Beards, Glasses, TV, and Autism: 2013 or The Year That Was

I write this with a clogged nose, aching shoulder, and virtually no sleep. Such is the price of a busy Christmas and New Year. That almost every person I interacted with over December had a bright red nose couldn’t have helped either. Does Rudolph suffer a bad cold every Christmas? He can’t be happy shooting through the frigid sky at a million miles per hour and I wouldn’t want to be the reindeer strapped next to him.

That said, my hopes of not getting sick and losing the ability to taste good food were largely met with success. It’s just that on New Year’s Eve the entire family succumbed to the sniffles, which is a weak word but better than saying “projectile snot blowing”.

The aching shoulder is just something that happened, an increasingly regular life occurrence that strikes at the least interesting of times, e.g. while showering, opening the fridge door, or snoozing on the sofa. Sometimes the mere act of breathing seems to induce a pinched nerve. Exercise has never been very high on my to-do list (OK, I confess, it’s often not on my to-do list at all) and I acknowledge that pinched nerves are more to do with indolence than old-age, no matter what I tell myself. I can see a New Year’s resolution in the works (and its abandonment in mere seconds).

As for lack of sleep, my theory is that the older you get, the more sensitive you become to noise and light, hence sleep deprivation in an environment consisting of loud children and light bulbs. You would argue correctly that the solution would be to turn off the lights and wrap duct tape over my children’s mouths. And yet these things I cannot do mainly because a) my family feels safer with some form of light on at night and b) I don’t have any duct tape at home.

All of which is to say that I’m not physically energetic at the moment and have decided to update my blog to deal with the doldrums. And what better thing to write about than 2013, the year that was?

Actually, I’ve been meaning to write a year-end review for quite a while now. The thing holding me back, apart from the fact that one can only write a year-end review when the year in question is actually over, is laziness.

Yes, I admit it, I’m a lazy writer. I say this with a great sense of shame; a true writer finds ways to write, whether it’s sunny, rainy, or the apocalypse. I, on the other hand, find myself giving in to a million other distractions, some of them profitable, most of them not, and all to my detriment as a wordsmith.

My blog has been spotty since I first started it some 14 years ago. It’s gone through several incarnations, multiple URLs, and different tones and approaches. Yet for all the variance in my blogging, one thing has remained the same: I’m terribly lousy at keeping up the habit.

Will that change this year? Will I start with a post in January and revisit the blog in August? Goodness me, I hope not. I honestly want this to be a more regular thing.

So anyway, 2013. It was a good year. A wittier soul would leave it at that but I feel I owe you an explanation. Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t owe you anything. And besides, you – my dear readership – are such a small contingent, anything I have to say I’ve probably already discussed with you in person. This blog post isn’t about updating the screaming masses – there aren’t any. No, this is me effectively talking to myself. Kinda. You are welcome to read, of course. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have posted this on Facebook, would I?

I Grew a Beard

A beard is a magnificent thing. My father, the greatest dad on the planet, once rocked a full beard and to this day sports a mustache. I have never, ever seen him without one.

It’s because of my dad’s perennial facial hair that I respond differently to men with beards. For example, a bearded homeless person will get more sympathy from me than a clean-shaved one. It’s not that a clean-shaved homeless guy is probably hiding something (a razor, perhaps) but the fact that bearded dudes simply remind me of my calm and kind-hearted dad.

Anyway, my father being my main inspiration, I decided to grow a beard. It just so happened that 2013 was the year I really got bored with shaving, which was instantly beneficial.

Prior to this, the longest I had ever grown my facial hair was probably two weeks – which is not really a beard, just the ragged beginnings of one. Two weeks of scruff is always met with a razor because it feels dirty (imagined) and itchy (real) on my face.

What nobody told me was that beard itchiness is normal. It’s the skin getting used to the crawling, excessive hair. That revelation, along with a website featuring many a bearded actor in before-and after-shots showing the rugged charm and charismatic power of the beard, compelled me to try it for myself.

Would I look like wiser? More manly? A Hollywood natural? I just had to find out.

The verdict? I love it. Others like it too, I think. A group of giggling girls once passed me on the road and shouted “Tony Stark!” in my direction. I’ll take it. My son commends the beard; my daughter plays with it before she sleeps. Most importantly, my wife enjoys the newfound look. Since her approval is the real litmus test, I’m in the clear to grow and groom it for as long as I want.

My original aim was to let it go for a year and achieve something along the epic lines of Duck Dynasty. Four months in and I’ve decided to trim and keep it at a respectable level. I have a patchy beard, which is entirely genetic, the result of a subcutaneous war between my English and Asian heritage. My goatee is a thick mound of black, ginger, and white hair while the sides of my face sport thin wispy tendrils. So yeah, it’s uneven. The only way it’ll look truly epic is if I shave my head.

Wait, what an interesting idea…

New Glasses

The last time I bought a pair of glasses was 13 years ago. Which is absurd, really. Like the great Brian Regan once said, “How can instantly-improved vision not be at the top of your to-do list?”

