Sunday, June 27, 2010

Contact, Time, Patience, Reflection

Last month my son and I were playing with his friend Oliver (not his real name) when Oliver had a seizure.

It came at me sideways; his scream possessed a rattling amplified quality, as though it were coming through an old speaker, and I saw his little body flex and seize out of the corner of my eye. I knew Oliver had epilepsy (as well as other difficulties) but I confess I needed an agonizingly eternal five seconds to understand what was happening. I was knocked out of my momentary paralysis by Oliver’s mom, who leapt over to him and shouted at me to call 911. Even in the moment, some part of my mind murmured to me a reminder that I had been spared watching my child go through what Oliver was going through.

My son Liko was not able to interpret these events; they were simply outside of his five years of experience. It wasn’t until the paramedics and firemen arrived that I think Liko realized that something serious had happened to his friend. From the stillness on his face, I imagined my son experiencing something that I believe was new for him: that sickening, cold, tingling feeling that starts in your stomach and spreads through every nerve.

In the weeks that followed, my wife and I both observed Liko shut down when the subject of Oliver came up; he expressed no enthusiasm for seeing his friend again. This didn’t, in my estimation, have anything to do with Oliver. Instead, I believe it emerged because Liko was afraid of the scary situation that had involved Oliver. Liko instinctively sought to avoid the situation, not the person.

Because I’m a writer—and because my work editing the forthcoming Beacon anthology Are We Born Ractist? taught me that the solution to kneejerk bias is mindfulness—I monitored myself for similar feelings. I found them. Don’t be surprised; is it a cliché to remind us that we all have a scared child inside of us, just inside the shell of adulthood?

I won’t go into the details, but the seizure ended up being part of a significant medical event for Oliver. While he was in the hospital, I talked to his mom Lynn. She anticipated Liko’s reaction, and perhaps mine. I don’t remember what tactful way she phrased it, but she talked with me about how afraid she was of being isolated because of Oliver’s disabilities. People avoid kids and adults with visible troubles. It took a lot of guts for her to bring this up to me, however indirectly; in fact, I saw Lynn show a lot of guts that day, though I doubt she saw it that way.

There was never any question that Liko would see Oliver again. In the weeks that followed, we read a few books about epilepsy but otherwise I did not tackle the topic head-on; I thought it best to emphasize the many good times we’d had with Oliver instead of the one scary time. Last week we returned to his house and played with rockets and watched a movie. Liko looked forward to it and enjoyed himself, and asked to return afterward. I’d like to think that his world has grown just a little bit larger.

As a result of this incident—plus a series of readings I did with the editors of My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids with Disabilities—I’ve been thinking about disability and social isolation. It’s struck me that the idea that people with disabilities should be fully included in social life is a truly radical one, whose implications range from the ways we think and comport ourselves to the ways we design our institutions and buildings. Radical in the sense of really getting to the root of human society, which starts with the question of who belongs in the group and who does not.

There’s an idea called “universal design” that invites us to think about how to open up the world—from streets to buildings to products—for everyone, including people with disabilities. Here are the principles of universal design:

  • Equitable use

  • Flexibility in use

  • Simple and intuitive

  • Perceptible information

  • Tolerance for error

  • Low physical effort

  • Size and space for approach and use

It’s strange to think that this is a very new idea; before this new idea, people with disabilities were asked to accept their isolation, to stay out of sight and out of public life. In other words, the society around them succumbed to the same fears that I detected in myself. This isn’t just about installing curb cuts or publishing large-print books; it’s about how who we are willing to accept in our lives. Curb cuts are just an outer reflection of an inner adjustment.

In his contribution to Are We Born Ractist?, my co-editor and UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton suggests that overcoming interpersonal racism takes "contact, time, and patience" — and to that, I'd add opportunities for reflection. Rodolfo is talking about race, but he could just as well be talking about disability — indeed, any fear of that which is different.

Jennifer Silverman, one of the editors of My Baby Rides the Short Bus, told me that the anthology was rejected by at least one publisher as being “too niche,” and not interesting to people who weren’t raising kids with disabilities. That may be true, but I wish it weren’t. My experience with Lynn and Oliver taught me something about myself and parenting, but it also asked me to lift my eyes and look at the way our entire society is organized. It can’t think of anything more fundamental than changing the world so that everyone can live in it.

This was revised from an entry in my Mothering magazine blog.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Trash and the Urban Outdoors

Spot is asleep in the car now. It's a cool day, he's in the shade, so we're letting him go instead of trying to displace him to his bedroom. In his hands is a one liter plastic bottle of RC Cola that he picked up after school this morning. His stated intention, before losing consciousness on the ride home, was to bring it home and put it in the recycling bin.

It's not unusual these days to find Spot with one of two things in his hands: a twig or enormous leaf from some low-hanging branch, or some unidentifiable but fascinating plastic widget retrieved from the grass in the park. Spot has become a great collector, amasser, and connoisseur of the world's small wonders, about half of which consist of trash.

