, toys are emerging from the retreating glaciers, puddles are everywhere. And the baby squirrels have woken up. There are currently no less than eight (they are very hard to count) tearing around in the giant pines at the back of the house. Chasing and chirruping and leaping about. From pines, to ground, to garage roof, to shed, and back. Very fun to watch in the chill, but not cold, wind. They also were assessing the inside of the shed for living quarters earlier, but Kevin chased them out. Ahhh, spring arrives. As we got four inches of snow two days ago, the melt down is much appreciated.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I have been at work for the last seven days and have three to go. It's been a rather long week. My work world is a very strange place, and essentially confidential so I am not sure what to say about it on the world wide web. But I will give it a go.

When I key in past the locked door I enter a space that is similar to a war zone. The adolescents and children I see have often been exposed to extreme violence, neglect, and abuse. They are unpredictable, hurt, angry, guarded, lying, and in great need. They also act out, lash out, cover up, and pretend nothing is wrong. Blame and denial are huge.

The space my program occupies is no larger than your average school cafeteria, but we have upwards of 16 full time and 10 part time kids on site. During the day we can have four different programs going at once. We also have approximately 40 staff. We are open 24 hours a day.

In the past week 2 staff have gone to the emergency room, the police have been on site once, and we have had at least 10 garden variety restraint episodes and 2 doozies.

I don't need drama in my private life, I get it at work in spades. But the strange thing is, the longer I have been in this job the more I like it. It has now been 6 years. Before this job, I had never made it more than 2 years in any given full time position. I would get bored and restless, or go on for more schooling, or simply have moved. Well, I'm staying put in Duluth and I haven't had a chance to get bored yet. Overwhelmed, frustrated, burnt out, under paid, scared, and inadequate feelings, yes. Bored? No. As I have grown in skill and patience and understanding working with these kids, the job has gotten easier. Not easy, especially on a week like this one, but easier. We have had a full house at work, and the acuity has been high, but things usually balance out eventually. Plus the drama affects me less these days, and I can focus more on strengths these kids have. The smiles and love they are still able share, the bright spots of caring and giving that they can show, the funny things they say and do, and the progress we see. Needless to say, the people I work with are an amazing bunch, and we make it fun where we can. I could do nothing good without the team.

One huge side benefit of my job is that it makes me appreciate my home life all the more. I love my husband and son and life, and they all shine brighter in comparison to what I see at work. I also am completely at ease walking out of my home life and into a chaotic and uncertain environment because I know Kevin has things handled back at the ranch. He is the best father I could imagine to our son, and they do fine without me. When I return I can be totally at home, count my blessings instead of complaining (much), and get on with living the good life.

So, I doubt I will post much about my work life. It is so confidential and complicated I prefer to mostly leave it behind that locked door. But it is a huge part of my life. Usually two weeks of every month, that's where I am in the evenings. Learning, growing, earning, and being a part of that adult world we call work.