Thursday, July 25, 2019

Exceptional Minds and the Start of Our LA Adventure

The final leg of our drive out west was from Flagstaff to Los Angeles which completed a 2000 mile journey from Chicago. That last leg was rather uneventful, with the only drama coming in trying to find a place for lunch in an area where you could go 70 miles between exits that had restaurants.

We arrived at our destination on Sunday afternoon, and with that, phase 2 of our vacation began. We would be staying in LA for two weeks, as Kai takes a summer workshop at Exceptional Minds.

Exceptional Minds is the first American computer animation studio and non-profit digital arts school for young adults on the autism spectrum. Their full-time program provides technical instruction in the digital arts while fully integrating behavioral training into the curriculum. In addition to teaching skills in visual effects and animation, they also provide work readiness training, job coaching, placements, troubleshooting, and employer education.

In the summer, Exceptional Minds offers teens two-week workshops which provide instruction in the digital arts. Kai is taking an introductory workshop in computer animation. As Kai has a creative side and enjoys silly animated videos, so we thought this would be a good fit and an introduction into something that could potentially be an area that he could pursue as a career.

He was a bit unsure about the whole idea when we introduced it to him last winter, but he warmed up to it more and more as time went on. On the first day of the workshop, he seemed eager to get started on animation.

My wife and I attended a parent orientation. It was very gratifying to hear about how well they prepare their full-time students to get jobs in the film industry. The technical skills their students are taught surpass those of students from universities, and they also provide training in softer skills such as how to find jobs and interview well. Our dream is to have Kai be able to attend the full-time program one day, but as entry into the program is very competitive, this is only a dream at this point.

During the orientation, the behavior psychologists on staff reassured parents about how the entire staff know how to support their students with autism. Still, we were nervous about how well Kai would do here. In the past he has taken weeks to get acclimated to new classrooms or teachers or other new environments.

And so we were very happy when we saw him walk out the first day with a smile on his face. He said he already had started a couple animations and that he had fun.

Now, a few more days in, he still seems very happy, which makes us immensely happy!

While we are in California, I am working remotely from the house we are renting. I get up early to start working no later than 7:00 AM, but that enables me to complete my work day at around 3:00 local time when Kai gets out of his workshop. That has given us time to do some fun things.

The first night we went to dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Studio City called Iroha. My wife and I had really great sushi, while Kai enjoyed ramen (while coincidentally wearing his ramen t-shirt).

The next afternoon, we explored Little Tokyo where Kai resumed his search for Japanese plushes.

We had dinner at a restaurant that specializes in Hiroshima-style okinomiyaki.

This was a treat for us as there are no okinomiyaki restaurants back home, and it is very difficult to make Hiroshima style on your own. Hiroshima okinomiyaki has many layers, and is made with flour, eggs, shredded cabbage, meat or seafood, and topped with a variety of condiments.

Of course, we also had to have the Japanese shave ice (flavored with matcha, including small mochi balls, and topped with sweet azuki bean paste, and with mochi) for dessert.

The next day we went to Santa Monica, where Kai loved going into the ocean.

He went in pretty far, swimming, splashing, and battling the waves for over an hour.

After the beach, we walked up to the famous Santa Monica Pier and found a casual seafood restaurant for dinner.

The grilled oysters were really tasty. Kai also enjoyed mussels, while my wife had paella and I had a shrimp po boy.

After dinner, Kai and my wife rode a very mild roller coaster on the pier. We missed the sunset but were able to see the afterglow.

And on our latest evening, we went to Universal Citywalk where we browsed shops and had dinner.

It has been a fun time so far. And seeing Kai so happy has made everything that much more enjoyable.

Let's hope that continues.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Petrified Forest

We continued traveling west, going from New Mexico to Arizona. The one place we planned to stop on this day was Petrified Forest National Park.

I had been there as a kid when my family took a road trip out west similar to the one we're doing now. My only recollection of the place was seeing petrified wood. I found out this time that there is a lot more to this National Park.

The scenery is varied and beautiful, from the painted desert area to the blue mesas, among others.

We ran across the Agate Bridge which was a fallen petrified tree.

But the highlights were definitely the petrified trees. It is really incredible to see 100 million year old trees that have been petrified into stones harder than granite.

It was a hot day, temps in the 90s, but as it was a dry heat, it was much more comfortable than the hot, humid weather we faced in Japan last summer. Still, it was nice to cool off with ice cream. :)

My favorite part of the park was the area we saw last, a place where you could walk right up to many petrified specimen. This one below is a large tree that was petrified.

