Showing posts with label well that sucked. Show all posts
Showing posts with label well that sucked. Show all posts

May 19, 2014

The Thin Line Between Wrong and Wrong

Today at Support for Special Needs:
But perhaps more importantly, for special needs parents, it's not always as simply the choice between right and wrong. Sometimes, you just have to shoot for the choices that will probably turn out to be wrong, but just perhaps a little less wrong than others. Less damage to undo, fewer apologies, maybe even marginally more restful nights.

May 17, 2014

Borrowed Happy

"So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be." 
- Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This is one of those posts I might not actually publish, or that I might think better of and delete after posting it. If you're reading this, you're either Johnny-on-the-Spot, or perhaps I decided not to give the going rate of two shits and left it up. This might be one of those cases where just writing this is cathartic enough to shake me out of my mood and send me on my merry way.

I've been thinking about happiness lately.

(Because of privacy rules, this paragraph is going to be vague. Sorry, I know that's irritating.) I recently embarked on a venture of sorts, one that I thought might lead me down a new path, one that would make me genuinely happy. It ultimately didn't, and I'm taking that failure particularly hard, I won't lie. I feel foolish, and I feel disposable, and if there's a worse way to feel, I'm not sure what it might be. I aspired to something, and my wax wings melted pretty quickly.

The thing is, and I think this is significant, I can't remember the last time I did feel authentic happiness. I know it's been a very long time. If the idea of being truly content with my place in the world is so elusive that I can't even tell you how long it's been, I guess maybe that's an issue. I thought I could see the path until this week. I can't, though.

It's important to note that I'm not some sad mopey bastard with not an ounce of happiness in my life. I think rather the opposite. And when I find my confidence again, as I will shortly, I'll be fine. But it's an undeniable truth that the true satisfaction I find myself feeling is almost always a result of Schuyler's happiness. It comes in things large from time to time, but it's mostly the small joys. A monster movie well-realized. A trip to a comic book store that neither of us expected until we found ourselves standing outside. A joke we've told each other a thousand times. ("Knock knock!" "Come in!")

Schuyler experiences joy, and as a result, I feel some of that reflected warmth as well. I suppose, like a lot of parents (Julie very much included), my own happiness has probably become too caught up in my kid's. I've become dependent on the borrowed happiness I get from her.

If that sounds desperate or sad, I guess perhaps it is. But as I stand here at the end of a shaky week, it might just have to be enough, at least for now.

April 27, 2014

Stumbles

It was a rough week. I won't lie. It was rough for me, and it was even worse for Schuyler. One thing I can say for certain about this week, however, is that if bad days offer the chance for learning, I feel like we all had some graduate level education going on. I feel like we should be wearing those little flat hats and robes and jabbering in Latin.

Most of all, we learned that the structures we come to depend on can be unreliable at best. We were reminded that in the end, we can depend on each other, and sometimes that's all.

There are a lot of very individual stories I could tell about last week, but they wouldn't be of much help to anyone reading. Schuyler and I were both actually threatened, individually and in unrelated circumstances, in ways that left us both a little twitchy. That doesn't actually happen very often, to either of us, which is obviously a good thing, but I'm not sure either of us knew exactly how to respond. We didn't fight back, either of us. For that, I'm proud of her and ashamed of myself.

Without getting into details that are not entirely ours to share, I'll simply say that Schuyler learned how friends can be very unfriendly indeed, and perhaps that her own sense of what true friendship looks like needs some new layers of subtlety that don't come easy to her. I think Schuyler learned that school isn't always a place of fairness, and that sometimes she might find her sense of justice bruised by the "path of least resistance" decisions made by the adults around her. As far as important lessons for adult life go, I suspect that's an important one, but I hate watching her learn it.

I learned some of the same lessons, perhaps. As special needs parents, we become accustomed to the idea that the teachers and administrators and therapists who work with our kids stand on certain principles of behavior. We forget, until we're very dramatically reminded, that those professionals are also human beings. They have insecurities and they have tempers and they have blind spots where they cannot gaze for long with an objective eye. They can do solid work but still stumble.

That doesn't make them bad at what they do. If it did, I would be run out of proverbial town on a proverbial rail. Mine is a most personal kind of writing, and my reactions to the world around me are rarely divorced from my emotional responses. That can be hard for parent advocates, but I also believe it's what gives our work a unique kind of value. Professionals work hard for our kids, but they're also invested deeply in their reputations; parents are invested in not screwing up our kids. Unfortunately, that's probably sometimes at odds with our commitment to being correct in our approach. Our strengths can be our weaknesses; our love can make us stumble, too.

This week, I learned most of all how very human we all are, and how that humanity can be the root of so much failure when it comes to doing our work. Schuyler learned that lesson, too, although for her, I suspect it felt like a lesson in the smallness of those of us who profess to, and occasionally even manage to, work to make her life and the lives of her friends better, richer, more fair, more MORE.

Schuyler ended the week owed more apologies than she received, and as her father, that's hard to bear. I made choices for myself that were about peace rather than justice, but I at least fought similar decisions made in her life. I can at least say that. And thanks to a very dedicated teacher who listened to our concerns and went way beyond what she was required to do in order to address those concerns, and on a Saturday night, no less, we were reminded that there are a great many professionals out there who do this work for the best of reasons, and they do it better than I could ever hope to.

It was not a bad way to end a week that went on far, far too long.

March 10, 2014

Great Expectations

Today at Support for Special Needs:
I’m writing about what I’m feeling here because I think it might be almost as common among special needs parents as that early grieving process. When we buy into a Way That Things Shall Be, it can be hard to let that Way go. Harder than even we realize, because there are so few narratives on which we may depend, and when they disappear, blown away like morning fog, there’s not much in our reserves to take their place. The Way was important, and the Way didn’t work out.

November 22, 2013

Storm Warning

We've embarked down another path with Schuyler. It's not a path we were hoping to ever step foot upon, but then, we were perhaps entertaining unreasonably high hopes.

