Thursday, August 31, 2017

Girls in the City: New York, AGAIN

I'll try to get back on schedule (end of summer, back to school) but this deserves its own post.

We headed back to NY for an end-of-the-summer trip. E and Viv refer these types of trips as "Girls in the City", as Jason works during most days of a trip like this. Our (first) trip (last year) was so successful, we decided to go again, only this time, armed with City Knowledge. You might notice E is wearing her "pocket sash", our current attempt at practical pockets. More on that in another post--she typically carried her clip on sunglasses, her metro card, and anything else little (lego person, map, money, etc.)

We traveled by train to NYC. We all love the train. The girls were busy with games, coloring, and walks up and down the carriages; parents read and planned our trip, while we all studied maps. Naturally, we brought Elena's wheelchair. Our goal this year was less on shows, more on seeing different parts of Manhattan. We were not necessarily going to shy away from the subway; we have became more confident with Elena and our ability to carry or use her wheelchair on public transit.

The weather was beautiful, even though it was a bit hot. It rained one day out of our week. The first day, we arrived in our lodgings near Chinatown and had an easy dinner. The following day, we headed out to brunch in Harlem (by Uber; the subway was going to take a long time!) and then headed to Central Park.

Elena received a song in her honor at Red Rooster!

We decided to try to ride bikes through the park. We rented three; a bike for Jason, a bike for Viv, and a bike for me with an attached trail-a-bike. I am the only parent who has successfully used a trail-a-bike, and my knee is much stronger than it used to be--but the last time E was on one, she was much smaller and lighter. I considered a tandem, and I am very glad I decided not to get one. Elena and I had a rough start; I felt very uneasy, had trouble starting once stopped (a significant issue, as bikes have to stop for foot/horse/vehicle traffic in the park), and Elena kept leaning from side to side so much I had a very difficult time maintaining balance for the two of us. Her feet kept falling off pedals (which would have been a HUGE problem on a tandem). We stopped by my request..I was ready to give up. I asked Jason to take the kids on the carousel, while I tried to collect myself and figured out what to do. I ended up talking with E about my concerns, and my plan to try again and what to do if our attempts ended in failure. We were a team. And we figured it out. We rode all over the park! Biking in Central Park was one of the top two things we all did in NY!

Jason daringly snapped this mid-ride

Strawberry Fields

Walking the bike was just about as difficult as riding it. For me.

Our only rainy day, we headed to the Museum of Modern Art. Elena loved it, Vivian not so much. Then we headed to the NY Public Library. Vivian loved the children's room, but E wanted more, so she and I explored the building.

Warhol Cows at MoMA

Trying to keep dry in the City

We were joined by our good friends the Gs; we spent a lot of time exploring parks and museums. We decided to head to Brooklyn from our Chinatown spot. Elena decided she wanted to walk the whole bridge; so she did!

Girls on the Bridge

Enjoying the Park
 We really enjoyed Brooklyn. Lots of walking, for all of us. We hopped on the Ferry to the Financial District.

Fearless Girls

The Bull

We enjoyed walking back through Chinatown. We ate in Little Italy. Viv and M and M and Z loved running around the parks, chasing pigeons and playing in fountains (Elena was tired). And, very important--if you are wondering if your kid can catch a pigeon, the answer is yes, so you better figure out how to convince your child to release it. 


We went back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We loved it. There is so much to explore, and with the wheelchair, there is enough energy for everyone to see as much as they can.

The kids at the top of Belvedere Castle on the way to the Met

Bamboo Display at the Met

Lots of playing in playgrounds and parks, stopping along the way for cool shops and food. Loved walking the Esplanade along the Hudson. Enjoyed the shops and bars in East Village. Only messed up once on the Subway--and everyone in Queens was very nice. Vivian and M ended up joining in a square dance/dance/exercise group in Chinatown. J and I got to go out to dinner, big thanks to the Gs for watching all the kids! So much to see...the only repeat we did this year was the Met and Rockefeller Center (kids always want to visit Lego and see what new displays they have!). Everything else was new.

Pickle Shop!

Heart Balloon

Hailing Taxi

Japanese Crepes? Yes please!