I was amazed at how much these still looked like logs, except they were hard as stone.

After we left the Petrified Forest, we drove to Flagstaff Arizona where we spent the night. We walked around the historic downtown area for a little bit, then picked a Thai restaurant for dinner. After all of the western meat dishes we had been eating, it was nice to have some Asian food.

Next will be a full day of driving which will mark the end of Phase 1 of our trip. I'll fill you in on that and what Phase 2 will be when I write again, later in the week.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Santa Rosa, New Mexico

We departed from Oklahoma City for a full day of driving. Kai usually does well in the car as he can watch dvds. Though I was happy that he noticed some of the scenery as well.

"Hey Dad, I just saw a pink lake." The dirt in Oklahoma is a reddish hue, and this one pond we passed had a distinct pinkish hue.

As we drove from Oklahoma into North Texas, the warning indicator lights came on again. Hmmm, two days in a row. That's a bit concerning, particularly as we would be driving through the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and Arizona. My wife looked up a Toyota dealer in the next city we would be driving through, Amarillo Texas, and we decided to stop there to get the car checked out.

Just like the day before at the Toyota dealer in Oklahoma City, the guy who ran the diagnostics told us that it didn't seem anything serious, but if we wanted them to check out the engine further it would take until the next day. He said if it was him, he would keep going. I had him reset the indicators and we went on our way. Wish us luck that nothing more serious will pop up!

Kai was happy once we crossed the border from Texas into New Mexico. He had considered Oklahoma and north Texas to be danger zones due to greater likelihood of tornadoes, so when he saw the Welcome to New Mexico sign, he announced that we were now in the clear.

Our destination for the evening was the small town of Santa Rosa, New Mexico. We lost some time getting our car checked out, so it was about 6:00 PM when we checked into our motel.

Rather than use the motel pool, I told Kai that there was a swimming/diving hole in town called The Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is an artesian well. The surface is only about 80 feet wide and the pool is about that deep as well. Kai was interested in checking it out.

I stayed ashore to snap some pictures before I planned to join my wife and Kai in the water.

But they only took a couple of steps before coming out, saying that the water was too cold. Kai had been in very cold water in Lake Michigan and other places, so I found it difficult to believe that the water here was too cold for Kai. But I didn't feel like entering it to find out for myself.

On the way to the Blue Hole, we had passed a small lake that had inflatable bounces and slides. Kai wanted to go there instead.

Kai loved it!

It was actually kind of tough to pull yourself out of the water onto the inflatables, and then to climb up to the top before sliding down. My wife went back to shore after a few slides, but I stayed out with Kai for as long as he wanted. I was happy that he was enjoying himself, and getting some exercise in the process.

When he finally had enough, we went by to the motel, showered, and went out to dinner.

There wasn't many choices in this small town, but we found a family-run Mexican restaurant that had been on old Route 66 for over 90 years.

It wasn't the best Mexican food we ever had, but it was tasty and we enjoyed it.

Next, we're on to Arizona.

Saturday, July 20, 2019


After leaving St. Louis, we headed toward Oklahoma. We would spend the night in Oklahoma City.

About an hour before arriving in OKC, three warning lights went on in our car. Uh oh, that's not good. Normally I don't get overly concerned about those indicator lights, but as we would be traveling through some remote areas and still had a number of miles to cover in the next few days, I didn't want to take any chances.

We checked into our hotel and while my wife took Kai to the hotel swimming pool, I went to the nearest Toyota dealership to get the car checked out. The man who ran the diagnostics on the car was very helpful. He said that he had seen similar problems come up on other Siennas and that in all of those cases they just cleared the warnings and the cars ran fine without the lights coming on again. He cleared our warning lights and did not charge us for doing so.

I got back to the hotel as Kai and my wife were finishing up their showers after swimming. Then we headed out to dinner.

Tonight's choice was Cattlemen's Steakhouse, Oklahoma's oldest restaurant. It was crowded, and we had to wait about 40 minutes for a table, but it was worth it. My wife had prime rib which she said was better than Lawry's. Kai and I had ribeye steaks which were delicious. Kai said it was the best meal of the trip so far, though it has only been a couple of days.

At dinner, Kai thanked me for driving and said that he was now feeling happy to get away from the stresses at home. After all of the complaints he had before the trip, it was nice that he was enjoying it, and very nice that he said so.

After dinner, we went to see the Oklahoma City National Memorial to honor the victims and survivors of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Predating September 11, this domestic terror attack was big news at that time.

