Hello, Clarice….

I had an entire post written about a memory from my college days that somehow evaporated after two drafts, and I’m not in the mood to redo it right now. Instead, I wanna talk about Anthony Hopkins.

Anyone who follows my thread on Facebook saw my post the other day about Hopkins winning the Oscar on Sunday, and how he’s apparently the first openly autistic person to win it. That blew my mind – WHAT?!?!? Upon reading the article, Hopkins was apparently diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2017, at about 78 years old. He admits to being very high-functioning, but somehow he had flown under the radar his entire life. Almost eighty years. He says that he did poorly in school, he couldn’t concentrate well, and that for most of his early life he just figured he was stupid.

Imagine that. Feeling that something is wrong with you because you’re not like your peers in some way. Feeling inadequate, unable to connect or to accomplish what others around you are doing with relative ease. Sir Tony simply resigned himself to the fact that he probably wouldn’t go far in life. And yet, when he found something that he loved – the theatre – he threw himself into it with incredible focus and drive. He states that, since he knew he was “stupid”, he would have to work even harder to have any chance of success in the field.

As a result, he trained himself to train himself. He disciplined himself to learn his lines thoroughly, backward and forward, with no room for error, because he felt he didn’t have any. The result is an acting style with a delivery that sounds incredibly natural, never forced, and an actor with an intensity that few can top. Silence of the Lambs is the obvious example, but take just a moment to examine his performance as Odin in any of the Thor movies. The man has gravitas. In the first Thor in particular, Chris Hemsworth sounds sometimes like a bad Shakespearean actor, and I think it was possibly intentional for that film. Swaggering, pompous, over-inflected and grandiose, and again, while I do think it was on some level a choice, check out Hopkins. Tony. Barely. Moves. He raises his voice in maybe two places. But his eyes are rock steady, his body never flinches, and you have no doubt of Odin’s POWER. This guy gives Zero. Fucks. And every single word out of his mouth flows out with confidence, ease, and no need to be pushed. He believes what he’s saying, because the actor is in complete control, and since the actor is in control, the character is in control. It’s impressive.

And Sir Tony does this in every. Single. Thing he’s in. Even a more over the top character like Van Helsing in Coppola’s Dracula just sounds so damn natural when he talks, even when he’s rattling off, “Oh, you drive a stake through her heart and you cut off her head”, It’s so casual and matter-of-fact it almost seems like a throwaway. Hopkins rarely fails to give a less-than-stellar performance, and I’ve admired him for years, ever since Lecter first stared into my soul.

And now, I admire him even more after discovering his autism. Because, without even being aware of it, Sir Tony had to learn how to overcome his own inherent challenges to become one of the most effective communicators in the business, in the world. I have a feeling that he probably has always had trouble making eye contact (a common tic in autism), and as an actor he had to learn how to do it, and that is what gives his eyes their intensity, their focus, their power. I remember learning as a child that eye contact was one of the most important parts of communication, and I made a point of looking into people’s eyes, not only as I talked to them but also as I listened to them. It’s what people expect, and if they don’t get it, they think they’re not being listened to. It’s a common issue with Aspies, although Duncan only has this issue if he doesn’t want to talk about what you want to talk about. When he’s leading the conversation, he looks right at you. Eye contact signals engagement, and he wouldn’t do it when he was in virtual school.

In-person school is going great, however. Every day when I pick him up, I get a thumbs up from his teacher, and he’s starting to tell us things about his day. You gotta ask, but he’ll tell you now. He’s had a new best friend every day for three days in a row, so he’s becoming more and more social with his classmates (you’re his bestie if you’ll play zombie hunt with him), and he’s engaging more and more with more than one person at a time on the playground. He still has his aide, but on Wednesday he did all of his classwork by himself, with no aide and no extra prompting. He’ll tell you he still hates school, but his actions speak differently.

At home he’s getting better, too. His tantrums are decreasing, and his questions are increasing. He has two favorite books at the moment: 1001 Kid Jokes, and my own childhood copy of The Charlie Brown Dictionary, which he’s reading front to back. He can’t read it cover to cover because he’s torn the covers off. We had new friends over for dinner last night, and their five year old girl Winslow became his next new bestie, and they played for hours. It was wonderful to see.

Duncan’s journey is just beginning. There will be hurdles, for sure, but he’s a happy, healthy five year old, and he’s doing well so far. And Sir Tony’s openness about his own autism and his obvious success give me hope that, not only can Duncan be happy and successful, but so can so many other kids on the spectrum, if they’re given the opportunity to focus on something they love, and the love and strength it takes to help them along the way.

While I’m a little bummed that Chadwick Boseman (RIP) didn’t win the Oscar on Sunday, I’m grateful that Sir Tony did just because of what it proves to me and to the world about autism. Not every kid on the spectrum will necessarily thank the Academy, but they can do so much more than we think they can. We just need to make sure that their spirits aren’t broken. Sir Tony’s definitely wasn’t, and he didn’t even have any of the resources that these kids do now.

I can’t wait to see what Duncan becomes. And if he ever thanks the Academy, I hope he takes me and his mom with him to the show.

July 29, 2015

I know last time I said I would write about Ryder, but I should have written this post a very long time ago. I had intended to so many, many times, because this date is now one of the most important in my life, and it should have been acknowledged by now. Bear with me, because it’s a long one. But we wiill start with Ryder.

You all know Ryder. Ryder was about five and a half at this point, and he was very excited to become a big brother. We have a video clip somewhere of his reaction when we told him Julee was pregnant, and you should see the joy in his face. If I can ever track it down again after multiple phones and who knows how many backups, I’ll re-post it. It’s lovely.

So Ryder was onboard for a sibling. He was, however, very adamant that he did NOT want a sister. He had to share a bedroom with his new sibling, and he couldn’t handle the thought of there being anything pink in there. A man can only take so much. So, even though we kept Ryder’s own gender a secret from ourselves, we had the OB tell us this time around so we could warn him upfront. The gods showered their favor on him and blessed him with a little brother. Ryder sighed with relief, and then we got down to the business of choosing a name.

P.S.: I am totally in favor of not finding out the sex of your baby beforehand. Yes, I know, it can help you pick colors, blah blah blah, but there are very few true surprises in life, and I feel like this one is worth it. Anyway.

Julee had veto power last time due to the more than slightly harrowing circumstances of Ryder’s own birth, but the name had more or less been decided by the day, and when the time came, I was simply grateful for the good news and could care less about something as trivial as the kid’s name. Like I said, we had no idea whether we were having a boy or a girl the first time around, so we tried to be prepared either way. A girl’s name was easy, but a satisfying boy’s name was elusive. Finally, though, we settled on Ryder Quinn, Julee more than me, but again, on the day, it worked just fine. Julee graciously acknowledged her win for the first kid, so I got a little more pull with the second one. “Duncan” had been on my list for boys’ names forever, and Julee had it as a family name somewhere along the line, so that one worked pretty well. I had also always loved the name Jude, and Hey, Jude is my favorite Beatles song, so that one was my top pick. It took a little work for Julee, but eventually she came around. Ryder, however, was opposed to “Duncan” for reasons known only to him. His own personal preference was to name him “Argentina Neptune” – don’t ask where that came from. However, we won that fight by telling him that he could have Dunkin Donuts on the day of his brother’s birth. It was the perfect bribe, and “Duncan Jude” was settled on.

Duncan was due on September 5, and all preparations were made for the date. My mom and dad both planned trips out here to meet the new little guy, and we replaced Ryder’s regular bed with a massive loft bed with drawers built in so the two boys could share the tiny bedroom in our house at the time. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until July 29.

Julee was going for her final ultrasound that day, and we all went along so Ryder could hopefully see it as well and get a first glimpse at the new addition. He was super excited and felt pretty grown up. At the OB’s office, though, Julee’s blood pressure was abnormally high. It’s usually extremely low, bordering on non-existent, so this was unusual, and it wasn’t the first time during the pregnancy that it had been elevated above even the normal range. She also hadn’t felt much movement in recent days, and she’d been feeling unusually queasy lately as well. She hadn’t really had any morning sickness with Ryder, nor in the early stages of this one, but lately…. The OB was concerned, so she started searching for a fetal heartbeat.

