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Fitting In and Social Misfits

February 22, 2010

I have been following the story of Amy Bishop, the professor who shot several of her colleagues, with a bit of trepidation. I feel that when something like that happens, it is so unexpected and shocking and incomprehensible that we feel that the person must be intrinsically and irrevocably damaged in some way. It is not that they had a bad day or don’t handle stress well. It is that they are in some way crazy (a comment not on brain chemistry or not fitting in but on behavior). Because do not want to admit that we, too, could respond in this way. That we, too, are this vulnerable. We don’t want to confess that we, too, could change our lives so quickly as Amy Bishop did hers and theirs.

So while I do believe that there’s a place here for judgment, I don’t now where that place is. I’m not the person to pass it. But I empathize with the others who are trying to understand what happened, either by finding an appropriate box or taking it out of the box and examining it in its full complexity. I empathize with this need to understand.

I mentioned earlier that I go to church. This doesn’t give me any moral foundation to judge. Or comprehend. Or, really, do anything else in this situation except to wonder… she, too, conformed in some way to the standards expected of her. She was educated. She was a professor, for crying out loud. (I won’t get into the difficult of female professors and academia and what is expected of them here.) She must have, at some level, looked as though she matched the image to have jumped through so many hoops of success.

I have heard the words, too: “Social misfit.” “Too complex.” These are the kindest of them. They emphasize the disconnect, the slippage, the fragile hanging on to how others see us — even if it is not who we ultimately are. I suspect the words will be different now, and I won’t speculate on what they will be other than to say that they will be clinical ways to explain this, that they will not be generous about the mismatch between people and their society, that they will be harsh and pointed and suggest intrinsic unchangeable flaws.

There are no words for this pain. Not on either side. I am so removed from the situation that I can’t really talk about it except in theory. I can say that this story happens at the cusp: we can continue to believe that any flaw is internal, or we can break the mold ever so slightly and admit that sometimes fitting in is hard to do. We can ease the pain of being a misfit, not by labeling it as an illness but by finding real solutions.

I don’t know what the best course of action here is. I just hope that there is a better course of action than what we’ve found so far.

Reflections on Lent from the Outside

February 20, 2010

This week seems to be the week of faith. On Tuesday, my friends ate pancakes. On Wednesday there were ashes, which I referred to as dirt at first glance. Today, my daily book recommendation was “An Altar in the World,” which was touted as elegant and ardent as well as faithful — this means that I will be picking up a copy as soon as possible.

I am glad for these reminders, though it makes me feel estranged in my own world. These are people I know and love — and yet this week has been a reminder that they have traditions that are not my own, that are utterly foreign to me. Why pancakes? Why ashes? Why faith!?

This isn’t the first time I’ve come face-to-face with my own lack of faith and traditions. It’s been a recurring theme, really — why do I not believe when so many others do? More to the point, how can I not believe when I know that my life is so fragile and altered by so many unexpected moments? How can I look at this procession of transformations and not see in them something bigger than myself?

On the other hand, how can I?

I am not a person who disbelieves. I am not anti-theistic, nor anti-religion. There is simply a certain dependability that I don’t see in my world, a certain faith that I don’t encounter, a struggle I don’t always engage in. It is more that there is a language that I don’t speak — and often, a language I wish I did. I know a few words. But that’s all.

And so, when my friends eat pancakes and celebrate Ash Wednesday and give up things for Lent, I find myself utterly astray in a world where I am only able to read a few signposts and, if lucky, orient the guidebook. It is a strange land to me, one which I wish I understood better. I wish I knew where the marketplace was and the terrain of the streets and the proper greetings.

But I don’t. And so I feel somewhat adrift, watching people I love engaging with this strange world of faith where I can’t follow. It is an odd feeling. And I know that there are places I go where they can’t follow me, and so this season serves as a reminder of that as well.

In the end, maybe what I should take from this is that our struggle is that of connection in the face of isolation, that our ability to talk and love through our foreign languages and broken worlds and faiths is worth something too.

But I’m not sure of that either.

Why I Work

February 17, 2010

Lately with the job and everything, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I work. Part of this is obviously about necessity: I work because I need to live. It’s easy to get caught up in the paycheck and benefits, the early morning alarm and the five o’clock exit. But lately, as I am excitedly waiting for the results of the fellowship process, I’ve thought about it again. Why am I so excited about the prospect of this particular job? Even when I like my current job?

These are the reasons I work, aside from the obvious:

1. I work because I love the act of creating something for the first time.
2. I work to be part of something bigger than I can be alone.
3. I work to contribute to the society that supports me.
4. I work because I love the search for something better than what is.
5. I work to change the world.
6. I work because the world doesn’t always believe I can.
7. I work because I love the feeling of accomplishing something I didn’t know I could.

