Susan's Blog

Sunday, June 29, 2008

He Does What He Can

We’re on the Cape this week so there’s probably going to be a series of airheaded posts. Nat seems extremely happy (knock wood) and in his element: smiling and punching the air constantly; Joyful Beach Stompies; boogie-boarding; helping carry this and that here and there. He is just a joy, plain and simple. Have you ever felt so happy that you just couldn’t stop moving around? Maybe that’s why I need to exercise sometimes, just to pump my muscles and get my whole body into the imminent happiness pushing its way through me.

Well, that’s Nat. Especially in the morning. To him, it is like the weekend, which means a “No School” day, which means wake up as early as possible and come downstairs and walk, walk, walk. So I usually get up early and try to contain it, so that everyone else can sleep. I reminded Nat gently that he needs to “walk and talk calmly, quietly, because it’s early and everyone else is sleeping.” And so there he was, actually tip-toeing and whispering his Stompies! It was so wonderful and thoughtful that I hugged him. That guy just does what he can.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Grok Band

We bought Max and Ben Rock Band last week, to celebrate a successful and difficult school year for both of them. I had hoped that this would be something that we could all do together, and so far, it is turning out that way. On Tuesday I got up the courage to sing, creating an avatar for myself: Lilia. She looks a little like me twenty years ago. Today I earned enough money to buy her some new, outrageous threads. Suddenly there I was, cybershopping for clothes and wondering if this looked okay or not, while Max, Ned, Hannah, and Ben looked on and laughed.

Max and Hannah switch off on guitar and drums, and they are both really good already. I find the guitar kind of hard to do; maybe it’s because I play a real guitar and I’m doing too much with this mini one (?) Maybe I just suck. Ned tried some drumming the other day and looked like a hot rocker with his long shaggy hair and ultra-confident attitude. Mm — mm, good.

Ben plays drums very well and now has gotten up the nerve to share some of my voice solos, especially the freestyle parts. He’s a little too soft or too loud, though. He shouted right in my ear before and it still feels fuzzy. I have tried to entice Nat to come in and play with us, and he obliges, perched on Max’s bed, but I suspect it is just not his bag, man.

Rock Band is a lot of family fun. I highly recommend it as a way to connect a little with your teenagers. Also, you can pretend to be a rocker, and, come on, you know you want to. Remember the Partridge Family? I was Laurie, my sister was David Cassidy. We played it with our cousins. Rock Band is this generations’s version of Partridge Family. You even get to buy a bus after you’ve earned enough bread.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

Once you let the concepts of neurodiversity split open your basic assumptions about autism, the crack just keeps widening. Early this morning I took my coffee and book into the living room, to the couch across from Nat. I slurped and read while Nat sat still, in the center of the couch, whispering to himself into the crisp post-rain air.

My current read is not that great, plus the sky is lit up a promising blue and white, so my mind kept wandering. This is my frequent mental state: running from thought to thought, barely stopping to breathe and really notice them. Because of Nat’s presence, and the imminent lack thereof come July 28, the thoughts churning there were about him. As often happens when I think about this, sadness crept over me.

I couldn’t push away the way I felt sorry for him. Sorry because he was going away, and doesn’t really know yet what it means, to leave us and live somewhere else; sorry because I wondered if he felt that something was afoot, but could not put words to it because words are so elusive for him. Sorry because he didn’t have a book, but just sits there, so often, center-couch, staring ahead of him. And that made me feel bad because I realized that he doesn’t really possess much of a way to escape reality, with pleasurable leisure pursuits. (Leisure activities — or “appropriate leisure skills,” as we have come to call them because of our behavioral training — are what most people eagerly slip into to feel content: reading, listening to music, exercising, writing, gardening, doing crossword puzzles; at least, those are my typical leisure choices.)

Nat can’t escape himself the way I can. But where has all my escape gotten me? So often I run away from my real feelings (maybe you don’t think I do, but truly all you know is what you read here, where I work things out on Precious). I have a huge problem with sitting with feelings, letting them in, letting them merely pass, without acting or pushing away. Trust me, I have had some pretty awful consequences with all my running and impulsive action.

Nat, on the other hand, is capable of simply sitting, literally, with himself, his thoughts, his feelings. He exists within himself, within the moment, just about all the time. And he is okay with it. I realized then, how remarkable that is, how brave, how strong. It was the first time ever that I wanted to be like Nat.

