September 24, 2011

The small print

Julie asked me a question tonight as we walked through the grocery store.

"Am I broken?"

We discussed it for a while amongst the Chef Boyardee and the Cap'n Crunch, and we concluded that yes, she was broken. We are a broken family, in some ways that are obvious and others less so. She is broken, and I am broken, and Schuyler is broken. We are like a good deal made ordinary by all the faults exposed in the small print. We go through the world operating with stopgap repairs, and we fuck up a lot, but we never stop. And for that, I am proud of us, fiercely so.

Parents break a little when they raise kids who are different or who present big challenges. Some of that breaking is bad, leaving us in an even less ideal position to take on those challenges. But I think some of it is for the best, too. We break some of the neurotypical narratives, we break some of the ridiculous expectations that we might otherwise mistake for Very Important Things, and we shatter the rules that don't make sense for us. We learn to break some of the parts that give a damn about what you think of us. Sometimes it is in the breaking that the solutions are hiding.

Julie and I keep moving forward, through the stumbles and the moments of doubt and all of it, and we do so with our own demons, ones that we brought to the table long before Schuyler was ever born. And sometimes the best thing we can do is make sure that we don't both show up for parenting duty with that haunted look at the same time. Sometimes that really is the essence of good parenting. Knowing when to tag out. Knowing when we simply can't tag out, so we simply don't.

In those moments of doubt, it is almost always Schuyler who shows us the way out. She holds a positive spark, and she sees when we need that spark. She always seems to see it. And if there is one thing we all share, the limping members of this broken tribe, it is an absolutely unbroken love, and an unwavering commitment to protect each other, and grow each other. We don't get it right all the time; sometimes we (mostly I) get it astonishingly wrong. But we never stop, and we never lose sight of it.

If, in the past weeks or months or years, you have determined that I am a mostly imperfect father or advocate or whatever, I can only confess that it's true. If you look at my family and see the cracks, the spackled-over holes and the duct tape holding some parts of it together, I can only apologize for the shabbiness of our presentation.

But if you could just see that love, and how sometimes it brings joy and sometimes it hurts, but it always burns, painfully and breathtakingly, and never flickers, then I would hope that you could recognize that our very broken machine runs because its engine is true, and the rest is just stuff.

September 18, 2011

Soccer monster

For an hour every Saturday morning for the past two months, Schuyler has strapped on her shin guards and pulled on her jersey, and joined her friends on an indoor soccer field in Frisco, Texas.

Schuyler's team is the Wizards. They've been largely the same team for two seasons now, and despite their record on the field (they lost all of their games except for two, which were ties), I hope they stick together next time, too. There are mostly small players on the team -- Schuyler was probably the biggest -- but they played with a lot of heart and their coaches really worked hard with them while remaining positive the whole time.

We've toyed with the idea of trying to get Schuyler into a neurotypical soccer league, but we went and observed some of them practicing, and it was daunting. I don't know about your town, but in Plano, league soccer is intensely competitive. I talked to some people who knew a little about those leagues, and they all gently suggested that our instincts were correct and Schuyler might just get eaten alive.

So she continues with Miracle League, but on what they call the Unified League. These teams are set aside for kids like Schuyler who are ambulatory and don't need a buddy to help them out. There's a regular league for kids who need a little help, and another for kids in wheelchairs. It's not a perfect division of the kids, as some of the other Unified players are much older and much MUCH bigger than the other kids, but it still mostly works for the kids.

Schuyler loves to play soccer. She dances on the field, and she gets mad at the big kids and gets in their mix whenever she can. She gets frustrated when her team misses a goal, and she celebrates wildly when they score. She knows that her teammates are different and is kind and protective of them. She knows that the players on the opposing team are different, too, and she's mostly kind to them as well, aside from a certain amount of posturing. In short, Schuyler plays like it means something, and yet at the same time she plays like it means nothing more than the fun of play. I'm sad that the season is over, and I can't wait until it starts up again this fall.

Sometimes I come here to talk about big things. And sometimes? I just want to tell you that my kid plays soccer, probably like most of your kids, and I'm proud of her for all the same reasons you're proud of yours, as well as for all those other monstery reasons I choose not to acknowledge just this once.