And of course, I don’t mean work simply as wage-work! Plenty of people work in ways that they don’t get paid for, or even often recognized for — mothers or caretakers come to mind in particular. And then there are all the types of work that we do and don’t recognize as work. We learn, for instance, to fix our kitchen sinks or mow the lawn, change our car’s oil, knit, write, cook. These, too, are forms of work.

Also, I realize how immensely privileged I am to be able to work, both legally and physically. Not everybody gets that shot. Not everybody gets to have a choice about the kind of work one does, or where, or who one’s boss is. So I feel very blessed that I do get to have those choices in some way. Maybe that’s at the root of it. It is not what I do, but that I have the choice to do it, and that is a feeling for which I am intensely grateful and aware of my privilege.

Why do you work?

Labeling the Elephant

February 15, 2010

Today I stumbled across the New York Time’s Letters to the Editor on the subject of relabeling Asperger’s. Having been a bit out of it over the week, I didn’t know that Asperger’s was facing a possibility of being relabeled. But hey, I also didn’t know that Dick Cheney condoned torture or (still!) who won the Superbowl last weekend! Was it the Yankees? Are they a football team? As you might imagine, I’ve been a bit out of it.

Anyway, the letters on Asperger’s seem to fit in with my running theme of Monday Madness, and so will become the subject of today’s writing — as it’s 6pm already and I’m puttering in the kitchen to make this week’s meals, I thought I’d better get on here already and fulfill my promise to say something.

So the gist of the original article is that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – some version) is thinking about reclassifying Asperger’s Syndrome as an unspecified illness on the Autism spectrum. Currently, people with Asperger’s Syndrome are regarded in some places as high-functioning autistic and in others as having an entirely separate — and less severe or stigmatized — disorder. This has several benefits for people with Asperger’s Syndrome: they get a label, which means that there’s funding for help, and they are sometimes less stigmatized than peers who are seen to be “lower functioning.”

On the other side, the author of the original article (Roy Richard Grinker, Disorder out of Chaos) implies that the separation between Asperger’s Syndrome and the Autistic spectrum disorders is misleading and doesn’t describe functionality — which changes rapidly when kids are little. Because I’m not autistic and don’t have Asperger’s and haven’t spent much time studying or socializing with people in either category, I really can’t evaluate either side of this argument. But there is it — at least my interpretation of it.

What I find really interesting in all this is the comments, which make the following points:

  1. There is nothing wrong with separating the two categories — after all, we declare our uniqueness in myriad other ways, so why not through our diagnoses?
  2. Some terms help us navigate the world better than others. Will the diagnosis of autistic spectrum — not otherwise specified help us more than Asperger’s Syndrome has?
  3. “Quirkiness” doesn’t get help or funding, Asperger’s does.

I think what surprises me most about these comments is how aware they are of the social construction of illness. I’ve spent a bit of this weekend working on an essay on mental illness that I’m submitting for publication. Because it’s much more a personal narrative, with inserts of philosophy and psychology, I’ve not been dealing with the social construction of it. But I know it’s there. For me, I’ve seen the labeling of an illness as an immensely complicated and political decision that has a lot of negative consequences. When does one disclose? Why? What happens next? How do you face the stigma of a disclosure?

These writers see that label as a positive thing, and I find that a breath of fresh air. It’s nice to now that labels help people, at least in some cases, at least some of the time. I want to cheer on the Times and these writers for being willing to look beyond the stigma to see what’s useful in these labels and this way of looking at the world, because it’s opened up some new possibilities for how I see it. And that’s what writing, what communicating, is supposed to be about after all isn’t it? It’s about moving beyond the bubble to listen to and emphasize and care about someone else?

Well, that seems to be a longer conversation and I’ve got a lentil herder’s pie calling me from the kitchen. But I’m back, internet! Happy President’s Day to those in the U.S.!

Sadie falls by the wayside again

February 13, 2010

Hello Interwebz!

I have been remiss in posting this week. So much has happened — a job a boy a hair dye attempt a sick friend a fight like I’ve never fought before. And that’s just for starters! I list all these things in the generic to keep from outing anybody, including myself, but also to explain why my regular posting schedule has fallen by the wayside.

On Monday I plan to grab a bit of time and get back to posting, but it’s up in the air as to whether that will happen. I will do my best!

For now, I am making some Italian pasta dish involving dijon mustard and chili for a potluck tomorrow. The dijon and chili together are a bit suspicious, I think, but we shall see! Hopefully it will turn out well.