She couldn’t find one.

Within seconds, Ryder and I were rushed back to the waiting room, where we spent the next hour or so with no idea what was happening. Finally, the OB came out and told me that we were having a baby TODAY. This was five and a half weeks before the due date, which meant that Duncan’s lungs were likely not fully formed yet. It was risky, but she knew that if we took him out that day, they could intervene in numerous ways. If we waited until he was full term… who knows? She had no idea what was going on in there, and the only way to know for sure was to deliver. NOW.

This was at 4 in the afternoon. Julee was going to deliver by C-section within the next few hours, and I had to be there at the hospital as well. So I got to work. I started making all the necessary calls. My mom immediately rescheduled her flight for the next day. Ryder ended up spending the night with one of his buddies, and I packed a bag for Julee to stay in the hospital for the next couple of days. I called all the close family and friends, and I prepared myself as best I could.

I knew more of what to expect this time around, since Ryder had also been delivered by a surprise C-section, but the stakes were much higher this time around. We wheeled into the room, and everything went as planned. And then they lifted Duncan up above the sheet, and I could see the fist-sized knot tied in his cord.

My heart dropped. I knew what oxygen deprivation usually meant for a fetus. Brain damage. I thought we could either be facing a lifetime of permanent disability or possibly planning a funeral. I was scared during Ryder’s delivery, but this was a completely new sort of dread. The OB and her team rushed him to the side table to get him breathing, which took several minutes and during that time every nightmare thought possible raced through my head. Finally, though, they got him to start breathing, but it was weak, and they knew they would have to provide support. Also, as soon as he started crying, he peed blood.

A second wave of terror washed over me. What was going on?? They rushed him out of the room and began doing the really hard work of keeping him alive. Julee was moved to recovery, and the attending doctor started interrogating me on family history of kidney issues. Those of you who know me well know that I only have one kidney – my left one was removed when I was three months old due to some serious problems I was having. Another story for another time, but right now it was relevant. The hospital Duncan was born in was small and didn’t have a NICU, so Duncan was going to have to be moved immediately. The larger hospital in nearby Pasadena had more resources. So, while Julee came down from the drugs, I made all the calls again, and they prepped him to be moved by ambulance.

This is Duncan’s first photo. I still have it on my phone to this day, and I’ll never delete it. Tube down his throat, electrodes stuck all over him, Duncan was sealed inside a plastic cocoon for his ride. We were only able to touch him once before they had to rush him away. I followed the ambulance in my car while they moved Julee to a private recovery room. Once Duncan arrived at Huntington, they had to infuse him with blood because of the loss from what he was still peeing out. If you’ve never seen this, it’s yet another parental nightmare. They had to insert a needle into his scalp. I was told his lungs hadn’t fully formed yet, and he would definitely need positive breath support for several days. Basically, a tube into his lungs to gently push air into them and help his still-developing and very weak diaphragm pull air in. Gravity would help him breathe out, but he needed help to start. He was also jaundiced and would need the bilirubin light for a while as well. I was told to go home and get some sleep. Come back in the morning, and they would update me as needed.

The fun continued the next day. When I got there, they told me that the blood in his urine was from damage to his kidneys and the adrenal glands on top of them. In fact, at that moment, they weren’t even sure his adrenals were developing at all. Plus, his kidney function was extremely low. I won’t go into the specifics, but essentially they were worried that his kidneys might never work properly.

I watched him tan under the bilirubin light for a while, and then I shared the news with all the relatives and peeps and went to the other hospital where Julee was recovering. She wasn’t gonna wait aroudn to see him. She hadn’t even held him yet. Less than a full day after having a C-section, Julee dressed and walked out of that hospital on her own two feet, and I drove her to Huntington. She walked into the NICU under her own power, and we were all together again. Except for Ryder, who would have to wait for a few more days to see him.

Preemies are usually much smaller than full-term babies, understandably. They can often have health issues their entire lives. and seeing a ward full of super tiny humans is a humbling thing. But Duncan was a MONSTER. at five and a half weeks early, this kid weighed almost SEVEN POUNDS. He dwarfed all the other babies in the NICU. Had he gone full term, he probably would have weighed around ten pounds. Julee literally would have given birth to a bowling ball with hair. He was a beast. And apparently, a strong one. They kept the breath support for about five or six days, if memory serves, but eventually the tube came out. His jaundice improved within about that same time, and all signs were good. Except that he was still peeing blood. They couldn’t figure out exactly where it was coming from.

After a week in the NICU he was moved into a private room for closer observation, and while it lessened, the blood was still there. His kidney function was low, but steadily climbing, even with the blood. But, after about nine days, they seemed to think he would be okay. We had begun to relax, thinking he would be home soon. Then, on Day Ten, the doctor on his case called me and told me they were moving him immediately to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. After another ultrasound they suspected he might have a blood clot in his inferior vena cava, which was very bad news. Huntington was good, but they weren’t as good as CHLA. CHLA is one of the best pediatric hospitals in the world, and if anyone could help him, they could.

Another ambulance ride, more waiting, more terror. Duncan got to CHLA, and within an hour he was seen by a pediatric urologist. This dude was the biggest bro I had ever met. He was one of the best, and he knew it. As we waited in terror, he strolled in and told us nonchalantly that it was probably no big deal. It could be a blockage in his urethra, it could be this, it could be that, whatever, bro. It was the most Dude-California doctor experience we’d ever had, and it wasn’t exactly comforting. Doctor Bro left, and then we saw the nephrologist, Dr. Lemley. Lemley was fantastic. We todl him about what Doctor Bro told us, and he smiled and said, “Ah, yes, Doctor Bro. He’s a great urologist. But this is a kidney issue, and I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

In a nutshell, the lack of oxygen had manifested in damage to the kidneys instead of the brain, and the blood was essentially just scabbing from where his kidneys and adrenals were healing. We had very little to worry about in terms of immediate health. He was going to be okay. OH, and it had nothing to do with my own kidney history. Just a weird coincidence.

Duncan spent another week at CHLA, and during that time the bleeding stopped, and his kidney function improved. Julee spent a couple of nights there in the most uncomfortable hospital couch-bed in existence, but we were so close that we just drove down every day. After that week, he came home.

Dr. Lemley’s diagnosis wasn’t all sunshine. He told us that, although the initial damage was healing, it probably meant that his kidney function could be impaired permanently. It all depended on the number of nephrons in his kidneys, the little filters that everyone has that do the work. Nephrons apparently vary in number – the more you have, the better your kidneys are. There was no way to predict how many nephrons his kidneys had, because they would continue to grow as he grew, and all we could do was monitor them until adulthood. Lemley told us that we could probably expect him to need a kidney transplant by the time he was an adult. But, we wouldn’t know until we knew. Not the best news, but it was better than the way we felt two weeks earlier.

We saw Dr Lemley every week, then every two weeks, then every month, then every two months, then every three months until Duncan was about eighteen months old. At that point, he told me that somehow Duncan’s kidneys had fixed themselves. He’d never seen anything like it, and all of the staff referred to him as a miracle baby. He had healed himself with no intervention from an injury that was likely to have lifelong effects. Amazing. He’ll continue to be monitored until he’s eighteen, but now it’s every two years, and so far he’s fine. We went from worrying that he might not survive the night to a perfectly healthy baby boy. SCIENCE!!!

Life with Duncan Jude continues to have its challenges. There’s plenty of work to do to help him develop and grow, but man, is he strong. He’s very big for his age, just like his brother was and just like his father was. He’s whip-smart and precocious. He’s also stubborn, and that’s probably what saved him as a baby. He’s a fighter, and that will only help him overcome whatever obstacles he’ll face as he grows. And being autistic, he’ll have them. But I think he’ll be okay.

Now, the big question: did his birth trauma cause his autism? The answer: who the fuck knows? it doesn’t really matter, except maybe from a scientific point of view. But it’s done, and all we can do is help him figure it out. And he’s still a miracle baby, even when he’s a pain in the ass.

As of this writing, he’s currently dancing to “Zombies Want Your Candy” by the inimitable Parry Gripp, a kids’ musician who is now my mortal enemy. He’s playing with the dog and splashing in the spa because it’s hot outside. He’s come a long way from the baby in the plastic bubble.

