Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hi, I'm a Racist

“I think Martin Luther King Jr. is importinant because he stoped segregation. If he din't I would not know Kimberly or Malaya or Jalin.”

This is the opening of my second-grader’s paragraph for MLK Day. I was flipping through her weekly stack of papers the school sends home (Buy a yearbook! Sign up for science camp! Come to a PTA meeting for freaking once you giant sack of slack!) and I found this. Normally I glance at her papers to make sure she passed the spelling test and shovel it all into the Guilt Hole I call the trash can, but I stopped at this one. I had read lots of essays and articles around MLK Day talking about King’s influence and legacy (maybe the best and most moving one here), but nothing had hit me quite like my daughter’s simple, practical way of putting it. Dr. King is good, she says in inimitable seven-year-old narcissism, because he brought people into my life.

When I was in elementary school, maybe third grade or so, I remember my mother laughing with me in the car about something silly a friend of mine had done. This friend of mine was maybe a year or two younger, and she had been telling her mother all year long about Teresa, this amazing, wonderful, oh-so-cool girl in her class, and couldn’t she please please please invite Teresa home one afternoon. So of course her mom said sure. And the afternoon my friend’s mother was supposed to pick them both up, what do you think happened? My friend came bounding out of school, and right behind her came Teresa, BLACK AS THE ACE OF SPADES! That was the first time I’d ever heard that simile. My mother howled and hooted, giggling at the thought of it: her friend’s discomfiture, her nonplussed face, her struggle not to look shocked. What must she have thought??

This is not a black person.

I knew Teresa too, a little bit. I knew who she was, anyway. I can still see the shiny darkness of her skin, darker than most African-Americans I’d seen, though “African-American” was a term no one in my world had heard. I knew Teresa because black people were hard to miss at my private elementary school. I remember there was one in my class my sixth grade year. When I went to middle and high school, there were even a couple there, too. The guys did okay; the girls were studiously avoided. I never had a friend of color. The only black people I actually knew were in service positions—our maid, school janitors, occasional receptionists. I never had a black teacher, never saw a black man or woman in a position of authority. My world was scrubbed as white as if I were raised in the 1880s, not the 1980s. We belonged to an all-white country club, an all-white social circle, an all-white faith community. This was never discussed; it was just the way things were. Yeah, I might have some issues about race, you think?

Probably every white person can tell you the same story: their moments of discomfort when a colleague, a friend, someone you respect, assumes you are on the same page with them and willing to share a raised eyebrow of amusement at black people. It’s rarely so overt as a racist joke; I last heard one of those delivered sincerely in the 70s, about the black waiters at our country club. A racist joke today would just be so tasteless.

A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine was telling the story of her grand-daughter, who has “a little black friend.” And apparently she wanted the kinds of braids in her hair that her friend of color had in hers. Lo and behold, she came home one afternoon completely done in “those braids.” Her mother was horrified! There was a dinner party they had to go to, and oh my goodness! She had to spend forty-five minutes undoing her daughter’s hair and explaining to her that was not how we do our hair. This oh-so-amusing story was told in an undertone, establishing a circle of like-minded folk. Like most people, I find myself confused how best to respond in those situations. Nothing overtly racist or demeaning is ever said; it’s all in the lowered voice, the frisson of amused horror. Black things are bad. White things are good. I would imagine my colleague’s granddaughter got the message as surely as I did that long ago afternoon when I learned that you don’t make black friends, much less bring them home.

My friend and teaching colleague Bill Rothschild, son of the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild whose aggressive championing of civil rights resulted in the bombing of The Temple in Atlanta, tells the story about the night the Kings came to dinner at his house. Bill was just a young thing, but he remembers it clearly. In those days before GPS and cell phones, the Kings got lost, driving around the neighborhood trying to find the Rothschilds’ house. They ended up arriving almost an hour late for dinner, full of apologies and explaining they had had to stop and ask for directions.

