Tag Archives: Art

Who’s Your Family?

27 Nov

Lady with Punk Grandson II(Image by Christ_i_ane used under CC 2.o via)

From the Archives

 “We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”

— Holly Hunter in Home for the Holidays

Whenever you set out to talk about minority rights, you end up crashing into the issue of identity. And this invariably swerves, again and again, into the issue of family. The poet Sharon Olds once said, “A family is a mystery,” and this is probably why I can’t get enough of it in novels, film, clinical trials, and yes, even in real life. Show me someone fascinating and I can’t wait to meet their parents.

In and outside of the holiday season, twenty- and thirtysomethings so often love to extoll the importance of friends over relatives, echoing Oscar Wilde: “Friends are God’s apology for family.” Our first true friendships usually begin in adolescence—the time when we start wanting to forge our identities independently from our families—and this sets the standard whereby friends are seen as a respite from all of our obligations: from parents and siblings, from school, from work, from the exhaustion of the holidays spent with the relatives. “My family drives me nuts, my friends get me,” pop culture says. “Sure I love my family, but I actually like my friends.”

And yet, friendships ultimately prove to be fleeting with age, as life partners and earning money and having children begin to take priority. A study at Oxford University found that taking on a romantic partner generally pushes two close friends out of your life. A serious boyfriend or girlfriend is, after all, a super-close friend and there are only so many hours in the day to fit people in. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the addition of in-laws and children require us to quietly toss a few more buddies overboard. Or at least scratch them off the gift list.

Few of us like to face the harsh truth that the number one facilitator of friendship is convenience. How many people have we doused in superlative praise, spilled our hearts to, bragged with about our never-ending awesomeness, only to eventually lose touch because we live too far away, we’ve changed our habits since that new job/baby/boyfriend, we haven’t spoken in so long and wouldn’t know what to say? Sure, we’ll fling them a Facebook birthday greeting, but composing an entire email would require so much apologizing for having taken this long to write…

Maintaining a friendship requires effort, as author Julie Klam said in an interview with Linda Holmes on NPR two years ago:

She realized, too, that it wasn’t an area that was being written about very much in a way that spoke to her experiences. She found a lot of clichés, but not a lot of insight. “Everything that I had read about friendships was always … platitudes about, you know, ‘friends are like flowers and you have to water them’ or whatever. Or the T-shirts with the koala bear and the flower and the ‘Friends are…’.”

So… Why is there so much writing about so many aspects of our lives — love, sex, money, family, careers — and so little about the inner workings of friendships that are so central to so many people’s lives? Maybe, Klam theorizes, it’s because friendships seem disposable and interchangeable when you look at them like an efficiency expert. “There’s some sort of thing about, like, ‘Well, if you don’t like the friend, just don’t be friends with them.’ Rather than the idea of working things out.” Working things out, as you know if you read other kinds of relationship books, is the usual ideal outcome, rather than bolting when trouble strikes.

… And of course, that’s what makes keeping up with your friends complicated. When I ask her what she considers the big challenge of adult friendships, she emphasizes that it’s legitimately hard to make time for them, because they’re not, you know, mandatory. And the older you get, the more things in your life are mandatory.

Perhaps this is why there is such a paucity of stories about friendship in books and film. A friendship can be destroyed without any drama. All the characters have to do is lose touch.

And that can be fine. Many friendships are simply not worth laboring over. Time changes every one of us and there is little point in forcing ourselves to pretend to be someone we are not simply for the sake of sustaining the appearance of something that no longer serves us. Scores of people can be your perfect match in a single context: that course you took together, that team you both played on, that year you roomed together when a deep heart-to-heart required nothing more than walking down the hall and flopping onto the bed with a beer. (Or maybe there was more convenience in those years before you roomed together and had no idea how much/little time/money s/he spends on cleaning/personal hygiene/video games.)

A friendship is significant if it can survive all the changes and challenges life will inevitably throw at it. But the same goes for family, to the extent that I believe there is really no difference between the two. As Andrew Solomon wrote in what I still consider the Best Book of the 21st Century, “Love becomes more acute when it requires exertion.” The exertion can be exquisite.

