We Are Family

Monday morning I got on the phone with a friend from college whom I hadn’t been in the same state as, much less spoken to, since the year I graduated from said university. Roughly twenty-five years or so. We’d been in touch via the Face, as many of us are with peeps from our past, but we hadn’t had a meaningful conversation since, most likely, the summer after graduation. Twenty-five years. It was great. You know you have those people in your life whom you don’t talk to all that often, or see very much, maybe years in between, and when you finally hook up, it’s like a single day hasn’t passed, and you just feel at home, right? Yeah, it was like that. And it’s wild, because obviously SO MUCH time has passed, and things have changed or evolved, you’re in different places, with families, maybe different families from when you saw each other last, whatever your deal is, but it’s like going home. You fit right in, no questions asked. Yeah.

Not to spoil the surprise, but of course this was like that. We cracked jokes, we reminisced for a few minutes, we marveled at how much fucking TIME had passed, and we had a great time, not only in spite of the subject matter but also because of the weight of it.

See, my friend also has a child on the spectrum. In fact, he has two, and that was specifically the reason why I had reached out to him. As I’m still only a year or so into this journey with Duncan, I’m still trying to understand what it means, for the present as well as the future, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to talk with people who have been there, who are still there, who can tell me openly and honestly what their experience has been like, so I can gain some knowledge and even a little comfort from what they have to say. I’ve been reaching out mainly to people I know who have some connection to it, either personally or close by. And as I do this, I continue to be amazed at just how many people do have someone with autism in their lives.

We’ve heard the statistics before – last I heard, I believe it was 1 in 59 children in the US had a diagnosis, so that’s already a lot (and let’s face it, the diagnosis itself has a very broad, excuse the pun, spectrum these days, so there’s a lot going on in there). Then, you start to filter down to the number of people you personally know who are part of this community, and it becomes even more surprising. As of this writing, I have at least five friends with children on the spectrum, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out about more. Of those five, two of those families have more than one autistic child, and my friend I’m writing about told me during our call that he himself had been recently diagnosed. He’s about fifty, and he’d never known it. But it was eye-opening. He said as soon as his doctor told him, so many things about his childhood, his relationships, so many pieces of his life that had been so strange or uncomfortable to him suddenly made sense. He now had a reason for why he responded to those moments or those people the way he did.

It was such a wonderful conversation, and the impetus for him to share all of that made for all the feels. We laughed, we choked up, we sympathized, and we resolved to continue talking about it. Not only that, but also just to get together and shoot the shit, reminisce about our glory days in college, catch up on all the shit that we’ve gone thru since then, just be friends again. It felt so amazing. And it reminded me of what it felt like to be in a community again.

And that’s really what this post is about. He mentioned to me that he had tried support groups for parents in the past, but he hadn’t had a lot of success with them. He’s not the type to just open up to a roomful of strangers, which I totally get, so having someone with whom you already feel comfortable, who already knows the dirty secrets of your past (heh heh heh) – having someone like that with whom you can also share this extremely personal, vulnerable facet of your life with – that’s a blessing. It gives us a way to become even closer, which is pretty amazing, especially after a twenty-five year gap in communication. (P.S.: as I re-read this, I’m aware of the irony that I’m posting this on a blog on the internet, so in essence I AM sharing it with strangers. Immaterial. Life is contradiction, deal with it.)

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my past, about the people I knew then, and how tight some of those bonds were. And I think again at the wonder that Facebook can be. Thanks to this platform of misinformation, I’ve been able to reconnect to people very dear to me from half my life ago, and I’ve even been able to make new friends out of old acquaintances – people from high school who I wasn’t close to but in class with, etc. – people who, like me, have grown up and grown into (sometimes) very different people from who we were then (or, at least, whom we thought we or they were then), and to find new things to love about them or to remember old things that made us love them then and make us continue to do so. College in particular has been ripe for this, mainly because I was in a theatre program, and doing a show with someone is a guaranteed way to get to know them deeply in a very short amount of time. Then put those same people together for show after show for three or four years, and you know things about them that their husbands and wives may not know. Pretty cool, and it makes for solid bonds that can last.

