Category Archives: Parenting

Parenting the Bauhaus Way

When I began the adventure of raising my son, I couldn’t believe how hard it was. Nothing I said got through to him. He didn’t seem to be interested in what was around him, unless it upset him- and then he screamed. There was this lack of curiosity that was puzzling. I knew when my boy was born that he would be legally blind because of an inherited condition in his family tree. A lot of these things that made raising him so hard I chalked up to the difficulty of raising a boy that was legally blind.

As time went on though, it became more obviously something else. The ominous A-word began to float around in our discussions of his progress. He didn’t seem to learn how to do many things, and even more disturbing was that that didn’t seem to bother him much unless it meant some direct physical discomfort. He wouldn’t ride a scooter. He tried, failed and abandoned it. He didn’t struggle to learn anything. For many months, we all told ourselves that this was tied to his near-blindness. That began to fade when we saw him climbing six foot ladders at the playground and walking across the room when he spotted a sippy cup of juice.

There were obvious indications of his poor vision, though. He held things very close to his face to look at them and he watched TV so close up he would get spit on the screen. I would cling to those signs of his blindness for months as the explanation for why he didn’t talk or really play with me, and why he seemed oblivious to what I said. All that time though, the spectre of autism lurked on the periphery of our relationship. I stayed home with him, and as the months wore on I could almost see it flitting around his room like a Ringwraith or a Dementor. An uneasiness stalked me that would not go away.

The longer he went on without talking, the stranger it seemed. The other oddities began to bother me more. He didn’t want to play with me. He was constantly twitching and shaking his head and jumping in place, as though he were trying to jiggle something loose in his head. These bothered me more and more, but as the months went by and he was getting close to two years old without speaking or even responding to sign language I held out hope he’d snap out of it. There was one thing that constantly haunted me. My son would not respond to his name. For weeks and weeks I tried to see if he’d turn when I yelled it. He rarely did, and most of the time it was for some other reason.

Autism is a lot of things, but the one aspect of it that has made life the most difficult in my brief time around the condition has been the asocial tendency of many autistic people. My son has asocial tendencies, albeit far less severe than many other less fortunate autistic kids- and his social interest has improved with therapy. He began ABA therapy 6 months ago, and the difference has been nothing short of remarkable.

Still, I sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a wall. I never know how much he understands and he often has a faraway look in his eye. On some days he has a catlike indifference to affection and praise, on others he’s quite sweet. Sometimes he laughs out of nowhere at a joke only he will ever understand. I have a short fuse, and I have often have to pause and take some deep breaths to avoid yelling at him for climbing on something or jumping on the bed for the millionth time that day. Sometimes I fail, and yell. It upsets me, he seems to take it in stride. It’s sort of creepy to see a kid so indifferent- he seems almost jaded. At times I love that about him. Often, it makes me sad.

Raising my son felt like that anxiety dream you have where suddenly discover you have a final for a class you didn’t do any reading for. It is that way for all parents, but how can you get your bearings as a father if your son sometimes doesn’t even acknowledge you? My boy often has very little need for my approval. It was worse early on -he would smile when I clapped for him sometimes, but more often would just go about his business. He seemed unable to understand that people are different from plants or furniture. Often, he would use me as a sort of crude tool. He would take me by the hand and place it on a door or a cabinet. When I opened it, I was dismissed, having served my only function. He pushed people to different parts of the room if like he’s rearranging the furniture. It’s changing, and it isn’t always the case, but often, my son seems to think of the world as a giant living room full of mannequins or dolls that yammer indistincly like the parents on Peanuts. A lot of the time, I’m just one of those dummies.

As I said, a lot of this has changed after 6 months of ABA therapy. My son is more social and more affectionate. He’s more patient, he’s less volatile, and he’s making efforts to communicate in ways I thought were impossible just months ago. Autism isn’t curable – at least I don’t believe it is, but it is treatable. It all boils down to developing the social instinct most people have innately. With therapy, my son has developed the ability to form bonds that other people have right away. After six months of therapy, I never doubt that my son loves me. Never.

Until now, he never thought there was a reason to let me know he loved me. He assumed I knew, just as he assumes I know that he’s crying because his juice isn’t cold enough without saying a word to me. My son can’t link his feelings to expressions, because he can’t link other people to information very well. This is something you can learn. My boy is slowly but surely developing the ability to show me he loves me.

