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. 

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 Nap

I’m lying in bed with my son as he sleeps. It’s late afternoon (he’s a late napper), and he’s had a busy, energetic day. He’s trying to refuse naps lately, but he obviously still needs them, so we lie down and take one every day. Yesterday he played so hard that he fell asleep in the car on the way home for naptime, and I had to carry him in and change him from underwear and jeans into a pull-up diaper (potty training proceeds apace) while he was sleeping. Thankfully, he never fluttered an eyelid.

It’s really something else. My wife sleeps in bed with him most nights, and I can understand why. I was against it for a long time, mainly because he had been sleeping on his own since he was a month old and it was working great. He got sick last year, tho, and she brought him into our bed, and from then on he didn’t want to sleep alone. I made my peace with it and have learned to enjoy my own solo time in bed – a queen size all to yourself is nice and roomy – and in general I try to let him sleep alone during naptime.

All of this goes out the window, of course, if he wakes up mid-nap in a panic, screaming for me. Then, as any good dad would, I bolt into the room and lie with him to calm him down and soothe him back to sleep. I usually finish the nap with him after that (and let’s face it, that’s most likely what I was doing on my own, anyway. He’s not the only one who needs a nap).

However, today I had decided pre-nap that round two of coffee was a necessity, and so when the time came to fall asleep with a book on my chest, instead I read fifty pages (Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World) and tossed around some. Just then the familiar cry came from Ryder’s room, the bookmark went in, and I climbed into bed next to my boy.

Ryder often half-wakes like this. Moaning, eyes still squeezed shut, standing on the bed. I speak softly to him, and he lays back down, squirms and moans a little more, eventually makes contact with my body somehow (two days ago he held my nose for five minutes), and sinks back into sleep. So it was today, as he found my side with his feet and stretched out diagonally across the bed. I scoot him around a little so I can actually keep my body weight on the bed an not hang in limbo over the edge, and I settle down to try to snooze with him.

No good. Hence the post. But as I lie here typing into the nap’s best friend, the iPhone, I’m watching Ryder sleep. He’s not as deep in as some days, a little wriggly, but still out like a light. And it’s on days like this that I appreciate why my wife likes to sleep with him every night.

The peaceful look on a child’s face as they sleep is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Completely serene, calm, unconcerned with anything else at that moment. Granted, he’s unconscious, but it’s a wondrous thing to behold, because it reminds me that, for him, the world is a wondrous place, to be explored and claimed and conquered, and every day is met with bright eyes, enthusiasm, and glee.

That’s the face my son shows me every morning when he comes into my room to wake me up. It makes me smile just thinking about it, and it reminds me that, despite all of our problems, our bills, our anger, our defeat – despite all of the shit that we as adults have to deal with on a daily basis to provide the things that he needs, it’s worth it to give him the opportunity to explore this world and to make it his own. And you need lots of rest to go forth and conquer like that.

So naptime is essential. And during that time, I find myself at peace, calm, serene, unconcerned – I reach that same state of Zen that my son lives in, a joyous celebration of the Moment, the Now, and I cherish the fact that I get to share that with him every day.

Then, he shoves his feet into my spleen.