In His Honor

I’d already been to Chicago twice this year for Split Season:1981 related media, so when Nate started  announcing at the end of July that we would be going back for a week in August, “in honor of his 25th birthday,” I wasn’t quite geared up for another road trip. Plus, I hate leaving Cooperstown in summer, but Nate pronounced it and it was a fait accompli. We were going to Chicago.

Nate had his list of new stores/restaurants whose bathrooms he needed to check out and photograph. These days we justify those as research trips for future drawings. Then there were key eating spots – Il Forno for pizza, Portillo’s for spaghetti and meatballs, Pequod’s for pizza, Walker Brothers for pancakes – and an obligatory driving tour through our old neighborhood in Lincolnshire. Nate and I used to bike for miles, in and out of suburban streets, he on his replica Orange Krate Schwinn, me on my Trek,  and now we have to drive that same path so Nate can see any renovations. He also keeps track of Lincolnshire realtors and knows (of course he does) which houses have sold, which are for sale and what they look like inside. It’s an amazing tour to be on, though a little bit creepy.


I was particularly worried how Nate would be as we approached our old house. Lately he’s been pretty vocal about when we moved to Cooperstown in 2003. The mildest comment – “Remember when we moved to Cooperstown in June 2003? That was pretty disappointing.” The strongest – “I want to go back in time to early 2003 and blow up our Cooperstown house so we couldn’t move.” So I wasn’t sure how he’d be when we drove by 302 Carlisle Lane.

I kept watching him as we approached the cul-de-sac. He was fine as we slowly made our way around the curve.

“How’re you doing?” I asked.

“Fine,” but he wasn’t. He forced a smile through watery eyes, doing his best to stay brave. These moments allow me the chance to talk about real emotions with Nate. I told him I also get sad about Lincolnshire and that, though I’ve love Cooperstown, I too miss our old house. I also told him that moving to Cooperstown led to his successes – high school and college graduate, professional artist. By this time he’d moved on.

From there we drove north and west to the strip malls he loves and that have propelled him into the art world.

“Ah, so many memories,” he sighed as we entered the Walmart of Vernon Hills, hardly the sight for such nostalgia and romance. The stink coming from the Subway inside the store was oppressive, but Nate was in heaven. They had a new DVD of Disney short films that he had been looking for.


As we stood in the checkout line, Nate told me, “This DVD and I are loaded with humor and heart.” He had adapted a review quote from the box and put himself into the mix. Regardless of where he got it, I can’t argue with his sentiment.

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Losing Control

Nate has a difficult time controlling how much he eats. Like Robert Downey in Tropic Thunder, he gets excited about his foods, but it’s more than that. He’s constantly snacking and we are the worst enablers. Part of it goes back a long way, letting him “enjoy” his candy, popcorn, cookies, chips, because life could be hard for him. Part of it is avoiding fighting over how much he eats because, over time, there were bigger battles to have. Having less food in the house seems to be an impossible goal, like walking to Venus, and asking him to moderate his intake is met with screams and growls.

We watched The Hobbit last night, mercifully part 3 and the end of way too many hours invested in mediocrity. Nate set up with a bowl full of two bags of microwave popcorn and a bowl of candy. He shared with us, doling out handfuls of his horde rather than handing over a bowl. At one point, Karen took the white chocolate M & M’s (so very good) mainly to keep Nate from finishing them. Finishing is, in itself, a goal for him.

When the movie ended, Karen handed me the bowl, but I was slow on the drawer and Nate went for the reaming pieces. I pulled the bowl away, told him to stop eating and, in the tumult, a few M & M’s dropped to the floor. Nate scrambled to grab them and eat them as if he hadn’t had food in weeks. I got really pissed off at him.

“You’re out of control, fat and unhealthy,” I shouted, all true, none of it kind. As I walked out of the room I told him I was going to throw out all our candy, which I knew would get a reaction. It did. He was upset.

A lot of yelling ensued. I called him a “fat ass,” he told me to “stop nagging him.” We kept going back and forth on the matter, me trying to get my points across, him spouting nonsense and fury. Eventually things calmed down.

“Dad, tomorrow I’m going to eat carrots and apples for dinner. April Fool!”

“Dad, tomorrow I’m going to the fitness center. April Fool!”

By the time we went to sleep, I felt as if Nate had listened. I told him I wanted him to eat less and be healthier, that I loved him and that it was important to me that he feels better. This morning when he woke up, the first thing he said was “You called me a fat ass!” He was laughing about it, but hearing those words tossed back at me made me realize how needlessly cruel they were. I apologized, but we were cool.

