That Poor, Poor Boy

I take the last seat in St. Helens B at the Airport Sheraton. The room is chilly from the air conditioning but warming up from the bodies packed inside. I like the workshop leader immediately, with her confident but everywoman quality, half girlfriend/half talk show host.

Because this is a writing conference, her talk is on characters. Why people, real or fictional, do what they do.

She gives us an example of a fictional hero, a young baseball player named Joe, pitching in The Big Game. All through the movie he has wanted to win this game for his father, so that he will finally have this thorny man’s respect. At the movie’s climax, Joe’s on the mound. It’s a tight game. The father watches Joe from the bleachers like a hawk. And here comes the next batter from the opposing team, a boy who has watched all season from the bench, and now his coach is putting him in.

At this point, the writers in the room are nodding. They know this scenario. They know this character. Now the workshop leader wants to jack it up a notch. She says not only that, the batter has a disability.

There’s more nodding. Bigger nodding. Because a boy who sucks at sports is one thing. A boy who has a disability, by conventional wisdom, is. even. sad. der.

(Casey Martin is a professional golfer with a birth defect in his leg. Peter Gray played in the Majors with one arm. Karen Gaffney, who has Down syndrome, swam across Lake Tahoe.)

Joe takes pity on the batter, tosses him a grapefruit, the batter hits it. Joe’s team loses the game and his father’s respect. But Joe is a winner, a hero, because he wins his own self-respect.

Now the workshop leader wants this audience of writers to help her invent a main character. She gets us started with a woman who wants to buy a bed and breakfast.

She says: Why would she want to?
Someone calls out: She’s always wanted to.
Workshop leader says: Raise the stakes.
Someone calls out: Her mother had a B&B and always told her daughter she’d sold out by not taking on the family business.
Workshop leader says: Raise the stakes even more.
Someone calls out: She needs the money to care for a disabled relative.

The game stops. Nothing seems to trump a person with a disability.

Except maybe a child with a disability. Because then the workshop leader drops the punchline. “Perhaps it’s that poor boy still trying to play baseball.”

Laughter.

I’m not saying that a boy with a disability can come off the bench and drive an eighty mile an hour fastball down the third baseline. (Some people without disabilities may also have some trouble.) I’m just wondering how it feels to live your life with people on your team, in your classroom, your community, seeing you first and foremost as an object of pity.

Or people in your church.

The Gospel reading this morning is (another) story about Jesus helping a person with a disability. This time, in Luke, it’s a woman whose body doesn’t stand up straight. It’s pretty common in church to hear about Jesus fixing people whose eyes don’t work, whose legs don’t work, etc. He heals the people. Restores them. Makes them whole. Sometimes I imagine seven-eighths of a pie moping around on two legs, until Jesus comes up and miraculously pops in the missing slice.

I am no one to be criticizing Jesus. Or the Gospel or the church and its traditions which I’ve been trying to follow faithfully for almost forty years. But just from where I sit in the pew, four rows back, I see at least two people with disabilities. How does it feel to sit there hearing someone with a disability be the sad person in the story? Over and over. The one who needs fixing. The one Jesus singles out, so obviously needing help.

Moments before this story was read aloud to the congregation, I’d slipped out of the service to check on my four year old, out in the playground with the rest of the Sunday school kids. I’d peeked out the window and spied her swinging from the rings, kicking out her legs to make herself swing farther. Just like I’d taught her. I was a proud mama.

But slipping back into the service, listening to the reading, it occurs to me that in the Gospel my daughter has not mastered the rings. She’s not swinging. She’s not strong. She’s not even happy. In the Gospel, because she has a disability, my four year old and her penchant for Darth Vader and Carla Bruni, are transformed. In the Gospel, my daughter is an outcast. She can no longer swim three quarters of the width of the pool. She can no longer ride her trike down the sidewalk. She has forgotten the one-half she knows of the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t want to go to church and have the Bible tell me to pity her. But it does seem, that just as in the writing workshop, the people with disabilities are some of the Bible’s saddest characters.

The workshop leader is fat. I didn’t want to say that before. But I do have to wonder if she has ever sat in the movie theatre, getting swept away by a great story, when halfway through the show the stereotypical fat character comes out, loud and jolly, or loud and bawdy, the very limited range in the movies for characters who are obese. I wonder if she has ever seen a character like that and felt a little pit in her stomach. I wonder if she stopped laughing, while everyone around her continued. I wonder if she heard the audience laughing freely and wished she could be part of that freeness that everyone else felt.

I wonder if I was there too. And if I sat in the row behind her. Laughing.

Create More Anxiety This Summer (by Relaxing)

Are your kids doing camps this summer?

I’ve heard this question since May.

The conversation goes something like this. You ask a mom if their kids are in summer camp and they say they’re doing soccer, robotics, Russian studies, and geometry. You say, neat. And then the mom says their kid loves robotics camp. Loves it. And then you know that their kid is going to design a fully automated space village and have a planet named after them. And you know the parents know it too. And that they have relaxed a smidge this summer knowing that they have found: their child’s ticket.

