Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Living in the Tower of Babel

Within our fairly traditional home in our typical suburban neighborhood lives a self-proclaimed nerd, a dreamer and an autistic or in more contemporary terms, a right brain, a left brain and a we're still figuring it out brain. Not surprisingly, we have very different conversational styles. 

And though time after time I have listed “English” as the language spoken in our home on surveys and physician’s forms, it occurred to me after an attempt at conversing with my family recently that I live a modern day Tower of Babel.

The biblical Tower of Babel

Tony speaks fluent geek. He lives in a very factual world of black and white. If I say the sky is blue, I’d better be able to back that statement up with detailed information on the atmospheric conditions, gas molecules and light waves. ‘Blue skying’ a concept might cause his head to blow up into a thousand pieces; talk of feelings or emotions makes his skin crawl.

Sam is an expert in echolalia. He contributes to conversations by quoting a random movie, video or book lines that oddly parallel our conversation. On rare occasions even punctuating conversations profoundly. He interprets to the very literal meaning of each word. No idioms for him. Use the expression "kick him out" and someone WILL get kicked. I promise.

As the out to lunch member of the house, I am a sucker for subtle nuances and metaphors and exploring multiple meanings of books or movies. I use liberal amounts of body language thinking you can express more with the raise of an eyebrow than a pile of words.

Only nuances, metaphors and body language aren't among the known languages of the Tower of Babel.

Say the words "Cape Cod" and Tony responds with weather and logistics. I discuss shopping and scenery and Sam hears cheeseburgers. Go to a movie and unless the bad guy is wearing a black hat, Tony is hopelessly lost. Give me numbers to crunch or directions to follow and my eyes glaze over.

Ask us to give the high points of any conversation and you are likely to get two very different interpretations. As for Sam, unless chocolate is involved, he won’t interpret at all. 

We greet each day babbling in a parallel sort of way, each of us hopeful that our words are understood well enough to muddle through the day without disaster. And some days do end well. Others are hopelessly communication challenged with conversations ending with a very quizzical, “Huh??” or worse yet, “Wow. I didn’t see THAT coming.” And still other days end in hysterical laughter.

Now and again I hear bragging of the solidarity of a particular household; where the mere utterance of the word "blue" results not only a complete understanding of the word blue but also the exact shade of blue. Where conversations are succinct and communication effective.  

I don’t happen to know that home.

Though our communication challenges may be a more extreme than some, I suspect we are not alone in our Tower of Babel. And I wouldn’t want to live any place else. I’d miss the elation of those rare occasions when we get it right.

Who’d want to live a place where everyone understands exactly the same thing, anyway? I mean really, where’s the fun in that? 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The big dance

It was a random phone conversation of no significance. She mentioned the big dance at a local boy’s school: the first big dance of the year.

I didn't know about the dance. I listened to who was going, names of kids I knew and some, some only vaguely. "It's a pretty big deal, it kicks off the social for the whole school year. You remember how it was about the first dance.” 

I smile to myself. Yes, I remember.

A couple of names were presented as not going. I suggest they are only freshman. Maybe they are just not emotionally ready. “No,” she responds. “They really should go. They meet other kids. Those social connections are important.”

Though Sam is the same age as most of the kids named, he isn’t going. He has never gone. But I don’t say those words out loud. The obvious reason is that he doesn't go to the school and boys outside the school are not invited.

But that isn’t the only reason of course. Quite unexpectedly I feel a brief wave of nausea. I want to stop listening but I don't. I realize I have stopped breathing for a moment.

It’s just a dance, I remind myself. Just a dance with teenage kids.

But neatly tucked away are my youthful memories of The First Dance. All the excitement; the emotional roller coaster ride of adolescence - the delight, the terror, crushes, and heartbreak; the tentative steps into a more adult world of emotion. That right of passage that most of us experience.

I want Sam to experience that. But he likely can’t. He likely won’t. Why does this particular milestone catch me by surprise? I don’t want to care. But I do.

I keep the conversation moving and ask a mindless question. This time convincing myself, it’s just a dance. Just a dance.

As I hang up the phone and walk to the kitchen, Sam is playing music. We dance with abandon as we often do. And though it isn’t the same; or even close, I hear his laughter as we twirl. I find myself smiling and realize, it will do.  

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Halloween South of the Border

We've had an interesting relationship with Halloween. I've loved it; Sam has tolerated it. I thought it was all about the costume; Sam did not.

Sam has been a rooster, a Dalmatian, Clifford the Big Red Dog, a dinosaur, a bear, a taxi driver and a very dashing pirate. He has also hated every minute it. Each year I managed to snap a photo, even a pleasant photo, but within minutes, the costume was off. There wasn't enough chocolate in the world to bribe Sam to keep his costume on. As for trick or treating? Completely out of the question.

A few of our Halloween costume attempts

Halloween remained this way until a fateful day at my sister’s house. Sam came upon a giant sombrero. He tried it on. He danced in it. He liked it. 
Trying out the first sombrero
An idea was born. With a poncho and sombrero, Sam became The Mexican. When Halloween rolled around, Sam wore the costume all night. He went trick or treating. It was Halloween gold. It worked so well, we used it the following year… and the following year… and the following year... and the following year until a friend said, “Not the Mexican again. Geez Janet, the poor kid.”
The inaugural Mexican and a couple of years later...

As someone who prides herself on creativity, that statement cut straight to my heart.

My poor Sam. He desperately needed a new identity. I panicked. But in the nick of time inspiration struck. The next time Sam donned his poncho and sombrero, he was was Juan Valdez.
And everyone knows that Juan is Columbian – not Mexican.

Juan Valdez

The following year he was the Frito Bandito hailing from Frito Lay. After that, we ditched sombrero, kept the poncho and became Clint Eastwood. The possibilities were endless. We were on a Halloween roll.
   Frito Bandito                     Clint Eastwood

Now in his late teens, Sam's trick or treat days are behind him. I hear there may be a Halloween Party at school with the obligatory costume. Maybe the time is right to revisit our Mexican beginnings. Before you groan, "Poor Sam" be assured this will be different. With his poncho draped over his shoulder, Sam will channel Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. If you think this is a stretch, consider that unibrow they both have going. 

I think it just might work.
                                                       Frida Kahlo                          Sam