Family can be fun to be with, but what they offer with far more consistency is purpose. This is why studies find that parents are often happier watching television than spending time with their children, but it’s their children—not television—that inspire them to endure when they are faced with pain or hardship.

Many traditional beliefs about family are not helpful. If you’ve explored this blog at all, you know I believe bloodlines are dangerously overrated. I also believe it can be damaging to expound upon the virtues of lifelong commitment and forgiveness without exception. While many people abandon others all too easily because they are more concerned with their own comfort than anyone else’s, just as many people remain in emotionally abusive relationships because their generosity trumps their self-care. I have sadly witnessed enough toxic relationships to know that some ties are better off severed.

This is why I define family not by genetics, but as the people you are so close to that they regularly drive you crazy – while still being worth the grief. They are the people who know you so well that it embarrasses you to think about. They can simultaneously be uncles, cousins, godmothers, half-brothers, former coworkers or classmates. But no matter their origin, once it’s clear to me that I will always stick by someone no matter how vexing they can be, they are family to me.

Because if novels and films and social psychology tell us anything, it’s that you can’t get truly close to another human being without being annoyed by them.

 

Originally published December 2014

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Art That Explores Dwarfism with Uniforms & Anti-Selfies

20 Mar

Laura Swanson(Image ©Laura Swanson, used with permission)
 
Laura Swanson is a rising artist on the New York scene. Born with achondroplasia, her work zeroes in on bodily difference and human perception. Her latest show, “Resistance,” opened recently at the JCC in Manhattan. The first part of the exhibit features uniforms and cultural apparel—that of a beekeeper, a welder, a plague doctor—altered to her size.

“I started thinking about if you see a person of average adult height wearing a uniform they wouldn’t judge or question…,” she told DNAinfo.  “[However,] when something is made smaller in scale, does it change the meaning?”

The second part of the exhibit features what Swanson calls “anti-selfies”: portraits in which her face is obscured. Does this draw attention to her extraordinary body? Or would the average viewer’s attention already be distracted by it?

In an interview at the Center for Art and Thought, she explained:

Anti-Self-Portraits examines longing for agency and privacy. I wanted to depict a naïve, comic desperation: that this person is so tired of being looked at, she is grabbing whatever is close to camouflage her body, but not doing a very good job at it, kind of like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. At the same time, I wanted the photos to have a paradoxical feel. With the frontal, theatrical staging of the body, I wanted to convey that this person might not be such a desperate person, but actually a knowing person who is in control of how she is seen. 

A previous show, titled “Display,” featured an average-sized coat next to one that would fit the body of someone with achondroplasia. Here again Swanson invited her viewers to consider what exactly they were staring at. And why. Is an average-sized coat utilitarian, but a dwarf’s coat something you would pay to look at? Freak show attendees certainly did—and continue to do—throughout time and around the world.

Another planned project would explore notions of privacy. She described it in an interview at Haverford College in 2013:

My acute awareness of this desire stems not only from personal experience, but also from the history of photography, which is riddled with images of the Other…

I am working on a multi-part project that deals with an issue that is becoming increasingly unavoidable – the experience of having unwanted photographs taken of me and other people with physical differences while we go about our lives in public. It is funny because there is a lot of coverage and creative projects being made about government surveillance due to the recent PRISM/NSA spying controversy, but my project is actually looking at the ways ‘citizens’ use their phones to document others (ranging from people with physical differences and disabilities to depictions of homelessness) and share those photos on social media to amuse their friends. One part of the project will be … to design and fabricate devices for those who want to avoid having their image taken in public without consent. So not only am I getting further away from the camera, I am trying to prevent its usage!

As a professional photographer and sculptor, Swanson is thrusting tough questions upon the art world – a community renowned for having both broad and narrow definitions of beauty. As a person with dwarfism in the public eye, she is elevating the social issues of disability and physical difference to a more contemplative plane. That these issues tend to come in packaging that is either simplistically cute-and-cuddly or outright freak-show voyeuristic makes Swanson’s approach all the more refreshing.

 

 

Sometimes Beauty Is Easily Recognizable

24 Jan

Fashion Shoes...(Image by Thomas Leuthard used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Sometimes beauty is easily recognizable. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes fashion is a statement. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes street photography is a burden for those whose bodies are more likely to be photographed than others’.

