Saturday, July 19, 2008

Retrospective on South Carolina's Cypress Gardens

We love Cypress Gardens in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. No! It is NOT like the one in Florida with the fancy water shows and thrilling rides, but it suits our family perfectly! Cypress Gardens is much smaller, not showy, less tourista! You can find it on the outskirts of the sleepy little town of Moncks Corner, which also hosts a fantastic seafood restaurant called Gilligan's, an old Charleston favorite which preceded the television show by decades, and a Trappist monastery. In my childhood, we spent a few weeks every summer at Short Stay, a Navy recreation camp on a man-made lake near Moncks Corner.

We first visited this lovely blackwater swamp in June 2004 on our first trip to Manning to see my parents and their new home. That was when the old "church" made out of wood and stucco still stood, a relic of the movie set of The Patriot. (Several movies were filmed here: The Swamp Thing and The Notebook). Anyway, the first time my parents went here my mother exclaimed, "Oh, look at that old Spanish mission!" She started snapping photographs left and right until they past it and realized it was only a facade! Unfortunately, the "church" is no mas for a severe thunderstorm blew it down. All that is left are some pylons sticking out of the water. However, you can find other props from the set like the eight portable cypress tree trunks and the under-swamp bridge for the scenes of horses walking through the swamp (which is next to impossible to do in real life). The other interesting trick was that the film crew lowered the level of water (easily done through a dam that prevents the swamp from drying out every summer) to make the Spanish Mission island bigger.

I was going to launch into a history lesson, but you can find a much better version in this fifteen-minute online video.

David was almost twelve and Pamela fifteen on our first visit. I remember him sighing and reflecting, "I could live here," during the boat ride on the swamp. The water is clean even though it looks black as ink. When the needles fall off the cypress trees, they sink to the bottom and slowly release tannins (used to tan leather, which we studied in The Brendan Voyage and Amos Fortune, Free Man). The bottom of the shallow swamp is black, and that color gets reflected off the surface. Look carefully in the second photo and you will see an alligator gliding in front of us!

The first friend we made was Woody, the wood duck. He lived in the Butterfly House. We were saddened by the news of his death in 2007, marked by this memorial stone. On our most recent visit with my sister-in-law, we were delighted to meet a juvenile wood duck, whose lost his mother when a car ran over her! It will be exciting to see him mature on our next visits!

The Original Woody

Woody the Younger

In July 2007, we took our nephew Antonio (Patty's son) to Cypress Gardens and he loved it, too! Two weeks ago, we met Tammy's high school friend Lisa (and her husband Johnny and baby girl Leilani). Patty and Javier had their chance on Tuesday, but a light shower during the swamp tour prevented me from filming or taking pictures. Below is a video of photographs and film clips of our swamp tours.

We were fortunate to have visited before the crocodiles made their curtain call! The county can no longer afford to keep the crocs in style, so they had to find a new home for them. Johnny enjoyed hanging out with the crocs, which reminded him of his school mascot--not some goon in a suit--a real live crocodile that they kept well-fed. When we brought Patty and Javier, the closed doors to the reptile exhibit saddened me, but I did not shed any crocodile tears . . .

Here are some photobuckets organized by theme!
Butterflies Everywhere!

Flora and Fauna

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Topiary Triumph

Monday was a long day for Pamela: after we toured the peach orchard, country store, and packing plant, we stopped at a fascinating topiary garden and Barnes and Nobles before heading home.

In the rural town of Bishopville, home of the Cotton Museum and stop along the cotton trail, is Pearl Fryar's topiary garden, featured in Smithstonian Magazine. A documentary called A Man Named Pearl, due out in December 2008, explores the man behind the garden. It all started in 1984 when he cut up a few bushes around the front door of the first home he ever owned. Then, he formed his street address with plant cuttings. The next thing you know he was filling his yard with trees and bushes cut into abstract shapes. He filled his art with words like love, peace, and goodwill and created metal art with messages like hate hurts, love unity, and faith.

Pearl set his mind on winning Yard of the Month by the local garden club, and he did three times! Winthrop University awarded him with a 2006 Medal in the Arts for his work as a self-taught topiary artist and his impact on his community. Many media outlets and travel websites have featured his topiary garden, so we expect some sort of commercialization at the site. We drove up to the garden surrounding his brick home in a residential neighborhood. There are no signs nor gift shops filled with tacky stuff for sale. The hours are dawn to dusk and, if you are lucky, you will catch him at work and get the chance to chat with Pearl. We were not that lucky! I just love stories like his and enjoy meeting inspiring people.