13-year-old spectacles are not a great tool for viewing the world. My particular pair, like all teenagers, had issues: spotty and disheveled, they only came out at night. Imagine wearing onionskin over your eyes. Onionskin in aged frames held together by grime, bits of thread, and hope. Not a pretty sight, you looking at me, me looking at you.

Don’t be so aghast; I only wore them for a few seconds before climbing into bed to every night. Otherwise I was wearing contact lenses. I didn’t need expensive new glasses to help me navigate the three steps from my bathroom to the bed.

But then my wife insisted I get a new pair. She rightly reasoned that 13 years is a long time between prescriptions and that fresh glasses – glasses that actually brought things into focus rather than transform my surroundings into some kind of grungy toilet – would be good for me.

She was right. Like she always is. I’m typing this sniffling, aching, sleepy, and bespectacled. First time I’ve written anything this long in glasses for years.

I Watched 4 of the Greatest TV Shows in the World – Ever

Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. The Wire. Dr Who.

It’s an unbeatable list. TV this year will not compare. Sure there’s Sherlock, Game of Thrones, and more Dr Who to come. There’s plenty of other unwatched “classic TV” out there too. But 2013, where I watched four of the greatest shows EVER, was a supernova of television programming consumption. It seems all that’s left is a black hole.

The reason I watched so much TV in 2013 (“much” by my usual standards, anyway) was because I had grown tired of listening to music on my way to work. There’s only so much Megadeth and MUSE one can listen to before it gets old. Don’t get me wrong, I love these bands with a passion and will pay good money to watch them live (I did, in fact, watch Megadeth Live in Manila a couple of years back and head-banged and screamed so much in the first half that I suffered a major stomach cramp for the rest of the show). But there comes a point when music used to drown out traffic, chatting and snoring just dissolves into background noise and your mind shifts into cruise control. One may argue that that’s precisely the point; throw in a psychotropic drug or two and you’re set. But of course not. My daily trek to and from the office would be put to better use.

So I watched these four shows. Now I’m not much of a reviewer; try as I may but I can never seem to identify the grand symbolism that’s usually inherent to great TV. I just like what I watch; the darker and more intricate the material, the better. I’ll leave the in-depth analysis to better people, people who have seen and wept at epic plays and such. The following is by a regular guy who simply likes to be entertained.

Breaking Bad was TV perfection, not just because it broke new ground in character study (loser, cancer-ridden high-school chemistry teacher turns murderous drug kingpin) but because it ended in such a completely satisfying way. Walter White was the man, the underdog, the hero – and he became very, very bad. Watching him rise and fall, love and lie, cook and kill, all against the captivating backdrop of New Mexico and the crystal meth drug trade, became an addiction more powerful than his 99.1% pure meth.

Would he keep his family together? Would he lose control of the extremely tenuous and blood-bathed empire he’d built? The last 8 episodes were truly exhilarating, a masterful race of events that kept me guessing to the last minute. And the finale! What an explosive and richly-rewarding culmination of tension and resolution – the TV fanatic’s dream. I’ll remember Breaking Bad for many things but I think I’ll chiefly remember it for that.

The Sopranos I watched after realizing that nothing else in 2013 (or possibly ever) could top Breaking Bad. Consistently ranked as the greatest TV show ever written, The Sopranos is everything it is claimed to be: a brilliantly scripted, acted, and directed show that explores family, parenting, and the New Jersey mafia in brutally honest and frequently hilarious ways. Tony Soprano is an angry, evil, and misogynistic crime boss – repellent and yet utterly mesmerizing; his “glorified crew” of equally abhorrent thugs are every bit as enchanting with their morally-compromised code of honor and old-school tough-guy charisma.

It’s heart-pounding, ruthless TV. But I felt thoroughly soiled when it ended. You can’t root for Tony Soprano and not feel terrible for doing so. He’s a severely messed up psychopath, a villain – not someone I’d love to introduce to the kids. Cheering him on became a torturous thing. In some ways I was glad it ended.

The Wire is an entirely different beast. It is similar to Breaking Bad and The Sopranos in its quest for grandiose and eloquent storytelling. But no other show is as honest and authentic.

This is the Baltimore police department? An overworked law enforcement team that desperately tries to keep its drug-infested city safe from criminals and degenerates at the expense of the relationships, health, and sanity of its police? This is how a city fails, when broken systems falter and the innocent fall through the cracks?

I buy it. The language is rich, snappy, and utterly believable; the characters layered and true. The setting is so fully realized that I felt I’d become a Baltimore native just watching the show. The spot-on casting (which included real police officers and ex-criminals) imbued the show with such an amazing realism I couldn’t help but fall in love with every good, bad, and ugly character.

No one is perfect. No one is safe. Good people do bad things, bad people can find redemption. The Wire is an astonishing series that never panders to our demands that the good guys emerge unscathed and that the bad guys always get it. No, The Wire is real life. It is truth-telling on an epic scale and a thoroughly compelling narrative.

It’s now my favorite TV show of all time.

