Browsing "Social Studies"
Mar 22, 2013 - Social Studies    4 Comments

Just Stop: Friday Night Lists

It’s been a bad week in the media for people sensitive to trigger issues. Rape, consent, racism, intolerance, and general lack of humanheartedness abound, and with them the traveling herds of trolls who flock to such ripe feeding grounds from their mountain bridges.

In my assumed role as a sherpa through the treacherous territory of social sensitivity and awareness of others’ boundaries, I’m offering this Friday Night List. If you feel a “but” coming on at the end of these sentences, do not say whatever you were about to–you’ll only end up making someone mad.

SENTENCES THAT OFTEN DO, BUT SHOULD NOT, HAVE ANY MORE WORDS AFTER THEM

(No Buts About It.)

“I’m not a racist.”

“We can all agree that bullying is never okay.”

“I’m not trying to be insulting.”

“Rape is rape.”

“We shouldn’t make light of a serious crime.”

“That looks great.”

“I appreciate your hard work.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud.”

“No offense.”

“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”

“Hey, baby.”

“I’m sure this was your best effort.”

“You have a wonderful, energetic child.”

“It’s not my cup of tea.”

“I understand you’re strapped for cash.”

“That must be hard for you.”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you.”

“I appreciate how busy you are.”

“I don’t want to cross any boundaries.”

“Hitler/Idi Amin/Chairman Mao/Darth Vader was a bad man.”

“You may not want to hear this.”

“I shouldn’t have to say this.”

 

Fix the Break

A week or so ago, I had a Brilliant Plan (TM). We’re making arrangements to take the whole family, our two sons included, to Origins this year. I’m beyond excited, but there’s a lot of apprehension there too. It’ll be the boys’ first con, and the first one I’ve been able to attend in several years.

It’ll also be the first con I’ve attended since I’ve known about my autism, and I expect that to be a revelation on a number of different fronts. I’ll be more attentive to the waves of sensory info coming in, and more patient with my preoccupation with the textures and graphic design of the costumes and games I see. I’ll understand why the exhibit hall and the crowded hallways between events take such a toll on my patience and energy. I’ll be more aware of how my autism affects my user experience of new systems and products. And I’ll be more mindful of how the chaos of the con environment uses up my available energy, focus, and physical reserves.

In the past, if I needed a sensory break from the crowds and chaos of large gaming rooms and the overwhelming stimuli of the exhibit hall, I had to schlep all the way back to my hotel room. Once there, the odds of actually returning diminish rapidly. When I finally stop moving so much, the tidal wave of pain and sensation I’ve been holding at bay swamps me, and I realize how much I’m hurting and tired. I can’t even think of going back to the convention center until I’ve had significant rest after that. It hurts to miss valuable time with friends I don’t see the rest of the year, but it hurts more to keep moving, to keep fighting my environment.

This year, I’m trying to do something about this. I’ve submitted proposals to both Origins and Gen Con–the two conventions I’m planning to attend this year–to establish a Sensory Break Room for people who are physically or mentally challenged by the rigorous environment of the con.

Part of this is wholly selfish. I don’t want to have to leave the convention center when (not if) my son needs a sensory break. I don’t want to have to go all the way back to our hotel room, where I know I’ll have fights over whether and when we go back, and why we don’t just stay and play XBox or something just between ourselves. He’ll be anxious and overwhelmed, literally by the amount of fun and multitude of choices available. And I don’t want to fight about whether we spend time at the place we came to spend time at.

The other part is more generous. If people like my son and I could really benefit from a room near the center of action where we can decompress for a few minutes, thereby gaining a few hours more of “on” time, I know we’re not the only ones who could use it. As people become more aware of neurodiversity, true introversion, and other conditions that make con activities challenging, it seems like the next logical step for adaptive services is to offer a nearby room where folks can go to recharge their batteries. Much as there are now nursing rooms available for moms who take their babies to cons, I think sensory break rooms are the future of necessary accessibility options for con attendees.

But what do I mean by a “sensory break room”? Let me do the negative definition before the positive one. It won’t be a hangout for people who just need a seat. It won’t be a quiet place to play quiet games. It won’t be a craft room for game widow(er)s looking for company. It won’t be a nursing or babysitting room.

The room will be screened off, instead of requiring users to open and close a clanky door. The lights will be kept quite low, probably too low to read properly, but there may be some soft, shifting colored lights to focus on. No music or other noise will be permitted, but a small fan or ionizer will run to provide white noise as an auditory buffer. Nobody will bug anyone else, but neither is it a nap room. If someone falls asleep, the monitor will wake them up after five or ten minutes, and each user will be responsible if they accidentally sleep through an event they’re supposed to attend. I’m hoping that the folks most likely to use it will be generous in bringing some adaptive tools to share–weighted blankets, exercise balls, fidgets, and other comforting objects. 

There won’t be a cost to use this space–I would no sooner charge for access to a wheelchair ramp than I would for access to this room–and its primary function will be as a room to decompress. Even just 15 minutes for most people gets them back another 2 to 3 hours of time to participate in con activities. The importance of this downtime cannot be overstated for making it a successful event for a significant number of people.

I’ve had a very good response from folks on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, and I’m hoping that enough positive pressure on the Origins and Gen Con organizers can help us achieve a pilot test for this resource. I’m trying to figure out whether it’s possible to get enough con-goers to volunteer for a shift monitoring the room while it’s open (probably 10am-6pm Thursday thru Saturday), or whether I should see if I can get the local Autism Societies to get a few folks who would be willing to work a two-hour shift each day in exchange for a four-day badge. Either way, I’m also trying to pull together some of the best game designers/GMs in the industry to run “reward games” for the folks who put in the time to make this resource work well.

