Reading and Change
If you’re lucky, a book will change you.
This winter, I’ve been on a streak of good reading. From The Missing by Tim Gautreaux (a book as magical as a prophetic dream), to The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (cool, poetic, haunting and written by a spectacularly kind and charming young author), to All the Truth (a page-turner that questions our assumptions about women, anger, and the stereotype of the red-head), to my most recent bedtime treat by Elizabeth Stuckey-French, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady.
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady sounds a little out of step with my usual reading routine, doesn’t it? My winter list has been mostly comprised of heavy, historical-type books. I love that kind of work, but I stumbled upon this one–with it’s super-kitschy, 50’s style cover–while killing time at Barnes & Noble. After nursing a child through a solid week of the gold ol’ fashion flu, I was itchy to leave my dirty house and go spend time among the living. The writing didn’t go well that day, which was no one’s fault but my own. There are days when I lack focus and concentration, a malady I could easily cure by simply chugging down my coffee and hiding my iPhone. I lacked such resolve that day, so I took to waltzing the aisles, piling up a stack of books to add to my already teetering bedside tower. I’d heard of Stuckey-French, having a few mutual friends and acquaintances (her friends, my acquaintances, mostly), but I’d never dived into her work. As the big winter-storm-that-ate-America swept over my house, three days of snow and cold rain bearing down on us all, I started on Radioactive. The Tallahassee setting was a perfect counter to the gray outside my own window, and a story about an old woman seeking revenge on the doctor-scientist who turned her into the ultimate guinea pig during her one and only pregnancy in the 1950s seemed a much needed palate cleanser. The writing is funny–no two ways about it–and full of smart-asses and fools, but they aren’t unrealistic characters. A kookie old man and woman, dogs with odd names, troubled marriages and mid-life crises: all of these things felt both familiar and colorful and real. But Stuckey-French’s finest accomplishment in the book is her portrayal of teenagers. She writes of a trio of siblings, the two oldest children, Ava and Otis, afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Over the course of the novel, though, Ava and Otis become less odd and more endearing, proving to be the most reliable and consistent characters in their thoughts, feelings, and intentions. There is no pretense with Ava and Otis because they are not capable of pretense. Nuance and subtlety elude them both, a source of frustration to their few friends and family members, yet these are the qualities which will ultimately save them both. As the novel comes to its conclusion and the family experiences the horror and healing that comes with confession, the younger sibling, Suzi, who dislikes and envies the older, awkward (and strikingly beautiful) Ava, experiences a moment of epiphany when she recognizes that Ava is the most reliable person in the room. With Ava, what you see is what you get. She isn’t capable of duplicity–she is far too literal to be a liar–and Suzi finds a new and surprising comfort in her sister.
I had just finished the book the night before my oldest son’s 6th grade talent show. I was dreading the night’s performance, as D had volunteered to perform an electric guitar solo and, rather than choosing an easy song, he selected YYZ by Rush, a full instrumental piece with a complex arrangement. Then he got sick for a week. He refused to practice at all–even for 5 minutes–while he was still sniffly. YYZ loomed. As an alternative to practicing, he decided to simply listen to the song–repeatedly–over the house-wide sound system, as though the song could somehow be absorbed into his being through his eardrums. I was assaulted by Rush blasting through four different speakers, yet not by the sound of D playing the song himself. Surely, this would end in disaster.
After a weekend of fighting and crying (him a little, me a little) he had the notes worked out, but lacked any smoothness and, to me, it hardly sounded like a song at all. Add to this that one of his classmates plays the violin and, under the heavy fist of his tiger mother and father, practices religiously for three hours a day, every day. No. Matter. What. Compared to these other parents, I am a slug, rarely cracking the whip behind either of my children. Still, there has been a strange competition between my husband and I and this pair, a competition that I have not understood, but the kind that often erupts between families of gifted children. D is certainly not musically gifted (though he enjoy music immensely), but he has an uncanny, if not strange, ability to absorb and recall material. Got a question about the Civil War (and I do mean ANY question)? He’s got the answer. Need to know what the deal is behind the name of the rock group Thin Lizzy? Don’t worry, he’ll know that, too. Can’t remember the name of that movie you saw six years ago, the one nominated for 47 Oscars? See my child. That kind of intelligence, that kind of memory garners a fair amount of attention, especially if it is exhibited at a very young age, as it was with D.
But as with all good things, there’s a hitch. Social awkwardness accompanies this type of giftedness. My son is a literal person, single-minded, capable of intense focus. His IQ is high, but his EQ (emotional quotient) is, well, pretty low. He doesn’t easily intuit the feelings of others, nor does he readily understand how he is seen by his peers. He knows only what he intends, what is at the surface. He can filter his thoughts, and he does understand some of the consequences of not doing so, but there are still times he simply does not. With D, there is no pretense, no social posing, no trickery or deceit. He is what he is, whether you like it or not. You can trust in that.
