My son is very good at math. It's his razzle-dazzle, if you put it the way his teacher did in Kindergarten. He's at the top of his second-grade class in reading and, if I may say so, has a fine vocabulary for an 8-year-old. He also has cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that (very) basically means that his brain and his body have trouble communicating. He can read the New York Times, but he walked for the first time at five.
I could crow for hours about how it feels to watch him totter into school on two feet now, rather than wheel himself through the door in a miniature walker, the way he did when he started Kindergarten. He has come so far.
But recently, two words cropped up at a parent-teacher conference that I had trouble digesting. "Executive function" describes the way a person can go about being a human in the world; someone with good executive function can fluently plan moving and speaking together, solve problems, and generally reason well enough to go about achieving daily goals.
Executive function means quickly combining the internal instructions that one's brain and accompanying neurology write for the body to follow with what else is happening in the world. If you want to brush your teeth, you have to open the toothpaste tube and put the toothpaste on the toothbrush, but you can't be holding the toothbrush in one hand if you want to open the toothpaste with two hands. But if your sleeve gets wet before you start brushing, you have to roll it up. It's the process of planning and prioritizing what you do every day.
It's a tricky phrase. Failures of executive function in the behavioral realm are often correlated to drug addicts and kiddos with severe ADHD, whose frontal cortex regions of the brain are actually damaged. Whether Graham's challenges come from physical brain injury — the scarring on his brain that is the remaining physical evidence of whatever initially caused cerebral palsy in utero — or from simply not practicing the kinds of organizational skills one performs while standing up until very recently, is sort of immaterial.
Our meeting with the teachers followed me out the door and into my car, and imbedded itself in all the days that followed, shouting fears about whether Graham could ever be successful at "adulting" if he couldn't perform basic multitasking.
The point is that now, as a second-grader, although Graham has started walking independently and is more consistently interacting with other kids from standing rather than from kneeling or sitting, his new razzle-frazzle, in Kindergarten terms, is the challenge of doing more than one very simple thing at a time.
Since Graham was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, I have intentionally ignored considering how his condition might affect him later in life. It was always more important to just get to the next week. But after the conference, I saw a blinding flash of the obvious: While we focus so hard now on achieving the little things most kids get good at well before starting school — buckling seat belts, getting clothed — we haven't even begun to imagine the hurdles still ahead.
Our meeting with the teachers followed me out the door and into my car, and imbedded itself in all the days that followed, shouting fears about whether Graham could ever be successful at "adulting" if he couldn't perform basic multitasking. There might be therapy designed specifically to improve executive function, I thought, but I didn't know where to start.
In my daily work as a cookbook author I began noticing all the ways in which my own job requires executive function: If I want to stir something, I have to hold the bowl with one hand while I stir with the other, and also prepare the ingredients I want to add before I start stirring. If I want to pick up a cutting board's worth of chopped carrots, I need to know where those carrots are going.
Multitasking has always been my razzle-dazzle.
I knew I couldn't pretend to understand the neurology behind executive function. But, I reasoned, I know enough about cooking that perhaps I could use the kitchen — the space I do know — for our own flavor of therapy. Graham isn't particularly fond of cooking, per se, but he does have another weakness: the kid can't say no to clafoutis.
Clafoutis is French, an almost infinitely flexible cross between cake and pudding, made by baking a simple batter poured over seasonal fruit — un-pitted cherries, if you follow the most traditional French recipe. In our Seattle kitchen, it runs a year-long route through seasonal and frozen fruit, as the weather dictates. And over everything else, we both prefer a version made with rhubarb. I knew that if he wanted to eat it, he'd help me make it.
I also knew that if I was going to help Graham in any way, I had to break down some of the steps I do automatically when I cook alone; I couldn't expect him to chop when he doesn't quite yet hold a spoon correctly. But it was simpler than that: I knew it would be complicated for him to do anything if he was still standing, which in and of itself takes him an inordinate amount of energy.
So after spending years doing whatever I could to get Graham to stand, I moved the kitchen counter to the floor, so he wouldn't have to.
It felt funny, plopping the eggs and flour and a bowl and a whisk down onto the scuffed pine, where most people try to avoid putting food. I wasn't worried about germs — Graham has a very sturdy immune system, possibly because he spent so much of his life crawling everywhere — I was worried about how many new things I could ask him to do without frustrating him.
Graham isn't particularly fond of cooking, per se, but he does have another weakness: the kid can't say no to clafoutis.
Normally, when we cook, I hold the bowl while he stirs. This time, I sat on the floor next to him, a Dorie Greenspan cookbook splayed next to us, and asked him to hold the bowl with one hand and whisk with the other. I cracked the eggs in one at a time, added the sugar, and told him we needed to stir until the whole mixture was one color.
At first, he tried to hold the bowl with same hand as the whisk. Then he held the bowl with the empty hand and dropped the whisk. But eventually, he got it all organized — whisk in one hand, bowl in the other. And slowly, together, we learned how a whisk works, round and round. More than once he let the bowl hand go limp to focus on the stirring, and the bowl went spinning off toward the refrigerator. We giggled together. Eggs dribbled down his knees.
Eventually, the batter came together, and he poured it over the rhubarb, right there on the floor next to the back door, with the cat watching from the other side of the glass. He got all but the last little bit into the baking pan, and I exhaled — because once the clafoutis went into the oven, there wouldn't be any more to spill, and because I felt like I'd done something to improve his executive function in my own way, and because ultimately, I simply can't keep holding my breath while I wait for the next challenge. The executive function business doesn't mean Graham isn't smart, or won't be a functioning adult — it just means he still has cerebral palsy, and will forever.
We will always have to work on it. And hopefully, we'll always have a way to make some of the work delicious.
About Jess Thomson
Jess Thomson is a food and travel writer and the author of 8 cookbooks, including A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus, co-written with chef Renee Erickson. Her most recent book, A Year Right Here, is a food memoir about her family. She lives and eats in Seattle, with her husband and eight-year-old son.
Buy Jess Thomson's new book: A Year Right Here: Adventures with Food and Family in the Great Nearby, $23