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Alex the Boy from the publisher
Friday, 4 December 2015


I wonder how Alex would react to getting shot at? He might laugh and clap; he might duck. I don’t know. I wonder how he’d react to getting shot. I imagine he’d scream and cry, but I don’t know for sure and I of course I can’t ask him. He is tough and went through a lot of physically painful stuff, mostly in his youngest days. Next summer he turns 18.

This was a very soft target … very unassuming,” one expert said. “I’ll take a bullet before you do, that’s for damned sure!” said one cop in a just-released video as he lead human-services office workers – and at least one child – to safety. They marched with hands up down yellowish corridors past drawings of wreaths, Christmas trees and wooden soldiers. I’ve walked through a lot of similar hallways with Alex.

“The attack is especially devastating because of its target: the Inland Regional Center, a nonprofit that offers therapy and other services to developmentally disabled children in the region,” read of the first backgrounders on the site of the shooting. “It’s a dull name for an organization that is a lifeline for families of disabled kids. The state-run charity sends caseworkers and therapists to the homes of young people with autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other intellectual disabilities.”

“To be eligible for services,” added the website of The California Department of Disabilities, “a person must have a disability that begins before the person's 18th birthday, be expected to continue indefinitely and present a substantial disability.”

On Wednesday morning, 14 staffers at the center encountered prematurely the most substantial disability of all. Almost two dozen more were wounded by a pair of shooters who didn’t hesitate to open fire around the helpless, the unarmed, the police or anyone else. None of the casualties was an adult version of Alex.

And the survivors were “wounded,” by the way, not “injured.” Injured is what happened to Alex when he tore around the corner of our living room one evening while he was still trying to learn how to go to sleep and slipped down on the hardwood floor. “Wounded” is what happens when people start shooting, in this case in a building filled with people that we’ve all agreed in our hearts – if not in our budget committees – need protection or the living wage to provide it.

I said it on Facebook yesterday and I repeat it here: Hell has no fire hot enough for who did this. “How I wish I could believe in hell at this moment,” said one reader.

Ned practices shooter lockdowns in his high school, which I admit probably offers more protective value than duck-and-covers of 60 years ago. Alex would probably enjoy lockdown drills; he likes to help and move and be involved. Still, what could it have been like when bullets starting flying out of a world some of the people in IRC have trouble understanding in the first place? (Not like the rest of us.) Or out of world where you thought you were trying to help people that, again, we’ve all agreed need help? It probably resembles how any innocent person feels being slaughtered when all they thought they were doing was getting through a day of work or just another day of life.

Such as the poor four overshadowed folks (one dead) in Savannah, Georgia, or the luckless dead person (possibly a suspect) in Houston on Wednesday. Tough break in terms of headlines, much like the luck of the World War II troops who liberated Rome some 48 hours before D-Day in France.

There wasn’t much about any one of those three cities on Twitter, where I parked on Wednesday night to hear the latest as it happened. Mostly all I saw was conservatives and liberals sniping at each other over open borders and gun lunacy. (For the record, I grew up in Maine and slept every night as a schoolboy in a room that also contained a lever-action deer rifle and a bolt-action shotgun. The room did not contain semi-automatic AR-15s).

As it got late, I was loathe to close my search for answers; at last I did go to bed, wondering what they were thinking at Alex’s school, a beautiful yet sprawling farm campus that a whole armored battalion couldn’t protect.

Wednesday’s newsmakers walked in and did something that probably would’ve appalled even the most sadistic workers at Willowbrook. It’s enough to make you believe in hell. “The parents and siblings of several children who have been treated there,” said one of the last reporter’s I read last night, “told me that they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to attack the IRC.”

Join the club. Soft targets will always be very tempting.


Posted by Jeff Stimpson at 1:33 PM EST
Updated: Friday, 4 December 2015 1:34 PM EST
Tuesday, 3 November 2015


“Sesame Street” has a new character. I might check her out, since I’m unusually familiar with the current “Sesame Street” for a 53-year-old man.

