Blog

Kids Like Us

Back in the 80’s, I avoided dropping out of high school by becoming an exchange student. In what would have been my senior year,  I attended a French lycée in the town of Blois in the Loire Valley.  When I got there, I discovered that five years of junior and high school French had given me the fundamentals of reading and writing.  But I barely understood a word of the language as it was spoken.  Thank goodness for the other foreign kids at the school. I hung out with two Danes and a Kenyan and we created our own little language that was mainly English with smatterings of Swahili, French and Danish.  By spring, French had finally planted itself in my brain and I could follow my teacher’s lectures on Le Rouge et le Noir, giggle at the jokes of my classmates, even dream in French.  That’s when I learned that my classmates had earlier taken me for a snob. My discomfort with their tongue had come off as aloofness. Now that we could converse, they embraced me. On my return to the States, my entire class showed up at the train station to present me with a card and a necklace.  I had no idea that they were coming and could barely say au revoir for the lump in my throat.  I can still see them, bunched on the platform, waving enthusiastically until the train rounded a bend and they were lost from view.

That lump in my throat came back while reading Kids Like Us, Hilary Reyl’s moving account of Martin, a sixteen year old from California, who is accompanying his mother on a film shoot in Chenonceau, a chateau not far from the town where I lived in France. Reyl beautifully captures the colors and flavors and tempo of the Loire valley, along with the displacement and discovery I remember from that year.  Martin is not as displaced by the French language as I was, for his father, who he refers to as papa, is French, and taught him how to speak the language, bake quatre quarts cakes and read Proust. Martin’s displacement stems from his autism.  In California, he attends a special education school known as “The Center,” but for their time abroad, his mother has arranged for him to spend his days at a lycée to practice French with the locals.  Martin is also displaced by the end of his parents’ marriage, which is linked to his father’s imprisonment. The matter of fact way that Reyl deals with Martin’s father’s incarceration mirrors the way she deals with Martin’s autism.  Both are important pieces of information, but only one facet of their complex and sympathetic personalities.

As the story is told from Martin’s point of view, we are treated to an abundance of details that a more neurotypical narrator might have missed: the train ride from Paris to the town of Chenonceaux takes one hour and two minutes; forty percent of Martin’s French classmates wear Doc Martens, twenty-five percent wear Converses; the chapter headings include hours and minutes along with the date, so that the reader knows more precisely when Martin is forming his thoughts.  But numbers are not the pivot of Martin’s soul. Proust is. In particular, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time which he has shortened to Search.  Search goes with Martin everywhere.  When he gets confused, he scans its pages for words that can explain the pulls and tugs that people exert on him and each other.

When I was sixteen, and found myself sinking into despair, which occurred quite often, I’d take Catcher in the Rye off the shelf, open it at random and let my eyes fall upon a sentence. To my wonder, the words of these sentences invariably helped.  Sometimes they related to my plight, sometimes they redirected me, always they made me feel less alone. Martin’s relationship with Search is more literal; it is the portal through which he makes sense of the world.  Thus it confuses him when the pretty girl at the lycée who captures his heart is named Alice.  According to Search, she should be named Gilberte, and her parents should be artists, not gardeners. But if literalism grounds Martin, it does not govern him.  By the end of the story, he has not only kissed Alice, he has called her by her proper name.

Kids Like Us appeared in my mailbox because of my work at Extreme Kids.  If there is one thing that I have learned at Extreme Kids and through living with my son Felix, it is that the distinction between the disabled and the so called normal is at best blurry and usually in flux.  We all have our blind spots and inabilities, and though they might be taken for weaknesses, they can bring us to places of deeper understanding and experience.  This knowledge permeates Reyl’s book, which is not about autism, or a broken family, or an ambitious mother.  Rather Kids Like Us is a beautiful tale about young love, the solace of books, the complications of friendship, and the taste of Martin’s cassoulet.

Photo on 11-5-17 at 7.27 AM

A trip to the salon

The place is called Time.
It's at the end of our street.
I often pass by,
as I ascend or descend the subway steps.
Through plate glass windows, the freshly shampooed swivel,
as stylists wield blow dryers and wide smiles.
They are black.  I am white, as is my family.
We cut our hair at the kitchen table,
with dull scissors used to snip parsley and construction paper.
We once had special hair cutting scissors that I bought on Fulton Mall.
But they got lost in our house, which is big and commodious, 
a problem that sometimes comes with whiteness, but not always.

My daughters are starting school tomorrow,
and want to mark the occasion by dying their hair funky colors,
but not how we used to do it, with hydrogen peroxide and spray paint.
My kids are posher than I ever was.
Why be grumpy? Why not splurge and go to a salon?
A chance to support black business, and besides, it's nice in Time.
There's dance music playing, and the sprays smell of cleanliness and optimism.
I need optimism on this day of Hurricane Irma, chasing her Harvey over southern seas.