The photograph below cracked me up! When he was a boy, David loved collecting sticks. Whenever we moved, he would sort through his stick collection and keep the best ones. He even brought a few sticks with him on our last move to South Carolina. I can see that old habits die hard!

Pamela was tuckered out and, even though she wanted to go, she hung in there without any major meltdowns. About two minutes into the video, she worked her way to a little field behind the garden, flung out her hands, and said, "Here I am!" The focus of my video was interacting with Pamela.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Peachy Keen

On Monday, Pamela, David, and I took our guests, Patty and Javier, to the McLeod Farms peach orchard in McBee, South Carolina.

The first thing that caught our interest was the sandy ground--sand in the middle of the state! A bit further up the road is the Carolina Sandhills Refuge, and, during a glacial period in the history of the earth, these sandhills were the shoreline of the ocean. In the following clip, I was explaining to Patty about the sand, and you can see Pamela listening to our conversation and scooting her feet in the sand. I wanted to capture more of Pamela's orienting to people, so I filmed some of our explorations.

The Orchard

Yummy Peach in the Making

In front of the orchard are the antique museum, restaurant, and country store. Patty bought some delicious, primo peaches, while I purchased blackberries and stoneground grits. Javier had never tried grits--not only did he enjoy them the next day, he invented a Latin variation: banana grits! The store did not thrill Pamela, so she sat on a rocking chair in the screened porch and rocked the babies. Then, we ate lunch and headed to the peach packing plant.

The Packing Plant

The Flying Boxes

In spite of the noise, Pamela did very nicely orienting to me as we explored the assembly line factory. She enjoyed watching the boxes fly along the tracks.

Patty sat down with Pamela, and they managed to have a conversation! You cannot hear what they are saying, but I love the nonverbals here! Pamela could not have managed this kind of interaction in such a challenging setting when Patty visited us in April 2007. This is my favorite clip of the day:

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pamela's Babysitting Job

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) cleared up a mystery I have been thinking through for a long time. Even though Pamela is physically 19 years old, academically doing 5th to 6th grade level work, and speaking at an early elementary level, she still enjoys watching PBS children's programming and Nickelodeon. She plays with stuffed animals, Barbies, and baby dolls. According to our consultant, Pamela's relationship skills are similar to that of a toddler, which gives me permission to stop worrying about her immature play skills. For example, Pamela's tia (aunt) from El Salvador is visiting us and wanted to buy her some books. Pamela chose Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Busy Spider, which is way below her actual reading level. Since her choice makes sense emotionally, I saw nothing wrong.

Yesterday, her tia wanted to buy a toy for Pamela and I used the opportunity to film how well Pamela does with orienting to me. Shopping at the very noisy Wal-Mart would test her to the maximum between sensory overload and the excitement of picking out a new toy. Pamela and I interacted very nicely, all things considered.

Pamela has two baby dolls now and she thinks our family-size has increased from four to six! She calls herself a "big girl"--too young to be the mother of the babies. So, when she decided to bring the babies on a trip to a peach orchard and topiary garden (to be blogged another day), she thought of her role as the babysitter. Because the weather is hot, she stripped them down to diapers so they would be more comfortable. The oldest one is Baby Alive, but she named the little brother Baby David (after her brother). Even though the new baby came wrapped in a pink robe, she thinks he looks like David when he was a baby.

Patty (Pamela's tia, or aunt) visited us last year for three weeks about a month after we began incorporating RDI into our life. She has noticed many wonderful changes in Pamela. Her face is more expressive, and she tunes into conversations much more. Today, in the car, Patty was trying to teach David to roll his r's and they were practicing saying that troublesome letter. They went through a series of words like carro, perro, and burrito. Patty was trying get David to emphasize the r in burrito and, suddenly and very dramatically, Pamela yelled out, "BURRITO!" She had us all in stitches!

Pamela spends less time pacing, hidden in her room watching television, playing on the computer, or watching television. She transitions to one self-selected entertainment choice to another rather than being stuck in one mode of play for long periods of time. She seeks being around us more than she did in Patty's last visit. Pamela is much more able to have back and forth conversations with Patty. She seems much calmer and more relaxed, less frustrated, and more able to handle change. She talks more spontaneously and less rigidly than last year, too.

A friend of Patty's joined her on this trip to the States, and Pamela has never met him. He said today that they had a little conversation at the book store and he noticed how she imitated his volume. If he spoke loudly, she did; when he whispered, she whispered. Patty noticed how Pamela will whisper to herself quite often, and I had not really paid attention to it. I may need to go reread my posts on the development of private speech.