Alex drilled Elmo into his family’s brains for years: Elmo’s goldfish, Elmo’s Cinderella fantasy, Elmo’s musical variety show, Elmo’s bed routine, Elmo’s cowboy phase. Big Bird chipped in with a control freak’s birthday for kids and I swear Children’s Television Workshop got The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith to do “I’m a Little Airplane Now.” Something in “Sesame Street” always spoke to Alex.

Then there was the one they made after 9/11, in which a fire broke out in Hooper’s Store and Elmo was scared of both the fire and firefighters. He quaked and shivered as what I believe was a hunky real fireman (I think Jill had a crush on him) said, “A fire can be pretty scary. I guess a firefighter can be a pretty scary thing, too.” Elmo gets to visit a fire station and eat a peanut butter sandwich, I think it is, with the firefighters and so gets over his fear. That puts him ahead of a lot of people in the wake of that morning 14 years ago, but the point was made and the episode’s execution good.

“Sesame Street” has elected to handle many issues a lot thornier than the ABCs. I understand they’ve also made one where a neighborhood kid has a parent in jail. I haven’t seen that one, but I will try to catch some of Julia. She’s the Street’s new resident; she has autism.

Through all the hours of Alex and Elmo, Jill often remarked that disabilities on the show always seemed to be physical – not minor, to be sure, but not overtly emotional or behavioral. I guess that realistically you’d never pull off a production with those sorts of troubles.

After Jill said that I’d sometimes wonder what Alex might have been like on the set: asked to say “This is my family, Elmo” and instead just saying “ElMO” over and over or, more likely, giggling until he realized the lights were really hot and he decided to turn to me and say, “Michael’s!?” Then some intern with a clipboard would loom up and say, “Maybe he just needs a break…”

The lines about a “Sesame Street” character with autism, though, are potentially powerful.

Why does Julia bite herself?

Why doesn’t she say what she means?

Why does she keep running away? Doesn’t she like us anymore?

Why’d she lay down on the sidewalk outside Hooper’s Store?

Why’s her father drink so much?

“ ‘Sesame Street’s” idea of normal includes acceptance forged with questions – naturally a lot more than one finds off Sesame Street. Sometimes the show doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Consider how a recent news story about Julia opened:

“Fuzzy favorites Grover, Abby and Elmo are joined by their newest muppet pal, Julia, a character with autism, in Sesame Street Workshop's new nationwide initiative. Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children aims to reduce ‘the stigma of autism’ with the introduction of the first muppet with autism. The initiative, created for communities and families with children ages 2 to 5, includes a free downloadable app that incorporates video, digital story cards designed to make daily life tasks easier for families of children with autism,” such as brushing teeth, going to bed and crossing the street. 

Not to mention biting, bolting and public meltdowns. I could’ve used one of those apps the middle of one night when our neighbor phoned to say Alex was in her apartment, turning on all the lights. Or when he charged toward me outside a Michael’s, biting his own arm because the store didn’t have the plastic animal he’d wanted.  

I do notice that the new character is a girl. Autism is five times more common in boys.

“So if Sesame … were truly interested in representing autism most accurately, wouldn't its new character be a boy?” another article wonders. Word from The Street is that Julie took three years to create and that researchers surprised even many of the network execs when they suggested a girl. Everyone eventually decided that her gender would eliminate even more misconceptions about autism (mainly that it always afflicts boys).

Maybe. Maybe too a girl character more easily summons up feelings of protectiveness. Still, they do have a segment where another character talks about her friend, who is a boy with autism.

What kind of answers will Elmo and company find? Probably not many close to my experience, but I suspect they’ll be straightforward, tinged unrealistically rosy and more about the perception of Alex rather than about Alex himself. Some readers of Julia articles hope the Street adds characters with other disabilities. It is a good start: "Sesame Street" remains our single best tool to forge subjective cultural opinion 30 years from now.I wonder if Alex will pause over Julia while looking for Elmo and firehouse to watch for the thousandth time.


Posted by Jeff Stimpson at 10:19 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 4 November 2015 9:56 AM EST
Friday, 23 October 2015
Number 9

My 14-year-old son Ned plays high school football. “You have to go to Ned’s games,” somebody tells Jill, “so if he gets hurt you’ll know who to blame.”

“Oh,” Jill says, “I’ll know who to blame.”

Most fall Sundays for about the past four seasons, Ned and I have hit a Manhattan bar that shows every Redskins game. I’ve been a Washington fan since 1972; Ned now likes the team, too. Jill will blame me if he gets hurt playing this new passion? For starters, if one thing could discourage a kid from getting interested in football over the past four years it’s the lousy Washington Redskins.

Ned has developed a head for the game; that head now wears a helmet. He plays quarterback, safety and slot receiver. He’s in a perfect school for football, an academically tough place where everybody’s too busy to lionize players of anything, almost as if Ned plays somewhere like the Air Force Academy and science grades and a neat bedroom matter more than blocking (we won’t address those two topics here, by the way.) In a year and a month of high school he’s never had to sit alone at lunch and has had probably few socially awkward moments.

Is the risk worth it? The injury rate for football players is 100%. I’ve only heard two people say that. The first was Alex’s former excellent pediatrician and the second was Aaron Rodgers.

A year ago last August, before his freshman year, Ned almost sobbed when they couldn’t find a helmet small to fit him. Later that morning the varsity coach gathered with us parents to field such comments and questions as, “My friends call me crazy for letting my son play football. How can you help me feel better about the possibility of him getting hurt?”

“We are very aware of the concussion issue and are always on the watch for it,” the coach replied.

Ned began a habit he continues today on weekends and most vacations: Up at six in the morning to join the roar of 30-some adolescent young men doing the can-can together across the astroturf, under the sun. Counting school days, he’s up at six almost seven days a week.

“I’ve never seen Ned so happy,” Jill says.

His freshman year he wore number 1 and warmed the bench, getting a few moments of playing time in scrimmages. First time on the line a second-year player shoved him in the shoulder pads and Ned landed flat on his back. When that happens, Ned later affirmed, you can lay there or get up and look for the kid who laid you out. Ned got up.

I remember late in another scrimmage the clock was winding down and Ned hadn’t gotten in yet. Oh, I thought, if Ned doesn’t get in sometime this quarter we’re going to have one unhappy little boy at home tonight.

These days, he wears number 9, unearthly white against his school’s dark blue, and he plays at least some in every game. Recently this season he cried because he’s not the starting QB right now and isn’t even sure he’s a starter at any position. All those mornings at six must sometimes seem wasted to him. Lessons for his looming career, I guess, where, “fair” and “deserved” appear on few job descriptions.

All those mornings up at 6, sometimes 5:30, at least six days a week and usually seven. More or less month after month. I don’t know any adults who’ve done that or who really ever could.

“He wanted something that took a long, long time to get,” Jill says, “and he worked hard for a long time and he got it. Now if we can just get him to put that same energy in his classes.” Football’s to her what houseplants are to me: just never lived with it before. We’ve also tried unceasingly to convince Ned that high school classes and homework are not the things that simply happen between practices.

I go to all his games. Sometimes I sneak among the team on the sideline and for the first few games nobody tells me to leave. Sometimes I sit in the bleachers in the back of one end zone – which is where I am when the smack happens right in front of me early in week three, a blur of huge gray jersey that suddenly smother the white 9.

Ooo, the QB took a real bad shot on that one ... oh wait ...

It’s one thing to watch this on TV, another to watch it live with him in it. “Mixed feelings seeing him out there, huh?” another player’s dad asks. I mumble something with that feeling you have when your suddenly tall kid goes outwhere that’s called “out there.” And that feeling stabs again a few moments later, when I see a player in a dark blue jersey hobble to the sideline before falling into a ball and grabbing his knee. When the player rolls in pain, I see it’s number 9.

These days a paramedic attends all NYC high school football games (…we’re always on the watch for it…). I get to Ned on the sideline as the medic fingers his shin and tells him to look in her face when he answers her questions. She wants to look in Ned’s eyes. Sure glad Jill isn’t here to want to look in my eyes.

Ned’s fine. He really is fine. He’s 14. I’d be on the way to the ER by now and digging out my insurance card.

“You’re OK?”

“Oh yeah,” Ned says.

“Really? No shit? You’re fine.”

He wrinkles his nose and gives one crisp nod.

“You’re two for six for 24 yards,” I tell him.

“Cool,” he says.

