Letter to a Young Person Who Plays with My Son

Dear Melissa,

Thank you for your voicemail the other week saying you had a “funny story” to tell me.  When I called back, you told me about orientation week at your graduate occupational therapy program.  You said the director of the meeting asked the students to say what makes a good occupational therapist.  Students said compassion and empathy.  When the teacher asked you what you thought was an important quality for an occupational therapist, you said, “Enthusiasm.”  The teacher got quiet and said, “Compassion and empathy are important for being an occupational therapist.  However, enthusiasm fades.”

I wish I could say that when you told me this “funny story” I laughed and let it go.  However, I wanted to strangle that teacher. After getting off the phone with you, I considered calling the teacher and yelling at her.  I wanted to say, “You moron–You think I want unenthusiastic people playing with my kid?  What are you teaching them?  If you take away Melissa’s enthusiasm I’m going to fucking kill you.”  Melissa, when you moved to go to graduate school, it was very hard for me.  I missed you.  I missed your amazing energy.  I missed how excited you were to be in my house.  I missed how much love and passion you had for playing with my son.  You helped me be more excited about my life and my son.  So when your teacher scoffed at your enthusiasm, I was pissed.  I wanted to tell her that I wanted my money back(I had given you some money to help pay your tuition.)  I wanted to tell her that you are coming back to play with Cal during Christmas break and if you are unenthusiastic, how will that help me?  I’ve never walked out of a therapist or doctors office and said to my husband, “Boy that doctor was great!  She was so unenthusiastic, bitter and jaded–that was so helpful.”

Before you called, I read a speech the headmaster of my son’s school said to seniors in high school.  He talked about helicopter parents who went to job interviews with their kids who were applying for jobs as lawyers.  I decided not to call your professor because I didn’t want to be one of those helicopter parents, especially since I’m not even your parent.  Instead, I decided the best way to help you was for me to model enthusiasm.  I already spoke to you on the phone about how your enthusiasm can’t fade because that would mean it’s something separate from you that can just go away.  You have control over how enthusiastic and excited you are.  You can choose to be enthusiastic or not.  Its your choice.  I decided then to have my top priority be that I was enthusiastic.  God, Melissa, you really helped me out.  Everything I did, I just said to myself, I’m going to be excited about this.  When, I noticed myself being sad or bitter, I would remember how I decided to be enthusiastic my top priority and I would come up with reasons to be excited.  It worked.

However since I spoke to you and decided to make being enthusiastic my top priority, I’ve forgotten about my enthusiasm a lot.  Sometimes I remember to choose to be enthusiastic for myself because I want to be happy.  But now, I’m not enthusiastic.   I’m not choosing to be enthusiastic because I’m afraid of being disappointed.  Last year I did a writing exercise from the book, “The Secret.”  The point was when you imagine what you want and feel grateful as though it’s already happened, you can make it happen.  This is what I wrote:

“I am so happy and grateful now that Cal is a happy, healthy teenager who is a sophomore at Paideia, gets straight A’s in History, English, Math, Music and Science.  Cal has a girlfriend who he loves and who loves him. Cal has a boy best friend who also goes to Paideia.  Cal is very popular on his Ultimate Frisbee Team.  Cal is close to his little brother and tutors him in Math and English.  Cal does garbage and laundry almost every day.  He has a job at the Venetian Pool as a life guard.”

I’ve had this piece of paper on my desk (hidden under other papers) for a long time.  For a while, when I read it, I got happy and hopeful.  Now, reading my dream, I feel terrible–sad, embarrassed, disappointed, nauseous.

When I wrote my dream I was excited thinking this could happen.  Now I think no way–it’s too late.  I still keep the paper on my desk but I cringe every time I look at it.  The other week I read a review of the broadway play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” about an autistic teenage boy.  After criticizing the play for having a sweet puppy, “The New York Times” reviewer said, “(the play) wisely allows room for a lingering darkness.  ‘It’s going to be all right,’ grown-ups keep telling (the autistic teenager) in bruised, self-betraying voices.  No, it’s not.”  “The New York Times” reviewer is saying himself, “No, it’s not going to be all right.”   “The New York Times” is considered a smart newspaper.  I think your occupational therapy professor and the New York Times reviewer should date.  They could go to dinner and congratulate themselves for how smart they are for believing the world sucks.

There will be people who will tell me that it’s not smart to be too hopeful and enthusiastic.  Now, I’m one of the people telling myself that.  I’m afraid to feel good about my dreams for Cal because I don’t want to be disappointed.  The thing is that I already am disappointed.  I do feel like I’d be happier and more effective with my son and the people around me if I believed in my dreams and that’s it’s going to be ok.  But I’m scared to believe what I wrote as my dream for Cal because I feel stupid.  I feel like people will think I’m stupid and won’t respect me or listen to me if I keep telling them Cal is going to get better and he doesn’t.