We received a call from the school yesterday morning, letting us know that Schuyler was in the nurse's office, complaining about a bad headache. When I went to pick her up, the nurse filled in some of the details, including the fact that Schuyler was saying and doing things that didn't actually make a lot of sense. Schuyler seemed tired and a little disoriented when I saw her, and after we got home, she remained... not herself. She complained about a headache for a while, localized on the right side. By three o'clock, she was fine, but even as the afternoon and early evening wore on, she was clearly exhausted. She went to bed early without protest.

So, yeah. Schuyler had a seizure at school. The usual indicators were there, laid out like familiar road signs.

This one seemed worse than before, however, and it manifested itself differently. I made a call to her neurologist, and when he heard the details, he asked that she be brought in immediately. His urgency got our attention.

The short version is that this new manifestation of Schuyler's seizures convinced her doctor that it was time to put Schuyler on seizure medications. Before, he didn't believe that they were serious enough to justify the issues that come with these meds, which are not usually very gentle on the brain. But now, he's concerned that stronger seizures could cause her brain, in its malformed state, to become "kindle" for the harder grand mal seizures that everyone is deeply committed to avoiding if at all possible.

One of the reasons I like this neurologist is that when he talks ABOUT Schuyler, he talks TO Schuyler. He asks her questions directly, only turning to me when she's having trouble expressing herself, and when he's got hard stuff to say, he doesn't sugarcoat it for her. The conversation, some of it dark, about what could happen if her seizures progress, and about what these meds could do to her, was had with Schuyler first and foremost. I like that. She deserves that.

As we talked on the way home, Schuyler suddenly made the connection between the bad and potentially dangerous grand mal seizures we're all trying to ward off and the heartbreaking seizure she witnessed this summer when one of her friends in Miracle League soccer was suddenly stricken in the middle of the field and had to be taken away, still unconscious, in an ambulance. This thought scared the shit out of her, and I don't remember the last time I saw that kind of fear in her eyes, or watched her cry like that. It was hard to watch, but at the same time, she deserved the truth, and the opportunity to take some level of ownership over this thing. She's scared, but she's taking it seriously, in a way that perhaps she hadn't before.

Meds will be good for her. Now that her seizures have reached this level, her brain will benefit from a little control, and will be able to heal and develop without having to fight so much. The risk/benefit balance has shifted, as we always suspected it would.

As we talked it all out in the car on the way home, Schuyler tried to put herself back together. I knew she was looking for answers to questions that she didn't even know how to ask. Big, scary boo questions.

"Look at me, Schuyler," I said. "Everything is going to be okay. I'm not going to let anything bad happen to you. I promise."

Well, I realize I shouldn't have promised her any such thing. Of course I know that. But I've made much bigger mistakes in than making such a promise to her. And I truly meant it in the moment. Hours later, after much contemplation, I still do.

September 16, 2013

The Things We Do Not Say

Today at Support for Special Needs:
For parent advocates, there are rules now, I am told, for the things that we can and cannot say. Break those rules, and we are dehumanizing the very people we profess to love. Say the things we are not supposed to say now, and we are causing harm. Express the things we are told not to say, and we demonstrate that our love for our kids isn't real.

August 21, 2013

The Letter

Today at Support for Special Needs:
If you're a special needs parent, you've probably seen the letter by now. It's been making the rounds for a few days. It was written and delivered anonymously to a family in Newcastle, Ontario, in response to their autistic child's presence in their neighborhood. I'll link to it, sure, but I won't quote it at length. I'll give you a few words from the letter, and you can probably get the drift.

"Nuisance." "Problem." "Noise polluting." "Idiot." "Retarded." "Move away."

"Euthanize."

June 18, 2013

Radioactive

This morning at Support for Special Needs
When I write about the importance of true and authentic relationships with people with disabilities, this is part of that. Humor like this isn't funny unless you can dehumanize your target. There's no question about whether you'll get away with it if you understand that the vast majority of people who might hear you will believe down to their core that a human being with as much worth and value as themselves has been treated unfairly. In a world where that humanity is not just acknowledged but truly and deeply felt, this kind of behavior will be relegated to the fringe of society. It's the kind of thing that should feel toxic, radioactive. It shouldn't take thought in order to recoil from it.

December 14, 2012

Sometimes They Win

"Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win." ― Stephen King

HARTFORD COURANT
Years from now, looking back on this blog post, will it be enough simply to refer to the events in Newtown, Connecticut for the reader to know what I'm talking about? WIll it become shorthand, like Columbine? Or will we as a society have become so numb to these kinds of events that they become a grey blur in our memories? One more helicopter angle looking down on a deserted school, one more scene with cops walking in and out of a building that could very easily be my own daughter's school, except for the police tape.

If you're reading this in the future and don't remember what happened today in Newtown, Connecticut, I hope you'll Google it. All those people who died, the teachers and all those children, they deserve to be remembered. They deserve more, they deserve to have their deaths matter, for action to have been spurred to move rusty wheels of change, for a school full of little bodies that still lay where they fell tonight while investigators try to figure out who they are, for all of this to somehow mean something.

If you're reading this in the remote future, did it matter? Did things change?

I can vividly remember after Columbine, the early cries (much of it from the gun lobby) of "It's too soon" and "This isn't the right time to have that discussion." That was so long ago; for perspective, Julie was pregnant with Schuyler but we didn't even know it yet. It was before the Y2K scare, before the contentious Bush/Gore election when we lost faith in our political system, and before 9/11 when we lost our faith in humanity. April of 1999 feels like another world, another lifetime ago, but Columbine? That feels immediate. It feels like it was just yesterday.

Or just this morning.

It feels immediate because some things have changed very little in this country. We as a society keep putting this discussion off for another day. Talking about this right now feels horrific. I get that. I really do. So we wait until we feel a little better and it doesn't seem quite as daunting or as horrible. All those little kids are buried, and we have our holidays, and then a new season of Dancing With The Stars comes on. We see something shiny and pretty, or something new pisses us off, and we move on.

