Saturday, February 29, 2020


I got to thinking about my great-grandpa last night. He died when I was in boarding school; two days before I came home for summer break. But I grew up not far from where he lived, so I saw him often as a kid.

Before I was born, he sold cars. Then the Depression happened, and he took his wife and several children to a cabin on a lake to live off the land. They ate venison and berries and fish. There are black-and-white pictures of my grandpa and his brothers, holding up the morning's catch with the caption "breakfast!" I won't say they lived just fine out there--my grandpa's growth was stunted from malnutrition, and he and his brother both had heart troubles later on--but they survived it.

But that's all hearsay; stuff I remember from being told. What I remember, myself, is mostly G-Gpa's house.

It was a brick house, not large, with a pretty ordinary-sized lot. But where other yards in the neighborhood sported mown lawns and hedges, G-Gpa had raspberries and grapevines. He had fruit trees and a greenhouse. He had beehives and a big clump of pine trees in the back.

G-Gpa didn't really go to the store, except for ice cream. He lived off his land, and in the winters he went down to Baja California to fish. He caught big marlins bigger than his boat, fed pelicans, spotted breaching whales. He was featured in a magazine as the crazy old man who rowed his own boat and intended to row till he was one hundred.

His kitchen was where the adults gathered. It smelled like fish, and we would be served odd things like venison liver or giant salads with salmon in them. But after the gross adult food, he would bring out cardboard cartons of ice cream out of the deep freeze. He would hack straight through the carton with a machete, peel of the cardboard, and dump a slice of it in your bowl. Then pour over the sweet, tart raspberries and hand it over.

G-Gpa was hard of hearing, especially at high pitches, so we kids mostly didn't talk to him much. We'd let him comment on our height, admire his white hair and his big, bushy eyebrows, and then make ourselves scarce while the adults shouted back and forth. We didn't want to hang around in the fish-scented kitchen.

The upstairs was oppressively quiet, with heavy, dusty air. We always felt like we weren't supposed to be there, though no one had ever told us no. But still, we weren't about to touch the heavy chimes by the unused front door, or the knick-knacks in the dining room. The living room, we did have things would could play with: polished stones that my great-grandmother had polished, in a big box. You could stick your hands under the rocks and feel the weight of all of them. Or you could pick out your favorites and trade them. On the mantle were an ostrich egg and an inlaid tray decorated with blue butterfly wings. More things from G-Gpa's travels.

I don't remember my great-grandmother, though I am told I have met her. Her name was Dorathy, and she polished stones and bowled competitively. The stairwell was full of her trophies.

Downstairs was where the house got seriously weird. There was a wall by the furnace with all the great-grandchildren's heights measured, and a box of wood blocks you could build with. And beyond that, the main room, where the ping-pong table was. There must have been about thirty big sets of antlers, with names and dates of the people who had shot the deer, and styrofoam cubes stuck on the tips so that you wouldn't gash your head on them while playing ping-pong. Apparently that had to happen a few times before the styrofoam was added.

There were glass shelves full of fish skeletons and birds' talons. A big pufferfish skeleton hung from the ceiling, forever inflated. In a chair, there was a fox pelt; you could put it on and terrorize the cousins with it. It smelled old and musty.

A folding screen separated out an area where a cousin slept; later it was a different cousin in the same spot. G-Gpa's house was a place you could live if you needed a place. On the screen were pinned birds' wings, dozens of them in different sizes and colors. It was like a natural history museum, only with ping-pong. I was awed by it, wondering how many places G-Gpa had had to go to find these things.

G-Gpa sometimes took us around the yard to show us different things he was working on. He showed me a spinach leaf for the first time, and I remember being amazed because it looked so different from the dark, shriveled stuff that came out of our freezer. Sometimes he sent us home with big boxes of food: tomatoes, corn, honey, and milk jugs of grain. For a family that was used to ramen noodles with frozen spinach, those boxes were like Christmas.

Our family reunions every Fourth of July were partly to celebrate his birthday, which fell near then. I remember him wearing his Uncle Ernest's bathing suit, an old-timey singlet in red, white, and blue, ready to start the festivities by jumping in the lake. Someone from the shore shouts, "Wait, did he take his hearing aid out?" His son, my Grampy, shouts back, "Yep, he can't hear a thing!" G-Gpa jumps into the frigid glacier water, and I jump in after. Nobody else comes in, and G-Gpa shouts affectionately, "My little swimmer!"

One of the last times I saw him, we were at a park where he did his daily swim. He already had cancer then, but he explained that he still swam five miles a day in Lake Washington, regardless of the weather. His body was like a wiry piece of leather, scraped almost clean of flesh but still strong. I felt like he would never die, not G-Gpa.

At his wake, we all laughed and talked and played games. It seemed right, because G-Gpa wasn't a somber man. And after all, he'd lived past eighty and seen his children's children's children. No tragedy, not really.

