April 30, 2012

April 23, 2012

The Fated Family

There's a new entry at Support for Special Needs about how the process of building families is perhaps different for parents of kids with special needs.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a new AAC app, Speak for Yourself, which is the subject of a lawsuit by the Prentke Romich Company. Well, the developers were kind enough to let me see and evaluate the app with Schuyler. I'll be writing something this week on that very subject. Cool, a teaser…

April 16, 2012

The Island

Once again, it's time for a new post over at Support for Special Needs. I wanted to offer something up to the parents and families out there dealing with external monsters on top of the personal ones that nip at their heels without rest. I've felt badly for special needs parents of late; it seems like the world has been unusually cruel to a lot of them. And it reminded me of something I wrote in my book, a fantasy about escaping to an island.

It was an entirely wrong-headed fantasy, and I knew it back then. Even today, however, it holds some of the same appeal to me as it did years ago when I'd stand on the beach in Connecticut with Schuyler and wish that the future that I was afraid would bedevil her was on the other side of the sea. If it was just us, protected from that future and the grand rough world, I thought, we would make it just fine.

As it turns out, we did anyway.

April 14, 2012

Fat Talk

It began, like so many silly things do here in the heady days of The Future, with a comment I made on Facebook.

"I lost ten pounds in the week since I was at the doctor. No joke. Perhaps I should let this infection linger a little longer."

The short version of backstory is that for the past week and a half, I have been sick. REALLY sick, actually, with a one-two punch of what the doctor wanted to call pneumonia but which I weaseled her down to bronchitis (because I am so very very charming, no doubt) and a wicked sinus infection. The bronchitis was under control fairly quickly, but the sinus infection, my very first, lingered painfully and disgustingly. I'm going to skip the details, but suffice to say that due to a near-constant nausea, I had very little to eat that week. When I returned to the doctor for new, hopefully not-pretend antibiotics, the nurse weighed me, and yep. I had lost exactly ten pounds in the course of a week.

So I posted that fun little status update. There are two parts to it, which I believe can be identified as a) the "silver lining" part, and b) the "obviously a joke" part.

Well, maybe not entirely obviously. Someone left what I felt was a passive-aggressive response, linking (without comment) to "How To Spot Fat Talk So You Can Stop It". When I called her on it, she took the "oh, I'm just saying…" approach, and that pushed my button, I guess. Don't walk in the room, release a flatus and then pretend it wasn't you. She said she found "fat talk" to be toxic, and I guess it didn't matter that I was talking about myself, and that no, I wasn't actually advocating the use of illness for radical weight loss.

Because here's the thing: I didn't make a choice. Getting a nasty infection wasn't part of my plan. I didn't stop taking my antibiotics or stick Cheetos up my nose. I was sick, it sucked a very great deal, and I didn't eat much. I didn't really understand how much weight I was losing because I wasn't changing out of my pajamas much. I was a delightful treat; if you had knocked on my door this week, when I answered the door, you wouldn't have thought "Sexy MAN!" You might have phoned up the Centers for Disease Control after you finished spraying Lysol in your face.

I'm going to be blunt. She seemed like a perfectly nice person, but I found her point to be extremely unconvincing, as was another comment by someone else later. Because, again, it was a joke, and again, it wasn't a joke at someone else's expense. You can't just show up on someone else's Facebook page and take their self-referencing, self-deprecating humor and sanctimoniously apply it to yourself. Well, you can, but I'm not sure why you would want to.

Anyway, the whole thing got a little out of hand. (Trust me, you want to read that. I'll wait.)

Fun Internet kookery aside, weight is a tricky issue to discuss publicly. I know that in the "fat-o-sphere" (I really did just type that), there are a lot of specific rules for how these discussions are supposed to take place, with lots of trigger warnings and the like. I know none of these rules, and I'm not sure I care to learn them. Not because I'm a dick (or not JUST because, if you prefer), but because the weight issues I'm discussing are my own. I'm not sure I need a set of guidelines to talk about me.

I've always had issues with weight, ever since I was a kid. And while I've never been morbidly obese, I can't remember the last time I was exactly fit, either. I'm going to use some actual numbers today, since I'm sitting at the low end at the moment. For scale, I am six foot, two inches tall and possess all my limbs and parts in the usual proportions.

At my worst, during what might be termed my "County Fair" days, I weighed 280 pounds. No joke. I remember that day, when I stepped on the scale and saw that number. I was young, too, maybe twenty-six or so. I spent the prime of my youth eating and (more to the point) drinking as if an alien invasion were imminent. All I got for my troubles was about ten years of photos I will never show anyone, and well, yeah, perhaps a little type 2 diabetes. (That was a joke, too. I come from a long line of genetic diabetics, although I certainly tossed enough gasoline on the fire.)