Union Square

We ended our trip with an easy evening at a Cat Cafe, called Meow. It was a very weird but pleasant way to recharge after being in such a busy city.

Refuge for Cat Lovers

Our only issue, besides me being tired from walking, was that we forgot E's crutch hand grips and she mentioned she probably wouldn't be as tired if she had them. We'll remember next time--b/c we'll definitely be back!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Beach 2017

We had an awesome vacation this year at the Beach! We drove down a day early, to try to beat the weekend traffic. This means we had time to kill before we could get into the beach house, so we went mini-golfing.

In the past, this has been disastrous. Elena typically has a lot of trouble tripping over low obstacles, has had difficulty using a putter, and she wilts in the sweltering heat. This year, she rocked it! The only way we helped her was to carry/hand her a crutch as needed, or give her a hand for stability. She was patient and focused. All of us got a hole in one somewhere on the course!

We stayed in two different beach houses this year. One, on the beach, and the other two blocks away. The house with direct access is great for Elena, as she can get to the beach by herself. She has to be careful with her beach crutches going down stairs (typically I hold them, just to be safe, but she can do it without me) and needs to wear her water shoes so she doesn't burn her feet on the hot deep sand. She can go down to the beach without her crutches if the tide is high (or if she has a lot of energy to make it down to low tide). When we stayed in the house off the beach, we rented a golf cart. SO MUCH EASIER than trying to take the car, piggybacking, walking, or trying to use a wagon. If you are wondering if it's worth renting a golf cart, the answer is YES. I know it was only 1-2 blocks for us, but having the golf cart was the difference between a great vacation and one where transporting tired/wet/spastic/heavy kids (and equipment) would have made it much less enjoyable. Honestly, it made staying off the beach and on the beach basically equivalent.

Down the (public) beach access (when we stayed off the beach)

E and Viv playing in the surf. Most of the time she left her crutches just out of the surf or just walked from our chairs.

Vivian showing how small she is: "I can fit in a bucket"

We were joined by our friends the S family, who also have a 12-yr old girl. Elena and A had a lot to talk about, including "how mean our moms are". The winner of the "Meanest Mom in the World" award was me. Hmm.

Surfin' J!

Every day we spent a long time on the beach (except maybe one, for a sun break). We played with friends as we relaxed in the shade, or played in the sand, or swam in the water. Elena had a few firsts this year; she was able to walk past the surf, towing a boogie board, and ride in on a wave! Some days she had help, some days she did it on her own. Vivian has been pretty independent on the beach for a few years now--the only thing she has issues with are getting pinched by crabs and doesn't tolerate sea lice, which were around quite a bit this year.

Meanest Mom in the World towing kids upcurrent

Towing so they can "ride a wave at the same time". #tiredmom


Both kids love the "whoosh waves", where you just play in the deeper waves. If the mix of water depth (deep enough for Elena to be bouyant to stand), wave height (not too big), and current (not too strong) was just right, Elena could get out and play without help (with an adult close by in the water). Towing and throwing kids around in the waves is easier this year as my knee is almost recovered, but both Elena and Vivian are so much larger and heavier now, I'm not sure how much longer I can do it.

Jumpin' and whooshin'

Supervising (more hands-off this year!)

Strong Waves. Hands on.

Wave riding with Mom. This is my "hope we don't get rolled" face.

Beach Cousins! HOW CUTE!

Elena rode waves best on a raft, rather than a boogie board. She could carry a boogie board if the wind wasn't so hard, but she didn't like it when her legs would drag in shallow sand (and it took a long time to stand up as the waves hit). She couldn't carry the raft into the waves, but had a better time controlling it once she started riding.


Rafting, Grandpa edition

Viv loved the inner tube. E, not so much.

What a great time with family and friends! It's so great to see how much progress the kids have made at the beach--especially Elena. Activities on sand, in water, were much more independent this year. The kids tolerated sun, heat, and the occasional sting very well. Aunt Kate won the Sorry! tournament AGAIN, with 12-yr old A coming in as the runner-up. The Best Beach find was a pufferfish, and best Beach Beverage was probably Jason's Mai Tais. Most Successful Surfer was Jason, and Vivian caught the most fish. Both Vivian, Elena, and cousin G made friends on the beach.

