February 22, 2006

drum and life lessons

The drum lesson was in the back of a music store, the kind of place that's too small for its contents; cymbals and guitar strings spilling over into the aisles, a sense of darkness and clutter everywhere. The teaching room was all the way in the back, a walk-in closet of a space, barely big enough for a drum set and two people.

It didn't matter; when the teacher met us in the back of the store, I knew right away. The tenor of his "hello" told me: this man is not the right person to teach my son. But it would have been rude, an insult, to say, "This isn't going to work out, thank you and goodbye," it would have implied a kind of ethnic or class-related profiling, a kind of stereotyping.

It wasn't. Yes, he was large, with a strong Joisey accent, yes, his black hair was clearly dyed and coated with an oily sheen, but that mattered not at all. What mattered was that he was ten years older than me and exuded a work-weary affect, that he spoke with a kind of brusque heaviness, that he didn't take a moment to let Damian warm to him before entering the jail cell of a drum room. What mattered was that he checked his watch every five minutes while we stayed in the room with him. What mattered was that he was clearly on the defensive from the first moment, explaining and then explaining yet again how he always, but always, has his students work on the practice pad for the first ten or fifteen minutes, that's how he does it and if you don't like it, you shouldn't be there.

Which, y'know, is fine too. Everyone does indeed need room to do his job the way he thinks is best. But it bordered on hostile, this bristly defensiveness, and that's not so fine. Especially when you're teaching my sensitive, shy, anxious child. Who picks up on aggressive, defensive, bristly emotions. Who closes up like a clam disturbed by the rough tide.

He had Damian sit at the practice pad. Had him play quarter note beats. One-two-three-four. Just seeing if he understood rhythm, no problem. Then he had him do two on each hand, left-left, right-right, left-left, right-right. Damian played left, right, left, right. The guy illustrated, playing the beats himself. Damian played it wrong again. Skipping the second beat, sometimes doing it in a half-way sketchy almost-beat not hitting the pad. Blowing it.

Damian was so hesitant, so silent. I knew the guy was thinking, "And she says this kid can play advanced, complex grooves? Man, is she kidding herself or what?" Because right then, Damian not only seemed like a novice, but like a slightly slow one, someone who simply didn't understand the concept of body movement, who didn't process your words. And I think he didn't, in that moment.

They switched to the drum set. The guy asked Damian to play something he knew. He thought about it a bit, then played an 8th note groove. Bumpy, with some faltering beats, but the sound was basically right. The guy's reaction? "He shouldn't be doing such advanced stuff before learning the basics." But he does know the basics! He just froze because you have no ability or desire to create a welcoming environment.

That was the first lesson. Also the last. With this guy, anyway.

The second drum lesson was at our house. The teacher came a few minutes early, walked inside. Soft spoken, young, with long blond hair and a thoughtful demeanor. We – that is, he, Damian and I – chatted for a bit down by the door. Damian introduced him to the cats. We went up to Damian's room and settled in. Damian played from his sheet music. Played quite well, considering how little he's practiced in the past five months. Played quarter note beats with fills, played eighth and sixteenth note grooves. The guy encouraged him to come up with his own fills between eighth note measures. He raised his eyebrows and smiled at me while Damian was playing. He told me, "He's really good, he has a lot of potential. He's doing things easily that students twice his age have trouble doing."

Damian pointed out how two grooves were different from each other (one had an extra snare drum beat), the teacher asked him how a third differed from those two. He was engaging him, he was asking him to think analytically about the music, he was encouraging and warm, though in a quieter way than Damian's wonderful LA teacher. And Damian responded. Sometimes he was confused by a question and remained silent, but once I translated for him, he answered readily. One time he didn't know how to do what the teacher asked, so the teacher illustrated. Damian got it after that. He was the kid I remember from his LA lessons with the ineffable drummer Dan.