His love is a weird kind. He’s sort of like an old- school Dad. He’s aloof, stingy with affection, demanding, and critical. He gets uncomfortable when he’s doted on or fussed over. Often, I feel like going near him when Sesame Street is on is like approaching Archie Bunker when he’s reading a paper in his armchair.  It’s hard to know what to do with such a worldly toddler. The role reversal is just bizarre.

Like a grouchy Dad who can’t emote, my son has moments where he is extremely cuddly and affectionate. Those moments are heart-stopping and powerful, if only because they are rarer than they are with most kids. We’re teaching him to show his feelings, to come out of his shell, to be comfortable with being loved. Those moments of connection are happening much, much more and I’m grateful for every one of them. This slow, arduous process of building a bond with an autistic child is teaching them how to show the love all kids have for their parents.

When I imagined what being a Dad would be like, I had images of heart-to-heart talks, showing him Star Wars for the first time, athletic failures (or who knows- successes), showing him how to ride a bike, taking him to a Yankees game, teaching him the difference between good rap and crappy rap, how to swim, how to read, how to discern right and wrong- the kinds of things everyone looks forward to when they find out they’re going to be a parent. Most parents have relationships with their kids that have those kinds of sentimental moments they’ll always cherish. Those memories are vital, but they aren’t the whole point.

My son and I haven’t had many of those moments. His first Halloween was kind of an ordeal. When I brought him outside to play in the snow for the first time, he totally freaked out. His first class pictures feature him on the edge of tears or with a kind of glazed expression. My son and I have a different set of memories. A lot of them involve hard work and struggling. There’s a lot of crying and tantrumming and me fumbling ineptly at the job of consoling him, or trying in vain to interest him in some toy or another. The thing is, my son has made progress. All the hard work we’ve done together, all those heartbreaking failed “firsts”, have united us in a way few parents can be with their kids.

Raising a child isn’t actually what I thought it was. Being a parent is working as hard as you can to teach your kid what they need to know to be grown-ups. You work and worry and sweat to put yourself out of the job of “parent”. A father or mother is charged with the gut-wrenching job of raising someone who will grow up to be an adult and an individual who will walk away from you. Your kids will come to reject a lot of your values, they will move on to their own lives. As your son or daughter becomes a man or woman, you become less and less a part of their lives, but they’ll still be the most important thing in the world to you. That is really what raising a child is about.

My son has taught me that I have to accept him as he is, and that the Hallmark moments I grew up thinking were what child-rearing involved have nothing to with love, or family, or being a father. Being a father means building someone up, slowly but surely. My relationship with my son has been about that and little else. The temptation to view that as some sort of tragedy is what makes it hard. When I see my son as he is now, when I see how hard he works and how much I’ve been able to help him, I don’t care that he didn’t love his first Halloween. I look back on the moments when he looked up and smiled at me or when he does something small that he’s struggled with for months with the same nostalgic affection most people have for their kid’s first day of school.

Raising an autistic child is by necessity stripped of sentimentality and nostalgia. The ornaments and frills of parenting are harmful and not helpful. As he learns to show love, we go through arduous drills of repetition and reward. My son and I live wholly in the present. The business of making a boy I’ll be proud of one day is totally superceded by the needs of the moment.My relationship with my son has a Bauhaus design- it is purposeful and functional. It is a love that is raw and exposed fro what it is. The dynamics of attachment and release that child-rearing truly is- the selfless love of both child and parent are right there in the forefront with my son. Like Bauhaus, my son and I have a relationship that looks severe, sterile, and mercenary to those who are outside the process of making it. Like Bauhaus, the raw functionality of our love for one another creates a lucid reality and a pure love that us unlike any other kind of relationship. We understand it and we can recognize it for what it is- the love of a family.

This blog is an effort to show you what parenting that puts function before form is truly like. It is wonderful. I love Bauhaus parenting.

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I am Closeted

I am secretly a nerd. Now, I’m just going to go ahead and cut off those people who say that is not so secret, because of how obviously nerdy I am. Yes, its apparent I am a nerd, but the true breadth and depth of my nerdiness is a secret concealed to most who know me. My wife only discovered the true extent of my geekiness after we were married, and for good reason. If she knew the shocking secret I plan to reveal to you now, I think she might have thought twice about marrying me.

I play D&D. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I’m willing to play D&D, I just don’t have anyone to play with. Whoa. That is pathetic. D&D is, I think, along with Magic Cards,the nadir of nerdiness. It is the line no hipster will publicly cross. It’s fine and good to watch Battlestar Galactica (the new one anyway), and its fine to play video games, and even to dig comics. You can admit those facts about yourself and lose a moderate but acceptable amount of social capital. As long as you dress normally, and wait until people know you well enough to divulge that information you’ll be okay.