Think about that look–you know the one–when you see someone about ready to meltdown in the middle of the dealer hall, or at a game table in a deafening room of other game tables. No, grownups don’t throw temper tantrums the way kids do, but you can see the tightening in their shoulders, their jaws. Their eyes get wide, flash around to scan the room for exits and clocks to tell when they get to escape. They get snippy, impatient, or they shut down entirely: “My character just goes along with everybody else.”

There’s a way to avoid that happening quite so often. A room to decompress in, to take that break from the light and noise and sights and crowds, can stave off those sudden attacks. There are still kinks and details in the plan to work out, but I hope it sounds like a good idea to enough people that we can start to leverage some positive pressure on the con organizers. Whether or not you’re going, please communicate to Origins and Gen Con organizers that you think that this resource is valuable and worth accommodating in the outskirts of the main convention area.

Sometimes you have to break to get put back together. This year, we can provide a safe space for our fellow gamers to do that.

Show and Mattel

I know the Internet is designed to inspire fury. That hasn’t been the majority of my experience with it, but lately, it seems determined to correct my underestimation of its rage-inducing qualities.

So before I proceed with this post, please go read this article about why Mattel thinks moms don’t “get” toy cars. Go ahead–I’ll wait for you.

Thanks for taking the time to do that. You may or may not be seething with anger right now. If you’re not, that’s okay, but I’m going to explain why I (and several other mothers I know) are. Let me put on my sherpa hat.

PROBLEM #1: THERE’S A VP AT MATTEL FOR “BOYS’ TOYS AND GAMES.” I’m the mother of two boys, and I’ll be the first to say that they play with different toys, in different ways, than many girls would. Griffin was about nine months old when he distinctly said “Vroom” to a squishy car toy which none of us had yet bothered to introduce to him by name or sound.

But I’ve been told I “play wrong” for a girl since I was two years old. Imagine that: TWO YEARS OLD. That’s the year I saw Star Wars on a drive-in movie screen and was hooked for life. All my friends in preschool were boys, because they would play what I wanted to. In sixth grade, my teacher introduced me to games of war and strategy, and I was hooked once again. I went on to be the only girl among 23 boys in the Strategy and Tactics Club in high school, and I was very happy there. I never felt left out or isolated because I was doing what came naturally to me.

Even as an adult, I’ve mainly played games with men, but the many women gamers I’ve played with over the years were as viciously cutthroat as they needed to be to succeed. If anything, we were more terrifying because we collaborated to do awful things, and we needed to set down our needlework or knitting to wipe out whole parties of monsters or even the roof of a building once. “Knit one, purl one…natural 20…I kill it. A lot.”

There’s no such thing as “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys.” There are just boys and girls who play with toys. Whichever ones they pick, they’re doing it right. It’s okay to appeal to some of the differences between the genders, but the pink-and-blue-washing needs to stop NOW. If you want to see how a company can tailor toys for greater appeal and accessibility to one gender or another, consider the upcoming “girls’ line” of Nerf toys, which feature ergonomic adjustments to make them easier to use, as well as styles that correspond to popular culture models like Katniss and Merida. Disney should follow their advice with the Marvel line–I know a whole lot of girls and women who will happily fork over for some good Marvel toys, games, and apparel.

PROBLEM #2: HE FELT THE NEED TO EXPLAIN TO A ROOM FULL OF MOTHERS WHY THEY WERE DOING THEIR JOB WRONG. There are many ways mothers do do their jobs wrong, and society isn’t shy about telling us so. We know we’re not perfect, but unless you’re the sort of mom who’s likely to end up in court, you’re trying very hard to do your best. The days of the pretty moms who won’t lie down on the floor in their crinolines and frilly aprons to play with kids of both genders are past. I play with my boys, and I play hard. I certainly don’t need a toy executive to tell me how to make my kids happy or have a good time.

Moms are bad enough on themselves and each other. Tiger Moms, Princess Moms, Geek Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Working Moms…we’re all being told we’re doing it wrong, that our kids will end up in therapy for sure if we don’t buy them the right things and hover over them like paranoid black helicopters every second of the day. Petersen’s voice shouldn’t be in this discussion at all, let alone lecturing a room full of “mommy bloggers,” whatever the hell that sexist, reductive label means.

PROBLEM #3: HE THINKS THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO PLAY WITH TOY CARS. This one particularly burns my ass, because I know from experience that he’s wrong. When I was a kid, I played with toy cars by lining them up in perfectly symmetrical, parallel rows, sorted by shape, size, and color. Then my sister would walk through the lines like Godzilla, kicking them to kingdom come. And then I would line them up again in different patterns. I picked my favorites by the way they felt in my palm, my closed fist.

I realize that much of this comes from my autism. But I know I’m not the only one who didn’t play smash ‘n crash all the time. In fact, most of the boys I knew didn’t play with their favorite cars at all–they set them on a high shelf where they’d be safe and beautiful. Petersen’s model of play is a marketer’s one, not a player’s one. If you smash your cars all the time, your parents have to buy you new ones all the time. Planned obsolescence is not a game.

PROBLEM #4: HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY KIDS WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH OTHER TOYS. Finally, Petersen doesn’t understand why toy cars are less relevant today. The problem lies in a few areas. If a kid wants to pretend with cars these days, why would you want to drive a four-inch replica across the berber carpet when you can boot up the XBox or Playstation or 3DS and actually feel like you’re driving a real car? Why play with a pre-made car when you can build your own models?

Cars have the same problem I see occasionally with “action playsets”: they’re single-use toys. There are only so many ways you can play with a toy car, or with the Spiderman 3 Sandstorm Action Playset. You basically get to recreate one storyline, and then you’re done. The reason action figures and dolls are more popular is because you can tell infinite stories with them. An imaginative kid (i.e., all of them) doesn’t even need every action figure, because one character can be many characters. LEGO offers another solution to this problem by offering single-use builds with infinite rebuilding potential. Who wouldn’t rather play any story you can think of, rather than “They drive somewhere. Along the way, they crash into something”? According to child development expert Penny Holland, single-purpose toys are far more damaging to our kids’ minds than toy guns. Think about that for a second.