“No no, don’t worry,” Dr. King said. “We didn’t embarrass you with any of the neighbors. We figured out what to do. Coretta just hopped out and went to the side entrance and said she was working at a party here, and could they tell her where the house was.”

Rabbi Rothschild and Dr. King, at the South's first racially integrated banquet in 1965. (from Emory Magazine 2008)

I’ve often wondered about those people who encountered Coretta Scott King at their kitchen door that night. Did they ever figure it out? Did they see anything other than one more black maid, one more nameless, faceless woman there to pass the shrimp plate and refill the water glasses? I wonder if they ever opened a newspaper and looked at her picture and thought, holy shit. . .

I never got the chance my daughter has, to learn about Martin Luther King in elementary school. I didn’t study King in-depth until AP American History, and by then my father had already taught me he was a communist, and black people were fools for being taken in by his demagoguery. Would learning about King from an earlier, more accurate source have made me less of a racist? Maybe. I know I am a racist. I know I have serious issues of disbelief if a white person raised in the South tells me he or she is not a racist. I can’t scrub that way of seeing out of my brain, I can only adjust for it, with shame, repentance, and struggle. I envy those people who don't have to compensate or adjust, who don't have to do any mental acrobatics to arrive at instinctive openness and equity. I envy my daughter, for the world she is being raised in, and the friendships she is forming.

And maybe, just maybe Kimberly and Malaya and Jalin can help her with her spelling. After all, what are friends for?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The View from the Turrets

My family is a little bit like those plankton that live in the warm runoff waters from the nuclear power plant: the water is so radioactive it’ll melt your skin, and the plankton are glowing so bright they can be seen from Mars, but as far as they’re concerned, it’s home and it’s just great.

This metaphor is not intended to be a comment on my housekeeping. If it were a comment on my housekeeping, every few weeks the momma plankton would rouse from her radioactive torpor and scream OH MY GOD THIS PLACE IS A FUCKING SHITHOLE and then she would flail around and frantically clean the runoff pond for sixteen straight hours and then collapse hollow-eyed into a bowl of ice cream and wine for five weeks while the pond sludge and contaminated fungus slowly crept up the walls again. And then she would repeat the whole thing, except maybe crying more.

In fact, it’s meant to be a comment on the toxicity of our gene pool, my husband’s and mine. On the one hand, it’s an awesome little pool. Our kids are, to me, living proof that people are greater than the sum of their parts, because while my husband and I are not spectacular-looking (I don’t mean we’re disfigured or covered in warts, just that we’re on the regular-to-mildly-strange end of the looks spectrum) our kids are ginger-headed alabaster-skinned luminous-eyed knockouts, and every so often I look at them and think, wow. If only I could have looked like that in middle school.

So yeah, they look like little movie stars. And inside all that adorableness, apparently, there is some seriously messed-up neurological shit going on.

Our oldest son has Asperger’s, though I think that diagnosis is in the process of downshifting a bit to the regular old autism instead of the fancy kind. That’s the thing about diagnoses on the autism spectrum – you need to re-evaluate every few years to see where you are, and what has changed. Some things about him fit classic Asperger’s, which is basically just high-functioning autism. He is largely incapable of normal social interaction, for example, and can’t read people’s emotions, faces, or tones of voice. But then there are other things that are more like classic non-Asperger’s autism: there are cognitive deficits, and neuromotor difficulties. In many ways all this was easier when he was younger, and the parameters of strange behavior broader. Now that he’s 11, he’s achingly different from your average fifth grader, and increasingly in his own world, locked serenely away. This is not some tragic situation; he is who he is, which is a marvelously complex and unique little man, and I wouldn’t want him different from what he is.

But it’s still a hard road. I don’t like being around boys his age that much, because I don’t want to catch myself in inappropriate wistfulness, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if. . .” Fortunately, being around boys his age is a really infrequent event, because he doesn’t have friends. This is not a sad thing in the way you or I would think of it. He doesn’t want or need that kind of company, and is fine with occasional distant interaction with his peers. The girls in his class look after him, so God bless fifth grade girls and their desire to look after short furry things. Between them and his sisters at home, the women in his world weave a net to cradle him.