And the cool thing about that is, as I’ve been discussing this whole time, getting to know these people again later in life is truly rewarding. Even when the impetus isn’t always a good one – a family tragedy led a bunch of us to reconnect, and while the event was and is awful, at least there’s some solace to be had in knowing that there are people who care for you, there, ready to listen, to hold you, to lift you up when you need it. A community. A family, even moreso. For a lot of us in that program, I think the theatre gave us a sense of family that we may not have even known we needed. And to have that family available and close again? Breathtaking.

And I share my friend’s trepidation about opening up to a roomful of strangers. I’m probably more likely than him to do it at some point, but I get it, totally. And so I’m glad that he and I have a reason to share with each other, to re-establish that sense of community, to be close again, because I think closeness, community, family – we all need that. Many of us don’t have those bonds with our own families anymore, and so we seek out those that we mesh with, and we build our own families.

I was an only child, no siblings. I never felt that I’d missed out on anything – I think saying there’s a right way or a wrong way to be born is absolute horseshit, and that kind of thinking needs to go away – but I was raised in a household with open doors. My friends were always made to feel welcome, and many of them came to think of my home as their home, too. One friend from high school, recently passed, actually, always referred to my mom as “Mother Teresia”, and he loved to sleep on our couch – he said it was the comfiest couch he’d ever slept on. But I learned early on that family has nothing to do with blood. I’m an only child, but I have so many brothers and sisters. My family is rich and full, and it’s spread all over the world. And it’s always a gift to find a new member of the family, or to reconnect to an old one. The reason doesn’t matter, it’s the bond that counts. The things that we have in common can create ties stronger than blood.

So I had a great fucking time with my brother from another mother this week. Right at the end, he told me that I and another brother from those times are still very popular topics of conversation in his current household. I think we met his wife, then his very new girlfriend, one single time before we all went our separate ways, but it’s pretty incredible to think that we’re somehow still part of their lives. I love it. I can’t wait to talk with my brother again.

I’ll write again later about this phone call and focus a little more on the subject of autism, but for now I really just wanted to express the joy it gave me to talk with my friend. He had a lot to say, and all of ti was helpful to me in so many ways, from just solidarity to logistical issues, and especially lots of humor and love. And the best part is, he helped me see how much having autism in his family has helped him become a better person. Altho he was pretty fucking awesome to begin with.

A Mindful Stupidity

So I’m giving this another go-round, and I intend to make a habit of it. I’ll be asking all my friends who used to read these posts to start doing so again, and maybe a few new ones as well. This one’s fairly serious, but I promise the next one will have lots of fart jokes.

Measles. Take a look at this clip from last night’s episode of The Daily Show:

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/5t2dw1/les-measlesrables

I post serious and snarky stuff on vaccinations all the time, so you’re probably pretty aware of where I stand on the whole thing, but for the sake of clarity, get your kids vaccinated. It baffles me that any responsible parent, from any background, would not take advantage of a scientifically validated and time-tested method of protecting not just children but all of us from deadly diseases.

But it’s the interview with the mom in Marin County that I really want to focus right now. Or rather, the interview and Stewart’s response to it. He says, in response to her comment on her community of thoughtful, well-educated people, “This is Marin County. We’re not rednecks. We’re not ignorant. We practice a mindful stupidity.”

And I think this is at the heart of the problem with the whole anti-vaccination crusade in America, and in fact, with several epidemics in this county not related to disease – prejudice, corruption, etc. We think we’re doing the right thing. With some glaring exceptions, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to protect their children and give them the best possible environment and life in which to grow and live. But we’re Americans, and we live with blinders on, most of us. Even members of the middle and lower classes in this country suffer from the disease of affluenza, specifically American affluenza – that, simply because we live in the greatest country on Earth, nothing can touch us. We can do whatever we want, ’cause we’re Americans, dammit.

Right.

