Thursday, May 26, 2011


Even then, it was an old song – an old song on an old cassette tape with old ties to a past life. Several lives ago, by then. It didn’t break my heart way back then, and it wasn’t breaking my heart now, either. Just kind of tugging at it around the edges, like poking at a loose tooth or something. The little thrill of making it bleed. Another goodbye…one I hoped would be temporary but knew was necessary.

Mr. Black sat next to me in my car in his alley, waiting to be dropped off but indulging me for some reason, letting me rewind the song and play it again. And again. Turns out he knew the real story behind the song, and we sat there talking about this old band for a while, as if that were all there was to talk about.

Philly summers are the worst. The absolute worst. The whole city kind of hangs under a hot, grey, polluted haze of humidity. I won’t miss this, I kept thinking, though it was hard to imagine anything else. I couldn’t quite see beyond the immediate months ahead, when he’d leave for Seattle and I’d be stuck behind in this stark city, alone. Again.

We took a trip to New England that summer, sweeping each other temporarily away from it all. A sunny small-town 4th of July parade Vermont, a freezing cold picnic in New Hampshire, days of rocky hikes and violet-blue sea in Maine, swimming in a motel pool at sunset.

I had marriage proposals on my mind, even though I knew he never would. I couldn’t help it. There’d been so many office wedding showers and engagement parties that summer, it was hard not to imagine my own relationship in those terms. This would be the perfect place, I kept thinking, standing on various rocky edges in the midst of some breathtaking scenery or other. He didn’t ask, of course, and I didn’t dare bring it up.

You don’t fall in love with someone at age 28 expecting it to be perfect. Although Mr. Black and I came awfully close in those days. It felt like a small miracle, after all the dating angst and absurdity I’d been through, that I could simply meet a wicked-smart pop culture geek like myself and fold so uncomplicatedly into couplehood. It seemed to defy gravity.

So when, after about three months of dating, he told me he’d be moving to the west coast that summer, I wasn’t too disappointed. As other shoes go, that one was a relatively light drop. He took it seriously. Asked me if I wanted to stay together. Said he’d be up for the long-distance thing if I would. And maybe…just maybe…I’d be interested in joining him there someday.

We didn’t even consider moving together. It seems strange to think about it now, but in those days we clung to our independence almost superstitiously. Moving with him would have been too…establishment, or something. I guess I just wasn’t ready to leave yet. Wasn’t ready to toss all my eggs in that basket. But I was ready to take a big New England road trip with him that summer. And, apparently, I was ready to at least fantasize about marriage proposals.

We spent that last night in Boston, staying with friends of his from college. Out of nowhere, his old girlfriend’s name came up in conversation. He was visibly rattled – way more than was polite, really. I pretended not to notice. But…you know. I noticed.

The friends went to bed and we stayed up late on their living room floor, talking about her in the dark. I used to do this sort of thing full-time when I was younger and, perhaps, stupider. Spent hours talking to men I loved about the women they loved, being the Good Friend. But that night in Boston, doing the same old thing with the guy I loved more than anyone, ever – the guy I thought was different, the guy I wanted to follow to Seattle – well, I didn’t quite have the stamina for it anymore. I was nervous and shaking, nauseated. Finally I told him we had to stop. He was kind about it. Surprised. Reassuring. Still, I felt like I’d been split in half.

We drove back to Philly in silence the next day. One more month. I drove him to the post office to ship his boxes (and boxes!) of books. I helped him make posters for his yard sale. I tried not to let the ex-girlfriend thing haunt me, but it did, of course. There were long, needling conversations seeking reassurance. There was sitting in my car in his alley, listening to that song over and over again. There were plenty of light-hearted moments too, beach trips and such. But mostly it was just him preparing to leave and me preparing to be left.

There was an indignity to it, for sure. But I looked it in the face and swallowed it down –the first of many, many compromises this relationship would demand of us both; that any long-term relationship demands. I’ve learned, since then, to speak up. Straight from the heart in the language of reason. I can’t imagine holding back from him now the way I did then. But I was still finding my way back then. I was learning how to trust another person with my feelings, erring on the extreme side of caution, waiting for someone else to make the first move, hoping they’d get it right.