And two weeks ago, we found out our seven-year-old daughter has severe Tourette’s.

Mainly what I feel is guilt. Maybe Don and I should have dated more normals? Maybe we should have exchanged neurological profiles on the first date, or the second? Because probably at some point he should have said to me, You know I have Asperger’s, right? And I should have said, funny that, because turns out I have moderate Tourette’s! And we both could have laughed and laughed, and then gone on to find people whose nice normal genes would have mitigated the neuro-toxicity of ours.

Only I can’t help but feel that the nice normals we probably should have found would have been a bit boring. And I would have missed, well, my whole life really, because Don and I have been together since I was 21 and I don’t remember the knack of being with other people on account of loving this one so long. Also, any reasonable normal person would have divorced my ass years ago, so I can’t feel any wistfulness about our marriage, inappropriate or otherwise.

See, anyone can have a child with a disability. No one judges you. People sympathize. You are enveloped in an aura of Isn’t-She-Brave-ness. But two children? I keep hearing this Lady Bracknell-like voice in my head: One child with a neurological condition is a misfortune, my dear, but two begins to look like carelessness.

Anyway, the Tourette’s. If your only picture of Tourette’s is the deranged homeless man in the ER spitting and cursing, you’re not going to be able to understand my daughter. Not that she doesn’t do her fair share of spitting and cursing, but none of it (sadly) is under the influence of Tourette’s. Her condition manifests as spasmodic gestures, mainly flapping and twisting hand motions – intense and very noticeable tics lasting maybe 10-15 seconds. Her hand gestures are accompanied by a soft, sing-song, tuneless humming sound. The interval between tic episodes varies, and during the school day she can work really hard to suppress the urge, but even then she has to tic every five minutes or so. At home, it’s more like every five seconds, particularly if she’s relaxed and happy. It takes enormous concentration and effort not to tic. It’s kind of like keeping yourself from going to the bathroom when you really need to – yes, you can do it, but it’s uncomfortable, and there’s going to come a point when you can’t hold it anymore. It’s that kind of unsuppressable urge.

I sent an e-mail to the special education co-ordinator at her school as soon as we got the diagnosis, just to keep her in the loop, not because there are any special accommodations or anything like that. Kids with Tourette’s often have ADHD, and in her case I think that’s definitely what we’re looking at—we’re talking about a kid who vibrates when she sits, being still is such an immense effort. So a few days later, I see this woman, the special ed co-ordinator, in the hall.

Oh my God, she says, gripping my arm. I was so sorry to hear about your daughter.

And I’m thinking, uh oh. She’s confusing me with some other mother who wrote her about her kid’s terminal inoperable brain cancer. Because, okay, Tourette’s is maybe not something you would wish on yourself, and it can be a pain in the ass to manage and there will always be douchebags who think you’re weird, but come on. A life-threatening situation this is not.

I forget exactly what I said, though I do recall telling her that no, really, it was fine, having a diagnosis and a plan of action was a good thing, and we’re not afraid of Tourette’s, since I have it too. I do remember the flicker of horror that crossed her face at that—like maybe I was going to start seizing and spitting right there in the hallway. Totally should have done that. Damn it, why do I never think of these things until later?

I got an e-mail from her last week, talking about my daughter's turrets. Look, I don’t get impatient with anyone for being a bad speller. Okay, that was a lie, I get impatient with everyone for being a bad speller. But my point is, I’m willing to see how this was an understandable error for most people to make. It’s not like the word’s phonetic, unless you happen to know French. (Come to think of it, it’s pretty amusing that this disorder was diagnosed by and named after a Frenchman. Maybe the French were just looking for an excuse for all their rude hand gestures at Americans. No no, eet eez a disease, I swear eet! Eet eez called. . . I have ze Tourette’s, yes, zat eez eet! Sacre bleu, zere eet goes again!) But for someone who spends their career managing and accommodating children’s disabilities? In reply to an email in which I had actually spelled it for her? Twice?