Oh, and Ryder finally got to see him and hold him after that first week in the NICU. Here’s a picture of that. And the joy is still there.

P.S.: Ryder got his donuts, as promised.

Calvin, Pt. 2

I’m trying to rebuild the habit of writing on a regular basis – every day is still a ways off, but I’m hoping at the very least to post on this blog every 1-2 weeks. The ideas aren’t flowing freely out of the tap yet either, so I have to flex the muscle to keep it flexing. But I’m in my chair, the headphones are on, and the soundtrack to Braveheart just started rolling. That’s always been good chill-out writing music for me, ever since college when I first bought the CD. Still works. So here we go.

I thought I’d follow up last week’s post with a little more about Duncan, since coping with his autism is a big part of what this blog is now about. Specifically, I want to go back to Calvin & Hobbes and dig into his love for that again. My therapist asked me last week why I thought Duncan was so drawn to Calvin, and, being the deep thinker that I am, I already had an answer ready to go. I saw similarities in Duncan’s personality and Calvin, and that sent me down a path to an interesting revelation: I think it’s entirely possible that Calvin is autistic.

The parallels are strong: wicked high intellect, trouble staying focused in school. A powerful imagination, a focus on one’s inner life to the exclusion of the world. Difficulty communicating, especially on subjects outside of one’s own interests. I mean, Calvin’s best friend is his stuffed tiger, and the life they live inside his little, expansive head is the stuff of legends. I don’t think for a second that Bill Watterson intended Calvin to be autistic – the strip was written for adults to reminisce in their own childhoods with the knowledge they have as adults. It ain’t really for kids. Plus, Watterson is notoriously private (there’s a documentary about just how reclusive he is), so if that was his intent, we’ll probably never know. But the parallels are fascinating, and these days you can see just about anything in hindsight, thanks to the miracle of post-modernism.

I gave my therapist this answer, and he agreed with me that a case could be made, for sure. I felt like I’d somehow Made A Contribution To The World. I was, for a moment, proud of myself and my own obviously prodigious intellect. And then, right after our session, the therapist sent me a link to a reddit thread about the subject, just to keep me in my place.

So yeah, someone else has noticed it, too. I followed the thread he sent me for a few lines, and the poster had some support, and then someone dropped this comment:

“Or maybe he’s a fucking kid.”

This wasn’t the first comment to disagree and to posit that, most likely, Calvin is just a six-year-old, prone to wildly imaginative play, love of his stuffies, and trouble controlling himself. Absolutely. I even said this about Duncan in my last post: he’s five, but amplified. It’s been an ongoing challenge for us to try to suss out exactly where Duncan’s autism blends in with his age and level of maturity, and it’s damn hard to do. Neurotypical children are often short-tempered, have trouble communicating, especially when upset, and can display a lack of empathy for others. All absolutely true.

But the sneer I read into this comment really lit me up. Again, I don’t pretend that I know what Watterson intended when he created Calvin, I just know I see a reflection of my son in him, and that makes me love both Calvin and Duncan that much more. but there is an implied negativity to this particular comment that I can’t overlook. And you can say that all parents love their children, and of course this is also absolutely true. And (hopefully) no one will deny that raising a child on the spectrum can be extremely challenging – just wait til I tell you about dinner Friday night, or Duncan’s first day back in school – and it is this love, this overwhelming, almost frightening, powerful love, that gives you the strength to get up every morning and keep trying to raise that child, and it gives you a perspective on kids that parents of neurotypical children just don’t have.

And this isn’t a slam on those parents – fuck me, raising ANY decent child these days is a goddamn marathon – but this asshole made it pretty clear in his reddit comment that there was something wrong with assuming Calvin could be autistic. And that pissed me off. And it’s the implied use of the word “normal”. More accurately, Normal. Capital N. Granted, the commenter didn’t say that, and he even qualifies later by saying he’s not trying to be aggressive, but it’s there. Normal.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still new at this, I’m learning to cope with my son’s outbursts and intractability, I’m learning when to hold boundaries firm and when to let some things slide. I’m still learning to love him because of what his condition could give him, and I’m still hoping that he can have a happy, productive life. And I know it’s gonna take a lot more work to get him to some of those places that it would for a neurotypical kid – a kid like his older brother, for instance – and it’s up to me to help him with that. I’m learning to let go of anger when he does something that I don’t want him to do, how to cope with my own fears and disappointments, and how to appreciate his uniqueness, and how to revel in whatever gifts his condition eventually bestow on him.

I DO know that I won’t be ashamed of him, nor will I hide it or treat it like a disease. I know that I don’t ever expect him to be Normal. Fuck that. Looking at the state of the world, Normal was only working for a few people, so then it really wasn’t that normal, then, was it? I’ve always been drawn to misfits, outcasts, weirdos, iconoclasts – these were the kids I was friends with in school, because I didn’t feel exactly Normal myself, either. I questioned things when a lot of my peers didn’t. I called out absurdities when I saw them, I could see when people were in pain. I was just drawn to people who saw the world differently. Normal has never been a thing for me.

As a parent, some of that changes. There are things that have to happen – toilet training, learning to read, tie your shoes, go to school, cooperate – valid, useful, important skills that everyone in the world needs, and a large number of us don’t seem to have, I might add. So maybe Normal doesn’t mean anything at all, and in fact, what we consider Normal might be the exact opposite of what truly IS normal. So I won’t use that word. And most parents of spectrum kids don’t use that word when referring to neurotypical kids, and I totally get it. I slip up every now and then, but, like so many other labels these days, I’m trying to use better ones. I’ll just call him Duncan, because that’s what he says is his name, and I will protect and defend him from anything or anyone who tries to hurt him.

Is Calvin autistic? Actually, like another guy says in another thread, he’s ink on paper. 100% true. Plenty of people have also said he could be a poster child for any number of disorders. Throw open the DSM-IV manual, close your eyes, and point to a word on the page, and he can probably satisfy some of the criteria for whatever you land on. ADHD, sociopathy, you name it. Armchair psychologize the shit out of that and make yourself happy.

But, Calvin gives me a window of understanding and empathy into my son’s condition, and that, for me, is also absolutely true. I loved Calvin a lot when I read the strips in the paper every day, and I loved him when I bought all the collected strips from the bookstore. I loved him when I gave them to my older son, Ryder, to read and to cackle over. And now I love Calvin even more, because he reminds me of Duncan. And Calvin is most definitely NOT Normal. Thank Christ.

POSTSCRIPT: I have to say that we recently hid the C&H books from Duncan for a while, because among Calvin’s vast and impressive vocabulary are a ton of creative insults, and Duncan became very good very fast at using them on us when he gets upset. Not his fault, it’s mine for not thinking about that when I let him have the books, so it’s on me if he ever calls me or anyone else stupid. I’ll own that, and I’ll try to fix that mistake. But I hope he can read them again someday soon. Because I was enjoying reading them again, too.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: I should also add that for the last three days he has insisted that his new name is “Zombie”. it hasn’t stuck yet, but you never can tell…. Thanks, Parry Gripp.

POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT: My older son, Ryder, the main reason I started this blog almost a decade ago, turns eleven tomorrow. I’ll try to write about him next time. Some of the people that follow this blog must be curious about how he’s doing.

Calvin

My five year old son Duncan loves Calvin and Hobbes. LOVES it. He buries his head in one or more of the several collections we have at the house, every single day. When we go to bed, he has me read several pages of the Sunday color strips to him instead of regular books. He acts strips out, running into the room with a cardboard box on his head and droning, “I am the world’s most powerful computer. Ask me a question”, or using that same box as a time machine with his brother and hunting dinosaurs. We even had a friend make him his own stuffed Hobbes for Christmas (not for sale, we respect Bill Watterson’s anti-commercial stance). Some nights, he goes to bed by himself and reads the strips until he passes out cold, and then I go in and turn off the light. Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night and turns the light back on and reads again for hours, which leads to awful mornings, so we keep trying to break this habit. If we don’t, it can throw the next several days off, leading to screaming fits and refusal to go to virtual school. So we try to keep his sleep consistent. 

