Saturday, June 30, 2018

Star Wars at the Chicago Symphony

One of my goals as a parent is to expose my son to many new experiences. I think it is good for any child to learn and grow through new experiences, but for one with autism I see it as a way to also force them out of their routines and hopefully help to get them be a little more comfortable with exploring the unknown.

I have been wanting to take our family to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for a while now, and with Kai doing well at his cousin Lucy's high school concerts, we thought it might be a good time to try seeing the CSO.

A few weeks ago, I got the tickets and told Kai that we would go see the Symphony. He was not at all excited. But when I mentioned that the orchestra would be playing along with a film, he got curious and wanted to know which film. And when I mentioned that the film was the original Star Wars movie, he was ecstatic.

The concert was last night. My wife and Kai took the train downtown to meet me. (My office is located very close to Symphony Center).

As we took our seats, we were very curious to see what this film-concert experience would be like.

No photos are allowed during the performance but I shot the following just prior so you can see the setup.

Not to keep you in suspense, it was fantastic!

From the first drumroll of the 20th Century Fox music to the last of the end credits, this was a very fun experience. The iconic Star Wars music never sounded so good as heard live while played by the CSO. Being so familiar with the movie enabled us to focus on the music and it was interesting to see how precisely choreographed the concert was to the film. And seeing Star Wars this way really highlights how critical the music is to the film.

And while the performance was excellent throughout, the highlight came during the end credits. This is normally when everyone heads out of the theater, but in this case, the musical crescendo as the credits rolled was awesome!

Kai loved it, as did we all. It was the perfect way to introduce him to the Chicago Symphony.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Special Olympics and a Trip to Springfield

We made a trip to downstate Normal, a two and a half hour drive for us, to see a bit of the Illinois Special Olympics. A boy in Kai's swim group won gold in the 400 meter freestyle in our regional meet this past spring and qualified for the state event which was held this weekend. We went to cheer Conner on, and also give Kai a preview of the event. Kai was unable to compete in the regional meet this year but we're hoping he can next year.

We arrived at around 11 am on Friday and got to see Conner and his family as they awaited the start of the competition. Then as the swimmers entered the pool to warm up, we went up in the stands to get our seats.

We watched the first race and then it was Conner's turn to swim in the second race. Kai's swim coach, James, was on the deck with Conner and had him ready to go.

Conner swam closest to us (the nearest lane was not used) and the boy just on the other side of him got off to a very fast start. We weren't sure if that boy would be able to keep up that pace - 400 meters is 16 lengths of the pool. Conner edged closer in the last few laps as we cheered him on.

The other boy hung tough, though, and Conner ended up with the silver medal.

It was an exciting race and very fun to experience. They didn't post the times when we were there but we're pretty sure that Conner swam his personal best. We got see the medal ceremony and congratulate Conner before we left.

Kai enjoyed it and it was great for him to see this. James pushes him hard during the biweekly training sessions but now he got to see how it paid off for Conner. (We didn't stay for the second day but the next day Conner won the gold medal in the 200 meters!) Both Kai and Conner have trimmed about a minute off their 400 meter times in the past few months. Hopefully this helps motivate Kai to keep up the good work and give it his best next year.

After watching Conner race, we drove about an hour and 15 minutes further downstate to Springfield. The capital of Illinois, Springfield is most famous as the place where Abraham Lincoln lived from the time he was a young man until he became the 16th President of the United States.

As residents of the Land of Lincoln, I thought our trip downstate was a good occasion to learn about our state's most famous citizen.

Our first stop in Springfield was the home where Lincoln and his family lived.

In Springfield, Lincoln worked as a self-taught lawyer and entered in politics serving in the Illinois House of Representatives. Touring the house, we got to learn about what Lincoln's life was like in those days.

After the tour, we checked into our hotel and Kai got to use the pool.

For dinner, we went to an Italian restaurant. Kai loves calamari!

After dinner we walked around downtown Springfield. The following is the old capitol building, the one used when Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature.

Kai enjoyed seeing the life-size statues of Abe and his family.

Lincoln, at 6 feet 4 inches, is still our tallest President ever.

The next morning, we went to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. I had read that the museum is considered one of the first "experience museums" and we got to see what they meant. Created by a company whose founder got his start at The Walt Disney Company, the museum combines contemporary storytelling technologies with historical artifacts to create an amazing experience for visitors.

One technical highlight of the museum is the use of holavision special effects to bring to life ghosts of Lincoln, his wife Mary, and Civil War soldiers. Another highlight is a movie full of special effects that tells the personal and political dramas and key issues of Lincoln's presidency, especially slavery.

Two main areas of the museum document two different stages of the president's life: The Pre-Presidential Years where you enter through a life-size replication of the log cabin that rep Lincoln lived in as a boy, and The Presidential Years which you enter through the White House. In one part of the museum, Kai got to go behind the presidential podium and give the Gettysburg Address as it was displayed on the teleprompter.

I was happy that the museum made it so fun to educate Kai, and all of us, about Lincoln's life, and the great man who preserved the Union and abolished slavery.

After learning so much about Lincoln, it was fitting that we visited his tomb on our way out of town.The tomb is the final resting place for Lincoln, his wife Mary, and three of their four children. (The three children here all died before reaching adulthood. Along with the assassination of her husband, you can understand why Mary suffered depression.)

This was our first trip as a family to downstate Illinois, and it was well worth it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Middle School Graduation

Kai's middle school graduation ceremony was yesterday.

Ahead of the ceremony, I was not overly excited about the occasion. After all, in this country, pretty much every child completes middle school. It's not like a college graduation which is the culmination of years of education, or even a high school graduation which is a significant rite of passage.

And so I was surprised by how emotional I got during the ceremony.

The principal of the school gave a great speech, reminding all of what an achievement this marked for the graduates of this school in particular. He talked about how people who face adversity turn out better for it in life, but that for the kids at this therapeutic school, they have faced greater challenges at a younger age than many do. He quoted Hemmingway from Farewell to Arms: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."

Later in the ceremony, several of the students gave very touching speeches. A boy in Kai's class gave an especially moving speech, talking very openly about all of the trouble he had caused at the school, and how he had to go away to a residential school for a time, and then how he was able to turn around his life in the past year to the point where he was chosen to speak for the 8th graders. His remarks give hope that situations that seem so dire (to his parents, especially, I'm sure) were not hopeless. And that this school played a big part in helping to turn this boy's life around.

Kai had many challenging times in middle school as well, but when we step back we see that he is a very different boy than the one who started at middle school. As he walked down the aisle when the students made their entrance to the ceremony, he seemed calm and poised. And when he walked across the stage after he received his diploma, he raised turned toward the audience to move the tassel on his cap from right to left to indicate that he was a graduate. (Few others did that). And then he raised both arms briefly in triumph.

And so, this ceremony, from start to finish, was a reminder of the journey we have been on with our son, and of the progress he has made, and how he emerged through some rough times to emerge "strong at the broken places."

After the ceremony, we spoke with several staff and they were all effusive in their optimism that Kai is ready to go to his home high school.

Thanks to all of the staff who made such an impact on our son. Here are a couple in particular that we were instrumental with Kai:

Kai's primary teacher in 8th grade... Kai bonded very strongly with Mr. Howard who made a big impact on Kai:

Kai's classroom therapist for his three years at the middle school, Ms. Levin, who persisted through all the tough times:

And of course we were also very glad that Kai's grandparents could be there for this big occasion.

Later, we had a barbecue at home to celebrate with other family members who could not make the graduation ceremony.

And so marked a milestone that was indeed very special.


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