Monsieur de la Tourette, who did not in fact have Tourette's.

Yeah yeah, I know, dial back the outraged schoolmarm.

As I write this, I’m wrestling my 6-month-old’s sweaty sleepy body as I try to type around, under, on top of, through, and beside his little octopus body. He’s very much in the skin=oxygen phase right now, because he totally believes that if he is not on a human body AT ALL TIMES, his lungs will collapse. I am trying to convince him otherwise. He is a skeptic.

And maybe part of me is trying to pretend like, yeah, it’s completely normal for a 6-month-old baby to be incapable of sleeping in a crib or otherwise separated from another person. It’s completely normal for his separation anxiety to be so profound that I cannot leave him, ever, for any reason. It’s completely normal for his terrified, angry screams to resound for half an hour, an hour, two hours. Completely normal. There’s nothing wrong. Right? Right?

He has surgery in a few weeks for Duane’s Syndrome, which is a neurological condition in which the neurons do not attach to the outer muscle of one of the eyes, meaning the muscle is there, but the eye can’t respond or move as directed. It’s like the muscle’s not plugged in. Turns out it can’t be fixed; for all our technical prowess with some things, this fix is not something we can do. We can’t make nerve talk to muscle again, at least not in this region. So his surgery will be largely cosmetic, though it might help him with range of vision. Part of the muscle on the other side of his eyeball will be snipped to allow a more central range of motion, if I understand it right. It’s another highly heritable neurological condition, and yeah, you see it in autistic kids more than in the general population, and again, I’m not thinking about that. What will my life look like, when it's three kids with serious neurological problems? Don't think about that. There’s nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. Right?

On days like this, I feel like that drippy special ed woman didn’t get it wrong after all. It feels like I am living in a castle under siege, like there is some neurological evil stalking my children and I have to protect them. Except of course, I can’t—the thing lying in wait for them is coiled in their own genes, and all my defenses, all my turrets and moats and drawbridges, are useless. It lurks inside of them. I’m like the woman who worries about strangers snatching her children and builds a seven-foot-high fence around her garden, and all the while they’re being molested by their piano teacher or something. The danger was inside the whole time.

We always want danger to be displaced onto a mysterious, lethal, comfortingly alien other. We don’t want to think that true danger laughs at our Maginot lines, and quietly skirts all our defenses. We don’t want to think that we brought the danger into the house—that it’s the piano teacher we hired, the priest we trusted, the genes we gave our children.

The turrets in the picture at the top of this post are from Castle Caernarfon in North Wales, built by Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, Pulverizer of the Welsh, who was very not at all a nice guy. He built this castle as a vantage point for his continued pulverization of Wales, and his son Edward II was born in it. Young Edward was a nice guy, and while his brutal dickwad of a dad got to die in his bed, Edward II was murdered for, basically, being gay. The henchmen of the rebel nobles (who included his wife) rammed a red-hot poker up his rectum until he died in agony, so as far as Edward was concerned, it most emphatically did not Get Better.

The thing is, Edward's gayness was assumed to be some hideous defect, some incredible moral and indeed physical debilitation, instead of what we know it to be today—a regularly occurring trait somewhat like left-handedness, and with about as much moral consequence. One generation's abomination is the next generation's ho-hum. One day's unbearable is the next day's condition of normal life. The view from the turrets never changes, but our ways of seeing do.

Spelling is still important, though. Maybe I'll write that woman an e-mail and CAPSLOCK the word this time.
(This pic is for Lizzie, who was irritated she was unmentioned in this post. Don't worry sweetie, I'm sure your neurological condition is coming.)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Devil Inside My Blog

Yesterday my daughter declared she would not be riding south on I-75 for, oh, the next couple of months: turns out there is a billboard advertising the movie The Devil Inside right next to the highway, and as you drive along, the possessed nun’s freaky pupil-less eyeballs follow you. One good look at that, and she would be sleeping in between my husband and me until high school graduation.