There are no arbitrary divisions in Spot's world between "natural" and "artificial" wonders. He brings them all to us without prejudice, and it is we who sort them into arrangements suitable for a 17th century Dutch still life, on the one hand, and the recycling bins in the garage, on the other. Spot is a Renaissance natural philosopher, a Midwestern Erasmus with his growing cabinet of curiosities, encompassing acorns, glass beads, a dessicated monarch butterfly, plastic bottles, pine cones, and foil chip bags of all colors and sizes. The one thing they all have in common, besides each being a small part of the cosmos, is that Spot brings them all in from "outside."

So, when in need of a late afternoon rallying cry, "Let's go pick up trash!" is now one of the most effective. We get the tricycle with it's yellow plastic basket, and sometimes a trash bag, and we make our way down the block, picking up odd bits of paper, wrappers, pop cans and coffee cups as we go. Despite all our efforts, by the same time tomorrow, all of these things will have magically reappeared. No matter, for we will be off again, Don Quixote (Spot) leading Sancho Panza (me) on their fool's errand to clean up the neighborhood while sampling the plenitude of the universe.

Well, not quite; cleaning up the neighborhood is just one by-product of Spot's natural curiosity about the world, which ignores the fine distinctions of philosophers between "nature" and "culture", or between "society" and "the environment." Where does one stop, and the other begin? These are the questions that my three-and-a-half year old radical philosopher poses, in the language of objects, as we pass the neighborhood hipsters on the sidewalk and the shiny, spinning hub caps in the street.

Nature, of course, is everywhere. It doesn't begin at one edge of the park and stop at the curb on the other side, taking a detour to get around the basketball court along the way. It is inside my iPhone and in the revetment holding back the winter waves of Lake Michigan. It is in the nest of peregrine falcons on the twentieth floor of the high-rise down the street, and the coyote that runs up and down the train tracks behind our building. It's in the restored patch of prairie in the park, and the small stream of migratory waterfowl that makes use of it as they navigate across the metropolis.

And where you find nature, you find the great outdoors along with it. There are buildings that create their own weather, accelerating the wind on the streets below and crowning themselves with clouds in otherwise cloudless skies. There are spectacular sunsets beyond the viaducts and rail yards, there are days when the optics of the air bring the steel mills in Gary into focus as if they were battleships a few hundred yards away. There are days when the snow absorbs the city's surplus of decibels, turning the urban universe into a white and silent movie. There are man-made mountains, there is silence, and there is even, here and there, wide open space.

I fully support Spot's clean-up activity, and his precocious impulse to recycle, however much it may baffle the local teenagers who diligently undue all our work. It gets him outside, where the world is changing by the minute, the wind is blowing in his face, and the sun casts a thousand different shadows. A piece of trash removed clears the way for better view of the beetle on a leaf; our pursuit of the blowing bag lands us at the foot of a spectacular cottonwood tree.

I look forward to the day when Spot will be old enough to strike out with me into America's great wild places. I know them and miss them myself. But it is a fantasy to think that there is a place where nature exists apart from society and the impact of the age we live in -- the Great Anthropocene -- or a place where the artificiality of society has drowned out the authenticity of the natural world. If you just look closely, they are always both there. Like the pop can next to the mushrooms in the grass, sprung up overnight.

Friday, June 18, 2010

News, Daddy Shift event in San Francisco

Ah, Daddy Dialectic. I've been neglecting you lately. Sorry; I've had a lot going on. The biggest news is that I was awarded a Knight fellowship at Stanford University for 2010-11--and so my family will be moving to Palo Alto in about five weeks.

But in the meantime, my book The Daddy Shift (which evolved out of this very blog) is out in paperback this month, for the very reasonable price of $16. In many ways, The Daddy Shift succeeded beyond my expectations--if not necessarily in sales (sigh), then in the conversations it has triggered in forums from the New York Times and NPR to Parenting and Working Mother to many local TV and radio programs:

I hope you'll join me on Saturday, June 19, at 5 pm, at Green Arcade Books in San Francisco to celebrate the softcover release of The Daddy Shift. This is not going to be another reading; instead, I'm shooting for a fun, intimate gathering of friends (and friends of friends).

I've invited two daddy friends and one mommy friend to join me and share their work: Jeff Gillenkirk, author of the new novel Home, Away; Mike Adamick, a fantastic blogger and essayist; and Frances England, an extraordinary children's musician whose stuff also appeals to parents. That's not just my opinion--her CD "Family Tree" was named no. 1 children's album of the year and took the Gold in the 2008 Parent's Choice Awards, among other honors. I'm happy to support their work and I hope you'll check out their books and CDs while you're there.

For my part, I'll be talking with you a bit about what I've learned about gender and twenty-first-century family life in the two years since The Daddy Shift was finished and the one year since it was published. Then we shall sip wine! If you're a Daddy Dialectic reader, please do come up to me and introduce yourself.

If you'd like to bring your kids, that's fine with me. We're bringing Liko! I'm imagining the first part of the evening as more kid-oriented, with Frances performing some of her songs. Then as Mike reads, perhaps kids will drift away with one parent for dinner and bedtime and the other parent can get a grown-up night out, or something like that. Hope to see you there.