By the time I met Julie, I was way down from that, maybe 250 pounds. I lost a bunch of weight when I was diagnosed with The Beedies at 37, but then I published a book and ate and drank a lot and gained pretty much all of it back. The last time I really remember weighing myself was about a year ago, and I was at an unpleasant 245.

Now here's where it gets fun. Last week, when I went to the doctor, I was surprised to find that I weighed 223 pounds. I knew I had lost some weight; my clothes told me that. But twenty pounds, for nothing? I was pleased.

When I went back to the doctor exactly one week later? 213 pounds. That's not all that far from my doctor's target weight for me. The last time I weighed this little, I think I was still receiving lunch money.

For those of you who also have had weight issues during your life, however, you understand a kind of universal truth. Numbers don't always mean a whole lot to a fat person. Not good ones, anyway. And when I say "fat person", I mean that in the same way that someone who has been clean and sober for twenty years still self-identifies as an alcoholic. Sometimes you can tell the formerly fat person by the clothes they wear, at least a size too large, as if they don't trust what their own senses tell them in the dressing room. I imagine sometimes you can identify the formerly fat in the ranks of the extremely fit and healthy. They watch those numbers closely, perhaps a little grimly. Their own silent exercise mantra might be "Never again."

You can be the obscenely rich CEO of a major corporation, but you can still probably list the names of the bullies who made fun of you when you were a little fat kid. You can have the most beautiful and successful man or woman on your arm at an elegant dinner party, but if you close your eyes, you can clearly see the faces of the pretty girl or the handsome boy who turned you down in school with a barely-concealed smirk on their face, the universal "As if!" sneer.

And if you were a fat kid who discovered early on that you could make people laugh at the jokes you made instead of the shape of your body, then you made sure to hone those skills. You learned to make jokes, and not just innocent ones, either. You learned that the easiest way to deflate a bully was to get the crowd to laugh at him instead, so you developed a sense of humor with an edge, and you never forgot how to use it. And you never ever forgot that if you really wanted to be funny and to keep yourself in the good graces of others, you saved the most biting jokes for yourself.

And when someone shows up on your Facebook page to tell you to use nice words when you talk about weight issues, even when you're talking about yourself, you push back. And you should. Because no matter what your size now, you're a fat person. And you're not about to let someone who (in your mind) apparently hasn't figured out How Things Work take away your own best defenses simply because when they see "fat talk", they take it to heart, as if every conversation about fat people is a conversation about them. As if the warm embrace of "The Fat-o-sphere" is the only place one can find relief, with words of acceptance and maybe some denial, but never anything harsh or sad.

Some of us, and I'm going to say that includes a lot of you reading right now, some of us learned a different way. And whether we hide our fat person past or joke about it or sweat and bleed it away at the gym, we at the very least own our fat person in our own way. If you're a fat person and you try to change that, you might be a well-intentioned person, but you really ought to know better.

Yours truly at 213. Don't get too accustomed to it...

April 11, 2012

Andy Richter Saddens the Universe

When we talk about the dehumanization of people with disabilities, there's a general dismay that receives a certain amount of lip service, but there's a sad reality, too. Not every slur against every disability receives the same amount of outrage. Not every lobby inspires the same level of hesitation from those who might be considering making a joke in a film or on television or wherever. Some of our tribes are very, very small. The number of fists we can shake at the sky is limited.

Which is probably why comedian and Conan co-host Andy Richter didn't hesitate to make this joke earlier tonight:

RE: the-baseball-cap-that-fits-over-the-tops-of-the-ears trend: is microcephaly now considered sexy?

There are a few reasons this bothers me, some of them very personal. But let's get this out of the way first: Andy Richter is a smart and funny guy. And that's part of the problem here. When someone like Tracy Morgan makes some joke about "retarded people", we are outraged for sure. But on some level, we might also look at both the joke and the comedian and say, "Well, honestly, that's pretty dumb."

But Richter has been one of the more intelligent and on-the-fly funny personalities on television for a long time. And there's something about this joke that seems especially cruel. The joke doesn't work (inasmuch as it works at all) unless you know about microcephaly. The joke is that persons with microcephaly have small heads. Get it? And to make this joke, Andy Richter had to be completely aware of what microcephaly is.

Of all the problems with this joke, awareness isn't one of them.

A few harsh points, then. When Richter asks if microcephaly is now considered sexy, he's kidding. If he wasn't kidding, however, the answer would be mostly no. It's not sexy because the word "sexy" is probably only really appropriate when applied to adults. Persons born with more pronounced microcephaly don't generally make it very far into adulthood. Many of them die young, buried by their heartsick parents.