Columbine took place almost fourteen years ago. FOURTEEN YEARS. And the worst part is, thirteen innocent people killed suddenly doesn't sound so impressive, not after Virginia Tech and Aurora and Gabby Giffords, and not after today. We're becoming harder to shock, and harder to inspire to action. We don't want to feel bad, and we don't want to pile conflict on top of our grief. So we pretend that there are two sides to this issue, and we punt.

Are there two sides? I don't know. I do know that if there are sides, one of them has dead children, perishing in public schools very much like the one my daughter attends. I'm just not sure we can pretend that this is a political issue anymore, or that there's truly an "appropriate" time to have this discussion. I suspect there are a great many families in Connecticut tonight who are wishing that we as a society had figured this out a long time ago.

I didn't bring up the events in Connecticut over our regular Friday lunch with Schuyler, mostly because I'd just found out the extent of the tragedy maybe five minutes before, and no one at her school seemed to have heard anything yet. I didn't want to send her off to class scaring the shit out of everyone like some little doomsaying Cassandra. And I didn't want to wreck her day.

After she got home, Schuyler knew immediately something was up. ("Daddy-O, you're hugging my guts out!") So we talked about it, and I did the best I could. She was scared, "a little", and she had lots of questions. I answered them as best as I could, and I tried to be honest with her.

But when she asked if it was going to happen at her school, I told her no. Not probably not, but simply no, there was no question about it, it will never happen at her school. So I did lie. I professed a certainty that I can never actually back up. And I think maybe she knew that, since we went on to talk about what she should do if something like this DOES ever take place. It's complicated, and I feel like I stumbled a bit without actually fumbling. I suppose just this once, I can stomach the pretty lie, so long as she knows what to do if faced with an unlikely but hideous truth.

After talking about it, we went to see a movie. We'd been talking about going to see The Hobbit for months, and we got wonderfully, perfectly lost in it. The timing couldn't be better. When the two of us got back to the car, I was already looking at my phone, re-entering a world that has such a thing as Newtown, Connecticut's heartbreak in it. Schuyler was still absorbed with the movie. She wanted to talk about trolls and dragons.

"Do you believe monsters are real?" she asked me, with total innocence and entirely in reference to the movie we'd just seen.

I paused, putting my phone down for a moment.

"Yeah," I answered. "I really do."

Well. I didn't know what else to say.

December 11, 2012

Hope is the thing with feathers and claws

Schuyler and I had a hard conversation tonight. It was an important one, and I'm not sure I got it wrong, exactly. But it was difficult for certain.

The day began with a parent/teacher conference, with Schuyler's history teacher. She'd shown a big grade point drop on her last report card that concerned us enough to meet with him and talk strategies and such. The meeting went really well, but an interesting and disheartening fact came up during our discussion. In talking about how she uses her iPad in class, he revealed that not only did she never use her AAC apps in class, but he wasn't even aware that they existed.

Schuyler's social anxieties about using assistive technology to communicate are as present as ever. They might just be reaching a critical point, which is so frustrating because she started off so strong and so enthusiastic about using it. Once she got to middle school, she became increasingly self-conscious about using it, and it has been a struggle to get her to do so ever since.

Schuyler doesn't truly believe that others can't understand her verbal speech. Those of us who live with her and love her manage to understand her pretty well, and perhaps it's been a mistake to coast on that comfort level. If her mother and father and godparents and family friends can understand her without her device, then the rest of the world should be able to as well.

But they don't, and as she has used her AAC less and less, her speech has become harder to understand. And the more difficulty the people around her have in understanding her, the more frustrated she gets, until she shuts down. It's a negative cycle that feeds on itself. And it's a cycle that we desperately need to break.

Her history teacher said he would ask her to show him the two apps she alternates between in class, and later I received an email from him. He reported that she seemed happy and excited to show the apps, but also said he wasn't sure if they had sound capabilities. "She wasn't sure, either," he said, which is absolutely untrue. She was pretending not to know, not to understand how these apps work. Apps that she probably comprehends better than I do.

I was frustrated. When she got home from school, I had her immediately sit down and take out her iPad.

"I want to you tell me something on your iPad. I don't care what. Just tell me something."

She typed for a few moments and then had it speak. "Sam Houston is a hero at the San Jacinto."

"That was great," I said. "So why did you act like you don't know how that app works with your teacher?"

Called out, Schuyler made a face that I know all too well. Sadness, mixed with petulance. She hemmed and hawed a little, but I kept pushing her. I could feel that we were both becoming deeply frustrated, but you know how it is when a situation reaches a critical point. Sometimes you're just going to have that conversation.

Finally she said, "I don't want to talk like this." She held up her iPad.

"Schuyler, how else are you going to talk so that people know what you're saying?"

She pointed at her throat angrily. "I want to talk with my voice like everyone else!"

"Well, you can't!"

Silence.

There it was. I just said it.

"I'm sorry, Schuyler. But you just can't. And you know that."

Looking back on it, I don't know if I was blunt or cruel. I felt horrible, even though I don't know if I was actually wrong to say it. Her expression was one of hurt, and for a minute or two I thought she was going to cry. But she didn't. She sat back on the couch with an expression like that of a boxer who just can't fight another round.

"I know, Daddy," she said quietly.

And she does know. She knows better than anyone. But in her extreme innocence that another might call naiveté, Schuyler clings to hope. She doesn't understand genetics or neuroscience. She can't google her condition and grasp what it means to have a congenital condition that will never change, or a brain that will never heal because her monster lives inside its very architecture.

To Schuyler there's always hope that one day, she'll wake up with a clear voice and a strong, unfogged mind, and all of this will be a bad memory. Schuyler will wake up just like all the girls in her classes, girls who are pretty like she is but so alien in their constant chatter and their ever-fluid interactions. Even the kids who are nice to her leave her behind to a certain degree. They don't tease her. Her teachers say that she is mostly beloved by her classmates. But she's tired of being a cherished pet. She doesn't want her difference to be accepted. She wants it to go the fuck away, forever.