Dr Who is a fascinating, 50-year-old British sci-fi series about an almost 1000-year-old humanoid alien Timelord named “The Doctor” who whizzes through space and time in a blue British police box called the TARDIS, battling sinister robots and aliens, solving space-time riddles, and switching actors every few years in a nifty plot device called regeneration, of which The Doctor is privileged to have 12 in his entire lifetime. I hadn’t watched an episode since the early 80s when the show was at its most popular. It was put on hiatus by the BBC the same year I left the UK.

So the 2005 “rebooted” Dr Who came as something of a surprise to me. Two of my friends, avid Whovians, made me watch an episode titled “Blink”, featuring the 10th incarnation of the Doctor, David Tennant (as well as a pre-famous Carey Mulligan). I won’t describe and spoil the story other than to say that it blew me away. That was the start of my pilgrimage back to Dr Who, some 30+ years after saying goodbye to my last Doctor. And while David Tennant is great as the mighty character, it was Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor that really revived my Whovian heart.

If you haven’t seen the modern Dr Who, I personally recommend beginning the series with the 10th Doctor played by Tennant. He lays a lot of the groundwork you’ll need to enjoy the electrifying Matt Smith. Smith began when the most famous and mind-bending writer of the Tennant era, Steven Moffat (who’s also responsible for the equally brilliant Sherlock), was appointed showrunner of Dr Who. Consequently, the series took on a more polished, edgier, and darker tone – all of which makes for great sci-fi TV.

In short, and if you’re still with me, get started on this remarkable and thoroughly British show.

So yes, what great TV. Phenomenal writing, acting, and directing. These shows induce tears, incite laughter, and provoke fear. They are thoughtful, profound, and consistently devastating.

And while they’re each vastly different they are united in their sense of individual vision and adherence to that vision. They don’t “jump the shark”. You’d be hard pressed to find more thoroughly entertaining shows to consume your daily commute to the office.

Unless you drive to work. In which case, keep your eyes on the road, be excellent at your job, and watch this stuff when you’re safely home on the couch. Nachos and beer are optional.

My Daughter is Different

Early in 2013 my wife and I discovered that our daughter has autism. Now it wasn’t as traumatic as one might expect. Painful, yes, but it came as something of a relief.

You see, my daughter was always different. She babbled. She arm-flapped. She wouldn’t make eye-contact. She would only eat two or three kinds of meals and she would only wear one or two items of clothing. Everything else was tosh. We could never understand it.

We thought maybe she was just delayed in a few areas and, because she’s a gifted artist, assumed that her food and fashion choices were the result of being moody and bohemian. We didn’t think that anything was wrong with her; quirks are kinda normal in my family and she was otherwise, well, just normal.

Then we watched Parenthood, the heartwarming TV show where one of the characters is a child with Asperger’s Syndrome. We began to note that a lot of our daughter’s symptoms were similar to this TV character’s symptoms – so much so that we started researching autism online, running amateur diagnostics, and burning through forums dedicated to the disorder. The evidence seemed to stack.

We eventually made an appointment with a Developmental Pediatrician and sure enough, my daughter was diagnosed with PDD-NOS or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified – a clunky label that induced more questions than answers. Actually, the label is now moot as the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now defines autism as a spectrum – something like a piece of string that starts from slightly autistic to severely autistic, my daughter hanging on a clothespin somewhere on the early part of this peculiar cord.

Anyway, why was her diagnosis a relief? Well, first of all it explained a lot. That’s why she would pull off her clothes in the middle of a major tantrum. That’s why she would constantly recite large chunks of cartoon dialogue but not be able to engage in proper conversation. That’s why she favored long polka dot pants over plain short leggings – and a whole host of other things.

We were able to get her help. We enrolled her in speech therapy, language, and social skills class where she began to quickly blossom. She can now converse and ask questions. She can now declare she’s hungry and ask for food rather than holler and frantically point at her mouth. She can now describe sensation rather than experience pain and not be able to express herself.

We also watched this very insightful BBC documentary that shed light on how autistic children think and feel. It’s narrated by Rosie, an autistic teen who describes what it’s like to live with this condition. At one point in the documentary, she describes the conflict she feels when choosing between two pairs of shoes. She’s afraid that if she chooses one pair, the other pair will feel sad. Thinking about how my daughter often prefers one item of clothing over another, my wife and I realized that maybe it’s not a matter of brute stubbornness but of genuine, reactionary emotion. My heart broke when I pondered this. I will never force her to wear something she doesn’t like again.

I’m summarizing, of course. So much more has happened in the days since we first had got wind of her condition. Of all the things we’ve done and are now doing, changing our mind about her behavior has probably been the most helpful thing. Instead of being frustrated and angry at her perceived stubbornness, we try to be more patient, loving, and understanding. It’s a balancing act since, as parents, we can’t always let her get her way. But our starting point has changed. Knowing she thinks, feels, and learns differently, we can make the right adjustments.

I sometimes wish we could have identified and acted on it sooner. But this is how it is. I’m simply grateful to have a beautiful and determined daughter. Quirks, delays, I love her through and through.

Is This All That’s Happened?

Of course not! I did a number of other major things, made huge life decisions, and experienced key changes in my personal, professional, and spiritual journeys. But if you’ll excuse me, I have a beard to comb.

May 2014 be a charming year for us all!

07. January 2014 by dan
Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *