The Root Of Evil

On the phone with The Queen.

The Queen: Did you guys have fun at music class this morning.

Me: Oh yeah, we had a blast. And afterwards, when I was driving The Squirrelly to daycare, he ate raw carrots for the first time. I think he really liked them.

Q: Where did he get raw carrots?

M: I forgot to bring him an after-music-class snack, so I just gave him the baby carrots from my lunch.

Q: You gave him whole baby carrots while you were driving?! And he didn’t choke to death?!

M: Ah, no. And for future reference: if I ever tell you a story that involves our son choking to death on baby carrots, I promise that, A, I’ll mention that fact in the lead paragraph, and, B, I will not refer to the experience as ‘a blast’.

House Party

Last Saturday I was a participant in a panel discussion, as part of the Richard Hugo House’s Annual Inquiry. Oh shit — you know, I totally meant to announce this last week, so my local readers could come see me. Well, the nice thing about having both a blog that allows backdated entires and a complete lack of scruples is that I can just go ahead and create that post now, and then pretend like it was always there. Done!

I was originally scheduled to be the token blogger on a panel called “Persona in Media.” I was looking forward to it for two main reasons. First, the question to be explored by this panel was “Does writing about yourself automatically put you in a world of inauthentic, fabrication and fiction?,” and, insofar as I make up like 80% if the stuff on this site, I thought that I could provide a fairly definitive answer (“Yes”). Second, another panelist was to be John Richards, morning DJ at KEXP, and I pretty much revere that guy.

But, for whatever reason, it was eventually decided that I was going to be on another panel instead, this one called “Persona in Culture.” In retrospect, it’s probably best that I did not wind up on the panel with John Richards, as I probably would have spent the whole time trying to impress him.

Q: Matthew, while I agree that all journalism is inherently subjective, wouldn’t you agree that honest reporters can and should work to identify and isolate their biases so as to at least strive toward the goal of objectivity?

Me: I think Alvino Rey addressed that issue best in his song “My Buddy,” found on the B-side of The Arcade Fire’s limited-release 7-inch single “Neighborhood #1,” which I own on vinyl. Wouldn’t you agree, John?

John: Uh, I’m pretty sure that’s song is an instrumental.

Me: Yes. Exactly.

Unfortunately, there was also a problem with my being on the culture panel: namely, the average cup of yoghurt is more cultured than I am. Yes, there was a time when I saw arthouse films and read books by Milan Kundera and spent Friday evenings watching experimental theater that didn’t make a goddamned bit of sense to anyone, but these days the closest thing to the arts that I experience on a regular basis is Ernie singing “The Honker Ducky Dinger Jamboree” on the Sesame Street “Silly Songs” CD. Still, I figured that I could bluff my way through the event.

I took my seat on the six person panel, next to moderator Brian Goedde, who was sitting on the end. As we began, Brian asked the panelists to introduce themselves, starting with the person farthest from him. The first was a professor at a local college; the next had two master’s degrees and founded a Writers Institute; another was the 2005 Grand Slam Poetry Champion and author of several chapbooks. When they got to me I was all, like, “Hi, I write a blog where I tell fart jokes and mock people for giving money to charity!”

It was kind of liberating — by this point I realized that I was so far out of my league that I just kind of settled into the role resident philistine.

As it turned out, having a boorish rube on the panel was a great boon to the moderator. He would ask some thought-provoking question and, while the rest of the people would furrow their brows and gaze into the middle distance while actual thoughts were provoked, I would rush to fill up the dead air by gamely offering up some profoundly uninformed opinion, thereby allowing someone else to follow up with “well, I think I would take exception to Matthew contention that contemporary fiction is quote-unquote ‘totally gay’ …” or whatever boneheaded thing I said.

At one point Brian Goedde hesitated before answering a question and then justified his delay with, “I just don’t want to blurt out something without thinking it through ahead of time” and then I said “As a blogger, blurting out things without thinking them through ahead of time is pretty much my medium” and then everyone laughed. Laughed with me, I’m sure.

Also adding to the fun was that fact that there was a whole side discussion going on about James Baldwin, so people from the audience would occasionally chime in with “I couldn’t agree more with Baldwin when he talks about how themes of personal importance include the significance of community identification” and I’d be sitting there thinking, “whoa, I totally don’t even remember saying that.”

