The Fixit Playlist: 30 Songs that Reset My Brain

Taking a sunset drive

Taking a sunset drive

A few years back I was riding with a friend and fooling with the cd changer in the car. Rage Against the Machine came roaring out of the speakers, practically ejecting me from the car. “That’s my fixit playlist,” he laughed, “for when I need to reset my brain.” His list included Radiohead, The Clash, all music that would get adrenaline flowing in just the right way for him. I thought it was a brilliant idea and started compiling my own Fixit playlist. Being me, I came up with several lists and for years now have been burning Fixit cds with dates on them to make sure I knew when I had finally hit on the real deal. The criteria were that it had to improve my mood under any circumstances and when played the second or third time I did not start skipping songs to get to one that worked – they ALL had to work so  could leave it in the car player for days (weeks) and at time and know I had access to the necessary music. I drive almost every day for long distances and do much of my best thinking in the car, so the music component is key. Someone in our ASD support group once noted, “I do all of my best crying in the car.” It’s true – the car is where we pull it together, and we need the right music to get us to the our next destination (school, doctor, therapist, IEP meeting, liquor store, etc.) in the right frame of mind. A few weeks ago I realized that I was always reaching for the April 2012 disc, so here’s what’s on it (with a few add-ins because even that one is missing some key songs).

This is my list. It’s not about taste, era, nostalgia, or identity. It just works. What’s yours look like?

I started to put in links for the individual songs but it was clear that many of them would not lead to the actual music, so I put in links to the artists instead (and, as an aside, some of these official websites are really creative, really cool or really hilarious).

Who Could Ask for Anything More?

So. It’s a picture perfect autumn day and we are listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air talk with Michael Feinstein describing his new book/cd about Ira Gershwin. Great program. They play a clip of a radio show in 1933 with Rudy Vallee and George Gershwin chatting with a little piano playing, followed a little later by a second clip of Ethel Merman singing “I Got Rhythm.” Our boy has been next to me in the car the entire time, tapping away on his iPod and soaking up the October sun; it’s been a long day of doctor’s appointments. The Merman recording, Feinstein explains, is from a tribute to George Gershwin that took place just after his death from a brain rumor at age 38. As Merman approaches the bridge in the song – “Who could ask for anything more?” – the boy turns to me and asks,

“Was this right before the Wizard of Oz?”

“I think so!” I reply, but when I get home I look it up because I wasn’t listening that closely. He was right. It was 1937. Oz was released in 1939. The Fresh Air broadcast made no reference to that film or its music but only (and ever so tangentially) to the composers who wrote some of the songs for it – Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. The only other clues to the era might have been the melodies themselves and the accents – the Brooklyn/Boston/vaudeville kind of patter – both Gershwin and Vallee have voices that sound very much like Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in Oz.

How is it – how is it – that some one who is not supposed to be adept at inferring anything can infer himself right back to 1937 at the sound of a radio broadcast and a familiar accent? Auditory processing deficit? Not today. Fear of music? Not today. Trouble making connections? Not today – at least not at this moment.

During the course of this busy day I jotted down at least a half-dozen moments that are worth writing about, but this is the stunner because it reminds me for the umpteenth time that , in our lives, autism creates so many more opportunities than we give it credit for. They are random, yes, and we don’t always know what to do with them, but they’re there, waiting to be noticed, valued and put into context. It’s kind of like a treasure hunt, every day.

Who could ask for anything more?

True Colors

The other day I was trying to explain some of the more practical points about autistic behavior to people who work in schools but do not have a lot of interaction with autistic kids during their day (the event leading up to that particular conversation is the topic of a post to be named later). These folks should know more, they should interact with the kids more, but they don’t.  On some level, there is only so much you can expect from the uninitiated – there are lots of disabilities and syndromes that I don’t understand because I don’t live with or near them. Most of the time, you learn because you have to; you learn because someone shows you.