The graph in the Bloomberg article suggests an even more interesting quandary to consider: There’s a gender gap in board games too. According to their statistics, 46 percent of girls between ages 6 and 12 list board games as their favorite toy, as opposed to only 33 percent of boys. I’d be interested to know which games girls are playing, because we’re past the days of the Barbie Dreamdate Board Game (which I played, I’ll have you know, and ended up marrying Poindexter in real life). 

Board games aren’t even strongly marketed, as far as I can tell, for one gender or another. RPGs (tabletop, video, and online) are, though, and I’d be interested to see a more nuanced breakdown of a wider variety of games. I’d also like to know whether the gender gap among young girls and boys who play board games correlates to the education gap–there may be room for board games to help boys catch up on certain academic and social skills that they aren’t getting enough support for in schools that have to teach to the test.

All this fury has direction. We don’t have to settle for executives trying to sell our kids crappy toys. We know what our kids like, and we should put our money where their preferences are. Play has the capacity to teach and to heal, as well as to entertain. As parents, we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Feb 28, 2013 - Psychology, Social Studies    8 Comments

Lock And Key

Friday is the Autistic Day of Mourning, a day to honor the autistic people who have lost their lives to the desperate or careless actions of parents and guardians, or to the crushing weight of the sensory world that seems inescapable by any other means but death.

As long as myths and misinformation are spread about what life on the autism spectrum is like, there will continue to be caretakers who feel that autistics are less than human, and autistics who feel that every door in the world is shut and locked against them. This is my story of those doors and locks, and the keys that turn up in the most unexpected of places.

I wrote this for an event around Mothers’ Day, called Listen To Your Mother. (It may have been too weird for them.) But I really wanted to share these words I’ve crafted, and the occasion to commemorate those who never found their keys seemed fitting. I hope it unlocks something for you, too.

________

Parenthood is all doors and windows, keys and locks. Change blows them open and slams them shut. Heat and grief swell the frames so they stick stubbornly. Time and anger jam the pins and squeak the hinges. Then suddenly, a word, a fall, a breakthrough, and we stumble over the threshold.

My son’s autism diagnosis was the key to a lock I didn’t even know existed. Kindergarten was rough, rougher than it needed to be. Connor talked as fast as he thought, ideas rushing out so fast his little mouth garbled and stammered over the vocabulary of a high schooler. He knew the names and origins of every superhero and Star Wars character, but related them with so much detail, kids his age gave up and walked away. He struggled to function in the constant noise and color of the classroom, where he could never settle and instead slingshotted among activities and classmates.

The other kindergartners didn’t understand, and responded with cruelty beyond comprehension. Five-year-olds on the bus home at half-day told him they would beat him like a piñata until he broke open. They said they would come into his room and set his bed on fire. They hit him in the face with ice balls until he needed stitches. And I cried as I scrubbed the blood out of his little winter coat, as I held him in the night after dreams that woke him screaming. As I filed the papers to transfer him to somewhere safer.

We got called to a meeting within the first month at his new school. “We’ve noticed some things we’d like to talk to you about,” the counselor said. We feared a repeat of the last school’s message: “Your son is a discipline problem. Fix that.” But in that room with his teacher and a staff we barely knew, they slid a list across the table to us that told the story of our son.

My husband and I laughed. Out loud. It startled the school folks to see parents erupt in gales of hilarity and recognition at an inventory of symptoms. But there it was, clear as day on that paper: every strange, wonderful, frustrating, inexplicable thing that our son did. “It’s okay,” we tried to reassure them. “This is the Book of Connor, the pattern we couldn’t figure out. Until now, we thought it was crap parenting.”

It has a name, they told us: Asperger’s Syndrome. “How wonderful,” we replied. “If it has a name, it’s a language we can learn.” We shook their hands, agreed to meet again soon to talk about how to help him. We thanked them, over and over. “Thank you for giving us the key to unlock our son.” I went to the library, checked out armloads of books, and built a fortress around myself, so I could read us all out of the dark.

But the key we had fit another lock, too. It fit a lock in me, a lock I didn’t know I had. His patterns were my patterns, or had been as a child before I learned to hide or work around them. I saw the world in stories too, and had visions clearer than eyesight from the books where I went to hide. I fixated on things without even trying or wanting to. And when it was too much, only dark and quiet and heavy blankets and the rushing, patternless sound of a fan could steady me on the tightrope again.

His lock, my lock, they’re the same. My son is autistic. I am autistic. We are both autistic together. We share this key, and we’re unlocking doors I never dreamed I would pass down to my child.

Grownups say they wish they knew then what they know now. They have no idea.

My son’s lock is my lock. His key is my key. Every door it opens, it opens for him and me. And I walk that terrible, glorious road of discovery with him again like it’s the first time for us both.

Feb 20, 2013 - Sex Ed, Social Studies    3 Comments

Feminism at the Crossroads

A few times recently, friends have mentioned me on social media as a feminist they admire. As pleased and flattered as that makes me feel, I also get a strong twinge of guilt, or at least conflict.

I don’t think I’m a very good feminist. By the usual standards, I barely qualify for the title. I suffered through one lone Women’s Studies course, in grad school, with much whining and skepticism by both professor and me. I don’t know all the lingo. I can’t take the Pill. You’ll never catch me burning my bra–they were so damn hard to get fitted correctly in the first place.

Okay, that list is pretty unserious, at least in 2013. But I do feel some considerable shame as emails about reproductive choice, equal pay, sexual harassment, gender balance in the media, and any number of other “feminist issues” pile up unanswered in my inbox while I put in hours upon hours on the phone and in the Capitol for rights that may not even benefit me directly.