My son is also autistic. We just found this out in November. We’d suspected there was an issue for a while – his preschool had told us for months that he refused to cooperate in class, that his behavior was a problem. He hadn’t talked until he was almost two and a half; he wouldn’t smile at the camera in family photos unless it was one of us taking them; he didn’t always communicate or listen well. We’d had his hearing tested at around three and a half or so, since he didn’t always seem to listen. In March of last year, as he was getting ready for kindergarten in the fall, we had a psychologist from the school district observe him at preschool to see if he should have a full assessment before school started. It was scheduled for March 31, and then California was locked down on the 19th because of the COVID pandemic. No in-person services were to be provided until everything was deemed safe enough. 

Finally, in November, after months of virtual school (I’ll do a separate post on what school has been like), Duncan got his assessment. And the verdict: high-functioning autism, essentially what used to be known in America as Asperger’s Syndrome. Side note: While the DSM Manual no longer recognizes Asperger’s as its own syndrome and folds it into autism spectrum disorder, the WHO still recognizes it as its own separate disorder. There are reasons this makes sense to me: Asperger kids are usually extremely intelligent and communicative and have a much better long-term prognosis. And Duncan is definitely extremely intelligent. Right before the lockdown happened last March, he literally taught himself to read by streaming Amazon Music on the TV. I mean that: he figured it out all on his own. We weren’t even really trying to get him to read much. He knew the alphabet and early numbers, but it was by istening to heavy metal through the Fire Stick that he figured out words. The first word he read on his own: TOOL. He and I share a love of the band, and I’m eternally proud. He also loves Iron Maiden, AC/DC. Aerosmith, and Meghan Trainor. He’s got eclectic taste.

Lockdown has been mostly good for him. We knew that he hated, HATED, preschool, and he cried most times when we left him there (and of course, for that, there is enormous guilt now). His behavior improved, he became more snuggly, and we all got closer as a family. However, the night wakings could be brutal – there was almost a solid month-long stretch where he and I and Julee never got a full night’s sleep. It was exhausting, and it threatened my sanity more than once. He still had outbursts, and we couldn’t get him to cooperate much, and we were too tired to push it too far. And then virtual kindergarten started.

That was a whole new nightmare. We still hadn’t received his assessment yet, so even though we knew there was an issue, we had no idea what it was, and his lack of reaction when we got upset with him, made us worry about so many possibilities. And while everyone hates online school, Duncan REALLY hates it. He can do the work – in fact, he was the most advanced reader in his class, and he picked up concepts quickly and easily, when he wanted to. We would learn later that this proclivity for focus has to do with “preferred activities” and “non-preferred” ones. You can figure that out, but it’s absolutely true. 

Basically, what Asperger’s, or autism, seems to mean in our particular case is that Duncan is five, and his disorder amplifies his being five. Everything that’s difficult about having a five year old is more difficult. Tantrums are bigger, longer, and fiercer. His struggle to communicate with us is bigger, because when he gets overwhelmed, he just can’t figure out how to tell us what’s wrong or to calm down. And his bullshit detector is SPOT ON. He’s honest, even when he’s lying to us, which is both hysterical and worrying. When he doesn’t like something, he Lets. You. Know. If he wants something, he really, really wants it, and if he doesn’t get it, he goes ballistic. We have extra childproof locks on all the doors because we’re worried he might open one and wander off. 

Except that he doesn’t want to be anywhere but with us, his family. Because he also loves us with a fierceness that is humbling. We are most definitely on his “preferred” list, and even when he yells at us, insults us (using insults he learned from Calvin, which is my fault and I’m trying to remedy), and seems cold, he reminds us as soon as he settles down. His anger forgotten, he grabs a book and snuggles up in my lap and asks me to read, because even though he can do it himself, he still wants that closeness. And so even if I’m still mad, I do my best to let go of it and read to him. 

We’ve got a long way to go to really help Duncan be successful in life. And that’s all I want – for him to be able to live on his own, have a job he enjoys, maybe a relationship, whatever will make him happy and fulfilled. We don’t understand how he works yet, even though we know him better than anyone else. The Latin root of the word autism is “auto”, which I had never really thought about as meaning “self”. Duncan is a world unto himself, and it’s a fascinating, scary, dangerous world that we as his parents have to be brave enough, kind enough, and selfless enough to explore. We need to be like the bold, intrepid Spaceman Spiff, throttle that saucer down, and meet Duncan on his own terms. And that’s the hard part, because we just want to be able to get him to do what he needs to do or we want him to do, but we have to come to him. And it’s exhausting, heartbreaking, and rewarding. 

I love my son with all of my heart. I get frustrated and furious with him, and I lose my temper, but I always try to remember that he’s not doing it on purpose – none of our children are, at five. And I have to learn how to be okay with meeting him on his terms, on his world, because that’s where he lives, and he won’t venture out unless we give him a reason to. So, to get him to come to us, we have to go to him first. 

So I’ll be trying to post on this blog regularly, mainly about Duncan, but also about Ryder, who’s still a big part of this as well, and about whatever else happens to be on my mind. I need to start doing this regularly for myself. It helps to talk about it. And I hope it helps me and everyone else understand a little more about autism, because it doesn’t always look the way you think it does. I’m learning, every day. 

Agonyzer

I’ve been up since 4:30 this morning thanks to the baby, who, thankfully, is NOT awake right now, and as always, once I’m up, I’m up. The wheels start spinning, and all things I normally process while asleep are right at the front of my mind, needing exploration, cogitation, and in some cases, expression. It’s a regular occurrence for most writers, I think, and it often results in some of the best ideas. I used to keep a notebook by the bed in case I woke up from a dream with the greatest idea since beer and had to write it down before I forgot. Writers often sacrifice sleep to satisfy the muse, to exorcise the demon, to agonize over the thoughts that can take you to places too dark to sleep. I woke up this morning because of the baby. I’ve stayed awake because of the death of someone I know.

To say I knew Logan well would be a gross overstatement. We had mutual friends in high school, and we were I the same room together a few times. I knew the people he knew better than I knew him, and vice versa. When we met as adults, he didn’t even remember any of this, but, for some reason, I did. He had stuck in my head at some point, I can’t even really tell you why, but he did. And to say that we became fast friends as adults would also be doing a disservice to those who could truly call themselves his friends. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I’d say that we became peers. Both writers, performers, lovers of strangeness and neither of us entirely comfortable in the world yet coping with it the only way we knew how, by putting it out there, telling stories, trying to reshape the world thru our words. Trying to make some sense of our pain. Logan was a champion of the work I was doing with my theatre company, and I began to follow his fiction career. Both struggling artists, doing our best to say what we had to say. I respected Logan and what he was trying to do with his life. God knows living a creative life isn’t easy. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Samuel Beckett said it. Logan would approve.

But sometimes it becomes too much.

Logan and I weren’t that close, I’ve made that point. Yet I’m at an age in life when the deaths of peers affect me. People matter, whether they know it or not, and I grieve Logan’s loss because he should be grieved. His death has affected me, and I’m dealing with it the only way I know how, by writing about it. Again, I’m sure Logan would approve. I knew him well enough to know that words mattered to him, his words mattered to him. He used them to tell stories that mattered to him. He has left an indelible mark on the world by using his words, and I felt the need to honor him for that service. I’ve meant to do it for a while, and it’s too little too late, but I’m buying his book, Ravencroft Springs, on Amazon today, so that his words will have a place on my shelf. And if you would, consider donating to help his wife with necessary expenses. Here’s the link:

https://www.gofundme.com/66wp6aus

I can’t speak as to Logan’s pain. I just didn’t know him well enough. But the title of this post is the name of his own blog, and, as I said, Logan knew what he was doing with words. It’s all there, in that one word. Simple, devastating truth. Beckett would approve.

Rest in peace, Logan.

Postscript: Anyone who reads this blog (admittedly only a few) have realized by now that the birth of my second child has more or less stalled any activity on this account. But he’s three now, and I intend to change that, especially given the state of the world and the country right now and my own feelings about where we’re all at. I intend to devote future posts to diving into those thoughts and feelings, but while reviewing what I haven’t done in years, I came across this entry that I never published. I doubt the GoFundMe link works anymore, and it’s shameful of me to admit that I never posted this, but I’m doing it now, because Logan deserved it.