Huge thanks to the S family for joining us, and to Grandma and Grandpa for bringing the beach gear!

Family playing "surprise wave"

Recap: Swim Team

The Swim Team Season just wrapped up, but it officially begun at the tail end of May.

Our swim team is fantastic (this is our second year). The Head Coach Eric stresses improvement and sportsmanship/team spirit over anything else. He has Assistant Coaches (five of them, either high school or college age) who are wonderful, and a few Junior Coaches who are middle school age (more like helpers; this is a little odd, b/c E is the same age, but it's fine.) Practices while school is in session are in the evenings (we typically don't start practicing until school is over, it's too hard to fit in for us) and once summer starts, it's 8 am every weekday except Thursdays.

Elena and Vivian practice at the same time (for now). Viv practices with her age/skill group (mid/fast 8 year olds), and Elena practices with the inexperienced 8-and-unders. E would like to practice with her own age group, but she would absolutely clog up the lane (and could possibly get hurt) because every other swimmer in the crowded pool (all lanes) is 4x faster than she swims, and has more endurance. Elena knows this, and has a pretty good attitude about it. She acknowledges that she is well-challenged practicing with the youngest swimmers, and she has the opportunity to get more individual instruction time. It's hard on me sometimes b/c E isn't as independent without her shoes and braces, but honestly, she's really improved on her poolside mobility. For practice, she wears her water shoes (I like this type) and she can walk well with crutches and can take steps (while wet or dry) without. She enters the pool by the steps (with rail) and takes off her water shoes (leaves them there) and gets in to swim. Reverse on the way out. If she's cold, she needs assistance--but that's typically only at the beginning of the swim season. And, while she doesn't do it at practice, she can now jump in the pool safely from the side edge (one hand on a rail or ladder)!

Elena used to swim only two events; freestyle and backstroke. Her backstroke is seriously slow, and she doesn't love it. Her freestyle has really improved! She is stronger now, and can kick (it's inefficient for propulsion, but can keep her from sinking) and can take breaths on either side during her stroke. She used to curl her head around while pulling hard and fast--imagine her making a ) or ( with her body at every stroke--which ended up wasting a lot of energy, but now she is much straighter in the water. Her goal was to get her 50 free under 2 minutes (her home pool is a yard pool, so that's our reference measurement). She also wanted to get a legal breaststroke, which I thought might be hard if her feet "flip in" (she doesn't have great ankle strength/awareness to remedy this) but her feet/spasticity happen to work with breaststroke--so this goal was in reach.

Meets are on Wednesday nights, and the kids swim 2-4 events (Vivian usually swims more events b/c she swims on a relay team). I am allowed by her lane with the timers, as Elena can't get out on the side of the pool without a ladder (it's hard, but I pull her up under her arms so she is sitting on the edge of the pool. She then swings her legs out, and I help her stand and walk away). Everyone is supportive, and cheering, and congratulating each other on their swims. It's wonderful.

We were gone for 2 weeks on summer vacation, but this year we were in town for Champs. It's where all the teams in the league (all 3 divisions, so there are 18 teams) compete. Vivian dove for the first time (off the block, which is pretty scary for her) and Elena reached both of her goals, with her 50-yd conversion time of 1:58 and the best 50m breaststroke of her life!! Vivian's freestyle relay won a fancy ribbon! Elena also won a special award for Perseverance, which is new this year. Amid all the 18 teams, she won for outstanding achievement. It was awesome!

Recap: End of 6th grade and other stuff

Pretend it's April/May/June.

Right after Elena's Honor Choir field trip, she had a field trip to Shenandoah National Park (literally the next day). The weather was horrible (pouring rain), Elena got left behind on the hike (I was seriously pissed off, but things happen). She was with her aide and myself. Long story, lessons learned, etc. but in essence, just about everyone on that trip was pretty miserable. At any rate, it was *memorable*.

Just...horrible. (This was a short break in the pouring rain.)