I want to be worth the faith of those folks who think of me when they hear the word “feminism,” and I want my feminism to be clear in its intent. My feminism sits at the intersection of race and privilege, of sexual and gender identity, of educational and economic advantage, of communication and culture. My feminism is a human right, and it casts a broad net: I become aware of another injustice that touches my feminism because I feel the tug on our common lines, however far away from me it is.

But if your feminism extends so far, what kind of feminism is it at all, you may be asking? If you can find your way, as I do, to issues as diverse as same-sex marriage, teaching multiculturalism, comprehensive health care, rape culture, and the environment, shouldn’t I call it something else? Is my gender the only thing that makes me a feminist?

My answer is no. Women deserve to have their whole voices to be heard. We are more than half of the world population, so if there’s an issue that affects the world, it affects women and we deserve to have a say in it. Women are not a monolith–this gets said frequently, but it bears repeating until it sinks in. We do not all have the same view on issues; there is no such thing as the “women’s vote.” Our circumstances are varied as our bodies.

That said, the common composition and experience women share give us a different perspective than men have, and if we want to build the world to be a more inclusive place for us, our vision has to influence that construction. A quick anecdotal example: My boys were born four years apart. We still had all the baby equipment from Connor when Griffin was on his way, but by way of a mistake and a generous gift, we ended up with a brand-new stroller set to replace our used one. I finished unpacking it and went to set it up for maximum admiration. Remembering the mechanics of our old set, I went at the frame with both hands, but all it took was a flick of my thumb and a twist of the wrist, and it sprang up fully. Instantly, I realized: in those four years, women engineers entered the design room. I’m not saying that men couldn’t design a good stroller. But it felt like a mom who’d wrestled a purse, a crying baby, and a diaper bag spilling its contents into the parking lot had finally had a say in what was needed.

Not every woman is a mom, or even wants to be one. Not every woman will even need that stroller, let alone be able to afford it. Not every woman can even imagine the luxury of letting something other than her hardworking body support the weight of her child for a single moment of the time until that child can toddle along under its own power. And increasingly, many men are partners in parenting who can appreciate one-touch strollers and other magical technology that makes the work of raising a child just a bit easier.

But women experience the world differently than men, and that difference makes us valuable as we search for solutions. Every problem in the world affects women, and we can and should contribute to efforts to counteract problems with our particular set of visions and skills. Strengthening the institution of marriage by making it accessible to anyone who will take that stand for love and commitment benefits women. Teaching multiculturalism to children (and adults) makes us more sensitive and appreciative of the differences, unique histories, and commonalities among people with other races and cultures, which benefits women. Comprehensive health care benefits women’s bodies, as well as improving their ability to participate fully in the economy, to the benefit of their families. And we all live on this planet that changes and suffers and recovers and goes unheeded, like the bodies of too many women who experience the world as a violent place, and they all need healing for life to flourish.

So my feminism will be intersectional. Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” So I’ll work on the issues that resonate with me and my experience as a mom, a wife, a teacher, a bisexual, a pagan, an autistic, a Unitarian Universalist, a white person, a survivor, and the many other people who live inside this woman’s body. One of them is a feminist.

Jan 30, 2013 - Sex Ed, Social Studies    4 Comments

Reading Between The Lines

I tell stories all the time. I’m no good at plot, though, so the stories I tell are almost always from my own life. And because my memories are so vivid, I enjoy coloring in the details and senses so the listeners can feel like they were there too. I’m also a total ham, and I love making people laugh, so you’ll get no quiet recitation of facts–if I’m telling a story, there are wild gestures, silly voices, dramatic pauses, and rhetorical flourishes.

I don’t have much of a filter, so there aren’t many stories from my life that I haven’t told to somebody at some time. And much of the activist work I’ve been involved in over the last year, especially on marriage equality and improving access to healthcare, has revolved around the power of personal stories to move people to connect with their own stories and act on common values.

Some stories, I’ve told literally hundreds of times, like how I met and married my husband. Others, I’ve had to grow into telling over the years, and I only pull them out when there’s an important point to be made.

All these stories, they’re pieces in the mosaic of me, and I’m content with that pattern.

But I don’t expect them to change on me, especially those whose roots lay decades in my past. Yet that’s what happened last night, and I’m still reeling from how a shift in perspective can alter a story I thought I knew by heart.

I attended a community meeting about the state anti-bullying legislation I’m working to get passed into law this legislative session. It was a bit of a drive for a Tuesday night, but I’m keenly interested to see the diverse and passionate coalition we can build around the need for stronger protections for all our kids. The meeting took place in the heart of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where the lack of clear anti-discrimination policy can be measured in young lives lost.

After a breakdown of the legislation and the likely timeline through the Capitol, we did a mini-workshop on telling compelling, personal stories about why a better anti-bullying law matters to us. Before sharing a quick story with another attendee, each of us took a minute to scratch notes on a worksheet of prompts about our own experience with bullying, the values and emotions those experiences evoke, and why now is the time to fix this.

I’ve talked about my older son’s horrific experience of bullying in kindergarten before, and when I’m asked why I’m so engaged on this issue, that’s the story I tell. Sometimes, I talk about the friends who were beaten up and harassed in high school for their appearance and what it supposedly said about their sexuality. Obviously, though, the anguish and devastation of a mother who can’t protect her son when the school wouldn’t act is far more effective than secondhand memories from 20 years ago.

But because we’ve been dissecting the language of what constitutes bullying and harassment on such a minute level, the question “Were you ever bullied?” tripped a different wire last night than it ever has before.

I don’t go around broadcasting the fact that I’m a sexual assault survivor, but I’m not shy about sharing that when it can bridge a space that isolates someone who feels alone in his or her similar experience. What I share less frequently is that my assaults were the culmination of a ten-month abusive relationship–textbook, really, with repeated passes through honeymoon, deterioration, confrontation, and alienation, before the pattern repeated once again.

