June 29, 2008

Vox monstrum


BBoW
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Sunday mornings are usually pretty relaxed around here. We don't go to church, the Baby Jesus keeps us from having Chick-fil-A and neither of us ever work on Sundays, so we usually get up late and have a lazy breakfast around the apartment. It's nice; even if we've got lots to do, it can all wait.

The three of us were sitting on the bed in our pjs, and Schuyler had her Big Box of Words with her so she could tell us about the beach in Connecticut. This naturally led to the topic of mermaids, as most conversations with Schuyler eventually do. When, in the midst of our discussion, we informed her that a boy mermaid was actually a merman, she asked me to add it to her device. Julie left us to our programming fun.

While we were adding words and making changes to the device, Schuyler and I ended up somehow on the voice settings, where the BBoW user can select the voice that she wants to represent her. There are maybe a dozen different voices, male and female, but there's only one (named "Kit") that sounds specifically like a child's voice.

Kit has been Schuyler's voice all along, and in a weird sort of way, it has become her recognizable voice to me. When we were being interviewed for public radio a few months ago, Schuyler thought it would be funny to reset the voice settings so that instead of little kid Kit's voice, the box suddenly sounded like some kind of menacing robot invader from Mars. She thought it was great fun, of course, and I found the experience surprisingly upsetting. Kit had become Schuyler's voice to me, and in some respects at least a part of who she really is on a fundamental level.

This morning, as I showed her the different voices and how they could be tweaked by changing the rate of speed, the pitch and the variance of pitch (ranging from robotic to Shatneresque), Schuyler grew very interested. She pointed to the device, and then to herself. Since we were in the settings mode, she had to speak with her hands.

She held her hands far apart ("big"), drew her thumb across her cheek ("girl") and then pointed to her throat ("voice").

Schuyler wanted a big girl voice.

We've been trying to push her to use the device this summer and have met with success, at least much of the time. We've always encouraged her her to take ownership of the BoW, adding words and changing pronunciations at her request. Now she was asking for a major change, and one that was very, very personal, both for her as a user and for the rest of us who interact with her every day.

We sat and spent a good half hour going through the different choices, and she finally chose "Ursula", which we then tweaked to bring the pitch up to a slightly more girlish sound and to add a bit of lilt to its patterns. What she ended up with was a voice completely customized to her wishes.

Broken children grow up like everyone else, although perhaps in ways and via paths we never anticipate. Schuyler has a big girl voice now. I only wish the rest of her big girl transformations were going to be that easy.

June 25, 2008

Summer monsters


Three little monsters
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
It's been a while since I've really had much to say here. I haven't been staying away because of any great tragedy. I've just felt, I don't know. Quiet, I suppose.

The early days of summer have been different this year, for the simple reason that we've elected to keep Schuyler at home with us rather than handing her over to another summer program. I feel like I got adequate practice writing angry emails to administrators last summer, after all. The one thing her summer programs have had in common for some time has been the lack of progress she's made on her Big Box of Words. When she was at the YMCA, she never used it because they were constantly playing hard and swimming and having fun being feral kids on the go go go. Last summer, she didn't use it because the people taking care of her were too busy searching for a quarter for the clue bus.

So now she spends her days with one of us, mostly me since my boss doesn't mind her coming in to the office. I think she actually brightens the place up when she's there; the associate dean went out of his way to tell me how much he enjoys hearing her playing in the next room. She brings in toys (sometimes her fairies, other times her big slobbery monsters) and draws and watches movies on my laptop, and the summer session at the university doesn't seem so ghostly. During the hour-long commute, she jabbers away and watches the world going by with interest.

The more time Schuyler and I spend together, the more conspiratorial we become, which is nice, at least for us. When she has her monsters in the car with us, she asks for me to play the "monster mix" I made for her on the iPod (consisting of music from monster movies like Cloverfield and King Kong and Jaws and War of the Worlds), and we drive along pretending to devour the people we see on the sidewalks.

"Daddy!" She says. "Eat that guy!" Which of course I do. When she eats that guy, she only eats half, handing me the rest. She's a very generous monster.

A few weeks ago, her cousins came to stay with us. One of them, almost exactly Schuyler's age, is a smart kid, almost scarily so in fact, but he's also trusting in a way that is perhaps unfortunate when he's got an uncle and a cousin who spend so much time trying to trick and scare each other. (For instance, he now believes that I know a deadly martial arts move called the Monkey Paw, which I can't teach to him because unlike me, he only has ten fingers. Something to think about if you are considering asking me to watch your kid.)