Feel free to share your ideas about this, in or outside of the context of the above photograph by Thomas Leuthard.

 

 

 

 

Note to Artists Who Aren’t Günter Grass: Dwarfs Aren’t Children

19 Apr

La petite Géante(Image by Marc H used under CC license via)

 

German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass passed away this week. His most celebrated work, The Tin Drum, is the story of a German boy living before, during and after the Nazi era, who decides he does not want to join the preposterously nonsensical world of adults and therefore is determined to stop growing. He throws himself down the stairs and successfully stunts his growth. Later he meets a dwarf circus performer named Bebra and joins up with him, performing on the Western front for German officers and eventually having an affair with Bebra’s lover, who also has dwarfism. The book, which involves far more storylines than I have adumbrated here, has justly earned nearly universal praise, and the 1979 film adaptation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the grand prize at Cannes.

The Tin Drum is a story of magical realism that instrumentalizes dwarfism in a complex way. “Our kind must never sit in the audience,” says Bebra, “Our kind must perform and run the show or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds. They will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.” These statements are loaded, ominously referencing dwarf entertainers like the Ovitz family who were being treated like lab rats by Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz. Günter Grass came to prominence as a leading voice in the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement that broke the silence about his country’s crimes. Any failure to illustrate the reality of dwarfs during the Holocaust years echoes the many tales of Medieval and Early Modern courts that portray dwarf servants and jesters merely as part of the scenery while saying nothing about the fact that these people were, to put it bluntly, slaves traded among the aristocracy, sometimes in cages.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hopfrog,” written in 1849, is one of the few tales to allude to these human rights abuses. In 1992, the PBS American Playhouse program adapted the story as Fool’s Fire. (I was invited to audition for the part of the protagonist’s little sister. My acting career ended thereafter.) Director Julie Taymore made the decision to portray the average-sized characters in monster-like masks and the dwarf characters without.

This make-up treatment was the precise opposite of how the directors of the Harry Potter films would later chose to portray dwarf actor Warwick Davis’s goblin characters alongside the humans. In addition to miserly goblins and slave-like elves, the Harry Potter books include dwarf characters. They are mentioned in passing as “raucous dwarfs” in a pub in the third book and reinforce the servant trope when they are dressed up like Cupid and sent through the school delivering valentines in the second book. One must wonder why the author felt the need to include them at all. They represent, if anything, yet another point at which J.K. Rowling’s chef d’oeuvre fails to be nearly as progressive as she seems to think it is.

It’s never fun to get upset about all this.  Size can be a genuinely magical idea worth playing with (as seen above).  But genuine upset tends to grow the longer it goes unacknowledged. In college I took a writing workshop where we were encouraged to write about sensitive, taboo, and offensive words. The N-word and the C-word were brought up almost immediately, and I decided to demand a debate about the M-word for dwarfs.  One of my classmates pointed out, “The problem with rude stuff said about dwarfs is that it doesn’t strike us as offensive or controversial. It strikes us as funny.”

Exactly. We’re too amusing to be seen as victims. Our human rights cannot be violated because we are not fully human.

The Tin Drum is all about humanity and employs absurdist characters and events for harrowing, not hilarious effects. It is a complex novel, as is Stones from the River, a German-American war story I am inclined to prefer because the protagonist is a non-magical dwarf. After being arrested for taking a crack at the swatstika, she is hauled before a judge who reminds her that she can’t afford to speak out against Nazism when people like her are prime targets for eugenics researchers.

While The Tin Drum did not invent the idea of comparing children and dwarfs, it would be nice were it the only example of it. This has hardly been the case. It’s a gag nearly every person with dwarfism has heard for the umpteenth time. The Simpsons have done it. The brilliant comedy team Mitchell and Webb have done it. After my third-grade class watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, my teacher pointed out—or perhaps conceded—that the Oompa-Loompas were portrayed by people who had dwarfism just like I did. One of my classmates said, “Oh no, they might have just have been children.” I looked at her cock-eyed, thinking, How can you not tell a dwarf from a child?

