“A Story About Loss, A Book About Resilience”: a Q &A with Lee Woodruff

Lee Woodruff, author of the new novel, Those We Love Most, is certainly one of the women I admire most. Lee is the coauthor with her husband, Bob Woodruff, of the number one New York Times bestseller In an Instant, and the author of the essay collection Perfectly Imperfect. She is a contributing editor to CBS This Morning and has written numerous articles on family and parenting for Parade, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, Country Living, and Family Fun. She and Bob founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation to assist wounded service members and their families. Woodruff has four children and lives in Westchester County, New York.

I gobbled up Those We Love Most in a day. It’s the best kind of page-turner: suspenseful, taut, and propulsive while simultaneously being profound, delicate, and lovely. I’m delighted to share a Q &A I recently did with Lee about her debut novel, the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, her belief in the value of literature to a life, her heroes, her ways of handling stress, and her go-to affirmation.

1) Was writing fiction more or less challenging than writing non-fiction? What was different about the experience?

Writing fiction is definitely more challenging as with non-fiction you have to stick to your life. With fiction you can make the characters do and say anything, so the challenge is to make the story hang together and to make the dialogue authentic. With fiction you could really go anywhere, the sky is the limit. I find that more daunting.

2) As a former English professor, I have to ask you about your experience as an English major in college! What were some of your favorite courses? Who were some of your favorite authors that you studied?

We English majors have to stick together, that’s for sure. I loved being an English major and I took a number of writing courses as well and loved that. Fred Busch and Peter Balakian were two of my published professors at Colgate University and they taught me well. Favorite authors that I studied include Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Herman Melville—I’m going for classics here. But fave writers? Wallace Stegner, Sue Miller, Ann Patchett, Jane Hamilton, Annie Lamott, Anna Quindlen, are you seeing a gender divide here between what we studied and what I love now?

3) In an age where humanities departments are shrinking and the worth of a degree in literature is being questioned, can you speak to the value of an English major in a person’s life?

Liberal arts in general is a wonderful education. How many of us at 21 know what we want to really do and are qualified to do it? But if we know how to write, how to communicate, how to start the conversation and advance it, how to ask the questions, this is the ongoing value of a liberal arts education without question. If the world were tech and science based we’d all become a bunch of robots clicking away on our devices. There is a whole world out there of art and literature and history and nature that is the antidote to our tech selves.

4) Who inspires you? These can be public figures, historical personages, people from your personal life, even fictional characters!

Hmmmm. This is a tough one. We have so few real heroes today and when we make them, we are so quick to rip them down. Who in their right minds would ever want to enter politics today for example.

I think right now I’m inspired by the every day heroes I meet in the veteran community, the men and women who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with internal and external damage. Against the odds these families move forward often without resources and yet when you meet with them they are resilient to a fault.

5) You are an extraordinarily busy woman with a very full life! What are your favorite ways to unwind, relax, and replenish yourself?

I read, I swim, I hike when I can. I do lots of snuggling with my 12 year old twins and my dog, Woody.

6) What are some of your favorite novels? Did any particular novels or novelists inspire you in your own fiction-writing?

I loved Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner– I think if I could only take one book on a desert island it would be the latter. Anna Quindlen and her amazing prose and insightful essays has long inspired me and I first became a fan back when she was writing for the New York Times.

7) What is one piece of advice you would give every new parent?

This too will end– so enjoy it more, stress less about the little things and never underestimate the power of sleep to give you perspective.

8) Do you have a go-to quotation that never fails to inspire, calm, or motivate you?

Right now I’m one Mommy doing the very best I can. And that’s all I can do.

Watch a video about Those We Love Most here:

Follow Lee online here:

http://www.leewoodruff.com/

What It Takes To Be A Winner: A Q &A with NFL Star and Bestselling Author Tim Green

“Many people look at sports figures as heroes. Anyone who has seen someone battle cancer and survive knows there is no comparison.”
Tim Green

I’m so excited to be featuring New York Times bestselling author and former NFL defensive end Tim Green on my blog today. I loved Tim Green as a player, and my older son, Benj, now 13, is a huge fan of his books for young readers. When I found out that a friend of mine was handling publicity for Tim’s new book, UNSTOPPABLE, I wrote to ask whether he’d be willing to do a Q &A with me. He said yes! and he gave me wonderfully thoughtful, insightful, and above all else helpful answers, filled with empathy and wisdom that I will use in parenting my children and in navigating challenging circumstances in my own life. Plus, he answered Benj and James’ questions about life in the NFL!

In UNSTOPPABLE (for ages 9 – 12), his most dramatic and hard-hitting story yet, Tim writes about what it takes to be a winner, even when it seems like fate has dealt an impossible hand. At its heart, UNSTOPPABLE comes from an incredibly personal place for Tim Green. Five years ago, Tim’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. The entire experience – tests, surgeries, treatments, chemotherapy (Tim shaved his head to show support for his wife) – shook the Green family to their foundation. Although everything has gone well, the Green’s outlook on life will never be the same. In a letter to his readers, Tim writes: “While UNSTOPPABLE is certainly a sports story, it is a story of survival first and foremost, a story I have lived through with the person dearest to me in this life.”

Tim played Little League baseball for many years before specializing in football in order to become an NFL player. After graduating as co-valedictorian from Syracuse University, being a first-round NFL draft pick, and playing as a star linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, Tim also earned his law degree with honors and has worked as an NFL analyst for FOX Sports and an NFL commentator for National Public Radio. Tim also coaches youth football, and his first book for young readers, FOOTBALL GENIUS, inspired in part by his players and kids he’s met while reading in classrooms, became a New York Times best-seller. It garnered praise from such football greats as Bill Parcells, the NFL championship coach who said, “As close as you can come to NFL action without putting on the pads. Filled with excitement, suspense-and great football!” In addition to FOOTBALL GENIUS, FOOTBALL HERO, FOOTBALL CHAMP, and DEEP ZONE. Tim is the author of the New York Times best-seller BASEBALL GREAT, to which RIVALS and New York Times bestseller BEST OF THE BEST are companions. PINCH HIT, a baseball take on The Prince and the Pauper, is, like UNSTOPPABLE, a stand-alone novel.

Here is my Q &A with Tim!

1) How did you decide to become an author of books for kids?

When I was a kid, I had two passions, football and books. So, I dreamed one day of becoming an NFL player and a writer. After sixteen books for adults, I had the chance to write for young readers. My editor approached me with the idea of writing page-turning stories and setting them in the world of sports. I loved the idea and used two of my own kids as the characters in the Football Genius series. It’s been fun!

2) How did your former NFL teammates, coaches, and colleagues react to your football books? I know Bill Parcells gave the first one a great blurb, and that would have sent me soaring- I’m a huge NY Giants fan and the Parcells-Simms-Harry Carson era was my heavenly period.

I love Bill Parcells. He’s old school and I almost played for him. He told me he was going to pick me in the 1986 NFL draft in the first round. Only problem was that the Giants had the 19th pick and the Falcons picked 17th and took me! My teammates and other NFL connections all have embraced my stories, especially the ones for their kids. I think they respected my dream to become a writer and admire the success I’ve had.

3) How did you and your wife cope with her cancer diagnosis and how is her health today? What would you say to someone newly diagnosed with cancer? What advice would you give to the family members or friends of someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer about how best to support their loved one?

Thank God, my wife is fine. At the beginning, we didn’t know how it would turn out. It was devastating to us all when we got the diagnosis. She stayed strong and I and the kids did our best to support and encourage her. Ultimately, it was her own toughness, mentally and physically, that saw her through. The great news for cancer victims is that the treatments get better and better and so more and more people are able to survive. I’d say make sure you surround yourself with people who will stay upbeat and help you fight through it, and stay positive. Also, don’t despair if you feel depressed and anxious, of course you do. It’s okay. Get help from others. Seek out their support. For friends and family, be there for them, stay positive. Let them know you’re hurting, but don’t show any despair. They need your strength, even though it will be tough on you too.

4) As someone who combined academic excellence and excellent sports performance, you are an inspiration and a great role model. Who inspired you? Who were your role models?

My role models are everyday men and women who fight for our country to keep us safe and who dedicate themselves to educating our kids. That’s it. I love our soldiers and I love our teachers and coaches who teach the next generation. My role models were my teachers and coaches.


5) Asked by my boys, Benj (13) and James (10): What was the best part of being an NFL player?

The money… hahaha, not really. The best part was smashing a QB into the dirt, standing up with your arms raised, and having 70,000 people screaming your name. It’s the thrill of being there, in the NFL, playing on TV for people to see, and it lives up to the dream.