Miranda's stylist is named Chardonnay.
You couldn't ask for finer bone structure.
She shoots me a look and says, when am I doing you?
I'm flattered, although all she means is: I need a haircut.
But haircuts aren't my thing.  Books are my thing. 
The lady (black) who sits beside me seems to be inviting conversation.
Shouldn't I chat? Isn't that what you're supposed to do in salons?
My chance to represent my skin color in a better light than it's been representing itself of late?
But I don't feel comfortable in salons, white or black.
I find my page and the pop music fades and there's Kashmir in the '90's,
calloused trigger fingers, mass funerals, gouged out eyes.
Nothing is new under the sun.
Though at one point, weren't we new?
Burying each other with feathers and hair combs,
chipping arrows from stones in the then greener plains of Africa.

I visit history for company and commiseration.
I don't understand the appeal of amnesia, or double-good-unhistory or 
whatever it is that allows for surprise at Dylan Roof,
tiki torch jerk offs, Jeff Sessions and his boss.
My black friends are less shattered.
My white friends are bleaker, more stricken and ashamed.
Those whose families escaped Europe during the last world war may be the worst off,
their eyes dull their voices drowning
as if their grandparents are clutching at their ankles, moaning, do something! help!
We're donating money, telephoning our Congressional representatives, using old 
haircutting scissors to cut posterboard into creatively shaped protest signs.
Smarter perhaps would be to buy those chickpeas I've been meaning 
to stockpile in the basement, 
though the gun nuts are likely to get them in the end.

My daughters are going back to school tomorrow, 5th grade and 3rd grade.
Chardonnay did a great job dying Miranda's tips purple.
Penelope's bangs are a shimmering, peacock blue.





 

Give and Take

IMG_4118I much prefer writing books to marketing them, but sometimes this marketing business leads to very pleasant discoveries, such as Scott Jones’s podcast Give and Take.  I hadn’t been aware of it until Scott invited me to discuss Strange Beauty, and now I am, and have a stack of great conversations to listen to as I conduct my summer relays back and forth from Felix’s school to the girls camp…  I loved doing this interview, and not only because I got to talk about Jason and my first date, but also because Scott immediately got one of the main points of my book, which is that, yes, Felix is disabled, but so are we all. In Scott’s words, “it’s about coming to accept the nature of human limitations.”   Click here to listen!

In Between Times

Ours is the time of fidget spinners,
a-whizz and glittering on palms and fingertips,
of Russian hacking, of polar bears patched with brown
merging into grizzlies in a supple move to stay relevant and alive,
as ice caps crack and ages melt,
heaving cascades iridescent in the sun,
surging past whirlpools of trash and lost manatees.
It is the time of construed tans from plug-in suns,
of super villains in gilt towers, of men as jerky as marionettes
attacking one another in the subway, their curses vile and ancient,
Of quiet folks in the next car, bobbing along,
making room for each other.
It is the time of ancestors in red satin jackets helping me to
parry and thrust, of balance beams and forgetfulness.
It is the time of trees that bloom and sway even as facts are
trampled and the May wind blows cold.

IMG_5151

On Trying to Promote Speechless

When the good people at Cerebral Palsy Foundation asked if I’d host a pizza party to promote last night’s Oscars party episode of Speechless, I was a little uneasy, my inner punk rock voice piping up, warning me against becoming a corporate tool. But I watch the show myself, and enjoy it immensely, as do my daughters, who appreciate not only the hilarity of Minnie Driver as the maniac disability advocate mom, but the intricate and well drawn social dynamics between the siblings. And I do appreciate ABC for airing a raw and irreverent comedy about a family that looks a lot like ours on prime time TV.  And, not the least importantly, I do like a party. So I said yes.

My directions were this: I would get a box of tee shirts and have my guests wear them and I would take pictures of them in their Speechless gear watching the Oscars party episode and “live blog” about it.  What happened is that the tee shirts ended up in a UPS depot in Long Island and we couldn’t watch the Oscars episode due to technical difficulties.  So I dutifully taped the Oscars poster, which did arrive, to the wall, and we pretended to watch that episode while really watching the pilot, which proved to be such a hit that we watched the Alpaca episode, too. 

This picture is probably the best of my promotional attempts: pizza, smiling girls, glossy poster of Jimmy Kimmel.  IMG_5070

But how do you “live blog” once you start kicking back with your friends and drinking a glass or two of wine?  Most of my pictures looked like this:

IMG_5083 2

Feeling my distinct lack of promotional savoir faire, I thought well, I’ll just get the kids to explain why they liked Speechless.  Their words will be better than mine anyway.   My daughter’s friend Amelia gamely stepped up to my i-phone and spoke about how funny Speechless was, and how it showed that “different” wasn’t really that “different”  Her words and delivery were perfect.  But I didn’t capture any of it because I had pressed the “photo” button instead of “video.”

IMG_5091
Amelia, Speechless due to my i-phone incapacity.

Oh well. We will watch the Oscars episode tonight. And in spite of my goofs, I count the night as a success.  Not only did we have fun, but also one of my guests texted me afterwards saying that her son, who is on medication to help him with his own language difficulties, looked up Speechless the moment they got home and started to watch.