My misplaced pity evaporated and I slunk away into the kitchen, uncomfortable, as usual, with these new feelings and discoveries, and plunged with relief into more coffee and my blog.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

People, But Not Chips, Mix Well

I made a party for Ned’s birthday, this past Sunday. It was a real mixture of worlds: his work friends, our neighborhood friends, my bellydance friend, some of our oldest friends, and some very new ones, too. All their kids, too, which Ned specifically requested. I tried to have the food be stuff that would please everyone: fried chicken, curried chicken salad, salmon nicoise, and of course, an excellent cake. Photos by Pete.

The cake was not homemade, because the design was too complicated, and too important. And a surprise. So without Ned’s expertise, I did not feel confident that I could make Betty Crocker work out just right. So I assigned the whole thing to Party Favors, a local bakery that makes the most fabulous cakes ever. (They are the ones who made my bellydancer birthday cake, complete with a cake tent, cake palm trees, and a cake desert. The bellydancer was a frosted tiny figurine.) This is an Aptus cake, based on a fractal image that Ned generated with some code he created. (This kind of software doodling is one of Ned’s hobbies. He was the first person I ever met who did math for fun. His hobbies, in the Penn facebook, were something like this: Recreational math, juggling, and other circus skills.”) The name “Aptus” actually is from the words “Apple Tush,” which is what Ben called the shape when he first saw it, as a baby. You can see that it does, indeed, look like an Apple Tush.

The party was terrific; the weather pretty much cooperated. And just about everyone we invited came, and they did bring their kids: around 35 people. I dragged out all of our classic kiddie vehicles for them to play with, and it was so great seeing the old toys out again, which hosed off very well after having been stored in the gross basement all this time. The little Playskool wagon is 17 years old now. This wagon was one of Nat’s first toys, and as a one-year-old, he had delighted in rolling it back and forth, watching its steady and then uneven movement. As a teeny baby he had actually started singing a little tune every time he rolled it, and eventually I realized that this tune was a musical illustration of the the rolling of the wagon. Never, never doubt that there is a lot going on inside the head of an autistic person. Whether they choose to or are able to share it with you is another thing altogether.)

I took out Max’s Big Wheel, now fifteen! He had been so proud of it. Ben inherited it, of course. Ben’s Cozy Coupe was there, too. Or maybe it was Max’s. So many boys went in and out of its door, checked its little mirror for who knows what, turned its impotent ignition. And now, my friend Pete’s adorable little girl tried out those vintage wheels.

I forced Ned and Max to help me set up a volleyball net. Ben actually played volleyball with some of the kids. Nat hung out the entire time, gobbling up all the chips and salsa (when I tried to add different chips to the remaining chips, he grabbed two handfuls of the remaining chips, carried them to the dining room table, and ate them. Note to self: never mix chip types).

Saturday, June 21, 2008


One of the stereotypes about autism I am guilty of perpetrating is that there is a deficit in intuitive knowledge. I have observed in Nat over the years an apparent lack of knowledge about things that I thought were “common sense.” But the more I live with him, the more I understand that with autism, the differences between one person and another are not about my world vs. your world. There is no retreating into another world. The closedness we observe may not be what we think. I have come to believe that there is not “surroundings dumbness” (my term) anymore than there is a “mind-blindness.” As satisfying it was for me to believe in this condition in Nat, I now realize that the blindness was on my part. While it is true that Nat has had to be taught many things that I or my other two sons do more naturally, like reading others’ expressions, it is not because he doesn’t know how to tune into others. It’s more because he does not realize that this practice is important. Or he’s not ready to. They are subtle distinctions, but I believe they are absolutely important ones.

I had that sense about him even when he was very little; that his way of being was not necessarily about a deficit, as much as a lack of desire. Not a willful refusal, either, but rather, a simple but perhaps subconscious understanding he had of himself that this was not for him, not yet, perhaps never. Something like that. I could tell that he knew how to say hi to people, or play with toys. What he did not know was why those were good, desirable things. In some ways, my sister was right when she said so long ago, “So? Why does he have to play with stupid toys anyway?”

I used to plead with his teachers, “Tell me how to get him to like being with other kids, not merely to tolerate being with other kids!” (“Tolerating” something is a big goal in the ABA community. The belief is you get enough tolerance stored up within and you eventually generalize to liking that thing, to choosing that thing. I have found this to be so. But what a drag.)

I despaired over his autism, because I thought that it was getting in the way of his happiness. But it was really getting in the way of mine. But for him, maybe it was just that he was not ready for those kinds of interactions, and did not make them a priority until he was. Now he loves to be with other kids, other people. And still, he doesn’t like talking to them, which is basically all I do with other people I like. So I’ve learned: Nat has his way, I have mine.

What Nat knows and doesn’t know is a bit of a mystery to me. What human is not a mystery to another? We think we know what someone is thinking, we take pleasure in predicting another’s actions, or perverse pleasure in recounting another’s allegedly evil agendas. But how often are we right?