I had the opportunity to meet with a great many of these parents and their amazing children a few summers ago at what is now called the Microcephaly, Lissencephaly and Polymicrogyria Convention, a huge labor of love presented by the Foundation for Children with Microcephaly. I got to know some of the most amazing people in the world at that conference; it literally changed my life.

And I learned to appreciate just how closely their world intersected with mine. At this conference, kids were examined by some of the top experts in the world, including Dr. William Dobyns, the doctor who diagnosed Schuyler's polymicrogyria. (The first thing he did when he met Schuyler in 2005 was measure her head to rule out microcephaly.) At the closing lecture, Dr. Dobyns surprised me by reporting that aside from microcephaly, the most common diagnosis he had given out at the conference was polymicrogyria.

Polymicrogyria. Microcephally. Lissencephaly. Not many advocacy groups for these monsters. No telethons or puzzle pieces or a month for awareness. No inspiring actors in popular tv shows. No movies about a Very Special Child. And no hesitation by a popular and successful tv comedian to make a joke about them, a joke that his clever fans might have to google to even understand and laugh about.

If Schuyler's disability were one that showed on her face, if she were shaped differently because of the little monster in her brain, then perhaps a famous comedian could make a joke about her, too. Perhaps I should feel lucky. Lucky that Schuyler can hide in plain sight, lucky that her appearance doesn't bring out the worst in others, lucky that she might just get to grow up without going to a movie or watching tv and seeing herself as the punchline to a joke.

But I don't feel lucky. I feel sad, mostly for the friends I made at that conference three years ago. Some of those friends have probably buried their children by now. Those who haven't probably don't have the time or the energy to be outraged at Andy Richter's monstrous, stupid joke. I'm sad for all their beautiful children, and for all the kids out there whose disability marks them in a way that attracts pointing jackass fingers. I'm sad for all the ones who can't understand the jokes that are being made, or are even aware that they are being mocked at all. That makes it worse in my eyes, not better.

Once again, I feel like the world really isn't ready to make space for our kids or our families. There's a table, and that table is set for the empowered, and it's even set for the disenfranchised.

But only if you're human. Only if you're better than a punchline.

UPDATE, 11:30am

About an hour ago, Andy Richter removed the offending tweet. It it's place, he made the following statement:

I offended a lot of people yesterday with a tweet using the word "microcephaly". It was not my intention to mock disability. I normally am not bothered by offending people, but in this case, I am. I make jokes, and this was one I shouldn't have made. I apologize for my insensitivity in this instance.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I would like to thank Andy Richter for this gesture. We all have a lot of growing to do, myself as much as anyone.

April 9, 2012

Anatomy of a Storm

It's Monday, which means I'm about to make excuses for not posting anything since LAST Monday. This week's excuse is a little better than usual; I got a massive sinus infection at the same time that my tenacious lung funk made its Big Push to end the war. The doctor said I probably have pneumonia and wanted me to go to the hospital, but I managed to talk my way out of that fun idea. We'll see how smart that plan turns out to be.

Anyway, there's a new post up at Support for Special Needs. And while I like to think you're actually reading all the posts I write over there ("Another click? Screw this, my hand hurts…"), I hope you'll make a special effort to go see this one. Not because it's unusually wonderful or important, but because it feels personal and a little raw for me. I guess I just want you to read this one a little more than usual.

April 2, 2012

Little Monster

Happy Monday, and welcome to April! (I'm not sure why I just welcomed you to April. Is it supposed to be any better than March?) There's a new post up at Support for Special Needs. It's a topic I've touched on before around here, but in the aftermath of the whole discussion in other online venues of whether or not it is appropriate to "hate" a child's disability, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the whole "monster" metaphor, particular with a different crowd over there. There are always new people eager to have something at which to shake their angry little fists, after all.

In a brief followup to last week's post, we've gotten our hands on a copy of the Speak4Yourself app that has cause such a kerfluffle in the AAC world. We've all been playing with it over the weekend, and once we've had a chance to fairly evaluate it, I will definitely do a write up.

My initial observations? It is really robust, with a bit of a learning curve. At the same time, it is much less similar to MinSpeak than I thought it would be, and I'm less convinced than before that the lawsuit by Semantic Compaction and PRC is going to gain very much traction. There are a few features I'd like to see (although in all fairness, I probably just haven't found them yet), and some (such as the seamless interaction with texting apps) that I think are brilliant.

So more soon on that.

art by Edith Meyer, 2007