And so, one miserably grey, stinking-hot August day, I found myself standing in the Philadelphia airport with my forehead pressed against the window, watching him walk across the tarmac toward the tiny plane that would take him to Newark to catch a direct flight to Oregon, where he’d spend some time with his parents before the big Seattle move. He was wearing his suit so he wouldn’t have to pack it, and it contrasted adorably with his fringy too-long hair blowing in his eyes as he looked back toward the airport, squinting, maybe trying to get one last look at me.

And then it was me. Just me.

But not for long.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Beyond the Broom Closet

“It was basically a glorified broom closet,” the speaker says, recounting her own experience as a child in a special education classroom. She describes sitting in that room day after day with the other children who didn’t fit the mold, sometimes completely unsupervised. There wasn’t much learning going on. They were there to be kept out of the way. She’s not sure, even now, why she was assigned to special ed in the first place. Perhaps some quirks of temperament mistaken for a disorder? Perhaps the fact that she was a late reader?

It’s heartbreaking, of course. Maybe a little less so in the context of this multi-speaker presentation, which is a self-congratulatory parade of our city school district’s accomplishments in special education. We’ve come a long way, baby, from those broom closets. Special ed students are in general ed classrooms at their neighborhood schools now! And the teachers (who are totally happy to have this new challenge and never say hurtful insensitive things to the kids’ parents or mistake their disabilities for discipline problems, right?) are coming up with innovative ways to nurture and teach them! We even have instructional coaches to help schools get the inclusion thing right! Except…well, we just lost funding for that last one.

Somewhere beyond the broom closets and the mess we’re in now, I know The Boy’s going to be okay. Although I doubt he’d be okay under our district’s new “Send ’Em All To General Ed and Let the Teachers Figure It Out” plan (or ICS – Integrated Comprehensive Services, as it’s officially called). No, even at our Very Special Alternative School with a truly amazing resource room teacher, it’s been a tough year. Wonderful as she is, that resource room teacher is spread incredibly thin. And the rest of the school’s teachers and staff? Variable at best. Kindergarten was great. First grade? Well…

Let’s face it: Aspergers isn’t easy. It doesn’t look like a disability. Sometimes, frankly, it just looks like a smart little boy being a tremendous asshole. Sometimes it looks like any other Lego-loving kid. He can almost blend right in.

Until there’s a fire drill. Or an unexpected break in routine. Or anything that involves handwriting or drawing within the lines. Or classmates who have figured out how to tease and provoke him without getting in the least bit of trouble themselves. Or a principal who writes off that teasing as “normal” behavior and tells me this boy – who is trying so hard just to show up every day and be at school like the other kids – just needs to learn to deal with it.

At first, I didn’t want to change schools. This is his school, I thought. You guys step up. We’re here, we’re on the autism spectrum, get used to it! Which, I guess, isn’t much different from what the school district is trying to do. Cram these kids down an ill-equipped school’s throat because, in theory, the schools should be able to handle it.

Then I learned that some other schools in our district offer a middle ground between the broom closet and ICS. They have autism inclusion programs. The kids are still in general ed, but there’s more adult support. There are more services and pull-outs. Unlike our current school, where he’s expected to blend in and see the resource room teacher twice a week, these kids are an intentional part of the community. The teachers, the principals, the other kids and their parents – while still variable, I’m sure – know what Aspergers looks like. And he wouldn’t be the only one.

I broached the topic with The Boy. How would he feel about moving to a new school next year? One where there are other kids with Aspergers, too? And The Boy – who typically freaks out at the slightest change in routine, who’d wanted nothing to do with that “highly gifted” school he also tested into – got a very hopeful, thoughtful look on his face, and said he would like that a lot.

By the time I learned of these programs’ existence, there were only a few days left in the enrollment period to make the change for next year. With help from the resource room teacher and an old preschool friend who teaches at one of these schools, we raced through the obstacle course of red tape at break-neck speed to get his paperwork to One School Board Plaza by the deadline. And now…I’m on week 5 of the 7-week wait to find out which school he’ll be reassigned to. I’m feeling exhilarated and cautiously hopeful.

