The Speed of Dark
United We Read



pinwheelAbout the Author

pinwheelEssay on Autism

pinwheelUnited We Read

pinwheelResource Books


United We Read in Kansas City--Wow, what a feeling!


On Tuesday, November 9, I headed off to Kansas City as the author of the 2004 "United We Read" book, The Speed of Dark, flying out of the Killeen-Fort Hood airport. Some flights now use small commuter jets, which connect to the B terminal at Dallas-Fort Worth; others use the older SAAB turboprops, which still nose up to the satellite terminal (and you have to catch a bus to A terminal.) On the way up, I was lucky enough to be on one of the commuter jets, but it still wouldn't accept my carry-on under the seat--just that smidge too narrow.

The connection went well, and by midafternoon I was on the ground in Kansas City after a pleasant flight. Susan Burton, who is head honcho of the United We Read program and served as my guide in the wilderness all week, met me and whisked me off to the Diastole Retreat Center, where I was staying. Susan is an efficient, cheerful, and fascinating lady, who in an earlier career spent years as director of a historical-recreation farm (just pre-Civil War) near Kansas City. We discovered a mutual interest in history, horses, art, and so forth. Diastole, the retreat center, is a stunning place, the gift of a Kansas City physician, filled with fascinating artwork from all over the world, including some of the doctor's sculpture. I had *two* huge gift baskets, filled with all kinds of goodies, from munchables to take-home delights to a "ribbon pin" with the autism "puzzle" design, which I wore the rest of the week. Also a mug (my first of three.)

Unfortunately, a medical emergency developed in Susan's extended family on Tuesday afternoon, so we had a less-happy topic of discussion as the days went by. Her cell phone kept going off with updates, requests for updates, etc.

Wednesday. Susan picked me up at 7:30 to meet with the local autism society and professionals working in the field for breakfast at the restored Union Station. This is a gorgeous space, built in the grand age of railroading and Kansas City prosperity, and should be used for charity balls, proms, concerts and many other formal/semi-formal occasions. The cafe where the two main axes meet has a mezzanine level that arches out into the cross-hall, so you feel like you're floating up there. After an excellent breakfast (I had to restrain myself....but not much) I was supposed to speak...and here the acoustics of the hall were against us. A crowd of children had come in to visit the science museum housed down the other big hall, and no one could hear me, even with a microphone. So we moved the whole meeting into a small side room, which worked well. I met the teacher and mother of an autistic boy who had etched a pinwheel and the book's title on a mirror for me (OK, I nearly cried at that point). After I talked a bit, and answered questions and signed some books, Susan whisked me away to the next venue.

The downtown Central Branch of the Kansas City Metropolitan Library is housed in a former federal building, so it's quite grand--great marble columns in front, beautiful cast bronze doors and side panels, etc. Inside, it's a stunning space, airy and light. One of the library volunteers showed me all over the building, including the roof garden stocked with native grasses and forbs, and the Missouri Valley Room, a research facility on regional history. I kept wanting to stop and read...but there wasn't time. I met with book club members (and a few walk-ins) to discuss the book in what will be the library's coffee shop (the space is there, but not the food. Yet. We did, however, have wonderful apple cider (which I tried) and coffee (for the coffee drinkers. ) By this second event, I was very aware that this is the first time I've run into more readers who weren't science fiction readers than those who were...probably fewer than ten percent of those who had read The Speed of Dark had read any of my other books. It was fun to interact with these very different readers.

Our next stop was the Johnson County Central Resource Library. Then we were off to the Johnson County Central Resource Library, which I *think* (??) was up north. It had clouded over by then, and when we left there it was raining (and continued to rain throughout the evening.) The drive, esp. once we got off the freeway, was lovely--late fall, but still color on some of the trees, and the rolling hills reminded me a little of the hillier parts of Austin. The library is also a lovely building, looking fairly new and very well-designed, but IIRC, this is the one that used to be a Sam's Club and was redone as a library (if I'm wrong on this, please forgive me...I know one of the libraries we went to was, but I had no time to take notes.) I do know we came in the back "administration" entrance, and that it had a lovely meeting area--good lighting, a pleasant open space near the back of the library. Someone had provided cookies, coffee, etc., so I snagged a cookie and some water. A specialty publisher of autism books was there; apparently they're carrying The Speed of Dark in addition to their own books

Over 80 people showed up for this one, including members of a university fencing team, who were interested in whether or not I fenced. (They were happy that I did.) The audience included those with personal and professional experience of autism, and those whose first meeting with it was in the book. In the two hours with I had with them, I was able to discuss both how the book came to be, and the experience of being the mother of an autistic child. It was a super audience (as all of them were, actually), with plenty of good questions to spur further discussion. They also gave me a lovely mug, big enough for soup or a really big hot chocolate.

At the end of this, I was invited to go visit a college psych class and talk to them, but there wasn't time between then and my evening gig, back at the retreat center--two hours billed as "Educator's Retreat". Meanwhile, it had started to rain pretty solidly; Susan and I discovered this as we came out the back door of the library. So Susan dropped me off at the retreat center (in the rain, of course) about fivish, and I went up and lounged around for an hour or two before changing into my evening outfit. The beaded velvet poncho-thing I bought in Denver last month was perfect over black turtleneck and slacks. I grabbed my umbrella and across the pretty courtyard to the main buildings of the retreat center. The door was locked. Luckily, someone saw me, recognized me, and let me in.