But sometimes I wish I could take my kids to the old brick house, show them the smooth pebbles and the birds' wings and the old man with the red face and the bushy white eyebrows, and I can't. And I think, maybe it was a tragedy after all. Every death takes something out of the world that can't ever be put back. I like to think his spirit was distributed among his descendants, that I got some of the gardening and the cold-water swimming and the deep desire to support myself without going to the store. And maybe we got fragments. But the greater part of his spirit, the man himself, is gone and I still miss him after all this time.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The hardest part

I hear a lot about how hard it is to be an "autism parent." And it's not wrong; parenting a child with autism is playing on hard level. There are extra things to worry about and appointments to make. Potty training may take years. Sleep might be disturbed for a decade.

But the hardest part of all, I think, is the judgment of other people. Autism looks a lot like bad behavior, especially to an older generation that prizes politeness. Autistic children scream, cry, fail to sit still, won't say please and thank you, or don't play well with other kids. And so bystanders tend to look on and say, "That child is a bad child, where are his parents? Somebody should try raising that kid."

It's easy enough to shake off from strangers. But the same comes from friends or family. If I vent about some difficulty I've had, there's always somebody ready with the standard parenting advice: have you tried punishment? Have you tried boundaries? Have you tried, you know, actually raising your kid? Because from what you're saying about their behavior, it looks like you don't know what you're doing.

I went through all of this with Marko, and because I didn't have a diagnosis for so long, I often just censored myself altogether. Better not to even say how he was acting or what we were struggling with, because I knew people would blame me. In public, I was ready to defend him at all times, because people constantly tried to talk to him and would get miffed when he didn't respond. I knew that I acted differently from other parents. I knew that not all parents went to such huge lengths to keep their children happy. And I knew that I would get judgment for behaving that way.

When we were having the autism assessment, everyone was so kind. I asked many times, in worried tones, whether it was my fault. Had I been spoiling him by not subjecting him to environments that upset him? Had I hindered his education by not pushing harder at writing and reading? And they were so reassuring. They said that I had clearly sensed what kind of parenting he needed and provided it. That he was doing really well and the reason was probably me and my above-and-beyond parenting. I could have cried. All those years of bending over backward for him, being sure I was screwing him up because everyone seemed to think so, and being told it wasn't me. That I had been doing things right all along.

It's on my mind a lot because the same dynamic is happening with Jackie. I don't know yet if she has autism or anything you could diagnose. Maybe not, because as I've mentioned, autism is diagnosed mostly as a social deficit and Jackie is plenty communicative with us at least. But I do know she's not like other kids. I know that something is up, and if there's no name for it, that changes nothing about what she needs.

She needs about three times the bending over backward that Marko did. Everything in my entire day is controlled by Jackie, what she will tolerate and what she won't. I can't wear a sweater in her presence. A shower requires significant advance planning. Leaving the house may require half an hour of preparation and outfit changes and toy collecting, and even then she might need to be packed in screaming. I'm trying to wean her right now and it's so hard. She just gets upset by so many things, and there are so few that calm her down.

Yesterday I went with her to a party, and like every time I try to socialize with her around, she didn't like it much. She climbed on my head, flipped upside down, made dozens of ridiculous and contradictory demands. By the last hour she just asked to leave, over and over.

It was embarrassing, seeing her act like that while, in the same room, another three-year-old was completely entertaining himself. And knowing that many of the other adults have high standards for kids, and maybe were thinking Jackie was spoiled, that it was my fault, that kids shouldn't be so needy. Nobody said anything, this time, but it was hard to avoid that feeling of judgment.

Even my other kids sometimes say I let her get away with too much, let her have too much of what she wants. All I can say is that I've tried it before and her behavior gets ten million times worse.

Online, occasionally I vent about what a challenge she is. How much I would like to be able to just attend a school meeting or throw in a load of laundry without having to work out how to get Jackie to handle it. How tired I am of nursing her, three years in, or how much I want to sleep through the night before I'm old. Most people, to their credit, empathize. But every once in awhile someone does judge and it hurts so much. They'll say: well, with my child, I try saying no to them. Or: you're the mom, if you are tired of nursing just stop. Or: at her age she can handle not getting what she wants.

It tears me down so much, every time I hear this. Because the undercurrent is that it's my fault. That I took a normal child and spoiled her to the point that she cannot handle existing in this world. It's an awful thing to feel, and it takes hold so much because it hits a tender patch of self-doubt inside me. Because I do worry it's me. I do worry I've spoiled her. I do worry that if somehow I had been better, she could get up in the morning and go down and eat breakfast without having a wailing meltdown because I wanted to drink a cup of tea. Heck, even if it is purely her brain, maybe it's still somehow my fault because I was such a mental-health wreck while I was pregnant with her. Or if it's genetics, isn't it then my fault for getting pregnant again?