Too bad the school district wants to phase out these autism inclusion programs. They’re just too broom closety, I guess. Or too expensive, maybe. I really don’t know why.

But I do know the district’s gotten a big pushback from autism parents around the city, and there’s some indication that they’re starting to at least think about listening. Although there wasn’t a whole lot of listening going on at that presentation, touting ICS’s success at a handful of schools where it’s actually working. At least the director of special ed acknowledged, with an apologetic look on her face as she encouraged us parents to keep faith in the program, “We know it’s not perfect.”

Driving home, it’s the broom closet story that sticks with me. The speaker had marveled in outraged disbelief that self-contained special ed classrooms still exist, as if we were talking about dunce caps or something.

But it’s not the self-contained part that makes it a broom closet. Those rooms have dedicated special ed teachers who see the good in these kids and help them overcome their unique challenges without the distraction of a crowded, chaotic classroom. I don’t buy the “All Education is Special” line any more than I would buy “All Doctors are Surgeons” from my health insurance company. (Not to give them any ideas!)

Throwing my boy into a general ed classroom to see how he fared was worth trying. There were definitely a lot of positives, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity. But we’ve learned that without an experienced teacher who sets the tone for acceptance, without extra support from adults who get him – it doesn’t work. Aspergers is, absolutely, a special need. We’re not ashamed of it. It simply is.

A separate program doesn’t have to be stigmatizing. In fact, I see it as empowering. We’re not slinking off in shame. We’re taking our business elsewhere. I refuse to have our metaphorical wheelchair forced up a flight of stairs when we know there’s a ramp somewhere.

And in a few short weeks, we’ll find out which “ramp” it’s going to be. Stay tuned…

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Deadbeat Club

Twenty years ago today, I bobby-pinned on that mortarboard with the little ’91 tassel and lined up with my fellow V’s and W’s in the back corner of campus by the dining hall. The day itself was sunny and green, but stark somehow. Removed. There were bagpipes. Archways of blue and green balloons. Our families in the audience, our dorm rooms packed up and nearly vacated. But not quite.

We’d pretty much spent that whole year saying goodbye. Fall began with fretting over GREs and What Will I Be When I Grow Up and “Holy shit now we have to grow up” and all the accompanying undergrad angst. The eighties were over. Bush the Elder’s kinder, gentler Gulf War was looming, which seemed like a much bigger deal at the time. (How were we to know?)

So we formed our own comedy troupe and performed in the campus coffee house. We wrote plays, or acted in them, or directed. We walked around campus with a giant inflatable dinosaur. We covered the living room floor with all the mattresses and slept there for a week. We made terrible, terrible puns. We rescued a broken plaster pizza guy from the trash and named him Luigi. We watched MTV and Saturday Night Live, idolizing Dennis Miller. (How were we to know?) We embraced all things ironic and absurd, all the while clinging to each other rather self-consciously with the distinct sense that this might be as good as it gets.

And what were we so afraid of? Growing up? Selling out? Losing each other to geography? Forfeiting an identity that had only just begun to emerge?

Here’s what it was for me: The feeling that you could be weird and fabulous; geeky and popular; absolutely 100% yourself and people would still find something to admire about you. That’s what I was afraid of losing. I think I really believed that if I lost the people who helped me learn that in the first place, I’d lose it for good.

And I guess in some ways, I really did. That time, those friendships – it truly did end. Whether we stayed in touch or not, whether we found each other on Facebook again or not, that level of idealism and sheer mad joy simply cannot be sustained over time. It just doesn’t go that way.

I remember going to a party my first year of graduate school where they played the entire B-52’s Cosmic Thing album and not one person got up to dance. Too busy name-dropping or canon-bashing, no doubt. Too busy undermining each other’s confidence. I had to learn, of course, how to be the first one to get up and dance. It wouldn’t be long before I’d lead a small band of rebels out of a stuffy English department function to splash in the fountain outside.

