Helping “Hands”

 

handhaving_hennep_algemeen

My husband and I, along with our daughter, began to visit The Netherlands about four years ago after our younger son married a Dutch woman and subsequently moved there. He now lives in a small town outside of Utrecht, and my daughter-in-law’s parents live quite near Utrecht, so we make the city our base of operations. Lucky us—it is a beautiful, charming, vibrant place. Maybe our favorite city in Holland. And because we’ve been there a few times, we can enjoy just strolling along the Oudegracht or relaxing at a café people watching (yes, and drinking beer—this is Holland) without feeling the need to schlep to the important “sites.”

One afternoon as we sat on a bench a block from the Dom Tower—the symbol of Utrecht—we noticed a police car pull up in front of a van that was parked partially on the sidewalk. Clearly, the van was not supposed to be there. Two officers got out of the car and went to look at and into the van. Then they walked over to the smoothie truck doing a brisk business across the street and asked the proprietor if she knew anything about the van. No luck. Then they stopped into a store nearby and made further inquires. Bingo. A woman came out of the shop carrying a carton and loaded it into the van as she chatted amicably with the officers, who then got into their car and left. The woman finished whatever it was she needed to do and, eventually, she, too, drove off.

We were amazed. That ain’t how it goes down back home. If a traffic cop in New York City had spotted a vehicle illegally parked by even an inch, he or she would have started writing the ticket instantaneously, and, if the poor schmuck who owned the car tried to talk to them, plead with them, well, you know how well that would go. I don’t think anyone’s ever had a pleasant exchange, to say the least, with a NYC traffic cop.

When I mentioned what I’d seen in Utrecht to my daughter-in-law, she explained that the Dutch officers were not police, but part of the Handhaving unit (translated as maintenance, upkeep; assertion, enforcement). In addition to parking issues (including bikes and scooters—again, this is Holland), they monitor illegal waste dumping, and “nuisance behavior.” They also can request identification or issue fines or warnings for petty offences, and, if they consider it necessary, they notify the correct authorities or the police. They are authorized to use force with or without the use of weapons (meaning batons, not guns). Most officers are equipped with handcuffs, and in Utrecht and Amsterdam they also carry pepper spray.

Handhavers are there to make sure civic life goes along smoothly. (Our daughter-in-law, a teacher, also told us that one of her students, a 14-year-old boy, wrote his English essay on wanting to be a Handhaver when he grew up so that he could help people.)

What a great idea—an official organization that supports the police and serves as eyes on the street—and is not antagonistic to the public it serves. Car parked illegally? There must be a reason. Oh, you’re running a business and need to load things into the van. You’re leaving in ten minutes? Okay. Alstublieft. Have a good day.

I recognize that the Netherlands is a much smaller country than the United States and more homogenous (although this is changing). But imagine employing people as Handhavers in our cities. In view of the horror of the recent shootings of both police and civilians in the U.S., wouldn’t it be wonderful if a little Handhaving could give us a hand in reducing the tension between the police and the public? Things are not ideal in Holland, but the Dutch seem to have a better idea of how to treat each other and how, in a sensible, humane way, to keep the peace.

 

The Deep Roots of Trauma

Prod_62_rootYesterday, 26 years after the fact, I had a flashback to the accident in which I lost my right leg. I thought I no longer had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Clearly, I had underestimated its persistence.

I have, more or less, done well since the accident—with psychological therapy, the support of friends and family—and excellent prosthetists. But it didn’t take much to bring me back to the day when an Olds 88 jumped the curb and barreled into me while I was holding my three-year-old son. Miraculously, my little boy was unharmed. If circumstances had varied by a few inches or moments we surely would have been killed.

About five years ago I had another PTSD experience. I had been asked to counsel a woman around my age who had recently lost her leg. I was happy to do so. We talked several times and I hoped to show her by the example of my own unspectacular, but mostly happy, life, that despite her loss and the very real discomforts and difficulties of disability, she, too, would eventually feel better and find purpose and even joy again. But I couldn’t get through to her. And her impenetrable despair summoned up the madness I experienced following my accident. I started down the rabbit hole again. I had to stop contacting her.