Talking with Marlene

One of the pleasures that comes from having started Extreme Kids is that every now and then, some optimistic young woman starting her own project will contact me and ask for my advice or input on what she wants to do.  In this way, I have met an array of people who cheer me with their energy and commitment.

The latest person I have met in this manner, Marlene Jennings, wasn’t asking for advice, but an interview.  She’s started a web project called Make Your Voice Matter, in which she talks to people whose work is aimed at ramping up caring, openness, and creativity in our society.  Marlene’s idea is that we can all birth worthy projects of our own, we just sometimes need a little inspiration.  Here she is, interviewing me, for the third episode of her show.  Good luck Marlene!

To the Liar In Chief

Hey there, Mr. Liar in Chief,liar liar pants on fire

I’m not miring in no grief,

not on account of you.

Go ahead, plot your Reichstag fires,

Poison the air with sordid hires.

Your suntan is fake,

your words a mistake.

You think you got power,

but it will be gone in an hour.

All you’ve got is bling,

I’ve got Dr. King.

Not Dead Yet!

A good weekend spent snuggling with Felix in New Hampshire, crunching through the snow on an early morning walk, evading all traffic on the drive back to Brooklyn, which translated into time to vacuum the house AND
make art with Happy.  I borrowed one of her signature phrases for this.  We’re going to turn it into postcards to send to those folks in DC…

Countering Fear with Tattoos, Trees & Language

My friends tell me that we are living in scary times. Many of them are having difficulty sleeping. The reasons for their fright are real: Around the nation, attacks on minorities and other hate crimes are on the rise.  In Washington, D.C., people who have proven themselves to be without conscience will soon be assuming seats of power. A great number of Americans appear to be in the grips of mass delusion. 

But fear is not the answer. Fear shoots up the blood pressure.  It leads you to lose your cool and your power of discernment. It can introduce a state of paralysis or panic-induced violence. Fear plays into Trump’s hands.  If you are petrified, or sputtering in rage, you won’t be so good at fighting the forces unleashed in his name. Your resistance will be far more effective if you are mobile and flexible.  Rather than stoke fear, let us stoke courage.

A simple way to do this is to be thoughtful about language. Compare your body’s responses to the directives: “Be frightened” and “Be wary.”  Consider the effect of talking about “a dangerous situation” rather than a “scary” one. Use words that bring on alertness, nimbleness, calmness and awareness. 

And while you’re at it, don’t overdose on speculative news.  Be aware of current events, but also be aware of the plants growing around you, the song the child beside you is singing, the taste of an apple.  Having been a student of history, I usually balance today’s political happenings with those of the past.  Alas, the research I’m doing these days is for a novel that takes place in 1938 Vienna, so my historical reading is looking all too contemporary.  Still, it is interesting to consider the way history spirals around, revisiting itself in different guises. The long view encourages me.  The knowledge that people have been in similarly dark situations before, as they will again. We are not alone.  We are part of a struggle that’s been going on for a very long time.

Right after the election, my friend Annie suggested a bunch of us bolster ourselves with a tattoo. When I was eighteen, I had a Hopi symbol of the sun tattooed on my arm, so as to carry a bit of the desert with me when I was surrounded by the concrete of New York City. I love that tattoo and had not, until Annie made her suggestion, seen the need for another.  But as soon as she planted the idea in my head, I wanted a tree. I spent the next couple of weeks remembering the various trees that had gotten me through difficult times in my life, and drew an amalgam of them.  Here it is, freshly rising from my flesh:IMG_4458

I love trees for their vibe, their beauty, their endurance, their mobility even as they are rooted to the ground.  Jason, who likes to keep up on science news, told me that the genome of a gingko tree is three times the size of the genome of a human being.  This is probably because they’ve been around so long, adapting to wildly different climates and conditions.  Scientists think that they first sprung up in the Permian Age, back when the continents were one big landmass, and crested dinosaurs left footprints in the mud.  Now they spring from neat rectangles of dirt, geometric breaks in the sidewalk of my Brooklyn block.  In the spring, their fruit drops to the pavement, emitting a smell of sweat and decay. Soon after, stick thin old ladies appear.  Speaking a language that I do not understand, they squat down and scoop the berries into plastic bags, harvesting them.

Jason told me that the adaptability of the gingko trees enabled them to withstand the atomic bomb.  Checking up on this, I learned that not only gingkos, but 32 other species lived through the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  170 individual trees, among them oleander, eucalyptus, chinaberry, black locust, weeping willow, fig tree, and Japanese black pine managed to keep growing through all that destruction. The Japanese named these trees the hibakujumoku, translated as “survivor trees” or “a-bombed trees.”  Each one is marked with a plaque that tells visitors how far they were from the explosion.  The tree closest to the Hiroshima blast was a weeping willow, which stood 370 meters from the hypocenter. Its trunk was destroyed, but its roots survived, from which new buds sprouted.