Anyway, a great time was had by all, and it’s too bad that they’ll never invite me back again.


The Fancy Words Matthew Used While On The Hugo House Panel To Sound Smart And Their Actual Meanings

Word: Laconic
Context: “… a great writer, but fairly laconic.”
What Matthew thought it meant: Terse
What it actually means: Using or marked by the use of a minimum of words; brief and pithy; brusque.
Verdict: He shoots, he scores!

Word: Polemic
Context: “… I think Americans respond better to political humor than to straight polemic.”
What Matthew thought it meant: Overly didactic speech or writing.
What it actually means: A controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine.
Verdict: Close enough!

Word: Artifice
Context: “… people want authenticity. They are tired of artifice.”
What Matthew thought it meant: Fakery.
What it actually means: An artful or crafty expedient; a stratagem.
Verdict: Doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, but it still kinda worked. Kinda.

Word: Obstification
Context: “… don’t want your writing to get bogged down in obstification.”
What Matthew thought it meant: Using so many big words in an effort to sound smart that no one knows what the hell you are talking about.
What it actually means: Nothing! I was searching for “obfuscation,” which means “to make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand”
Verdict: I would refer to this as “ironic,” but why compound one misuse of a word with another?

The Slump

You’d think that with all the calamities that have recently befallen the White House — the fallout from the Katrina response, the Plame investigation, the Miers nomination, the Delay indictment, the disastrous Tikrit teleconference, etc. — we progressives would be gloating every chance we got. Actually, I’ve noticed that most of my friends daren’t even mention the current state of the executive branch, as if they were afraid of jinxing things. It’s like we’re seven innings into a no-hitter, but no one wants to mention this fact aloud.

Or it could just be that we here in Seattle are so familiar with this particular brand of meltdown that it hardly bears mentioning any more. Because the trajectory of the Bush Administration almost perfectly parallel any given season of our beloved (and occationally behated) hometome baseball team, the Seattle Mariners.

Things start out promising and soon they are flying high, packing the stadium every night and well over five hundred. But then, just after the mid-season All-Star game (which, in thins case, would coincide with the 2004 election), things start to go south. Soon they go into a full-on tailspin: they can’t do anything right, they routinely snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the fair-weather fans desert them, and even the season-ticket holders start grousing about the lousy management.

On the bright side, the Bush administration will probably trade John Bolton to Paraguay for a young but promising diplomat and a yes-man to be named later, and begin scheduling events like a “Press Secretary Night” where the first 10,000 visitors to the White House receive a commemorative “Scotty’s A Hotty” jersey and get to attend a special ceremony where they retire Ari Fleischer’s number.

Super Way-In-Advance Notice

Hey, I’ll be part of a panel discussion last I mean next Saturday at the Hugo House’s Annual Inquiry. If you weren’t there it was totally your fault, with me giving you lots and lots of advance notice and all.

Souled Out

Hey, have you heard that new Death Cab For Cutie song, “Soul Meets Body?” Oh boy, I have. I’m listening to it right now! And I don’t just mean “I’m listening to it as I type these words,” I mean “I’m probably listening to it at the exact moment you read these words, regardless of when that might be.”

Every radio station in Seattle has that thing on, like, 24-hour rotation. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most Seattle DJ’s are just putting track two of the “Plans” CD on repeat at the start of their shift and then kicking back for four hours. The only time it’s not playing is when the DJs come on the air to boast that they are the only station in America with the balls to play such an obscure, indie, local band.

Seriously, that song is becoming 2005’s “Hey Ya,” at least here in the Northwest. Every station is playing it, regardless of format: top 40, alternative, “alternative,” adult contemporary, NPR/olde tymey guys-shouting-songs-through-megaphones, Spanish language (Cuando Alma Encuentra Cuerpo), conservative talk radio (“… the question we should be asking Harriet Miers is ‘Do you believe that soul meets body at conception?'”), etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if, starting tomorrow, we started hearing this:

This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.

"When soul meets bah-deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..."

The Fine Art Of Writing

Sorry about the paucity of posts in the last two weeks, but it took a while for me to get that ASD entry out, and everything else got stoppered up.