Yesterday’s flashback happened during a physical therapy session. Although needing PT  is a reminder of my disability, it had never before triggered PTSD. My therapist couldn’t be nicer or more capable. She has helped me immeasurably. All she did, for the purpose of learning more about how I use my body, was ask how I would move if something were about to fall on me. But at the time of the accident, when I saw the car coming at me, I had had to make a decision about what to do, which direction to go in, in a millisecond. I heard the question and was instantaneously back to that moment. It didn’t last long, but it was frightening and disorienting.

I have read a bit about trauma, most recently the excellent The Body Keeps the Score. I knew that trauma, like a virulent invasive species, takes root not only in our minds but in our bodies and is almost impossible to eradicate. I know my son has been dealing with what happened his whole life. Yet I was surprised at my reaction, my feelings of panic and sadness, so long after the event.

There is more awareness these days of PTSD and more treatments available—although, sadly, this has a lot to do with the number of traumatized veterans. An analysis done in 2014 found that the rate of PTSD in soldiers returning from Iran and Afghanistan as well as in veterans of Vietnam to be as high as 31%.

Overall, about 7-8% of people in the United States will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Knowing first-hand how intractable PTSD is, I can only hope that everyone who suffers from it gets the help and support they need.

 

Disability Dress Code

Dress-Code_October-2014Recently, The New York Times ran a story about increased scrutiny of veterans who were running for political office. The focus of the piece was Brian Mast, a southeast Florida Republican who lost both legs in Afghanistan, and is campaigning for a House seat. The article quoted a comment questioning whether Mast is “using” his disability to further his advantage in the competition. Apparently, the commenter objected to the fact that Mast prefers to wear shorts, rather than long pants, which means that his prosthetics are visible. In what way being disabled gives one a political edge is not specified: Pity? Guilt? One can, however, easily imagine ways in which voters might consider a candidate’s disability a negative.

Mast says it’s just easier to wear shorts, rather than put on trousers, and that the prosthetics’ sharp edges tear his pants. (And, remember, the man lives in Florida.) My experience with fellow amputees leads me to think that practical considerations–and there are others–are not the only reasons he makes this choice. It is a sign of acceptance: these are my legs now. And there is even a certain macho pride men in particular take (although some women do as well) in displaying their prosthetic legs. They are cool-looking in a futuristic-bionic kind of way. But, more importantly, why should they cover them? The implication is that they’re something to be ashamed of. That one’s disability should, if at all possible, be hidden—because disability makes people uncomfortable. It would be wonderful if almost 2,000 veterans hadn’t returned from Iraq and Afghanistan missing limbs. But it happened. It may make some uneasy to be reminded of that, but that’s on them. Mast is someone who served, was hurt, and continues to deal with the consequences every day of his life. He is not “using” his disability. He is someone with a disability. He is simply running for office as himself.

 

It Wasn’t Black and White

bird and fishMy (Jewish) mother once told me that, some years before she met my father, an Italian (Catholic) man had proposed to her. She went to her mother to ask what she should do. My grandmother answered with an old saying—“A fish and a bird can fall in love, but where will they build a nest?” I assumed it was translated from the Yiddish and maybe made more sense in that language. Because, on the face of it, it really is ridiculous. Under what circumstances could a fish and a bird fall in love? How, even today in this age of the internet, would they meet? What online dating service could they use? The image that floats before my eyes is that of Sandy the Squirrel on SpongeBob Squarepants, her head encased in a big glass globe so that she can breathe, trying to make a life under water. And another thing. What’s that about building a nest? Why does the bird get to choose where they’ll live?

Of course I realized the point my bubbe was making was that you should stick to your own kind. Try as you might to negotiate between two different cultures, you wouldn’t be accepted or comfortable in either world. Life was hard enough—why go looking for trouble?

That marrying someone of another faith was considered as outlandish as inter-species mating goes a long way toward illustrating how closed minded—and maybe afraid—my grandmother’s generation was. It also shows that my mother’s generation was not that far ahead in its thinking, because my mother rejected the offer. In all fairness, the proposal must have come sometime in the 1930s or early 40s, and, although my mother was in New York and not Europe, marrying a non-Jew during the Holocaust would have felt like an act of betrayal.

My mother shared this story of her romantic interlude with me when I was 15. A neighborhood boy, Catholic, had asked me out. Lee was part of a group of friends I hung out with. He was a sweetie—and really, really cute—and attending St. Regis High School. Decades had gone by since the proposal, but my mother still said no way. I didn’t agree, but didn’t argue. Or, more accurately, being the teenage me, I screamed and yelled, but didn’t defy her and didn’t date him.