Schuyler invented something called the grass monster a few months ago, a krakenesque creature lurking under the surface of the lawn who will grab you if you walk on the grass. When her cousin came to stay, Schuyler played grass monster all weekend, and I fleshed out the story for him until the grass monster had reached legendary status in our house.

Once he returned to Arlington, he googled "grass monster" and "arlington" from time to time, and always bragged to me when I saw him that there wasn't a grass monster in Arlington. Thus, he was safe. So really, in my own defense, I think a case could be made that some things are just inevitable. (He called me yesterday morning to give me the news.)

Julie's summer has been a little rocky, mostly on account of her work situation. I've worked in a bookstore in the past, same as her, so I know how petty and ridiculous the environment can become, particularly during the slow summer months when people grow bored and restless.

Still, it pains me to watch her deal with a work environment that increasingly resembles nothing so much as junior high school, with a paycheck. I don't write much about her here, for reasons that have been made clear before, but here's what you need to know about Julie, something that people who truly get to know her already understand.

Julie works very hard to maintain a positive and friendly attitude when she's at work, not just having a professional attitude but being open and friendly and funny as well. When she finds herself having to guard herself against petty people taking advantage of that, it does more than cause her to come to work and behave like a retail automaton.

It takes away her refuge, a place where she can go to escape the fact that the light of her life, the little girl who means every bit as much to Julie as to me, is living a life under threat, where every perfect moment has possibilities hanging over it that could snatch everything away in a moment.

I recently read a report of another kid with polymicrogyria, this one closer to Schuyler's age, whose life was suddenly and cruelly snatched away by seizures, the ones that Schuyler has yet to suffer but which hang over this family like a cloud. The possibility of meeting that one last terrible monster isn't something for Schuyler to fear, but her peace belongs to her alone. I can't afford to drop my guard, ever.

And neither can Julie. I write so much about Schuyler's monster that no one ever forgets the thing I live in fear of. I wish the people in her life would remember Julie's anxiety, though. It's her monster, too.

June 23, 2008

June 17, 2008

Writing about writing about writing



Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Sorry I've been feeling sort of quiet these days, but you know how it goes. I have been talking to other people behind your back, however.

Over the weekend, I was part of a Father's Day article about blogging dads for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "Dads join the parenting blog ranks". Those of you who hate the term "mommy blogger" can now hate on "daddy blogger", too.

I also did an interview for writer and artist Debbie Ridpath Ohi, whose excellent work you may recognize from the Schuyler's Monster website. It focuses mostly on the writing process, so you can decide for yourself whether I'm truly a fancy pants author, or if I just got incredibly lucky. I won't tell you where the smart money is.

June 13, 2008

Sad Father's Day


I was all set to post something about Father's Day, and I might still do that. But I just found out that Tim Russert died today of an apparent heart attack.

I know we're going to hear a great deal about his contributions to the field of journalism, but the thing that I'll remember about Russert is that he wrote about fatherhood, both his life with his own dad and his relationship with his son, in a way that opened the door for other writers like myself who had something to say about being a father and a son, and what we're all trying to do in that role.

According to MSNBC:
Russert was a trustee of the Freedom Forum’s Newseum and a member of the board of directors of the Greater Washington Boys and Girls Club, and America’s Promise — Alliance for Youth.

In 1995, the National Father’s Day Committee named him “Father of the Year,” Parents magazine honored him as “Dream Dad” in 1998, and in 2001 the National Fatherhood Initiative also recognized him as Father of the Year.


Fathers have been pretty consistently marginalized in our societal narrative, but I think that is beginning to change, albeit slowly. Tim Russert was an agent of that change, although I suspect that all he really set out to do was write a love letter to his father (a personal mission I understand perfectly), and to give others a place to do the same. I truly regret the fact that I'll never have the opportunity to meet him, and to say thank you.

June 7, 2008

Reviewed in Brain, Child


A nice person sent me a scan of a review of Schuyler's Monster from the Summer 2008 issue of Brain, Child, which calls itself "the magazine for thinking mothers", although I supposed thinking fathers can read it too, as long as they don't fart or scratch or otherwise call attention to themselves.