September 16, 2011


Every day, I believe our society is moving towards recognition of the fact that making fun of people with developmental disabilities just isn't funny. I believe that, or perhaps I just want to believe it so much that I convince myself of it. But I also believe that movement is mostly incremental, and not without reverse steps.

The story of Gemma Hayter reminds us that the slowness of our developing humanity has a terrible price.

Gemma Hayter was a 27-year-old woman with a developmental disability, living independently in Britain, who was brutally tortured before being left to die naked and alone on a railway embankment. The details of her treatment are horrific enough that I won't repeat them here, except for one point that I think is too important not to share: she believed that the people who committed the atrocities against her were her friends.

Following the sentencing of her convicted killers, Hayter's family released a statement, and one line jumped out at me in particular: "Our Gemma was a very loving and vulnerable woman who trusted everyone, and her trusting nature and vulnerability led to her death on 9 August last year."

That could describe Schuyler. It could describe a great many of our loved ones, children and adults alike.

Gemma Hayter's case is a stark reminder that the seeds of societal disregard for persons with developmental disabilities ultimately manifest in abuse, in violence and in death and heartbreak and deep sorrow. If you choose to look, to really see, you can follow the line from jokes about "retards" in film and television and the stages of comedy clubs to the young people repeating them on the schoolyards, and you can watch those kids grow into young adults and observe them as they live their lives without empathy or compassion for those who have never had value or humanity in their eyes. Small steps, leading inexorably to a moment where killing a living, thinking, feeling human being might be difficult enough to give them pause, but doing harm to a worthless retard, just for laughs? What's wrong with that? How is the world diminished by a loss like that?

It's not a butterfly-flapping-its-wings-in-China kind of mysterious connection. It's real, and there is measurable responsibility to be faced for the harm that springs from such small seeds.

As I said, I do feel like there are incremental steps being taken towards a larger good. Sometimes you have to look hard to see them. Sometimes I think I see them when they're not there. Overbelieving, perhaps, or overwanting.

I occasionally listen to a podcast called WTF, hosted by comedian Marc Maron. Maron can be a really sharp and funny comic, and he's done some fantastic interviews with others in his industry. I think I was vaguely aware that he'd been something of an apologist for comedians who had gotten in hot water for using words like "retarded" in their work, but I'd never heard him actually do so himself. That is very much a distinction of questionable significance, I admit.

Recently, Maron interviewed a comic named Anthony Jeselnik. Jeselnik's comedy works for a very specific crowd, I suspect. He's a joke-teller. He delivers short, one or two line jokes, and they are generally both absurd and edgy, crossing as many lines as he can find to cross. Imagine the love child of Stephen Wright and, I don't know, Satan. Jeselnik's humor isn't for everyone; I can't imagine very many people sitting through an entire set of his without a thinking "Oh, wow, I don't know about that" at least once or twice. To be honest, while I recognize how excellent Jeselnik is at his craft, I don't care for some of his material myself, partly because I think he's planting the kinds of seeds that I spoke of earlier. I will say, however, that unlike someone like Tracy Morgan, Anthony Jeselnik isn't trying to have it both ways. He's not trying to offend without consequence while at the same time depending on work in bland network tv comedy or family-friendly film. If you make the effort to go see Anthony Jeselnik in a club or listen to his material on tv, you've got a pretty good idea of what you're going to get. Being offended at one of his shows is a little like going to a Ku Klux Klan rally and saying, "Wow, these guys are kind of racist."

In Maron's interview with Jeselnik, there was a lot of discussion of "How far is too far?". Perhaps inevitably, the topic turned to jokes about people with developmental disabilities, and again, Jeselnik declares the topic fair game. But here it's Maron who discusses his own material on the subject, material that I hadn't heard before. It's hard to listen to, even as he is firmly convinced that his humor is inoffensive.

Marc Maron:
"I used to tell this story, and I just stopped telling it because there's nothing right about it... I genuinely said to the audience that when you see a mentally disabled person, it's hard not to be filled with joy because they're so childlike and they experience joy so immediately that when they're having a good time, you literally feel elated because of their sort of unfiltered ability to experience joy. So I don't think we should be arguing about the word 'retarded' or about 'mentally challenged' or 'developmentally disabled'. I think they should be called 'God's clowns'... And I meant 'God's clowns' in a nice way. I didn't mean like God was making a fool out of them. They're there spreading joy in this way. It was really well-intended."