Hope is sometimes all we have. Emily Dickinson describes it as the thing with feathers, perched in the soul and singing a wordless tune without fail. That may be true. It may also be the problem. Hope has given Schuyler a perfect dream, but in the absence of that dream's unlikely transformation to reality, she's left with an expectation that will probably never be met, and she's blind to the alternatives. Schuyler can't talk, not well enough to navigate the world, but she has tools at her disposal to find another path. Her hope might just be spoiling her chance to find her way out of the dark, into a light that is very different from the one that shines on the rest of us, but a light nonetheless.

I felt like kind of a horrible father tonight, like I was smothering hope. But I'm not sure that hope didn't have it coming, maybe just a little. In the further conversations we had later, Schuyler talked about her AAC apps and how they were her way to talk as best as she could. She hadn't arrived, and she may very well push it all away again tomorrow. But it's clear that whether or not she's ready to accept some hard truths, she is at the very least processing them.

Schuyler doesn't let go of her hopes very easily, and that is an almost entirely wonderful thing. Against all my instincts and all my own unreasonable hopes and dreams, however, I need her to find her way out of this particular hole that her hope has dug for her.

The last thing we did before Schuyler went to bed tonight was to try on her clothes for her band concert tomorrow evening. Crisp white shirt, pretty black twirly skirt, the works. Tomorrow she'll position herself beside a bass drum, and she'll communicate exactly what she wants to the world. The weird, wonderful little girl with the big drum and the fierce hope.

It's a moment where she won't need words. I only wish there were more of them in her world, and in her future.

October 29, 2012

"I don't know."

In today's post at Support for Special Needs, I discuss Schuyler's frustration with her disability, a frustration for which she has no words, for which she has an incomplete understanding but a visceral need to express nonetheless.

As Schuyler gets older, she finds herself in greater need of the words, and the concepts behind them, to express how very very much she hates her monster, and the unfairness that it brings to her life.

When she was younger, Schuyler said it with a howl. She needs a new howl now, and she's working to find it.


October 23, 2012

Just a Word: Election Edition

It's election season in the United States. This is a very special time for the people of this country, an opportunity to come together to soberly and with much reflection choose the fellow citizens in whom we trust to lead our nation into an uncertain future.

It's a time to explore our differences, of course, but also to celebrate the process of peaceful transition, of the theory of democracy made real. In this season, it is possible to experience the essence of American citizenship and the dignity and majesty of our system of government, based as it is on the strength and goodness of community.

In that spirit of civil discourse, I give you the post-debate words of author, pundit and self-proclaimed patriot Ann Coulter.



Having gotten everyone's attention, she later doubled down. (Beautifully, she did so as a way of calling out the president for insensitivity.)



Charming.

Look. I've written about this in the past, about how some people use this word because they are ignorant, and others because it's good for an easy laugh. And I have never ever said that no one has the right to use it. I've never advocated banning a word, even if that was even possible. In a way, I'd almost rather prefer that the people who want to use it actually do so. It's a quick identifier, a kind of vocabulary profiling, a little red flag that tells me a lot about the person before I invest a great deal of time taking them seriously.

Also, as I've made clear before, I have been extremely guilty of using that word in the past. I didn't necessarily get smarter since then, but through my own life experience and through the extraordinary people I've met as a result of advocating for Schuyler, I think I might have become a little wiser. Certainly more sensitive, although like most people, I have a long way to go. Still, I freely acknowledge that when it comes to speaking out against using the "R word", I am very much Nixon going to China.

Where Ann Coulter is concerned, the first thing we must do is take ignorance off the table. As noted in a post on Sprocket Ink, Coulter graduated cum laude from Cornell with a B.A. in history, and received her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where she edited the Michigan Law Review.

When she uses this word to insult the president and liberals, Ann Coulter is making a choice. It's a very calculated choice, too. She knows that people will be upset by her language, but more importantly, she knows exactly WHO will be upset. When contacted about her use of the so-called "R word" in her tweet yesterday, Coulter replied, "The only people who will be offended are too retarded to understand it."

Ann Coulter knows who will be upset, and she knows who will be thrilled. I've worked in a book store; I have a pretty good idea of the people who buy her books. Either way, she's playing to her audience.

And like every other public figure who has used this term loudly and proudly, Ann Coulter has spared not a single thought for those whom she hurts. People like my daughter aren't on her scope. People like my family don't matter. Human beings with developmental disabilities have so very little political power, and fight so hard for what scraps they have. Are they even human beings at all? Don't ask Ann Coulter.

For those with developmental disabilities who can stand up for themselves, and for those of us who care for and love and most of all strive to protect and build a better world for those whom the likes of Ann Coulter would reduce to a vicious punchline, the fight falls at our feet. Not to stop people like Coulter from expressing their opinions. Not to silence them. As I said, if anything, I prefer that they stand in the light when they make these statements. Given the choice of knowing that there are roaches skittering around my kitchen at night (note: I'm being metaphorical; we don't have roaches, knock on wood) or turning on the light, I'll reach for the light every time. Even if some of the roaches, like Coulter, crave that light.

If Liberals excuse her remarks because we think she's a buffoon who is clearly desperate for attention, we become complicit. If Conservatives distance themselves from her and say "Well, she doesn't speak for me, so I have no duty to rebuke her," they are also complicit, because it's not a political issue. It might be a little different if she were abusing communities with any power or any privilege, groups that could push back.

But Coulter knows that the disability community is a safe target. No, scratch that. Not even a target. Just a punchline. A target would imply that there was some political gain to be had in hurting people like my daughter, like her friends and her family and her community.

As it is, there's not even that. They're just retards, right?

Right?

As citizens of the world and children of God, we have a choice to make, and it needs to be every bit as deliberate and considered as Coulter's choice to use that word the way she does. We have a choice to make every time we read a comment like hers made by a public figure, of course. Whether it's a notable Republican like Ann Coulter or a Democrat like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, we have to hold them accountable.