We went to a friend's beach house (so lovely!). We played games, played in the ocean, E and Viv even got to kayak and paddleboard! We had such a GREAT TIME. Super fun, and the kids were pretty independent. As a matter of fact, their first move on the beach was to paddleboard out of sight (quickly followed by parents).


How I like to kayak.

Elena had her 12th birthday. TWELVE. Honestly, there's so much to say, but as I'm still playing catch-up, I'll leave it at this: Elena is rocking it right now. She has a good sense of her disability, is very real about it, but tries very hard to not let it get in her way. She is growing more responsible and mature (but not too quickly!) and makes us proud every day. We love you E!

E at the school Track Meet. Her relay team was AWESOME. She is carrying her baton in her "pocket shirt".

May consisted of school SOLs (Standard of Learning) and Elena had goals to pass all of them, with an Advanced Pass in Language Arts (she has never had an advanced pass, and in the past these tests have been incredibly anxiety provoking and she has failed several). She only had two; she passed her Math SOL (solidly!) and was one point away from an Advanced Pass in LA. Wow!

June was the end of school wrap-up; concerts (Elena), performance (Vivian), sports (baseball for Viv), and a flurry of academic presentations to showcase the kids' achievements. Honestly, it felt like something was happening every evening for the first two weeks of June. I loved seeing what the kids (and their friends) had accomplished this year--impressive!

Vivian ended the school year with great grades (numbers, not letter grades or tests yet, much to her dismay) and Elena ended up with all As (including MATH!!!) with one high B (Language Arts). She worked HARD for those grades, I tell you. What a year. I can't believe I'm writing this, but 6th grade was a smash hit!!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Recap: Honor Choir Field Trip

Again, pretend it's April.

Elena practiced two mornings a week before school with the Honor Choir. She loved it. I can't say enough about the director, Craig--he is such a wonderful teacher for these young men and women. Anyway, near the end of the school year, the group travels for Chorus competition. This was new for our family; I figured, with any new exposure for a field trip, I'd go as chaperone. Craig and I had met privately about what this field trip would entail, so I could try to plan ahead. It was a four day trip, to Myrtle Beach (by tour bus). Competition, outings, pool, beach, fun museums, shows. I started getting nervous, b/c all those things entail a different set of parameters in terms of E's movement and the amount of supervision she needs. Originally, there were 12 chaperones for 120 kids. I told Craig that in the past, I had 2 other students while chaperoning E in a museum and I couldn't pay attention to the other 2--let alone 9--so I could only really be counted on as a chaperone for Elena, and I'd help when I could. He agreed.

Equipment we brought: wheelchair, leg braces and crutches (obviously), footstool for the bus ride, magnetic pocket (so she could carry her ID), Chorus barre (PVC pipe "barre" handle for when standing on bleachers),  water shoes for beach/pool, beach crutches.

I'm not sure where to begin here...this trip was great in so many ways, but really exhausting. My biggest concerns were the hotel stay; I wanted Elena to stay in a hotel room with her peers, and have fun--but she can't use the hotel room shower. (Don't bother asking about a handicapped room--the hotel managed to fit us in as best they could during spring break week, and I wanted E to be in a room with other students instead of in a handicap room with me). Elena can shower herself without issue when she has a stool to sit on, and a detachable showerhead (which was not available). She and I talked about a plan, and I brought it to Craig--I'd try to quickly wash her in either her room or my room before the students got off the bus (we'd get off early; there's always a chaperone meeting before students leave the bus. This would give us ~10 minutes to quickly get this done--not a lot of time, but enough to make it not super awkward).

The trip was a serious whirlwind of activity--preventing idle time for a large group of teenagers is the only way to keep drama to a minimum, so we were on the go (or getting to/from something) constantly. Typically the structure of the day was breakfast at hotel, outing, lunch at outing, hotel, possible outing, dinner outing, back to hotel. The outings varied by day; if they were at the hotel, it was typically a walk on the beach, or beach or pool time. If they were out, it was Chorus competition, a dinner show (Pirate's Voyage), a singing engagement before a show (Alabama Theater), or a museum/adventure place (Battleship North Carolina, WonderWorks, Aquarium).