These days I rarely have the energy for such insurrections. Sometimes I think my grasp on irony and absurdity is slipping, giving way to earnestness with age – and a guarded earnestness, at that. Love used to pour right out. I guess that’s easy to do when you know it’s all going to end in a matter of months anyway. Now if I catch myself feeling anything with the old na├»ve open heart, I tend to keep it to myself.

But I have managed to bring the spirit of my old tribe with me. That place, those people, those years – they made me see that it was possible at all. They inspired me to hold uninhibited joy as an ideal, and to seek it and appreciate it when it happens. And yes, even in Real Life Adulthood, it does happen. In cubicles and lunch hours with co-workers. In writing workshops. At Teacher Tom’s co-op preschool. On Offsprung, the parenting Web site that inspired me to start writing again. And at home, of course, with my dear Mr. Black.

As for the part that really is over…the risks I’d never take again, the dreams I’ve stopped chasing, the friends I’ve truly lost… How glad I am to have had even a glimpse of such love and excitement. That was our time, and it always will be. It can be over. It can be twenty years past.

Funny how the mere thought of being 40 someday was enough to make us all go fetal in those days. But now? Well, I’m sitting here forty-one and, honestly, a lot happier than I was 20 years ago. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about my family and our mainstream pursuits, cutting the crusts off sandwiches and so forth. So what? Turns out it doesn’t actually rob you of all that’s unique and wonderful about you. It’s still there. And my kids will always, always get up and dance to Cosmic Thing.

Happy 20-year reunion, my Deadbeat Club.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Niagara FAIL

Let’s face it: I’m kind of a bitch. I don’t notice it most of the time, you know, since I’m me and can’t help but empathize with myself, well-versed in all the little nuances and justifications. But there have been times when that bitchiness was so over-the-top that I cringed in embarrassment even as it was happening, stuffing it away in the brain’s shame closet forever after.

Which is why I’ve never told you the Niagara Falls story. But now, I think it’s time.

First of all, in my defense, I was 23. In geek-girl years, that’s like 12 or 13. I was more or less happily single, in my final year of grad school, sharing a wacky apartment with a good friend in a sleepy university town in New York.

This was in the early 1990’s, long before the dawn of Facebook. If you wanted to get in touch with old friends, you had to call them. Or write them a letter. Or actually visit them, which involved unfolding actual paper maps and driving for hours while listening to your cassette mix tapes.

It wasn’t unusual to have platonic male friends from past lives sleeping on our living room floor on any given weekend. And, from time to time, it wasn’t terribly surprising if said platonic male friend ended up sleeping, well, not on our living room floor. Very rarely, if the planets aligned just right, that friend might make a few more visits. Next thing you know, you’ve got yourself a boyfriend. You didn’t plan it. You didn’t even particularly want it. But having romantic companionship is so much nicer than not. Why not give it a try?

I wasn’t unattracted to him. Ages ago, when we’d first met, I’d actually had a flaming crush of doom on the guy. It broke my silly teenage heart when he wanted to be “just friends.” So why, having finally won him over, did I cringe when he put his arm around me walking down the street? Why did the charisma and endless stream of jokes that once impressed me now mostly just exhaust and annoy?

I tried to outsmart my own resistance. There were good things here. He was creative and funny and cute. We’d do stuff like walk to the public library in the snow and check out armloads of children’s books. We even tried on funny hats together, romantic comedy montage style. There was so much to like. If I could just get past my not-completely-attracted-to-him problem, we’d be perfect together.

A sensible person would have cut their losses and set the guy free. Instead, I decided we needed to go on a road trip together. To Niagara Falls. The same weekend that weather forecasts were predicting the blizzard of the century.

Obviously, it was an idiotic plan from start to finish. Let me try to make sense of it: Ignoring the forecast of snow? We’d had a few “false alarm” weather reports that winter calling for pounds of snow that never actually fell. And it was March now, almost spring for Zod’s sake. I was certain – absolutely certain – that it wasn’t going to snow that weekend. As for the road trip itself? I don’t know. I just loved “the road” so much in those days. I guess I’d hoped the exhilaration I felt for road trips would somehow spill over into my feelings for him. Besides, I’d never been to Niagara Falls.