It has been (and continues to be) a trademark of the American personality that we are loud, proud, opinionated, and emotional, and these terms are still being generous. A large chunk of the world would characterize us as arrogant, boastful, and superior. We think we’re above the bad things in the world simply by virtue of being born in this country. Time and time again, this has proven not to be the case, and when it does happen, we respond in a reactionary way with ignorance and fear. We respond like children. We pull the blanket up over our heads. We cover our eyes and ears and say, “No! No! No!” as loud as we can, hoping it will drive the bogeyman away. We lash out and hit things and people. We look for someone to blame.

But we constantly ignore facts because we get so worked up about things. We sacrifice reason and logic because we’re too terrified to look at the bogeyman and see how we might actually beat him.

Only a few hundred years ago, people had no idea what diseases actually were. They believed disease was caused by demons, and they refused to take baths because they believed that the only way to drive off the demons was with a good honest stink. Just today, I saw a news story where New Jersey governor Chris Christie stated that he didn’t believe that restaurant employees should have to wash their hands so much.

So think about this: Scientific evidence supports, I would go so far as to say irrefutably, that disease-causing germs can be transmitted through human contact with raw meats, fecal matter, and dirty water and other contaminated materials. The simple act of washing hands can prevent the spread of many of these germs. Food service workers come into contact with raw meats of all kinds all day long. Then, like most of us do several times a day, they go to the restroom to relieve themselves. So Christie believes that they shouldn’t have to wash their hands after they take a dump and then come back to touch your food? You can see the path of the germ right there, and now we have a prominent politician saying that there’s no good reason to wash your hands if you work in a restaurant. Why?

Because American believe, above all else, in liberty. The ability to choose the things you do and do not do. It’s my right as an American not to wash my hands after I wipe.

Then (and this is in the Daily Show clip as well), Christie has also quarantined an Ebola worker who had NO signs of the disease on the ground that the government should be able to do what is necessary to protect its citizens. Why? Because we’re afraid of Ebola.

You know why we’re afraid of Ebola and not the measles? Because the measles were effectively eradicated in this country over sixty years ago thanks to the widespread use of the measles vaccine. Ebola is a potentially life-threatening virus that we know about mainly because of its highly infectious nature and prevalence in Africa. no, we do NOT want Ebola in the US, nor do we want it anywhere. But we know about it because it’s still around, and very visible. Measles, on the other hand, exist only in a dream, a story we were told in school. It’s almost a fairy tale to us now. How appropriate that it should suddenly spawn an outbreak in Disneyland, where fantasies are the currency of the realm.

We’re not scared of measles because we thought we beat it, and it can’t possibly hurt us anymore. We’re about to be slapped in the face with how wrong we are.

Now here’s the OTHER side of this: once we decide to take on something like this, we often go too far in the other direction. Refer again to Ebola, and the panic that ensued when a handful of cases were reported in the US. Hysteria due to the fact that a well-known and potentially life-threatening disease that we thought could not touch us had now found its way to our soil. The xenophobes among us went on red alert, decreeing that anyone who could possibly have been infected should be quarantined immediately. Well, some of this did happen, and in some cases this action may have helped. But since there are proven procedures that can used to protect from Ebola infection, it went away fairly quickly, and there were only, I believe, one or two fatalities. The predicted pandemic never happened, and it’s because we stopped it with scientific knowledge and diligence.

But measles? Ah, screw it. I’m not vaccinating my kid. It can’t touch me. I live in Marin County, where my money and privilege will no doubt protect me from a microscopic germ. Unless I don’t have to wash my hands. Or my kid goes to a preschool where kids jam lots of toys into their mouths, play in the same dirt and mud, and grab each other all the time. But my sheer American privilege will serve to armor me against the worst of it.

We ignore facts in favor of our emotional responses, and it can often bite us in the ass. The only reason we are now the dominant species on the planet is because we evolved these giant brains to solve problems, oftentimes without using violence, and our big brains have allowed us to climb so far to the top of the heap that we somehow believe we don’t need to use them anymore.

