Research what you care about -- before writing it!

One of the interesting writing blogs I read, Writerly Life, has a routine feature called the Mailbag, where the author quotes some of the responses that were left in an article's comments section.  I missed the original piece Write About What You Care About, but I did catch the follow-up for it.  Most of the advice people referred to (or offered) sounded spot-on right, but there was one little issue that left me uncomfortable, so I felt compelled to offer a response...
I agree with all of that, with an added bold-faced addition about others' perspectives: ensure that your research centers around what people in that situation have written & said about their lives. That especially applies if the character has a disability, as "experts" and parents can only describe their conclusions based on what they see from the outside or what we tell them, and can't actually give you the internal viewpoint one of us has.

To get back to the point of the article/letters, I was passionate enough when writing about being autistic firsthand to read everything I could find by others on the spectrum. Their perspectives significantly improved the quality of my work, based on the feedback I was getting, as they had quite different ways of describing (and sometimes percieving) things, which let me see some of my own assumptions about the topic.

One favorite I recall, which I've used to help my writing in general, was the idea of distinguishing between how a person/we sees their/our traits, and where they/we have internalized others' opinions. Simple concept, but it's interesting and useful to go over one's characters (or self-perceptions) that way and see what pops up. (For example, offhand: does Suse hate her lingering accent on her own, or perhaps that boy that's overly friendly in chapter 6 was vicious about it when they were little, until...)

Quote borrowed from Estee Klar

Catching up with parent-ally Estee Klar's recent blog posts, I got to see this great quote:
“An individual having unusual difficulties in coping with his environment struggles and kicks up the dust, as it were. I have used the figure of a fish caught on a hook; his gyrations must look peculiar to other fish that don’t understand his circumstances: but his splashes are not his affliction, they are an effort to get rid of his affliction and as every fisherman knows, these effects may succeed.”
– Karl Mennenger
I view my depression & anxiety as afflictions, but they're the symptomatic reaction to how our society & its people handle people like myself or my mother. They're a response to knowing that no matter how sick I am, my non-disabled brother can't be bothered to drive Mom to the doctor, and that Mom's oldschool sexism makes her believe that it's totally normal for young men since "normal" men aren't nurturing.

The depression and anxiety, to veer more towards Estee's commentary, are from the nightmare of trying to seem "normal" throughout my first relationship, being mistreated without understanding what I was doing wrong. Dating a fellow autistic seemed like the perfect antidote -- but the emotional problems were only deepened tenfold, beacuse the autie had been trained harshly to fit in, and felt it was his job to 'helpfully' point out all of the tiny ways I didn't, to tell me what a freak his friends thought I was, and impress upon me how he didn't want to be unemployed as that would mean he's a worthless, useless "eater" undeserving of love.

Being autistic and having my physical disabilities aren't afflictions that I struggle to break free from... No, I was a very happy girl as I was, proud of being myself rather than trying to fit in, dedicated to honing the talents that I was also proud of. It wasn't until people I looked up to (or at least thought were worth listening to) started communicating their bigoted, hateful thoughts that I was afflicted with anything or started feeling like I was flailing ineffectually against an invisible monster determined to eat me alive. Hopefully we can find some way to keep future generations from being threatened similarly -- perhaps with some targeted "early intervention" of non-disabled kids & their parents, to make sure they don't become some other innocent's nightmare affliction.

Old myths don't die, do they?

I was hanging out at reading responses to the latest Dear Prudence column, when I saw the return of an old myth. Their autistic father had put up with decades of nastiness from his wife, then when she became severely disabled late in life, he carefully took care of her -- and, after that bittersweet tale, the person commented that "Autism often involves the absence of major emotional reactions to life situations."

Sigh. I'd had other plans for what I was going to do on the computer this evening, but when no other "advocates" responded to the post, I had to do so. I'll share here what I said, with an added footnote:
[Person], speaking as an autistic we're wired to show emotions very differently, and it's an old myth that we have none. (As one of us* wryly put it years ago: we can't read non-autistics, so they think we're unable to read anybody; NAs can't read us, so they assume we're incapable of expressing anything.) My father's autistic as well, and while we can seem enigmatic to non-auties, we have no problem sensing one another's feelings.