There’s this scene in Freaks & Geeks (an excellent and sympathetic depiction of geekery), where the geek clique is making plans to play D&D. There is one holdout. “I dunno, guys….it’s really nerdy”, he says. Eventually he caves and winds up having a good time. I know what his hesitation was about, because I can see D&D from the point of view of someone who hasn’t played, too.

I think it is the play – acting (I suppose I should probably call it role – playing) aspect of the game that makes most people balk. There’s something about pretending to be an elf swordsman with your friends that seems profoundly childish. It hits at what people really find unsettling about the very nerdy, which is that most nerdy pastimes are essentially just refusals to give up on childhood. Most nerdiness is really just an unwillingness to grow up – to stop playing make – believe and obsessing about the shows you watched as a kid, or to stop enjoying the adventures of the Caped Crusader.

That unwillingness to fully enter adulthood creates discomfort in the non – nerdy. It’s like talking to a grown man whose brain somehow became frozen at age nine. The nerds socially astute enough to notice that discomfort are often hostile, and they create a reverse marketplace of social exchange, where your worthiness as a person is determined not by how socially skilled or mature you are, but by the degree to which you have eschewed those “artificialities”.

There’s something pathetic about the staunch refusal to give up on childish pursuits that eventually becomes the contempt with which nerds are widely regarded. To a certain degree, this pity (or contempt) is merited. There are many nerdy people whose refusal to move out of their Mom’s basement and empathize with people who don’t give a shit about Boba Fett is a sad rejection of living. They are like grown Linuses, terrified of losing their Spider – Man bedsheets. They desperately need to grow up or forfeit their claim to a productive, useful life.

I am not one of those nerds. At least I think I’m not, anyway. While I fully understand that nerdiness can mire you in pre – adolescence, I also think there is something healthy about being able to revisit childhood and return again. Growing up, in many ways, means submitting to bullshit superficialities, to surrender your imagination to the tedium of a nine to five existance, and to become a cog in the machine. Healthy geekery is a refusal to submit to the ridiculousness of adulthood, even if only in secret, while at the same time moving on from fourth grade. It is having friendships with different kinds of people and respect other interests, and, not for nothing, to have consensual sex with a living human at some point or another. To do that, you have to do some growing up. Just don’t do too much.

Maturing to the point you stop playing make -believe is a bare minimum of normalcy. That’s why the part of us that is not utterly ridiculous revolts against the idea of doing that again as adults. That’s understandable. Most normal D&D players keep a balance between the strategy elements of coordinating rules and the elaborate mechanisms for determining who wins a fight and talking with a preposterous accent or something like that. Most people who play D&D can do that. Some can’t, and it is those sad cases that force people like me to conceal my interest in D&D from almost everyone in my life. My wife is strictly forbidden from revealing this secret to anyone, even family and close friends. I choose when to come out or risk being ostracized. Jokes on 30 Rock and Community are making it easier, but it’s never easy.

But I am not a complete nerd. And I am not alone.

A short list of people cooler, funnier, better looking, richer, or just plain more important than you who have admitted they enjoy D&D: Robin Williams, Moby, Jon Favreau, Steven Colbert,Vin Diesel, Mike Meyers, Tim Duncan, Ben Affleck, Duwayne Johnson, Matt Groening, Matt Damon, Judd Apatow, Brian Warner (Marilyn Manson), Eddie Izzard, Jenny McCarthy.

I’m sure there are more. I don’t think the number of celebrities who confess they play will ever reach the critical mass necessary for D&D to be de-stigmatized. I’m not positive it should be. I’m just saying that someone you know might harbor this geeky secret,  and if it’s someone you love, be kind. It’s very hard admitting that you play a character named Brutus who comes from the Tarsian Empire, can wield two swords simultaneously, and once he reaches 4th level will take a Multi – class feat so he can do some spell – casting. I’m just saying is all.

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From the age of about 8 on – with almost no break – I have been in the process of writing a comic book.  In the two decades I have been writing down ideas for comic books, a large pile of notebooks containing character bios, story outlines, and lofty plans for elaborate universes has formed a nostalgic sediment in the storage spaces of my apartments. Most of them are garbage, but I hold a special place in my heart for those mead marble-covered composition books with my invented superhero logos carved in black bic pen on the malleable cradboard back cover – right next to the Metric – English conversion tables I never used in my entire education.