But more than that, we have a choice to make every time we hear a stranger at the mall use it, or a friend, a family member or a coworker. It is in those moments most of all that we make choices, sometimes hard ones. When we choose silence, when we choose not to make waves or risk looking like humorless scolds, we make a choice. We choose the side of the Ann Coulters of the world.

We choose the dark. When we're silent in opposition, we choose the dark, and we do so knowing perfectly well that we have a flashlight in our pocket, and we choose not to use it.

I remember a line from that famous Howard Beale scene from Network:

"All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, God damn it! My life has value!'"

I guess what I'm trying to say is yeah, I'm as mad as hell. And I'm not going to take this anymore. And neither should you.

August 8, 2012

Just a Word: From the Mouths of our Public Servants Edition


I didn't want to write about this today. I didn't want to write about it at all, actually, but certainly not today. I've got another post coming up tomorrow that I most certainly do not want parked next to this delightful topic. And honestly, I'm tired of talking about it, this thing that doesn't seem to ever change, or ever get better.

But then, I'm not the person who thought it would be funny to use kids like mine as the punchline to a horrible joke, all in service of scoring political points and mocking the President of the United States.

Allegheny, PA County GOP chair Jim Roddey, at the election night party for state Rep. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler:

"There was a disappointment tonight. I was very embarrassed. I was in this parking lot and there was a man looking for a space to park, and I found a space for him. And I felt badly -- he looked like he was sort of in distress. And I said, 'Sir, here's a place.' And he said, 'That's a handicapped space.' I said, 'Oh I'm so sorry, I saw that Obama sticker and I thought you were mentally retarded."

Well. There you go.

(I'll no doubt be able to add an update later, with a weaselly statement from Mr. Roddey's spokesperson expressing regret or possibly outrage that his words were taken out of context by the liberal media, and how he does love the little retards of the world so very much. I'll be sure to share it when it comes.)

This isn't about politics; it's just as reprehensible when the sentiment comes out of the mouths of people whose politics align more closely with my own. And this time, it isn't about a slip of the tongue, a casual careless remark, or a moment of poor judgment.

This was a joke. A premeditated joke, one that Jim Roddey planned to make. For all I know, it was written down on a little blue notecard for him. It's even possible that it was written for him, by one of his staff. Jim Roddey stood up, he took the microphone, and he very deliberately and unhesitatingly made a joke, one that I like to think that just about any decent human being would find repulsive.

But that's perhaps the worst part.

From the article: "The crowd hollered and clapped, and then Roddey went into the the usual thanks at political events for grassroots supporters of the winning candidate."

Not one person stood up and called him out on it. Not one person felt compelled to be a voice for basic humanity, for a bare minimal level of human decency. Gathered in a mob, the crowd roared its approval. It cheered and it laughed, and it demonstrated once again that those of us who love and advocate for friends and family with developmental disabilities have a lot of work to do.

And all our work? It might just be for nothing.

I wonder if Jim Roddey and his audience would have laughed if my child had been standing there in front of them. Or Sarah Palin's.

Or yours.

-----

INEVITABLE UPDATE, 8/8: Jim Roddey has apologized for his joke.
"I have a long record of supporting people with disabilities and should have remembered that before I spoke. My remarks were inappropriate and I apologize."
See? It's not that he doesn't care about people with developmental disabilities. It's simply that he forgot that he cares. Silly!

Apparently the members of the Allegheny County GOP forgot not to laugh, too.

Jim Roddey, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County GOP Chair and swell guy.

info@rcac.net  Telephone: 412-458-0068
(Mr. Roddey's phone: 412-512-6747)
The Republican Committee of Allegheny County
100 Fleet Street, Suite 205
Pittsburgh, PA 15220

May 21, 2012

Fail

There's a new post at Support for Special Needs. It's not long, but it was hard to write.

I hope I don't have to write another one like this for a long, long time.


May 12, 2012

An Undiscovered Country

In the past year or so, Schuyler has made a discovery. It's one I've always known she would make, and always anticipated with a heavy heart. Inevitable, perhaps, for any person with an essentially good heart and a love for the world that it has neither earned nor returned.

Schuyler is learning how to be sad.

She learned in middle school that being surrounded by people doesn't mean you can't be lonely. She learned that people will look at a kid like her and make assumptions that are extremely unkind, assumptions that she can't easily dispel. She learned that her brain can betray her, can leave her confused and dispirited, and that as she grows older, that betrayal only grows worse. The last few times that she's suffered partial complex seizures have left her crying. She had one last night in the middle of dinner with friends that left her sobbing, for no reason she could identify. "I can't stop crying," she kept saying to me, and the confusion in her voice was, for me, perhaps the most heartbreaking of the many bad things about her fucking monster.

Schuyler is coming to realizations about this grand, rough world that she probably already knew, but in the last year or so, she's taken those lessons to heart.

Today I accompanied Schuyler to her middle school band's annual trip to a local water park. I was attending as a parent chaperone, doing things like checking names as the kids got on the bus and handing out wristbands and such, but when the rest of the chaperones' jobs were done and the kids were in the park, my real duty began. The band director, a good and decent person who really does real damage to the crappy reputation of conductors everywhere (I kid, I kid...), recognizes our daughter's challenges, and she works harder than we have any right to expect in order to make Schuyler's band experience a good one. She put me on the chaperone list, I believe, so that I could keep an eye on Schuyler.

Schuyler had a good start to the day as she and a friend gravitated to each other immediately. But I knew we might be in trouble when I saw the girl later with someone else. When Schuyler found me, she was frowning.

"She found another friend," she said. I tried to explain that just because her friend was playing with someone else didn't mean anything bad, and that sometimes people just change up their buddies from time to time, but she wasn't convinced. I honestly had no idea what had happened, but I know Schuyler. She's an amazing person, but she can smother her friends. It's always been a problem and it will continue to be one, until she finds her person, the one who only wants more of her, not less. And that girl or boy will be her soulmate and her forever person, and that will be that.