I can easily understand your father staying & taking care of your mom after she became severely disabled. Most auties hold very tightly to the ideas of right & wrong we learned as kids, to the point that how someone else acted towards us is often irrelevant. The right thing to do, if one's partner becomes severely disabled, is to take care of them; the wrong thing to do would be to use it against them or leave.

I keep bookmarks for educating folks on autistic minds, I'd be honored if you use them to understand your dad & other auties in your family:

I hope you have a great week!

*The person that made the wry observation was Frank Klein. He ran a wonderful site of personal essays, which is now only available through the Wayback Archive: Autistic Advocacy.

Autistic breath of fresh air

It must be Interesting Article Month or something, since I just saw another on Salon that I had to share my reply to.  This one had the interesting title of How My Son Has Taught Me About His Autism; while it repeated some common misconceptions, it was very unusual in that it was about a mother listening to her young son and other autistic people, not running around crying that autism ate her baby.  Here is what I replied with:

Seeing an article by a non-autie parent of an autistic-spectrum kid, I immediately became anxious from too much experience... 99% of the time, such things boil down to: my child is broken. Being autistic, with an autistic father I'm really proud of & a ton of other autistic-spectrum relatives on both sides, seeing our kind of person referred to that way is upsetting.
It's good that you're listening to your son, doubly so that you're listening to autistic people, not just "experts" making guesses from the outside! I was interested to see his description of his mind isn't far from how my mother (not sure what she is) describes hers; mine is more synaesthetic like moving textured swirls of color, but when translating my thoughts into words, I use a similar computer/dictionary kind of method.
You have to be careful, though: most of today's young spectrum folk were raised to see everything about themselves as dysfunctional, and to view bullying/mistreatment from the self-blaming perspective of an abuse victim. They make it seem logical to figure "if he seems more like them, they won't hit him" instead of the way we'd handle it for anyone else: "hitting kids for being different isn't acceptable."
The theory of mind idea is actually wildly inaccurate. To begin with, everyone interprets human behavior based on their personal, cultural & neurological background; the way you politely show appreciation for a home-cooked meal in Italy, for example, is really offensive in America. Also, non-auties as a group are much worse when it comes to reading us than vice-versa, so that most of the literature on autism and how to treat or help us is wildly inaccurate as a result.
I'll tackle another couple of misconceptions... We don't find life itself confusing, just things (social structures, room layouts, etc.) designed for non-auties. We have our own ways of interacting, communicating nonverbally, and socializing that work great with other autistics. We also have hardwired ways of relieving stress & anxiety like the steam in a teakettle -- stims (repetitive actions), perseverating (intense studying of a favorite subject). The best way for us to avoid isolation isn't to put on a big act to hang out with non-auties, it's to find others of our own kind that share one of our interests.
With that in mind, if you want to help your son and protect him, seek out our wonderful parent-allies like Estee Klar & fellow auties that (like me) perseverate on understanding & accepting autistic neurology. My namelink points to my autism bookmarks on that topic, including ones going to Estee's blog.
Good luck to you and your son... I hope you two, as well as all of the other autistics & parent-allies (allies are the ones that don't want to cure, normalize, or abort us) have a good week!

Can horses goose-step?

This might have been the weirdest movie-review debacle I've heard of... First, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir posted a what-the-hell-was-he-on review of Secretariat (seriously, it has to be read to be believed), to which I replied:
First, a side FYI: "Sham" was the name of one of the three stallions that all thoroughbreds can trace their ancestry back to, who was also known as the Godolphin Arabian.

Anyway... Several years ago, my brother gave me a copy of a bestseller about one of the great racehorses. The big problem was that the book was completely focused on the people around the horse -- the horse was more like a vague far-in-the-background plot device -- so I found it painfully boring.

So chances are that I won't bother with this movie... Sounds like it's mostly about the people here, too. Meh.

That said, what you described is how virtually all horse stories work -- they're supposed to tell of how the horse went from being a nobody to something great. Somebody (often a kid or cynical adult) gets a horse that's supposedly unsuitable for whatever it was bred for, stick with the long days of training through various small crises or setbacks, and emerge victorious.

That that narrative is precisely why Secretariat, Man O'War, and other top racehorses were so beloved back in their day. While you sneered at it for not focusing on current events, the reality is that Americans saw the horses as symbols of their own ability to potentially succeed, and focused on racing to escape the events around them.