Meals were also a challenge. Breakfast was with our chaperone group at the hotel in shifts (my chaperone partner was largely responsible for the rest of our group, bless her). Lunch was typically catered box-lunch style, and we sit where we could. Dinners out for our party of 133 requires a buffet, and that means that it's too hard for Elena to navigate and carry anything; I would ferry food back and forth to her while she sat and ate with other students.

The students were fabulous at their competition! They sounded lovely and had great stage presence. I went backstage with E's "chorus barre", and brought it to the bleachers before/after the show. I thought it was more stable than E's crutches when she had to stand for a long time; if she moves the crutch tip a bit, I'm always afraid she'll place it off the bleacher edge and fall. So she used one crutch and the barre. I think it worked well, but it's a bit awkward to set up and take down b/c it requires another person. E can walk with one crutch pretty well, but if she has to do stairs (if they don't have a banister) she needs a hand. I love watching and listening to Elena sing--one thing she does is stand super tall and straight to project her voice (they all do, but this is more difficult for her) and I'm just so proud of her!

Zoom in pre-performance to show the Chorus Barre (E is very tiny...)

As for the beach or pool, well, those are tough places for E to be--especially the beach. It was a far walk on the sand to our spot (had to find a place where we could watch all the kids) and the water was COLD and the waves were rough. Elena just enjoyed the sun while the majority of her classmates braved the freezing ocean (her choice; I told her I would take her out there if she wanted). She enjoyed swimming in the pool and was able to play with peers there. After the pool there was a big rush to get ready, which was an issue b/c everyone left en masse. Elena was cold and wet and in her water shoes, and it was slippery and very crowded so I had to carry her to ensure her safety, something both of us didn't want.

The group sang for the Alabama Theater (warming up the crowd) and it went well, but it was standing near the edge of the stage with a large group of people, at the end of the day. I was really nervous b/c E looked super crouchy, and partially unstable, especially if she was laughing with classmates. She assured me she was fine. I got looks from two of the gentlemen in our choral ensemble that told me "Lady--don't worry. She's got this. We'll make sure of it." It was kind, sweet, and reassuring...I could have cried.

Wonder Works was crazy. So many fun things to do! E went off with some other students for a while. I would come and go, or stay behind and watch her in case she needed me. The only time she really did was during the indoor ropes course, which she really wanted to do, and was SUPER difficult. We did an out-and-back portion of the course (we veered to the small loop, instead of the larger more crowded one, but it turns out the small loop was more challenging. We never made the loop but we're calling it a success!). I am happy to report that the staff there was not phased by E's disability or that she would need intense close supervision (by me) on the course (climbers are supposed to be going one at a time). 

The other outings I won't mention, because Elena either didn't need much supervision at all (Aquarium) or it was largely sitting and being entertained (Pirate's Voyage, Alabama Theater). The Battleship North Carolina was a lot of steps, but after the long bus ride E needed to get up and move. It was a lot of guarding, but she did as well as possible.

So...lessons from this trip.

1) Always bring the wheelchair. We didn't need it that much, but Elena used it almost every time we brought it out of the bus (I'm guessing...5 times?). 2) I need to start making sure Elena has pockets so she can carry things. Her magnetic pocket is a great idea, but it wiped her room card every time she put it in the pocket. (A backpack is harder for her to manage with crutches...we're working on this). 3) Getting a head start when going anywhere is a must. The only time this was really bad was after the beach/pool day. It was chaos. 4) Elena should work on being able to wash herself quickly in a bathtub (including hair, probably using a cup).

Other lessons...Elena is more like her peers than not. I know this, but honestly this was one of the first times that I could observe her with her classmates out of school. In general, she was included (when fast enough to stay with a group), and as far as I can tell she liked being in a hotel room without a parent. The other students (and chaperones) were kind. There was a good dose of what I call "middle school drama" that was new to me, and it didn't seem to affect Elena very much. Overall it was a great trip, and fantastic to see how capable Elena is and how wonderful and talented these young people are. I am thankful I got to chaperone. It was a great experience.