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Stalwarts of the Twentieth Century

A former boss always told me I was great at writing eulogies. Perhaps it is because I have had so many chances. At times, it has seemed as if my wife and I have been to more wakes than dates. The deaths often come in groups. Many people say they come in threes, but it seems like for me the groups are often larger.

A few weeks ago, the former head of human resources at CHC passed away. Here is Mark Masselli’s post about David Landsberg. I went to the wake and hoped, maybe this time, it wouldn’t be the beginning of a new group of deaths. However, I knew better. I knew of others in hospice.

Things remained relatively quiet until Friday of last weekend. The grandfather a young girl at church passed away. One of her friends told me that her friend was said about her grandfather dying. The following day, the grandmother of my two oldest daughters passed away.

I was never very close to my first wife’s mother. She was very strong willed, as am I, and often those wills clashed. She came from a very different world than I did, the upper middle class Midwest. She did a lot in her community and was loved by many. Her obituary describes many of her accomplishments. In many ways, it seems, hers was the life of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, a novel he published the year after her birth, hers was the world that predated Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”.

Then, on Sunday morning, George Wildman passed away. George was the father of a friend from church. He was an artist who drew Popeye and the hidden pictures I looked for as kid in Highlights magazine. George served in the Navy. He was an Elk and a Mason and played the saxophone. He also symbolized mid twentieth century America.

On Wednesday, I learned that Marcia Moody had died. I first met Marcia in 2004 during Gov. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. John Nichols summed up Marcia’s politics this way:

While she delighted in discourse and befriended Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens, Marcia was a passionate progressive. And she had a sense of right and wrong that made her an ardent foe of big-money in politics, lobbyist abuses, and influence peddling.

She embodied the ideal of American politics, something those longing for mid twentieth century America think might have been the case looking back through rosy colored glasses at earlier times.

Thursday. I got to a midday Eucharist which is attended mostly by the Episcopal Church Women stalwarts who serve on the altar guild and similar ministries. I was planning on going to the wake for George in the evening so I vacillated about whether to go to the midday service. I ended up going, and when I got there, I was informed that Joan had died unexpectedly. Joan was one of the regulars at the midday service. She was always there helping, preparing food for events making sure the linens for the altar were clean. Mostly, we sat around and talked about the great things she had done for the church.

It has been a few days since I learned of the death of all these stalwarts of the mid twentieth century. The other crises in my life also seem to be ebbing, so I’m hoping for a little quiet time of reflection before life’s next set of surprises come.

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It must be difficult,
he thought to himself
as he walked down the street
past the park
where he saw
chasing one another,
to have ones attention
to a single thought.

As he found himself
at the flecks of sunlight,
bright and shiny,
in the splashing water
of the fountain
he wondered
how those
too busy
to see
these jewels
managed to keep going.

He stepped up his pace
to that of a New Yorker
late for a meeting
at the young mother
who watched the world
through red rimmed eyes
and the old homeless man
whose hand
every so slightly
with each drink he took.

As he weaved
in and out
of the crowd
in his quickened pace
he wondered
how best
to address
the needs of underserved students
with ADHD,
the topic
of the coming meeting.

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The Social Construction of Disorder

A few years ago, I was welcomed into an online community of differently abled activists, even though I didn’t identify as differently abled, and perhaps I might even have been perceived as being challenged in my understanding of what “differently abled” really means.

There are two particular things that I remember from that group. One was a quote from a person in a wheelchair who said, “I can’t remember your name, but your belt buckle sure looks familiar”. Ever since then, I’ve sought to be on the same level as those around me as much as possible. A second phrase that has stuck with me was about how some members of the community referred to “temporarily able bodied” peopled. I think this is an important perspective.

All of these things come to my mind as I think about disabilities, disorders, and all the other ways we “diss” people. It comes to mind as I think about the social construction of disorder.

One disorder that comes to mind is ADHD, and particularly Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms. He suggests that much of the epidemic of ADHD related prescriptions is really related to issues of school being boring to kids in this highly stimulated internet age. How many kids diagnosed with ADHD are really just bored and are being medicated to keep the classroom under control? I know I was bored in school and probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD. To borrow language from Robinson, I’m not saying there is no such thing as ADHD, I’m simply suggesting that perhaps some of the times that it is thought of as a disorder is really a social construction based on some questionable social norms about order in the classroom.

Likewise, is having a sexual orientation or gender identity different from the norm a disorder, or is that too, a social construct? From the 1970s to the 1990s various health organizations stopped considering homosexuality a disorder and in DSM-V, “Gender Identity Disorder” has been replaced with “Gender Dysphoria”. It is now generally frowned upon to suggest that homosexuals seek therapy to be cured of their homosexuality.

All of this comes up in relation to some recent discussions about ‘the spectrum’. Some refer to this as Autism Spectrum Disorder while others use words like syndrome and neurodiversity.

I was recently reading some of the signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder, as described by the National Institute of Mental Health.

“Having unusual behaviors” – This sure sounds like a social construct to me. Which behaviors are deemed ‘usual’ and which behaviors are ‘unusual’. Does this depend on the culture or other social norms?

‘Having overly focused interests’ – I find this one particularly interesting in contrast to ADHD and not being focused enough.

‘Having a lasting, intense interest in certain topics, such as … facts.’ Perhaps this is one of the biggest concerns right now. Having a lasting interest in facts is considered a disorder? Perhaps this says something about where we are as a nation politically right now.

‘Making little or inconsistent eye contact’ - This is another one that jumps out at me. In my readings about cultural competency in health care the role of eye contact is regularly mentioned as varying by culture. As an example, one (of many) courses on cultural competency in health care notes, “Eye contact with a health care professional may be avoided as a sign of respect.”

Another that especially grabs my attention is ‘Repeating words or phrases that they hear, a behavior called echolalia’ Those of us who call ourselves poets have a different word for repeating words or phrases: anaphora. Anaphora is an important rhetorical device.

Immediately after that sign or symptom comes, “Using words that seem odd, out of place, or have a special meaning known only to those familiar with that person’s way of communicating” I have to wonder if some of those words include echolalia, anaphora, or perhaps rhizome or performativity .

‘Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said’ – Here we are back to our cultural competency ideas. Facial expressions are a function of one’s culture, one’s social context.

Again, I will return to Sir Ken Robinson’s disclaimer. I am not saying that there is no such thing as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or even disorders around sexual orientation and gender identity. I am simply suggesting that we need to look very closely at when these are truly disorders and when they are social constructs.

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