The Cooper Conundrum


As many of my work colleagues, friends on Social Media, New Jersey police & Transit Police know my 11 year old son Cooper went missing this past Saturday for six hours. For many people this isn’t a surprise; I mean semi regularly Doreen, my wife, posts an “on the look out for Cooper” on her Facebook page. It is such a common sentiment that recently I went to get a cup of coffee at a local vendor, The Able Baker, and the woman helping me introduced herself as being part of the “Cooper look out team.” How awesome is that? I must give a shout out to the wonderful citizens and employees in our town who definitely keep a watchful eye out for my son. So why was this Saturday evening any different?

For those of you who don’t know my son suffers from autism. High functioning thank God, but as any parent of a kid on the spectrum can tell you, its a real thing! There are certain givens with Cooper: He adores NJ Transit, he desires many objects (often found in my shopping cart on Amazon is a Pokemon card or a plush toy), He loves to be on the go (and has had several bikes stolen in the process), He would like to go to NYC with me everyday if he could, He is passionate about eating at the diner and going to the ice cream store. So this last Saturday when he went to skate in the park just before 4:00 in the afternoon equipped with his cell phone and a plan to meet Doreen and his sister’s at the diner at 5:00 for dinner and then a stop by the ice cream shop it seemed like a lock. Doreen and I were babysitter ready with plans to attend the late show of Rita Wilson’s concert at the Cafe Carlyle that night; Doreen was perfectly priming the kids so her meeting me after my show would be a non event. Cooper never showed up at the diner or the ice cream store. His phone went straight to voice mail and texts were not being responded to. Doreen phoned to tell me he was missing at 7:00 in case he showed up at my work, which he has in the past. The Maplewood Police department and NJ transit Authority were informed in short order. As the night wore on the fact that Coop missed the diner and hadn’t called Doreen started to bother me more and more. By 9:00 terrible thoughts were racing through my mind and I just said many o’ prayer as the An American In Paris Orchestra continued to play and the performers went about their magic. By 9:30 Doreen and I were abandoning our anniversary plans, both of us bereft with worry, her trying to keep her fear from our girls while I tried to keep mine from my co-workers. Then at 10:10 I received word from a train conductor friend, Andre, that one of his conductor friends saw Cooper on the train that afternoon saying he was going to Trenton. Within minutes of this information coming in to me and Stairway to Paradise wrapping up onstage at the Palace Theatre Doreen got a call from the Trenton Transit Center that Cooper was there and needed to be picked up. Relief and exhaustion set in immediately!

I arrived home from work at midnight and sent our “date-night” baby sitter on her way and Doreen and Cooper rolled in at 1:30 in the morning. An extremely cuddly Cooper with nary a care in the world and a ticket for the SEPTA train in his hand comes up and rubs his face gently against mine. I took a serious tone, looked Cooper in the eye and said, “Buster, you simply cannot do that again. Mama and I were terrified that something horrible had happened to you. Your phone turned off. No more Cooper!” Coopers very sincere response was, “I wanted to go to Atlantic City and get a hotel room and come home tomorrow but it got too late to get a train.” Um… speechless.

We do the required take-aways from Coop’s freedoms and treasured stuff to try to make him understand the severity of the situation but the fact of the matter is Cooper is going to understand everything until the next time he is instantly taken by a need to journey. Cooper is a generally well mannered young man full of charm and an extra helping of life with a penchant to be on the move. So we have armed him with GPS tiles (thank you Apple) that will locate him wherever free wi-fi is available and added trackers to his phone that will work if it is on or not (thank you t-mobile) but the best we can arm him with is knowledge of people good & bad and an incredible network of friends that have his sweet back… that said, I will continue to pray!