Back in the Saddle

Write. Every day. Whatever. No matter what. Write. Write every day.

Apparently, once I fall of the wagon, I fall hard. I’ve had numerous ideas for posts in the last couple years, even started banging out early drafts of a few of them, and never got around to finishing them. I’m looking at them just below the box I’m typing in, wondering if any of them are worth finishing at this point, since they’re largely dated. No idea. May go back and give each of ’em a once-over just for the sake of it, and maybe save anything promising.

Write. Every day. Whatever. No matter what. Write. Write every day.

I carry a notebook around with me most of the time so I can jot down thoughts and ideas, nuggets of inspiration and whimsies, and, since most of the time my hands are full of baby these days, the notebook doesn’t get much use. The spine, stiff from lack of stretching, desperately in need of some book yoga to loosen it up, get it feeling like a BOOK again. I used to be really good at scrawling random musings in a notebook. Even had one where I played with the format of HOW I wrote all the time, writing upside-down, solely around the edges of the page, spiraling into the center. The kind of shit you do in your twenties that you think makes you “edgy”.

Write. Every day. Whatever. No matter what. Write. Write every day.

I spend more time writing posts on Facebook, ranting about politics (which I did this very morning) or making amusing comments on the latest Onion article (a venerable, worthy institution, one for whom I would love to write someday if I could only remember how to be that funny). I do, apparently, make several friends’ day with my efforts, so it’s not a total loss. But I’m not really saying anything, not generating any thoughts of my own.

All that’s about to change.

Don’t worry, I’m still gonna post articles from the Onion, because they’re funny as hell and some of the most painfully accurate satire there is these days. Can’t live without that. But I’m losing my own voice, and I can’t have that. So that’s why I’m repeating this little mantra.

Write. Every day. Whatever. No matter what. Write. Write every day.

That’s my challenge to myself. Whatever it is, write it. This blog. Plays. Screenplays. Prose, Poetry. My own brilliant satire, whenever I come up with some. Turn the goddamn TV off and write. Put the kids to bed and write.

Oh yeah, I have two kids now. Pretty much anyone who follows this blog is already aware of that. One’s asleep in his crib right now, and the other is outside playing with his dart guns, so I’m stealing a few minutes to get to it and write. I love my boys so much it hurts, but they’re a lot of work, and it makes it hard to do the other work that matters to me, too. But

I’ve always tended to be pretty stream-of-consciousness when I write; too much structure up front stifles me, and if I know exactly were I’m going at the end, I often lose interest in getting there. But, I live in Los Angeles now, and scripts need to be tight, well thought out, and usually of a certain length. I ain’t too old to learn new tricks. So, my professional work is gonna be tightly plotted (with room for improvisation and inspiration), and the other stuff – like this blog – is gonna wander.

But I’m still gonna talk about the things that inspired this whole blog-like thing: I’m a dad, I’m a men, I’m a lot of things, and I’m gonna continue to explore them and write about them. Fatherhood, manhood, guns, movies, fart jokes, books, Star Wars, sex, comedians, politics (once in a while, if I can keep the vitriol down). Anything and everything. and beer. DEFINITELY beer. I’m turning this blog into my little notebook that I thought was so cool. And, I’m gonna start writing in that notebook again, when my hands aren’t full of baby. Damn, he’s big.

I ALSO wanna take a moment to recognize all the new fathers I know from the past year. Whatever was in the water, we all drank it, and DAMN, there are some amazing new creatures in the world because of all of us gettin’ naughty. Congrats to Eric, Dan, Kahlil, Colin, Jonathan, Joey Bag-o-Donuts. I know there’s more, and I apologize for not being able to remember your names right now, but , as you all know, baby brain ain’t just for women anymore. Welcome to the brave new world of raising a responsible human being. You’re about to earn your grey hairs.

I ALSO wanna open up this forum to all the dads I know, new and old, and invite you post your own musings on manhood with me on this page. Basically, let’s start talking about it together. I’m happy to moderate, if anyone’s interested. If not, I feel ya, I’m tired all the time, too. But I’d love to hear from you. No rules on content, format, whatever – you wanna write a play about being a dad, bring it. I’ll post it. Whatever’s on your mind. If you’re so inclined, this is a place to let it all rip. I’m sure you’ve got something to say, so let me know if you want to say it here.

Write. Every day. Whatever. No matter what. Write. Write every day.

If we keep it up, sooner or later we’ll write something worth reading.

 

P.S.: Next time, I’ll write about my new baby boy. Stay tuned….

A Mindful Stupidity

So I’m giving this another go-round, and I intend to make a habit of it. I’ll be asking all my friends who used to read these posts to start doing so again, and maybe a few new ones as well. This one’s fairly serious, but I promise the next one will have lots of fart jokes.

Measles. Take a look at this clip from last night’s episode of The Daily Show:

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/5t2dw1/les-measlesrables

I post serious and snarky stuff on vaccinations all the time, so you’re probably pretty aware of where I stand on the whole thing, but for the sake of clarity, get your kids vaccinated. It baffles me that any responsible parent, from any background, would not take advantage of a scientifically validated and time-tested method of protecting not just children but all of us from deadly diseases.

But it’s the interview with the mom in Marin County that I really want to focus right now. Or rather, the interview and Stewart’s response to it. He says, in response to her comment on her community of thoughtful, well-educated people, “This is Marin County. We’re not rednecks. We’re not ignorant. We practice a mindful stupidity.”

And I think this is at the heart of the problem with the whole anti-vaccination crusade in America, and in fact, with several epidemics in this county not related to disease – prejudice, corruption, etc. We think we’re doing the right thing. With some glaring exceptions, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to protect their children and give them the best possible environment and life in which to grow and live. But we’re Americans, and we live with blinders on, most of us. Even members of the middle and lower classes in this country suffer from the disease of affluenza, specifically American affluenza – that, simply because we live in the greatest country on Earth, nothing can touch us. We can do whatever we want, ’cause we’re Americans, dammit.

Right.

It has been (and continues to be) a trademark of the American personality that we are loud, proud, opinionated, and emotional, and these terms are still being generous. A large chunk of the world would characterize us as arrogant, boastful, and superior. We think we’re above the bad things in the world simply by virtue of being born in this country. Time and time again, this has proven not to be the case, and when it does happen, we respond in a reactionary way with ignorance and fear. We respond like children. We pull the blanket up over our heads. We cover our eyes and ears and say, “No! No! No!” as loud as we can, hoping it will drive the bogeyman away. We lash out and hit things and people. We look for someone to blame.

But we constantly ignore facts because we get so worked up about things. We sacrifice reason and logic because we’re too terrified to look at the bogeyman and see how we might actually beat him.

Only a few hundred years ago, people had no idea what diseases actually were. They believed disease was caused by demons, and they refused to take baths because they believed that the only way to drive off the demons was with a good honest stink. Just today, I saw a news story where New Jersey governor Chris Christie stated that he didn’t believe that restaurant employees should have to wash their hands so much.

So think about this: Scientific evidence supports, I would go so far as to say irrefutably, that disease-causing germs can be transmitted through human contact with raw meats, fecal matter, and dirty water and other contaminated materials. The simple act of washing hands can prevent the spread of many of these germs. Food service workers come into contact with raw meats of all kinds all day long. Then, like most of us do several times a day, they go to the restroom to relieve themselves. So Christie believes that they shouldn’t have to wash their hands after they take a dump and then come back to touch your food? You can see the path of the germ right there, and now we have a prominent politician saying that there’s no good reason to wash your hands if you work in a restaurant. Why?

Because American believe, above all else, in liberty. The ability to choose the things you do and do not do. It’s my right as an American not to wash my hands after I wipe.

Then (and this is in the Daily Show clip as well), Christie has also quarantined an Ebola worker who had NO signs of the disease on the ground that the government should be able to do what is necessary to protect its citizens. Why? Because we’re afraid of Ebola.

You know why we’re afraid of Ebola and not the measles? Because the measles were effectively eradicated in this country over sixty years ago thanks to the widespread use of the measles vaccine. Ebola is a potentially life-threatening virus that we know about mainly because of its highly infectious nature and prevalence in Africa. no, we do NOT want Ebola in the US, nor do we want it anywhere. But we know about it because it’s still around, and very visible. Measles, on the other hand, exist only in a dream, a story we were told in school. It’s almost a fairy tale to us now. How appropriate that it should suddenly spawn an outbreak in Disneyland, where fantasies are the currency of the realm.