The fate of the main character in the crime-comedy In Bruges hinges on the villain mistaking a dwarf’s corpse for that of a child. The joke already appears earlier in the film, when the dwarf in question explains that he’s been hired to appear in a school boy’s uniform in a cinematic dream sequence and rolls his eyes at it. This sort of we-make-the-joke-but-also-make-fun-of-it-so-that-makes-okay schtick is reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’s Life’s Too Short, of which one critic at The Quietus aptly said:

Perhaps this is some triple-axle attempt at post-post-postmodern irony, an ultra-sophisticated comedic in-joke that has tied itself up in such obscure knots it only seems crass to the un-knowing, the obtuse. Well, that’d be me because from where I’m sitting it looks like we’re supposed to be laughing at a guy for being too short.

It’s unfortunate because I really love In Bruges. Just as I love Willy Wonka and That Mitchell and Webb Look. Call it cynical, call it ironic, call it hilarious, but in these cases and so many others, deleting the dwarf characters would have allowed me to enjoy myself completely.

 

 

The Best Picture Books for Preventing Prejudice

30 Nov

Book sculpture (Image by Ellen Forsyth used under CC 2.0 via)

Perhaps you are looking for gifts for little ones this holiday season. Or perhaps, like me, you simply know a staggering number of kids who will all have birthdays in the coming year. For either scenario, here is a sample of excellent—i.e., not boring or ugly—picture books that help raise diversity awareness through reading. All of these books have been featured in my workshops for pre-school teachers about helping minority children feel represented and teaching all students to see minority kids as their equals. They are divided into five categories based on objective.

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Books That Know Not Every Family Is Upper/Middle Class with a White, Straight, Biological, Married Mom and Dad… The most delightful thing about pre-schoolers is that they have almost no idea what “normal” means. Of course they are surprised by the extraordinary, but they don’t place value judgments on it until someone older teaches it to them. Critically analyzing the media images and stories kids consume is crucial because the media not only educates them about the world beyond their doorstep, but it instills them with subconscious ideas about what kinds of people society believes deserve to appear in books, film, and television. Kids are of course individuals and some may be temperamentally predisposed toward narrow-mindedness, but a preemptive strike against prejudice never hurt anyone.

 

 

 

Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis (available in German & Spanish) – A story of adoption as told from the point of view of the child. “Tell me again how the phone rang in the middle of the night and they told you I was born. Tell me again how you screamed. Tell me again how you called Grandma and Grandpa, but they didn’t hear the phone ’cause they sleep like logs…”

 

 

A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams – A story that portrays poverty without uttering the word. The daughter of a single working mom tells of the day they lost everything they owned in a house fire. They’ve been saving up every spare cent they have to buy a big comfy armchair for their new home ever since. In the end, Mom finally has a place to lie back and rest her sore feet when she comes home from work at the diner, and her daughter can curl up to sleep in her lap.

 

 

 

Two Homes by Claire Masurel (available in French & German) – A boy proudly shows off his two homes. “I have two favorite chairs. A rocking chair at Daddy’s. A soft chair at Mommy’s.” The parents are portrayed as having nothing to do with each other, while always beaming at their son. “We love you wherever we are, and we love you wherever you are.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (available in Spanish) – Ezra Jack Keats was one of the first American illustrators to feature everyday black children in his stories. All of his books portray kids growing up in inner city neighborhoods. This is a brilliantly illustrated, very simple story about a boy enjoying freshly fallen snow in every way possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis – Written in verse, Susan swings, makes faces, sings songs, plays tricks, splashes in the water, rides on her dad’s shoulders, races in the back of a go-cart. Susan also happens to use a wheelchair.

 

 

 

What Makes A Baby by Cory Silverberg (available in German & Spanish) – A book about reproduction (sperm, egg, uterus) that leaves out gender (mom, dad, man, woman). No matter how many people want to ignore it, plenty of kids have been born via IVF, surrogacy, and to LGBTQ and intersex parents. This book allows those kids to have a conversation about where they came from, while emphasizing that your family is the people who were waiting for you to come into the world.

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Books For Extraordinary Situations That Have To Be ExplainedThese stories get into the specifics of certain disabilities, conditions and diverse backgrounds, but there is no reason they should not be read to every child.