To achieve greatness through respect

respectAs a parent and a working professional I am constantly struggling to be awesome in my work and home. We owe it to ourselves to be brilliant whenever possible, right? I mean that is what you do right? Strive for brilliants. I have recently achieved catastrophic failure in my family life, when seen through the lens of this “brilliant” filter that is. My son Cooper, who has God’s special touch in the form of autism, was so upset with me recently he attempted to “run away” via New Jersey Transit after I left for work. Now, I must preface this story with the fact that my son has a penchant for train travel with or without me and has an internal compass and a memory for directions that defies odds. In fact over the Thanksgiving Holiday he showed up at my stage door in the heart of Times Square to surprise me. This was a tremendous surprise since his journey into New York City required riding the New Jersey Transit train from our town in Maplewood NJ into Pennsylvania station NYC where he then he hoped a subway to 50th Street station on the red line and backtracked on foot to our stage door on 47th street. So the fact that Cooper retreated to the trains to run away was not the shocker. The fact that he openly defied his mom’s rules that he was never to ride the trains without an adult was bad, but still not the sting that made me evaluate my “brilliants”. The failure came from my internal pressure to deal with my son’s behaviors earlier that day  with good old fashion “normal” discipline when he was being very badly behaved and not listening to anyone. I was very stern in tone, attitude and threat. I told him I hated his not listening and that this wasn’t how my boy behaves. Then I gave him a cold shoulder when he tried to turn things around just before I left for work. I was bound and determined to let him know I was the boss. This superiority shouldn’t seem so outrageous, right? After all, I didn’t beat him. However this was the reason Cooper ran away without his phone after I left for work. My wife Doreen had the wherewithal to reach out to a group of friends to help find him and reported our son to the Transit Authority who did find him in Newark Penn Station while he waited for his connecting train to Long Branch NJ. Cooper later revealed to me that he was planning on running away to our friends house in Red Bank NJ right after he finished visiting Bay Head NJ. Again proving that his compass was fully in tact since Red Bank is a stop on the train line on the Jersey Coast which terminates in his beloved Bay Head.

I mentioned that my son has special needs so traditional discipline is not at all effective, in fact, later that night as I was coming home from work Cooper spared no pains to tell me that he ran away because I said I hated him (translated from “I hate your behavior”) and I was mean to him, so he said he didn’t like me anymore. Okay, I don’t need my son to like me all the time, but I do need his respect and I felt that is what I was loosing by dealing with him in a petty manner. So the next day, after I licked my parental wounds, I took my son for Pancakes and leveled the playing field. We reached a reasonable compromise, that did in fact include an escorted train journey in exchange for his hard work on how he behaved at home and respected his family. I also told him I had some work to do, but most of my being angry comes out of fear. Oh, the blank stare I received in response to that statement was priceless and resulted in him asking me to help him cut up his pancakes.

This exchange with my son made me think a little more deeply about other interactions I have in life and the fact that respect is always creeping in as a factor. I recently heard a stage hand say to an actor who was struggling with his performance that day and expressed how tired he was, “never talk about being tired in front of a stage hand.” I completely understood this stage hands point, he started working at 8:00 that morning doing physical labor and has a young family who makes a full nights sleep difficult. His average work week runs from 50-60 hrs or more depending on how many jobs he is working at any given time. The average cast member at our show is at work 24-30 hours a week and has access to multiple forms of body work from gym memberships to PT and massage. However, the problem in this communication is a lack of respect. This dancer looks at this stage hand carrying some props  or pushing some scenery, looking at his phone and sitting around at work while this performer is running around changing clothes, dancing and singing for nearly 2 1/2 hours. The stage hand doesn’t know the work the dancer puts into maintaining his body and training his instruments. Not to mention the vulnerability of putting yourself in front of an audience 8 times a week. So that conversation, given mutual respect could have gone; “oh my God, I’m so tired today.” and the response could have been “I hear you brother, I feel the same way.”

Is true mutual respect even possible when you mix together such different people? I started thinking about respect and how as a manager and as a human being this one word “respect” and its action of being “respectful” is way under utilized. Will I be a more effective manager if I truly start from a place of respect? Not insisting on everyone toeing a perfectly straight line, but building a mutual respect for for the line each individual toes? In the theatre we are mixing so many disciplines that it is easy to loose sight over what everyone contributes, but I think we must always try everyday or we may end up with people trying to run away from us as managers instead of being a part of the process together.

