We Are Family

Monday morning I got on the phone with a friend from college whom I hadn’t been in the same state as, much less spoken to, since the year I graduated from said university. Roughly twenty-five years or so. We’d been in touch via the Face, as many of us are with peeps from our past, but we hadn’t had a meaningful conversation since, most likely, the summer after graduation. Twenty-five years. It was great. You know you have those people in your life whom you don’t talk to all that often, or see very much, maybe years in between, and when you finally hook up, it’s like a single day hasn’t passed, and you just feel at home, right? Yeah, it was like that. And it’s wild, because obviously SO MUCH time has passed, and things have changed or evolved, you’re in different places, with families, maybe different families from when you saw each other last, whatever your deal is, but it’s like going home. You fit right in, no questions asked. Yeah.

Not to spoil the surprise, but of course this was like that. We cracked jokes, we reminisced for a few minutes, we marveled at how much fucking TIME had passed, and we had a great time, not only in spite of the subject matter but also because of the weight of it.

See, my friend also has a child on the spectrum. In fact, he has two, and that was specifically the reason why I had reached out to him. As I’m still only a year or so into this journey with Duncan, I’m still trying to understand what it means, for the present as well as the future, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to talk with people who have been there, who are still there, who can tell me openly and honestly what their experience has been like, so I can gain some knowledge and even a little comfort from what they have to say. I’ve been reaching out mainly to people I know who have some connection to it, either personally or close by. And as I do this, I continue to be amazed at just how many people do have someone with autism in their lives.

We’ve heard the statistics before – last I heard, I believe it was 1 in 59 children in the US had a diagnosis, so that’s already a lot (and let’s face it, the diagnosis itself has a very broad, excuse the pun, spectrum these days, so there’s a lot going on in there). Then, you start to filter down to the number of people you personally know who are part of this community, and it becomes even more surprising. As of this writing, I have at least five friends with children on the spectrum, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out about more. Of those five, two of those families have more than one autistic child, and my friend I’m writing about told me during our call that he himself had been recently diagnosed. He’s about fifty, and he’d never known it. But it was eye-opening. He said as soon as his doctor told him, so many things about his childhood, his relationships, so many pieces of his life that had been so strange or uncomfortable to him suddenly made sense. He now had a reason for why he responded to those moments or those people the way he did.

It was such a wonderful conversation, and the impetus for him to share all of that made for all the feels. We laughed, we choked up, we sympathized, and we resolved to continue talking about it. Not only that, but also just to get together and shoot the shit, reminisce about our glory days in college, catch up on all the shit that we’ve gone thru since then, just be friends again. It felt so amazing. And it reminded me of what it felt like to be in a community again.

And that’s really what this post is about. He mentioned to me that he had tried support groups for parents in the past, but he hadn’t had a lot of success with them. He’s not the type to just open up to a roomful of strangers, which I totally get, so having someone with whom you already feel comfortable, who already knows the dirty secrets of your past (heh heh heh) – having someone like that with whom you can also share this extremely personal, vulnerable facet of your life with – that’s a blessing. It gives us a way to become even closer, which is pretty amazing, especially after a twenty-five year gap in communication. (P.S.: as I re-read this, I’m aware of the irony that I’m posting this on a blog on the internet, so in essence I AM sharing it with strangers. Immaterial. Life is contradiction, deal with it.)

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my past, about the people I knew then, and how tight some of those bonds were. And I think again at the wonder that Facebook can be. Thanks to this platform of misinformation, I’ve been able to reconnect to people very dear to me from half my life ago, and I’ve even been able to make new friends out of old acquaintances – people from high school who I wasn’t close to but in class with, etc. – people who, like me, have grown up and grown into (sometimes) very different people from who we were then (or, at least, whom we thought we or they were then), and to find new things to love about them or to remember old things that made us love them then and make us continue to do so. College in particular has been ripe for this, mainly because I was in a theatre program, and doing a show with someone is a guaranteed way to get to know them deeply in a very short amount of time. Then put those same people together for show after show for three or four years, and you know things about them that their husbands and wives may not know. Pretty cool, and it makes for solid bonds that can last.

And the cool thing about that is, as I’ve been discussing this whole time, getting to know these people again later in life is truly rewarding. Even when the impetus isn’t always a good one – a family tragedy led a bunch of us to reconnect, and while the event was and is awful, at least there’s some solace to be had in knowing that there are people who care for you, there, ready to listen, to hold you, to lift you up when you need it. A community. A family, even moreso. For a lot of us in that program, I think the theatre gave us a sense of family that we may not have even known we needed. And to have that family available and close again? Breathtaking.

And I share my friend’s trepidation about opening up to a roomful of strangers. I’m probably more likely than him to do it at some point, but I get it, totally. And so I’m glad that he and I have a reason to share with each other, to re-establish that sense of community, to be close again, because I think closeness, community, family – we all need that. Many of us don’t have those bonds with our own families anymore, and so we seek out those that we mesh with, and we build our own families.

I was an only child, no siblings. I never felt that I’d missed out on anything – I think saying there’s a right way or a wrong way to be born is absolute horseshit, and that kind of thinking needs to go away – but I was raised in a household with open doors. My friends were always made to feel welcome, and many of them came to think of my home as their home, too. One friend from high school, recently passed, actually, always referred to my mom as “Mother Teresia”, and he loved to sleep on our couch – he said it was the comfiest couch he’d ever slept on. But I learned early on that family has nothing to do with blood. I’m an only child, but I have so many brothers and sisters. My family is rich and full, and it’s spread all over the world. And it’s always a gift to find a new member of the family, or to reconnect to an old one. The reason doesn’t matter, it’s the bond that counts. The things that we have in common can create ties stronger than blood.

So I had a great fucking time with my brother from another mother this week. Right at the end, he told me that I and another brother from those times are still very popular topics of conversation in his current household. I think we met his wife, then his very new girlfriend, one single time before we all went our separate ways, but it’s pretty incredible to think that we’re somehow still part of their lives. I love it. I can’t wait to talk with my brother again.

I’ll write again later about this phone call and focus a little more on the subject of autism, but for now I really just wanted to express the joy it gave me to talk with my friend. He had a lot to say, and all of ti was helpful to me in so many ways, from just solidarity to logistical issues, and especially lots of humor and love. And the best part is, he helped me see how much having autism in his family has helped him become a better person. Altho he was pretty fucking awesome to begin with.

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.