“I’m no expert on football, Ned, but as the quarterback shouldn’t be over there with your team?” It’s not the Cotton Bowl, this level of the game, but it’s not Pop Warner, either.

Thrilling game: Ned’s team loses by 2. That night he says to me, “I can’t talk to you during the games anymore. Coach would like it if I didn’t.”

“I know, Ned. I’ll stay up in the stands where I belong.”

“I like talking to you, you know.”

“I know, Ned.”

I feel a little like some dad must have felt a century ago when he learned that his son loved flying. Of course I wish Ned’s heart swelled to something that didn’t involve collisions or concussions – but right now it just doesn’t. And my rate of both pride and worry is 100%.  


Posted by Jeff Stimpson at 10:38 PM EDT
Updated: Friday, 23 October 2015 10:39 PM EDT
Friday, 18 September 2015
The Deal With German

Jill and I are off on our first vacation together in 17 years. We want a whiz-bang, someplace exotic but not too dangerous and where we never really thought of going before. On a weekend drive up to see Alex at his residential school, I say, “Maybe we should go to Berlin.”

German was my favorite foreign language in school, though Zeit has rewritten every line. I took it for a semester in 11th grade from one of my favorite teachers ever, then for another semester in college after I moved to New York. That college class culminated in a bunch (Haufen, I think) of us headed to the then-thriving German Upper East Side where we asked a waiter if his restaurant had live music and he tossed the guts of a music box on the table.

A few years from now I’ll have the time to take a class, maybe even take a few days to live a subject like a language 24/7, just as Alex does now, except his subjects are life and maybe someday holding a job. For now I’m going to a place where I don’t understand the signs and on occasion I may not understand how to behave. What if somebody sneezes? What’s German for gesundheit?

The Air Berlin crew gives the take-off announcement to us Fluggaste first in German, which I don’t understand at all, then in English, which I follow pretty well. The common airline signage is all in German: Schwimmweste unter ihrem sitz, Bitte Angeschnallt Bleiben, Meinen Masse. (Back home days later, Jill will be watching a German version of The Nightmare Before Christmas song “This is Halloween” on YouTube when she’ll exclaim, “Masse! Mask! Like on the plane!”)

Why, you might wonder, didn’t I take more seriously learning the language of the country I’m going to visit? I’m not sure. Some laziness, hearing constant assurance that most Germans speak English (Russian, too, if they grew up in the old East Germany), and the need to wing important stuff even more in my early 50s.

I sleep on the plane, waking up in time to see the dawn (and to a far better economy-class breakfast than we would’ve received on an American airline) at what for me is 1 a.m. “It looks like Queens,” Jill says, looking out the window as we begin to land. “Is that a nuclear power plant?”

Getting a cab is remarkably like getting one at LaGuardia. The driver’s patient with our German (that is, he switches the conversation to English) and soon we’re zipping past houses, streets, what looks like a hell of a hobby shop and a business area that reminds me of Boston. The colors are bright in the morning sun; the words are all wrong.

“Ever take a cab ride in a Mercedes before?” I ask Jill. I make a joke out of being the Ugly American by asking “What’s the deal?” with everything. What’s the deal with these Strassen? What’s the deal with umlauts?

(I believe that I can substitute here two letters S for the German eszett, which looks like an unclosed B. My keyboard doesn’t make umlauts, either.)

“Ich heisse Jeff Stimpson...” I try to say to the lady at the hotel desk. She smiles at me with a cabdriver’s patience and we wordlessly agree to continue in English to save money on subtitling.

We can check in early! “And we have the James Bond suite – Room 007!” she says. Does she think I’m British? Cool. How do I look to others in this part of the world?

We spend a week looking around. In a Bahnhof I see a sleeper train of people packing their little bedrooms to roll to Sweden. We eat a mile of wurst; Alex would love this place once he got over the new name for hot dog. At a hamburger joint in a former public toilet, I see my first Gypsy.

I spend a week in front of doors trying to remember that drucken means push (“No, Alex,” I used to say sometimes curtly, “it says pull…”). In a stationery shop I see the innards of music boxes arranged as collectibles. Everything becomes enlightening, and only clerk replies to “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” with a short “No.”