 

 

 

Thinking Big by Susan Kuklin – This book is out of print, but well worth the search, portraying a day in the life of an 8-year-old girl with achondroplastic dwarfism. She is great at painting, but needs stools to reach things at home and school. She has friends who hold her hand so she won’t get left behind on hikes, but she talks openly about the kindergartners who call her “baby.” She loves going to Little People of America meetings, but she loves being at home with her mom, dad and younger brother best of all. This book accompanied me from pre-school to fifth grade, read aloud by my new teacher to the class at the beginning of the school year in order to explain why I looked different from the others and to encourage my classmates to be upfront with their questions.

 

 

 

 

 

I Have A Sister My Sister Is Deaf by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson– A day in the life of a hearing girl and her deaf sister. They play, argue, and help each other out, while explaining deafness as a mere difference in terms young kids can understand. The story has a gentle, poetic rhythm. On a deer hunt, the narrator explains, “I am the one who listens for small sounds. She is the one who watches for quick movements in the grass.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Book of Colors by Rosana Faría (available in French, German & Spanish) – Like the illustrations, everything is black for Thomas, so when it comes to colors, he smells, hears, and feels them. “Red is as sweet as a strawberry, as juicy as a watermelon, and it hurts when it seeps out of a cut on his knee.” The images are embossed for the reader to touch. The Braille alphabet is provided at the back of the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

People by Peter Spier (available in French & German) – A superbly illustrated celebration of human beings and cultures all around the world. We have different skin colors, noses, hair styles, holidays, favorite foods, alphabets, hobbies, and homes, but we’re all people. It should be noted that this might be a bit of an information overload for children under 4.

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Books About Moments When Diversity Is Considered Disruptive… These books empower kids who have been teased or interrogated for standing out. They can also be used to teach a bully or a clique how to understand and accept harmless differences. Some teachers rightly express concern over introducing the problems of sexism or racism to a child who has never seen a boy in a dress or a black girl before. Doing so could foster the notion that we should always associate minorities with controversy. Save them for when conflict does arise, or when the child is old enough to start learning about history and intolerance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (available in Arabic, German, Panjabi, & Urdu) – Grace is a master at playing pretend. When her class decides to put on the play Peter Pan, she’s told by some know-it-all classmates that she can’t because she’s a girl and she’s black. She shows ’em all right.

 

 

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (available in German) – Penguins Silo and Roy live in a New York zoo and are utterly inseparable. The zookeepers encourage them to take an interest in the lady penguins so that they can soon have baby penguins, but to no avail. Silo and Roy build a nest together and end up adopting an egg. When Baby Tango is born, the three of them couldn’t be happier.

 

 

You Be Me – I’ll Be You by Pili Mandelbaum (available in French) – A biracial girl tells her white dad she wishes she looked like he does. Dad explains that he is milk and Mom is coffee, and she is café au lait. He says she is beautiful and sometimes he wishes he looked like her. Soon they’re dressing up in each other’s clothes, she’s braiding his hair, and he’s powdering her face. She wants to go into town and show Mom. On the way, they pass by a beauty shop and Dad points out how many white women are curling their hair and tanning their skin, while so many black women strive for the opposite.

 

 

“Sick of Pink” by Nathalie Hense (currently available only in German, French, Japanese, Norwegian & Portuguese) – The proud musings of a girl who likes witches, cranes, tractors, bugs, and barrettes with rhinestones in them. She knows boys who sew pretty clothes for their action figures and who paint daisies on their race cars. When grown-ups shake their heads and tell them, “That’s for girls!” or “That’s for boys!” she asks them why. “That’s just the way things are,” they tell her. “That’s not a real answer,” she deadpans.