This teacher isn't as exuberant, as delightfully enthusiastic, as Dan was. He's a different person with his own style. But what struck me – what strikes me – is how very different Damian was with each teacher. And I'm not just talking about a quiet, shy boy versus an engaged child, because he was pretty shy with the second teacher too. But his playing. With the first guy, Damian – well, frankly, he sucked. Not an iota of talent visible. With the second, he showed himself: a kid with a natural gift for rhythm.

How much of our lives, our identities, our self-definition results from the ways we do or don't reflect light from other people? The first guy wasn't overtly negative; he praised Damian for getting things right and didn't scold him for his mistakes. But something about him shut Damian right down. The second teacher allowed Damian to be himself. And that makes all the difference.

February 01, 2006

me, a tour guide

I keep mulling over the existence of this blog. Missing writing here, not missing it, missing it again, wondering what form it should take if I do continue with it.

Feh. If I have something to write, I'll write it. Hope you guys stick around!

I led two school tours this morning, took groups of parents around Damian's school. "Here's the gym, here's the Spanish class, hi Damian, here's the recess yard, no, I don't know if they have fruit in the school lunches, yes, all the kindergarten classes do have building blocks." Kind of fun. Very odd. I toured this school in late June, now it's February 1 and I'm giving a tour? How can I possibly know enough to be a guide to this so-important decision process? But the PTA sent out a desperate call for parents and I'm a parent and I love the school and I'm home working and really, I need to be out and about and among and why not?

It was kind of cool. Also interesting to see what people think is important for their kids. Everyone wanted to know how the children spend recess on inclement/freezing cold days and if the kids get their choice of foreign language and if there were bathrooms in the kindergarten classes. But nobody asked about the academics, nobody wanted to know about the teaching philosophy. Nobody asked about the emotional tenor of the school. The subject of bullying never came up.

Is it that they're parents of preschool-aged children? Or am I influenced by who my child is? I want to know about academics because I want to make sure he's stimulated in class, that he will continue to love learning. I want to know about the social environment because he can still be so tentative. Do I really see things so differently from other parents?


January 06, 2006


So the reason I can't actually take a hiatus as long as the one I was planning is that I have a child who, when I say I already flossed his teeth, responds, "You're out of your mind. You're on the hike of beautiful dreams."

So I flossed his teeth again. What else could I do? (Write it down, is what. Which I also did.)

I guess I'm still on hiatus. Just less of a hiatus than I thought. Which means I may check in periodically. So, um, hi.

Back to the rewrite.

December 19, 2005


It's always a question. When do you tell? Because after a point, if you're very lucky and things get enough better, you don't have to say anything. But if you don't, if you keep mum, are you implicitly lying? Not about him, exactly, not about who he is now, because he now stands on his own two feet, a child with quirks and hesitations, but whole and relatively normal. You don't have to tell because of him, not anymore. But if it's part of your shared past, if it's the main reason you never had a second child – the first was too exhausting, with all the therapies and worries – if it's the reason, too, that you haven't embarked on a money-making career until recently, if it's the reason for so many of your choices, including the school he's in right now, because you learned it's the best for support. If all these things are true, then isn't the gap in information, the lack of revelation, a form of cover up about your life and who you are as a family and even as a person? And especially if the work you're doing now is partly a result of the struggles you've undergone with this child and his diagnosis, how can you say "I'm doing this, um, health-related, child-related writing work," and expect anyone to take that at face value and not want to know more? And if you tell more, if you're more specific about the work, then aren't you revealing a certain, shall we say, expertise in the field? A personal relationship with the subject?

And if you remain silent and someone finds out down the line, doesn’t it seem like you have something to hide? Like you consider it a dirty secret? Because you don’t. It's a source of great pride. And you want to say the truth: My son was autistic, he couldn't communicate the simplest desires, he was terrified of other children, terrified of swings and slides, terrified of the world. And now he's so very much better, so very much happier and more complete and more integrated as a person and in the world. And damn, but he did that and we did that together, and he's an extraordinary child.