I like a good horror movie with a religious twist as much as the next person who never has to sleep alone in a darkened house. And we sure do seem to like ‘em in our culture, beginning with the Mac Daddy of them all in 1973:

The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, not to mention The Exorcist II and the Exorcist III – all of them are about supernatural evil that erupts inside humans like a festering pimple. Oh, and then there are all the movies about evil that eats us, from Poltergeist to Paranormal Activity I through XIV. It seems like the more we encounter the truth that evil’s origin is inside us, the more we want to believe that evil could be coming from a supernatural, external force. It wasn't us! It was this thing inside of us that really has nothing to do with us at all!

Jewish tradition says there is no supernatural external evil – no Devil, no Satan. Well, okay, there is a Satan (ha-satan just means the adversary) but in the only available text that references him (the book of Job) he is apparently an angel who functions kind of like opposing counsel in the court of heaven, reminding God of legal procedure and the strict letter of the law. He and God are kind of buds, in fact. In Job, the Satan persuades God to strip Job of everything worth living for, to completely destroy this poor guy, basically, and see what happens. And while they’re waiting to see, they go out for beers together. God and Satan are kind of assholes together, like young thugs hanging out at the corner bodega and beating people up with sticks.

So yeah, from a Jewish point of view, no real place to go, if you’re hoping for an overarching evil that can invade you and be held responsible for bad things in the world and in us. It’s just us and God, locked in this terrifyingly intense co-dependent relationship.

I am Y-H-V-H, and there is no other; there is no God beside me. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. (Is. 45:5, 7)

Stick that one on a greeting card, whydoncha. Or how about a sympathy card? Thinking of you and your loss at this time of sorrow THAT IS COMPLETELY GOD’S FAULT. Isaiah’s God is not an easy one to love, to say the least.

Jews like to talk not about external evil, or internal evil that came from somewhere else and infected us, but about yetzer ha-ra: the evil impulse. Everybody’s got one, and it’s just the way we were made. It’s the part of us that wants things for ourselves, and turned to right purposes it is the basis for lots of good stuff, like ambition and drive and purpose. Of course, when allowed free rein, it turns us into douchebags. It’s interesting that the ancient rabbis evolved a concept of the self not too far off Freudian understandings of the id and its quest to dominate the ego. Freud was raised with a pretty solid Jewish education, so I’ve always wondered to what degree his construct of the self was informed by the rabbinic notions of yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good impulse and the evil impulse.

But the point is, if there’s no Evil Incorporated out there somewhere, there’s no one to blame when things go wrong but ourselves or God. We can blame ourselves (clearly no fun) or we can blame God (way more fun, but also way more disturbing in the end.) In a universe filled with only God, who else is there? No devil, no saints, no lesser agents, no rivals, no Only Begotten Son, no Holy Spirit, no comforting crowd of Heavenly Hosts. I am the Lord, and there is no other, says the God of Isaiah. Stop dialing other numbers like it’s going to get you somewhere. There is no one else to turn to for help and protection, and the flip side of that is, there is no one else to blame when the going gets rough. God is the source of all things, and if that is the belief you are going to order your world around, then God is also going to be the source of bad things along with the good. It makes for an inscrutable, uncomfortable God – but it also makes for a terrifying kind of intimacy, the intimacy that fuels Isaiah’s fulminations, Deuteronomy’s fire and brimstone, and centuries of Jewish prayers, song, and literature.

Don’t disappoint me! God demands, and through the ages Jews have muttered back, Yeah, well, don’t you disappoint us either. Because the reciprocal nature of covenant means that if we are stuck with God, and there is no other, then God too is stuck with us, and there are no others for him, either. Maybe that’s a good working definition of covenant: mutual co-dependent bitching.

I’m still gonna see the shit out of that movie, though.