I took her to her three-year-appointment this week. I dreaded it for weeks ahead of time. What if I was honest about our struggles and the doctor said, try actually parenting her? What if I tried to explain and the doctor brushed me off and said all toddlers have meltdowns sometimes? Maybe I should just keep all that to myself and pretend she's potty-trained and weaned and sleeping through the night.

In the end, I chose to be honest. I already had Jackie thrashing in my arms and demanding to leave the room; how could I pretend I had no concerns? And the doctor was extremely kind. She said it sounded like I was doing all the right things. She said if I have concerns, it's worth it to get an assessment. She gave me a referral to an occupational therapist, saying it sounds like I need help now and not months from now when we finally get in with the psychologist.

I could have cried. After all the judgment I've had, the surprise from people when they see how she acts, and the well-meaning "well did you try . . . " comments, there is nothing in the whole world that means so much as "it sounds like you're doing all the right things."

Because when it comes down to it, the judgment is the hardest part of the whole business. Not that I can't go to social events; not that I don't get sleep at night; not the occasional days where she cries the whole time. It's the fear that I caused it, and the judgment I get from people who assume I did. Other parents get to vent about their kids, so long as everyone's kids are doing more or less the same stuff. And if your child is extra hard, you need the support of other people all the more! But if your child falls outside the norm for whatever reason, it's hard to find safe people to vent to.

Listen to a special-needs mom today, without offering any advice. It'll mean the world.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Libertarianism, socialism, and whatever the heck this is

I'm not a libertarian any more. I was never that hardcore of one, in that I stuck with libertarian policies mainly because I found them practical. Further research has revealed that some of them aren't that practical, so I abandoned them. Libertarianism doesn't reliably care for the poor, protect the environment, or prevent massive corporations from taking advantage of ordinary people. That stuff is important enough to be a dealbreaker.

But of course, when you suggest that complete anarcho-capitalism isn't ideal, people demand to know whether you're a socialist. Trouble is, socialism seems to have shifting definitions. Is the gold standard for socialism the USSR, or Norway, or maybe Venezuela? If you propose a single change, like universal healthcare, you're told that's socialist. But that one policy certainly doesn't make a country equivalent to China or Cuba. There are a lot of stops on a scale from pure anarchy to pure communism - both of which, proponents will tell you, have never actually existed in real life, not on a large scale.

And one of those stops is the US. The US is not libertarian or purely capitalist. We have socialized education, socialized libraries, and a socialized retirement program. The government manages labor laws, breaks up monopolies, and injects cash into the economy to stave off recessions. Whether it's successful at any of those is always a matter for debate.

I read a book some years ago about North Korea. The North Korean defectors spotlighted in the book knew their communist system had flaws, but they were sure it was better than the alternative, which they imagined was something out of a Dickens novel. Child labor, grinding poverty with no aid available, no free schools, no affording a doctor if you're poor. What convinced them communism wasn't actually the best option was learning Western nations had modified their capitalist systems so they weren't like that anymore.

Which of course is exactly what happened. America isn't purely capitalist because we tried that and it was bad, so we established some safety nets and that was better. Capitalism isn't ruined just because there's an income tax or some food stamps.

So how much government intervention do you have to have before it's socialism? Frankly, I don't know and don't care; that's a question on the order of "is taxation theft," namely, arguing about definitions rather than realities. The real question is, how much management of the economy, in the form of graduated tax brackets and social programs, would it take to remove the advantages of having a free economy?

The advantages of a free economy include flexibility (there are lots of kinds of jobs and products, new products can arise all the time, prices are responsive to demand) and the ability to affect your own situation by working. Decentralizing decision-making means one person making a stupid decision won't cause an entire industry to go under. Income tax doesn't change these things significantly, not unless it's many times higher than what we have. Some socialist policies do threaten them. For instance, subsidizing anything risks increasing its price uncontrollably- since people aren't paying directly, they won't stop purchasing even if the price gets exorbitant (see: higher education, houses, healthcare*).

[*though with healthcare, since we need it to live, it's never going to be perfectly price-controlled by demand.]

So we just have to be careful with it. The main thing I learned when I was studying the food system is that there are no simple solutions. Some horrible situations (like, for instance, e. coli in meat, or small farms going under) are caused by too little regulation, others by too much. Sometimes it's just the wrong regulation, either because lobbyists got through something to protect their interests, or because people didn't think through the consequences of their actions. So, whether we're adding regulations or taking them away, we have to be smart about it. That's a lot more important than whether something is "socialist" or not. We also have to consider who the policy will benefit: the ones in our society who need it most, or the ones who are doing fine and will continue to?

My current favorite candidate is Elizabeth Warren. She is concerned with helping those who need it most, and just as important, she's run the numbers and actually has a plan for everything. She's practical, and I like that.

Don't get me wrong, though, I'd vote for a hole in the ground before I'd vote for the incumbent.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...