6) Again, Benj and James asked this one: What was the hardest thing about being an NFL player?

Dealing with the injuries, the exhaustion, and the stress is absolutely brutal.

7) What advice would you give to children who have aspirations of being professional athletes? What would you advise parents whose children wish to pursue sports as a career?

My advice -and this is what I tell my own kids- is to work hard in school. Your education will always pay you back. You don’t need luck to be a doctor,lawyer, accountant, teacher, or engineer. All you have to do is work hard in school and it can happen. To be a pro athlete, you need more than just talent and hard work. You need luck, so make sure you take care of your education. Parents, find good coaches and let them do their thing. The rest is up to your child. He or she has to be possessed with a sport to reach the pros or the olympics. You can’t instill that passion in them. They either have it or they don’t. Make sure you let them know that character and education are much more important, even if they have the talent to go to the big leagues.


8) Who are some of your favorite NFL players, past and present?

I liked Jack Lambert and John Riggens and Earl Campbell, Deion Sanders, Jackie Slater, Eddie George, Brett Favre and Steve Young. But honestly? Besides a few rotten apples, I find NFL players to be some of the best people in the world. They know what it’s like to get knocked down and get back up, and they know how important it is to be a team player.

9) Tell us about your five children: ages, personalities, strengths, challenges, interests, and hobbies.

Wow, all five? Thane is a silent leader, compassionate, strong, and insightful. He’s going to be a school psychologist and football coach. Tessa is creative and energetic and loves animals. She’s going to be a vet. Troy is a ferocious competitor. As nice as he is is also as vicious as he can be when he’s trying to win. He’ll be an NFL QB and a lawyer. Tate is a superstar in every way: smart, kind, and a division 1 athlete. She’ll do whatever she wants to. Ty is six and will probably be an NFL linebacker or the world heavyweight cage fighting champion.

10) What is the best piece of parenting advice you ever received?

Show your kids love all the time, and don’t sweat the small stuff. At the same time, make sure you establish boundaries for them early on. Later, they either make their own boundaries, or they break yours.


11) What are your favorite things to do with your family?

I love to hike, go on a boat ride, and just have dinner together. I love being with them when we have the chance to talk and laugh together.


12) What have been your biggest challenges and your biggest joys as a parent?

Biggest challenge is discipline. It’s hard to say no. Yes is so easy, but it’s better for them to cry now than you to cry later. The greatest joy is seeing my kids be kind to other people. When I see that, I know I’ve done my job.

Watch the book trailer for UNSTOPPABLE here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_0lON88WgU&feature=youtu.be

Find out more about Tim’s book tour here: http://www.classactsbooks.com/

“Accept Yourself, and Expect More From Yourself”: A Q &A with Gretchen Rubin

I bought Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project in early 2010 after reading about it in a magazine, and within hours had covered it in my personal hieroglyphics of passionate response. Hearts, stars, underlinings, circlings, exclamation points, “I agree”s, “yes!”es, and smiley faces from my pen covered, decorated, and bedecked its pages, making it almost unreadable by anyone other than myself (these scribblings, however, just ensured that I’d buy more copies and give them as gifts to friends and family members rather than loan out my precious copy!). What a kindred spirit, I thought! And how is it possible that although we both did our undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale, we both had family members in the legal world, and we were both devoted aficionados of children’s literature, we’d never met or crossed paths in any way? When, almost a year later, my publisher told me that Gretchen had sent in a wonderful blurb for my first book, THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, it was one of those moments you’ll never forget as a publishing newbie. We’d received no blurbs yet, and the first one we got was from Gretchen Rubin?! I hadn’t even known we’d sent her a galley. I was a huge fan of this author, and she loved my book!

Gretchen and I have since become online friends, and she recently sent me a copy of her just-published book Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. I am delighted to report that I loved it even more than I loved The Happiness Project. I found it wiser, deeper, purer, more beautiful and true. I could not stop reading aloud from it to my husband and laughing hard, nodding vigorously, or putting my hand over my heart while I did so. It is so smart in the least pretentious and most accessible way and so endearing in its honesty and vulnerability and sweet Gretchen-ness. I felt an even more powerful sense of kinship with Gretchen- I too hate driving, need to “give myself limits to give myself freedom,” and love Little House in the Big Woods and the cozy, snug, sacred sense of home it embodies- and I also felt such gratitude to Gretchen for her reminders that we are all different and her refusal to give easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions. Happier at Home is a true pleasure to read- reading it made me very happy indeed!- and a veritable storehouse of helpful tips, profound insights, adorable, charming, illustrative anecdotes, and compassionate solidarity with all of us who struggle to make ourselves happier- and that means all of us!

Gretchen generously agreed to answer an eclectic bunch of questions that I posed to her. Here’s our dialogue!

1) I absolutely love your formulation: “every day, I remind myself to accept myself, and expect more from myself.” This is a very difficult balance to strike, and one I think many people puzzle over how to achieve. How do you, Gretchen, simultaneously demonstrate self-compassion and encourage yourself to do better? What helps you to both know and accept yourself as you are (Be Gretchen!) and motivate you to do and be more (“Choose the Bigger Life”)?

As you say, this is a difficult balance. W. H. Auden articulates this tension beautifully: “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.” It is really a matter of constant self-reflection and acknowledgment.

2) Your point that giving gifts to others is a great way to foster happiness in oneself really resonated with me. I’m a passionate gift-giver and buy gifts for my loved ones all year long, then store them in my filing cabinets until the occasion arises to give them! I’m always looking for new shopping venues to find unique, nourishing, and charming things. What are your favorite stores or websites to buy gifts?

Bookstores! Hardware stores and office supply stores. My favorite perfume stores (Frederic Malle, CB I Hate Perfume, Jo Malone.) In my family, we are often very specific about what we want as a gift, so it’s very satisfying to know that you’re giving something that someone REALLY does want.

3) Inspired by The Happiness Project and your work, I bought Bluebirds of Happiness from the wonderful Chinaberry catalogue for myself and my fiance for Christmas in 2011- they made exquisite, albeit fragile, stocking stuffers!- and then we gave our 3 children each a bluebird after our wedding in February 2012. These beautiful glass birds are such an easy and inexpensive way to bring joy to everyday life. What are some other objects or small items that you would recommend to parents or spouses looking for an inexpensive gift with maximum happiness boosting potential?

This is so specific to a person…I’m not sure there’s one suggestion that would be widely applicable.

4) Describe one possession of yours that gives you immense happiness every time you look at it.

My laptop. I take it with me everywhere I go, and everything that’s important to me is in there somehow.

5) If you could take only 5 books to a desert island, what would they be and why? Tough question, I know!

I simply can’t answer a question like this. I can’t choose! It makes my head explode. I have far too many favorites.

6) I wholeheartedly share your passion for children’s literature and your belief that reading it is one of the best spurs to happiness and one of the most effective antidotes to melancholy. What are your daughters’ favorite books? Are there any books that you loved as a child that they didn’t much care for? Any newer books they introduced you to?

Hmmmm….I guess I just don’t think in terms of “favorites.” Too hard! We have books that we love. My older daughter doesn’t love high fantasy, so
while I love something like the Narnia books, she doesn’t.

7) As the former associate editor of the Johnsonian Newsletter, I was thrilled to see that Samuel Johnson both gave you the title of your book and informed its pages in all sorts of profound and surprising ways. When and how did you discover Johnson and why is his writing so appealing, thought-provoking, and inspiring to you?

When I read Samuel Johnson, I feel as if I understand myself better. In a few sentences, he can illuminate very complex aspects of human nature. He’s like Orwell, in that you can’t predict what his arguments will be or how they will unfold. And, of course, he’s funny. He’s a great patron saint for people doing happiness projects, because he made and broke so many resolutions throughout his life. For instance, when he was 55 years old, he wrote:

“I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest
time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I
have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time
of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my
resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake.”

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

8) What piece of music or song invariably makes you feel happier?

I don’t have much of an ear for music, I have to confess, and when I do love a song, I have a bad habit of wearing it out–I listen to it too many times, and then don’t love it as much. But for a long time I’ve especially loved Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You.” I love it (and it always reminds me to appreciate my husband). When I was writing Happier at Home, I was obsessed with the song “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” though it doesn’t make me feel quite “happy.” In my mind, I have a category of things that I love that contain what I call “symbols beyond words,” and this song is in that category.

9) What are 3 quick happiness boosts that you’d recommend to:

new parents?