We sat down for lunch, and were having a pretty good time. Schuyler was fighting a losing battle with a hot dog that she had inadvertently smothered in a toxic strata of mustard, but she was soldiering on. And that's when we heard it, from the table next to ours. A girl, laughing and yelling at her friend.

"You are a retard!"

Schuyler stopped. Her face froze, and she turned to look at the kids. They were oblivious; I don't even think they were from her school. They carried on, not knowing what they had just done, which I suppose is true of the majority of people who casually throw that word around. But I knew. I could see it on Schuyler's face. She turned back to her lunch, her face now a careful mask.

"Are you okay?" I asked. There was no need to acknowledge what had been said.

"I'm not a retard," she said quietly. "That's a mean word."

I tried to explain that the girl wasn't talking about her at all, but Schuyler was absolutely convinced that she was. Beyond that, I explained, not for the first or I suspect the last time, that people who use that word don't have the first clue about who Schuyler is or what she's capable of. That word has nothing to do with her, I said, and people who use it only make themselves smaller, not her. Schuyler sat quietly, not even looking at me when I snapped a photo of her, trying to cheer her up. She listened, but she didn't hear. She'd already heard what she needed to, and not from me, but from one of her peers.

Finally she gave me a lingering hug and said something that I can tell you for a fact that she has never said to me in her young life, yet something that I've said a hundred times to just about any person who has ever loved me, ever. I suppose it was just a matter of time.

"I want to go walk around by myself," she said. "Okay?"

"Okay," I said. And she did, for almost an hour. She was never alone, because I followed her from a distance, watching. Maybe that was the wrong thing to do, but it didn't feel wrong. I know it wasn't the wrong thing to do. Sometimes the hardest part of being a father is when there's absolutely nothing I can do to make it better. Just follow, and let her sadness resonate with my own.

She walked with her hood pulled up, her hands in her pockets, her face cast down, moving sadly through the park and the world like a ghost.

"...her little heart it could explode."

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:

@Andy_Richter
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.

February 13, 2012

Alone

It began with a simple question at the grocery store last night. We were choosing all the pieces for Schuyler's lunch and were trying to change things up a little. We wanted to get her some new drinks but were unsure if she would be able to open the bottles. Schuyler's polymicrogyria has some big features and some small ones, and one of its less frightening but still annoying impairments involves her fine motor skills. We asked her if she thought she would be able to open the bottle. She said she thought so, but still seemed a little unsure.

"Well, if you have trouble, you can ask one of your lunch friends to help out, right?" I asked, remembering that one of her teachers had mentioned how she thought Schuyler ate lunch with some friends.

Schuyler sighed and simply said, "No."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because I always eat lunch by myself."

And there it was.

We told her that we'd heard that she had friends that she ate with, but she shook her head. "I eat by myself every day," she said. "No one will eat lunch with me."

It was an emotional ambush, this conversation, and it took the wind right out of our sails. I don't know why we were surprised by this variation on a sadly familiar theme in Schuyler's complicated middle school life, but of course we were. It's happened before, that thing where someone told us a Maybe Thing ("I think she eats with a little group of friends..." or "She could go on to live independently one day...") and our desperate parent brains translated it into a Definite Thing. We can't stand to think of her being alone, so we allow ourselves to believe that of course she's not alone. I've written about how Schuyler's relationships at school are different, but it never occurred to me to imagine her sitting at the lunch table all by herself while the mass of chattering classmates swirled around her, past her, without her.

I didn't know how she would react to the offer (I could only think of how I would have responded to a similar proposal in my youth), but I asked her if she would like for Julie or myself to come to school and eat with her. She surprised me a little by saying yes immediately. As we continued our trip through the store, she asked me again a few times.

"Are you going to come eat lunch with me?"

Later, as we unloaded the groceries from the car, Schuyler looked at me and simply asked, "Why doesn't anyone want to be my friend?"

Because there were some pieces of my heart still intact from her earlier confession about her solitary lunches. They needed breaking, too.

I wish I could say that Schuyler's situation is unusual, but any time I've mentioned this on FaceBook or Twitter, I hear from other special needs parents and grown persons with disabilities, about how yes, their kids had no real friends, certainly no neurotypical ones, or how they themselves had grown up thusly. Some writers with disabilities told me that as adults, they still struggled to find friends, or had given up altogether.

A recent study by Dr. Anne Snowdon shocked exactly none of us when it revealed that more than half of the Canadian children with disabilities that she studied had either only one friend or no friends at all. Only one percent of the kids she studied spent an hour a day with a friend. By the time they turn ten, social pressures diminish most of whatever efforts neurotypical kids may be making to connect with their disabled classmates. The window closes, and rarely opens again.

My reaction to that study was the same as many of the parents I heard from. I was mildly surprised that the number of special needs children who DO have friends was as high as it was, frankly. But then, these are polite Canadian kids who haven't been taught their whole lives that their value and that of their friends and social groups is measured by how very very exceptional they are.

With all the loving adults whom she loves and who love her back so intensely, and with so many people on the Internet pulling for her, it's hard to imagine a kid like Schuyler having difficulty making age-appropriate friends. It's also unfair of me to blame her classmates, even though I guess I just did. These are twelve year-olds, they have so little experience with concepts like inclusion and compassion and intrinsic self-worth. In the Lord of the Flies world of middle school, they are all trying to keep up, and their world is one of communication, fast and fluid. They may simply lack the ability to slow down and connect with someone like Schuyler. I get that.

It's not easy for her, like it's not easy for most special needs kids. And while Schuyler seems happy enough, it is becoming clear that this matters to her more than she generally lets on. I feel like she's waiting on a solution from us. As she should.

We're exploring some mentoring programs that might be able to help, such as Best Buddies Texas. There aren't any middle school chapters in Texas at this point. Well, there ought to be. Maybe it's time there was one, and who better to lead that than Schuyler?

When Schuyler asked me why no one wants to be her friend last night, we brought in the groceries and sat on the couch. While she leaned against me, her head on my shoulder, I tried to explain the best I could that it can be hard for people to make friends with someone who is different like she is. It's not always that they don't want to, I said, but spmetimes they're just not sure how.