One evening Jill walks us 45 minutes down dark sidewalks to try to find a nightclub in an abandoned bread factory; another night she tries to get us into a dance club under a railroad bridge. One night we get so lost that we catch a city bus, ride it a few stops before we realize we went too far, get off the bus and walk across the street to another bus stop. As we watch, the same bus we got off takes a regularly scheduled turn at the end of the block and starts back in our direction.

“That bus isn’t going to turn the corner and be the one to pick us up, is it?” Jill asks.

Been a long time since I found getting lost this easy. Late one night Jill and I are all turned around (we were four blocks from our hotel) and, exhausted, we hail a cab. This driver speaks a little English; my German skills soon reveal how much. “Jeff,” Jill says, “he needs to know the address on that street.”

Next morning we get an egg and (great) coffee at a little spot. “Have a good week,” the waitress says as we leave. “No, I mean ‘day.’ I’m sorry.” Nicht sein.

What’s the deal with coming to grips with National Socialism, turning the former headquarters of the SS into a renowned museum dedicated to terror? Building a Holocaust memorial that appeals to tourist curiosity and, as you wander the rows and rows of identical featureless columns, slowly overwhelms you with each shadow and angle of sharp Berlin sunlight?

What’s the deal with a ham wrapper? “Original grusten-karree vom stuck (ofenfrisch aufgeschnitten). Netto gewicht, 80g.” Faucets read kein wasser trinken. The music box course taught me enough to understand that, words that sound a little bit like words in English so I assume that they mean the same as the word they sort of look like in English. Bower. Flowers? Power plant? Sounds like “flowers” and so must be right. One night in our hotel I try to do our laundry.

“Oh Jeff, no,” Jill says, as the pre-wash just doesn’t seem to start, “this is the dryer…” Her voice dips in amazement that after all these years she can still lose faith in my ability to figure out anything. Well see, the washer instructions were on the top of the sheet of paper taped to the inside of the bathroom door, and the dryer sits on top of the washer. All wording on both machines is in German. What’s the deal with that?

And in restaurants am I tipping too much? At a seafood counter I recognize austem because I’ve seen it before, just like Alex has seen “Chicken and French fries!” in diners. I walk right up to a counter and ask for “Zwei wasser, bitte.”

“You want that cold?” the counterman asks.

One afternoon at a big flea market Jill finds me at a picnic table. “You look so German,” she says. That’s because my mouth is shut.

I come close to fooling some. After we see the Memorial, Jill wants to attend Friday night services at a synagogue. As the line forms afterward to shake the rabbi’s hand before we leave, I let a few people get between me and Jill in line. The rabbi says “Thank you for coming” to Jill but “Wilkommen” to me.

With renewed confidence I order a drink in our next restaurant. “Eine Berliner pilsner, bitte.”

“Large or small, sir?”

On the last night we stay in and watch German TV. We get mildly hooked on a soap called “Rote Rosen.” What’s the deal with the couple on the show who seem to think it’s the 1890s? Colorful as Elmo, which Alex still watches. We watch “The Simpsons,” a dinosaur documentary and “Band of Brothers.” Here and there I pick out a noun or verb.

On our last day, a lady – she’s German!asks us for directions. We don’t get her lost and the world makes a klein more sense.

Posted by Jeff Stimpson at 3:28 PM EDT
Updated: Friday, 18 September 2015 3:31 PM EDT
Thursday, 11 June 2015
Batter Up

Both my boys have found sports. We’re not sure where they get it. Jill skates. When I was 12 I played defensive end in Pop Warner. Earlier I’d played Farm League baseball; I sat on the bench all through our one playoff game and when I got up late in the game to ask the coach why I wasn’t playing, he snapped, “Because we’re trying to win, Jeff!” I gave up baseball.

In adulthood, at least until this summer, athletics mostly meant I understood fewer sentences from Ned, who lives for high school JV football. “In practice today,” he said last fall, “I was playing shallow corner and they flooded the zone, so I grabbed a pick and took it to the house.”

You what, Ned? What are you, in The Sting?