A few years later I was a freshman at City College. I was at City because my family couldn’t afford to send me to even a state college. So poor I qualified for the work-study program at a place where tuition was free. My father worked two jobs and my mother had worked until she became ill, but we were barely making it.

One night I went to a mixer, probably at the urging of my friend Barbara, with boys from Columbia University. And there I ran into an old high school classmate—M.

M., Barbara, and I had gone to the Bronx High School of Science together. At Science, the president of the student association was a black girl who later became an actress. My freshman history teacher was a black woman. But before high school, I had never even had a black kid in any of my classes. There was one Puerto Rican girl, Tina, in my kindergarten. I remember we all wanted to be her friend because she was so exotic. There were two Chinese kids in my elementary school. No black kids. In junior high, the black kids were funneled into the “regular” classes. I was in the so-called SP—Special Progress—all-white class.

The only black person I knew growing up was the superintendent of the building across the street. He lived in the basement apartment. There were no black tenants in the building. In the 1950s, at a time when children were taught to call grown-ups Mr. and Mrs., he was known by one and all as Charlie. My mother, to her credit, told me to call him Mr. Reed. She was sympathetic to the civil rights movement, horrified by the violence: the fire hoses and attack dogs, the murders and assassinations. She would say, “Negroes and whites will never really be friends until we can sit down and have a cup of tea together.” But I’m not sure if she meant that she thought that time was imminent or that it would never come. At any rate, she never actually invited a black person in for tea.

M. was pre-med. He was tall and good-looking and funny and charming. A real catch, as we might have said in those days. I hadn’t known him that well at Science, but it was nice to see a familiar face at the party and we gravitated toward each other. We had a good time together and he asked to take me home. I happily agreed. When the cab pulled up in front of my apartment house, M., the gentleman, said he would see me to the door. I told him he didn’t have to. He offered again. I said really, it’s not necessary. He didn’t ask a third time.

I liked him. I wasn’t worried he was going to do anything more than try to kiss me goodnight. So why did I say no? It wasn’t because I was afraid that my mother would have disapproved. I knew she would have—despite her fairly enlightened views. She still held firm to the fish/bird version of relationships. But I was 18 and a college girl who also had a job and the world was changing and I felt I could have stood up to her. No, it wasn’t that at all.

It was because I was ashamed of where I lived. I was ashamed of being poor. At night, in the dark, to someone looking out the window of a taxi, my building, my block, could “pass” as middle class. But I didn’t want M. to see them up close. The broken lock on the front door. The run-down hallway with walls in need of new paint and missing tiles on the floor. The cracked window on the landing of the staircase. The roaches.

After that night I waited for M. to call, but he never did. I was hurt and disappointed. I was so inside my bad feelings about myself that it was years—many, many years— before it occurred to me that M. might have interpreted what happened between us differently. That he might have believed I hadn’t wanted him to escort me to my door for a another reason altogether: I didn’t want the neighbors to see me with him because he was black.

Maybe that wasn’t what he thought. I could be putting too much meaning onto this. Maybe he hadn’t liked me as much as he seemed to, or met someone he liked even more. Or he didn’t want to date someone going to a less prestigious college. An English major, despite her Science education, to boot. Perhaps he was too busy with his studies to date at all. Or maybe I had it exactly backwards: His parents forbade the relationship. They didn’t want him seeing a white girl.

I’ve sometimes thought of trying to locate him and ask him how he remembers that night. My fiftieth high school reunion is this year, and, even though I can’t go, maybe he will, and I’ll send a message to him through Barbara. I want to know if he still thinks I refused his offer to walk me to my door because of prejudice.

I would love him to know the truth. In all probability he has long forgotten all about me. But I carry that moment inside me always. It holds so many different sadnesses: that someone I cared about thought that I was a racist; that I believed I was “less than” because I was poor; that there was an era in my lifetime when a difference in religion or skin color was considered irrefutable evidence of incompatibility. When even well-intentioned people saw nothing wrong in saying about people of another race, “It’s not that I have anything against them . . . but I wouldn’t want my child to marry one.”