Because this was a high school relationship, and my abuser was in many of the same classes and activities I was, a major portion of the drama unfolded on school property. To my older and better trained eye, I can now see the stalking and harassing behaviors that I just accepted as either romance or punishment. Following between classes. Cornering for long talks at my locker, in a practice room, under a staircase. Blocking me from leaving those spaces until he’d had his say. Physically threatening behavior. Physical abuse. Telling lies to turn friends and teachers against me.

I was harassed for almost an entire academic year, and not a single school official once stepped in.

I don’t blame anyone for this, in large part because I know that the people who were concerned were actively misled by my abuser, and I’d been convinced I deserved what was happening. But I am suddenly, acutely, aware that if a clear policy had been in place that defined bullying and harassment, supported by training for teachers and staff on how to recognize and intervene, that relationship would never have gone on for ten months. I wouldn’t have been isolated and stalked. And ultimately, I wouldn’t have been raped, because the whole pattern would’ve been stopped before it escalated to that ultimate violation.

When I first told my parents I was raped, almost three years after it happened, my dad set up a meeting for me with one of his grad students who was also a survivor. She showed me a piece of blank paper, and said, “You see this paper? Like this, it takes up almost all of your field of vision. This is your rape, right now.” She folded it in half, and then half again, saying, “Time does this to your experience. It makes it smaller, bit by bit. Therapy helps, but time does most of the work. And eventually,” the paper was just a small, thick square now, “it’ll be so small, you can tuck it the furthest corner of your pocket and almost forget about it. It’ll always be there, but you won’t have to take it out until you want to.”

I’ve taken out that experience, unfolded it from the tiny corner where it resides, for many reasons–sometimes, just to reassure myself that I can fold it back up and shove it out of sight whenever I want. But my realization that I do have a personal experience of bullying and harassment feels like that paper suddenly has a message written on it, one that I’ve never seen before because I haven’t really spread and smoothed the whole experience out for examination in such a very long time. And though it doesn’t make sense, it feels like the paper won’t fold back up again quite the same way, or quite as small again for a long time, now that I’ve seen that writing.

Dec 7, 2012 - Psychology, Social Studies    3 Comments

The Gifts That Keep On Giving

Almost every good and wonderful thing about the winter holidays is a sensory delight. The smells of cold snow and freshly cut pine and butter-rich cookies tingle in our noses. Pipe organs and French horns and jingly bells and heavenly choirs and crinkly paper delight our ears with musical sounds rarely used in the rest of the year. Velvety and satiny fabrics combine with delightfully scratchy sweaters and fuzzy hats in our special party clothes. We write ourselves dietary hall passes for the dozens of special, luscious holiday foods. And the lights…oh, the lights! Who doesn’t gasp and crane at the sight of an elaborately decorated building or brilliantly lit tree?

Now imagine all that cranked up to 11. Welcome to the holidays on autism.

Sounds amazing, right? But for autistics and their families, the holidays can be overwhelming and stressful. So many folks struggle with money and family drama and expectations about all things merry and bright, and with schedules and nerves and input jacked up on Kringle Fever. These things stress out the neurodiverse too–and they often have difficulty expressing what’s too much, especially if it feels like that’ll disappoint their loved ones. Naps, hugs (physical or otherwise), routines all go a long way to mitigate these stresses, and though you may feel like a Grinch insisting on bedtimes and dietary restrictions, you’ll be grateful later when you and your family have more spoons left over for fun.

All this is in response to a blog post I read over on Autism Daddy today (thanks to Joshua for the link!). He lamented his inability to participate in a common source of small talk among parents this time of year–what their kids want for Christmas. Every parent dreams of giving the perfect gift that makes their child light up brighter than starlight, but on autistics, that looks a bit different.

Still, you can give gifts that’ll make their lives easier and more enjoyable all year long. And I urge you all to resist the urge to jump to the conclusion that gifts for special needs kids have nothing in common with, or aren’t “as fun” as, the gifts neurotypical kids want. After all, autistics are “more human than human,” as I heard Paul Collins say on Speaking of Faith years ago. And the things that feel good to them often feel good to (or solve problems for) neurotypical folks too.

I don’t know a single kid who doesn’t love the hell out of jumping on a trampoline. If you give a kid a mini-tramp (with a handle and helmet!) that fits in their bedroom, or passes for an hour at the hangar-sized trampoline parks popping up in industrial parks, you would get a medal for Best Adult EVER from children everywhere.

And who doesn’t wish they had a chair that closes up like a clam some days? In today’s open-plan, no-doors work environment, I think these may be the Next Big Thing at the very best chair stores.

And this is just the beginning. There are loads of adaptive technologies which are practical solutions to everyday problems, and you’d be the hero for putting it under the tree. For example, kids are asked to write on whiteboards at school every day, but if you’re a lefty, you spend half your time trying not to drag your arm through what you just wrote and have to start all over again when you finish each line. This cool LCD lightboard eliminates that problem! And tags in the back collar of shirts and underwear drive everyone nuts, not just autistics, so be a hero and give a box of tagless clothes that can be worn under anything.

There’s an extensive list of assistive and adaptive technologies (both high- and low-tech) at the Research Autism website, but many of these things aren’t only available to therapists or educators anymore. Online speciality retailers like AutismShop.com and Autism-Products.com sell everything from squeeze machines to weighted blankets to awesome fidget toys (which make excellent stocking stuffers). And a lot of the best gifts for autistics are available right in your local Walmart or Target–exercise balls, tagless shirts and underwear, blankets with lovely silky binding and nifty textures, and glasses with clear, funky-colored lenses are all fantastic fun gifts for every kid.

(Important Note: You NEVER want to be the person who gives the Toys That Make The Noise. This is exponentially more the case for families with neurodiverse kids. They will hate you forever.)