Today we went on a bike ride together and I could see that Nat was very much aware of his surroundings and what to do most of the time, like brake when he got to a stop sign or close to other people. I was breathlessly proud of him, watching him take hills effortlessly without shifting (doesn’t know how, doesn’t need to know how, with those muscular legs), and to see the smile on his face, so like mine. But when we got to a high curb, he clearly did not know how to get his bike down to the street. I had to teach him. I would have thought this was a natural motion to people — the bike lift and lower — but not for Nat. So I showed him. And now he knows. Big deal.

Perhaps it stands out to people, this sort of apparently-obvious thing that is not so obvious to guys like Nat. But the fact is, I have to teach obvious things to Ned, Max, and Ben, too. I have to prompt Ben to answer people who ask him questions. I sometimes whisper, hiss-like, to Ned, “Be nice!” And with Max, I still have to let him know when he has taken someone for granted. And I am constantly learning that I truly do not know the “real” reason someone does something I don’t like. Most of the time it has nothing to do with me at all, it turns out!!

So why should Nat’s be considered a deficit or get a pejorative label? Maybe we can just realize that we can teach people things but sometimes we have to wait until they are ready to learn. And the learning never stops. For him and for me.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bad Sleep Song

I’m especially mad at stupid jump ropes.
— Lucy Van Pelt

This post is dedicated to stupid power failures, stupid house alarms, stupid people who don’t even realize it is their house alarm, stupid Ambien that no longer works, stupid snoring, and of course, stupid mind that thinks of all the bad things and can’t go back to sleep.

The Bad Sleep Song

Blah, blah bad sleep
Have you any guilt?
Yes Sue, yes Sue
Three boys’ full:

One for my Natster
One for my Beast
And one for my Little Maxie, now 6’2″ at least

Blah, blah bad sleep
Have you any guilt?
yes Sue yes Sue
Three boys’ full.


Monday, June 16, 2008


I am not a refrigerator.
But when you were born
There was something so fragile,
so tenuous
I was terrified.
I couldn’t even leave the house.
Somehow, I thought you would die.
I was afraid to get too close
deep down
So afraid of losing you,
just a little ball with a face painted on
you could just roll away
A terrible sadness gripped my mind
Maybe it burst through my own tangled synapses
Maybe it rose from the hormones that nurtured you
Or maybe I knew something.

I thought you were going to leave me somehow
There was this impermanence
In the light, then out.
Shimmering, like the string you liked to look at.

I got over it
I guess.
But —
You are going to leave
I am dodging you
bouncing off you with my smiles
Keeping myself safe
and cool
But I’m really not a refrigerator.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sex Lives

I fear this will come off as crass, but this is an important issue, plus it’s my blog, so…

I am looking to interview an autism mom who is happy with her sex life.
What do I mean by happy? I guess I mean that:
1) Most of the time when you think about sex/intimacy/romance with your spouse, it is a good feeling, rather than a negative or hopeless feeling. In other words, you want to be intimate with your spouse but maybe you can’t. Why not?
2) How do you plan for moments of togetherness?
3) Are there particular times in the week/month when intimate moments (physical or emotional) are more possible than others? Why is that?
4) Do you believe that couples without autism in their lives are having more sex than you?

I want to be able to quote you in a chapter in my new book. I want you to give me a few reasons why you think things have worked out this way for you, by way of helping others.

Sex in a challenging family is one thing no one talks about, but probably all of us can benefit from such a discussion. It is even a difficult discussion within couples who are considering natural ways of tightening the vagina. Read more about this topic on This might give you some insight on ways to improve your sex life.

And I am looking to talk to practitioners and therapists who have helped autism couples in this regard, willing to be quoted in my book.

Email me @

Don’t be insulted if I don’t respond to your email. There are many, many and I am looking for just the right voice/tone/attitude. Many thanks!!!

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow

There’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true…
–Clarice the Reindeer

Oh, no. No, no, no. There we were, having bought our lemon ice, Ben and me, and on our way back, slurping deliriously and fending off the drips, we ran into one of the Brookline Shark Dads. “Did you hear what happened?” he asked. We had not. “Someone pooped in the pool, and they have to close it.”

Ben grinned, ten-year-old that he is. But I rushed back to where the team sat, waiting. Ned saw me, and after I handed out everyone’s lemon ice, I said, “How’s Nat.”
“He’s okay, I guess,” said Ned. The plan at the moment was for all of us to return home and then come back at 8 a.m. the next morning to resume.