Get enough sleep. Under-react to a problem. Remember these Secrets of Adulthood: You know as much as most people; most decisions don’t require extensive research.

someone going through a difficult time professionally?

Get enough sleep. Stay connected to friends. Try to keep a sense of humor.

a new college student?

Get enough sleep. Accept yourself, and expect more from yourself. Be [insert your name here]

someone with a cold or other mild illness?

Get enough sleep. Manage pain and discomfort. First things first.

10) I moved recently (combining two apartments and two households), and wow has it been tough! Knowing that moving is typically associated with great unhappiness both reduced my anxiety and made me itchy for concrete strategies to ease the seemingly inevitable stress. Six months after moving, we are still in the process of making our new apartment homey, and after reading Happiness at Home, I realized that my husband has unwittingly been creating what you call “shrines” (so far, we have Music, Fun and Games,Children’s Literature, and Family)! What advice do you have for people who are in the process of transitioning from one home to another? What are some quick and easy ways to make a new space feel homey, and happy? What are some long-range strategies or approaches for designing a happy home?

Go through your stuff as you pack and get rid of everything you don’t use, don’t need, or don’t love. Don’t move it to the new place! Don’t keep things that are part of a fantasy of who you are (e.g., a bread-maker) but aren’t actually used, needed, or loved. Find ways to spotlight possessions that make you happy. Be very wary of letting things into your home–once there, they’re very hard to remove. Don’t “store” much–things that are “stored” are generally never used (except for seasonal items), so why are you keeping them? I highly recommend Christopher Alexander’s book A PATTERN LANGUAGE for a new way to think about designing spaces. It blew my mind.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the #1 New York Times and international bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. In her new book, Happier at Home, Rubin embarks on a new project to explore how to make home a happier place. Starting in September (the new January), Gretchen dedicates a school year—from September through May—to concentrating on the factors that matter most for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, parenthood, body, neighborhood. The book’s title was inspired by a line from Samuel Johnson: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”

Gretchen Rubin’s newest book, Happier at Home, is now in stores! You can follow Gretchen at http://happiness-project.com

 

“Friends and Feelings”: The Fred Rogers Company’s new DVD to Help Children With Autism

As both a huge Mr Rogers fan and the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I was thrilled to learn that The Fred Rogers Company had put together a new DVD called Friends and Feelings: Helping Children with Autism in Social and Emotional Learning. The DVD features four classic episodes of the show plus helpful introductions for parents and professionals. The episodes, “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control,” are each gems, and the DVD as a whole is both practically helpful and emotionally moving, a veritable treasure-house of tips and inspiration for children with autism and their families, teachers, and therapists. I was honored when Alan Friedman of the Fred Rogers Company agreed to answer my questions about the DVD and offer further encouragement and hope for autistic children and those who love and work with them.

1) How did the idea to do a Mister Rogers DVD focused on autism come about?

The Fred Rogers Company has long heard from parents and teachers of children with autism about the benefits of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Then, friends of the company who work with children with autism began urging us to make the program available directly to children with autism and other special needs. We also were motivated by the growing body of research on the effectiveness of video modeling (i.e., observing appropriate behaviors and then practicing them in real-life situations) as a tool for helping children with autism learn social skills.

2) What challenges were involved in putting it together?

We wondered if we would find that young viewers who are new to the program today, whether or not they have autism, would find it too slow, too calm, or too otherwise old-fashioned to be interesting. But the project is confirming that children, particularly children with autism, continue connecting with it in powerful ways.

3) How did you select the episodes to include and the themes or topics to focus on?

We gathered input from numerous professionals and parents to determine where there is the greatest overlap between important but challenging skills for children with autism and themes that are central to Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Then, we developed a list of episodes in which Fred and his friends and puppets talk, sing, and play games about these skills in engaging and memorable ways. We chose a final four episodes that are longstanding favorites among all children: “It’s Very Hard to Wait,” “Ups and Downs of Friendship,” “Learning About Sharing,” and “Learning Self-Control.”

4) Tell us a little about the experts interviewed on the DVD and how they came to the project.

Pittsburgh is home to a wealth of eminent professionals dedicated to children with autism. Pittsburgh is also something of a small world. Mark Strauss, a developmental psychologist, is a friend of a few staff members at The Fred Rogers Company. With Martin Lubetsky, I recently served on a local disability services task-force. Through Martin, I met his wife, Michelle Lubetsky, a behavioral analyst and special education consultant. And I learned about the work of Stacy Porter Smith, a social skills therapist, and Terry Sheffey, a community outreach coordinator, at an autism conference at Slippery Rock University. I want to thank these commentators and the many other contributors to the project.

5) What has the reaction to the DVD been like?

Support from local foundations was intended to fund the distribution of 5,000 copies throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. We wound up distributing 12,300 copies through 20 very motivated partners, autism service organizations that are using and distributing the DVDs in their home visits, classrooms, social skills camps, and other programs. We haven’t yet collected a lot of feedback, but viewers seem to be responding very positively.

6) Did Mister Rogers ever speak or write about autism to your knowledge? Did he ever correspond or work with famed autism expert Stanley Greenspan?

Fred did not speak or write about autism. But he spent time with a great many children with autism who came to meet him and visit the TV studio. There is a wonderful article that first appeared in Esquire, in which Tom Junod writes about Fred visiting for 20 minutes with an autistic boy who had come, with his father, all the way to Pittsburgh from Boise, Idaho. The boy had never spoken, until one day he said, “X the Owl.” He had never looked his father in the eye until one day his father had said, “Let’s go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” By the time he met Fred, the boy was speaking and reading.

7) Why are Mister Rogers’ approach and sensibility so valuable and helpful for children with autism and those who care for or teach them?

The program is valuable and helpful by virtue of what Fred has to say and how he says it, both of which correspond to the learning needs and styles of children with autism. Fred and his neighbors talk and sing all day every day about feelings, appropriate social behaviors, and thinking about others. They live in a world defined by very comforting routines. And unlike so many other producers of children’s media, Fred kept the pacing calm and the special effects to a minimum. He always made eye contact. He and his interactions with children are wonderful models for adults.

8) Are there plans to release more episodes presented and introduced in this way, on autism or other subjects?

We hope to continue re-purposing the Neighborhood in this way and learning from viewers about how to make the collection as useful as possible.

9) Can you think of a quotation from Mister Rogers that you think would especially help a child with autism? His or her parents? His or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate?

These words from Fred may be meaningful to a child with autism:

“You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there never will be again. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

These words may be helpful to his or her parents:

“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re much more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.

“If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘good’ parenting means. It’s part of being human to fall short of that total acceptance—and often far short. But one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child’s uniqueness.”

And these thoughts may be helpful to his or her peers in learning to accept their autistic classmate:

“What is essential is invisible to the eye. When we see someone who looks or behaves differently from what’s familiar to us, it’s possible to feel a little shy, scared, curious, or awkward. I know how much I’ve struggled to look with my heart and not with just my eyes. One of life’s joys is discovering that we can be open to new experiences that at first seem strange or even scary. It’s exhilarating to find that the barriers that seem to separate us from other people begin to vanish when we take the time to get to know those people. That’s the way it is with real friends.”

If you are interested in “Friends and Feelings,” you can order a copy directly from the nonprofit Fred Rogers Company. All proceeds support work that advances and extends Fred Rogers’ philosophy and values.

www.fredrogers.org/autism

A Q &A with National Book Award Winning Author Kathryn Erskine

 

In November 2010, my editor, Claire Wachtel, sent me an email that went something like this: “book about girl with aspergers just won Natl Book Award.  called Mockingbird.”  I immediately bought the book and read it through a haze of awe-struck tears.   I became a Mockingbird proselytizer, buying multiple copies and sending them as thank-you gifts to my literary agent and my editorial team at Harper, recommending it with fervor to every sensitive reader I know.  On a whim, I sent Kathryn Erskine a galley of my book and thought “there goes nothing; how many books must she receive?”   Then one day many months later, a friend emailed me :”did you see that Kathryn Erskine just gave your book 5 stars on GoodReads?!”   That was an amazing moment!  I contacted Kathy via Good Reads and thanked her for making my day;  she wrote back immediately and sent me a generous blurb, which appears inside the paperback version of The Anti-Romantic Child.  Kathy has since published a very different kind of YA novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, which my 13 year old Benj devoured, chuckling and laughing uproariously and nodding as he did so.   I’m honored that Kathy has agreed to answer my questions about her favorite books for people of all ages, and the music, visual art, movies, food, and places that inspire and nourish her.