During our first years of marriage we lived in a town near Boston in a little house on a quiet street.  Across the street live Sergei and his wife and their two or three children; I can’t recall how many of them there were, but each morning he would stand outside and wait for a school van to come and pick up his daughter, who must have been 12 or 13.  Sergei was big and square with a bushy mustache and large rectangle glasses.  His daughter – her name was Leah (Lia?) – was tall and thin with long black hair, a distant smile and wandering eyes.  It was always the two of them, sometimes holding hands, always smiling and waiting for the van.

My husband would talk to Sergei when he was out in the yard or talking a walk.  He was quiet and friendly, and he would bring Leah by on Halloween to trick or treat.  She wasn’t dressed up with more than kitty ears or a bright scarf.  She would just whisper the words; behind the smile she seemed to be somewhere else.  I wanted to say more to her but the words would catch in my throat; I didn’t know how to engage her and was afraid of making mistake and thus offending sweet Sergei.  I wanted to ask him about her but did not want to be rude.   So, to make up for being at such a loss, I waved and smiled whenever I saw them.

Watching the van one morning I remember thinking, “This is a kind of life I know nothing about.”  And later that morning on the train to Boston I recalled my Aunt Billie, who, in a previous generation’s vernacular, “was a little slow.”  The family talked about how Billie had gone to some of the same schools as Rosemary Kennedy, a remark whose significance was lost on me at the time.  Billie lived with our family for a brief time (a summer, maybe?) during which I worshiped her as she made fabulous art on our dining room table.  I was probably 8 or 9, and it never occurred to me to treat her any differently or feel that her faculties were diminished.  She made beautiful ink and paint designs on fabric interfacing – gorgeous flowers in vibrant colors that spread deliciously through the fibers.  Our mother had them framed and put them up all over the house.

When Aunt Billie died from kidney problems in her late 40s. I was 11 years old and the only one who got to attend the funeral in Philadelphia with my mother, and I was allowed to choose from among her things something to remember her by.  I don’t recall seeing any painting among her few things, so I chose a small needlepoint of a butterfly and her clock radio.  (In 1974, a clock radio was a big deal.)  I knew my connection to Billie was special, but I didn’t much think about how or why.  I loved the attention she gave me; she was an artist and I wanted to be one, that was all.

I still have the needlepoint tucked away somewhere, but better yet I now have several of her paintings.  A few years ago we were redecorating our upstairs and I decided to have some of them reframed – the faded dark mats and speckled antiqued wood frames were decades out of date and didn’t seem to match the art.  At the framers I chose thick white beveled mats and simple black frames, and I asked the framer to remove one painting from the old frame so we could see how it would look when it was finished.  It was then that I saw that the previous framers had backed the paintings with brown kraft paper, which, for all these years, had shone through the translucent interfacing and muddied the pigments.  When we backed the art with white paper the true colors burst forth.

All of those years, muted and misunderstood, Aunt Billie’s art was there for us to see but not in the colors she had intended.  Mom had done her best to give Billie all she needed, a place to live, the tools and a place for her artistic expression, but still the world couldn’t wholly appreciate her gift because she lived and worked on the periphery.  And as I grew up I didn’t notice the difference between the bright paintings on the table and the ones muted by the brown paper backing; I don’t think anyone did.  By then I knew what it meant to be in the same school as Rosemary Kennedy and had blindly accepted that the margins of society were okay for some kinds of people.

Now the school van comes to my house and the art is by my child, and we are doing everything we can to stay engaged in our community and steer clear of the margins.  We go to the public school and advocate for a program that is supportive and inclusive to the greatest and most practical extent.  Often it’s difficult – the margins are quiet and there are some people who need the space to be there.  But the decision has to be ours; we have the right to choose where we will be happy and how we want to belong.  And as we go, we will learn and we will show the people whose vision is obscured by the brown paper how they can remove those old dull perceptions so that they can appreciate what our true colors are.