We got home, and a few hours later we got a call from one of the coaches. The entire rest of the Games had been canceled. No swimming this year, except those lucky few who got their heats in prior to the accident.

We had to tell Nat the bad news. No swim races at all. I gave him a hug and I said, “Sorry, Darling.” Then I heard a lot of the word, “sorry” going round and round the silly talk. Sigh.

Ned and I felt so bad for him we wanted to cry.

But then Ned said, “We should make him a calendar. He’s been asking for it.” I realized that this was true, and that I had been putting it off, because of late July. We have not yet told him about moving out on July 28 and so I did not want to deal with how to make the calendar. But now I thought that if we had a calendar leading up to but not quite getting to July 28, we could show him all the fun things coming up beyond the Swim Races.

Nat ran to get me a piece of paper — the old calendar, which was still blank on the back, of course — and we sat down to fill it out. I was so glad to be able to say,”Dad’s birthday/pie” tomorrow (!) (June 16th!!!!) and then “Dad’s birthday party,” for next Sunday, followed by “Social Group Camp! Canobie Lake Park!; Chunky’s/Mini Golf!. Movie Madness!; Dance!; Go to a show!” YAY for Social Group!!! And then, the piece de la resistance: Week at Cape Cod!!!!

So together we were able to see that, yes, shit happens, but after all, tomorrow is another day.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Swim Races

Major Joyful House Stompies today: it is the State Games this weekend. Nat will be swimming around 12:30 today, and then at 8 tomorrow, and 12:30 again. I went on a huge bike ride with my friend Lisa today in anticipation of a great day (we went down Memorial Drive in Cambridge and then all the way up Storrow, through the Esplanade. It doesn’t get much better than that, except for riding along the ocean at Cape Cod. Wait, make that riding with my sons along the ocean at Cape Cod. That is the goal this summer.)!

We will be at Harvard Stadium, at the pool. If you see a crazy woman jumping up and down, shouting at the top of her lungs, “GO NAT!!!” that is me. Stop by and cheer him on, if you’re in the neighborhood (but remember, Mem Drive will be closed and parking is a nightmare, as always). Maybe we’ll even share some snacks with you.

When you watch a Special Olympics event, I guarantee the other Olympics will pale forever after. Nothing compares. Makes you understand a whole new meaning of “The Best.”

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mission Possible

I never learn. I get all worked up about all the stuff I have to do, all nervous, sweaty palms, etc. And it ends up okay. I guess that is because the few times it did not remain forever in my brain, open sores slashed into the gray matter. Why can’t I hold onto the good stuff, soft kisses pressed into my heart?


This afternoon was one of those action-packed days where I had to be two places at once. You all know the kind of day I mean. Nat had a half day, so I booked his 6 month-teeth-cleaning for today. So — Nat at the dentist at 2, but Ben is in school at 2. Ben then had an appointment at 2:30, while Nat would be in the dentist. My mission — and I had no choice but to undertake it — was to pick them up and drop them off and wait with whichever boy for the designated amount of time before I had to pick up the other boy with the first boy in tow.

My strategy: Get Ben out of school early, leaving Nat in the car while I do so so as not to upset Ben by bringing Nat into the school and risking an outburst (it’s happened before, just horrible, don’t get me started: kids heads being slapped, my head being slapped, etc. All because we took the wrong turn down the hall.). Hoping Nat would be okay in the car for a few minutes.

Bringing them both to the dentist, waiting there while Nat paced the waiting room full of little kids. The receptionists know us well, however, and just love Nat, so they just smile and everything’s cool. Then at 2, Nat went in and I split with Ben for his appointment, which, luckily, was just across Beacon Street from the dentist!

Wait with Ben until 2:30. Rush back to get Nat. Go with Nat up to the corner and buy ice cream. Eat the ice cream. Throw away half of it because I don’t want to get fat(ter). Walk quickly to Starbux and get Ben a cookie like I always do, must keep all routines the same, and an ice coffee for me to reward myself for only eating half the ice cream, which was lo carb anyway.

Rush up the three flights to get Ben, running behind Nat the Sprinter, who is just about to open the door to a psychotherapist’s office!!! “No, Nat!!” Okay, we made it. Find a magazine I haven’t read, that I could tolerate. (Family Circle? Ick. More? Should be called “Bore.”) Wonder why Nat is staring at me? Everything okay? Worry, worry about outburst…

Ben spills out from his appointment. I pull the cookie out of the bag. He HUGS ME!!

Nothing else matters. We are done and I was hugged. Happy weekend to you all.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Year of Baby Bellies

My column in today’s Brookline Tab was about the year teaching bellydance.