Here are Pamela and her tia Patty giving kisses to the baby and a wonderful exchange they had in a very loud peach packing plant. I will share footage later when I have time to edit.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Baby Steps in Guiding with Communication

Steve is taking his first steps in guiding Pamela through his altered communication style--the same steps I took last year! Yesterday, we talked to our consultant by phone about how to help Steve get started. He has a tougher job in some ways because Pamela adjusted to my guidance when we first started homeschooling. With Steve, she is used to wielding the awesome, incredible superpowers of Daddy's little girl. One pout . . . and he caves! LOL! For example, last weekend, when we tried to capture their interactions on film, Pamela refused to do anything dynamic with him (I think because she senses this is the beginning of the end of the Queen Bee's reign). They ended up putting together a puzzle of the United States--a very static activity.

We brainstormed an outdoor activity they can do together that is part of Steve's weekend routine. We settled on Pamela donning a swimsuit and helping him wash the cars (I think it is a winner because Pamela asked what we were doing tomorrow; when I told her about the swimsuit and car wash plan, her entire face lit up with excitement). The neat thing about washing cars is that it is ripe for interaction patterns: simultaneously wash up and down or side to side, alternate I spray and you spray, etc. To focus on avoiding the dreaded QPC (questions, prompts, commands) monster, he thought of the perfect phrase for himself, "Give her time!"

Learning to change your communication style is a mental game! You have to think about what you plan to do in advance! Our strategy is:Pamela and I are working on separate objectives. We have been breaking down gestures, starting off with receptive gestures to tell us that she is listening and understands. She has mastered pointing out what she sees to establish joint attention with me and nodding or shaking her head when I talk. We have spent the past ten days transferring the responsibility of orientation to her. Whenever Pamela talked to me, I went out of my way to turn my body to her so that we could have face-to-face communication. She now realizes that she needs to orient herself as well. Rather than have a specially framed activity to teach this, I waited for natural opportunities in real life:
  • If Pamela started talking from another room, I ignored her until she walked into the room and established face-to-face with me.
  • If I was in the middle of something (reading a book while sitting on the couch), I did not look up unless she tapped me on the shoulder.
  • If I was in front of the computer or sink, I scaffolded her by taking a few steps back to give her maneuvering room. At first, I gently guided her with my arm until she had face-to-face contact.
  • Occasionally, I turn away from her before the conversation and wait for her to orient in my direction.
She now understands her responsibility and, once I capture this in action on film and am satisfied with what I see, I plan to be more natural about it. In most interactions, both people work together to orient themselves and, to spotlight her responsibility, I have been unusually unresponsive!

Since Steve's schedule is so busy (major business meeting next week), I asked David to film Pamela and I shopping, which has scope for lots of face-to-face connection, disconnection, and reconnection. Being the easily embarrassed teen, he was less than thrilled. I thought providing him a better understanding might encourage him to step up. Our consultant told me yesterday that nobody in the RDI world has broken down receptive listening like we have. We are pioneering this aspect of this objective for others down the road. Because Pamela is so comfortable with gestures, we find it worthwhile to linger here for the moment to give her a wider range of communication. I told David that what he films will end up in the RDI computer system and these films will help other parents doing this same objective with their children down the road. To make an impression on David, I told him parents all over the world, in places like Singapore and Australia, are using RDI.

The shared understanding tactic worked! David's eyes widened when he realized the scope of what we do on a daily basis around here. He told me, "Okay, Mom! You've inspired me!"

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Princess Dress--Ordered!

Click here for previous installment of the Princess Dress Diaries.

Last Tuesday, Pamela and I went back to the dress shop to place the order for a dress and two yards of material to make a little jacket to go with the dress. Pamela did very well in allowing the shop owner to measure her. The dress should arrive at the end of August--plenty of time for alterations. Once we have the dress fitted, we will head to the mall and purchase a comfortable, yet supportive bra that works with the straps. The next thing on my to-do list is to find a pair of flat shoes to go with the dress!

I do not believe in coincidences because I believe in God. So, I thanked God that this shop, in a town with population 4,025 (and a high rate of beauty pageant contestants), carried the exact dress (the black leftmost dress) in the exact color (grape) and the exact material (taffeta) we plan to order--only one size too small! Pamela tried on the dress, but I was not able to zip it completely. At least, the dress gave us an idea on how it will look on Pamela.

Click here for next installment of the Princess Dress Diaries.