Schuyler's Monster: A Father's Journey with His Wordless Daughter, by Robert Rummel-Hudson (St. Martin's Press, 2008). When the instructor of the Lamaze class that Rummel-Hudson attended with his pregnant wife said, "So the first thing the nurse will do is hand the new baby to you, mommies, so you can count their little fingers and toes..." Rummel-Hudson added, "And heads!" Weisenheimer moments like this pepper this making-of-a-father memoir and help leaven what could be a true tale of woe. Rummel-Hudson's daughter, Schuyler, was diagnosed at the age of three with polymicrogyria, a rare brain malformation that causes various developmental problems: the most frustrating, a lack of speech. Rummel-Hudson chronicles, with disarming frankness, the experience of parenting a child no one knows how to help. His own journey includes marital problems and fights with school administrators reluctant to work with Schuyler. His family's trials haven't extinguished Rummel-Hudson's smartass side, but they've drawn forth a tenderness that is touching and utterly familiar: "This love was daunting to me. It was the rest of my life, this love... I was Schuyler's prisoner now, and it was in that captivity that I had achieved my life's joy."

-- Elizabeth Roca
Brain, Child (Summer 2008)

June 6, 2008

Interview on Psychjourney

So if you've ever thought to yourself "Say, I like that Rob guy's voice so much, I could listen to him for HOURS," then today is your lucky day. I did an interview yesterday with Deborah Harper, the president of Psychjourney, and what was scheduled to be about a half hour interview turned into an hour and thirteen minutes. Wow!

The thing is, the interview went long because I think we got into some interesting areas, and Deborah is a fantastic interviewer who spends time with a question and follows up on points and gets very personally involved in the answers. We had the opportunity to talk earlier in the week instead of doing the actual interview (as I was sick and sounded like Puberty Frog at the time), and I think that earlier connection really made for a comfortable interview. I was much more at ease for this one than I've been before, and it definitely shows. I know an hour of me jabbering might not sound like your idea of a fun afternoon, but I think you'll like this one.

Psychjourney: Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey With His Wordless Daughter

When I went to the site this morning, I was surprised to see that in addition to the interview, Deborah had also posted the little video I made of two year-old Schuyler back in the summer of 2002, a full year before she was diagnosed with polymicrogyria. I watched it and found myself getting surprisingly weepy. It took me back to a time when we didn't know any monsters, only this funky, weird little kid who had a wheezy little donkey laugh and liked to dump water out of the bathtub.

My favorite moment is when she violently smacks me in the head and then immediately embraces me with a sort of poignant tenderness. That's my life with Schuyler in a nutshell.

June 4, 2008

Dallas Child


The fam
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
A local free monthly called Dallas Child, asked me a few months ago to contribute an article to their regular "daily diary" feature. I wrote up something for them and submitted it, and then promptly forgot about it like a doofus until Julie (who did NOT forget and had been watching for it this whole time) brought home some copies of the June '08 edition from her store.

You know how it is when you write something and then don't see it for a while, then you come back to it and don't actually remember writing much of it? That's how I felt when I read this again. Not in a bad sense, but rather in a "I can be sort of amusing now and again" sort of way.

That sounds like an excellent epitaph, now that I mention it. Someone jot that down.

Dallas Child is available all over the place in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but it's a pretty safe bet that you can find it at your local bookstore. For the other 99% of you who don't live here, you can read it online:

Daddy Diaries: Robert Rummel-Hudson

Redacted


Purple fairy
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
I don't like deleting posts, as a rule. But after sleeping on it for a night, I think yesterday's garment-rending was an overreaction. Yes, it was uncool, reading something that one kid said about Schuyler. And as her father, I can almost guarantee I'll react strongly when I feel like she's in danger, even if it's just the danger of having her feelings hurt. Truthfully, I'll probably consistently OVERreact, because I'm a dad. That's what we do. Trust me, it beats the deadbeat alternative.

Anyway, I've taken down the post, because in retrospect, it felt like I was being overly negative and was focusing on one bad experience in a school and with teachers and classmates who have been almost entirely supportive of Schuyler. One of her teachers wrote us and said that Schuyler is an almost universally beloved kid at her school. It seems now to be a little unfair to turn a spotlight on one stumble.

But I'm keeping the photo, because you can't deny that Schuyler works the purple.