Dating while Brown in a Red State

Antonio is coming in for the weekend tomorrow.

I finished two of my summer classes this week, so he thought he’d come in so we could celebrate a little. He was thinking ice cream. But I have been trying to find ways for us to get out more, now that I’m so close to having life return to somewhat “normal”.

One thing we both enjoy but for some reason have never done together in our three years is go wine tasting. We’ve tasted at home, or at dinner, but not gone to a winery and just enjoyed a leisurely tasting. So I thought, “Hey! I could surprise him with a trip to French Lick!” I haven’t had a nice glass of French Lick Catawba in ages, and that sounds just lovely. And I hear their cafe’ (which is new since I was there) is really good.

And then I suddenly realized… I don’t know if it’s safe to take Antonio there.

My dad’s family is from Orange County, Indiana… home of French Lick Springs and the incredible West Baden Springs Resort. If you’re from down there, you call it “the Valley”. Springs Valley, to be more precise. My grandpa was born there. My great-grandparents both worked for the hotel’s original owner, Mr. Sinclair, back before the Great Depression… my great-grandmother was a maid who used to babysit the Sinclair children, and my great-grandfather was a livery driver who , as family legend holds, used to drive for Al Capone when he came to town.

But there’s a darker side to Springs Valley and Orange County. The side that was – and still is – a stronghold of the Klan. My big family secret is that I am only a few generations descended from a grand wizard of the KKK in Orange County. We don’t talk about it, OBVIOUSLY. It’s not something we’re proud of.

What I am very proud of, however, is how my parents made a conscious decision to raise my sister and me differently. To raise us to be accepting and to understand that race does not define a person. My dad’s interest in anthropology and my mom being raised by someone who grew up in a multi-ethnic community in Canada went a long way toward their own personal views of being people who embrace diversity, and passed along those values to us. My dad and his brother have both deliberately broken a generational “curse”, so to speak, in raising children (me, my sister, and two of my cousins) to be open-minded, accepting people who work with, love, and befriend people from all walks of life. (My two cousins are both doing amazing work in the areas of LGBTQ+ advocacy and Native American advocacy, but that’s another post.)

But down in Orange County, the Klan still lives. Even some of my extended family never outgrew those old, dangerous ways of thinking. Lots of people down home still believe in racial segregation and white supremacy. They’re not people I’m close to, but I’ve been to family reunions in the past and you hear things. Back before I knew how to speak up.

I can take Antonio somewhere else. We can come up with plenty of other places to celebrate, to spend time together. I can even think of a dozen other wineries nearby where we could do the same thing. But three years in, this is the first time I’ve run into a situation of not feeling safe to take him somewhere. I am so insulated from this in a way, because my home here in Bloomington is so diverse and all-embracing (for the most part). That’s the beauty of living in this literal liberal mecca in the middle of red Indiana… Antonio and I never feel unsafe together in downtown or out-and-about. But that’s not true all around us.

Bloomington is a bubble. Sure, we joke about “never pulling over in Martinsville”, but the fact of the matter is that this is real. Especially under the current administration. I sometimes recheck Antonio’s wallet just to make sure that his US passport ID card is still there, even though I know he never takes it out… just as peace of mind for me. I worry sometimes when he’s out flying, because while he may be relatively safe in an airport, we don’t always know what lies outside the terminal for a commuter crew. I worry that someone with an agenda may pull him over and never stop to determine that he’s a naturalized American before something terrible happens.

I don’t have any answers for this tonight. I just needed to write. For all the horrible atrocities taking place in our country tonight, for all the scared children ripped away from their parents at our southern border, for all the black and brown people being murdered in the streets… I see you. I know that my issue of where to go on date night is nothing compared to what you are facing just for being alive in what-used-to-be-America. I’m so sorry. This is not what we are meant to be. I promise to keep using my voice to fight for you, and to keep my eyes open. We can’t go back to this being normal.

In the meantime, I’ll be coming up with a new idea for date night.
I can buy my French Lick wine at Kroger. I can never buy another Antonio.