But first, in the spirit of this blog’s ongoing theme of resilience, here’s one of my favorite quotations from Mockingbird:

“I don’t think I’m going to like it at all. I think it’s going to hurt. But after the hurt I think maybe something good and strong and beautiful will come out of it.”
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

Questions about Books:

What are some of your favorite books for

babies/toddlers (birth-3)?

I think reading babies and toddlers to sleep with any children’s books is wonderful, but for active engagement I’d want to include GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown, BROWN BEAR by Eric Carle (and any Eric Carle books), GOODNIGHT GORILLA, and anything with color and rhythm.

young children, ages 3-6?

Dr. Seuss and anything with rhyming, engaging language.  There’s a world of wonderful picture books out there.  Here are just some of my recent favorites:

MOUSE WAS MAD, Linda Urban

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND, William Kamkwamba

HALF PINT PETE THE PIRATE and PIRATE PRINCESS (and others), Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? and TEACH YOUR BUFFALO TO PLAY DRUMS, Audrey Vernick

JOSIAS, HOLD THE BOOK, Jenn Elvgren

DUMPLING SOUP, Jama Kim Rattigan

ME…JANE, Patrick McDonnell

JO MACDONALD HAD A GARDEN and PIRATE vs. PIRATE, Mary Quattlebaum

HOW ROCKET LEARNED TO READ, Tad Hills

A TIME TO PRAY, Maha Addasi

CROCODADDY and JACK OF ALL TAILS, Kim Norman

ME WITH YOU and SURFER CHICK, Kristy Dempsey

TIA ISA WANTS A CAR, Meg Medina

FLY FREE, Roseanne Thong

ALFIE THE APOSTROPHE and PENNY AND THE PUNCTUATION BEE, Moira Donohue

MARTIN DE PORRES: THE ROSE IN THE DESERT, Gary Schmidt

young readers 6-10?

They tend to love series at the early elementary age, so books like THE MAGIC TREEHOUSE (Mary Pope Osborne), THE BUDDY FILES (Dori Hillestad Butler), and CLEMENTINE (Sara Pennypacker) are great for the younger set, as well as beautiful stand alones like THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM 1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis), HOUND DOG TRUE (Linda Urban), BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE (Kate DiCamillo), LOVE THAT DOG (Sharon Creech), and SAVVY (Ingrid Law).  As they get older, there’s the HARRY POTTER (J.K. Rowling) and INKHEART (Cornelia Funke) series, two of my favorite, and a whole wealth of wonderful novels … I could go on forever so I’d better stop now!
YA readers?

Here goes, to name just a few:

THE BOOK THIEF, Markus Zusak

BUCKING THE SARGE, Christopher Paul Curtis

CONVERTING KATE, Beckie Weinheimer

FEED, M.T. Anderson

SPUD, John van de Ruit

THE GIRL WHO COULD SILENCE THE WIND, Meg Medina

LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY, Gary D. Schmidt

RESTORING HARMONY, Joelle Anthony

PURPLE HEART, Patricia McCormick

HEART OF A SAMURAI, Margi Preus

BAMBOO PEOPLE, Mitali Perkins

MILLIONS, Frank Cottrell Boyce

LOST BOY, LOST GIRL: ESCAPING CIVIL WAR IN SUDAN, John Bul Dau

A LONG WALK TO WATER, Linda Sue Park

NOW IS THE TIME FOR RUNNING, Michael Williams

SEEDFOLKS, Paul Fleischman

grownups?

Anything on the YA list and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  Some great reads include Alexander McCall Smith’s series, THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY, MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson, ROOM by Emma Donoghue, THE GOOD DAUGHTER by Jasmin Darznik, and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd.
What is the one book you think every writer should read?

It’s a toss up between Stephen King’s ON WRITING and Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD.  They’re both part memoir and part craft advice, and both excellent.

What is the one book you think every parent should read?

RAISING CHILDREN WHO THINK FOR THEMSELVES by Elisa Medhus, particularly today when we seem to have grown overprotective of our kids who are capable of so much more than we expect from them.

What is the one book you think every human should read?

MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl.  And, of course, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  (Sorry, I couldn’t help adding that.  I’m not very good at picking ONE book, am I?)

Questions about Music:

I love the Playlists section of your website, where you share the songs you listened to while working on your books.  Can you tell us a little more about how music inspires you and informs your writing?

Although I don’t listen to music while I write–I need silence–I always create playlists of songs that I associate with a novel in progress.  They’re songs that make me think of the characters, the time, the place, or somehow remind me of the story.  Then, I listen to that playlist while I’m driving or walking so I can keep the story present in my mind.  Often, I’ll come up with ideas or solutions to problems while listening to the playlist.  It’s kind of fun to post them on my blog (which reminds me, I’m behind in doing that) and also to hear what songs others come up with for my novel.  Sometimes book groups will send me their list of songs for the novel which I always find fascinating.

Do you play an instrument?  If not, what instrument would you most like to play?

I play flute a little bit.  I’m thinking of taking up the ukulele because guitar was a little difficult for me and I think the uke would be more manageable.  I love the violin, though, and if there weren’t such a learning curve that my family (and I) would have to suffer through, I would probably try it.
Who is your favorite singer/songwriter and why?

It’s so hard to pick one.  It depends heavily on my mood.  I like the Scottish twins, The Proclaimers, anything by Miriam Makeba, Motown, classic rock, and young start up bands like La Crosse, Wisconsin’s Neon.

Who is your favorite composer and why?

Again, it’s so hard to choose just one.  I love the security and predictability of Vivaldi, Boccherini and Bach, and any of the classical pieces transcribed or written by guitarists Andres Segovia, John Williams, or Julian Bream.

Questions about Other Forms of Nourishment:

I know that you are a chocoholic like me!  What are your favorite kinds, forms, and brands of chocolate?

There are so many!  I still enjoy my childhood favorites like Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut and Reese’s peanut butter cups, but I’ve matured to dark chocolate, particularly Ritter Sport with hazelnuts, anything Fair Trade (Divine, Dagoba, Green & Black’s) and best of all, Gearhart’s, my local chocolatier.

Who is your favorite visual artist?

My daughter.  :o)

What are your some of your favorite movies?

Mostly funny, but with heart, like The Princess Bride, The Full Monty, Galaxy Quest, classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, documentaries like Lost Boys of Sudan or small indies such as The Dish, The Station Agent, and Waking Ned Devine.

What are some of your favorite places in the world?

Scotland, Italy, Guam, Maritime Canada, Boyds Mills, PA, the woods near my house, my desk when the house is quiet and I can write.

Kathryn Erskine spent many years as a lawyer before realizing that she’d rather write things that people might actually enjoy reading.  She grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools, her favorite being the Hogwarts-type castle in Scotland.  The faculty, of course, did not consist of wizards, although . . . how did the headmistress know that it was “the wee redhead” who led the campaign to free the mice from the biology lab?  Erskine draws on her life stories to write her novels including Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Mockingbird, 2010 National Book Award winner, The Absolute Value of Mike, a Junior Library Guild selection, and the upcoming Facing Freedom (Fall 2013).

 

“Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream”: A Q &A with Dare Dream Do’s Whitney Johnson

A few months ago, I was sent a book by an amazing woman named Amy Jameson, who used to work with my mother and now has her own agency and editorial consulting firm.  A good friend of hers had published a book Amy thought I would love, and so on a chance, she sent it to me.  Dare, Dream, Do is my kind of book: filled with inspiring and poignant stories of real women facing real challenges and pursuing real dreams, uplifting and encouraging quotations (you know I ate those up!), and practical, detailed, compassionate advice about how to be effective and tenacious in realizing our dreams.   I was thrilled when Whitney agreed to answer questions I posed to her about the nature of dreams and how best to achieve them, work/life balance, challenge and resilience, her own strategies for maintaining optimism, and what people, books, and quotations inspire her.

Whitney Johnson is the president and co-founder of Clayton Christensen’s investment firm Rose Park Advisors, and author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, 2012).  A former Institutional Investor-ranked sell-side analyst on Wall Street, Whitney is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, was recognized as a top ten blogger by Marcus Buckingham, and is one of Inc Magazine’s 12 People to Follow on Twitter in 2012.  She also serves as a senior advisor to the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, and is the mother of two children.

Dare, Dream, Do provides a three-step model for personal advancement and happiness.  Whitney first encourages us to DARE: to boldly step out, to consider disrupting life as we know it. Then she teaches us how to DREAM, to give life to the many possibilities available, whether to start a business, run a marathon, or travel the world. She shows us how to “date” our dreams (no need to commit!) and how to make space for dreams. Finally, Whitney’s model brings out the businesswoman in her; she teaches us to DO, to execute our dreams. She showcases the importance of sharing dreams with others to give them life, creating your own “dream team.” Rich with real stories of women who have dared to dream, DARE, DREAM, DO offers a practical framework for making remarkable things happen.