It’s like I have this pipe of things I want to write about, but if the one at the end of the chute is really big or hard it will block all the stuff that entered the pipe later. So I sit down and struggle and strain to push it out, because the backup makes me uncomfortable. And when it finally does emerge, it’s like everything behind it explosively uh, it, uhhh …

In retrospect I kind of wish I’d picked a different analogy for my blogging style.


This is The Squirrelly, looking you in the eye.

If you met The Squirrelly in person, this is not something you’d likely see. As you entered the room he might glance briefly in your direction, but would then return to whatever he was doing before and probably ignore you thereafter. Any effort you made to catch his eye would almost certainly be in vain.

The technical name for this behavior is “gaze avoidance,” and it is one of the symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). The Squirrelly was diagnosed with ASD two weeks ago.

The possibility of ASD was first suggested by his daycare provider in August. The Queen was worried; I was skeptical to the point of dismissiveness. This was the same woman who, just three days after he took his first steps, urged us to take him to a foot doctor because he “walked funny.” I assumed that this was just another overreaction on her part, and one (like the “walking funny” comment) that she would never mention again. Instead, she brought it up several more times over the course of the week. It was clear that she was sincerely concerned.

Of course we’d noticed that The Squirrelly was idiosyncratic — his phenomenal ability to tune us out, his reluctance to adopt gestures such as hand clapping, the (slight) delay in his speech — but we’d just chalked it up to his personality. Our only real worry was over his intermittent response to his name, which had us wondering if he might have a hearing impairment.

But we’d never seriously considered the possibility of autism. Still, The Squirrelly had an appointment with his doctor scheduled for the following week, and we figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

The pediatrician noticed the same things the daycare provider did, foremost among them his lack of eye contact and seeming indifference to her presence in the room. She suggested that we enroll him in the Toddler Assessment Project, a University of Washington study to identify ASD in children as young as eighteen months. We did so immediately.

The clinicians at the UW Autism Center conducted interviews with The Queen and I regarding The Squirrelly’s behavior, and we brought him in for observation on a number of occasions. After the fourth such visit they had seen enough to officially classify his symptoms as those of autistic spectrum disorder.

* * *

Autistic spectrum disorder” is an umbrella classification for a group of closely related pervasive developmental disorders, including autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and (arguably) attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The word “spectrum” is in recognition of the fact that people with ASD vary widely in their impairments.

Of the five major areas that characterize ASD — social impairment, language impairment, imaginative impairment, repetitive adherence, and sensory integration dysfunction — it appears that The Squirrelly’s symptoms lie mostly (and perhaps exclusively) in the first three. He doesn’t engage in rocking or arm flapping, doesn’t have affinities or aversions to specific textures or sounds, and doesn’t insist upon sameness and routine. That’s good news, as these things go. His physical development is, if anything, a little ahead of the curve. And while it’s really too early to start making predictions about his cognitive skills, he appears to be right on track.

But his “gaze avoidance” tendencies are unmistakable, and he makes very little effort to communicate with others. He knows dozens of words but only uses them for labelling. Show him a banana and he’ll say “banana,” but if he wants a banana it apparently doesn’t occur to him that saying the corresponding word to us might provoke a response. When he is in the company of other toddlers he plays around them rather than with them. And he rarely engages in imitative play.

It seems likely that he is high-functioning. One possibility is that he has Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), which is a relatively common form of ASD. People with AS have normal to high intelligence but great difficulty with social behavior. There’s probably someone in your company’s IT department with a touch of Asperger’s. Albert Einstein and Bill Gates are both suspected of having AS, so, who knows: we might wind up with a genius or a bajillionaire in the family. Even Dan Ackroyd has AS, which, for some reason, comforts me to no end.

But, at this point, all we know is that The Squirrelly falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

It’s worth noting that he will make eye contact with me and The Queen for long periods of time, though he does so infrequently. I wouldn’t characterize him as overly affectionate, but he loves roughhousing with his father, sitting in his mother’s lap, and getting hugs from either. He cries when one of us walks out the door, even if its just to get the mail. Most importantly, to my mind, he has a great personality, he laughs a lot, and, in general, is an exceptionally easy-going and happy kid. Honestly, what else matters?