So yeah. As much as Maron insists that he's not being offensive, he is in fact being WILDLY offensive. The fact that he's being cute about it doesn't change the fact that he is completely dehumanizing people with developmental disabilities, reducing them to a superficial and amusing construct. As soon as I heard the words "God's clowns", I made a mental note to remove Maron's podcast from my iTunes subscription list.

But then he continued, and maybe won me back a little. Maron said that later that night, he attended a concert, and standing behind him was a man with a developmental disability, shouting joyfully for the band. And at first, Maron felt validated by this young man and his exuberant happiness. But then...

Marc Maron:
"When I heard him, I again felt that excitement like, you know, he's so excited, it's so raw. And then I look over and he's with someone who must have been his dad, and this dude just looked like every bit of everything had been drained out of his being. And it was in that moment that I realized that I guess it's only fun for a little while. And that's when I stopped doing that bit."

There is so much that's wrong with this. The fact that he can't identify at all with the young man himself, but only feels the beginning of compassion for the young man's father, is troubling. More than troubling, really. It is an incomplete epiphany. But when I listen to it again, I can at least hear the beginnings of something, a spark of understanding. Maron sees how the lives of persons with disabilities might be more challenging than he's considered in the past, although he's unable to see any further than the challenges facing a disabled person's family. It's woefully inadequate, but it might just be a different kind of seed, one from which good things might sprout.

Later in the interview, Jeselnik also has his own "almost" moment. He's unflinching in his commitment to making jokes about those with developmental disabilities, but he goes on to explain why he won't make jokes using the "N-Word":

Anthony Jeselnik:
"I had a joke where I used the word 'nigger' but I just couldn't. I said it twice in the joke, and I said 'I just can't, I can't do this.' I didn't feel right saying it."

Marc Maron:
"Well, you probably shouldn't, right? Does that frustrate you, that you can't say that word?"

Anthony Jeselnik:
"It kind of bugs me because I feel like I can't say it. There's no other word that I feel that way about."

Marc Maron:
"And why do you feel like you can't say it?"

Anthony Jeselnik:
"You know, I feel like I have friends who I can picture their faces, you know, black friends, when I say things..."

Marc Maron:
"But you don't want to be one of those guys who are accused by your black friends of just using it gratuitously because you want to try to take some ownership of that word."

Anthony Jeselnik:
"I don't even care about being accused of it, I just feel like that word has so much power over a certain group of people, more than any other. I would never want to hurt someone's feelings... That word gets so specific that I don't think I could look my black friends in the face if I came off stage after telling that joke."

Marc Maron:
"You know why that is? Because there's no reason for white people to use that word. I've had discussions with guys before who are like, 'Hey, it's just a word.' Yeah, okay, but it's a word that has a very deep meaning to a lot of people..."

It makes me think of this again:

Here are two guys who are, in my opinion (and I suspect in yours, too), squarely on the wrong side of history regarding humor based on laughing at people with developmental disabilities. And yet, I can't help but think that there might be seeds there, tiny little dormant seeds that may never break open, may never send shoots up into the sun.

But they might. They very well might. That's the kind of thing I hope for.

September 10, 2011

The Saddest Place in the World

(Chapter Five, "The Saddest Place in the World", from Schuyler's Monster: A Father's Journey with His Wordless Daughter, by Robert Rummel-Hudson. St. Martin's Press, 2008)


In October 2000, we received a visit from a friend I had made online through my journal, a writer from Ireland named Caoimhe. (That's pronounced "KWEE-vah", by the way. Well, of course! How else would you say it?) She was visiting the States to attend a conference for online writers, along with Dana and myself and a number of my favorite writers and friends. While she was in New Haven, she wanted to visit New York City and see another friend of ours, a popular online writer and personality named Nina, who was unable to attend the conference. I piled into the car with Julie, Caoimhe, and little ten-month-old Schuyler and drove down to meet Nina at the grandest, coolest, most New York location we could think of, one which would require no directions other than what we were told by our eyes and which would be certain to impress everyone.