She seemed to understand why that might be, even before I said more. "They talk so fast," she said. 'I can't talk like they do."

I didn't have any great answers for Schuyler, and I didn't pretend like I did. I could only tell her that yeah, this is hard, but we'd think of something and we'd find a way to make things better. As has been the case many times before, she didn't seem disappointed by that sad, shitty answer. We could fight that particular monster another time. I think mostly she just needed to put it out there.

February 6, 2012

Simple gifts and sleepless nights

Monday is upon us, and with it a new post at Support for Special Needs. We had a moment this weekend, a simple and lovely moment before Schuyler's monster showed up and wreaked havoc on her. I am hopeful that the moment will live in her memory longer than the rest. I think it will.



Addendum, written on Sunday night, after everyone went to bed)

I've got more to say, I guess. My apologies for the tone being pretty much the polar opposite of my SfSN post. It happens.

A few hours after the incident I described above took place on Saturday, Schuyler had what we believe was another complex partial seizure. Not a bad one, and she was distracted by a case of the hiccups and a case of the giggles shortly thereafter. Do seizures give you the hiccups? Or the giggles, for that matter? Fuck if I know, but at least she bounced back from the seizure.

But then on Sunday, she had another, and it was bad. Bad like she hasn't had in a long time. The details would embarrass Schuyler, but it shook all of us up pretty thoroughly. It happened when she was by herself in the bathroom at a restaurant, too, and if Julie hadn't been there to go in and check on her, I don't know how it would have gone down. So does this mean that Schuyler, a twelve-year-old girl with a fierce independent streak, can't go to the bathroom in public by herself anymore? Maybe it does. And that kills us.

Early this evening, Schuyler's rough day finally ended in hysterical tears over what was actually an extremely minor situation. I think she just ran out of Schuylerness and needed to cry some "I fucking hate my monster" tears. As for me, my own personal definition of heartbreak has been updated now.

I'm going to be blunt now. When I go online, I read a great deal about accepting and even celebrating the neurological and physical tweaks that make kids like Schuyler different, and for the persons with disabilities and their families for whom that approach feels appropriate, I say good for them. Really, I do. I'm not in the position where I think I should tell other people how to face disability, either their own or that of the ones they love, and I would hope that I could expect the same in return, although I am all too aware that I can't, not always.

But let me make something clear, as if I haven't already. Schuyler's polymicrogyria makes her unique, but it also robs her of much of the life that she wants to live. It doesn't make her a special snowflake. It takes away her speech and leaves her working like mad just to make herself understood, and infinitely more distressing for her, to understand that world for herself. In a school full of preteen girls whose social existence revolves around communication and a growing maturity that she does not yet have, Schuyler is at a remarkable disadvantage, and she knows it. God, does she know it. "I want to talk like everyone else," she said again over the weekend, this time to Julie. She has a developmental disability, but she gets it, with growing clarity.

Schuyler probably wouldn't understand the nuances and complexities of the concept of neurodiversity, but I feel relatively certain that she would reject it entirely if she could. Schuyler doesn't want to celebrate her differences. She wants them to fucking get out of her way. And now, as always, my chief frustration as her father is that I am powerless to give her that. All I can contribute to the fight against her monster is to write about it, and all that really does is validate the fears and the anxieties of parents with kids like her, and to clarify things a bit for everyone else.

But for Schuyler, though? All I can do is be there to clean her up and dry her tears, and to tell her that yeah, I understand that it sucks, but there's nothing that can be done to change it so she just has to work harder to make her way in this grand rough world. And that's a shitty, stupid answer, but on this particular multiple choice quiz, there's the truth, and there's a bunch of lies, and while some of those lies might be comforting and cheerful, they are still lies, and I simply won't tell them to her.

What I really want her to know is that I would step in front of a train if it meant that she could live the rest of her life without her monster. I would do so without hesitation, and if they looked on my shattered face afterwards, they might even find a smile. But that's not an option. And on nights like tonight, that is hard to bear.

Post-Ictal Puppy Bowl party

October 9, 2011

"If I were you, I'd go punch someone in the face."

Because poor people still like to occasionally have nice things, I tried to get an iPhone.

Because big, weaselly companies don't like to play fair with poor people, I did not in fact get one.

First, a little backstory. A couple of months ago, on the day I was leaving for a conference in Utah, my silly little purple Blackberry died dramatically, complete with heat and a delightful burning smell. I immediately took it to my local Sprint store and was met at the counter by a young man whom we will call Sprint Weasel Prime, since it is with him and his actions that our story really begins and ends.

This Blackberry was never a good one. I purchased it in a pinch after the failure of my previous phone, and its only real selling points were that it was cheap, and it was purple. And over the course of a year of use, it really only excelled at being purple. Still, its death was dramatic, taking out both the battery inside and a second battery installed by Weasel Prime. It was frankly the only impressive thing it had ever really done. Well-played, crappy purple Blackberry. Well-played.

Weasel Prime went in the back and checked inventory or played Angry Birds or whatever they do back there, and after a few minutes, he came back and informed me that the purple Blackberry could be neither repaired nor replaced. The only solution was a new phone, but WOO!, there was a different Blackberry that I could get for free, using my upgrade, which had been sitting unused for a couple of years. Given that my choices were apparently to do this or carry a broken, occasionally smoke-emitting purple phone, I went with this option, the only one I was presented with. Our transaction complete, I bade farewell to Sprint Weasel Prime and went phonefully on my way.

Fast-forward to last Friday, when I went online to pre-order the brand new iPhone, available for the first time from Sprint. According to the Apple site, it would cost me about two hundred bucks.

Except no. Apple redirected me to the Sprint site, where I was informed that the new iPhone would actually cost me a cool six hundred and fifty real, non-boardgame American dollars.

You know why, and I should have as well. It was because Weasel Prime used my upgrade to replace my crappy purple Blackberry with a slightly less crappy one. (To be fair, as an excited Weasel Prime had pointed out, it IS a flip phone, which I suppose is good if you frequently butt-dial or like to pretend you're Captain Kirk.) As a result, my only options for getting an iPhone were to sell a kidney on eBay or wait until June.