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Fairy Tales Beyond White Knights and Helpless Princesses… Even the most iconoclastic of people have their fantasies of love and heroism shaped by folklore. Yet the idea of revising Western fairy tales to make them less stereotypical has been met with a strong backlash. Whether or not you think it’s appropriate for kids to read Sleeping Beauty, Little Black Sambo or The Five Chinese Brothers, there is no harm in providing them with additional legends about love, valor and wisdom to make our cultural heritage more inclusive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children of the Dragon by Sherry Garland – Selected tales from Vietnam that rival any of the Grimm’s fairy tales in adventure, imagination and vibrancy. Many of the stories are supplemented by explanations of Vietnamese history that provide context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sense Pass King by Katrin Tchana – A girl in Cameroon outsmarts the king every time. Besides being one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century, Trina Schart Hyman was a master of ethnic and socio-economic diversity in her many, many picture books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen – A Scottish ballad wherein a young maiden rescues her true love from the clutches of the evil faerie queen. In the end, she wins both his freedom and her clan’s great stone castle back. Not suitable for easily frightened children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer – A fearless girl triumphs over a ghost, a witch, a troll and a devil on her way to Grandma’s house in the bayous of Arkansas. Some of the best illustration there is. Think Little Red Riding Hood had she managed to outwit the wolf on her own.

 

 

 

 

 

The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci – A Cinderella story of sorts set in the backwoods of the South. An elderly wise woman uses magic to help a kind, obedient girl escape her cruel mother and spoiled sister. In the end, she rides off to the big city in a carriage. (With no prince involved, this one passes the Bechdel test.)

 

 

 

 

 

King and King by Linda de Haan (available in Czech, Dutch & German) – It’s time for the prince to hurry up and get married before he has to rule the kingdom, but every princess who comes to call bores him to tears. The very last one, however, brings her utterly gorgeous brother, and the king and king live happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch – After outwitting the dragon, Princess Elizabeth rescues the prince only to be told that her scorched hair and lousy clothes are a major turn-off. She tells him he is a bum. “They didn’t get married after all.” She runs off into the sunset as happy as can be. I have yet to meet a child who does not love the humor in this story.

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The Best Book on Diversity To Date…

 

 

 

Horton Hatches The Egg by Dr. Seuss – A bird is sick of sitting around on her egg all day, so she asks Horton if he would mind stepping in for just a minute. He is happy to help, but the bird jets off to Palm Beach the minute she is free. Horton continues to sit on the egg while awaiting her return. He withstands the wind, the rain, a terrible cold, and three hunters who insist on selling him and the egg off to the circus as a freak show. Throughout it all he reminds himself, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.” After he becomes a media sensation, the bird comes back to claim her prize.

Whenever I used this one in the classroom, I would ask the kids whom the egg belongs to. The 3-year-olds, with their preliminary grasp on logic, would always give the black-and-white answer: “The egg belongs to the bird because eggs go with birds.” The 4- to 5-year-olds would invariably go the other way, plunging into righteous indignation over the injustice of the bird’s demands: “The elephant! The egg belongs to the elephant because he worked so hard and he loved it so much and she just can’t come back and take it!” In the end, the egg cracks open and out flies a baby elephant bird, who wraps his wings around Horton. This is Seuss at his best, showing that loyalty makes a family.

How To Do Empathy Wrong

23 Nov

sssssh(Image by Valentina Cinelli used under Creative Commons license via)

Have you ever had someone say to you, “I know exactly what you’re going through!” only to have them then rip into a monologue that proves they have no idea what you’re going through?

SarahKat Keezing Gay, whose newborn son needed a heart transplant, has had plenty of experiences with this:

One of my favorites has always been people comparing children’s issues with those of anything that isn’t a child. “Oh, I know just what it’s like to have a newborn. My cat wakes me up all the time!” or “Having kids is expensive, sure, but it’s nothing like having a horse.”

With Hud’s medical stuff, most of the comparisons were to really old people with totally different, usually terminal conditions. “I know just what it feels like to wait for a baby to get a heart transplant. My 85-year old great-uncle had liver disease, and waiting for his transplant was so hard on my family!” … This was particularly chafing when entangled with glaring inaccuracies, such as: “He’s sick? When my grandma went through chemo, she looked terrible, so he must be taking lots of herbal supplements to stop the hair loss and everything, right?”

She is hardly the first survivor of trauma who has had to deal with blunt comparisons that are ultimately unhelpful. In college, I witnessed a trust fund kid compare his worries about paying for a new car to a trailer park kid’s worries about paying for his course books: “I hear ya, bro – I’m struggling, too!”