The Field of Empty Chairs is lit up at night, with one chair for each of the 168 people who were killed.

The Gates of Time are twin bronze gates on each side of a reflecting pool. The gates on one end show the time of 9:01, the last moments of peace. The gates on the other side show 9:03, representing the first moments of recovery after the bombing occurred at 9:02 AM.

The next morning, Kai was in good spirits. He found a clip of "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" from the movie Oklahoma and played it for me.

After breakfast, we went to see the museum that documents what happened on the day of the attack, and in the days and weeks that followed.

A third of the Federal Building was obliterated by a very powerful car bomb.

Walking through the museum, we saw very moving video, photos, and descriptions.

Kai told me that going to museums is one of his favorite things that we do on our vacations.

Many parts of this museum were heart wrenching, particularly the videos where parents and grandparents talked about looking for their loved ones, including the kids of federal workers in the daycare on the second floor of the building.

Other exhibits were heart warming, as Oklahomans came together to search for and help victims.

It was a worthwhile stop on our trip. I think Kai and my wife learned a lot about this tragic event.

Next, we resume our drive out west.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Road Trip!

We have embarked on an extended road trip for our summer vacation.

In the days and weeks leading up, Kai has been frequently voicing his displeasure about how the summer has gone for him. He didn't like that he had to continue his swimming. He didn't like having to go to summer school, particularly as it was held at a different community's high school. And he really didn't like that we kept him in a therapeutic social group on Saturdays.

As the days of our trip drew near, he expressed unhappiness about the length of time we will be away from home. "This is the worst summer ever!" became a frequent sound in our household. The fact that we would be driving through Oklahoma also drew his ire. "Don't you know that Oklahoma is the tornado center of the world!"

We have been to many interesting places on our summer vacations, but this year I wanted to do a road trip like the ones my family did when I was a kid. The longest of those was when I was eight years old, when my father drove our family station wagon all the way out to Los Angeles, stopping at many places along the way, going and coming. And now I had a romantic vision of passing along the same experience to my wife and son.

But as Kai's complaints continued, and as I thought of some of the challenging times we had just last summer on our trip to Japan, I half seriously thought about cancelling the whole drive.

But alas, I'm too much of an optimist. And too much planning had gone into it. So here we are, on the road.

We started out with a half day drive to St. Louis.

Everything was fine until a weather warning came on the radio.

"Dad, what was that?"

Kai looked up the weather forecast on his phone. "Oh my God there's a storm coming to St. Louis!"

And that was it.

Kai's anxiety kicked up big time.

For the rest of the drive and after we arrived at our hotel, Kai constantly expressed worry about the storm, which surely would include a tornado. I constantly assured him that rain would not harm us and that a tornado wouldn't go through the city. But there's no reasoning with Kai when he gets like this.

We had planned to walk to a barbecue restaurant near our hotel but the storm started. The rain and wind was severe. I called for an Uber.

It was a very quick trip with the Uber and we barely got wet.

At the restaurant, Kai calmed down. "Sorry I got so anxious, Dad."

I am trying my best to keep in mind that most of the time when Kai gets like this, it is not because he wants to be difficult. It is because his mental state causes him to have very high levels of anxiety. It doesn't help to get frustrated at him. It is best to stay calm and give him reasons why things will be okay, even if he doesn't seem to listen to those reasons at the time.

As for dinner itself, the ribs were fine but the brisket was a disappointment. It looked like the server had given us a bunch of scrap pieces instead of nice slices. I probably should have complained but it not my nature to do so,

Kai had a sausage link and some of the ribs and he said he liked it. I was glad that he was now enjoying himself.

After dinner, we took a couple photos and headed back outside.

The rain had nearly stopped. It was only a very light drizzle so we walked back to our hotel. I had planned to walk over to the St. Louis icon, the Gateway Arch, but we all decided we'd rather do that the next morning.

* * * * *

Breakfasts on the road can be difficult with Kai as he doesn't eat eggs and is not particularly fond of other breakfast staples such as pancakes or waffles. But this hotel had a make-your-own waffle in a chocolate flavor and Kai actually wanted to have it. I showed how to make it and he topped it off with strawberries and whipped cream.

He was a happy boy!

We walked over toward the Arch, pausing to see this barge going down the Mississippi River.

And then we came to the Arch. I don't think you really appreciate the size of it until standing right next to it.

Kai took pictures of the Arch and played some Pokemon Go. He was having a good time!

And with that, our time in St. Louis came to an end.

We had a long drive ahead of us but this day was off to a good start.
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