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How I met my pilot

Three years ago today, I woke up nervous. I drank my coffee, took a shower, and took an extra long time getting ready.

Still nervous.

Because I was about to do something that felt totally crazy…
That afternoon, I drove an hour to the airport. To pick up a stranger.

*****record scratch*****

*****freeze frame******

Okay, let me back up.

It was early February of 2015, and I had grown pretty fed up with the whole online dating thing. After more bad dates and more verbally abusive or just gross online interactions, I decided to take a break for a while. So one afternoon, I logged on to deactivate my accounts.

Which is when I discovered I had a new message.

It was only two words long: “Storm tested?”

That’s what caught my attention. Because that simple question meant that whoever he was, he had actually taken the time to read my profile. We all know I tend to be a bit… umm… *verbose*… and I was never good at keeping my profile short and sweet. So to know that someone had taken the time to read that far said something.

I replied.

That reply became a months-long conversation.

He was a pilot, just getting ready to advance to the airlines after years of private and instructing work. He was from South America, and working in Florida, but had gone to school here and was looking to move back to Indiana. He spoke French, just as I was learning. He was divorced, too.

So we talked. And texted. For months. And finally started talking on the phone. He was in training, back and forth between PHX and YYZ. By that point, I knew I was starting to feel something for this handsome stranger who seemed too good to be true.

Then he offered to fly to Indiana so we could meet in real life.

*cue freak out*

I mean… on the one hand, who does that? Is he some sort of crazy person? On the other hand… that may be the most effort that one man has ever gone to for me. (Including my ex-husband!)

So I did something I’d never done before…

I paid for a real background check.

I felt so shady. But I am a survivor of date-rape from a previous very bad online date-gone-awry. So to meet someone who wasn’t originally from this country, and who had very little online presence, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. (Okay, I had a choice… I could have said no. But all along I just had this feeling… this Gibbs-gut-feeling that I just had to meet this guy.)

His background checked out. (I should have known… who gets hired by a commercial airline if they didn’t pass a background check?) So when he offered to fly into IND on what would have been my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary?

I thought it was a sign.

So despite thinking I may have been completely crazy, I accepted.

Those of you who have been to the new IND terminal know there’s a spot right in the center where you can watch arrivals entering from both concourses. And it was there that I stood, my heart pounding. It was hot and humid. I was wearing a jacket anyway, wearing heels with my jeans… trying to play it cool and feeling anything but.

And there he was. Antonio. Coming out of Concourse A… dark shiny hair and beautiful brown skin contrasting a crisp white Oxford shirt, striding in with the swagger of… well, a pilot.

The drive home was a little awkward, I admit. I still couldn’t get over the idea that I wasn’t completely nuts and that this was really happening. This guy really flew in all the way from Miami just to go on a date with me?!

We went out for Indian food that night. Then we walked around downtown, which is the first time I discovered he walks too fast for my short little legs. We walked down to Hartzell’s for ice cream, which is when I first actually met the real Hartzell, who happens to be an old friend of Antonio’s from when he lived here years ago.

That night we shared a first kiss over a bottle wine while the radio played “This Magic Moment“.

I know… it’s so terribly cheesy. So cheesy, in fact, that I held my breath and didn’t tell our story for a long time. I was afraid if I said too much or talked about it too much, I would break the spell. I’d jinx it somehow. I had been divorced for years, and in that time my longest relationship had lasted less than a year. Most of them only a few dates.

But now it’s been three years now. So maybe it’s safe.
………………*fingers crossed*………………..

A lot has happened since then. It hasn’t always been easy. I won the Cox Scholarship just about 6 weeks after we officially started dating. Antonio changed airlines. He has been based out of no less than 5 cities for work. I’ve learned by fire what it means to love someone who works in the aviation industry. We’ve dealt with a cancer scare (mine), losing my grandfather (another pilot, to whom Antonio had grown close as well), a hurricane (we got lucky when Irma turned left at the Keys, saving the MIA house from more damage than just the roof and the fence), sick family members in foreign countries, job changes, and so much more.