If I live my life believing Cal is going to do all those things I wrote about, it makes me silly and stupid because I know it can’t happen–he’s too old.    I’m afraid of being sad–that i’ll get excited again and then be sad.   After having a long dialogue with myself, I realized the following: If I get sad, I’m choosing to.  The more often I feel joy, feeling hopeful will become a habit.  In the book, “The Brain that Changes Itself”, it explains how we develop habits.    The more we do something(eat healthy, feel joy, throw a ball, smoke), the deeper that pathway develops in our brain.  The more used a path is, the easier it is to travel on.  It feels good to be passionate and excited.  I am committed to making the joy and enthusiasm path in my brain very well used.

How we play with Cal is focused on our attitude.  We are more effective with Cal, when we feel enthusiastic, loving, and accepting of ourselves and Cal.  I have control over how I feel and act.  I don’t have control over how other people feel and act.  Therefore, I want to be excited about Cal because it feels good to me.  It’s ok if your occupational therapy teacher and the “New York Times” critic make fun of my stupid optimism on their honeymoon.  I can’t control them but I can control how I feel and what I do.  I want to make being passionate, excited, happy and loving my top priority because I like myself and I want to be nice to me.

I just reread my dream about Cal being a sophomore at Paideia with the intention of me being nice to myself.  I felt good reading it.  I can picture Cal doing all those things and it’s nice.  But really, I can picture Cal being exactly who he is now and that feels really good too.  I love him exactly the way he is now.  That image I wrote is a different person who I can also have fun imagining.  So Melissa, be excited for yourself, not because someone like me or your teachers tell you to be–but because you want to be nice to yourself and it feels good to be excited.  Also, you help the people around you(like me and Cal) when you are your wonderful enthusiastic beautiful self.


  1. Loving Cal how he is now, with enthusiasm and joy, is a daily occurrence in your life. Watching team Cal, you and Eric included is a privilege and a blessing. Dream your dreams “child of mine” you own themComment by Ellen Sandor — October 28, 2014 @ 11:38 pm
  2. You are the CEO of team enthusiasm. We can all learn from your management skills. Bravo brave ” child of mine” I miss you and your lovely family every day. Thank you for being so authentic and persistent!Comment by Ellen Sandor — October 28, 2014 @ 11:49 pm
  3. I love this post. I love it because it’s about you and Cal. Your beautiful writing reminds me what really matters. I love this post because it’s a wonderful lesson for Melissa. I also love it because it’s a wonderful lesson for me. My first instinct is to only carry the frustration towards the teacher and NYT critic — and for those I encounter who insist they know best about things they are completely (and often willfully) ignorant about. But I need to remember that their misguided cynicism should never overshadow our enthusiasm, passion, and hope.Comment by Julie Sarah — October 28, 2014 @ 11:52 pm
  4. I absolutely loved this beautiful. profound piece of writing – and slice of heart. Penya, you remind us that things are as possible as we decide. People scoff at my hopes for peace, at my willingness to look at other as myself. Who says they’re right? Screw them! Enthusiaism is the liquid gold that makes the world go round. Loving what we’ve got – that’s the same. As in our search for a romantic partner, a mate for life, we must be somewhat blind to be there. Yet, in other ways, every pore of ourselves is open. You model open pores. Your parenting, your candor. Cal is blessed to have you. Melissa is blessed to have you. And the same goes for me. Keep ‘em coming. Your words stay with me for longer than you can dream. xxoxooComment by Ruth Ebenstein — October 29, 2014 @ 6:09 am
  5. Some would say living with enthusiasm is akin to looking at the world through rose colored glasses. I say, why not?! I love this post. I love it’s rawness and your candor. We should all live our lives filled with hope and dreams no matter the scale because the
    alternative sucks. Dream big Penya, shower Cal and all of us with your enthusiasm because you are choosing to live life
    not wait for life to happen. “Feel the fear and do it anyway!” You teach me that again and again. Thank you for being you!Comment by Eda Davidman — October 29, 2014 @ 6:44 am
  6. Every time you post on your blog it is such a gift to me. You write so beautifully and you are so inspiring and so real at the same time. Cal and Oscar are so lucky you’re their mom and Melissa is so lucky to have you as her mentor
    And I feel so lucky to have you as my friend!! Love, DebbieComment by Debbie — October 29, 2014 @ 7:12 am
  7. Penya,
    What a beautiful and heartfelt blog entry. I am often taken aback by the jaded and pessimistic attitudes of others. Hope springs eternal. I know first hand all of one’s dreams won’t come true, but I also know when one stops dreaming, one stops living with hope. Stay enthusiastic and keep dreaming for Cal, for yourself, for your entire family. And please keep posting. Your honest and open writing is thought provoking and reassuring. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.Comment by Sally Dorn — October 29, 2014 @ 8:31 am
  8. Your enthusiasm is beneficial to you, Cal, your family and definitely to me. It’s contagious. How could that be bad? Also, on a specific level, I see that Cal is much more connected. I vote for enthusiasm and optimism. I welcome more Autism is Cool posts. You are wonderful.Comment by Cheryl taub — October 29, 2014 @ 9:14 am
  9. Enthusiasm can fade. It ebbs and flows. However, as you so beautifully pointed out, the fight and desire to revive enthusiasm, embrace it, nurture it, constantly exert the mental effort to beat that synapse pathway into our brain and soul, the pathway that leads to ‘re-fill the enthusiasm tank here!’ is the key, is the objective.I am sad for those who give up; who empty their tank of enthusiasm and then believe ‘that is it, all used up’. As I try to picture a life without enthusiasm, I see gray skies, muted colors, bland, flat, bleak and sad. But not too sad because deeply sad requires passion and therefore might trigger enthusiasm!