Andre, the train giant

IMG_2946My ten-year-old son Cooper comes with a host of puzzles and a load of obsessions. Somedays we deal with these puzzles better than other days but trust me when I say everyday you deal with them, there are no days off. Now, the other side of that statement; trust me when I say I wouldn’t want a day off from Cooper.

One of Cooper’s “obsessions” is New Jersey Transit. Not just trains but the mighty transit system that runs through our town and many other towns in the great state of New Jersey. Each of the systems many corridors of travel hold exploration possibilities for Cooper. He knows the stations and wether they come with a gap at boarding or have gates that come down to stop pedestrian & automotive traffic. He knows the engines and has definite opinions about the various passenger car options. This goes way beyond the next station stop is… Over the last few years I have taken Cooper on many a train ride to destinations that provide nothing more than a train ride back to Maplewood. #LifewithCooper is the hashtag I established to accompany several of our journeys.

During our travels Cooper has made an acquaintance with several of the conductors. Many of them provide him with seat checks and a friendly nod.  There are a few who have a fondness for Cooper’s fascination with the transit and have gotten to know him by name. I know this because I hear them say, “hi Cooper, where’s your mom?” That’s me “Cooper’s Mom.” Then, about 6 months ago Cooper met a conductor on the Dover line that gave him a job. Cooper was sitting in the front of the train near the engine but before the engine is a door lead to an open space. I was sitting in a seat on the bottom of the train where I could hear what was going on but giving Cooper his “space”. This conductor saw Cooper staring at the engine and had a brief exchange about what kind of an engine it was and why it was such a good engine, then he told Cooper to not let anyone go through that door because it was dangerous. Cooper dutifully performed this task until we got to our stop. We got off the train and the conductor told Cooper “thanks for helpin’ man. good job.” The next week Cooper wanted to take the same trip to see his friend who had given him a job. We did and again this Conductor took a genuine interest in Cooper. I introduced myself and quietly explained that Cooper wanted to take this train so he could see him. That was the day Andre came into our train travel life, we would take an early train to Dover so we could accompany Andre to Maplewood several times over the next few months. Andre introduced Cooper to his engineer, Art, taught Cooper about “zone-numbers” and had him study the zone chart, he taught him about greeting customers and cutting tickets. He even showed him the button configuration for opening doors. Super nice guy with boys of his own who seemed to love his job, he even gave Cooper a little bag of treats the Saturday after Halloween. Then in mid November, just before Cooper’s birthday, we got on the morning train and transferred  at a different station just to mix things up. The train pulled in and we ran to the front of the train, where the Conductor is, and it wasn’t Andre. Coop asked the man right away where Andre was and the man responded that, “he doesn’t work this train anymore.” I headed back to find a familiar face and one of the ticket collectors came up and said he knew we were looking for Andre but he had been “bumped.” This is a apparently a process where Transit employees with more seniority can take over certain schedules. Cooper was gutted and honestly so was I. We took to some other train lines after and found Engineer Art, but no Andre. Then on New Years Eve I agreed to take Cooper on a long journey to Montclair State University train station which involved going to Broad Street Station and transferring to the correct train line. As usual when we boarded the train Cooper asked the conductor if he knew Andre and he said yes and thought maybe Andre was at Penn already, if he was working that day. Needless to say we went all the way into Penn to search for Andre before heading to Montclair U. Cooper took my phone into the crew room at Pennsylvania Station and started showing pictures of Andre but it didn’t appear he was working that day. We continued on our journey and on the way back home I got a phone message from ANDRE! I had forgotten I had given him my number in case he wanted to arrange tickets to take his wife to see the show I was working on at the time. The conductor from earlier in the day had run into Andre and told him Cooper was looking for him. Cooper was elated and Andre and I texted back in forth about his train schedule because he wanted to see Cooper because he had something for him.