 

1) Tell us how you came to write your book, Dare, Dream, Do, and what you hope to accomplish with it.

When I took a sabbatical from Wall Street in 2005, I was brimming with confidence at having risen from secretary to award-winning stock analyst.  Having discovered my dream could come true, I began to ask others, particularly women, about their own dreams.  While many of these well-educated, eminently capable women confessed to not really having a dream, often there was an unspoken, “I’m not sure it is my privilege to dream.”  Concerned, but mostly saddened, I knew I had to do something.  To build the case that dreaming is an inalienable right.  I began my Dare to Dream blog in 2006, which eventually became the inspiration for Dare, Dream, Do.

2) What are the greatest obstacles or roadblocks to doing what we dream?  How can we overcome them?

Whether you are plagued by perfectionism, or riddled by self-doubt, there are a number of derring-do hacks.  First, persuade yourself you have the right to dream.  Second, throw out conventional planning because dreaming is discovery-driven. Third, go ahead and date some dreams, lots of them – you don’t need to commit to every dream you date. Dare to disrupt yourself.  Dream your very own dream. Do.

3) What would you say to someone who insists he or she just doesn’t have the time or luxury to dream, let alone dare, or someone who claims dreaming is for impractical and self-indulgent romantics?

When we dream, we make meaning of our life, discover the essence of ourselves, truly grow up, and most importantly model for our children how to dream.  As we focus on our ‘to-be’ list, rather than our ‘to-do’ list, research indicates we’ll actually get more accomplished.  Dreaming then, is anything but a luxury or a lark for the romantic (though it is that too), but rather a productivity-maximizing tool for the pragmatist.

4) What personal dreams have you not yet realized?  are there some dreams better left unrealized?

The right dreams expand our hearts, binding us to those we love. They also enlighten our minds, as in ideas begin to flow.  If it feels right in both our heart and our head, the dream becomes delicious.  I love that word delicious:  delicious pineapple, strawberries, cherries, apricots. Delicious dreams.

As for my still to be realized dreams, I have the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of working with one of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Clayton Christensen:  he knows — and has encouraged me in my dream to one day have my own venture capital (VC) firm.  I also dream of producing a documentary.

5) What do you rely on in your daily life to help you stay focused and centered, to help you do what you dream of doing?  for example, meditation, a spiritual practice, special diet, support groups, etc?

We believe within the context of our deeply held beliefs:  I’m reminded of those beliefs when I pray either alone or with my family, read scriptures, go to church on Sunday, journal, walk/run outdoors alone or with friends.

6) Tell us about attending to multiple dreams, or multi-tasking.   How can we achieve a more sane and fulfilling work-life balance?  How can we pursue our individual dreams and still make time for our crucial relationships?

According to Jungian psychology, our psyche is made up both masculine (power) and feminine (capacity for love) components.  In order to dream, we need to develop both sides of the psyche, to handle power and to love, to learn to be a ship and a harbor.  To “have it all”.  The question, to me, is less about whether we can have it all, but rather what our definition of ‘all’ is.  If it is vital to be both ship and a harbor, it means we have to make choices. For women, the choices we face may feel Solomonic; we simultaneously feel the tug of our ship full of dreams while trying to keep one foot grounded on the dock of family life. But a choice we have to make, trusting that we’ll know which are the right dreams for us.   And only us.

7) How would you define resilience?  What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?

When plagued by fear and perfectionism, resilience =  “never, never, never, never giving up” to paraphrase Winston Churchill.   It means when you come to a challenge, rather than sidestepping, you make meaning of that challenge, asking, what am I supposed to learn so that I can do what I’m supposed to do next.  Resilience is behaving as if the biggest lesson we can teach the next generation is to let them see us our mistakes, and gradually shorten our recovery time, such that every time we fail, we fail forward.

8) Who inspires you? (this can include public figures, writers, and people in your personal life)

In the public sphere, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Barbara Corcoran, Brene Brown, Gretchen Rubin, Joanne Wilson.  In my private life, I have a core group of girlfriends whom I adore, and with whom I find respite, and of course my husband, and my two children – they are my harborhaven advisors.

9) What are your favorite books and authors?

I started to think about my favorite books, but then I realized that if I start wracking my brain, for anything other than top-of-mind, then the book is probably not my favorite.  So here goes: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Enders’ Game by Orson Scott Card, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, Personal History by Katharine Graham, and of course the myth of Psyche.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your positive, inspiring outlook on life?

“You can bet your life, and that, and twice its double, God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed.” These lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, encapsulate what I believe about your life and mine.  Each of us is exactly where we are supposed to be.  So we can learn what we need to learn, accomplish what we are meant to accomplish, help who we are supposed to help.  Where we are, who we are, and what we do matters.

www.whitneyjohnson.com

“Learning to Be the Right Parent For This Child”: A Q &A with Following Ezra’s Tom Fields-Meyer

 

Tom Fields-Meyer has been a writer and journalist for nearly three decades. He was a longtime senior writer for People magazine, where he specialized in inspiring human-interest stories. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.   Tom is a native of Portland, Oregon and a graduate of Harvard College. Tom and his wife Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer live in Los Angeles with their three teenage sons.

Tom Fields-Meyer is the author of the touching, sweet, and wise memoir Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son.  He and I have never met, but I am a huge admirer of his, and can I just say that I would follow his dear son Ezra anywhere?!  I love him!   Recently I asked Tom some questions in honor of Autism Awareness Month and National Poetry Month; here are his very thoughtful and compassionate answers.  They not only provide wisdom and support for parents of special needs children; they also bring the immensely charming Ezra to my readers.  Enjoy him, everyone!

1) Tell me about your son.

Ezra is the happiest person I know. He knows what he’s passionate about: animated movies, animals (particularly dogs), and animated movies about animals. The other day I was driving him between two of his favorite places—the zoo and his weekly animation class—and I had to give him some, shall we say, negative feedback about his behavior. He tried to listen intently, but then he spotted a passing billboard, and he couldn’t stop himself: “Madagascar 3! Look! A billboard for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted!” He was so gleeful, and I couldn’t help but smile along with him.

2) What is the most important advice you would give to the parents of a child newly diagnosed with autism?

I try not to give advice, as everyone reacts differently to having a child with challenges. But the most important thing for me was avoiding the instinct to fix or change my child. At first my wife, Shawn, and I thought our job was to find the best doctors, the best therapies, the best diet. But then I came to realize that this isn’t about finding the right expert. It’s about learning to be the right parent for this child.

3)  What types of therapy or therapeutic approaches have most helped your child?

In my experience, it doesn’t matter what the person’s title is or what combination of letters they have after their name. The people who have helped Ezra most are those who have made a real, human connection with him—the ones who have taken the time and effort to get to know him and appreciate what’s special about Ezra. He feels that, and he rises to the occasion.

4)  What is the worst, most misguided, offensive, or otherwise disturbing statement you’ve ever read or heard about autism?

The list is so long. In the first few years, we heard a lot about early intervention and how the mind is malleable only up to a certain point. That caused a great deal of panic about doing all of the right things before Ezra’s brain locked in for good. Of course, that was nonsense. Ezra is 16 now, and we see growth, development and progress almost every day.

5)  If you were invited to speak to a group of typically developing children of your son’s age in order to educate them about autism, what would you want to tell them?

I would try to give them a sense of the complexity of Ezra’s mind: He’s always loved animated movies and has an elaborate calendar in his brain. When he was 12, we were at a bar mitzvah party and he started asking strangers their birthdays. Then he’d tell the person which Disney movie premiered on that same day. “June sixteenth? Pocahontas came out on your birthday in 1995!” At the same time, if you asked him the names of the seven or eight kids in his seventh grade class, he couldn’t tell you. He’d guess. The same wiring that makes these superhuman feats possible makes it extremely difficult for him to do things the rest of us find so ordinary.

6)  What is your child’s biggest fear or source of anxiety? What helps him cope with it?

Just not knowing when something important to him is going to happen. Ezra likes to see movies on the first Sunday after they come out. When there’s a big animated feature film coming up, he’ll remind me a few dozen times a day that we’ll be seeing it on Sunday, and then ask me again if we’re going to see it on Sunday. “Of course we will,” I’ll say. ” Ezra will say, “I’m just making sure.”