Opinion: Teaching class yields belly laughs

By Susan Senator/Edge of Town

Thu Jun 12, 2008, 05:46 AM EDT

Brookline –

Nothing is ever what you think it’s going to be. Especially the first time you try to teach.

Teaching an after-school belly dance class at our school, Lincoln, was an idea I had last year, when I was finishing a year of studying belly dance. I wanted to share my passion with others, but because I did not have the nerve to perform anywhere, I wasn’t sure how.

I broached the idea with our PTO president, and she was very excited about it. By the fall, I had four girls signed up, first- and second-graders. The day of my first class, my head was filled with images of little girls in pink, eager to learn, falling in love with exotic music and hanging on my every word.

I could not have been more wrong.

They did wear pink, but they also wore black, camouflage, leopard prints and high-top sneakers. They thought the music was weird, and funny. They enjoyed the hip scarves — a little too much. They wanted to change their color choices frequently, or they needed me to re-tie them every few minutes. (When you don’t have any hips, it is tough to keep a hip scarf in place.)

They were beautiful, lively, happy little girls, but that, too, was nothing I expected. They would go from high-pitched laughter to inexplicable pouting in minutes. They listened to me, but only in small bursts. I only got through a few moves each class, before half of them would say, “We already learned that one!”

I felt stressed. I felt like a failure. It seemed that I was getting mad a lot, and learning my limitations rather than teaching anyone anything.

What I learned did have some value. I learned, for instance, that bringing in snacks helped a lot, because it gave me some leverage with them: “We’ll do 10 more minutes of this, and then there will be a snack.” I learned that I could only teach three things in one hour. I learned that the hour was really a half-hour, because of snacks and running around. And I learned that teaching was a lot more than merely loving a subject and loving children.

Over time, I finally learned how to control them, but I still felt I was not “reaching” them. Then one day, it dawned on me that I was trying too hard. That day, after they had bugged me for the umpteenth time to let them dance for each other, I decided we could do just that: We could put on a show. A recital for the parents, on the stage. I didn’t know how, exactly, but I figured we would do one brief song and work on just a few moves to accompany it.

That was probably the turning point — the moment I let go of my unrealistic expectations and connected instead with them, their interests and abilities. The upcoming recital gave the class a structure, a rhyme and a reason. I hadn’t realized how much this small goal would help. I felt my head clear. I finally understood that I wasn’t going to be teaching much actual belly dance, but maybe, if I let the girls play with hip scarves and veils for a while, I’d get to show them what was great about dance.

Maybe the girls sensed my new focus and peace of mind. They worked hard, in their own chaotic, noisy way. Over the weeks I could see their movements coalesce into a kind of orderliness. I could sometimes recognize shimmies, undulations and pedal turns. Through all the chaos, there was the vague shape of a choreography that would come and go, like a mirage on the desert.

The day of the recital arrived. On the stage, before we started, there was chasing and running, slipping on veils, playing with the curtain. I felt my tension rise with the noise, but I reminded myself that this was what they did. I tried to relax, told myself that it would be OK, whatever it was. And sure enough, when they heard their song, their eyes widened and they gasped. They ran — of course — to take their places.

They glided in slowly, veils overhead, and they arranged themselves into a circle. They followed through with the piece, quiet and dignified. My heart bloomed with pride. When they were finished, everyone clapped. And then came the best part: The girls each thanked me, and then asked if they could take it again next year.

Susan Senator is author of “Making Peace with Autism.” She can be reached at

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What’s the Matter Here

All these cold and rude things that you do I suppose
you do because he belongs to you;
and instead of love, the feel of warmth
you’ve given him these cuts and sores that won’t heal
with time or
–Natalie Merchant

How much do our words sink in, and permanently lacerate? How resilient are the others in our lives? People say children just bounce back, but we all know how we carry around hurts from childhood, things that made us as screwed up as we now are.

I guess the thing I’m so worried about is something I said years ago when Nat was eleven and we were going through hell with the first onslaught of his aggression. This was when I first came up with the term “Living Under Siege,” referring to how imprisoned I felt because Nat was so volatile. I went around with a stomach ache from the fear. I was afraid he would suddenly hurt me or someone else in the family, or lash out inexplicably at a stranger and get us all in trouble. I was afraid someone (at his school) would hurt him while trying to subdue him. I was afraid we would, too, inadvertently.

I’m reminded of Rhett Butler, who, head in hands, is crying to Melanie about Scarlet’s fall down the stairs. Scarlet almost died from the fall, and the baby she was carrying did die. Rhett says, “And then, what did I do? What did I say?”

We all know what he said: Maybe you’ll have an accident. And then, just then, she did.