So it was there that Schuyler and I found ourselves on a chilly October afternoon, looking up at the biggest thing in the biggest city either of us had ever experienced. As impressive as the World Trade Center could be from any direction as you approached it, it wasn't until you stood at the base of the towers looking up that you could truly appreciate the enormity and seeming impossibility of their existence. I had seen them before, during a conference and performance with my college trombone ensemble five years before, but it was still hard to be jaded. For Schuyler, not even a year old and still tooling around in her stroller, it was well and truly blowing her tiny little mind.

We found ourselves alone in the plaza. Nina hadn't shown yet, and Julie had taken Caoimhe inside on a quest for coffee. Schuyler and I played around the fountain under the giant spherical sculpture and chased birds around with her stroller, to the annoyance of cool Manhattanites and faux-cool tourists around us. We had a hot dog and played and danced, and it was on this evening that I heard for the very first time the braying, hysterical laugh that Schuyler still hasn't lost. I've heard that laugh a thousand times, but on that night, between the towers as we played and ran and lived antlike in their looming magnificence, we heard it for the first time. That's one of two things I remember vividly about that night.

While we waited for Julie, I pushed Schuyler's stroller up to the long, graceful columns of the North Tower until the bumper touched the wall. I reached down and removed her tiny gloves so she could reach out and touch the surface with her bare hands. She stared up at the long, sleek metal pillars as they fanned out into long vertical lines that blurred together long before reaching their end at the top. The tower seemed to sway gently beside its twin in the sky, an optical illusion created by the clouds moving overhead. We then ran across the plaza, scattering pigeons as we went, until we arrived breathless at the South Tower. As I bent to catch my breath, Schuyler leaned forward to touch the cool, smooth surface, her eyes again straining overhead.

That is the other moment of that day I'll remember. Schuyler's hands, impossibly small and delicate, touching the towers, so improbably big and forever.

Julie was working at a bookstore in Waterbury, Connecticut, when the first plane hit. She was scheduled to lead a tour group of elementary school kids through the store, and by the time their bus rolled up, she was waiting for them, pulling the teachers aside quietly to inform them that something horrible was going on in the city, but no one seemed to know exactly what it was just yet. The tour was given and the kids departed, and for the rest of the day, Julie and her co-workers caught scraps of news from customers and from a radio in the back receiving area of the store. It wasn't until she and her friends walked to Chili's after work that they finally saw the images for the first time. They drank beers and shook their heads as they viewed the explosions and the collapsing floors and the clouds of rolling dust, over and over again, with no context and out of sequence. Julie sat silently, watching a carnival of unimaginable imagery playing out on a soundless television in the noisy bar of an unremarkable chain restaurant, a banal American Everyplace intruded upon by Apocalypse.

That morning, I was sitting in a AAA office in New Haven, renewing my car insurance, when one of the agents announced to the office that his wife had just called him and told him a small airplane had just flown into the side of one of the World Trade Center towers. As my agent put together my policy, the others joked about what kind of dumbass pilot doesn't notice the twin towers in front of him. A few minutes later, the same agent announced that his wife heard on television that it wasn't a small plane after all, but an airliner. Shortly after, his cell phone chirped again. By now we were listening to him for more news, and so we all heard him say loudly, "Holy fuck."

United Flight 175 had crashed into the second tower.

By the time I had arrived at my office on the mental ward, mayhem had landed with both feet. I turned the key and stepped onto a ward buzzing with activity. Yale-New Haven Hospital was close enough to New York to see a large number of the thousands of injured people expected to head our way after the New York hospitals were inundated. Beds were being wheeled into empty rooms. Voluntary patients were being discharged, standing at the nurses' station with their belongings in hand, waiting to be sent out into a world that was suddenly scaring the shit out of each and every one of them. And us.

I went to my office and tried to get to the CNN Web site, but nothing was working. The servers were swamped. The only thing I could get to was a discussion board I sometimes frequented, so I reloaded it over and over, watching as people posted what they knew, and what they didn't know. It was a crazy stream of panic, a swirling mix of unbelievable rumor and inconceivable fact. One plane, two planes, maybe more. An explosion at the Pentagon caused by perhaps a helicopter, a crash on a Washington, D.C. freeway, a fire at the White House, an explosion at the Supreme Court building. NBC Nightly News reporting a car bomb outside the State Department. Some group called the Democratic Front of Palestinian Liberation had claimed responsibility. All air traffic was shut down. A third explosion at the World Trade Center, causing the top of one of the towers to collapse down to the thirtieth floor. No, the whole tower. Gone. One person wrote from overseas, "The republic is falling."