We’re not scared of measles because we thought we beat it, and it can’t possibly hurt us anymore. We’re about to be slapped in the face with how wrong we are.

Now here’s the OTHER side of this: once we decide to take on something like this, we often go too far in the other direction. Refer again to Ebola, and the panic that ensued when a handful of cases were reported in the US. Hysteria due to the fact that a well-known and potentially life-threatening disease that we thought could not touch us had now found its way to our soil. The xenophobes among us went on red alert, decreeing that anyone who could possibly have been infected should be quarantined immediately. Well, some of this did happen, and in some cases this action may have helped. But since there are proven procedures that can used to protect from Ebola infection, it went away fairly quickly, and there were only, I believe, one or two fatalities. The predicted pandemic never happened, and it’s because we stopped it with scientific knowledge and diligence.

But measles? Ah, screw it. I’m not vaccinating my kid. It can’t touch me. I live in Marin County, where my money and privilege will no doubt protect me from a microscopic germ. Unless I don’t have to wash my hands. Or my kid goes to a preschool where kids jam lots of toys into their mouths, play in the same dirt and mud, and grab each other all the time. But my sheer American privilege will serve to armor me against the worst of it.

We ignore facts in favor of our emotional responses, and it can often bite us in the ass. The only reason we are now the dominant species on the planet is because we evolved these giant brains to solve problems, oftentimes without using violence, and our big brains have allowed us to climb so far to the top of the heap that we somehow believe we don’t need to use them anymore.

The bogeyman eventually goes away. We grow older, and we realize that we don’t have to be afraid of the dark, that by acknowledging that we KNOW there is nothing there, we’re safe from it. Also, we have parents that, if they’re doing their job, will come into the room and help us banish the bogeyman from the closet or under the bed. We inoculate ourselves against the imaginary fear of something invisible that wants to hurt us. Much the way a vaccine works. It teaches our bodies how to defend themselves against microscopic intruders. But the truth is that the virus never goes away. We’ve just learned how to defend against it. Vaccines are the blanket we pull up over our heads that makes the bogeyman go away. And it works. But only if we use it. If we don’t, we lay there in terror, imagining what will happen to us whenever the bogeyman finally decides to stop teasing us and crawl all the way out of the crack in our closet.

There’s the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are times when this is true. We know the measles vaccine works, and we know it works better than NOT taking it. The study, refuted for many years now, that vaccines cause autism, scared the bejeesus out of us. We were told that materials in the vaccine could cause brain damage resulting in autism. You know what else causes brain damage? Measles. In children, the disease can progress into measles encephalitis, swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage. Logically, which chance would you rather take? The evidence bears out that vaccines prevent the spread of communicable disease and have no relationship to autism. That’s what we see with our own eyes. But we don’t have to vaccinate our kids if we don’t want to. Because “Murica”.

For millennia people have performed numerous actions to ward off bad luck. Horseshoe over the door, sign of the cross, forking the fingers to ward off the evil eye, not bathing. No one ever really tried to measure whether or not those things worked, and, let’s face it, the Black Death didn’t seem to care much about the horseshoe. Why should measles? Or Ebola? Now, we have something that we can SEE working, and we just shrug it off. It boggles the mind.

And YET, we somehow attempt to raise our kids in a sterile, germ-free environment by constantly telling them to wash their hands, take a bath every day, and Don’t. Get. Dirty. See that grocery cart over there? Wipe it down with that antimicrobial napkin before you even pull it out of the queue. Or Else. It’s absurd to think that we can eliminate ALL germs from our lives, yet we try every second of every day to live like we’re in an operating room. Our immune systems must be confused as hell. Antibacterial soaps have been proven to be no more effective than plain soap and water, and they could possibly be killing off some of the good gut flora we NEED to stay healthy. We can’t seem to get our priorities straight.

And I realize that, in an earlier paragraph, I ranted about washing your hands, but I mentioned a specific TIME to wash your hands: after a bowel movement. Yes, that’s an EXCELLENT time to scrub ’em down, because you wouldn’t want to put that hand in your mouth right now, wouldja? I think that’s a good rule of thumb – if you wouldn’t eat with it right now, wash it. And, I just read an article where doctors believe you shouldn’t give your kids a bath every single day, either, and this ALSO makes sense. Newborn babies aren’t supposed to get baths every day because their delicate skins can’t take it, and let’s face it, they never break a sweat. Bathing them too much can cause rashes, irritating dry patches, and –  in rare cases – infection. My son is five now, and he gets a bath pretty much every three days or so, depending on how active he’s been and how much he reeks. I take a bath every day, but on a daily basis I smell MUCH worse than he ever does. So figure out what works for you and run with that.

I’m not advocating never giving your kids baths. That’s just as ridiculous. But we seem to live in a time of extremes, and it’s gonna catch up with us.

I think that, as always, there is a comfortable middle ground where we can use logic to make rational decisions to emotionally charged questions. But right now we’re so scared of the bogeyman that we just try to ignore it. Measles ain’t the only instance in America of this happening, obviously, but I’m not getting into that right now. But instead of approaching things with an open mind, we trust our own arrogance and remain blissfully ignorant, often with the best of intentions. Because we can.

Not every germ will kill you. It’s okay to get dirty. Wash your crotch on a regular basis, because it gets funky. Vaccinate your kids, because we’ve done a pretty good job of figuring out which germs WILL kill you, and we can stop a lot of them from doing so. Above all, use some common sense, people. It’s something this country has been encouraged not to do lately, and it needs to stop. I wish there was a vaccine for that.

The Flood

So I’ve been planning to restart this blog for a while now, and I was about to post this on Facebook as a status update when I realized just how long it was going to be. I figured this was a better place for it.

Fellow Nashvillians have been posting the story from the Tennessean about today being the anniversary of the 2010 flood, and I thought I’d share my own experience of that weekend. Hard to believe that was five years ago.

This is what I remember about the flood:

On Saturday, May 1, I attended a meeting of the Board if Directors for People’s Branch Theatre, the small company I was Artistic Director for, at which we voted to shut the doors on the company. We met at the offices of a board member on Nolensville Road between Antioch and Brentwood, and the rain has already begun to pour. As we wrapped up our meeting and headed out, reports were already coming in about washouts along I-24, the exact corridor I would need to use to get back home. I decided to take what I would later come to find out (after living in LA) are called surface roads, following Nolensville Road all the way back into town to the I-40/I-24 junction and Lebanon Road, which I then took to McGavock Pike and all the way into my neighborhood off of Pennington Bend. The rain never let up that entire day and most of the next.

Sunday morning, May 2, the rain finally abated, and Julee and I loaded our six-week-old son into his carseat and took a drive around our area to see what shape it was in. Keep in mind, we lived right off of the Cumberland, and we were aware that downtown was already getting dangerously high (in fact, downtown may have already suffered some of the flood damage; I can’t remember exactly). We drove down by the river behind us to the boat inlet, and at that point in time, while much higher than normal, the water level was still a good twenty feet below the surface line. Two Rivers Golf Course had been pretty much submerged, and we were in awe of what had happened. We returned home with little more thought about it, glad that the worst seemed to be over. However, we kept the news on all day as weather reports continued to come in.

As the day wore on, reporters continued to talk about rising water levels in downtown, and that there was still more to come. Julee began to ask whether or not we should consider packing a bag and heading out, but I honestly did not believe anything would happen. That evening, as it began to get dark, Julee received a phone call from another employee at the Nashville Children’s Theatre who happened to live in the subdivision next to us that they were being evacuated from their home due to rising water levels on the Cumberland. They had two small children of their own and had just moved to Nashville from Atlanta, so they had no family in town, and they wanted to know if they could possibly stay with us for the night if necessary. We said sure, expecting them to come over soon if the worst happened. I still believed we were safe in our house.

Within a few hours, police cruisers were circling thru out neighborhood advising residents to leave their homes, as the river had rested its banks and was continuing to rise. Our colleague’s neighborhood had already been evacuated, and her home was several feet under water.