In which I contemplate faith and fearfulness

February 6, 2010

Today is one of those days that the world strikes me in an unexpectedly beautiful way. It is always odd when this happens, and particularly so today because it is on the heels of the death of a dear family friend and another friend winding up in hospital. We are also in the midst of heavy rains, causing moderate flooding of the roads and making my beautiful spring tree look a little beleaguered out the front window. Maybe the sudden changes make me more grateful for stability when it exists.

For whatever reason, this feeling of unexpected awesomeness in the world in general — though I very much hope that my friend’s life gets some of that awesomeness soon! — is making me think about my faith, or my lack thereof. Another dear friend is prone to telling me: “I have faith in you! Of more than the religious kind.” Her constant reminders that another person has faith in me have been a sweet surprise over the past year.

I have not been someone particularly prone to having faith, religious or otherwise. Trusting in anything other than myself, whether another person, a god, or gravity, is very difficult for me. I am the person who watches the pot of water to make sure it boils, because I have no certainty that what happened last time will happen this time. This is the degree to which I lack faith, that even physics is questionable to me.

And yet, having just completed a very painful two months of struggling with uncertainty, and being entirely certain that there are a few more months of struggle ahead of me… I find myself very at peace with the idea that all can work out in the end. Is this what that otherwise sort of faith is? Because if so, the certainty of knowing that I will not fall harder than I can recover from is a rather nice feeling. It makes it a little easier to comfort the people who have it a little less easy at this particular moment, knowing that there will be some comfort for me and faith in me when I need it.

The welfare state returns to radio

February 3, 2010

I love my local country music station, because they play long cycles of good music and I get to sing along to Sara Baxton. But today, I’m pissed. Driving home from work, I heard one of the Meg Whitman advertisements on the air. If you want to hear it, you can go here. Below is the transcript.

Meg Whitman: Some people worry that we’re creating a welfare state. The fact is, California is the welfare state.

Male voiceover: Meg Whitman talks about the California welfare system.

Meg Whitman: Did you know that California has twice the population of New York, but five times as many welfare cases? Thirty-two percent of all welfare case loads in America are here in California. We provide among the highest cash welfare checks of any state, but only twenty-two percent of our recipients work for their benefits. The system is broken, but we can fix it. Let’s cut the lifetime welfare benefit from five years to two, and let’s put able-bodied welfare recipients to work, looking for employment, performing community service, or working toward a GED. If they don’t, they lose their benefits. Welfare can’t be a way of life. We need to help those in need, but we need to do it in a way that’s accountable, sensible, and strengthens our communities.

Male voiceover: Paid for by Meg Whitman for Governor 2010.

Meg Whitman: It’s time for a new California. What do you think? Share your ideas and read my plan at talktomeg.com .

This may be a long post, or possibly the first of several posts, on why I think welfare reform should not be an issue for the 2010 gubernatorial race in California. For the sake of brevity, let me summarize my position on why Whitman’s radio ad is so wrong:

  • There is no us versus them in the welfare debate. A quick venture into demographic data points out that nearly 60% of Americans will live some part of their lives under the poverty line — see, for example, The Great Risk Shift, where I looked up that number. In other words, at least three in five Americans could potentially be affected by decisions to make welfare harder to obtain. Want to bet that you — and your loved ones — are all going to be in the lucky forty percent? I don’t.
  • There is no excuse for balancing your budget on the backs of the vulnerable. As many people know, California is currently in another year of trying to balance their budget without raising taxes. And when revenue can’t go up, the only thing to do is to cut spending, says Sacramento. California has lots of things it spends money on, including health care, welfare, prisons, education, and anything that gets voted into the budget from the ballot box. Somehow, Whitman and other politicians have decided that the paltry money the state tosses towards its low-income residents to keep them afloat, retrain them, and help them with education and vocational training is just too much. Low-income residents are less organized and more vulnerable than other populations, including K-12 educational advocates, transportation, and prison guards. It’s no surprise that the easiest targets will be the first to lose necessary support, but it is a disappointing statement about us and our priorities.
  • And there is really no excuse for factual inaccuracies. I could be wrong on this one, but I’m pretty sure that the welfare program Whitman is talking about is called CalWORKs, or California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids. It “provides education, employment, and training programs to help families get jobs and move towards self-sufficiency,” according to the California Department of Social Services, which manages the program. Funny — that sounds an awful lot like the program that Whitman is proposing as a replacement.

So yes — we have welfare cases. We may have a lot of welfare cases. The system may be broken. I’m not contesting any of those points, more because I simply don’t know than because I think that this radio spot is true. But guess what I’m left wondering after hearing that radio spot? Me, I’m wondering how much money was spent to produce and air an advertisement whose purpose seems to be hate mongering against the imagined ills of a welfare state in one minute or less. I hope that the next radio spot will be better thought out and include real solutions rather than shifting blame games.

But for now? I’m pissed. I expected better.