What helps? Writing it down, showing him the tickets, reminding him that last time he was worried about something like this, it worked out just fine.

7)  What is your biggest fear about your child’s future? 

When it comes to Ezra, I try to live in the present. My wife will tell you that I worry about a lot of typical things: money, work, various logistical matters. But I don’t focus on fears about Ezra’s future. We put a lot of energy and creativity and effort into him, and experience has shown that he nearly always exceeds our fondest hopes, and always in ways we don’t expect. I have great faith in him and his ability to find his way.

 8) What is your greatest hope about your child’s future?

That he will continue to be happy, that he’ll be surrounded by love, and that people appreciate him for who he is.

9)  How is parenting a child with autism like and unlike parenting a typically developing child?

Ezra is the middle of three brothers. Shawn and I made a decision a long time ago that our family was not going to be defined as a family about autism. We try to treat our kids equally, to give all three of them our love and attention. Parenting is about paying attention to the child, listening to the child, loving the child, and helping the child to become the best possible version of himself or herself. That’s true with any child.

10)  What one thing can anyone do to help support people with autism and make our society a more congenial place for them?

These things happen on a very small scale. Sit down and spend time with a person with autism. Listen, watch, share something about yourself. Talk to the person as a person —not as a person with special needs, or a person with a disability. Just a person. It’s all about building relationships.

11)  What is your favorite poem and why? 

I love listening to Garrison Keillor read poetry on the radio, and whatever he read most recently becomes my favorite. Shawn is a rabbi and she has a poem she often uses in her teaching: “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. It’s a reminder to live in the moment and take note of life’s blessings. (It also happens to include a swan, a bear, and a grasshopper. Any poem with that many animals would make Ezra happy as well.) I love the last lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

12) Does Ezra like poetry and if so, what is his favorite poem and why?

Ezra creates animation. He also loves words and wordplay. At 12, he created a short film called “Alphabet House” that inspired a children’s book called E-Mergency! created by Tom Lichtenheld, the bestselling children’s book author and illustrator. Some of Ezra’s best animated shorts are based on Shel Silverstein poems. He recently made one called “The Two Boxes,” about two cardboard boxes that become friends. I love that he wanted to make a movie about friendship, and I adore the scene when the two boxes walk off into the sunset together.

“Everything Is A Miracle”: A Q &A with The Miracle Project’s Elaine Hall

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

– Albert Einstein

 

Today I’m sharing a Q &A I recently did via email with the inspirational teacher, author, crusader, and mother Elaine Hall.

Elaine Hall, or “Coach E!, who the New York Times described as “the child whisperer,” was a top Hollywood children’s acting coach whose life changed dramatically after her son Neal, adopted from a Russian orphanage, was diagnosed with autism. When traditional behavioral therapies didn’t work, she sought the help of the esteemed Dr. Stanley Greenspan who encouraged her to rally creative people to join Neal’s world, and he slowly emerged out of his isolation. Elaine then developed these methods to train staff and volunteers and created The Miracle Project, a theatre and film program profiled in the Emmy winning HBO documentary, AUTISM: The Musical, which aired on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, on April 15th, 2012. Elaine has appeared on CNN, CBS, and Oprah Radio, and been featured in the LA Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.  She is a keynote speaker and trainer throughout North America, and blogs for the Huffington Post.  Her memoir, Now I See the Moon, was chosen for World Autism Awareness Day at The United Nations.  She has received honors from Autism Speaks, The Mayor of Los Angeles, Senator Pavley, Areva Martin, Holly Robinson Peete, and others.   Her latest book, co-authored with Diane Isaacs, Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Creating Miracles In The Classroom, shows parents and teachers how to apply the principles of her work to educational settings.  Elaine also recently created an arts enrichment and religious education program at Vista Del Mar in West Los Angeles. She lives in Santa Monica with the two loves of her life, her son, Neal, and husband Jeff Frymer, a Marriage and Family therapist.

I first encountered Elaine Hall when I watched AUTISM: The Musical in the spring of 2008.  From the first haunting notes of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” sung by a luminous autistic girl to the triumphant final performance of Elaine’s Miracle Project kids, I was completely bowled over.  Elaine herself reminded me of both my late mother-in-law, an unconventionally creative and effervescent yet deeply spiritual drama teacher for young kids, and of my beloved friend and mother figure Mia Farrow, whose oldest son I dated for six years and whose pioneering work in the fields of theatre and film, international adoption, and human rights resonate with Elaine’s.

But after seeing AUTISM: The Musical, I didn’t connect with Elaine Hall for another few years. When my memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, was published in the spring of 2011, my publisher urged me to set up a Twitter account, and soon after joining Twitter, I was told that I should follow Elaine Hall.  “Ahh!”  I thought, “a benefit to this new world of social networking is that I can actually connect with people I admire!”  And connect Elaine and I did, first via Twitter, then email, and then I bought and read her beautiful and brave memoir, Now I See The Moon, and marked it up with all kinds of “Yes!” “ohhh!”s, and “love this”es. I rented AUTISM: The Musical again so that my then boyfriend (now husband) could experience it, and Chris, a public school music teacher who understands better than almost anyone the fundamental importance of the arts to education and who fiercely loves my autistic son, was as rocked to his core as I was by Elaine’s work and fell in love with her autistic son, Neal, as I had.  About a week later, I spoke to Elaine for over an hour on the phone as part of research I was doing for a piece (it was one of those “how is this possible?!” moments that comes when you become a published author with a platform and suddenly have access to people you most admire).  After the conversation, I wrote to Elaine: “Elaine- it was one of the most profound and moving conversations I’ve ever had.  You are a beacon of goodness, wisdom, and integrity in this world.  I’m so delighted to know you!”

But nothing could prepare me for the experience of meeting Elaine in person.  I was standing behind a lectern in front of a sizeable crowd gathered to hear me read from my book and answer questions at Vromans Books in Pasadena, California. At one point during the Q & A session, I expressed my wholesale rejection of the idea that autistic people lack empathy, and I noticed a head bobbing with particular vigor, and then, I saw a luminous face beaming the most embracing and affirming smile at me. “Elaine Hall!” I thought, and I got what I can only describe as a “warming chill” up and down my spine.  After my presentation had concluded, Elaine came up to the front of the room and she and I hugged and hugged, I signed her copy of my book, and then I waited to see what she would think of The Anti-Romantic Child.  One of the great honors of my life was having Elaine and her co-author Diane Isaacs select The Anti-Romantic Child as a Key Resource for Parents and Educators of children with autism in their just published book 7 Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles In the Classroom– a fabulous book about how to support our kids in school (and with a foreword by another hero of mine, autistic self-advocate, professor, musician, and music teacher Stephen Shore).

Elaine is tiny in body but huge in spirit.  She is one of my greatest heroines, inspirations, and role models, and one of the people in whose company, whether virtual or actual, I feel most peaceful, most authentic, and most truly joyful.  Her attitude, approach, and example are beneficent, nourishing, and uplifting not just for families affected by autism but for all of us.  I’m so pleased to be able to share her wisdom and grace with my readers today.

1) Tell me about your son.

Neal Weston Katz was born Nial Nordonuv in Ekaterinburg Russia, on May 6, 1994.  Seven weeks premature, Neal,  – now almost eighteen years old, 5 foot 10 inches and 134 pounds –weighed barely three pounds at birth, and was in a hospital until he was 6 months old.  Neal became my son in April 1996 when I adopted him from a Russian Orphanage.  When he arrived in the US, at 23 months old, he suffered from malnutrition, scurvy, liver toxicity, stomach ailments.  He revealed severe attachment issues and exhibited odd behaviors such as spinning around in circles, opening and closing cabinet doors, and staring at his hand for hours at a time. (Our journey is chronicled in my first book, Now I See the Moon http://www.amazon.com/Now-See-Moon-Mother-Miracle/dp/B004R96U9U/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b)

Shortly before his third birthday, Neal was diagnosed with severe autism, sensory processing disorder, attachment disorder, Apraxia, and cognitive impairment.  Through intensive interventions, Neal has emerged into an extraordinarily bright, compassionate, adventurous young man with a great sense of humor.  Neal uses sign language and voice activated ipod touch and ipad to communicate.  He has exceeded the expectations of doctors, therapists, educators, and family members and inspired two books, an Emmy Award winning Documentary, and an internationally acclaimed arts program (the Miracle Project) and religious education (New Gadol at Vista Del Mar) program for children on the autism spectrum.  Neal’s image has made an impression at The United Nations for 3 out of the 5 years that they have celebrated World Autism Awareness Day. (He is one of the nonverbal teens profiled in Kate Winslet’s book, The Golden Hat).