    Like you, I become outraged when these sad, empty people try to instill their life resignation into the hearts of young, enthusiastic people, our future. Unforgivable.

    You write beautifully Penya, your passion and heart come through like a laser. You kick-started my enthusiasm and for this I thank you.

    I love your Cal dream and I too can picture him doing all those things, except the laundry, and that picture makes me smile.

    Love, Yoko

    Comment by Yoko — October 29, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

  10. What a beautiful post, Penya! I loved it. The first thing that came to mind regarding enthusiasm is Ernie Banks. He is a Hall-of-Fame baseball player who spent his entire career with the Chicago Cubs during the 1950s and 1960s. The team was not very good and never got to the World Series. Yet he never lost his enthusiasm for the game. He is famous for the following quote: “It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!” Your enthusiasm is infectious, Penya. Never lose it! You’re a wonderful, loving mom to Cal.
    Love, JeffComment by Jeffrey Simon — October 30, 2014 @ 3:10 pm
  11. I’ve often thought that doctors (and O.T.’s, too, I guess) think that people are dropping dead all over the place of something called “false hope.”They want to avoid it at all costs. They’re scared to death of giving you “false hope.”

    There is no such thing as “false hope.” All hope is good!

    I love you, Penya.

    Comment by cheryl lavin rapp — November 10, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

  12. So, I am thinking that a blog is about generating conversation, thought, debate, brain-storming … all the things we used to do at dinners until it became politically and socially uncool. Maybe it is just me but dinners in the late 80′s early 90′s were about so much more than the food and the star chef. They were about having dinner with people we respected and trusted who stimulated open thinking and debate, and forgave that the wine might make for loose lips, actually, in some cases, hoped the wine would make for loose lips which could lead to more open debate. Miss those dinners. Bohemian dinners is what I used to call them.Cheryl Lavin, you used a phrase that got me going …false hope. I have always embraced false hope, there were times that false hope was all I had to survive upon, even as I knew it was ‘false hope’. False hope has at times gotten me through some very difficult times and actually in the end proved to be true hope.

    A difficult and undefined line we all tread; wanting, demanding and needing the truth but wanting demanding and needing hope, even if it is ‘false’ hope.

    Truth is relative. Hope is relative. Drawing the boundaries is very personal and I always found that those above-captioned dinners provided a forum to help define the boundaries of thought, logic, heart; in others words, human thinking, defining realistic intangible needs.

    Now, I think that Penya’s autismiscool blog provides this format for us all. A place to brain-storm. A place to share. A place to learn from the wisdom of each other without ingesting calories.

    Cheryl Lavin, you used few words but said so much.

    Eda, I embraced your “feel the fear and do it anyway.” … it has helped me in these past few weeks and I shall keep those words in my mind for future use.

    Jeffrey, your words and thoughts were smart and thoughtful but what I truly appreciated were the maleness of your words … without going into seven paragraphs let me say it this way: your thoughts had deep heart, were practical and forward-thinking, pro-active, practical … male, very male and I appreciate your sharing them unfiltered with a predominately female audience.

    I truly have no point, Cheryl Lavin your ‘false hope’ phrase triggered something in me and I felt compelled to respond .. to continue the conversation.

    Comment by Yokohan the food. — November 13, 2014 @ 10:13 pm