We interrupt this conventional wisdom to bring you…

Grief. With not just a capital G, but a drop cap G. That overwhelming.

I’m talking about my eight-year-old son Owen’s reaction today to the death of Pumpkin, our first family pet. Pumpkin was a betta fish and he’d been part of the household for just over two weeks before he went to the big fishbowl in the sky sometime last night.

Pumpkin appeared far more my daughter’s fish. It was Audrey who had begged for a pet, and consequently she who was tasked with feeding and helping change the water. And when we found him this morning, sunk motionless down by the tank’s hot pink and purple gravel bed, she was the one who burst into tears, as most NT five-year-olds would. When informed, Owen, who’s on the autism spectrum, appeared to react in accordance with theory of mind principles. He made no comment and showed no reaction. Just continued on his way downstairs to watch TV.

Some eight hours later, however, he simply dissolved into tears. Sitting on his favorite swing

Pumpkin settling in last month.

Pumpkin settling in last month.

outside, where he can spend hours inside his head, grief appeared to suddenly overwhelm him. “I’m sad Pumpkin died,” he sobbed. “I’m sad we don’t get to keep him anymore.”

As best I could, I gathered his 65-pound bereft body onto my lap. But while I soothed and comforted, inwardly I cheered.

He is SAD! He FELT! He CARED! 

The tears and woe continued over dinner. “I’m sad because Pumpkin doesn’t have a family anymore,” he said. Then: “You and Daddy and Audrey aren’t going to die.”

He is extrapolating emotional significance and GENERALIZING! 

Again, while trying to reassure and comfort, I found myself overwhelmed with a wave of contrary emotions: Relief, vindication, glee.

He can make connections! He DOES! THIS IS PROOF! I felt like it was target practice and I was firing the gun blasting the holes in theory of mind, which has dominated beliefs about the autistic brain for more than 20 years.

If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you know I don’t have much tolerance for a lot of autism research. I believe much of it, or at least much what gets the attention of popular media, is far too narrowly focused on causes, particularly prenatal. But last year I was very intrigued by a piece of older research that for some reason got new traction. It posits the Intense World Theory (scientific citation here, layperson’s article here) as an alternative explanation for what is often interpreted as a lack of empathy, aka theory of mind, by people on the autism spectrum.

Henry and Kamila Markram, the Swiss researchers who crafted the theory, suggest in The Daily Beast that “the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency, but rather an hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.’

“ ‘There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough,” says Kamila Markram. “We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.” 

The Intense World Theory explains both Owen’s initial, muted reaction and then his later, overwhelmed one. We had had a rather intense day. Beyond Pumpkin’s funeral, consider:

  • It’s a Sunday, the least-scheduled day of the week, which always ratchets up the anxiety.
  • It’s summer, the least-scheduled season. Double down on the anxiety.
  • It’s the week of the National Cherry Festival in our town, whose highlight is an airshow. For the last three days, performing fighter jets have been screaming over the swing that is normally Owen’s oasis. He covers his ears and hangs in there as long as he can.
  • We had gone to the festival midway earlier in the day. Though he enjoys the rides — the spinning ones especially — the noise and crowds no doubt further taxed his reserves.

And thus you have a puddle of emotion at 5 o’clock.

The scenario also recalled Owen’s delayed reaction to the loss of his favorite stuffed animal. Around age six months, he chose Tux, a stuffed penguin, as his comfort object. Tux went everywhere with us, including a trip to Florida at age three. Unfortunately, on the flight home, Tux didn’t make it out of the seat pocket in front of Owen. When we broke the news, Owen seemed to take it remarkably well. Then, ten whole months later, one night at bedtime he suddenly erupted with sadness over the loss.

Tux was obviously a greater loss, so perhaps it took more time to process than Pumpkin. Or maybe our beautiful, brave boy is getting a little better at navigating this intense world we live in.

Maybe we are, too. All those bullet points above hold true for us as parents, too. Summer, Sundays, holidays strain our coping skills, too. I thought the point of Pumpkin was to help teach Audrey responsibility. Today, I’m humbled to realize the far greater lesson in his loss.

Rest in peace, Pumpkin, and thank you.