It gets tiring being the educator-in-chief, and I definitely have days when I don’t want to explain autism and how the world feels through that lens one more time. But instead of feeling left out because you aren’t having the same experience as other neurotypical parents and children, it’s more fun to focus on what makes us all feel good. That’s a wonderful gift to give and be given, any time of year.

 

Nov 28, 2012 - Social Studies    14 Comments

Pass the Bucket

I cringe as soon as I hear the bell ringing in front of the grocery store. My kids are primed to be generous, and immediately pester me for pocket change to put in the red bucket. I tell them “no” quietly and, to head off the inevitable “why” that follows, say, “They don’t believe they have to help everyone who comes to them in need, and I don’t want to support that.” I fast-walk the boys into the store and give the bellringer a tight smile.

This routine defies every philanthropic fiber in my being. We take things to Goodwill, we buy poppies from veterans, we buy Girl Scout cookies (okay, that one’s got side benefits). We support public radio and television, we give to our church, we buy ridiculous things from school fundraisers. Lupus, leukemia, lymphoma, lumbago–we give to them all. We collect pennies in UNICEF and Guest At Your Table boxes, which fall apart under the weight of the change every time.

But I will not give one copper penny to the Salvation Army.

SA hits many criteria that appeal to folks who want to do good. They work on first-order needs–feed the starving, shelter the homeless, clothe the poor–often in emergency situations. Especially at the holidays, when so many appeals come from charitable organizations, it can be difficult to prioritize causes, and SA makes it easy: give money here, help people in need. They even use a low-pressure ask, simply ringing a bell, rather than shaking a coffee can in people’s faces.

But SA’s help is given conditionally. If you want a meal, a cot, a coat, you must attend Christian worship. These aren’t gentle ecumenical services, either. You will be told you are full of sin, that your current problems have roots in your inadequate acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior, that repentance and sacrifice are needed, and that only the saving power of the Christian God can take away your temporal suffering. There is fire and there is brimstone. There is even heresy, depending on your Christian theology–SA preaches “Lordship Salvation” which requires constant human effort for salvation.

And all that assumes that they’ve let you in the doors in the first place. SA’s track record for turning away gay and lesbian people in need is well documented, even those in committed partnerships. A British chapter even turned away a naked, injured rape victim because they “only serve men” at their location, despite the organization’s stated policy to make counseling and emergency assistance available to crime victims.

If that doesn’t disturb you enough to pass the pail, consider what happens to some donations. SA has used charitable gifts to support anti-gay legislation in America and abroad. Other SA officials have seen fit to throw away brand-new, donated, Harry Potter toys and books, because they didn’t want to be complicit in turning recipients toward Satan. And still others have simply helped themselves to the largesse they collect for others. We don’t even have a clear idea how much money SA takes in, or how it moves around within the organization, because for most of their operating history, they’ve hidden behind the IRS disclosure shield for churches.

I’ll admit that a big part of my personal problem with this organization comes from our differing views on the definition of “salvation” and how you get there. Militant religion has made me queasy since the first time I understood the words of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Never forget that SA stands for Salvation Army, not Salvation Association or Salvation Achievers.

And before their symbol was this: 

it was this: 

I don’t believe anyone needs to be “saved,” and I don’t think scaring and shaming them would do it, even if they did. I believe that good acts are their own reward, and that there should never be a cost for help, especially not one that amounts to emotional extortion in a person’s most powerless moments.

If you really want to do good–and another thing I believe is that everyone really does want to do good–there are so many places that need you. If you feel like freezing your butt off, don’t just stand there ringing a bell–take meals to the homeless and invite them into life-saving shelters on the coldest of nights. If you have a strange attraction to American coinage, collect it for your local food shelf so families can enjoy a special holiday meal. If you want to spread the message of your holy days, help your church or temple with its social justice projects. And if you just don’t know where to start, look right around you. Your neighbors, your friends, your family, you all know someone who’s hurting: a person facing a holiday alone, or hungry, or scared, or without the tools or means to give the children in their lives the wonder and joy so many of us associate with this time of year.

It doesn’t take an army to save people. We can save each other, with our own hands and hearts and wide open eyes.

 

Closing Arguments

I’ve been working on the campaign for marriage equality here in Minnesota since March, and as I’ve written before, it’s the most fulfilling political, social, and activist project I’ve ever worked on. I’m a total addict to the amazing people and experiences I encounter every single time I put in some time, and I’m going to crash hard on November 7, even if we manage to win. I’m already getting the shakes. Last night, I asked my friend and co-trainer Scott, who works in politics for his day job, for a new campaign–I’m lining up a new dealer once Minnesotans United for All Families skips town.

MN United has built a campaign unlike any other, rejecting the messages and tactics that have failed in 30 states where anti-marriage amendments have gone up for a popular vote. While talk about the rights and benefits that attach to marriage, and how the denial of those rights amounts to separate-but-equal discrimination on par with civil rights fights of the past, are important to many supporters of marriage equality, they aren’t generally persuasive for people who are on the fence about gay marriage. So we’re having personal conversations with voters, using our own life stories, to make it clear that marriage is about love and commitment, no matter the gender of the partners. These stories are powerful, and they change hearts and minds and votes.

Only four days remain until the election, so I’m going to share the core of the conversations I’ve been having with you today. If you’re in one of the four states voting on marriage equality, I hope that this strengthens your resolve if you’re a supporter, and opens your heart to the conversation if you’re still undecided.

Our first walk as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, 5 October 1996

I find this amendment personally hurtful on so many levels. I have the great good fortune to be married to the love of my life, despite the astronomical odds that we would ever find one another on opposite sides of the world. And for the last sixteen years, we’ve had each other in good times and bad. I’ve rejoiced in the affection and the support and the million inside jokes and shorthand references that weave us closer, and I’ve buckled with relief into that tightly knit fabric of partnership in the times of crisis and grief. I think marriage is the best game in town, and I devoutly wish the same celebration and endorsement for every loving, committed couple who lean into the unknown future together.