Our son was six weeks old.

We quickly packed clothing and some essentials into both of our cars – computers, valuables, photo albums. I moved some other electronics upstairs into the upper bedrooms to minimize whatever damage I could, and we loaded our two dogs and our son into our cars and headed out of the neighborhood. Our next door neighbors had decided to stay, and he told me he would check in with me as the night wore on.

We lived in Donelson, and my mother lives in Hermitage off of Old Hickory Lake, so we tried our best to get to her home, but Lebanon Road was shut down due to flooding at Central Pike. We couldn’t get to her at all. I knew she was safe (thank god for cell phones), but we were suddenly stuck with no place to go. The only friend we could get in touch with lived in Madison, and he welcomed us to come for the night. The only problem: it meant driving over the Cumberland. With no choice, we headed in that direction. Thankfully, due to the large shipping traffic, the bridges over the Cumberland are very tall, so there was no chance of the bridge itself washing out. As we crossed, however, we were astounded (and rightly terrified) to see just how much the water had risen. It’s hard to describe, because it just seemed overwhelming. But you’ve seen the pictures on the news, and I have no doubt there will be stuff about it all day long. You remember it, too.

Anyway, we made it across the river and to our friend’s home without incident, and we slept poorly that night. The next morning, we went the back way along Old Hickory Blvd to my mother’s house, and we stayed there for the next several days. I was working on a project with Tennessee Repertory Theatre (now Nashville Rep – things change in five years), and since our neighborhood was on the way back to my mother’s house, I decided to stop and see what had happened. I still have the footage from that visit on my camera.

Our house was fine. Perfectly fine. It sits on a small knoll, and the ground behind us was purposely constructed as a large ditch for runoff in case of such an event, and the ground sloped away from us on the other side of the street. The water came up around our block on both sides, but the ditch and the knoll ensured that, even if the water had risen to that level, it would have run off on the other side, and the worst we would have suffered would have been flooding of our crawlspace. We got lucky. The people behind us had at least three to five feet of water in their homes. Our next door neighbor was also fine, and he was extremely good-humored about it all. From the upper bedroom window in our house, I shot footage of our backyard, only the very back corner of which had any water in it at all. Like I said, lucky.

But here’s what I remember most, and I have the footage to back it up: two men in a small fishing boat cruising up and down the streets of our neighborhood, trying to help anyone they could. Our neighborhood has a boat parking lot, and these two guys and other like them pulled their boats out and got to work. I heard they had pulled someone down from their roof and brought them out to dry land. It was incredible.

And, of course, this happened all over the city. Thousands of people got busy helping each other out, however they could – rescuing others from danger, tearing out ruined wallboard and insulation, trying to save whatever possessions they could. I helped a neighbor around the block whom I had never met do this to his house along with what seemed like every other person on the block. I loaned him my extension cords for the fans he used to try and dry out his crawlspace, and I learned later when he brought them back that he and his wife had moved into the neighborhood at the same time we did. They had, in fact, looked at our house, and since we had already beaten them to it, they had bought their current one, which had happened to be the only other home for sale in the neighborhood at that time. We had looked at that house ourselves. Had things turned out differently, he might have been helping me gut the soaked fiberglass from my floorboards. Again, lucky.

Across the city, people lived up to the idea of the Volunteer State. It was incredible. Julee went to the Red Cross emergency station set up in Donelson to see if she could help out, and she was told that, since so many people had already begun helping each other, there was very little for them to do. And of course, the T-shirts began to fly (I still have my We Are Nashville shirt), and it made me and everyone else very proud of my hometown. All of this, of course, was somehow overlooked by the national news services, a fact later made very clear about two days later by Anderson Cooper on his own show, but the one thing that was remarked upon the most by the time the story did air was that Nashville got to work and helped itself out.

I no longer live in Nashville, but it’s my hometown and always will be. I’m not particularly proud of a lot of the reason it HAS made national news in the last five years, but I am proud of the fact that everyone was impressed by the fortitude, good will, and volunteer spirit of its citizens. This was us at our best, and it’s something worth remembering.

It’s also important and relevant to this blog for another reason I’m proud to be from the South – we know how to do shit. We can get things done. There’s a large element of self-reliance that is very much a part of growing up in the South. Ironicallly, it’s something I resisted for a large part of my earlier life, but once I embraced it, I can’t believe I ever wanted to deny it. I’ve posted about this before, so I’m not gonna rehash, but I can do things with my hands, and I’m forever grateful for it. I can also use my mind, and I’m even more grateful for that. I can put the two together, and that’s the best. And it’s something I intend to pass on to my son.

Actually, to my sons.

Yeah, we’re having another baby later this year. Another boy, and it’s gonna be another thrilling adventure. But I fully intend to make sure that both of my boys know how to build things, how to fix things, how to make things. Whether it’s a table, a song, or a book, I want my boys to make things. I want them to be capable of doing things so that, if they’re ever in a situation like this, they can get to work. And even tho they’re growing up in California, they’ll always be a little bit from Tennessee.

Oh, and I also plan to keep writing this blog regularly again from this point on, so I hope you’re still with me.

http://www.tennessean.com/picture-gallery/news/local/2015/04/30/the-flood-of-2010/26518085/

 

Handy Man

Ryder helps me “fix” things sometimes. For instance, recently he helped me fix the runners on one of the drawers in his chest. He’d tried to climb on it a month or two ago, and it bent the metal runner arm and had to be replaced. I only did one side, however, and somehow a few days ago the other side bent and the drawer came out again. So, another set of runners later, plus some extra screws to hold the pieces in place above and beyond the ones that came with the pieces, and hopefully the drawer won’t break again.

Ryder helped me by holding the screws for me. It took some work, at first, because he decided it would be more fun to drop the screws under the chest. After a few tries, he held onto them just fine and would hand them to me one at a time when I asked for them. Not the first time he’s helped me fix something, and it won’t be the last.

It’s funny to think about, because I know how to fix a lot of things around the house. I did not, however, learn how to do them at home. I did plenty of chores at my house, but fixing things wasn’t part of any of them. I lived with my mom, and I saw my dad on weekends. When he and I were together, we did as much fun stuff as possible, so we never really broke out the tools. I did spend a large chunk of my childhood summers riding around in a van with my dad helping him clean carpets, but again, we didn’t fix things.

My dad gave me a giant set of tools for Christmas when I was seventeen. I honestly didn’t know what to do with most of them. I mean, I knew what they were for, but I had no real desire or intention to use them. Mainly, they just sat in the garage, forlornly collecting dust, patiently awaiting the day when I might decide to use a 7/16 socket wrench to adjust something. In college, I hated my hours in the scene shop because the power tools were just so damn LOUD. I worked in the costume studio instead, partly because that’s where the girls were and partly because it meant I didn’t have to go in the scene shop. I went out of my way to avoid learning any more about tools than I absolutely had to. I was gonna be an actor, dammit, I didn’t NEED to know how to do anything else!

Cracks me up.

After grad school, when I had no idea how to get work as an actor, I floundered for a while. I began to realize I didn’t know how to DO anything else. I applied for various temp jobs with no success, and I spent a miserable year or so waiting tables at a shitty Tex-Mex restaurant, drinking way too much, making way too little, and hating life. I wasn’t doing anything I enjoyed or wanted to do, I was just getting by, surviving. Then my roommate (who also worked with me at the restaurant) waited on a man who was a contractor and who was looking for employees, and we both went to work for him, doing home renovation.

It literally changed my life.

In the first month, I learned how to build a deck, use a reciprocating saw, a hammer drill, a band saw, pneumatic tools, and some basic plumbing and electricity. I can sweat copper plumbing, I can lay and finish hardwood floors and tile – I rebuilt a master bathroom suite from the floor joists up, including installing a free-standing shower stall AND a marble jacuzzi tub. Over the next year and a half, I painted houses, I laid linoleum flooring, built gazebos, poured concrete, rewired switches and outlets, and installed replacement windows. I suddenly knew how to DO shit. I became confident in my hands, in my ability to start and to finish a project – I learned how to fix and to build things. Very manly.