During the afternoon, Nate called me from the other room. “Dad, I exercised today.”

“April Fool,” I said.

“No, no really, I exercised on the stepper.” Karen nodded her head.

5-Stepper lateral JOCCA para un acierto seguro

It seemed like Nate ate less today. Even at dinner (Wednesday night is pizza night), he only had 3 slices, less than usual and less than me. Maybe we broke through something last night, a place that’s been impossible to get to.

Still, I feel pretty bad.

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The Two Amigos

Sometimes when Karen is out of town, I’ll head down to New York City with Nate. It’s a good way to keep him busy and he looks forward to plans. He’s got fond memories of our previous adventures – staying at the UN Plaza, Lombardi’s pizza, the Tim Burton exhibit at MOMA.  This past week we made our third such trip.

I had some book related meetings scheduled, so the timing was right. I’ll admit I was worried taking Nate to the Flatiron Building for the meeting with my publisher, especially after I told Nate I’d need to film a promotional interview.


“Can I guest star in your video?” he asked.

“No, it’s for Split Season.” I told him. “What would you want to talk about anyway?”

“Maybe some of my childhood memories,” Nate answered. Granted, that would be a pretty funny video, but it wasn’t going to happen.  Guest starring in my video became a running joke between us. Not knowing how the interview would be filmed, I was concerned Nate would be in the same room, chattering away.

Our first stop was the office my publicist. Nate was fairly well-behaved. He did need to check out the bathroom, which was on another floor. He had to wait.

Nate has all these triggers, far too many to jot down. Let’s just say in any given situation, someone may say a word or phrase that will result in an automatic Nate response. In our conversation, my publicist said “blah blah blah.” That’s a trigger.

“Blah blah blah, like from Joey’s ‘Our Solar System’ book,” Nate chimed in. I knew it was coming, a rehashing of when Nate ruined a computer book Joey had created, replacing the text with “blahs.” There was nothing I could do to stop it.

Still, it wasn’t too off putting, just a bit odd. The ice was completely broken when Nate accidentally turned all the lights off in the office when he leaned on the switch. He immediately turned them back on, let out a huge laugh, and said, “We had a blackout.”

Everyone laughed. The Flatiron is very old, and there may have been the sense that a sudden power failure could actually happen at any time. Maybe the laughs were relief that the darkness was inadvertent.

From there we headed to a lower floor. Nate saw the bathroom and we went to film. Fortunately, Nate was in another room altogether with my agent and the publicist’s assistant. They seemingly got on well, Nate talking a bit about his “N-Boy” AlphaFOLKS t-shirt.


We tried to go to Economy Candy, a place that Nate introduced us to, but Silvercup Studios was filming on Rivington and adjacent streets and street parking was nonexistent. All done in Manhattan, we drove to Brooklyn, where we were staying at a Holiday Inn Express.  For dinner we met my friend Paul, who knows Nate. We had great pizza at La Villa and that made Nate happy. The next morning we met up with my agent and her author friend who was interested in Nate.

Breakfast was a failure for Nate. You never know. He ordered pancakes, which are a reliable choice until they’re not. It has nothing to do with the quality; he’s just unpredictable about what he likes. The author was curious about Nate and, though I did most of the talking (as usual), Nate did answer some questions.

I explained about his art and obsession with bathrooms. My agent wondered if Nate had taken a picture at the Flatiron Building.

“I did,” he answered.

I was happy that the author had been reading up on Mission of Complex. Readers know I’m open about our Nate experiences and I’m happy to share the highs and lows. We left breakfast and Brooklyn and, though the record store and candy store we hoped to hit were either not open or impossible to park near, headed home, another nice journey completed.

Is Nate good company? He’s not very talkative, not at all interested in conversation, but he’s fun to be around. There are humorous moments, invariably comical situations (intentional and not), and I certainly know him enough to tease him into talking. And he is my son and there’s that bond, less obvious perhaps than the one I have with his brothers, but no less strong. Our New York City trips have become a tradition of ours and I look forward to them as much as Nate does.

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Late Night Drive

Nate and I hit the road for Albany late last night, leaving Cooperstown at 11 PM to pick Karen up at the airport. She’d been in Santa Monica the last week, avoiding all the snow. Nate and I hung out to his satisfaction, taking trips to Oswego, Syracuse and Oneonta, and going out to eat a few times. That’s about all it takes from him to be happy, which works for me.

As we drove last night, with the usual backdrop of ‘80’s hits (though he humored me with the occasional switch to the ‘70’s channel in time for two of my favorites – “Ooh Child” and “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”), we talked about cartoons when Nate wasn’t spouting some of his usual catchphrases and occasional nonsense.