Here I am, head in hands. What did I do, what did I say, in the middle of a terrible bout of fending off Nat’s aggression: “If you don’t stop, I’ll send you away to live at your school. You won’t be able to live here.”

“No live at school,” Nat said.

I am beyond sorry. I can’t take those words back. I know I’m a drama queen. So be it. And now you know what’s the matter here.

Monday, June 9, 2008


I was folding napkins for dinner. In the middle of smiling at Joyful House Stompies, I stopped dead in my tracks. My brow pulled inward and my throat swelled, and there it was, grief out of nowhere. I watched Nat running back and forth, stimming, talking so loudly in his own language, and I suddenly felt leveled by what was to come. He was going to live at his school. It was really going to happen. The thing that I once feared so much, come to life. I had promised, when he was eleven, that I would never send him away. Anything that happened, our family would deal with it. We would just broaden our arms to hold it up.

So — my arms are tired. I find I cannot carry this much. I am opening them up, and letting him go. Our family is no longer bigger than our challenge, the way families with little kids are in control. We are beyond control. Nat and Max are breaking off, discreet lands of their own. We are bigger, and also smaller than we have ever been.

It is upon us now. I once feared this eventuality so much that I ran from it — for the first three years of Nat’s life. That thing — once the doctor at Mass General said the word, “Autism,” — was kind of a gray, shadowy essence that I could keep at bay. I did not have to see it. I did not know what shape it would take, but I could be optimistic. I could still say, “All bets are off. You never know.”

I was sad tonight because now there is one big thing I do know. He’s leaving.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Real Ode to Joy

Cheerful feelings upon awakening in the country.
–Ludwig Van Beethoven

One hour from now we will be on our way to the first visit of the year to Cape Cod, just for the day. Mom and Dad are already there. I can only imagine how happy they felt waking up this morning. Only something as beautiful as The Pastoral, Symphony #6, opus 68, can express it. If for some reason you don’t know what I mean, you must listen to it today. Do not deny yourself that exquisite pleasure. Then you will know how I feel right now, and maybe you’ll feel it too.

Drek and the Dim-Witty

I’ve come to bury the film Sex and the City, not to praise it.
–Shakespeare (and me)

Ned and I had an argument when we were first dating, about what beautiful meant. In true Ned fashion, he told me that “there is no universal, absolute consensus on Beauty. There is only each person’s opinion.” Not at all satisfied, in typical Sue fashion, I had to dissect this. “But why? What is beautiful?” and all manner of questioning that was guaranteed to completely shut him down. He told me, “There is beautiful, and there is Magazine Pretty. You are not Magazine Pretty.” He said some other nice things but that particular phrase jumped out at me. Stung me, idiot that I was.

I found myself thinking about this question as I watched the movie Sex and the City last night. It was not about sex, or the city, or about anything actually beautiful or even fun. Carrie’s voice over warns you right from the start “Young women come to New York in search of the two L’s: Labels and Love.” Huh? Silly me, I thought that people come to New York in search of an amazing job or a more interesting life. So I should have realized it would not be about the city or even about good sex. It could have been called, Magazine Sex, Fashion and a Disneyworld Version of New York City, but that is not nearly as catchy.

I totally hated the movie. We had both loved the show. Ned wasn’t expecting that much from the film, so he felt it was pretty much like the show: enjoyable enough. I thought it would be like the show, a glimpse of a fantasy life of four friends working and playing in New York, and all the issues that come up in both.

But working did not enter the picture much at all, and neither did playing. Where in the TV show all four women’s jobs had been a fairly central element, in the movie, playing was remarkably absent, and work was non-existent. Even when the four go off to Mexico, it is a gloomy time interspersed with a little light-hearted diarrhea. Without any of those fixtures, you are left with some pretty vapid stuff, even for Sex and the City: a lot of branding, and a lot of “Romance”/blithering dialog about people cheating or not satisfying, rather than about love, friendship, careers, family problems, etc.

The movie wasn’t even actually about sex. The characters whom you mostly see having sex are abundantly-implanted-and-buff strangers in the apartment next door. Well, there is one very raw meat, up close glimpse of Miranda and Steve having sex, but that felt too much like stumbling upon your friends doing it. The television show managed to have a lot of provocative, interesting naked body sex scenes for all four of the women, that were part of the plot, but the movie shied away from that, except for the Miranda and Steve scene which went from zero to 80 in seconds. No sexual tension build-up, not even much conversational build-up. (Not even wax build-up: everyone’s apartments were just beyond perfect. Crazy perfect, immaculate, and air-brushed.)