You conceal the tiny panic that you don’t know your children’s niche. To date, you are sending them into the world as generalists in a world that ushers us into specialties, extremes, a life tall and narrow, the pedestal to lift you up and out of the pack.

Is it a lie when you tell the other mom you’re just keeping it mellow this summer, trying to keep a lid on the structure. They nod and smile. Sort of.

Because who would say no to summer camp? Who would say, no, I’m not worried that after twelve weeks without cognitive challenge or group socialization my kids will slide backward, rendering them–twenty years hence–unemployable and therefore without access to the world’s dwindling resources.

Who would say, no, I think it’s unimportant and uninteresting for people to learn about archery, baseball, cooking, decoupage, equestria, fencing, global peace, highland sports, ice fishing, jujitsu, karate, lacrosse, Mandarin, nutrition, olive brining, painting, quilting, recumbent bicycling, Spanish, tugboating, umbrella making, vegetable-raising, water dowsing, xylophone, yodeling, and zoo animals.

Any one of those topics, not addressed during the regular school curriculum, could be the one the ignites your child’s passion, that sets his or her life on its trajectory. Years later they will tell their biographers how it all started with that summer camp. That they took at age three.

Your kids are four and six. Hear the doors slamming.

And I’m talking about the anxiety I feel having my kids in only two summer activities. Not immune to camp pressure, I have them in weekly swim lessons and a smattering of morning camps at their school. I tell myself the camp thing gets out of control. Yet, when I hear moms talking about Create Your Own Superhero Camp, Spend the Day with Live Elephants Camp, Build Your Own Solar Powered City Camp–with the name of each amazing camp I feel like I have failed a little more, because I didn’t research enough to know those camps even existed. In fact, I didn’t research summer camps at all. I don’t know where I was, but it never even occurred to me to do so.

What have we been doing? We’ve been spending an alarming amount of time at what I’ve been promoting to my husband as Restaurant Camp, with an emphasis on menu literacy and nutrition services, but which I know is secretly called Eat Lunch at a Restaurant Because Mom Doesn’t Feel Like Cooking Camp. This is a parent-child camp. Topics covered include how to unroll silverware. What the word silverware means. How to ask for a better table, bringing into play assertiveness training. They are exposed to other diners, opening their eyes to the practice of fellow human travelers sharing an eating space. There is a strong etiqette component.

After Restaurant Camp we go to Play at the Park Until We Get Thirsty and Go to Starbucks Camp. This camp is a winner. Two plus hours playing in the sun. Kids can move from area to area as they wish, working on gross motor skills and imaginative play in groups of peers. They are also able to engage with grass, twigs and sticks, waterfowl and reedy areas. There is a Starbucks a short drive from, possibly, any park in America. Chocolate milk caps the day.

As a family, this summer we are also attending Beach Camp. A classic. We’re driving to the same place, but kind of splitting from there. I myself am going to Once We Get to the Beach I’m Going to Read and Relax and Connect with my Husband Camp. My husband, if pattern serves, will be looking forward to Read the Paper Without Interruption Take Naps and Enjoy the Peace and Quiet Camp. While the children are counting  on Playing with Mommy and Daddy All Day Long and Finally Having their Pure and Undivided Attention Without Them Hopping Up to Unload the Dishwasher or Check Something on Their Phones Camp. Scheduling here is key.

I want my children to learn things. I don’t want them to miss out. I tell myself I want them to have advantages I didn’t have. Is that true? Or is it advantages over other kids. Not the ones we know and like, of course. That would be so shallow. I mean nameless, faceless peers who are mean to kitties and don’t even deserve organic trombone lessons.

I remember my own summers. Climbing the dogwood, riding bikes, taking my Barbies outside for a swim in my mother’s stockpot. It wasn’t a perfect childhood, but there’s something that is different from my children’s. And I guess it’s just that I spent so much time in one place. Somewhere on our property, or out in the dead-end road, or nearby at a neighbors. We weren’t scrambling to get places on time. We weren’t going anywhere. Stasis. Which now seems like a dirty word.

Especially during school, my children’s days have edges. Corners and points. They don’t want to go to all the places I take them, thinking I know better how they should spend their time, thinking that they’ll thank me one day.

In my summer experiment, I’m trying to let the summer have softer edges. More rolling, less rushing. More stretching, less straining. As we said our thank-you’s one night before dinner, my six year old held our hands and thanked God “for these long days.” So far he has not thanked God for a class, camp, lesson or enrichment program.

I might come to regret the free-formed spirit of Summer 2013. As with so many parts of parenting, you don’t know if you’re making the right decisions for your children. But I do think I have a new answer to the question. Are my kids doing summer camp? Not this year. This year we’re just doing summer.