One of his go-to reflections is about second grade, when he was mainstreamed back to regular school in Lincolnshire, IL. Ms. Johannsen was his teacher at Sprague School and Nate always talks about an assignment he did badly. He was supposed to write about what he liked and he wrote: “I keep it. I look at it. I take it. I get it.”

Ms. Johannsen told him to start over and he wrote several things that he liked – “I like to eat. I like to work. I like to play.” Much better. He likes that story.

I’ve heard it a million times before, but I wanted to see if I could get from Nate what it felt like then, to not understand and not be understood.

“Ah, it was OK,” he said.

“But it wasn’t OK Nate,” I told him. “You were very frustrated and angry, and you got violent a lot.”

“I was confused.”

I’ve never heard him refer to himself that way. It’s not easy to think like Nate, to try to be inside his head, but I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be 8-year old Nate, completely at sea, wanting to be part of things and trapped in a situation where he couldn’t. It struck me harder than ever. It must have been terrible for him.

Trying not to let on that I was getting teary (Nate doesn’t like when people cry), I told him how proud I was at all his hard work, and ours, to get him to where he is today.

“I can talk now,” he said.

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Dysfunction and Misdiagnosis

I stopped talking to my parents nine years ago. I won’t go into it, but I had an epiphany, realizing how I treated my sons compared to how they treated me. Let me tell you, it’s been a relief not speaking with them and, magically, a long series of stomach aches ended. I recommend it to anyone with long-term parental difficulties.

To their credit, my parents didn’t stop trying to get in touch with me. In their shoes, I’d do the same. I simply wasn’t receptive to the overtures and ignored them. Lately, my father has taken his outreach to nasty levels, writing his distorted view of reality (as opposed to reality) on Facebook and Twitter (yes, Twitter!).  It’s his right, though it only reinforces my original epiphany and strikes me as a strange strategy.

One thing he wrote about Nate was eye-opening, and I’ll tell you a related story further on. He wrote – “he [that’s me] showed me no respect for all that his mother and I did for him and his sick son.” I have no idea what he’s referring to, but Nate is not sick. He’s autistic. It’s a neurological and developmental disorder, not TB, but sick is as close as my parents can get to relating to it. There’s obviously a sense that Nate’s a poor ill boy, maybe physically, maybe mentally. Probably mentally; my mother once wondered if Nate’s autism was related or caused by some mental illness on Karen’s side of the family.

Treating autistic kids as sick is a real problem. Searching for a cure, looking to heal the illness, steals valuable time from therapy and hard work. That’s been our approach. We never spent a second figuring out how to solve Nate’s problem. We rolled up our sleeves and got down to work to make him as good as he could be – professional therapy, school assistance, at home interaction. It was often difficult, sometimes felt futile, and always our number one goal. That’s where we planted our flag, in hard labor.

Here’s the promised story: once, I was on the phone with my mother, another in a multi-decade series of meaningless chats.

“You have no idea how difficult it is for me with Nate,” she said. Autism was her cross to bear, her suffering, not Nate’s.

“How hard it is for you?” Even for her this was a bit beyond the norm. “I’m his father. I’m with him every day.” This was a time when Nate was very difficult, not particularly communicative and prone to tantrums.

“I’m his grandmother. It’s different.” QED, end of story. She had it worse than any of us.

But back to Nate. We never saw Nate as sick; he’s not. Far from it. He’s quite well and getting better all the time. We only saw him as different and challenging, needing attention, not sympathy, who, with tremendous support, could do great things. Thank goodness he’s got good parents behind him.

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At the Craft Show

Nate show

Don’t let that face fool you! Nate had a great weekend selling ALPHAFolks t-shirts at the Sharon Springs Harvest Festival this past weekend.

Karen, who’s made a habit of attending craft fairs, suggested Nate (meaning Nate and me), sell shirts. For a reason I can’t quite fathom, outside of the fact that it was a great idea, I immediately agreed. Not only would it be the first craft show I’d work, hell, it would be the first craft show I’d attend.

We were up at 6 on Saturday morning to load the cars. Karen had lots of stuff – tables, jewelry, kritter jars (see her work at Karen Katz Studio on Facebook). Nate and I had it easier – six large boxes of shirts. By 8 we were raising tents and lugging our wares.

There are many reasons we encourage and support Nate’s art. It’s great, it gives him something to work on, will (hopefully) build a career, makes him understand that good work leads to good money, gives him a sense of pride and accomplishment and, because he is the artist after all, puts him in social situations and provides him with much needed interaction.