That first night we zoomed across the state of New York under a clear night sky, laughing and telling each other stories. It was working. I was happy and excited and truly enjoying his company. We were positively giddy when we finally rolled into town, driving down the deserted streets, looking for a hotel.

But the next day, things took a rapid turn for the worse. Still no snow, but the blizzard was imminent. At least that’s what everyone was saying at the hotel. Somehow, I stubbornly believed that snow was just an idle threat. He wanted to head back home before the blizzard hit. I wanted to at least see the waterfalls first. So we drove out to Goat Island and strolled into the bitterly cold morning.

Years later, I would tell this story to an incredulous, sputtering Mr. Black. It wasn’t the fact that I’d dragged some poor boyfriend to Niagara Falls on the eve of the Storm of the Century that bothered him. It was the fact that we’d made it all the way to Goat Island and somehow – don’t ask me how – never actually saw the waterfalls.

We looked. Really, we did. At one point, we thought maybe we saw waterfalls off in the distance, but we were mistaken. All we could see was a nice little picnic park, the churning river, and an ice-white sky getting ready to dump ten tons of snow on us. We must have been looking on the totally wrong side of the island. Maybe if we hadn’t been so busy worrying and bickering over what to do, we might have tracked the damn waterfalls down.

Instead, we decided to drive home in the hopes of beating the snow. There were just a few stray snowflakes falling. I’d driven in worse. But it got heavier quickly. I’d never seen snow fall so fast, in fact. It was relentless. About an hour into the drive, it was blowing all across the road, barely a scrap of pavement in sight. Stubborn as hell, I pulled into a rest stop imagining we’d wait for the snow to stop and then drive home. But after many cups of coffee and futile staring out the window, the boyfriend convinced me to book a room at a nearby Days Inn – a short but incredibly harrowing drive.

Looking back on it now, with my recently-acquired fretful mother sensibilities, it feels even more harrowing. What if there hadn’t been a hotel nearby? What if we’d had an accident? What if I’d died in Middle of Freaking Nowhere, NY with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend just because I’d been so driven, so stubbornly determined to escape boredom and restlessness at all costs? Stupid, stupid girl.

That Days Inn would be our home for the next two days as the Storm of the Century raged on. I tried to get some schoolwork done in between bouts of staring dejectedly at the Weather Channel. Eventually I gave up and switched to cartoons, a Mary Tyler Moore marathon, and getting my butt repeatedly kicked at Scrabble by the boyfriend. Any lingering delusions of happy couplehood had pretty much faded for both of us, but we nursed it along anyway. The sheer boredom of being stuck in that beige bedroom miles from anywhere was a bitter little aphrodisiac.

Bitter irony, really. With the right person, getting stuck in a hotel room for days on end could have been a fantasy-come-true. Instead, I found myself yearning for the drudgery of singlehood apartment life. I wished I was watching stupid TV with my roommate, or stomping through the snow to one of our town’s many eccentric old diners for coffee and a grilled corn muffin. Even when my roommate told me over the phone about her ordeal trying to borrow a snow shovel from the cranky neighbors, I yearned for home.

On day three, the sun returned and the New York State Thruway opened again. We drove home in relative silence. I don’t remember when or how the official breakup happened, or if we ever officially acknowledged it at all. All I remember is an awkward brunch in one of my favorite diners, slogging through the slush to my Shakespeare seminar, and never seeing the guy again.

I didn’t feel much guilt at the time…just glad to be out from under the weight of his disappointment and the aftermath of my own terrible, terrible decision-making. But I did take notice. I spent a lot of my dating career being the one to get hurt. But I did my share of hurting, too. I’m not sure which is worse. When your heart is broken, all you have to do is heal. But when you’ve hurt someone else – with selfishness and stubborn, misguided determination to turn winter into summer through sheer will – well, the path is a little less clear.

I never did make it back to Niagara Falls. Living in Seattle now, it seems pretty unlikely that I ever will. I still can’t believe we were right there and never saw it. Traveled all that way and then just left without getting what we came for, only to get stuck in the snow and face up to an uncomfortable truth: Sometimes it’s just better to be home alone. I guess there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
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