The best way to get along with the rest of the world is to try to understand it. And most understanding is achieved by comparing the unknown to that which we already know. But there is an unproductive tendency in the it’s-a-small-world-after-all mindset to relativize all hardship to the point of equating all hardship. Twilight star Kristen Stewart told interviewers that unwanted paparazzi photos made her feel “raped.” Millionaire businessman David Harding pronounced the words “geek” and “nerd” to be “as insulting as n*****.” Famed divorcée Elizabeth Gilbert of the Eat, Pray, Love franchise declared that divorce can be more anxiety-inducing than the death of a child, asserting this in a book devoted to gushing about the joys of her new-found love. I don’t know Gilbert or Harding or Stewart personally, so it would be presumptuous to conclude that they must simply be naïve and have no idea what trauma or death threats or bereavement feel like. But their utterances are false equivalencies that alienate more people than they enlighten.

In the recent words of NPR’s Annalisa Quinn: “ ‘We’re all the same on the inside!’ is not that far from ‘Everyone is like me!’ which is not that far from ‘My perspective is universal!’ ” The phrase I know exactly what you’re going through, while sometimes well-intentioned, can ultimately be silencing because it puts the listener in the awkward position of having to choose between keeping quiet and trying to find a gracious way to say, “No, you don’t know what I’m going through.” Saying such a thing can come off as angry and self-involved, so most polite people opt instead to hold their tongues, sparing the other person their upset but also an opportunity to be taken out of their comfort zone and learn about an experience they’ve never had.

In his adorable piece “How To Be Polite,” Paul Ford writes that the fastest way to make a friend as an adult is to ask them what they do for a living and—no matter what their job is—react by saying, “Wow. That sounds hard.” The last time he used this line he was talking to a woman whose job it was to pick out jewelry for celebrities.

It’s a sure-fire way to a person’s heart because we all think we work really hard. We all think we have had trials and tribulations. The blues would never have broken out of the Mississippi Delta if we didn’t. But while our lives are all equally important, they are not equally painful:

Everyone on earth is privileged in some way, but not everyone has experienced severe pain.  Arguing with family, enduring rejection in love, searching for a lucrative and fulfilling job, dealing with the bodily break-down that comes with the onset of age – it is all cause for pain. The pain is both valid and common, which is why there is a plethora of books and films and songs about these experiences. And which is why we expect such pain from life and why it is fair of others to expect us to learn how to deal with it. It is substantial, but it is not severe.

Those who experience severe pain are, thankfully, becoming a minority as our society becomes ever safer and healthier, with rates of life-threatening illness and violence lower than they have ever been in human history. But misery loves company, and severe pain brings on not only profound stress but great loneliness. That’s why support groups exist. Having friends who try to understand, not because they see a chance to tell their own story but because your happiness genuinely matters to them, is lovely. Their efforts signify bravery. But they can never offer the unique comfort of connection that blooms from really knowing what you’re going through.

This was clear when I recently spent an evening at a dinner table where I was the only one who did not have a parent who had died or disowned me. It is clear whenever I read Keezing Gay’s accounts of her baby’s transplant, which moves me to tears every single time, all of them merging to constitute but a drop in the ocean of what her family went through.

The middle-aged mother of a deceased teenager said to me months after her death, “Our friends in Utah got the wrong news and thought for a while that it had been me. That I was the one who died. And I immediately thought when I heard that, Why couldn’t it have been me?  I had a good life.  My life was good until this moment.”

My life was good until this moment.

Unlike mundane pain, severe pain so often brings perspective. Of course, whether or not it does ultimately depends upon the wisdom and strength of the individual. This fact is lost on those who uphold the long tradition of viewing severe pain as a beauty mark worth yearning for because it supposedly imbues the sufferer with automatic heroism. This tradition pervades many circles, though most often those of the young and artsy navel-gazers.

Wes Anderson, who may be our generation’s king of the artsy navel-gazers, captured this problem surprisingly well in Moonrise Kingdom. The scene involves two pre-teens: Suzy the Outcast, who is angry about her mother’s infidelity and often gets into fights at school, and Sam the Oddball Orphan, who has been bounced around from foster family to foster family before being bullied at camp.

She tells him dreamily, “I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.”