The bogeyman eventually goes away. We grow older, and we realize that we don’t have to be afraid of the dark, that by acknowledging that we KNOW there is nothing there, we’re safe from it. Also, we have parents that, if they’re doing their job, will come into the room and help us banish the bogeyman from the closet or under the bed. We inoculate ourselves against the imaginary fear of something invisible that wants to hurt us. Much the way a vaccine works. It teaches our bodies how to defend themselves against microscopic intruders. But the truth is that the virus never goes away. We’ve just learned how to defend against it. Vaccines are the blanket we pull up over our heads that makes the bogeyman go away. And it works. But only if we use it. If we don’t, we lay there in terror, imagining what will happen to us whenever the bogeyman finally decides to stop teasing us and crawl all the way out of the crack in our closet.

There’s the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There are times when this is true. We know the measles vaccine works, and we know it works better than NOT taking it. The study, refuted for many years now, that vaccines cause autism, scared the bejeesus out of us. We were told that materials in the vaccine could cause brain damage resulting in autism. You know what else causes brain damage? Measles. In children, the disease can progress into measles encephalitis, swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage. Logically, which chance would you rather take? The evidence bears out that vaccines prevent the spread of communicable disease and have no relationship to autism. That’s what we see with our own eyes. But we don’t have to vaccinate our kids if we don’t want to. Because “Murica”.

For millennia people have performed numerous actions to ward off bad luck. Horseshoe over the door, sign of the cross, forking the fingers to ward off the evil eye, not bathing. No one ever really tried to measure whether or not those things worked, and, let’s face it, the Black Death didn’t seem to care much about the horseshoe. Why should measles? Or Ebola? Now, we have something that we can SEE working, and we just shrug it off. It boggles the mind.

And YET, we somehow attempt to raise our kids in a sterile, germ-free environment by constantly telling them to wash their hands, take a bath every day, and Don’t. Get. Dirty. See that grocery cart over there? Wipe it down with that antimicrobial napkin before you even pull it out of the queue. Or Else. It’s absurd to think that we can eliminate ALL germs from our lives, yet we try every second of every day to live like we’re in an operating room. Our immune systems must be confused as hell. Antibacterial soaps have been proven to be no more effective than plain soap and water, and they could possibly be killing off some of the good gut flora we NEED to stay healthy. We can’t seem to get our priorities straight.

And I realize that, in an earlier paragraph, I ranted about washing your hands, but I mentioned a specific TIME to wash your hands: after a bowel movement. Yes, that’s an EXCELLENT time to scrub ’em down, because you wouldn’t want to put that hand in your mouth right now, wouldja? I think that’s a good rule of thumb – if you wouldn’t eat with it right now, wash it. And, I just read an article where doctors believe you shouldn’t give your kids a bath every single day, either, and this ALSO makes sense. Newborn babies aren’t supposed to get baths every day because their delicate skins can’t take it, and let’s face it, they never break a sweat. Bathing them too much can cause rashes, irritating dry patches, and – ┬áin rare cases – infection. My son is five now, and he gets a bath pretty much every three days or so, depending on how active he’s been and how much he reeks. I take a bath every day, but on a daily basis I smell MUCH worse than he ever does. So figure out what works for you and run with that.

I’m not advocating never giving your kids baths. That’s just as ridiculous. But we seem to live in a time of extremes, and it’s gonna catch up with us.

I think that, as always, there is a comfortable middle ground where we can use logic to make rational decisions to emotionally charged questions. But right now we’re so scared of the bogeyman that we just try to ignore it. Measles ain’t the only instance in America of this happening, obviously, but I’m not getting into that right now. But instead of approaching things with an open mind, we trust our own arrogance and remain blissfully ignorant, often with the best of intentions. Because we can.

Not every germ will kill you. It’s okay to get dirty. Wash your crotch on a regular basis, because it gets funky. Vaccinate your kids, because we’ve done a pretty good job of figuring out which germs WILL kill you, and we can stop a lot of them from doing so. Above all, use some common sense, people. It’s something this country has been encouraged not to do lately, and it needs to stop. I wish there was a vaccine for that.