My favorite is”The Legends of Gregypia,” a collection of myths about a pantheon of Greek, Egyptian and Norse gods I thought were cool. I culled them mostly from my older brother’s copy of Deities & Demigods. All of the stories had a hero – invariably a sickly child who had magical powers no one knew about and who no one thought could do anything, except for the big shot knight’s girlfriend. The gods would get into some kind of fight that reversed the natural order. I remember very fondly a story where everything became black and white, and an even better one where it rained laser beams for forty days and forty nights. There was even one where everyone became blind – but no one gave me the Nobel Prize in literature. Fuck you, Saramago.

The sickly boy would always be tutoring the hot girlfriend of the most powerful knight in Gregypia with her “lessons.” She’d see his potential, and ask the cool athletic knight-who for some reason had a handlebar mustache –  to bring the nerdy tutor with secret powers on the  world-saving quest. The mission always involved getting the McGuffin that was needed to restore everyone’s vision or give out laser-proof umbrellas or whatever. The prince would always be like “no way, he sucks, I’m not bringing that scrub.” Everyone would laugh except the pretty head cheerleader of the Kingdom of Gregypia. The pretty-boy knight would go off and make things worse and/or get captured. Then the whole kingdom would be begging the funny-looking hero to save them with his powers. The nerd would hesitate, and the kingdom would really really beg, and then the hero would relent and save the day.

From there it usually went one of two ways. The more common of the two was that the princess  – who looked like Justine Bateman or Molly Ringwold  – would see the nerdy hero as the potential king he was and marry him. And then they had sex! Often it would be revealed that her formerly mousy and now muscular hero actually was the king and his identity had been confused because of some record-keeping snafu. Sometimes he’d send the cool, cocky hero to the dungeon and other times he’d be gracious. But the original favorite son of Gregypia always had his fate decided by the new cock-of-the-walk.

Other times, though, the kingdom would turn on the hero after he saved them and kill him or confine him to some sort of magical Sisyphean hell-prison where he would plot his revenge/comeback. I was a cynical bastard even then. But what would you expect from someone who had an imaginary enemy as a toddler?

I love reading those old stories because they are such bald self-disclosures. I guess they are to the nine year old boy what those diaries with the cheap breakable locks are to a nine year old girl. There is an exuberant, stupid innocence that makes these formulaic reiterations of the same plot infinitely engaging, at least to me. They apparently appeal to you because you’ve read this far. I think it is this kind of nostalgia that makes my new favorite comic strip, Axe Cop, so incredibly awesome.

Axe Cop is the brain-child of five year old Malachi Nicolle. His 29 year old brother and comic artist, Ethan Nicolle, has taken on the illustrating duties for his younger sibling. Ethan uses a classic, Darwyn Cooke- Bruce Timm-ish style on Axe Cop which accentuates the boyish charm that Malachi’s plots and characters embody. Ethan Nicolle’s stylistic repertoire is actually pretty diverse, as you can see in some of the pitches and pictures he’s compiled on his blog. Axe Cop appears here, and every one-page issue is golden.

The straightforward art is the perfect complement to the sincere, honest storylines Malachi writes. The stories are meandering, insane, and bizarre in that way all small childrens’ fantasies are, especially if they are egged on with timely requests to answer the question “and then…?” Five year olds have no filters. The story moves in whatever direction their simultaneously expansive and parochial imaginations move them. That is exactly what makes Axe Cop so delightful and refreshing to read. Comics are supposed to be fun, but take themselves very seriously. As they become monopolized by increasingly older, jaded, snarky fans who are altogether overstuffed with pop culture fare, they get even stodgier. Many of those fans would dismiss Axe Cop as silly. And it is. That’s the point.

The priceless fun these brothers have writing this strip leaks out of every panel.You can almost see the little boy get excited as he elaborates the story, and I enjoy imagining the gleam in his eye when he sees the stories drawn and then published by his super-cool big brother.  Reading Axe Cop recalls the joy of writing the “Legends of Gregypia” in a way no comic I’ve ever read since has even come close to. Calvin & Hobbes comes close in some ways, but this is the one that really scratches that itch for me. In a way, it’s the comic I’ve been waiting 20 years for – since my comic addiction has really always been just a way to chase that high.

Whether you dig comics or not, you should check this strip out. It’s just a great time. And now, just to add to the awesomeness of it all, Axe Cop has been picked up by Dark Horse Comics, and the internet has begun buzzing about a live action short by Peter Muehlenberg!

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