I sat next to him for seven hours on Saturday, another five on Sunday, and he was amazing. We had a pre-printed form with information about Nate – his bio and links to his Etsy shops. He’d grab one from the pile and wave them at a passerby who had no intention of stopping. After I explained that he should wait until a potential customer stopped at the table to hand out his material, he had it figured out.

“Here’s some information about me,” he’d say as he handed out his flyer. Even when it was someone he knew, he’d move to give them the sheet.

“Nate, they know you,” I’d tell him. Sometimes it would be a former teacher, sometimes a longtime family friend and sometimes it would be his grandmother. After a while, Nate would say to someone, “Do you know me?” before he would offer his paper. It’s funny, he’s never quite sure about people he’s met a thousand times.

We developed a system. A customer would request a shirt to buy, I’d dig it out, and then I’d tell Nate, “Bag it and tag it.” He’d less than delicately take the folded shirt and shove it into a little bag, tossing in an ALPHAFolks hangtag so people would be able to spread the word.

He was patient and well-behaved, mostly. Once he said something I didn’t quite catch to two tween girls who looked at him funny and laughed. I’m sure it was silly and innocuous and completely odd.  I hate when his weirdness is so apparent. I talked him through how to comport himself – don’t be weird, don’t say silly things, the usual.

The vast majority of the time he was wonderful. Just to hear him say “What shirts do you want?” was incredible. I would introduce him as the artist, talk about his life, tell people about his strip mall art (we even had a strip mall shirt to sell) and Nate would answer questions from people who wanted to know more.

There were plenty of favorite moments. The reaction of buyers (40 sales in all) and non-buyers alike was all Karen and I hoped for. They’d see the faces on the table, or the shirts clothespinned to the inner supports of the tent and smile, laugh, remark on cute they were. ALPHAFolks was a smash hit.

Most of all, Nate liked the selling . “I’m getting more money,” he’d tell me after another shirt was purchased. When there was a lull in the afternoon, he grew concerned.

“So, does anyone else like me?” he asked. I tried to explain that how many shirts he sold wasn’t how he’d know whether people liked him or not.

“Everyone likes you Nate,” I told him, stating the obvious.

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A Bit of Time Travel

Last week we were visited by a dad and his son. Their family had recently relocated to Cooperstown and, through ways I can’t remember, were directed to Karen. Why? Their 3 ½ year old son was recently diagnosed with hyperlexia and we all know the Katz’ are the go-to family in these matters.

Upon their arrival, Karen and I were both struck by how much eye contact this little boy made. He didn’t seem to fit the Nate mold at all; Nate almost never looked at us at that age. We all know that every story is different, that each kid has his own ways of showing their symptoms, and soon enough we could see it – the inability to communicate, the talking to himself, the writing with his finger in the air, the recitations (in his case the alphabet), and so on. Yup, he was one!

As we tend to do, we revealed our own experience with Nate – how we finally had him diagnosed at the same age after being failed by our pediatrician, how we learned to become amateur speech therapists, how we became his staunchest advocates. Here was a father at the very beginnings of a long journey and we were throwing at him two decades worth of guidance. I think it was overwhelming.

While we were all talking, Karen was demonstrating some of the techniques we’d learned so long ago, especially writing down words, sentences and questions so the boy could see what he needed to say. And he got it, fast. When he broke a little frame holder, Karen wrote “Oops! It broke.” He repeated the phrase over and over again, his comprehension of it locked in when he found a little green candle and dropped it on the floor.

“Oops! It broke,” he squeaked. It became a game that morphed into another game.


Karen took the candle and wrote, “I want the candle” and began to slowly explain. She read each word, pointing with her pencil, and holding the candle until he said it. He couldn’t do it. He lunged for the object, would say “candle,” which wasn’t enough to award him the prize, and he was getting increasingly frustrated. I walked into the kitchen to see what Nate was up to.

“I….want…the….candle.” I heard it from the other room. It was unbelievable. Karen had gotten through to him. I headed back in to watch.

“Does daddy want the candle?” Karen asked the boy.

“I want the candle,” the dad said and his son gave it to him. And round and round it went.

All of this took place in the span of an hour visit. It was remarkable and, with Nate having turned 24 a few days earlier, a stark reminder of how far we’d come. It doesn’t seem so long ago that we were doing the same thing, writing directions to Nate on always present pads, words that he struggled to adopt but, when he did, it opened his mind and gave us the freedom to hope, and move forward, towards where we are today.

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