Saturday, August 18, 2012

City Mouse and Me

My old friend the City Mouse is on 60 Minutes, navigating the periphery of the scandal with that same old calculating innocence and slippery grace. There’s an intensity in the lighting that makes her face look a little too made-up and her clothes a little too expensive –impeccably tasteful and garish at once. A little too rich and too thin.

“Public opinion has to be something that doesn’t matter to us,” she says coolly.

I’ll bet that line makes more than one viewer want to reach through the screen and smack her. I can only chuckle and smile warmly. Good old City Mouse. She used to say stuff like that all the time. I can’t help but feel weirdly proud of her. She has arrived.

The book she’s promoting doesn’t even mention her time at the non-profit office where we were co-workers, referring instead to the high-paying university job she moved on to as “her first real job.” Fair enough. The more I remember that dreadful summer, the less real it seems to me, too.

It was an early foray into office life for both of us. City Mouse was recently out of college; I had recently given up on pursuing a teaching career under the delusion that I might go to law school the following year. (Thankfully, that never came to fruition.) Eventually I grew into kicking ass at that job, but those first few months were rocky indeed. My high-strung boss did a lot of yelling. I did a lot of crying in the bathroom and anxious mistake-making.

City Mouse took it all in stride. She was smaller and sleeker than me, and a lot more shallow. But she had razor-sharp people skills and the remarkable ability to remain unfazed in the midst of chaos and absurdity. She carried herself like someone to be respected and – amazingly – even the most important people responded in kind. I suspected I had a lot to learn from her. Of course, she suspected the same thing.

City Mouse took my pathetic work-self under her wing – which I simultaneously appreciated and resented. I didn’t particularly want help, but I knew I needed it. It was the professional equivalent of one of those friends who always wants to give you a makeover.

This was her favorite episode. No joke.

I mean…I liked her. She was funny, nurturing, and insightful, just as sharp as I was with pop culture references and dry humor. We started hanging out outside of work, watching The X-Files and Friends at her place, meeting up for drinks, lingering over long lunches to share stories about our college adventures and commiserate about work and boyfriends. I was new to the city had had no friends there at all. I don’t know how I would have made it through that stark, lonely summer without her.

We used to alternately joke and speak wistfully about our authentic selves, and what we felt our jobs should be. She wanted to be an old-school wealthy socialite having groceries sent up to her penthouse. She cast me as a poet, wandering up and down the beach in a long skirt, composing verses in my mind. This, I believe, was intended as equal parts compliment and insult.

Or maybe it was neither. Maybe it was simply an attempt at defining me; assigning me the role of Country Mouse to her City Mouse. Can’t have one without the other. Otherwise it’s just plain Mouse.

I was telling her about a strange moment I’d had that morning with an old friend from college who'd been visiting. Years before, he and I had stayed up all night talking at Dunkin’ Donuts, then walked our bedraggled selves back to campus past all the commuters in their suits heading to the train station. “That’s going to be us someday,” we’d remarked with trepidation.

And sure enough, that very morning as I walked him to the train station on my way to work, we realized that we were those commuters now. It was a very recently-out-of-college kind of “O, life” moment that I thought City Mouse would relate to.

“But think of it this way,” she said encouragingly after I told her the story. “You can strive be better than those people who take public transportation to work.”

And there we were. Me yearning for my youthful all-nighters, her aspiring to soar above the train-riding riff-raff. All friendships have certain limitations. Ours kept bumping up against this one. We were both from modest, small-town backgrounds. But she was working like hell to put as much distance as possible between her ambitious self and the Goodwill clothing bins of yesteryear.

She left in the fall for a much better job. My old boss left, too, and things started to get a lot better. I started to get a lot better. Suddenly, I knew what I was doing and could move around that office with confidence. Happiness, even.

City Mouse was thriving at her new position. She’d acquired a gorgeous new dye job, wardrobe, and apartment. She was courting prospective members for an entourage of sorts – earnest ivy leaguers from her volunteer work at a small museum and the raggedy-hip aspiring musicians who lived in her trendy new neighborhood. Every time I went to her apartment, she’d be holding court with a new batch, most of them callow and vaguely impressed, some of them downright smitten.

She had more crushed-out boys than she knew what to do with, really. Once she tried to set me up with a very disappointed young Joey Sweeney, who was there under the impression that he was on a date with her. I’d have felt sorry for him if he hadn’t been so arrogantly unimpressed with me. I mean, I’m no City Mouse but I’m not exactly a mutant, either. How demoralizing.