I didn't read that last part until later. I had left my office and walked down to the patient area for a moment to take it all in. As I stood there, a low moan rose from the patients and staff gathered around a television. I rushed over in time to see the south tower folding into the roiling cloud of dust. When the north tower collapsed twenty minutes later, the sight was greeted with silence. We were already adjusting to a world in which such things happened.

The nurse standing beside me shook her head. "We're not going to have any patients from this," she said. "Not a goddamned one." By the end of the day, the voluntary patients would begin returning and the extra beds would go back into storage.

When I picked up Schuyler at her day care, she was surprised by the long, suffocating hug I gave her. When we got home, we all watched television in silence. She was quickly bored by the solemn talking heads and played quietly in her room.

Julie and I stayed up late that night, listening to Peter Jennings on an ABC News radio feed. I couldn't stop thinking about all the people who didn't come home to their families, the ones who weren't lying awake in bed right now. Citizens of the world and children of God, they were out there in that horrific place. They didn't hug their kids that night. They lay in rubble or in the remnants of an airplane fuselage. No one knew how many. No one knew much of anything, we were bereft of information but floating in our fear and our anger.

"I'm scared," Julie finally said with a crack in her voice. "How the hell does something like this happen here?" Then again, more quietly, "I'm so scared."

Julie finally fell into an uneasy sleep. I got up and crept into Schuyler's room to kiss her slumbering head good night. I paused for a moment and then scooped her up and brought her back to bed with me.

I kept telling myself, "That's it, I don't want to hear any more about this," only to turn on the radio and listen to the endless analysis that had been playing nonstop for a week after the attack. We couldn't turn away. Our need to understand what had happened outweighed our desire for our hearts to stop breaking and rebreaking every time we heard more stories. We watched the news on television almost full-time now. Unavoidably, Schuyler watched the images as well, but without understanding. She saw an exploding airplane and was simply dazzled by the fireball, reacting with her curious half smile and a reaching hand. She touched the screen as it lit up, and I resisted the urge to pull her hand away as if there were a poisonous snake before her. I figured she had time enough to be afraid later. She had the rest of her life to live in this broken world.

On our way home from running errands, I found myself asking, "Do you want to go see it?"

"Yeah, I do," said Julie quietly. "I need to see this." Without a further word, I turned onto the Merritt Parkway and headed to New York. It had been ten days since the attack.

Entering the city was easy, much easier than I thought it would be. It wasn't until we were traveling down the Westside Highway that we started to notice a change. Passing the aircraft carrier Intrepid museum, we saw throngs of people congregating along three long walls running down the sidewalk. Paper covered the walls; there were hundreds of missing persons posters, for blocks. Julie didn't start to cry until we saw them. Police were everywhere, along with emergency and military vehicles. Fat military helicopters patrolled the skies.

The farther we headed south, the harder it became to ignore the hole in the sky.

When we reached Canal Street and could go no farther by car, we parked on a side street, pausing to change Schuyler's diaper. As we were sitting there, a pair of fire trucks raced up and stopped right beside us. Giant flags hung from their ladders. Firemen stepped out in their full gear, and suddenly we felt as if we were in the presence of celebrities. These guys were the biggest heroes in America, but to us they just looked exhausted and sour. We asked if they needed us to move our car.

"Nah, you're fine," one of them replied in flat tones. They were there for regular firefighting duties, but it was hard to imagine they weren't thinking about it.

About "it." It. One word to encompass the entire event and the whole place, this saddest place in all the world. Thinking about It, looking at It, smelling It. This It was the biggest It in the world.

We walked, pushing Schuyler ahead of us in her stroller. I didn't know the city well enough to know exactly where the towers had stood, but you could get a fairly good idea from the looks people on the street were giving in furtive glances to the sky. They were still looking for them, a week later.

As we got closer and the wind shifted, we were hit by the thing I had feared the most. It's impossible to describe that smell. Hours later, back in New Haven, I sat up late trying to describe the scene on my blog, and I realized with a start that I could still smell it on my clothes and in my hair.