All of this hinges, though, on one critical fact: my beloved was the opposite gender. When we fell madly in love, we had many obstacles to overcome so we could be together, but the legal right for me to marry him and secure his immigration status so we could start our new life together was not one of them. We obtained a K-1 “fiance” visa that allowed him to enter the country and get on the fast track for a green card by submitting evidence of our marriage. We went through the separate interviews to assure our marriage wasn’t a scam.

But I’m bisexual. There was no guarantee that my soulmate would be a man. And if he weren’t, the last sixteen years–all the love, all the progress, all the family we’ve built–disappear. That one thought blows through my gut like an icy wind and fills me with unbearable sorrow. I cannot imagine the pain and devastation of being told I couldn’t marry and be with my beloved.

And I look at my amazing, difficult, brilliant, gorgeous, perfect sons, and I marvel even more. We didn’t have to submit any applications or pass any interviews before we decided to conceive them, and not once have we ever had to fear that they would be taken away from us. We’re far from perfect parents, but no one has ever questioned whether we’re the best people to raise them. It’s assumed that they’re safe and happy and healthy and loved, and there’s no awkwardness when I introduce their other parent at school events or church functions.

Believe me, all this “traditional”-ness is positively mortifying to a weird, eclectic nonconformist like me. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. We didn’t set out to create a “traditional” family, and we’ve done everything in our power to the least traditional traditional family around. But we are very aware of our privilege, and there’s no reason in the world it should be reserved to our narrow demographic.

Marriage is an important but limited part of how I envision family. I’m a child of divorce, and even as an eight-year-old, I knew that my mother and father weren’t working out. I knew that marriage stood in the way of being our best selves, and I told my mom often as a kid, then a teenager, then an adult, that she made the right call. That divorce didn’t dissolve the ties of family, though–I’m still close with my father’s family, and I kept my birth last name as a second middle name when my stepdad adopted us years later. But I also watched my grandparents’ marriage, which started with my grandma saying, “I’ll marry you so I can get out of the house before I kill my sister. But if it doesn’t work out, you go your way, I’ll go mine, and no hard feelings.” It lasted 62 years.

We teach our sons that families come in all shapes and sizes. Of course, we didn’t have to work too hard to teach them this: they already knew it. They have friends who have a mom and a dad like they do, and friends who only live with their mom or their dad, or travel between their parents’ houses. They know friends who live with extended family, or foster parents, or adoptive families. And they know friends with two dads or two moms. All they care about is that their friends are as loved and secure as they are.

So I’m voting no.

I’m voting no because I treasure my marriage. No other word in our language and society so completely sums up the lifelong commitment and enduring love that I share with my partner, and it hurts to imagine being told that we didn’t qualify for that word by something we couldn’t change or improve. My marriage is strong, and no married gay couple down the street, arguing about bills and chores like we do, makes that less secure.

I’m voting no because I hold my sons in hope and love. I feel that they’re better people because we’ve taught them that every person is worthy of the same dignity, no exceptions. My dream for my boys is to dance at their weddings, and the only thing I care about is that the person they marry loves them as much as I love their father. I’m going to dance, it’s going to be Bad Mom Dancing, and it’s going to live on in infamy on YouTube, to forever embarrass them, like every good mom should.

I’m voting no because my understanding of the world’s faiths teaches me that the most universal truth among humans is to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. Whether it’s the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, or the Confucian Silver Rule, this is held as a central tenet. We rarely follow the ancient scriptures that prohibit same-sex partners on other subjects; we acknowledge that they’re historical documents, and that society’s values have evolved since they were written. I want my church to have the religious freedom to marry gay and lesbian couples as our faith embraces as equally entitled.

I’m voting no because I’m a historian. I can see that the institution of marriage predates the Bible and that it began as an economic transaction to link families and secure heredity. It was not always a sacrament, and it was not always available to every heterosexual couple. It hasn’t “always been” any particular way. Marriage for love is a damned newfangled idea, relatively speaking. If you married someone not from your hometown, you’re already breaking “traditional” convention, let alone someone of a different church, faith, ethnic group, or race.

I’m voting no because I’m a teacher and a parent, and the health, safety, and wellbeing of every child matters to me. I can’t imagine the horror of waiting to know how the state where they were born is going to vote on whether they and their families are welcome. LGBT youth are so fragile already, under siege in schools and churches and media, and it’s a sacred trust we are given to show them that they can aspire to fully participate in society and experience the range of human love. I have great confidence that other teachers will continue to teach age-appropriate lessons, and that as parents we still have the greatest power to teach our children about morality.

I’m voting no because I’m a patriot. I believe in the founding principles of our country, especially the purpose of our constitution as a document that secures personal freedoms and limits government intrusions. The constitution should never be used to carve out a segment of the population and deprive them of the same liberties as others enjoy. And we certainly shouldn’t be putting rights up for a popular vote. Ideological conservatives have made some of the most persuasive arguments along these lines.

I’m voting no because I’m an optimist, and I believe our society is moving toward a broader, more inclusive understanding of one another. The less we allow race, gender, faith, class, and sexual orientation to cloud our vision of a common humanity, the more we will recognize that we all want the same thing. We’ve got a long way to go on all of those issues, but we can (and should!) work on them simultaneously. I reject the arguments of fear, division, and misunderstanding, and I put my hope in the journey we’re on toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Sep 21, 2012 - Social Studies    9 Comments

How Not to Be a Fan

I’ve been open about parts of my identity on this blog that I haven’t felt comfortable “coming out” about almost anywhere else in my life, certainly not all at the same time. And everyone’s been so wonderfully welcoming and encouraging–you’re only making my general lack of brain filter worse! But what I’m about to admit may bring down the flaming hordes of trolls upon me in force.