My social life outside of City Mouse’s circle was ever-so-gradually picking up steam. We were mutually, benignly growing apart. But occasionally we’d still talk on the phone or meet for lunch. She’d tell me all about her new boyfriend who worked in the Mayor’s office, how she’d gotten her butt pinched by the Mayor himself at the holiday party, how the boyfriend was incredibly smart and so important, how she could see herself marrying him.

Toward that end, she started taking steps to convert to Judaism. I was at work when she called under the pretense of asking for advice, but she was breathless and giddy as a birthday girl as she told me about the elderly rabbi she’d been meeting with to discuss Judaism. Apparently he had just confessed that he was falling in love with her.

I’m not sure why, but that was kind of the last straw for me. I had absolutely nothing to say in response. I got off the phone, pretending to have actual work to do. What I really wanted to do was crawl into a shower.

She called out of the blue a few months later to invite me to a party. I don’t remember why, but something about it rang entirely insincere. I was fed up. Maybe I resented being pulled back into the old City Mouse/Country Mouse paradigm. Maybe I sensed she only needed me to fill out the entourage. Maybe she hit me with one too many of her left-handed compliments.

Whatever the reason, I simply declined the invitation and hung up the phone. When she called back, I didn’t answer. And that was pretty much the end of that. I’m not proud of it. It was a lot easier to walk away from friendships in those days, and this wasn’t the first one I’d pulled out of when things got icky.

I doubt the friendship would have lasted, though, even if I had stuck with it. Seventeen years later and here I am picking a spot of melted cheese off my Target tank top, married to my lovably shabby writer of a husband, pursuing humble low-paying teaching assistant jobs like I’m chasing some star, dreaming of the day when we can afford another family vacation to Legoland.

And there she is on 60 Minutes, standing fashionably by her notorious man. It’s pretty unlikely our friendship would have survived all those years of social climbing. She has a real audience now – snarky gossip bloggers, Sex and the City fans looking for their real-life Carrie, self-righteous Huffington Post and Daily Beast commenters, and the star struck young writer who penned the authorized family biography in the first place.

I don’t envy City Mouse’s position at the center of the scandal – or any of her one percenter fabulousness, really. Like I said…I’m strangely proud of her. The joy I feel is absolutely pure, same as when I read on Facebook that an old friend has finished medical school or had a baby. I think back to those school-girlish conversations we used to have about our authentic selves and realize that she truly followed her dream. And here she is, wealthy socialite, charming as ever in the face of adversity, the cool immaculately mascara’d eye of the hurricane.

And I…well, I’m not exactly a poet. But I’m living a life that allows for plenty of poetic pondering, happily tending my modest little garden, finally finding my way back the career that I loved in the first place. In our own distinct ways, we’ve both come a long way from that summer. Good for the Country Mouse. Good for the City Mouse.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tastykakes and Empathy

I knew it before I even saw the little boy. I could tell just by the admonishing words his end-of-her-rope mother was snapping at him, the very words that come to the tip of my own tongue time and again and, occasionally, shamefully slip out.

I knew it, but I still had to look. I watched her stride angrily across the convenience store to the ATM machine, and I watched him trailing after her looking a little panicked, a day late and a dollar short, determined to keep up and do it right this time – Hey! Buttons!!

And then he wasn’t following her anymore. He was in the middle of the store, punching away at the irresistible buttons on a second ATM machine. Her unanswered calls bloomed into a desperate tirade, unloading all her frustrations across the aisles.

I hadn’t taken a shopping basket when I came in, and my arms were overloaded with Tastykakes and Combos. My dad and the kids were waiting for me in the car.

She was threatening to beat his ass.

I couldn’t stop myself. Something moved me. Arms full of junk food, tears in my eyes, I walked over to the boy and said in my best co-op preschool voice “Okay, I hear your mother calling you. See, she’s right over there.”

He looked at me, alarmed, and then at his mother on the other side of the store. His eyes lit up as if suddenly remembering what he was supposed to do, and he ran to her side. I followed him.

She was staring straight into the ATM screen, eyes full of tears herself, jabbing defiantly at the buttons.

“You’re doing a good job,” I said with sincerity and kindness – not because it was true, but because she needed to hear it.

She looked at me in sad disbelief. Her face was so heartbreakingly young.

“My son is the same way,” I added. “I know it’s hard.”

“He has ADHD,” she confided. I nodded plainly, as if she’d just told me “He likes football.”

“Mine has Aspergers,” I said.

And then, while it poured rain outside and my kids watched another episode of Phineas and Ferb on the portable DVD player in my dad’s car, while I stood there holding my Tastykakes and Combos, she told me all about it. Her ex-husband is no help. The school keeps calling her, telling her she has to medicate him or he’ll be expelled. And she’s so, so stressed out and tired.

There are a million things I wish I would have said. Mostly, though, I just listened. The little boy was unbelievably bored by all the grown up talk. He ran across the store to the beverage section and grabbed a big red squeeze-bottle of Kool Aid.

“No! NO! You’ve already had one today and your dad’s going to give me hell about it. Put it back! Put it back!”

I added my preschool voice and gentle words, and he froze, looking at me like I must be some kind of crazy lady. What the hell am I doing?

But it worked. His mom started using a gentle voice too. And then…he put the Kool Aid back and ran over to us.

We walked toward the checkout counter, where I paid for my armload of snacks. I gave her some tips for dealing with the school and told her to keep trying. I told her about the gymnastics class my son takes, and what an amazing outlet it is for his boundless energy.

“Or what about taekwondo?” suggested the checkout girl. She knew a boy with ADHD who’d had tremendous success with taekwondo. And then the three of us chatted a bit longer.

“Well, he’s absolutely adorable,” I said to the mom as I went to leave. “And he’s a good boy. I can tell.” The checkout girl nodded in agreement.

“Thank you,” she said, so much more calm than when she’d first come in. “I know he is.”

And that was that. I went back to the car, where my dad had been waiting with infinite patience to use the restroom. Good old dad.

When I told him what had happened, he worried that perhaps we should have been more proactive. If she was threatening to beat his ass, he reasoned, that probably means she already does.

Maybe. The thought of it breaks my heart. I felt like I was making things better, but what if I’d only made them worse? What if I’d had no impact at all?

We got back on the road, picking up Interstate 83 out of rural Pennsylvania toward Baltimore, where we’d be catching a plane back to Seattle early the next morning. Worlds away, it seemed.

I thought of The Boy, and how wildly misunderstood he was in his earlier days – by teachers, by judgmental passers-by, and even by me. I remembered how failed and desperate I used to feel when nothing seemed to work. When he’d tantrum and bite. When he almost pushed a little girl off the top of the jungle gym. When he’d stop in the middle of the damn street in the pouring rain as the light was about to change, examining a patch of dried bird poop with intent fascination, hitting said bird poop with a stick, absolutely transfixed until I grabbed him as best I could with his baby sister Moby-wrapped on and dragged him across the street to safety.

I never hit him. Sometimes, though, in desperation and frustration, I felt the horrible impulse to do just that. I wanted to lash out, scream it out of him, scare him straight. I knew better. I would go in the other room and take deep breaths, call my sister, turn on Bob the Builder for him and go take a much-needed nap.

There were times when I’m sure I looked like a simply terrible mother. I’m not, of course. But we all have those moments, if we’re really honest with ourselves. And no amount of judgment or shaming or mommy wars articles could have fixed it. The only thing that could ever soothe me to the point where I could be my best parenting self again was empathy – something that’s, unfortunately, in very short supply when it comes to moms.

I was lucky. I had my sisters, parent education classes at the preschool, a supportive husband, and a handful of friends who understood. I had people who would tell me I was okay, even if it didn’t really seem that way. People who helped me realize my own strength and capacity to take it on. That’s what really helped.

And that’s what I hope I was able to impart, in whatever small way, to the mom in the convenience store. I wish her only the best.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Those Boys

“I don’t mind having a boy,” a friend of mine mused on the playground, watching her own adorable baby boy explore the bottom of the slide with wide-eyed wonder. “I just hope he doesn’t become one of those boys.”

We both glanced in the direction of a boy about four or so, running with joyful abandon, brandishing a stick in the air. Little Grrl, age three at the time and well-versed in this world as a little sister, ran merrily alongside him while my friend’s daughter observed with apprehension.

Running with sticks was barely a blip on my danger-meter in those days, but I knew I was in the minority. The previous summer, at that same playground, my friends and I looked up from our conversation in disbelief as a hippie-skirted nanny chased our sons around the park, admonishing them to put down their sticks. My mother-in-law could barely tolerate children walking with sticks, and had a host of grisly cautionary tales to back it up.

Somehow, The Boy and his chums managed to make it to age 8 without blinding themselves or any of their classmates. But being perceived as “dangerous” by well-meaning observers has only just begun.