On the streets of Manhattan, there was no escaping it. We turned down a corner and suddenly it was all around us; one moment it was faint, the next it was the whole world, a world of nothing but that smell. It was a burnt smell, warm like an animal, and sickly sweet. It was the smell of the most awful things in the world. It filled me with panic, and my first glimmer of understanding.

In the midst of it all, Schuyler was oblivious. She was happy to be outside, to watch the people and the lights and the near constant flow of emergency vehicles going past, the only ones on the streets this close to the site. Schuyler was fascinated by the stillness that had suddenly replaced New York chaos, and she saw the sky ahead of us. The way to the site was obvious. There was a great light streaming up from someplace nearby, up into the hole in the sky. Light, and smoke.

There were others on foot, mostly local residents, as far as I could tell. They walked slowly, aimlessly, like phantoms in a place already swirling with too many ghosts.

When we left New Haven, we hadn't discussed the wisdom of bringing Schuyler to this place. I know that must seem pretty irresponsible now. Aside from anything else, the air we were breathing couldn't have been good for any of us. At the time, however, all I knew was that we were a family, an American family, and while the world would go and get complicated soon enough, right then it was simply the place we needed to be, the place that a short year before had become a cherished memory and was now smashed to ruin. I didn't know if any of us belonged there, but if we did, we all did.

It wasn't until we started to meet with crowds of people that I began to get a better understanding of why Schuyler needed to be there. People stopped to admire her, a great many of them, and she dutifully and with great cheer delivered her standard "cute baby who never cries or shits or does a thing in the world wrong" routine. She had no words, of course; she was almost two years old, but small for her age. No one seemed to expect her to speak, certainly not in this place where words were too small.

The next set of police lines marked the edge of where we were allowed to go on foot. Beyond these, only residents and rescue workers were allowed. Periodically, one of the cops moved a barricade long enough for a big truck to roll through, its flatbed trailer piled with sadly recognizable twisted metal. Schuyler and I had touched that metal the year before, although the base of the towers where we'd laid our hands against the cold surface wouldn't see the light of day for weeks or even months.

It was here that Julie hesitated, perhaps sensing the horrible It that lay just out of view. She was more quiet than I'd ever seen her. As I stood waiting for her, I felt a tug on my jeans. I looked down to see Schuyler smiling up at me. I bent down to her level.

"How are you doing, monkey?" I asked her. She reached out to hug me, which she'd been doing a great deal lately. The gesture carried all the meaning in the world to me, although probably no more to her than "Thanks for bringing me here instead of another boring night at home."

A policeman walked up to us as I held Schuyler. His face looked drawn.

"It breaks your heart, don't it?" he said. "I've got two kids at home, and..." He stopped abruptly in the midst of miming a hug, unable to continue. He looked back down the street at the lights and the smoke and shook his head. I told him about Schuyler's previous visit to the World Trade Center and how she touched the towers. As I spoke, another truck rolled by, carrying the huge, twisted steel beams. Some of them were actually flattened in spots. They looked like rubber bands.

"It must break your heart every time you see that," I said to him. "Every time," he replied quietly. We told him how proud we were of him and his fellow officers, but his thanks was muted; he was somewhere else in his heart, somewhere a few blocks away.

Beyond the trucks shone the lights. Bright lights, and cranes, and slowly boiling smoke tumbling lazily from what lay beyond. We'd reached the corner of Greenwich and Duane, and the crowd of people was bigger. Before I could see past them, I saw them taking photographs, and I saw their ashen faces. I looked down the street, and for a moment, my eyes weren't grasping what they were seeing.

At first I thought I was seeing tall, darkened buildings, but the smoke poured out of them, slowly and persistently. Something else was wrong, too. The lines of these buildings were wrong. There were no straight lines, just lumps. When I looked closer and saw the jagged beams sticking out, I realized what I was seeing. Julie had already figured it out; she turned away, finally giving in to her tears. Not delicate tears, either, but great shuddering sobs. She walked away so Schuyler wouldn't see.

"Oh. Oh. Oh." I said it over and over again, unable to stop or say anything else. I was looking at two piles, the farther one slightly higher than the other. They were impossibly big, rivaling the buildings around them. I'd seen photos of how they looked during the day, but at night they were simply hulking black forms, horrible for what you couldn't see. It seemed impossible that such a thing could ever be removed, that the bodies and the smell and the smoke, this mountain of steel and glass and blood could ever be swept clean. It seemed as unmovable and permanent as the towers had seemed the year before.