- The letter G brought to you by Daily Drop Cap.




In search of the right question

Or, the sound and fury of Amazon-Hachette

Yes, but there's a more fundamental question.

Yes, but there’s a more fundamental question.

Indeed, I do. This shirt  was a giveaway prize at a bookstore event I attended last week. I also brought home a new paperback (The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker) adding it to the stack of two new hardcovers (Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and Julia Glass’ And the Dark Sacred Night) from the library. I’ll pick between those three once I finish Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, which I’m re-reading as character research for my own work in progress, and also came by way of the library.

Also last week I picked up two used picture books for my kids at Goodwill. All these physical books are on top of the five different Kindle books I’ve downloaded in the past couple months, both fiction and non-fiction.

So getting books presents no problem at all. As a former newspaper reporter, that makes me ask whether the question on the shirt is the important one. The backdrop to my musing is the sturm und drang coverage of the Amazon-Hachette negotiations that have dominated the publishing industry news and blogs I read for more than a month. (See exhibits AB and C for the pro-Amazon side and X, Y and Z for the pro-Hachette side.)

As both an author and reader, to me the more critical questions are:

  • Got stories?
  • Got ideas?
  • Got lessons? 
  • How can I find the ones important for me?

The first three are as old as humanity. The most enduring evolved from the oral tradition to written language through various preservation vehicles, from cave walls to handwritten scrolls to Gutenberg’s printed page to Bezos’ pages of pixels. And the best stories, ideas and lessons will continue to endure no matter what method of delivery awaits in the future. No one stopped making music or listening to music when the iPod and the 99-cent download rendered CDs obsolete. No one is going to stop reading or writing no matter who prevails.

It’s the last question that really matters, and it’s the one obscured by the hysterical tone of the media coverage, and, to an extent, by oversimplifications like the shirt.  Especially in this age of ever more demands on our time, how can we find the stories, ideas and lessons important for us? Often when we may not even know ourselves what we need?

Bookstores. Librarians. Book clubs, friends and word-of-mouth recommendations from other readers. Book reviews. Back-cover blurbs. The Amazon algorithms that tell you what else people who bought a particular book bought. The sale price that entices us to take a chance. E-mail services like BookBub and Fussy Librarian that match advertised books to your identified preferences.

Authors and readers won’t be halting writing or reading anytime soon. But they could use some matchmaking help. It would be to everyone in publishing’s interest to tamp down the sound and fury and focus on making those discoveries happen.

*Who am I to speak on this? I published my novel on CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing platform, and have an out-of-print nonfiction book traditionally published. I am grateful to the independent bookstores, libraries, book clubs, reviewers and readers who have supported both.


A rare and precious combination

My children’s school has a walk-up pickup policy. No car lines – classes are dismissed outside, where parents must meet their child in person. I always did this before it was official policy, because it affords a daily chance to talk to the teacher. However brief, those moments are invaluable for cultivating a relationship and getting a sense of what those seven hours apart are like for your child.

Especially at my five-year-old daughter’s age, I can often tell at a glance. One day late last winter, though, after she’d been a little under the weather, I specifically asked her teacher.

“How did Audrey do today?” I asked.

Audrey and Mrs. Yamasaki

Goodbye to a great teacher.

“She did great,” Mrs. Yamsaki said. She said Audrey had moved through her works smoothly and willingly. Then she added, “She was cheerful and ambitious.”

For several months now, that comment has stuck with me. The two adjectives don’t naturally go together. Ambition is often synonymous with ruthlessness and greed. Cheerfulness easily veers into Pollyannaish territory. But fundamentally, each definition is positive. Imagine how your workplace would differ if everyone was simultaneously cheerful and ambitious. It makes me far more proud than the Audrey’s emerging skill with the alphabet and arithmetic.

So to find an environment that fosters both is a credit to Mrs. Yamasaki and her co-teachers, Miss Anne and Miss Robin. Mrs. Yamasaki retires next week, and the past week there’s been a swell to the stream of art projects and spelling lists and math sheets coming home in her backpack. I admire and affix to the fridge accordingly. But that cheerful and ambitious spirit is what I will most cherish. Thank you and congratulations.

- The letter M brought to you by Daily Drop Cap.