Gone are the chubby cheeks and Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirts. They carry themselves like the wily young men that they are becoming, all big feet and sharp eyes. Now when The Boy runs across the room and jumps into my arms, it’s like being hit by a bus. The sheer force of it is more than I can absorb sometimes.

There’s a sweet, simple sense of pride in watching your little dumpling of a baby grow up. But underneath that pride lurks the nagging fear that he’s that much more likely to be perceived as a criminal.

Boys are suspect. As a white boy, he’ll at least avoid the deadly threat of racism, and my heart breaks for the mothers who have to live with that fear every day. But as an Aspergian who’s still learning how to manage his stress, outbursts, casual rudeness, and sensory seeking that truly are part of the disability…as a boy who’s wickedly smart, deeply insecure, and socially on the weird side…as a boy whose intensity has yet to collide with the wild, unpredictable shifts of puberty…Well, let’s just say I have some worries of my own.

“Behaviors scare people,” said a representative from our state Office of the Education Ombudsman to a roomful of special education parents. “Ever since Columbine…”

Of course, I thought. All roads lead to freaking Columbine.

And she went on to explain that when principals mistreat our special ed children, suspend and expel them from school instead of providing positive behavior supports, allow teachers to dangerously restrain or isolate them, that “They do truly believe they are protecting the other students.”

Sounds about right.

Right after that meeting I wrote to Dave Cullen, author of the outstanding book Columbine, asking his thoughts on this. He said he hadn’t heard of special ed students being targeted in particular, but it wouldn’t surprise him. He said there’s a lot of misdirected “clamping down” going on out there in response to Columbine, although it’s usually directed at students who look and dress a certain way or are perceived to be “loners.”

But then, a few months later, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough – an Aspergers parent himself! – had this to say about the tragic movie theater shooting in Colorado:

As soon as I hear about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society — it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale…I don't know if that's the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses — they can even excel on college campuses — but are socially disconnected.

After catching all hell for those remarks, Scarborough clarified:

My call for increased funding and awareness for Autism and other mental health conditions was meant to support the efforts of those who work every day to improve the lives of Americans impacted. Those suggesting that I was linking all violent behavior to Autism missed my larger point and overlooked the fact that I have a wonderful, loving son with Aspergers.

As an Aspergers parent, I have to admit I’m inclined to give Scarborough the benefit of the doubt here… sort of. I mean, I get it. Our kids are different, our kids do have special needs, but they blend in well enough sometimes that schools tend to forget that. And when you ignore those special needs, well, you do so at your own peril (and the child’s). I’ve made that argument to teachers and principals myself time and again.

The problem here is that the line Scarborough’s walking is way too fine, especially in front of a cable news audience that’s just chomping at the bit to find the latest trench coat or Rammstein to blame for this tragedy. This is not exactly a sympathetic audience, certainly not one that’s willing or able to see nuance. Even here in Seattle, one of the more tolerant communities you’re going to find, we’ve encountered a fair amount of ignorance and even discrimination. For Zod’s sake, Scarborough, don’t give them a reason to be afraid of us.

Not that they weren’t already. Can’t really pin it on Scarborough for inciting fear and ignorance when clearly that fear and ignorance was already well in place before he opened his mouth.

A report from the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project focusing on nationwide suspensions in the 2009-10 school year seems to confirm what many of us already suspected:

For all students with disabilities, regardless of race, over 400 districts suspended 25% or more of these students. Black students with disabilities were most at risk for out-of-school suspension with an alarming 25% national average for all districts in the sample.

I’m not sure which is easier: Changing the underlying cultural perceptions that lead to such disparities, or changing my son’s Aspergian behaviors that are at risk of being misunderstood and punished. Who’s the more flexible, really? Adults mired in decades of prejudice and cable-news-inspired panic? Or an 8-year-old boy with Aspergers?

I will absolutely continue to do whatever I can to raise awareness and empathy, to challenge misperceptions and fears. But in the meantime, I want The Boy to be accepted and safe. And I want him to learn the complex and mysterious language of social skills that can help make that happen.

So I’ve been talking to him about it. Explaining how he’s so strong now, so much bigger. Making sure he knows that staying calm and using those tools and coping skills is more important than ever. People are going to be less forgiving the older he gets. That’s just how it goes.

When he came to give me a hug tonight, I watched him slow himself down and approach with caution, determined not to mow me down this time no matter how counterintuitive it felt. He was all the way in my lap before he shot out his arms and gripped tight with tiger intensity. I hugged back and told him how happy I was that he didn’t knock me over this time.

It’s a start.

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