The main retreat-center buildings are well designed for their purpose--there was plenty of room for mingling around the catered snacks tables (good caterer--lovely food, fancy little meatballs and a cheese/sun-dried-tomato-paste and pesto "torte" to spread on crackers, some fruit, some candy), which we did for awhile, then went to what they call 'the kiva' for the talking part. This room is a "pit" design, with descending rows of carpeted benches and a fireplace at the bottom to one side. Quite nice, and about 30 people braved the stormy weather to find the place and come (more had signed up, and I suspect would have come, if it hadn't been blowing and raining hard.) These were all teachers, so what *they* wanted to hear about and talk about was how to nurture creativity in kids. A lively and interesting group, I thought; I hope they had as much fun as I did.

Then I went back to my apartment, with some extra meatballs from the buffet (yum!!) and ate them with crackers and went to bed. Rain lashed the windows and skylight most of the night.

Thursday morning, cold, very windy, thick cloudy, we headed out for the Mid-Continent Public Library, Antioch Branch, to meet with book club members, library staff, and anyone who wandered in. Again it was a lovely drive, despite the weather; trees with bright yellow leaves, and some maples in orange and red, glowed against the dull sky. We got there early, so I found a book on a shelf and started reading (dunno why; it just reached out and grabbed me) but only got a little ways in when people started showing up. This was mostly senior citizens, and included a group who hadn't read the book yet and were afraid of spoilers. Although this was a smaller group, it was just as lively as the larger one the day before.

And that was followed by a long trek back through/past KC proper to the Shawnee Mission School District's high school. Their team name is "The Lancers" and they have a suit of armor (not exactly real, but metal) in the school office. Teachers and library staff welcomed us warmly; the library had a Speed of Dark display (books in a glass case, wow!) On the case hung a bunch of wig-stand heads, with brain functional areas outlined in colored pens. Lou would have loved that. In my audience there were a psychology class and an English class, plus parents and faculty. This was a lovely school, very modern, with a stunning library--plenty of modern equipment and plenty of books both.

Then back we drove to Kansas City proper; Susan dropped me off and I got ready to go out to dinner with Sue Ann Kline, executive director of the Autism Asperger Resource Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center. There was a bit of a mix-up as the main entrance of Diastole was closed, I couldn't get through the main building to the parking lot where I knew she'd expect me to be, and ....luckily, cell phones got us through all this and I met her on a side street (there was a back gate to the guest apartment area, but the entrance itself was invisible from the outside.) Sue Ann had tried to make reservations the day before but that restaurant was too full--and in the interim she hadn't been able to contact all the people who originally wanted to join us. Between the change in venue and the weather (blustery and cold) we had only three...but no matter, because we had a great time and good food at an Italian buffet place.

Friday morning, I was up early since none of the temperature controls in the guest apartment worked, and uncontrollable hot air had poured in all night, making it a desert afternoon. However, I was packed and ready to go when Susan arrived her usual fifteen minutes early. This turned out to be a great thing, since our schedules were wrong. The front page said I was to be at the Pembroke Hill School from nine to twelve...neither of us had noticed that the second page, with its detailed schedule, had me starting at 8:30. This was the one error we found, and the one time we weren't early. We were partway there when the school secretary called Susan's cell phone, told us we were late, and then was unable to help us find a shortcut to the school. Susan is, however, a good natural navigator. She abandoned her planned scenic route and navigated "cross country" brilliantly and got us there only four minutes late. By this time the clouds were breaking up, and sun streamed in the windows.

Pembroke Hill provided *comfortable* seating for me (wonderfully cushiony chair) and I faced a roomful of parents first. They'd all read the book; they all wanted to know about the experience of parenting an autistic kid and how the book came out of that. Then in rapid succession, I had 20-35 minutes (depending) with a group of middle school students who'd signed up because they were interested in SF and/or writing, a 9th grade English/creative writing class, the upper school book club and staff of the school literary magazine, and faculty and upper school students who could find the time to get out of another class. It was a lot of fun, because I had to change gears from "what works with parents" to "what works with kids this age/in this kind of class..." They gave me a mug (my third of the trip) and I had *just* enough room left in the suitcase to bring it home; I also picked up two copies of the school's literary magazine. And they served fresh, warm, chocolate chip cookies. Double yum.

Early on, Susan disappeared--I saw her talking on her cell phone and then she was gone, though she had been staying in the room with me each time. I figured "Oops, something's happened with the family thing..." Sure enough, she reappeared in the last phase of this and I heard her say to a faculty member quietly "We have a baby..." As of Friday afternoon, the baby was in the neonatal ICU and the mother was in a different hospital, so clearly Susan was going to have a busy weekend of running around, rather than relaxing at their lake cottage, as she'd hoped. So when this was all over, we went to lunch at a Cheesecake Factory (her insistence, and it was a great lunch), and then she took me straight to the airport. I waited there until my flight boarded, and had the chance to observe and sketch a charming service dog, an Airedale cross (the owner thinks maybe crossed with Afghan...whatever, it was a picturebook dog.)

Then--onto the plane to Dallas. I had managed to change my seat to the aisle, and got an exit row, which gave me extra leg room. Hurray! I'd bought a Tony Hillerman I hadn't read, and just about finished it on that flight (yes, I read fast.) Smooth flight except coming into DFW was a bit bumpy. The gate agent directed me to the wrong terminal for my flight to Killeen, so I got to ride the TRAAIN twice (ick) but finally ended up in the right place. Another long wait, but better than having to rush, and I was onto the little SAAB turbojet for Killeen, and thence home.

All in all, a great trip, and I met many wonderful people (and didn't collect enough cards, so I don't remember all the names...)

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