So here’s where you’re probably wondering if, like Ava and Otis, D has Asperger’s? The truth is that he probably does. A few years ago, we consented to have educational/IQ testing done on D (at his request). Teacher’s suspected he was not challenged enough by the school work they were offering and the word “gifted” had been thrown around for years. I have an issue with “gifted education,” (a blog entry for another day) and we purposefully chose an elementary school that did not offer any such type of special program to academically advanced children, though D’s school would be willing to let him work ahead if the testing revealed he was ready. The testing showed that, yes, D is in fact “gifted,” particularly in the areas of verbal and reading comprehension. When I sat down with the psychologist, an eccentric and exuberant woman herself, I asked her if D was, you know, on the spectrum. “Well, sure he is,” she said. She shrugged her shoulders. “But what does it matter? He’s smart. Really smart. And really smart people are quirky. That’s normal for smart. I mean, guys like D are the ones who cure cancer. Quirky just comes with the territory. You wouldn’t want to do anything about it!”
I’d listened to him practice over the weekend and even taped it with my iPhone to play back to myself. Maybe, just maybe, it sounded better than I thought it did? D remained unapologetic and utterly confident that his performance would be fine. In fact, he argued, the difficulty level of it would be so blatantly obvious to everyone, they would be impressed that he could do any of it all! He was not nervous, not self-conscious, not worried about any potential embarrassment. He was, I realized, the polar opposite of myself at his same age, a girl who was hyper-aware of the looks and comments others might cast my way, forever worried over how others might see or think of me. As a result, if I could not do something perfectly, I preferred not to do it, choosing instead to play it safe. I grew braver as I grew older, becoming not a fearless teenager, but at least one with a supply of confidence great enough to propel me through high school, winning competitions in writing and speech. But even as I triumphed in those things, I was staying in my zone. One might say I was savvy enough to know my limits, careful to push only so far. But I’m not sure I approve of my teenage self now. Then, as now, I wanted to be a risk-taker, but simply wasn’t. And like all of us who are a little too self-aware, who choose to play it safe, I got safe, unexciting results in return.
And, so, the night of the concert came. D was scheduled to be the final act. He asked me if he should take this as an insult or an honor. I told him it was always an honor to be asked to close a show and I truly believe that; I adore being the last to present on a panel or for a reading and I try very hard to make those final moments of sitting and listening a rewarding experience for my audience. I want them to be glad they stayed and I want to be the person they remember. D’s school music teacher, in charge of the night’s performances, had been neither discouraging nor encouraging of his performance, according to my son, but he isn’t one to pick up on an emotion as nuanced as hesitancy. My husband was out of town and so I sat in the audience beside my 10 year old son, A, holding his hand and waiting. And worrying. And secretly wishing I’d forbidden D to perform a piece he did not already know inside and out. He could’ve had an easy victory with a song he already knew, some catchy tune that everyone would know. I could’ve saved him from what was about to happen, but I didn’t.
His class rival played his violin–perfectly, of course. Then it was D’s turn to play. A “roady” (a fellow classmate) had been secured to help plug in D’s guitar and flip the switch on the amplifier. D stood before the mic and spoke. “I’ll apologize in advance if this is too loud,” he said. “But I really can’t tell the volume from up here.”
It was loud. Really loud. Uncomfortably loud. His rhythm, too, was off until he came to the middle, a section he clearly found easier to manipulate. A mother in the next aisle looked angry (or maybe she had an ear infection and was grimacing from pain?), but the fathers in the room seemed almost delighted, happily bobbing their heads along, gaining enthusiasm as D’s playing continued. This was no delicate performance and I dare say they seemed relieved. My younger son, who knew about my reservations, watched me watching D, looking for evidence of my displeasure. But here’s the thing: I loved it.
Listening to D dig into the long riffs and difficult fingering, then watching as those middle-aged dads all around me bobbed their heads, something happened to me. I felt something better than pride; I felt joy. Not a single cell in D’s body displayed nervousness or unease. His focus was on the music, on hitting the notes and making it through to the end. He said he would play YYZ and he was playing YYZ, good or bad, come hell or high water. Right then, I understood exactly what Suzi, the young sister in Radioactive, felt when she understood how real, how genuine, how unchanging and reliable Ava was. Not just some of the time, but all the time. I touched my hand to my throat, a reflexive action when I feel tears coming on, and A looked at me and asked if I was upset. I shook my head, “no,” and put my hand on his. D and A are often in conflict, but, just as readily, they can be best friends, each one’s most reliable defender. I leaned down close to his ear and whispered. “He’s great,” I said. “I think he’s doing really, really great.” A smiled at me, then turned his attention back to his brother on the stage. He raised his chin up a bit, a defiance and pride in his expression. A saw it, too, the total authenticity of his older brother, a boy unburdened by expectation and worry. D is who is. Quirky comes with the territory. And I don’t want do one damn thing about it.