Yes, the show was shallow, too, but at least in the show there were interesting episodes about issues such as how to deal with a mother-in-law who might have Alzheimer’s (Miranda); how to deal with a difficult boss even though the Vogue job is great (Carrie); breast cancer and sexuality (Samantha); an impotent husband who won’t admit to a problem (Charlotte). The movie’s main “issues” were more like Cosmo headlines: “I’m bored living in L.A.! (Samantha)”; or “I’m pregnant and incubating!” (Charlotte); or “Steve cheated on me!” (Miranda); or “Big built me the closet of my dreams but came late to our wedding, so I guess he doesn’t love me!”(Carrie)

And yes, the show was no PBS Masterpiece Theatre. The show was all butter-cream-frosted over with labels and cool clubbing, but at least there was a funky and creative vibe to it. So in this way, the movie was not even about The City. Where the show sprinkled in a little Tribeca and Village and four-flight walk-ups, the movie was all 5th Avenue and midtown. The movie was only whip cream, not even any cake.

It was a Dynasty version of Sex and the City, without any of the plot twists that Dynasty was famous for. Even the clothes were a disappointment. In the show, Carrie’s clothes were pieced-together blue-jeans-and-bra-straps-type of creative while Miranda wore lawyerly suits; in the movie, it was all 5-inch heels and the highest couture dresses for all of them all the time. (And what was with all the Charlotte and Samantha monochromatic dresses?)

A whole lot of garish, screaming nothing. As Ned put it, “There were way too many scenes of them screaming over Samantha showing up.” They would have been better off calling it Much Doo-Doo About Nothing.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Road to Independence is Paved with Bad Dreams

Just woke up from a horrible dream. I’m heartsore from it. First there was the part where I just knew that a baby — I think it was a baby of mine — was in some kind of ocean danger, due to people not paying attention. There was something, inexplicably, about course selection, and that if someone chose a certain class in the following year, this baby would end up with sharks or would drown. I was filled with terror that this was my fault. I somehow made it back to the baby, and he was okay. Next thing I knew, I looked outside and Nat was up in a tree, about twenty feet high, standing on one cut limb that was obviously loose, while someone else stood in another tree nearby on two limbs, talking and talking to him. I was terrified, and helpless to help him. I felt that if I got his attention, he would fall. He seemed to be unaware of the danger. Or okay with it. I was so angry at the person in the other tree, for thinking so blithely that it would be fine to just have him up there with her. She was so irresponsible, so stupid!! Yet I knew she loved him, and had only been thinking of having fun with him.

I had to just wait, impotent, until he came down on his own.

I stood there behind the silent glass of the window, choking on my helplessness and anger. Next thing I know they were both safely on the ground. I rushed outside, hugging and hugging Nat. (I think. As I slurp my coffee I am losing hold of the dream.) I was so angry at her that I said that she could not be with him for a long time, because I couldn’t trust her. Then she just kept following me around with such mournful eyes. Everywhere I looked, there she was, wanting me to forgive her. But she had been so horribly irresponsible!!!!!

Literal stuff going on: class selection for fifth grade for Beastie, who endured so much fourth grade turmoil this year. So much angst over his class, so much personal growth. He is impressing me, moving me, every day with his insight, his care for Ned and me, his humor, his heart. He is growing up. His ankles are getting that long flat look of adolescence, even while his face is still smooth, small, little-boy-perfect.

Max is also in the middle of so much. He is taking the SAT2 today. The SAT2 is a relatively new monster, a subject test. Max found out about it on his own, told me we had to register for the chemistry test, told me what books to get him, and has been studying the material for weeks now. His girlfriend H is studying for the biology, even though her test is not until next year!

The other day I stood in the Borders and searched for the SAT prep books. All around me were fresh young moms and strollers popping with fat babies. Toddlers ran around as if it were a playground. I was just with myself, buying pre-college texts for my 6′ 3″ son.

I realized I was truly not one of them, those bouncy, tired new mothers. I was old. I was there for Max, not for me. And I was happy to be there, exactly how it was. That was a first; being happy as an old mother, being done with the giddiness of babies. I loved what I had, and why I was there.

Max has also been talking to me a lot about his course selection, and all the areas he wants to study, including philosophy. How to fit it in, how maybe he’ll take biology during the summer to have room in the fall for all he wants to take! I have such a lump in my throat listening to him. He is such an interesting mix of Ned and me. I can’t believe the young man he is turning into. Responsible, in love (with a truly dear, smart, terrific young woman), funny, caring. Still Max, but all stretched out into a Man.

And Nat. Of course, he is a man now, so competent in so many ways. Still doing what he can, as the Miniman song went (Baby Delight… he does what he can, he’s Miniman, it’s Baby Delight…). He is going off to live in the Residences at his school soon. He — and others — will be responsible for him.