So I told. Saturday night at the party, I told one person, then two. And the second was our landlord, though that's a funny word for him, because he's a nice guy and someone I like as a person, apart from the whole monetary relationship. And with my blessing, he told his wife. Who called me yesterday to ask for advice about another child she knows. And now I'm so very glad I told. Because I do have this particular expertise, this particular arena I know very well, and it feels false to hide it from people I'm getting to know. Feels like I'm hiding myself when I want to connect instead. And in truth, I can say, "Look at him, isn't he great?" And maybe in that way change a perception, if they have such, of a diagnosis so heavy and harsh, so irreparable and heartbreaking. But most of all, I can show my own self in this, I can be myself. And if they're scared and disturbed by this (and none of them have been), then they weren't going to be real friends anyway, were they?

December 11, 2005

If You Learned About History

I picked up If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon at Vroman's in Pasadena early this summer as part of my campaign to make our cross-country trip more interesting for Damian. It's part of a series of history books by Scholastic, written in the question-and-answer format, detailing daily life in different places and times with an understandable emphasis on how children lived.

The covered wagon book was fascinating for both of us, I think. I had no idea that the travelers mostly walked alongside the incredibly slow wagon train, no idea that they made butter by placing pails of milk high up on the arching wood that formed the bow of the wagon. The bumpy motion of the wagon over the prairie would churn the butter for them. I never thought about what might happen when a wagon lost a wheel, couldn't get down a gorge, crossed a deep river. The book recreated the adventure of it. And it did what I wanted: Damian was enamored enough that we went out of our way to visit Fort Laramie and even visited the bit of Oregon Trail our path crossed in Wyoming. Damian walked in the ruts the multitude of heavy wagons had bitten into the rock more than a century ago and we all had a bite-sized taste of history.

I picked up If You Lived With the Sioux Indians at the Fort Laramie gift shop. We were traveling into Sioux land as we headed north toward their sacred, beloved Black Hills and I thought it would give Damian a flavor of the way the land had been, how people had lived there. We didn't get to read it until we got to New Jersey, but Damian and I both enjoyed reading about the Sioux. I learned little new – this is a part of history and culture that has always fascinated me – but it was Damian's first real exposure to American Indian / Native American civilization, and he loved the idea of the animal spirits and of the communal living.

Toward the end of the book, things got dark. The Sioux were crowded onto reservations, slaughtered by the thousands, died of imported disease. At first, I was taken aback that it was all there, laid out in the same question-and-answer format as the rest of the (far more innocuous) material. But really, would I want the authors to edit out the hard truth? That would be a lie, with disturbing connotations. So no, it's better that they tell the truth, that children learn how Indians were treated, the travesty that was part of this country's birth pain. So I read it to Damian, who sat very quietly and listened.

Since we've arrived back on the east coast, I've found myself intrigued about the history of this area. I want to take some walking tours of the city, maybe in the spring. I want to learn about the transformation of the Lower East Side, the political history of Greenwich Village, the origin of Brownstone Brooklyn. I want to find out about the buildings I walk among. New Jersey too, but that comes later; after I learn about the state in the present tense, I'll want to know its past. So I picked up If You Lived 100 Years Ago to read to Damian because it was specifically about life in New York. We just finished reading it.

I don't know what I expected. This book was brutally honest. People traveled by horse-drawn carriages. The book described that. How were horses treated? Very badly indeed. The book described that. With each subject, the author, Ann McGovern, described how the rich lived (in ostentatious luxury) and then how the poor lived. She pulled no punches in describing the squalor of tenement living and the long, punishing hours children worked. Damian didn't ask too many questions about the rougher material. He just listened.