We also saw the 2016 election turn the world upside down. I went through a lot of emotional turmoil realizing that the country that I grew up in wasn’t really what I thought it was. I have learned more than ever what it means to be an immigrant and a non-white person in America right now. Antonio’s experiences have opened my eyes on a personal level of what it means to love someone who is constantly “othered” by our society. Antonio, who has never been around small children or sick people, has learned how to love both my Munchkin with all his quirks, and this girl living the fibro life. We’ve had times of frustration and misunderstanding. We have learned that we are both stubborn, and both sometimes short-tempered.

But we have also learned how to listen more. How to walk away when we need to so we can come back and work through things together. Antonio is learning to speak fibro and I’m learning to speak pilot. We’ve learned how to maneuver around language and cultural barriers. We’ve made our relationship official (at least in the state of Florida). We’ve learned to manage a relationship lived mostly apart, and take pleasure in the times when he is home. We have dates by FaceTime and Skype when he’s away. We practice French with the Munchkin and dream of traveling the world together. We’ve shared each other’s families and traded traditions. We talk about the future.

Today is the third anniversary of the day that a pilot took a crazy trip to Indiana to take a chance on some random girl from the internet. The day our lives changed. Antonio is in TUL, getting ready for a transfer to MKE, while I’m wrapping up the last of my undergrad coursework. The life of an aviation family isn’t always easy, and it’s very rarely predictable. We may have to only share a glass of wine in spirit tonight. But we’re happy. He supports me and I’m immeasurably proud of him. We’re not sure what, exactly, comes next.

But whatever it brings, we’re going to do it together. The skies ahead may not always be smooth… but it sure looks sunny from the cockpit.

P.S. I did eventually confess to Antonio about that background check. And you know what? He said he was glad that I had been so smart about it. Told you he was a keeper! 😉 

Take my hand, my son…

Today was a really emotional day.

Mom and I spent most of the weekend in our hometown working to prepare my grandparent’s house for auction. The household goods were loaded into a truck today for the auction later this week, and we’ve been painting and cleaning for months now to prepare the house itself for sale.

We were already tired when we got back today. At one point, I opened a box of Christmas decorations while looking for something, and I was struck with a familiar scent that took my breath away… my grandma. I choked down the lump in my throat, because we had work to do. Family tension did nothing to relieve my emotional state during the afternoon. A drive home, groceries, and picking up the Munchkin, and we were finally home again.

But as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one feeling emotional today.

It was a rough evening for my Munchkin, who is struggling right now. He doesn’t want to go to his dad’s house, and yet he has an extra overnight this week (which puts him at dad’s for 6 of the next 7 nights). He’s tired of being stuck in the middle. He doesn’t understand why his dad and stepmom say such mean things about his mom and grandparents. He said he is afraid that if he tells his dad how he feels, he will just be punished yet again. He told me that he is worried that if he tells people how he feels that nobody will believe him.

There were lots of tears before bedtime from a boy who is afraid to hurt anyone, and yet is quite tired of being a pawn in this grownup mess.

He may be 13 now, and he may be just a couple inches shy of surpassing me in height, but sometimes he is still very much my little boy. He still loves to snuggle. We still have a bedtime prayers routine, without which he will not go to bed.

During that routine, when he has had a rough day, I still sing to him. Usually he wants “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra“, or “You are my sunshine.”

But tonight when I tucked him in to bed, this old song popped into my head:

Day is Done: Peter, Paul, and Mary

A sign? Maybe. All I know is that it felt like the right song at the right moment.

Earlier during his meltdown , I talked with my Munchkin about our “village”. That his village was going to get him through all this stuff with his dad. That he can trust these people around him, in the village that mommy has built for him, to believe his feelings, to listen when he talks, to help him face the hard times. That just like his favorite heroes Harry Potter and Percy Jackson… even though things won’t be easy, he won’t ever do it alone. That it will be worth it in the end, and that I, along with his village, believe that he will get through this.

Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m making him feel any better. Tonight was one of those nights. But I tried. God, I hope it sinks I to his heart and helps bravery rise up within him. After I just hired yet another attorney, and my own faith falters, I pray that when I said to have faith in his mom and in our village, that it planted a seed.

Sometimes, I’m not sure whether being the mom or the kid in the middle is harder…

Mixed feelings on World Autism Day

Once again, the time has come where blue bulbs grace front porch lights and enormous monuments around the world are robed in blue light. It’s World Autism Awareness Day… an international movement that has most certainly helped to make people “aware” that this thing called autism exists in our world.

But it has not necessarily brought the understanding that it should have. Despite all the media attention, so many people still fail to understand what the spectrum is, or how people exist as a part of it. There is so little understanding of high-functioning autism, or atypical forms. There is so little understanding of what life is truly like for those whose entire existence are consumed with caring for a person with severe autism. And the nuances of diagnosis – being able to distinguish between Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, or other atypical forms – have been removed from the system, for better or worse.

I mention this because at this juncture in our lives, I am experiencing mixed feelings about what it takes to “be” autistic. What does it take? What does it mean? Can it be “cured”? Does improvement mean it has “gone away”?

My son just turned 13. Last week we had a regular appointment with his psychiatrist – the one who initially made his autism diagnosis over 6 years ago. As we were talking, we discussed some newer evaluations and assessments that we had done. We discussed how he is doing in school. We discussed the behaviors that are posing challenges for him right now.

And Dr. K said that if she met Riley right now, she would probably not place him on the spectrum.

So what does that mean?

Does it mean he was never really autistic?

No.

It means that all of the intervention and therapies that we took advantage of WORKED. All the many hours of ABA and OT and ST and changing schools did exactly what they were meant to do.

Me being “that mom” at IEP meetings, advocating like crazy and never taking no for an answer?
It worked.

Me refusing to listen to nay-sayers like my ex-husband who swear that there is nothing wrong with my son that screaming and punishment can’t fix?
I was right.

But listen… this isn’t about vindicating me. It’s nice, but it’s not what this is about.

What this is about is giving other families hope that intervention can help. What this is about is listening to your gut instinct about what your child needs and fighting for it.

My son still isn’t without challenges. It’s just that as he grows and matures, he has caught up developmentally to the point that sensory issues are not the most pressing issue for him. Now his biggest struggles stem from moderate to severe ADHD, and everything that goes along with it… impulse control, struggle to focus, personal space, and all the rest. We still need our IEP. We are still working hard to keep grades up and teach study habits and find ways to cope with stress and fidgeting and social situations.

All that being said… for some families, there will be a limit to improvement. Some families will – sadly – never be as lucky as we have been. And I call it luck… because while we put in the work to get to this result, life could just as easily have gone a different way for us. I don’t know the reason why some people have severe autism that never improves or only improves to a point with therapy, while others like my son make enough progress to be “removed” from the spectrum. It’s one of life’s great questions… one for which I don’t have answers.

So today, I’m still wearing my blue. I’m wearing blue to honor our journey to get from angry nonverbal toddler to smart funny teenager. I’m wearing blue for all those other families… both for those who are working every day to make progress like my son has, and for those families who are working every day just to get through the day. For those who will live with this incredible, beautiful, and frustrating lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

Is my son “cured”?

I honestly don’t know how to answer that.

He is what he is, and who he is. Maybe I don’t need an answer to that question.

Am I afraid of what others will think?

Yes.

Will others think that I’ve been making all this up, just like my son’s dad has sworn all along? Maybe. But I hope they won’t. I can only speak what I know to be true.

I am not a doctor or a therapist… I just happen to know a lot of really good ones, and fought to get access to them for my child to get past his own personal hurdles. I don’t know if the label you put on it really matters. My child needed help, and I got it for him. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t cheap, and it meant me taking on the mountain of emotional work that is advocating for one’s child in a world that doesn’t really quite understand him… a world that is built for and run by neurotypical people.