Neal has made a direct impact on many people – volunteers choosing to go into careers relating to special needs after being with Neal; students writing college essays about their experiences with him; professionals changing their entire way of working with kids after experiencing first hand, Neal’s progress.  Neal is honest, intense, and direct. He loves life, nature, and rollercoasters!

Neal chooses to push through his challenges with autism.  He types how difficult being nonverbal is for him and his wish to be able to speak like “the regular” and yet he continues to challenge his limits daily.  Neal is my hero.

2) What is the most important advice you would give the parents of a child newly diagnosed with autism?

Never Give Up.  When one door closes, another door opens.  Reach out for help.  You are not Alone.  Autism, though challenging, can be the most extraordinary journey of your life.  There is hope, humor, and happiness after diagnosis. Stick with the winners not the whiners. Always find one parent some place whether it be on the internet, a book store, or a parent of a friend – who knows just a little more than you do.  Someone who has walked the path before you.  They are there!

3) What types of therapy or therapeutic approaches have most helped your child?

D.I.R. Floortime created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan has been the cornerstone of our therapeutic approaches.  The key to floortime is to tune into the child, follow their lead/need and make Relationship with the Child paramount.  With this in mind, any other therapy and intervention is effective.  Plus every parent wants a relationship with their child.  With autism, I have found it is most helpful to tune into the child’s world first, before coercing them into ours.  Neal chose to join our world.  I could not bribe him, force him, or trick him into becoming part of our world….

I also needed to leave my pre-conceived notions of ‘normal’ behind.  Neal’s sensory system is extremely sensitive.  He needed to create protective devices to cushion him from the distractions, distortions, and disruptions of the typical world.  When you think about it, the world is too loud; there is too much going on for all of us.  Those with autism recoil from it.  We, so called typically developing folks, try to make sense of it all. Who knows the truth?

Other interventions that have been profound are Neal learning to point to words and to type. The ipad and ipod touch have been great tools for Neal to have access to communication.  Sign language has also been a great tool for Neal to communicate with family members and his coaches.

Becoming part of a social community with typically developing peers and those with autism and other special needs through The Miracle Project and through the religious education program, Nes Gadol at Vista Del Mar.

4) What is the worst, most misguided, offensive, or otherwise disturbing statement you’ve ever read or heard about autism?

That children with autism lack in empathy and do not desire friendships.  I have found kids (and adults) to be the most sensitive, loving, HONEST, kind humans I have ever been privileged to know.  We just need to learn to listen to the child who does not speak.  Read cues.  Seek to first understand then to be understood. Kids with autism want friendships like everyone else. Given the right environment of love and acceptance everyone blossoms.

5) If you were invited to speak to a group of typically developing children of your son’s age in order to educate them about autism, what would you want to tell them?

I actually speak often with and give workshops to typically developing children Neal’s age and younger.  We first start out by looking at our own strengths and weaknesses.  In reality, we all have special needs. I guide them to identify what are the most challenging things for them to do.  Perhaps they are great at math, but terrible with writing; or excellent in P.E. but terrible with academics.  I share that I am challenged with organizing paper. That it is easier for me to write a script then it is for me to figure out how to copy, collate and where to file it.  I then ask the students to imagine if all day long they had to be in a world that only judged them on the things that they were the worst in.  For example the math challenged student would have to be in a math program 5 hours a day.  Or I would have to work in an office where all I did was copy, collate and file.  I ask them to think how that would make them feel. I then do a series of exercises with them where they work with partners to 1.) tell them what is wrong with them; 2.) talk about them as if they aren’t there 3.) make fun of them for the thing they are challenged with.

After this exercise, I ask them how they feel.  The answers are profound: “I felt terrible; depressed; low self esteem; bad about myself, etc. “ I ask them how many times they say bad things to themselves.  They all agree that they put themselves down all the time. I invite them to “stop it!”  They laugh. I relate this to our kids with autism having to “hold it together” in school all day long and then be judged on their inabilities to speak, or socialize, etc.

Then I do the entire exercise again, this time focusing on their strengths rather than their deficits.  I then invite them to look at others for their strengths. What they can do rather than judging them for what they cannot.  After these series of exercises, plus a sensory exercise, the typically developing teens share with me that they will never look at a child with special needs the same way again.  I truly believe that Acceptance of others begins with accepting oneself.  Our world needs all abilities.  (I share these exercises in my book, Seven Keys to Unlock Autism co-authored with Diane Isaacs.)

6) What is your child’s biggest fear or source of anxiety? What helps him cope with it?

Neal is afraid of dogs. Really it is the unpredictability of how a dog may insult Neal’s delicate sensory system that causes the anxiety. He copes with it by using sign language to communicate his fears. He wears headphones on his ears to dull out intense sounds; and he stays clear of dogs as best he can.

He is also anxious (like any young adult) about his future.  “What do adults with autism do, Mom?” he has asked me several times.

7) What is your biggest fear about your child’s future?  

This question relates to the above.  I want to help create a place where Neal can be as independent as possible and still be part of a community.  My biggest fear is how long this will take to create and where Neal will be in the meantime.  Knowing that Neal has a guiding light that protects him (we all do….:) helps curb my anxiety.  Trusting in the powers of the Universe to guide me to make the right decisions and asking for help also alleviates my fears.

What is your greatest hope about your child’s future?

That Neal finds a lovely woman to share his life with and that he is happy.  (p.s. he has a girlfriend!!)

9) What one thing can anyone do to help support people with autism and make our society a more congenial place for them?

Only one thing?  Love and accept the child for exactly who they are. See the abilities within the disability.  View ALL Behavior as Communication. And above all, Listen to the Child who Doesn’t Speak.  Or the easiest: If you hear of a family with a new diagnosis  -Reach out to them! Ask how you can help. Pick up eggs for them when you go to the grocery store.  Invite the family over for dinner.  Don’t give advice. Listen, be patient. Don’t judge. Don’t flee in fear! Let them know that you are there for them.

10) and now, in honor of National Poetry Month, one question about poetry: what is your favorite poem and/or who is your favorite poet and why?

I love Rumi; I love Sydney Edmond – a nonverbal autistic teenager who points to letters on a letter board to write. Sydney’s poetry is filled with love, beauty and hope: here is one about her mom:

You are like a cradle;

you love me

and protect me

but rock to and fro,

back and forth about being me.

Back,

like our dreams of what I might be;

Forth,

like a tall taste of reality.

You are love

You are bossy

You are black

You are white

You are my closest friend.

God keep you till the end.

And then I must add my personal favorite that is the guiding principle of my life is a Japanese Haiku (read to me in Japanese by the Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations in honor of my book, Now I See the Moon, being chosen for World Autism Awareness at the UN).  The poem was written by Mizuta Masahide, a samurai and poet in the Zeze domain of Ohmi Province in the seventeenth century:

Barn’s burnt down –now I can see the moon.

 

Here is a recent photo of Elaine’s beautiful family:

 

Q &A with Todd Drezner, director of the autism documentary Loving Lampposts and father of Sam

Today I’m sharing a Q &A I recently did via email with the filmmaker and autism father Todd Drezner.

Todd Drezner is the director of the autism documentary, “Loving Lampposts: Living Autistic,” released by Cinema Libre Studio in March 2011.  “Loving Lampposts” screened at the United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day, won best documentary at the Peace On Earth Film Festival in Chicago and the social consciousness award at VisionFest in New York, and screened at other film festivals around the country.  It has been called “groundbreaking, even revolutionary” by a contributing editor at Wired Magazine and “a revealing documentary with a personal touch” by the Chicago Sun Times.  Todd also blogs regularly about autism issues for the Huffington Post.  His previous work has been seen on PBS Philadelphia and Ovation TV.

“Loving Lampposts” explores how society views autism at a time when the condition is more well known than ever before.  Following a wide variety of autistic adults, autistic children, parents, and advocates, the film examines the controversies surrounding autism and how they affect the lives of autistic people.   For more information, visit www.lovinglamppostsmovie.com.

I stumbled across Todd’s Twitter feed last May, and after reading some of his brave and searching pieces for the Huffington Post, I went to amazon and bought a copy of his film, Loving Lampposts.  I also sent him a copy of my memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child.  Todd and I soon formed a professional mutual admiration society and he asked me to give the Keynote Address at the 2011 Aspergers’ Association of New England’s Annual Conference with him.   Over the next few months, we worked on our talk and wrote it “together” via phone conversations and email but never met in person!  In fact, Todd and I met for the first time in the grand ballroom of the Best Western Royal Plaza Hotel in Marlborough MA at 8:30 am on a Saturday morning last October, as we took the stage together to deliver our talk!  In the months since, Todd and I have become not only colleagues but also good friends, and we are now giving our presentation at conferences and schools all over the country.