After a healthy back and forth and discovering we were not going to catch him on the train over the holiday I asked Andre if he would like to stop by our house to see Cooper and bring his boys with him to play. Andre, who lives in a neighboring town, did come over. This gentle giant was decked out in civilian clothes right down to his Lebron James Soldier 6 tennis shoes and you would think Cooper saw the president walking up to the house. After an introduction to all the children and a show-and-tell of Cooper’s trains, Andre presented Cooper with a present of a real NJ Transit conductor’s hat that he got with that year’s uniform allotment. Cooper was understandably excited and proud to have the very hat he had admired many-o-times on our train journeys, but I can honestly say that the time that Andre spent with Cooper and the genuine interest he took in him will always leave the most indelible mark on my very special boy.


Two wheels and a dream, a nine year old’s road to glory

There was a genre of films that seemed to be very popular in the eighties and nineties that focused on the central character or characters taking to the road and we followed their journey comfortably from our seat in the movie theatre munching popcorn and dreaming of our own escape. Road movies, I think they were called, Thelma and Louise was a block buster in this genre although the outcome of that movie, as I recall, was not so happy. I am sure this is still a popular genre to this day but I don’t see many movies that don’t involve animation so I’m a little out of the loop.

My son Cooper owns an orange BMX bike and has a penchant for travel. Now, one might argue that in this day and age letting your high functioning autistic son take to the streets creating his own road films is not the best choice, but I want a chance to defend our position before I go on. Cooper has been riding a two-wheeler bicycle since he was three-years old; by the time he was four he and I would go for bike rides together and by the time he was five those rides could go on for eight or nine miles through towns bordering ours. Cooper also loves to travel on the New Jersey Transit. We stick to our local train line for the most part but have been known to transfer to more exotic places like Gladstone, New Jersey. Long story short, our Coop likes to travel and is always on the move. He knows not to go near a strangers house or car… so we contently let Cooper live his dream in our town.

Cooper is well known in the village of our town where he is friendly with the owners of the Maplewood Stationary Store, the Maple Leaf Diner and the Maplewood barber as well as a few local haunts nearer our house such as the hobby shop, the skateboard park which is housed behind the police station in a neighboring park, the Seven-Eleven and recently the Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts. Any given Saturday when Doreen doles out his allowance Coop will board his bike and live his life with three bucks burning a hole in his pocket. He has even been known to show up at the homes of our friends and hang out for a while or invite them for dinner.

We are generally aware of Coop’s path and he’s never gone to long but one recent Sunday Cooper took off to make his own indy road flick. He burst into our room bright and early and leaned over me pressing his face into mine and asked if I wanted to go for a train ride. I with blurry vision I saw six am on the clock and begged for a half-hour reprieve. Doreen mumbled something indecipherable to Cooper about my working late and let Mommy sleep and then she rolled over and re-visited the backs of her eye lids. I started back in for my thirty minutes for good behavior and was just fading off when coop asked if he could go for a bike ride. I told him of course he could and we would go to the train when he came home. I did manage to sleep peacefully for the next forty-five minutes but as soon as Cooper walked back in the door it was game over, 6:45 AM and time to get dressed for a quick trip on the NJ Transit to Summit with my boy. Doreen and I were awake but in an effort to stall a little longer we suggested to Cooper he should eat first. Cooper informed us that he was not hungry because he had ridden his bike to the Parkwood Diner and had, “pancakes and sausage for breakfast.” I asked Cooper how he paid for this and he said he had money from Grandma (which is true, my mom did send him money recently) but he didn’t need to use it because some man had bought his breakfast. Stifling laughter and horror we further inquired about this act of generosity of a stranger in the Park-Wood and he went on to let us know how very nice it was of that man to buy him breakfast. We of course told Cooper that we were very impressed by his resourcefulness but not to do that again. Coop and I then made the short trip West to Summit train station, picked up some green bagels in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and returned home on the next Eastbound train. It was a brief but satisfying journey. The week before he and I had made a three-hour round trip journey so we kept this week simple and short.