But I’d do it all again. Just like every other caregiver out there who loves someone on the spectrum. We just do what we can do. We get through each day, and take advantage of opportunities for help and progress where we can find them. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we call it, or where on the spectrum we live. Anyone who loves an exceptional or 2e person is just doing what we can to give them the best life possible, even if that looks different for every family.

Because regardless of label or diagnosis… I love this life, and my kiddo – struggles and all… and I wouldn’t trade either for the world.

Muñeco de Año Nuevo – Good Riddance to 2017

I don’t know about the rest of you, but around here 2017 was pretty much a dumpster fire.

Oh, don’t get me wrong… there were some good moments. I’m finally in my senior year. My fibro pain is mostly under control. I was able to travel a bit – went to Denver twice and Miami & Key West once. My pilot Antonio and I are better than ever. The Munchkin is doing better than ever. The year in politics has made an activist out of me.

But also… egad. We lost my grandfather in August. My sister’s 14yo Pug (who was basically like my niece with fur) died right before Christmas. I spent the first half of the year in a custody battle with my ex-husband and the second half just trying to not hate him and his nasty emails. And don’t even get me started on what’s happening in this country with regard to politics, equality, and social justice…

So when Antonio suggested that we make a muñeco de Año Nuevo, it seemed like a pretty good idea.

Antonio, for those of you new to our story, is from Peru. And Peru is serious about their New Year’s traditions. REALLY serious. Much more so than here in the States. They have so many customs and traditions for the New Year that are meant to cast out last year’s bad and bring good luck for the new year, it’s mind-boggling to this Indiana girl. Some of them make sense – like going into the new year with money in your pockets, or wearing new clothes. Others, like lucky yellow underwear or hiding potatoes under the furniture, seem completely odd. But the one really big one – and I mean BIG – is the muñeco.

In English, we would call it an effigy. In Peru and other Latin American countries, the muñeco is a life-sized doll built to represent the outgoing year. You stuff old clothes with leaves, newspaper, etc. On scraps of paper, you write down the bad or negative things that happened that you don’t want to take into the new year with you, and stuff them inside the muñeco. Then on New Year’s Eve, the whole neighborhood goes out in the street and lights this life-sized doll on fire.

Out with the old and in with the new, right? Sounded good to me.

Since it was just the two of us this year, and because I live in the Midwest and not in a very culturally diverse subdivision, we decided to make just a small muñeco. We hit up the local Goodwill store for some tiny clothes, then stuffed and stapled and gave it a head. 

Disclaimer: In Latin America, it is very common for these muñecos to carry the face of a national figure, such as a Peruvian politician, so I’ve doctored these images a little. 

Around 11:30 tonight, in the FREEZING cold, we headed out to the back patio and set our little muñeco on fire. It didn’t take very long, but it felt pretty good to watch all the negative from this past year burn. Loss and illness and challenges… we’re not taking any of that into this new year with us.

As I look forward to graduation and Antonio’s career keeps growing, as we continue praying for those in this country that have less than we do, as we stand up for our neighbors who are discriminated against, let this new year bring peace and prosperity and good health.

Friends… Feliz Año Nuevo. Bonne Année. Happy New Year. Blessings and peace to you and yours in 2018 and beyond.

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation…

Ed. Note: This piece was written both as catharsis on the loss of my grandfather, and as ethnographic research paper for Dr. Marvin Sterling‘s ANTH-E393 World Fiction and Cultural Anthropology class at Indiana University. It is both biographical and fictional. 

The sky is a brilliant blue. There’s a warm breeze drifting up over the hill from the river below. The beauty of this late summer day betrays the solemnity of such an occasion. I’ve always thought so. Some might complain about duty in the cold or rain or snow; to me, it always felt like the weather should match the mood. It’s as if the warmth of the sun is a slap in the face to a family in mourning.  Continue reading