He does have an eye for the game. Ned and were watching a Redskins game in a bar when a guy tapped me on the shoulder. “If I ever can’t find where the ball is on the screen,” he said, “I watch your son.” Other times we’ll be home watching a game and, before the snap, he’ll describe what players on both sides of the ball will do in the coming play. He’s usually right. They say Emmitt Smith did that when he was 2.

Ned’s taken QB reps (...you go flood the zone ...) in off-season practice, which I felt fine about until his team hosted a recent benefit pancake breakfast and I got reminded of how many guys on his team look like just plain big. The first time I watched Ned walk onto a field in a football uniform, at a scrimmage 10 months ago, I called out “Roll Tech!” from the sideline. Ned glanced and nodded toward me, slight and curt like Boba Fett in Jabba’s castle. My son was gone a little bit.

Later in that game he lined up at cornerback, and before the snap of his first play Ned eagled-eyed the other team’s quarterback like a hawk. Too bad: The offensive receiver, a vet (much as 10th grade has veterans), noticed that he didn’t have Ned’s attention and, at the snap, rammed the heels of his palms into Ned’s shoulder pads.

A good clean hit, it sent Ned on his back and got his head into the game, where it remains today (sometimes to the exclusion of Spanish and algebra). I tell Ned to go into coaching: all the free tickets and none of the concussions.

Alex likes baseball. His residence school put him on their team and he plays every Saturday. All week, they tell us, he says “baseball” and asks for “Coach Mike.”

Sports in Alex’s world are both different yet remarkably similar to sports in Ned’s. Years ago, for example, I covered a Special Olympics ballgame in Brooklyn. They used a T ball stand, sort of a tall golf tee for a baseball. There were cheers and medals aplenty – the introductory levels of Special Olympics stress enjoyment and achievement above all – but when the kid sliding into second tried to spike the baseman’s ankles, the two players went nose to nose just like in the majors.

Jill phoned me a few mornings ago. “Alex’s teacher just called,” she said. “They’ve got a field trip today. They’re going to a minor league baseball game. Guess who’s throwing out the first pitch? It’s somebody you know.”

Chris Fleming? He’s a rising comedian (“Gayle” is the best thing on YouTube) and he had a Super Bowl commercial, so it’s possible. “No, it’s somebody you know personally.”

Pause. “Alex.”

I find out too late to blow off work and go – Alex’s teacher promises videos and photos, and says Alex will meet a Yankees pitcher recovering in the minors as well as the most likely prospect to move up to the Bombers this season, infielder Rob Refsnyder. (I ask my friend Jon, who bleeds Bosox red, if he’d like an autograph. No reply yet.)

I feel sad and then decide that I want Alex to have this for himself. If we showed up he’d might want to leave the stadium and get some chicken fingers in a coffee shop. “I’m very excited for Alex,” his teacher emails, “and his new-found love for baseball.” I’m proud of Alex, pride with a seedling of relief; I had nothing to do with him getting a ball in his hand in that stadium.

I’m not sure who his team (“Dodgers”) plays, but from where I stood behind first base at the last game I saw him on his team’s bench, rocking on his feet and just another of the guys in supernaturally bright blue sports jersey. Alex didn’t watch the game while his team batted. He didn’t wear a cap.

Then I watched Alex bat. He held the wood out as if holding a flag at an assmbly; the thick plastic batting helmet slid over his eyes. This was one of the first times I ever saw him when he needed armor. His para guided his arms and whispered to him when to swing, but still Alex didn’t even turn his head as the slow pitch floated past – something he didn’t quite comprehend. The infield was quiet; some of the other players were watching him bat.

Soon the other team came to bat and Alex and his para took third. He looked good in a glove, and when giggling he tossed a grounder back to the pitcher what he lacked in power and direction he made up for in a love of throwing. He also seemed to love running the bases. (No surprise: Not long ago he was six years old and I was trying to catch him in Central Park. It was like trying to catch a dragonfly.)

I help him his next time up; I put my hands over his on the bat. “Okay, Alex, hold it like this, right here… Watch the pitcher.” We whiff one slow ball, chip the second, then on the third pitch Alex’s hands on the wood arch the lumber across his waist and connect with a tonk. “Run to first, Alex!” He does. A good clean hit to get him into the game.


Posted by Jeff Stimpson at 3:36 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 11 June 2015 3:47 PM EDT

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