We got home and both of the girls, Olivia and Ruby, were awake so I was looking forward to spending time with the two of them since I had a rare Sunday off of work. I decided I would hang and watch a movie with the girls and then the three of us would go for a bike ride. My girls were not as confident as Coop on the bike yet despite Olivia’s ten and a half years. Ruby at six seemed much more stable than her sister but still needed loads of attention on the bike, so our ride turned into me running and getting the girls re-started every 100 yards. It was fairly pleasant weather outside which was a huge welcome surprise given the stronghold winter had on all of us East of the Mississippi. Cooper rode circles around us for a while and eventually became weary of the pace his sisters and marathon mommy kept so he took off on his own. About an hour later Olivia and Ruby finally had mercy on me and we all came home. The girls immediately grabbed up the neighbor girls and were off to their room to play and Doreen’s phone rang. With a too calm voice Doreen said, “thank you, I’ll be right there.” It seems Cooper decided to ride the rails on his own. He rode his bike to the Maplewood train station, purchase a ticket from the vending machine with the money from his Grandma and boarded a train to head back to Summit where he was fortunately recognized by a conductor who we had met the week before. The conductor asked where his mom was and when Cooper couldn’t produce said mother he decided to take care of Cooper rather than call the police, which is what transit is told to do when minors are on the train. Cooper complied with this very friendly conductors request for a phone number and the conductor agreed to wait with Cooper in the neighboring town of South Orange until Doreen could come get him. The conductor went on to explain that he had a nine-year-old son who was “very busy” so he understood. We, however, did use New Jersey’s finest to let Cooper know that joy riding was not an option in the future.

Cooper is a boy with adventure hard wired into his soul and I never want to squash that, but I certainly don’t mind relying on “the kindness of strangers” to keep an eye on my God given treasure.


A young boys Acts of Kindness

I’ve always considered myself a fairly kind person. I have my moments where jealousy or competition unfortunately comes into play but for the most part I try to conduct myself from a place of kindness. Today I was humbled by my son’s acts of kindness and shocked by how I almost interfered being concerned that he would be criticized which based on his emotional deficits is never good.

It started off a pretty typical Cooper OCD morning which involved an early morning train ride to any number of New Jersey Transit Morris/Essex line stops. Today’s pick was Morristown. Cooper always wants to be at the very front or the very back of the train, better engine to child relationship. After boarding the train and realizing that the back car was blocked off we doubled back in time to see a woman struggling to get her piggy back luggage off the train. Cooper grabbed her top bag and took some of the weight down the steps. The woman said, “thank you Cooper” and the door closed. “Hey, how did she know my name?” Cooper questioned and then moved on. Later in that same trip as we were surfing from car to car in search of the perfect location an elderly gentleman with what appeared to be some physical limitations was struggling to board the train’s steep steps. Cooper reached down to him to offer a hand to help, the the man seemed genuinely grateful. I realized on both occasions my instinct was to stop Coop as if he were going to cause the opposite reaction and annoy these two individuals. He continued to display good manners the rest of our journey; plenty of please and thank you the rest of our trip and he even made small talk in the bagel shop in Montclair with a woman who let him sit at the table with her family to enjoy his bagel. Later as I thought about these good feelings he experienced I was glad I didn’t inter fear, I was happy he had the opportunity to be rewarded for his kindness (especially his response to the elderly gentleman which is often outside Cooper’s comfort zone).

Later in the day when we were leaving a shop at the Costco we witnessed what appeared to be an injured woman who had been alone surrounded by a few people on cell phones. I defaulted to a quick Hail Mary (being solidly my mother’s daughter), as Doreen kept the girls shepherded toward the car. Coop had made a detour to check on this lady. I came around the corner to gather Cooper up and another lady was guiding him away saying she would be okay. Coop came and reported to us that he was worried because she looked cold and there was a lot of blood coming from her nose. Doreen and I did some instant awkward parenting letting the kids know that if a situation is being attended to best to “stand back and keep the area clear”, “never try to move an injured person”, “if you are the only person around a blanket and call 911 was the best thing to do.” We got in the car and I made the kids do a little prayer, again my default, as the ambulance arrived. As we pulled away cooper rolled down the window and shouted, “I hope you feel better.”