He also goes off with his friends on Friday nights, so bursting with happiness, Joyful Parking Lot Stompies all over the place. Everyone who sees him smiles because he expresses his full heart better and more openly the way they would like to.

All his life, he has drawn people to him. We used to call it The Cult of Nat. So many love him and his golden aura just shines. But — I worry.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Wilst Thou Yield?

I can’t come back, I don’t know how it works!
–The hapless Wizard, in the untethered balloon (which, by the way, if you look closely, was purposefully untied by the Tin Man)

My longtime experience with various unstoppable rages and the resulting humiliation, and also with Nat’s inability to stop himself from aggression, has given me a bit of an understanding into Hilary Clinton’s issues. There is something about going down in flames that has a macabre, but perhaps human, appeal. I have witnessed Nat giving himself over to aggression, and I have seen awareness and remorse flash through his eyes, along with an understanding that he crossed a line. And yet, I have also seen him follow through with the violent act and in fact add to it. It is kind of a blood lust; once you start, it is hard to stop. Whether it is a pinching fit or attempt after attempt to “fix” a toxic relationship, or even to stop saying you won something that you have obviously lost.

Maybe the compulsion to go on and on is about the fear of losing face. (What an odd expression that is: to lose one’s face. Where does the face go? It kind of disappears behind this mask of ongoing terrible behavior. The mask is an awareness that you are wrong and you have to admit it. In doing so you will “lose” your face.)

What happens when we lose face? What happens after we yield? I think there is some kind of calm that follows the storm. The air has cleared. The act is complete. Even though there are residual feelings, It is over.

I have had lifelong struggles with letting certain things go, with ending something. Sometimes I will return again and again to that sore spot, even though it hurts, tears me apart, just because the prospect of the new, living without it, is somehow even worse than the horrible pain of continuing the self-destruction. It is hard to change.

I think it is psychologically and emotionally hard for Hilary to let go of this insane grip, even though all signs say she must. I’m not saying she is right, I’m only saying I think I understand. She doesn’t know how to save face; she doesn’t realize that by letting go she will find some peace, if not redemption. But at least Nat and I are beginning to understand that.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Spin Around the Yard

I tried to reprise what I had learned from yesterday’s double-veil and spinning workshop, trying it all out in front of Ned, of course. Because the veils are so voluminous, we had to take it to the backyard. It went okay until I tried to do some barrel turns, and suddenly, the ground tilted up at me.

Tabblo: Susan, Spinning

Here’s Why I’m Psyched

This is a picture a friend took at yesterday’s workshop, of Petite Jamilla and me! The whole event sings inside my head as one of the best days of my life so far. A dusty old VFW building in Medford (“Med-fuhd”) Mass., about thirty sweaty women, and one gorgeous lithe young thing (PJ), explaining her magical moves, and finishing every explanation with, “Does that make sense?” So adorable!

And it did make sense. I learned how to spin two veils vertically, one side, then the other, making a vertical figure eight with them across me; I learned how to spin in a star shape with the veils rolling overhead; how to roll the veils like the wind, around me; how to part the veils and step inside and spin in the “floating skirt” move; how to take a veil in each palm and spin in a paddle turn and then a barrel turn, the most exquisite of all. Crazy fun.

Then, after we were all finished, I went down the road with a friend to get some flatbread pizza and wine. We sat and ate and ate and drank; we were so hungry and thirsty after about 6 hours of dancing! We toasted performing.

Came back to the VFW and ran into Ned! With his camera and his smile. Then we went into the dressing room and changed with all the other girls, including the two bellydance superstars! This was fun, the sisterhood of dancers, helping each other with make-up, pinning torn costumes, laughing over spiderlike false eyelashes. I felt giddy with excitement.

Dressed in our cossies, we wrapped ourselves in coverings, as is the custom. Other dancers are not supposed to steal attention from the one performing. It is tacky to sit around in your cossie.

So when Za-Beth announced me, I shed Ned’s bathrobe and strode down the aisle in my Pharaonics pink, to the front of the audience. I smiled at people, and then my music started. But it was not my music. “Uh,” I said, “That’s not my song.”

A few minutes of Za-Beth and her husband messing around with CDs, and there was I, with my arms raised and a genuine smile on my face. It was funny, after all. But when the first drums of “I Put a Spell on You” started up, my body took over and then there was only movement and a sea of friendly faces. They even started clapping along with me when the music picked up. It was fantastic to have an audience to respond to!

I wonder how I can find a way to dance again…? Tomorrow is the last Baby Bellies class and I can’t wait to show them the double veil stuff!!

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