 

 

Standarized Test Mania, Dutch Style

Dutch schoolsI just finished Skyping with my son and daughter-in-law in The Netherlands. It is always a joy to speak with them, and after each time I do I miss them more. They both are teaching—he music in an international school, and she English in a public school. While my son is happy with (if exhausted by) his work, my daughter-in-law is having her doubts. It seems educationally Holland is caught up in the same testing fervor we are in the U.S. Her middle-school-aged students’ performance is judged entirely on a series of national standardized tests. And those tests, consisting of listening to and watching videos and then answering multiple-choice questions, are designed with similar “tricks” so characteristic of the old SAT. (Tricks that necessitated test prep not so much on subject matter but on how to game the exam.) For each English question on the test there is always an official “right” answer, but there is often also a possible plausible alternative. “A” may be “correct,” but “B” or “C” might also make sense.

My daughter-in-law gave an example: the class was shown a clip from a documentary of a solider struggling to fit a chimpanzee into a spacesuit before it is sent into space. The scene was disturbing—the chimp is shown screaming and trying to escape. The soldier seems at a loss as to what to do, and speculates that perhaps the chimp is upset because not only was it taken from its family, but now it was taken out of the facility in which it had been living. After seeing it, the students were asked what was the net takeaway. The supposed right answer is that the soldier doesn’t know what to do. But one of the other choices is that the chimpanzee is homesick. Any child who chose that answer was marked wrong. So the stronger emotional aspect of the video—the animal’s distress—the one that surely had most impact on anyone watching, was discounted.

What is especially upsetting to my daughter-in–law is that so much depends on these tests. (Testing is also used in a more basic way in Holland to track students into different levels of education.) Even though she knows some of her students are more proficient in English than their test scores would indicate, she can not pass them if they fail. And if they fail, they must repeat the entire year. And if they fail again, they must leave the school. English is one of three essential subjects in the Dutch schools (the others are Dutch and math). It is understandable that, in today’s global economy, it is important for the kids to know English. But so much time is spent on the tests, and (as here) on test prep, that there is not enough time left over for conversation or reading more interesting materials. No time to make learning English less of an anxiety-ridden chore.

At least in the U.S. there has been some movement away from the mania to quantify achievement through testing and the use of exams to judge teachers’ performance. One hopes it is not too late to repair what they have wrought: the diminishment of education and the stigmatization and demoralization of teachers. It is as if the people who devised the test-based curriculums had never been inside a classroom, never had a good teacher, or have no understanding of the way children actually learn. Or, perhaps, more cynically, as we know some of them send their sons and daughters to private schools that do not emphasize standardized tests, they feel this approach is good enough for everyone else’s kids.

Even if increased testing started as a well-intentioned effort to raise standards, to insure that all children were taught the basics, it has devolved into a joyless, dehumanizing, second-class system. Cold comfort that it exists in other countries as well.

 

Telling the Dancer from the Dance

AXIS+Dance+Company+2015+photo+by+David+DeSilva+5

Recently I went to a joint dance performance by the Heidi Latsky Dance and Axis Dance troupes intended to honor the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both companies are composed of able-bodied and disabled dancers. In addition to the stage performance, Latsky had created a living installation in the multi-level lobby of the theater, titled “On Display.” It consisted of about 30 people, some with disabilities, posing like statues and wearing (awful) white costumes that resembled hospital gowns. On a screen in one part of the lobby were words on a continuous loop describing the physical characteristics of the people posing. A voice mechanically intoned the words. The audience, some standing, some sitting on the stairs, watched as the performers, never interacting with them, slowly changed their positions. Some of the performers were visible to people on the street, who, as they were walking by, stopped to watch.

“On Display” seems to want to challenge the way we judge people by their appearance. Its stated purpose, posted on a signboard, was to explore “what our gaze is drawn to, and how long we will linger there.” And I guess one way it achieved that was simply by making us think about the question of how we see others. Perhaps, too, some of those who viewed the performers for a prolonged period did become aware of whether they looked at certain features, or certain people, more than others. Maybe they found themselves either focused on or repelled by the people with disabilities and asked themselves why.

But my impression was that the installation—perversely, as this was supposed to be a tribute to the ADA—resembled a freak show more than a museum display; in other words, one was reminded of bodies being used for voyeuristic purposes, not for aesthetic enjoyment or an intellectual exercise. We audience members had paid to see a show; we were the ones privileged to look. The performers were there for our amusement.