Again, the thought that resonated with me is that in some realm Cooper’s shout out came from such a genuine and honest place I just felt a sense of pride. Could this be the same kid who yells in frustration multiple times a day. Mercilessly teases his sisters until a physical battle ensues. Looses his temper daily at the word “no” or when he feels like he is being scolded? I am often questioning if we are parenting these very special children correctly. Then, I have a day like today where, while not perfect behavior by any stretch of the imagination, our parenting is paying off.

Foster Family with a side of heart and extra cheese

Today two people were carried out of my door and loaded safely into a white mini van and driven to a new home. All of their worldly possessions loaded in a cardboard box. All of the worldly possessions which they gathered over the last ten months. You see these two people came to Doreen and I ten months ago with the clothes on their backs, a few diapers, a stuffed animal and some formula. Kaylee was the ripe old age of 18 months, beautiful doe eyes always with a sheen of want. Jeremiah was just five weeks old, a new person ripe with possibility.

Doreen took on the role of the major nurturer seeing to their day to day needs. Food, clothing, fun, and loads of love. Arranging for early intervention for Kaylee who didn’t speak but expressed herself with what she obviously knew screams and aggression. Finding the right formula for Jeremiah and making sure he was safe and warm (love and cuddles not a problem in our family). She managed all their affairs with the State’s Division of Youth and Family Sevices (DYFS), with it’s overburdened workers and a Judicial system that minds trends in children’s welfare rather than minding the welfare of individual children. I made myself as domestically useful as possible which was extremely limited by my career since at the time of their arrival I was in rehearsal for the Broadway production of Motown, The Musical. I had been given the lead Stage Manager position on very short notice after my colleague had decided he could not continue with the project. It was a job that was often all consuming.

Our children, Olivia, Cooper and Ruby, presented both challenge and support in this journey. They loved the extra big family. Cooper and Ruby insisted on carrying Jeremiah everywhere and Olivia immediately took on the role of interpreter for Kaylee, she couldn’t be bothered with Jeremiah who’s baby status held no interest. The three of them were also immediately tortured by the attention that these two sweet babies took away from them. Suddenly there were bedtime books for Kaylee who after a book comforted herself by screaming herself to sleep. Cooper shared bedtime with “Jer Jer” which was tricky for a boy who relies so heavily on routine. Somehow all of these new challenges were muted by the joy we had as a family. Grocery bills skyrocketed, the ability to get up and go decreased by a good forty percent but still my family was happy and our two little additions were learning to smile and play. We were a family of five and thrilled to be so.

The next ten months continued to roll by with a family vacation to Myrtle beach, pool visits, park visits, fighting, friends visiting, braces, school starting, homework, day trips to farms, holidays, hospital visits for Jer’s less than impressive lungs coupled with a very impressive case of reflux, birthday celebrations, new cousin Benjamin’s arrival, Kaylee’s therapies to catch her up after a first year propped up in front of a television, and lots of bedtimes. There were a variety of mixed signals from the state regarding the fate of our foster babies. We had no idea if we were adopting or returning to family, we were just living in the moment. Then one day, about a month ago, we got a call from the children’s case worker. Kaylee and Jeremiah’s birth mom requested that her children be fostered by a foster family that attends the same church she attended. Doreen being the rational foster parent began the painful process of transitioning the children, speaking with the intended foster parents about the children’s needs and working through the paperwork with the state. Doreen was not only doing this for the two foster children but also for our three children so they understood what was happening. I lived happily in my bubble of denial, giving these two little babies cuddles and love as if they were my own. My brain listened to what was happening but my heart, which rules my life solidly, ignored all of the signs that were in front of me.

When I loaded that baby boy and girl in that car and watched my son Cooper give Jeremiah a final kiss goodbye I had to excuse myself, ran to my room and had a deep cry. The pain I felt was so intense and lingers in my mind. Kaylee and Jeremiah mean so much to me and because of that I need to move on with faith that they will be loved by their new family and grow happily. I do wonder as Doreen and I move forward fostering more of these angels that need to be loved how I will embrace them? Will I let my head be involved? Probably not. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.