More importantly, I understood two things: first, the value of knowing how to fix things. Til that point, I had changed the oil in my truck a few times myself, but that’s about it. I laid hardwood floors in my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house. I saved them over a thousand dollars each in labor. I installed new sinks and fixed the toilets in my mom’s house. I helped friends who had bought a house refinish their floors. I saved plenty of people I know lots of money by knowing how to do these things. Second, I understood the satisfaction of completing a project on my own, of seeing it thru from start to finish, dealing with hiccups and snags along the way. It reminded me of a show – of starting rehearsal with just the script, and putting all the pieces together until opening night, when the finished product was put onstage for everyone to see. It was truly eye-opening. I found the joy in the work, and it made me better.

After a few months, I started auditioning for shows again, and before long I was an actor again. My roommate and I were both cast in a community theatre production of Biloxi Blues, and we ended up building the set for the show, too, using tools loaned to us by our contractor boss. A year or so after that, and I was on my way to working as a professional actor, and over the next several years, I supported myself between acting gigs doing various carpentry gigs. When I ran a theatre company a few years after that, I always helped load in and load out all the sets and even designed and built a couple as well. When my wife and I bought our house, I gutted and remodeled out master bath, repainted every room, installed ceiling fans and light fixtures, and ripped out and replaced the French doors on the back of the house. I had some help on some of these things, but I did the majority of the work myself. Even the drywall, which I hate. I had plans for an extension of our deck in mind when we decided to move to California instead. I was able to make our house truly OUR house.

Even out here in LA, I’ve replaced a faucet, tweaked the toilets, and built movable gate pieces for the driveway to close off the backyard. I’m constantly fixing things, it seems, and I owe it all to my time as a carpenter. It has made me feel like a man. Confident, capable, and prepared.

So I love it when Ryder helps me. I let him play with my screwdriver sometimes, and he “fixes” things like the screws on the glider. He likes to use my tape measure to “measure” things. Once he’s old enough, I’ll teach him how to use a saw, how to hammer a nail, and how to measure twice, and cut once. I guarantee he’ll know how to fix everything I know how to fix before he goes to college.

There’s a distinction between an artist and a craftsman. I came across this idea reading about two of the greatest American playwrights, Arthur Miller and David Mamet. Men who wield words like tools, knowing exactly what they’re trying to accomplish and how to get there using those tools. Miller himself was also an accomplished carpenter and woodworker, and Mamet has written extensively on the joys of using his hands to make things. Mamet also states in one of his essays that he considers himself a craftsman, not an artist, and expounds on his disdain for the use of the latter. Artist has always made me cringe a little, too, because it (unfortunately) carries pretension on its back. Craftsman sounds solid, hard-working, dependable, and, above all, shows results. In reality, the two terms aren’t that different, and I think there’s a third term that bridges the gap between them: artisan. Artisan can be accused of leaning towards pretension itself, especially when used to describe cheese, but the historical meaning of that word bears me out: one who is both an artist and a craftsman, able to conceive and execute creative ideas using a well-developed set of skills.

So maybe I’m an artisan dad. Who the fuck knows what that means?? But I like the sound of it, and it’s only a little douchey. In any case, I want my son to be good at everything, and being able to fix shit falls under that category. We pass along what we know to our children, so that they can pass it along in turn. I’m looking forward to seeing what skills and abilities Ryder develops and has an affinity for, and I intend to encourage him to know how to build cool, useful shit along the way. And stop that goddamn faucet from leaking.

Brothers

There’s an old saying about friendship. “Friends help you move. Good friends help you move bodies.”

And then there are the ones who will go out with you in the middle of the night with a gun and a shovel. 

My friend Harvie is one of those guys. He’s my best friend, has been since we were twelve. We met in homeroom on our first day of seventh grade. We were seated alphabetically, right next to each other, and he started talking to me. Within a few days, he’d gotten my birthday out of me, and he was elated to find out that our birthdays were three days apart. Remember when wristwatches that were also games were a big deal in junior high? He gave me one of those on my birthday. Pretty soon we were inseparable.

Harvie’s family life was pretty rotten. He never knew his father, and his mother had all kinds of health and mental issues. He grew up in East Nashville when it wasn’t cool to live in East Nashville. He started spending the night at my house, and a Friday night sleepover almost always turned into a full weekend. He even spent Christmas Eve with my family because we got “snowed in”. My mom and stepdad went out that afternoon and bought him presents so he’d have something under the tree and not feel left out. He was made to feel welcome always in our home.

He never forgot that. Any of it. By the time I graduated high school, Harvie was calling my mom “Mom” too. I can count on one hand the number of Christmas Eves he hasn’t been at my mom’s house, and only one of those was because I wasn’t in town. I’m an only child, but I’ve got a couple brothers, and Harvie is the first.

He was a born scrapper. He called me late one night when we were sixteen to tell me he’d just gotten into a fight at Shelby Bottoms because someone had called him telling him that I had been hurt and to come meet me there. After college, a fight broke out at a party I threw, and I tried to stop the two guys from going at each other. I got stuck in the middle, and without hesitation, Harvie jumped in to pull one of them off of me. If he was ever afraid, it never showed. He was tough, and I always admired that about him. 

He was also VERY good at pissing people off. Harvie was used to rejection, and he had developed a tough skin. He tended to respond aggressively to anyone who threatened him, and he managed to push a lot of people away. But I never judged him when we were kids, and that stuck with him. It got under his skin, and under there was a pretty safe place to be. Harvie’s heart was huge, vulnerable, and full. 

We had times when we didn’t talk, mainly because I had my head up my ass. I got depressed and selfish because I was going thru a rough time, and I alienated him for a while. He gave me the opportunity to walk away from our friendship instead of hurting him, and that snapped me back. We’ve been tight ever since. I know I’ve gotten sidetracked a little along the way with things that happen, because things happen, but I always knew that my brother would come running if I called. If I had ever asked, I know without any doubt that he would have been at my door with his gun and his shovel. I never had the opportunity, and sometimes I wish I had. 

As hard as his life had been, Harvie had turned it around. He grew up with nothing, and he was angry a lot of the time. In the last handful of years, all of that had started to fade. He was becoming successful, he had a beautiful house, he had been married for almost ten years (to a woman who could take his shit and turn it back on him – perfect fit for him), and he smiled a lot more than he used to. Harvie’s 40th birthday is December 1st, three days after mine, and he had been planning to come out to California to visit me and another good friend of his as a birthday trip. It was a big deal. We used to always try to celebrate our birthdays together, because they were so close. My younger brother by three days.

And now I don’t get to see him anymore. 

This weekend, Harvie was on his annual Man Trip with his regular crew of guys on Percy Priest Lake. Yesterday, around noon, he and four of his crew were either leaving or entering Four Points Marina on their small deck boat, and they collided with a much larger cabin cruiser. I still don’t know most of the details, but I’m sure the driver of the cruiser couldn’t see the tiny little boat low in the water, and boats don’t have brakes. All five passengers on the smaller boat went into the water. Harvie is the only one who didn’t come out. 

This just got a lot harder to write. 

His wife called me a little while ago to tell me he had been found, and I’ve been composing the first part of this in my own head since yesterday. I didn’t want to start going down this road until I was sure what had happened. And now it’s hard to find words to say that don’t sound trite, or cold, or meaningless. I even had to try to explain all of this to my son yesterday when he asked why we were so sad. In the gentlest possible terms I could find, I tried to tell him that Uncle Harvie was gone. My son, an optimist of the highest order, kept presenting options as to how he might be found. He even reminded me that he is Superman. I wish with all my heart that that were true right now. 

The last time I saw Harvie was in June, when we were home for our annual family visit. We saw Man of Steel together, and he spent the morning of Father’s Day with us at Mom’s house. She made breakfast like she used to for us all the time. He was approaching a million dollars in sales as a real estate agent. He played with Ryder and hugged him a lot. He was at the hospital with my family when Ryder was born. 

Harvie is my brother. It doesn’t matter if he’s gone, he will always be my brother. Oldest friend, confidant, the guy on whom I could always count, no matter what. I miss him so much already, and it’s only been a day. 

But I hope that my son has a friend, a brother like that someday. I look forward to meeting him. 

Rest in peace, Harvie. Love you, brother.

Harvie Cecil Butler

December 1, 1973 – September 1, 2013