It was my great pleasure recently to pose some questions to Todd and to read his interesting, witty, compassionate answers.   Todd is a fount of wisdom and humor, empathy and courage, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in autism watch Loving Lampposts and follow him on Huff Post.

Tell me about your son, Sam, who will be eight in June.

Rather than attempting a description of Sam’s qualities, I thought I’d share a few details and recent stories about him that should give you a sense of his personality, interests, strengths, and challenges:

— One of Sam’s favorite activities is “thinking about books,” which simply means reciting them from memory to himself.  He currently has 24 books that he thinks about.  We are not allowed to choose any of those books to read to him at bedtime because they are reserved for thinking about.

— Sam has had a lot of anxiety about the heating/cooling unit for our apartment, which is in his room (chosen before his autism diagnosis).  He worries about not knowing exactly when the unit will make the noise that begins the heating or cooling cycle, and the noise it makes at the end of the cycle.  Sam calls the unit the air conditioner.  One thing that has recently helped him manage his anxiety is to call the unit the “air conditioning” instead of the “air conditioner.”  Sam finds this hilarious.

— We recently started swimming lessons for Sam.  When we told him he would be taking lessons on Mondays, he was very upset because this meant he wouldn’t be able to visit the bookstore on Mondays.  As it turns out, he knows and can recite what his after school activities were for each day of the week stretching back for about three to four years.

— Sam’s challenges with receptive language can lead to interesting conversations like this one:
Sam: Can we play Monopoly?
Mommy: I would love to play Monopoly.
Sam: How do you play Monopoly?
Mommy: How did you hear about Monopoly?
Sam: I don’t know.

It’s very likely that he heard about it from a friend at school, but he most likely didn’t understand everything that was said, and it’s hard for him to retrieve the details to recount later.

What is the most important advice you would give the parents of a child newly diagnosed with autism?

Find a way to connect with autistic adults, either by reading what they write or, ideally, meeting them in person.  One problem that parents of autistic children have is that it’s harder to imagine their children’s future than it is for parents of typical children.  As a result, they can be very fearful of the future and are sometimes willing to try untested treatments to “cure” autism.  It can be enormously calming to meet autistic adults and to see that they can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives both because of and in spite of their autism.

What types of therapy or therapeutic approaches have most helped your child?

Most of the therapy that we have done with Sam has focused on relationship centered approaches like Floortime and RDI.  Sam has always been interested in other people, but unsure about how to interact with them.  The relationship based approaches help him learn about how to interact in a relationship and why it’s worth the effort.  Early on, it was a matter of inserting ourselves into his rituals (to his great annoyance).  As he’s developed, he’s slowly begun to develop his own imaginative games.  These can also become ritualistic, and so the challenge is to vary the game in a way that Sam will find surprising and funny.  Making him laugh by turning a ritual on its head is one of the best ways to interact with him and to make him experience the joy of a relationship.  (For example, Sam plays school constantly and has a special “hello” song for his “music class.”  We have lately taken to singing this “hello” song in the morning to wake him up, which he found really annoying at first but now finds kind of hilarious.)

Of course, Sam also gets traditional OT and speech therapy, and these have also been enormously helpful to him as well.  And he has worked with a therapist he calls a “bravery teacher” to help with his fears.

What is the worst, most misguided, offensive, or otherwise disturbing statement you’ve ever read or heard about autism?

Probably it was Dr. Jerry Kartzinel’s statement in the introduction to Jenny McCarthy’s “Louder Than Words” that “Autism…steals the soul from a child; then, if allowed, relentlessly sucks life’s marrow out of the family members, one by one.”  That statement, along with the relentlessly one-sided and negative documentary “Autism Every Day,” was part of what inspired me to make a film that took a more balanced look at autism.

If you were invited to speak to a group of typically developing children of your son’s age in order to educate them about autism, what would you want to tell them?

I will never come up with a better answer to this question than Mom-NOS, a wonderful mother to a wonderful autistic son who blogs at http://momnos.blogspot.com.  She wrote a great piece a couple of years ago about talking about autism to the typical kids in her son’s class.  You really should read the whole piece (at http://momnos.blogspot.com/2010/03/on-being-hair-dryer-kid-in-toaster.html), but briefly, she asked the kids to imagine that their brains were not made of neurons and tissue, but rather were made of metal and plastic and electrical wires.  And what if, she asked, those elements came together to become a toaster brain.  Then she suggested that her son also had a brain made up of metal, plastic, and wires, but his brain was a hair dryer.

In a world of toaster brains, Mom-NOS went on, the making of a toast would be the most important activity someone could do, and toaster brains would have no problem doing it.  By contrast, someone with a hair dryer brain would be able to make toast, but it would take a lot more effort.  On the other hand, it would be great to have that person around if you had wet hair.

The kids really got the analogy and on their own were able to come up with examples of how Mom-NOS’s son’s brain differences manifested themselves in both positive and negative ways.  I think this is brilliant and hope that this analogy spreads to as many typical kids as possible.

What is your child’s biggest fear or source of anxiety? What helps him cope with it?

The air conditioner fear is a good example of the types of anxiety Sam has–it has an element of uncertainty (not knowing when the cycle will begin) combined with a sensory challenge (the noise).  A few other fears like this are dogs, rain, wind, and the possibility that his cousin will cry.  Like many autistic people, Sam also doesn’t like change, and his other anxieties can be heightened at times of change (like moving to a new school).

Somewhat counter-intuitively, one of his coping mechanisms is to choose something more manageable to be afraid of.  So for example when he was apprehensive about starting kindergarten, he decided he was afraid of the 3 train. At least the 3 train, unlike many of his other anxieties, runs on a predictable track on a somewhat predictable schedule, and it has a big label on it so you know it’s coming.

We have helped him with many other coping methods such as the CBT “bravery teacher” mentioned above, games in which Sam’s toys are afraid of things, and photo books that we make for Sam about his fears (“Sam’s Book About Change and Worry”  “Sam’s Book About Noises”).  We try within reason to expose him to his fears and to help him understand that he can control them.

What is your biggest fear about your child’s future?

A lot of parents answer this question by saying that they worry about whether their child will be able to live independently and who will take care of him if not.  Of course I also have this worry, but my first worry is about whether Sam will be able to be a good self advocate.  Will he be able to express his needs or wants to caregivers or friends or family, even if it’s not in a traditional way, and will they respect those needs?  If so, I think he has a lot better chance of having a good life, whether or not he’s living independently.

What is your greatest hope about your child’s future?

I hope that Sam will continue to develop in ways I can’t imagine or predict so that any specific wish I might have about his future is less amazing than what actually happens to him.

What one thing can anyone do to help support people with autism and make our society a more congenial place for them?

I was actually just part of a great group of autistic self advocates and allies who offered some terrific suggestions at Steve Silberman’s blog Neurotribes.  The post is long but well worth reading: (http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2012/04/02/autism-awareness-is-not-enough-heres-how-to-change-the-world/#more-3989).

But in general, I would say that society should focus less on “solving the problem of autism” and more on helping autistic people navigate a world that can be challenging for them.

In honor of National Poetry Month, I also asked Todd a few questions about poetry.   His wife, Erika, is an English teacher and I knew that both Todd and Sam were poetic souls.

What is your favorite poem?

I don’t know if I can come up with one favorite poem, but I can tell you that the poet I always read if he shows up in The New Yorker is C.K. Williams.  I think this is partly because I’m more a reader of narrative than of poetry, and Williams’ poems often feel like narrative.  It’s probably partially a result of those overlong lines that leave him plenty of time to advance a story.  At the same time, his imagery is beautiful and poetic and sticks in the mind well after you read a particular poem.  And then finally, I got to hear him read at Carleton.

Does Sam like poetry and if so, what is his favorite poem and why?

Yes, he likes poetry, although he may not understand the term.  But anyone who loves Dr. Seuss as much as he does is definitely a poetry fan.  His favorites are “The Cat In the Hat,” “The Cat In the Hat Comes Back,” and “Green Eggs and Ham.”  (Erika adds:  Sam really likes “Us Two” by A. A. Milne.  He likes the story about being together, he likes the musicality of the meter and rhyme, and he likes the idea of “not being afraid.”  I speak this one to him as a story and he loves it.

 

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