I found the atmosphere oppressive: the crowded space, the figures under the spotlights, the loud, droning, impersonal voice. I felt as if I were on display, and wondered what the other audience members who had disabilities thought. People with disabilities are used to being either stared at or ignored. Or, to be more exact: being stared at and then ignored. “On Display” mimicked that experience. Was I being too sensitive? Maybe. But while I was prepared to see the dances, I was not expecting the confrontational aspect of the installation.

Disappointingly, the dances themselves did not really incorporate the disabled performers in a meaningful way. The glory clearly went to the trained, able-bodied dancers. Just as “On Display” had not been fully thought through, neither Latsky’s nor Axis’s choreography had figured out how best to present and use the disabled body in a performance context. Still, I applaud them for bringing people with disabilities into mainstream dance. Seeing someone in a wheelchair, or with cerebral palsy, or with one arm, on the stage helps normalize the idea that dance, the most physical of art forms, can be barrier-free. At some point, perhaps, this integration will cease to be awkward or unusual, and become the definition of what dance is, who dancers are.

Girls Are Good, Too

One Child posterChina just announced that it is ending its one-child policy. Not that this means families can have as many kids as they want—just that now they legally can have two. In fact, minorities and couples in which both husband and wife are themselves only children were already allowed to have two children. Still, this new rule is an improvement. Ironically, though, there have been many anecdotal reports of people stating they want only one child as the cost of living is so expensive they don’t think they could afford more than one.

While I am happy for the people in the PRC who do wish for a second child, I realize that the policy change comes too late for those families, past childbearing years, whose one son or daughter has died, such as those whose children were killed in their ill-constructed schools during the 2008 Szechuan earthquake.

I also think about the anguish of the Chinese parents who gave up their babies, mostly girls, because of the policy, believing that having a healthy son was their only chance for some degree of economic security—or for survival. They abandoned their female infants to avoid cruel punishments for going over quota.

I remember a crudely-painted billboard in Guangzhou that we passed in 1997 when we went to finalize the adoption. It showed a smiling man holding up a little girl. The characters translated roughly as: “Girls are Good, Too.” This campaign didn’t seem to work very well, considering the vast numbers (never accurately counted) of baby girls who were being cared for in the orphanages throughout China.

The abandonments, and, later, the wider availability of amniocentesis and ultrasound leading to selective abortions, resulted in a severe shortage of women in China. Based on 2010 numbers from the United Nations Population Fund, China is “missing” about 24 million girls between the ages of 0 and 19. That’s over 14 percent of the female population in that age range. Recently, a proposal was (perhaps only half-seriously) made by a professor in Zhejiang that men share wives. This is outrageous, of course, but, sadly, a less brutal solution than the ongoing trafficking of women for forced marriages.

Of course I recognize that the one-child policy, while causing so much pain to Chinese people, worked to my and my husband’s benefit, and to the benefit of the tens of thousands of others around the world who adopted from China. It is only because of the family-size restriction, coupled with a traditional preference for boys, and China’s finding itself unprepared to cope with the immense population of abandoned children, that we have our daughter.

Those of us who adopted from China closely follow the changes in the family planning rules. Each time something is announced we are reminded of how and why we have our children. We are reminded about the loss endured by so many mothers and fathers, and we think about how they must feel each time the regulations are eased.

And we also revisit our fears about the baby trafficking in China, a horrible byproduct of the demand for children both inside and outside the PRC. Did we unwittingly abet this horror because our contributions to the orphanages made it clear that a considerable profit could be made from selling babies? And were our own children falsely represented as orphans or abandoned so that they were available for adoption?

I take comfort in the fact that when we adopted there were so many abandoned children that there was little incentive to traffic children. And from our meeting, when we went back to China ten years later, with the police chief who was there when our daughter was found and told us the story of that day.

Our child is a half-hearted student of Mandarin. She didn’t enjoy our trip to China and has no interest in ever going back. Now in college, she is still sorting out her identity. Raised in a Caucasian family, she doesn’t feel Chinese. But whenever there is a news story about the PRC, especially one that’s about the one-child policy—the reason that we are together— I realize anew that she is, as we are, forever connected to China.