The customer service representative I spoke to on the phone was incredibly nice and understanding; let's call her Huggy Weasel. She admitted that Weasel Prime was completely wrong to say that using my upgrade was my only option.  Under my service agreement (for which I'm sure I pay a little something something every month), I was entitled to a replacement phone, either refurbished or a close equivalent model, albeit probably not purple, alas.  She went further, too, admitting that the company was 100% aware that many of their sales associates in their stores were doing the exact same thing, mostly to get existing customers out the door and free up some face time for new, revenue-generating customers. Sadly, she concluded, there was nothing she could do for me. I would have to go back to the store and get them to make it better somehow.

"If I were you, I'd go punch someone in the face," she suggested.

I went to the store, although I was admittedly hoping that some non-punching options might present themselves. Once I started talking to the guy we'll call Mule Weasel, I began to understand why Huggy Weasel recommended fisticuffs.

Mule Weasel did not budge. He did not even admit that using the upgrade the way it had been used was wrong. He presented an immovable wall formed in equal measure of bricks made of "I dont know" and "We can't do anything for you here". If there was one emotion visible on his face, it might be deep regret that my name wasn't Robert Go-Fuck-Yourself, because that was clearly what he wanted to say to me.

My favorite moment? When the original Weasel Prime lumbered over, listened to our conversation and said, with a little touch of hurt in his voice, "When I used that upgrade, you actually thanked me!"

"Well, if I'd known you were screwing me, do you think I would have thanked you?" I left shortly after that.

My final conversation with Sprint took place as soon as I got home. I called and spoke to a number of representatives. They probably don't warrant names here because the only thing they really did was escalate me up the chain. They didn't do so quickly; by the time I made it to the third rep, I felt like I was crawling up the side of Mount Doom, on a quest to throw my fancy flippy Captain Kirk Blackberry into the fires from whence it was forged.

The last time I was put on hold, it was for, and I kid you not, FORTY MINUTES. I think any time you're on hold for longer than five or ten minutes, you start wondering if the customer service representative is just hoping you'll lose hope and go away. So yeah. Forty minutes.

Finally, I found myself speaking to the Final Arbiter of Customer Service Issues Weasel. The Final Arbiter Weasel repeated my story back to me (with a few passive-aggressive "You claim"s thrown in) and then presented my options. They were as follows, in no particular order: I could 1) cheerfully pay $650 dollars for an iPhone, 2) cheerfully wait until June and use my miraculously regenerated upgrade to get an iPhone, or 3) break my contract and cheerfully pay the steep financial penalties for doing so. He also made it clear that I had three further options, which could be best expressed by replacing the word "cheerfully" with "grudgingly" in the first three options.

One thing I've learned over the years is that when you're on the phone with a customer service representative, you have one little piece of power, just one: they are almost never allowed to terminate a conversation until you agree to do so. They can put you on hold for forty minutes, they can present an implacable wall of NO, they can be condescending, and I suppose they could just sit there making little fart noises while you talk. But unless you swear at them, you can almost always say whatever you want for as long as you want and waste as much of their time as you feel like wasting. That's a free tip, kids. You just learned something!

To finally get me off the phone, the Final Arbiter Weasel offered to email the district manager for Weasel Prime's store and let him address it however he saw fit. And here's where my favorite conversation in this whole story took place.

Me: Can you copy me on that email so I can follow along?

Final Arbiter Weasel: No, I can't do that.

Me: Huh? You can't copy me on that email? Really? Why not?

Final Arbiter Weasel: Because... the email's going to contain proprietary Sprint information.

Me: What? Your email about my case is going to contain secret information? What could that possibly be?

Final Arbiter Weasel: Um, it's the how the email is formatted that's proprietary.

So there you go. Aside from this call that I'm never ever ever going to receive from the District Manager Weasel, I think that's about where things stand now and forever. I can either go away quietly, or not go away not quietly, but it's pretty clear that despite the admission of Sprint's own representative that the original action taken by Weasel Prime was inappropriate and unfair, the official stance of Sprint is "Tough titties, customer."

Now let me be very clear. I understand completely that this is a very First World problem. I know that families face big problems every day that are much more important than this. But you know what? We're one of those families. Just because ninety-five percent of my blog posts are about Schuyler and our neverending quest to help her live a meaningful life in the face of real tooth-and-claws unfairness doesn't mean that when people behave like tools, I'm going to say "Well, this certainly doesn't compare with worrying about seizures or Schuyler's education or her future or whether or not she's going to be eaten alive by this grand rough world, so no problem."

Actually, I think for special needs parents, the opposite may be true. We spend every day of our lives waging battles that we mostly expect to lose or at the very best fight to a draw. And by every day of our lives, I mean right up until the day we die, when our last thought on this earth may very well be "What will happen to her now?"

So speaking just for myself now, when I'm confronted by forces driven not by invisible, implacable monsters but instead by flesh and blood humans whose only power over me is in what fucking PHONE I can use, do you think I'm afraid? Do you think I'm likely to give up quickly, or at all, when I'm treated unfairly by a sales associate in an ugly golf shirt with a corporate logo printed on his moob?

Do you think I'm inclined to stop fighting that little fight even when it's pretty clear that I'm not going to win? When the only thing I can do to address my grievance is to do my best to convince as many others as possible not to do business with a company engaging in unfair practices? Do I quit because it's a small fight, in the shadow of my family's larger ones?

No, I'm really not so inclined. And if that makes me a dick in your weasel eyes, that's probably true. But I'm the dick that the world has made me. Well, mostly.

See you in June, Sprint.

-----

(Note: I would like to extend my deepest apologies to any weasels, ferrets, martens, ermines, minks, otters or stoats who may have been understandably insulted by my metaphorical representation of these particular employees and agents of the Sprint Nextel Corporation.)

"Dude.  Uncool."