Men in hard hats walked away from the scene, their grimy faces unreadable.

A female police office walked up to us, bending down to look at Schuyler, who was thrilled to have someone new to flirt with, having become clearly annoyed with her weepy parents who were sucking the joy out of this adventure.

"Well, hello there!" said the officer. "Look at that smile! You are just like sunshine to me right now!" She reached out and touched Schuyler, who responded with her wheezy, goony laugh, the one we'd first heard here a year before. The officer smiled, but tears were forming in her eyes, big ones. She didn't even wipe them away, she just played with Schuyler and let them fall. When she said goodbye and Schuyler reached out to hug her, the officer closed her eyes and gave herself over to the embrace.

I was suddenly glad we'd brought her with us. There wasn't a thing in the world I could do to make this any better, but Schuyler could. She was sunshine.

We left after that, walking away from the city's smoking wound. I turned a few times to look at it again. Julie did not.

"America when will you be angelic?" wrote Allen Ginsberg. I think about the people who died all those years ago, those faces on desperate, hand-lettered posters and ethereal voices crackling over cell phones. I think about all those souls, all those young lovers and sad lonely people, the greedy and the generous, the pragmatists and dreamers and gentle mothers and rowdy fathers. They were just like me, and probably like you, too. They weren't angelic. None of us is.

Even as I write that, however, I know it's not true. I do know an angel. I watched her bless doomed towers with tiny hands and grant absolution to police officers whose hearts were breaking. Schuyler's an angel and also a bit of a devil, a fragile flower who speaks in a howl. She remains, now as she was then, the reason I give a damn.

September 8, 2011


I've had a piece of music in my head for a few weeks now, and I thought I would share it with you tonight because, well, it's on my mind. That's all. Sometimes that's reason enough, you know?

I poked around online and found a performance on YouTube, of about four minutes of music that is, I do believe, the most beautiful music I know. That's really true, and it's not small praise, either. Not to be too arrogant about it, but I know a LOT of music. Furthermore, my taste often runs toward this sort of big, weepy Romantic stuff, meaning that my head is full of a lot of Rachmaninov and Vaughan Williams and Mahler and Schoenberg (the Gurrelieder Schoenberg, not so much the "I hate you, audience! You must suffer now!" Schoenberg). And yet it's this little four-minute stretch of this little-known symphony that gets to me, and gets to me every single time I hear it.

Most people know Josef Suk, if they know him at all, as a composer of fairly light stuff. His name is funny in a middle-school-boy kind of way, and he looked sort of like a chubby little Hitler. (Not really his fault; he died in 1935.) But his Asrael Symphony was different. It was named for the Islamic Angel of Death, cheerfully enough. Suk began the symphony as a tribute and celebration of his late mentor and father-in-law Antonin Dvorak, but as he was working on it, his beloved wife died, and Suk was plunged into despair.

Buried in the middle of this gigantic, heartbreaking symphony of pathos and pain are the four minutes that I'm sharing with you. (There's more after that four minutes, and the whole symphony is fantastic. You could do worse than listening to the whole thing.) And if I played it ten times in a row tonight, I'd find myself teary-eyed ten times.

The thing is, for some reason I associate Schuyler with this music. When I listen to it, I hear pain and I hear longing and love and regret, sadness and joy stuck together like red and blue Play-Doh, forever infused but not assimilated. I hear these emotions all at the same time, as if the yearning and the love is answered by the regret and the pain mid-phrase. All those emotions, all swirling together, not mixing, not resolving, but just existing together. There is sorrow, and there is happiness floating on top of those sad waters. Or maybe it's a sad boat bobbing on the surface of a happy sea.

And now that I spell it out like that, suddenly my association with this music and my sweet, mostly joyful but sometimes sad, broken but perfect Schuyler isn't so inexplicable after all.

September 4, 2011


It's an odd thing, to be the guide and protector of the strongest person I know.

Schuyler attended a band event this week, held at a local video arcade/mini-golf/go-carts place. The kids were set loose with a cup full of tokens and free reign over the place. It was a nice gesture by Schuyler's new band director, and the kids seemed to have a good time.