It goes without saying that we are anxious about his future, and have lost sleep since receiving the news. But that’s when we tend to fret: when he’s asleep in his room and we’re awake in ours. Or when we are at work and he is at daycare. Or whenever he’s not around. When he is around, though, it’s almost impossible to worry about him too much. You can’t spend any time in the company of this kid and not think that, regardless of the diagnosis, he’s going to turn out awesome.

* * *

Of the aforementioned ASD symptoms that The Squirrelly is exhibiting, “rarely engages in imitative play” probably seems like the least of them. Actually, this one turns out to be a sticky wicket (as they say, um, somewhere, I think). Imitation is, after all, how toddlers learn a lot of things — they see their mother use a spoon, so they decide to try using a spoon themselves. Most parents take it for granted that they can teach their child by demonstration; when that option isn’t available, things get a bit thornier.

So the first thing we need to do is teach The Squirrelly how to learn. The mostly widely accepted method for doing this is called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). The Queen and I have spent the last few weeks trying to arrange ABA therapy for The Squirrelly, but it’s proving to be something of a chore. Autism is on the rise in the US (even when you account for improved diagnostic techniques), but the increasing number of ASD cases is not being matched by a the growth in autism services. Consequentially, many organizations that offer ABA now have outrageous waiting lists and fees. Demand is running roughshod over supply.

So curious as it may sound, The Squirrelly’s diagnosis came as something of a relief to us. The Queen and I have been devouring books on autism ever since the pediatrician seconded the daycare lady’s suspicions, and by the time we brought him to the UW we were already convinced that he had some form of ASD. But hunches aren’t enough to seek treatment. To gain access to the ABA clinics, you need an official diagnosis; once we had one we could start arranging for intervention.

The Squirrelly continues to go to the UW Autism Clinic of assessment visits. He will receive an MRI on the 28th. In the meantime we have begun incorporating ABA principles into our daily interaction with him and scheduling therapy sessions. Research has shown that intensive therapy can work wonders on children with ASD, assuming its caught early. As The Squirrelly was diagnosed at eighteen months — about as early as ASD can reliably be identified — we have every reason to believe that he will be very responsive to it.

* * *

And now, a story.

For about a decade I didn’t eat horseradish. My mother served it to my sister and I when we were kids, but I never touched the stuff after I left the nest. It wasn’t that I disliked it, but I’m not much of a condiment man and never felt the need to slather it onto to anything.

Fast-forward to my late twenties, when The Queen and I were visiting some friends. I had just finished telling a story and The Queen had launched into one, so I grabbed something to snack on from a nearby plate of appetizers. All of the food that I liked had already been eaten (undoubtedly by me), so I took one of the salmon fillets. And because I wasn’t wild about fish, I decided to mask the taste by loading it up with the accompanying horseradish.

I realized it was horseradish that I was putting on my salmon, and I remembered that horseradish was hot. But there were two other factors in play. First, when you get older you often find that the foods you thought were unbearably spicy as a kid are actually rather bland, so I was compensating accordingly. Second, my friends had served us straight horseradish, My mother always given us prepared horseradish, and I was unaware that it came in any other form. Consequentially, I shoved a horrific amount of the stuff into my mouth and started chewing.

At first it wasn’t so bad: just the mildly hot flavor that I remembered from my childhood. But then, at some point, I realized that it was getting hotter, and hotter, and hotter. I stopped chewing. I let my mouth hang open. Suddenly the heat doubled, and doubled again. By this point I wasn’t even able do the comical “HA-HA-HAAAA!” hand-waving-in-front-of-the-mouth routine — the horseradish was so hot that I was paralyzed, sitting there ossified while my friends laughed at the conclusion to The Queen’s story.

As the feeling continued to grow I began to seriously wonder: can I die from this? Can this become so overwhelming that my body goes into shock, and I’ll just slump sidewise and perish from the sheer enormity of the sensation?

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately, because I have begun to wonder the same thing about my love for The Squirrelly.


when you ask

when you ask
when you   ask
the love
of your
(of your
of your

you want to give
          to give
(custom design
one of a kind) 
you want   to give
an engagement ring
not to be found
the          finger
of            anyone

we have the largest
of engagement rings
engagement rings
are what we do
             (i do)  
              and all we do
are engagement rings

unlike that fucker
        that fucker
tom shane
                    - e. e. robbins