At first, as with the previous book, I squirmed as I read. Should I put the book down, should I cover his ears, is he ready for these images, this sadness? But it's part of history, and it's important to understand these things. Deep divisions remain between rich and poor, and the middle class is getting so squeezed, more people may be dropping below the poverty line every year. This is not just history, this is life. I don't sugarcoat death when I talk to Damian. He knows what happened to our cat Dante this summer, for instance. I try to explain homelessness when Damian asks about someone bundled up and trying to sleep in an alcove on the subway stairs. Why would I want a book to avoid the tough issues? Is there some specific time in a child's life when it's appropriate to explain, all in a rush, about every harsh aspect of life? Or is it better, as these books do, to weave it into the ordinary and the exotic, just an other facet to discuss?

We do tend to shelter our children. We don't want to talk about the depth of horror of a disaster like the tsunami in Asia or the details of devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I may talk in passing about the war in Iraq because Damian heard us talking, but I don't tell him about Abu Ghraib or the pictures of rows of coffins, soldiers coming home. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because children are more prone to nightmares. Maybe because they have less of a context to place the facts into. Maybe because they're simply not ready and we recognize that on some deep level. But at the same time, they do need to know some of it. To start understanding that there are aspects of life that just aren't fair, aren't nice, aren't sweetness and light. It's a gradual process, I think, teaching a child about the darker side of human nature. Of Mother Nature too, for that matter.

The more I think about it, the more glad I am that these books do cover the tough stuff. It's just – well, I'm not used to it. Not in a children's book. And some of these are harder. If You Lived in the Time of Slavery, for instance. I'm not ready for that one, I think. Not quite yet.

November 10, 2005

night fright

The past few nights, after we put Damian to bed and say our ritualized goodnights, he lies there for ten or so minutes and then we hear the floor creak and the sound of breathing. "Damian, are you up?" Silence. The floor creaks again. "Damian, go back to bed!" And he does.

Tonight I was sitting in bed, my legs warm under the comforter, typing away on my computer. Dan was downstairs doing preparatory work for his new gig. The floor creaked.

"Damian, are you up?"


"Is everything okay?"


But still he remained in the center room between our two bedrooms. "Do you have to go to the bathroom?"


"What's going on?"

"Nothing." He began to head back to his bedroom, I could tell by the direction of the creaking floorboards.

But I asked him to come into my room. Motioned him to sit on the bed beside me. He slipped his legs under the covers. I asked him what was going on, why he got out of bed every night.

"It's too hard to explain."

I encouraged him to try anyway. It took an awful lot of coaxing while he sat beside me, looking intently at the cougar on his pajama top and picking at the lint on his pant leg, but he finally did tell me what he was thinking about tonight at the moment when he felt compelled to rise from his bed and make his creaking way toward the glow of my room.

Turns out he'd been thinking about the movie Gremlins, which we watched Sunday night. Dan had TiVO'd it, remembering the silly slapstick bits where the gremlins are watching Snow White or singing faux Christmas carols or being exploded in a microwave oven. And Damian weathered the emotional rollercoaster of Finding Nemo unfazed, plus at least one or two Disney movies with scary bits, surely this wouldn't be a problem.

Apparently it was. Damian told me he was remembering the part of the movie where the Mogwai mutate into gremlins inside scary-ass huge cocoons. He wanted to know how to stop being scared. I told him all about how the movie was made, that the gremlins were stop-motion puppets (okay, I don't know for sure that they were, but it sounded good and I knew I could explain it).

His clenched hands relaxed, but he still looked tense. I told him about how I saw the Beatles animated movie, Yellow Submarine, when I was little, and how I was so scared of the Blue Meanies, I thought about them every night for weeks. I lied and said that my parents explained about how movies weren't real and how the Meanies were just drawings and that I felt safe after that. (Is it immoral to lie to your child about your past to help him over an emotional hump?)

That worked. He seemed relieved. If I'd gotten through it, he could too, I guess. I told him he shouldn't hesitate next time, that if he was feeling scared about something, he should come talk to me. I told him it's part of my job as a mother. He said he didn't know that. We said goodnight one more time.

But he stopped as he got to my doorway, and turned back to me. "Instead of thinking about the scary parts of the movie, I'll think about the funny parts." And then he said a final goodnight and padded off to his own room.