There were a number of parents in attendance. We went because no one, not us and not her band director, was certain how Schuyler would do in a setting like that. It felt a little early to just throw her into the mix. But after playing a few games with her, we held back, went to another room and just waited. We watched her try to step up, and to make connections.

She tried. She was awkward, but she tried. After wandering the arcade for a while, looking for someone to play with her, she made her way to the laser tag room, where a bunch of her classmates were being divided into two teams. I watched her disappear into the dark.

When she came out later, I detected a change. And here's the thing that's hard to explain, and yet it's maybe the most important part. When Schuyler came out of the laser tag room, she wasn't defeated. She came out alone, and she didn't try to talk to anyone else, but she wasn't upset, not exactly. We asked how she did, and she gave a thumbs up. She then asked for more tokens and we sent her back into the mix. After a while, I slipped into the arcade and hung back in the shadows. I just wanted to see how she was doing.

Schuyler wasn't interacting with anyone. She wasn't trying to connect. Whatever happened in the laser tag room, it convinced her to retreat back into her private world. I watched her play games, alone. But again, she wasn't dejected. She played a motorcycle game until she was out of tokens, and then she came to find us. When she saw us, she gave us a little smile.

"Did you find any friends?" Julie asked her, even though I guess we already knew the answer.

Without really looking at us, Schuyler just said, "I'm fine." She repeated it a few times.

Her tone suggested that she didn't want to talk about it, so we didn't. We took her outside and played some miniature golf, and the evening ended as a family outing. After the three of us got away from everyone else, she perked up. She said she was fine, and she meant it.

Schuyler wants to be like everyone else so much, and it breaks my heart. I see how hard she tries to make friends with her neurotypical classmates, and I see how they walk away from the effort. I don't think they're mean to her, not exactly. Maybe they just don't know what to make of her, like so many before. Maybe they aren't sure yet if it's cool to be friends with the strange girl. I don't know.

I've shamefully confessed in the past that I often don't care much for neurotypical kids, and I'm not always much better with their parents. It's tricky, because we really do stand apart in so many ways, and when I see what their worlds are like and the (to me) alien obstacles they face, I have to really fight off resentment. Is that awful? I think it must be.

I watch Schuyler's neurotypical classmates walk away from her and I think "Wow, random NT child, you just missed a shot at getting to know the one kid in the room who is truly unique." I feel like if the rest of the neurotypical world would just stop and try, they'd discover a friend like none they've ever had before, and their lives would be transformed by Schuyler, as mine has. There are a handful of people in the world whom I would say have really gotten to know Schuyler, rather than just the idea of Schuyler. They've stuck with her for the long haul. And I think it's fair to say that every one of them feels enriched by the knowing of her.

But kids don't think like that, not at this age. A lot of adults don't either, actually. A lot of people are missing Schuyler, missing out on the chance to enter into an authentic relationship with her, on her terms and in ways that make her happy and make her grow. Well, school's just started. I think perhaps they'll catch on.

And so she retreats, head held high, and she plays alone, or with us. Mostly she plays alone. She doesn't seem happy about it, not exactly, but she does seem to be at peace. Schuyler has a back-up plan, it seems. Her world may be a little lonely, but it's cool. She's cool, too cool to wait around for admittance to a world that is frankly a little grey compared to the one she constructs and reconstructs.

We talked this evening as she got into bed.

"Do you like school?" I asked her.

She nodded her head and said, "A little." She held her fingers slightly apart.

"Are you making any friends?"

"No," she said, but then changed her mind. She held up two fingers. Schuyler has made two friends, or so she says. I met one of them this morning at her Miracle League soccer game. He's in her special ed class at her school. He's impaired, but even without clarity of expression, he made it clear that he genuinely likes Schuyler.

"Are you happy?" I asked her.

She gave her little secret smile and said it again. "A little."

I don't know how happy Schuyler is, exactly. Not all the time, anyway, and certainly not when she finds herself standing alone, as she does so often these days. But she seems determined to keep moving. Not like a shark, exactly, because she's easily the least predatory person I've ever known. Schuyler keeps moving like a hummingbird. She is always in motion, always searching for the prettier flower, the better place, a happier world with sweet nectar and loyal friends.

Hummingbirds don't seem strong. They're fragile, but they never stop. And in their perseverance, we see their genuine strength.