Monday, August 10, 2009

Hipster, Interrupted


So I was lurking around the Legacy bookstore website this one time, and saw some comments posted by a "Citizen Rob" which made me think about Citizen Kafka at WFMU in New York, one of my favorite radio stations, whose motto is "No Hits, All the Time." Turns out, "Citizen Rob" is one Robert Rummel-Hudson, a young hipster dad from Plano. He published a memoir with St. Martin's Press in early 2008, Schuyler's Monster, about his speechless daughter's rare disorder, bilateral perisylvian polymicrogyria, or polymicrogyria, for short. That's odd, I thought. How did I miss knowing about this book?

"The book is a love letter to my daughter," Rummel-Hudson told a freelance reviewer for the Dallas Morning News around the time of its release, who seemed not to catch the hint that this is not your mother's "special needs kid" book. Other "reviews" tended to simply define the disorder itself rather than comment on the formidable writing gifts of the book's author. That unwieldy word, polymicrogyria, tended to hijack the book reviews,exactly like it hijacked Rob and Julie Rummel-Hudson's life. Book coverage defaulted to a pattern of really excellent PSA's about the disorder without giving Schuyler's dad a proper welcome as a writer, as a viable and welcome voice in this wilderness of words we inhabit. That's how I missed knowing about this book.

One account labeled the family "special ed nomads," to describe their struggle to get adequate education for their daughter. Kirkus and Library Journal adeptly summarized the struggle of two young hipster parents as they absorbed the knowledge that their stunningly beautiful and charming little girl was never going to be able to speak to them, possibly giving rise to the perception that Schuyler's Monster was of interest only to parents of "special needs" kids, that it should be shelved only among medical disorders or amidst speech pathology annals. It's great that this book will find parents who must navigate the strange shoals of special education, but this book needs to find a larger audience, and that larger audience needs to find this "Citizen Rob" who wrote it.

There is no other story like this: a father with an ex-pat West Texan's love of words and music, yet he has a daughter who cannot speak. He responds by situating his story inside a larger story:

Before words, there was music. . .I should stop here and tell you about my hometown. Odessa is our setting, the grubby West Texas oil town in which I grew up. I don't know what it would have been like to spend a childhood in the 1970's in Normal America,but in Odessa (aka Slowdeatha, Odessalation, and my personal favorite, Jimbobwe), radical change wasn't remolding society. Even now, when I go back to see my family and drive Odessa's dusty streets, I feel as if I've hit an air pocket in time, where people might still be voting for Eissenhower and running duck and cover drills in school. Odessa was a rough town with a past rooted in the unforgiving world of oil production (my father left the oil business after watching a co-worker burn to death in an industrial accident), but it was also filled with church-going citizens and wholesome Ronald Reagan values and gritty West Texas characters. I, on the other hand, was a snotty teenager whose idea of country and western music was "I Wanna Be a Cowboy," by Boys Don't Cry and the Dead Kennedys' cover of "Rawhide." Naturally I couldn't wait to get out.

As a young man, Rummel-Hudson was deeply interested in music, and composers such as Shostakovich, "who served in the great Russian tradition of the yurodivy, or 'holy fool,' like King Lear's faithful servant who was allowed to speak the truth about the king and remain unharmed, serving as he did a higher purpose." In answer to his conflicted feelings about war and violence,a teacher played Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and showed him Britten's scores for Wilfred Owens' poetry, and he began to understand "what it meant to be a pacifist."

So far, so good. The normal trajectory of an artist. But this man's story is like that old Don Henley song, "Like any young man, I had some things I wanted to say. Ere I could begin, the world got in my way.

Citizen Rob held various jobs that did not hold his interest, and blogged in the early days of the internet, while gradually becoming "some sort of populist writer" online in a voice he describes as "Everyman Dumb Guy." On his way out of a bad "starter" marriage, he met the love of his life, Julie, while teaching summer sessions at Interlochen, a program for gifted young artists. They married, they had a baby girl. Time passed. The baby didn't speak. As more time passed, they understood that she would never speak normally. They acquired a new word in their vocabulary, polymicrogyria, n., medical term referring to a rare condition which hijacks your baby's life, plus yours, right before your very eyes.

We got lucky two ways, when Rummel-Hudson decided to write this book. First, don't let him fool you with that Everyman Dumb Guy routine. Schuyler's Monster was authored by Everyman Articulate Guy, who can describe the contours of a life most of us have never encountered, with precise and lyrical honesty. He nails the Kafka-esque bureaucratic undertow of "special education," chronicling the peculiar twistedness of an Austin teacher who chooses order and control over instruction: when the couple raises over $10,000 unassisted by the school, to provide their daughter with an electronic talking device to enable her to communicate, the teacher retaliates by setting the machine on "mute" every day. The couple move their daughter to the Plano school system, which seems to be ready to teach kids like Schuyler. The struggle to do parenthood right is not without its cost. To Rummel-Hudson's credit, he is forthright about the sheer exhaustion and stress on a marriage that accompany high-octane parenting. He remains resolutely agnostic, but he finds his way to an admirable tolerance of belief unlike his own.

Second, as literary memoir, Schuyler's Monster is the necessary counterpoint for every busted-flush, bottomed-out, philosophically bankrupt memoir of the life-sucks-and-then-you-die genre. He began his writing life a bit adrift as an eloquent blogger; as Schuyler's father, he is on his way to becoming a high-profile advocate of educational reform. When he calls himself "Citizen Rob," it's not just a hipster's wry joke. It puts a whole new spin on Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on. . . I'll go on."

If a yurodivy is someone possessing the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about, Rummel-Hudson is squarely within the yurodivy tradition himself, using weirdly translucent prose the same way composers telegraph magic through music:
I had my first dream about Schuyler talking that fall. . .In my dreams, and strangely in the dreams of many people (friends and strangers alike), Schuyler spoke. She speaks in my dreams to this very day, and I have no doubt she'll do so for the rest of my life.

Word: Schuyler's Monster should be shelved, and sold, and taught in universities, as literary memoir. Anyone wondering what it takes to be a writer should read this book. It tells the story of a remarkable child, yes indeed. But let the record show also that it is the dogged, if a little delayed, debut of a born writer with plenty of truth-telling ahead of him. What interrupts you also creates you.

Coming tomorrow: an interview with Rob.

Related Links:
Schuyler's Monster website

Rob's blog, Fighting Monsters With Rubber Swords

sound clip of Schuyler using her HipTalk box to say, "My Name is Schuyler"

Rob's Twitter