Her sweetheart pauses and narrows his eyes. “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Because it’s not empathy when it’s all about you.  As Nigerian feminist Spectra wrote in her critique of American Mindy Budgor’s white savior complex gone wild: “This isn’t about people ‘staying where they are’ and disengaging from the world. This is about learning to engage with other cultures with some humility, or at least some bloody respect.”

There is no benefit to engaging in Oppression Olympics; i.e., to trying to prove that abused children have it worse than soldiers with PTSD, or that black women have it worse in the U.S. than gay men. But there is a benefit to acknowledging the differences between their experiences as well as the differences between mild, moderate and severe pain. The benefit is true understanding.

Shortly after an uproar over her rape comment, Kristen Stewart apologized for her crudeness. Acknowledging what we don’t know is an indispensable step in the path toward true understanding. The most deeply thoughtful, impressively modest people I know do this all the time. Their frequent deference in combination with their unwavering support proves that there’s a world of a difference between trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and assuming you’ve already worn them.

 
*As in all of my posts, the identities of many of the people cited here have been altered to protect their privacy.

The Easiest Way to Avoid Saying “He” or “She”

2 Nov

Sexism abounds(Image used under CC 2.0 via)

 

A linguist will have a hard time if he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he or she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he/she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if s/he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if they try to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zhe tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zie tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

Depending upon your political leanings, you may find one or more of the sentences above ridiculous. Many people find the very idea of gender neutral pronouns preposterous to the point of sending death threats to those who have dared to formally enter them in style guides. In the middle of the last century, Strunk and White dismissed any linguistic adaptations motivated by gender equality because, they argued, the word “he” becomes gender neutral, not androcentric, when referring to everyman, mankind, etc. This argument has failed to hold up since the women’s movement, and most Western periodicals agree that such language is archaic with male chauvinist undertones, hence the plethora of proposed alternatives.

This can get harder in other languages. In German, everyone knows right away if your best friend is a girl or a guy because you have to call a female your “best friendess.” A troll gives away her gender in Russian or French the moment she types, “I’m smart/rich/European.” A Japanese speaker would give it away at the word “I.”

But wherever there are strict rules about gender, there is deep confusion about gender. A “girl” in German (“Mädchen,” from which we get “maiden”) is technically gender neutral because all words ending in –chen are. Thus, German kids grow up on stories like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood containing lines such as, “The prince took the maiden home to his castle and married it.” English isn’t any more logical when considering that almost all of our modern caricatures of ducks—ducklings, rubber duckies, Donald, Daffy, and Duckula—are automatically associated with boyishness, yet the word “duck” is technically as female as the word “cow.”

Most people on earth speak a language that distinguishes between “he” and “she” because most of the languages of the former colonial powers do. But a study of several hundred of the 6,000+ languages on earth found most do not. Whether you’re speaking Finnish or Farsi, you can talk about your best friend, your teacher, your doctor or your least favorite coworker for hours without letting anyone know anything about the person’s gender identity. No “his” and “hers” bath towels, no needing to find out your baby’s sex for linguistic ease.

So while The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage now urges its writers to avoid gendered pronouns, it appears the best solution would be to avoid English altogether.

 

 

Who Needs To Look At Dwarfs In A Theme Park?

5 May

Caged Beauty #1

(Image by Howard Ignatius used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde’s journey into the Kingdom of the Little People in Kunming, China is featured this week at Slate’s photo blog. “For me, it’s about how this kind of place can exist,” she told Slate. “What does it tell you about a person who starts this and creates it? What are his intentions?”

She goes on to explain that one of the hardest things to capture on film was the overwhelming boredom among the performers. “A lot of time the people are just hanging around in their room or on their beds lying around,” she said. 

That circus freaks get bored should not be too surprising, but it is still often radical today to consider that people categorized as freaks can in fact be boring. (More on that next week.)

A theme park funneling in people who pay to look at dwarfs and the state of disability rights in China are worth a zillion words each. But for now, De Wilde’s photos alone have plenty to say on the matter. The feature is definitely worth your time, and to those who do check it out, I leave one question open to you:

Does Slate’s reporting on the exploitation of dwarfs in freak shows now make up for its past SNAFUs?