I’m not sure how to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it (like taking off a band-aid, right?)…

I don’t get fandom. I utterly fail to understand it, on both individual and sociological levels. I am a Bad Fan.

What do I mean by “fandom”? I’m talking about that state of being in which a person enjoys spending time thinking, talking, reading, gathering, and making things about a particular piece of intellectual property, beyond just the time spent engaging with that medium. Those properties might include books, movies, music, sports, collectors’ items, games (video and otherwise), crafts, hobbies, or pastimes.

I truly believe in the broadest, most inclusive definition of ideas such as “fan” and “geek,” and I think the cultural behaviors that characterize traditional “geek culture” appear in a lot more “non-geeky” domains than any of those enthusiasts would expect to find. I also don’t judge among the various sources or expressions of fandom–I’m an equalist in this, as in just about everything else. Don’t try to tell me someone’s doing it wrong, or that something doesn’t “really count.” That just doesn’t hold water with me.

Of course, this is not to say I don’t enjoy and get enthusiastic about things that give me intellectual, creative, or aesthetic pleasure. I clearly do–I’ve enthused about books and music and movies and games and a dozen other things, sometimes with the fervor of a revival-tent preacher. But there’s an uncloseable distance between where I am and the distant shore of fandom.

I love what these ladies created. I even know some of them. And I’d proudly wear one of these costumes. But I can’t imagine ever making one myself.

I am fundamentally boggled by fan behaviors. I don’t understand re-watching or re-reading for the purpose of picking apart, or putting together, or harvesting quotes, or answering questions. I’ve never felt the urge to search or contribute to a wiki, beyond the most basic of research needs. I probably wouldn’t have the patience to wait for hours on end for the chance to see someone I admire. I can’t imagine following a band, performer, author, or artist from tour date to tour date. If I have the occasion to meet one of the people or groups I truly enjoy, I get a little fluttery but I’m conversationally functional, and I’m interested in them as people, not as characters or icons. I love dressing up for the sake of dressing up, but I could never conscience spending the dozens of hours and hundreds (if not thousands!) of dollars it takes to make a quality cosplay costume. Even if I could, there’s no one person I identify with so strongly for whom I’d be willing to pass myself off as a decent representation (this also has a lot to do with the absence of plus-size role archetypes, and my unwillingness to be a “fat” so-and-so).

Like this, but much, much simpler

All of this makes me feel like I’m carrying a shameful secret when someone hails me as a geek. A big circle of the geeky Venn diagram overlaps with the fan circle, and geeks are often graded on their proofs of fan-level devotion. Like any outsider, I have ways of “passing.” I have an excellent memory, which helps, but nothing like my Darling Husband’s capacity for encyclopedic knowledge available for immediate recall. And, more importantly, I empathize and enthuse well. If you’re excited about something you’re sharing, I can be excited for you and with you, and for most people, that’s all the engagement they’re really looking for when they share their fandom. But I also use my abilities to divert conversation from minutiae I know/care nothing for, and when that fails, my considerable skill at turning into a mirror.

Occasionally, this also makes me a Bad Friend. People hear that Jim Butcher introduced me to the Darling Husband, and they immediately launch into deep machinations within the Dresden universe, leaving me far behind. I’ve played some of the games my friends have written or designed, but there are many more I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying–hell, I haven’t even played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying yet. Many more of these paradoxes litter the landscape of my relationships, and they don’t mean a thing for my dedication to those loved ones. When they need me or something I can do to brighten their day or lighten their load, I am all in. But they’ll have to settle for a good friend, because I can’t be a good fan.

And this must also mean I’m a Bad Autistic. Aren’t all autistics supposed to perseverate, or focus to an uncommon extent on a very specific thing, to the exclusion of everything else? I certainly did so to a greater extent as a kid–I had books and books about the First Ladies and American History, and my very own Presidents of the United States trashcan. But there was never a world I fell into that I couldn’t fall right back out of when something else grabbed my interest. And I always preferred to make up my own stories and characters in my favorite settings, rather than retread the same classics over and over.

I’m not waiting for that evangelical moment, when I find something that “finally” turns me into a full-fledged fan. I don’t think it’s going to happen. If it hasn’t already, with the abundance of amazing media to which I’ve been exposed in my life, it seems unlikely that something so radically new will come along to change that. And most of the time, I’m not even looking for that experience. But I do steam up the window glass sometimes, peering in at all the people who seem to be getting so much more fulfillment from the things I merely enjoy. As I used to (and sometimes still) feel about the LGBT community, I’m a strong, vociferous ally and advocate to fandom, but I often feel I’m missing some extra dimension in life because of these limits to my senses, boundaries, or imagination.

So here I sit, on this awkward fence. I speak the language of fans, and I understand and appreciate their culture, but I can never fully participate. I’m far from a “fan widow”–I don’t reject or feel left behind by the enthusiasms of my friends and family. But I can’t understand prioritizing those things above more basic obligations and engagements. I can’t even really explain what I mean, and I’m worried this sounds condescending or judgmental. (If I have come off this way, please accept my apology and my vow that I intend neither of these things.)

I’m not sure what this coming-out story accomplishes, not the way I have with the others I’ve told. I still love the things I love, but I love them differently than so many of the other people in my life. Mostly, I hope this just explains why I never seem to get particularly flustered or anxious when everyone around me is freaking out about The Wait, or The Trailer, or The Leaked Detail, or The Brush With Fame. And I hope it doesn’t make anyone more hesitant to share their enthusiasm with me. Please know that it finds a safe, welcoming harbor with me, as do all the other pieces of you. Because what I’m really a fan of is people, in all their exuberant difference and intricate detail. That’s what I’m willing to invest in, and I don’t have to go to a con to wallow in the wonderful world that creates.

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