The reality is also that for many people, the turmoil of that time basically didn't reach them. My parents were hippies, and from the many stories they've told, their siblings, parents, and grandparents *were* isolated by their upper-middle-class communities. It was the equivalent to what the Haiti disaster is for most of us.

I'm definitely curious whether the movie mangled the facts about Secretariat or his handlers. I'll have to look into that... For what it's worth, I'd say that for a female protagonist, an industry that refuses to accept women *is* a significant obstacle -- it's unclear whether you dismiss that issue, or if the movie did a poor job of depicting it.

Slate's Dana Stevens agreed with him, but added more interesting information with Bio-pics of Lennon & Secretariat an oddly fitting pairing .  I figured I'd toss in my ten cents there as well:
Actually, I like your review a lot better than the one at Salon that you referenced... Among other things, he didn't mention what the woman's obstacle was regarding the farm, just that there was a tax problem, which is different from losing her father's farm. I get the feeling that before commenting on specific things, you'd look up a little about it first. (Like "Sham": anyone that read Margurite Henry's books as a horse-crazy kid can explain that "Sham" was one of the 3 stallions that all thoroughbreds are descended from.)

It sounds like "Secretariat" is designed the way virtually all horse movies are -- the problem is in the current tendency to market them as being for general adult audiences, when horse movies are almost always basically for horse-crazy types, especially kids. That's why the genre focuses on the bond between the horse and a human or two: that's why we watch. Or put another way, when I watched "The Black Stallion", I wanted to be reminded of how amazing animal-human bonds can be; with "Phar Lap", I was curious about the life of a famous race horse in historical Australia and his bond with his caretakers.

Back in the mid-20th century, Americans adored racehorses because the horses were both a symbol of the ability to become one of the greats through talent & effort, and of their own ability to use knowledge & dedication to succeed. In other words, their obsession was a way of escaping the reality of their lives; they didn't want a reminder when watching related movies. Also, according to my SF Bay Area former-hippy parents, an affluent mother back then would hear about some of the events through gossip or the news, but it was like far away problems we're not directly affected by today.
Here's where things swung towards weirdness straight into really funny.  Evidently the cluster of readers at Salon & I that disagreed with O'Hehir's weird review weren't quite alone, because Roger Ebert felt the need to post a grand, extremely funny smackdown, called Secretariat Was Not A Christian.  (Muahahahaha!) My two favorite quotes:
I question if a single American, right-thinking or left-thinking, thought even once of Secretariat as a Nietzschean Überhorse. Nor did many consider the Triple Crown victories as a demonstration of white superiority, because race horses (which seem to enjoy winning for reasons of their own) are happily unaware of race. Does a horse think of a human as belonging to another race? I speculate that a horse considers a human as a differently-abled horse. A cat, now, may belong to another race. ...

I am so totally not kidding if I ask, must a man who does indeed look like Pancho Martin therefore be "villainous, swarthy and vaguely terrorist-flavored?" And as for the hapless Sham, the horse with the evil name, for Christ's sake, O'Hehir, that was the horse's damn name.

Dogs sure didn't teach him to research...

I just wrote a letter in response to an interview with an author on Salon that really drove me batty, Did Dogs Teach Us To Love? Rather than try to explain, I'll reprint the relatively small amount I tackled in More errors than I could shake a stick at...aaargh!!!:
Anybody that finds this interesting should read Do Cats Speak? by Paul Corey. It's out of print, but worthwhile & dispels old stereotypes about cats.

I don't think there's any animal in the wild who [makes friends].

Dogs aren't wild... Among domestic animals, it's a matter of whether it's raised to regard others as a threat. As owners of cats and horses can attest, they'll befriend all kinds of creatures if they feel safe.

I could believe that [it's all about being fed] about cats.

It isn't the case. Kittens show attachment while they're still nursing, and cats don't stop because there's no food around.

I mean, they can become affectionate but it's not like they just love us, whatever we do to them.

Socialized domestic animals (dogs, cats, horses, etc.) all act remarkably alike about this. They'll react with shock/confusion if a person they've bonded with strikes them, but won't reject the person unless they're beat enough to decide the person's a threat.

[Cats were very solitary but] they've overcome that.

All kinds of wild & feral cats are born and live in hierarchical groups; they're healthiest/happiest with other cats, preferably ones they grew up with. Nothing to overcome there.

[Dogs & cats] are part of the human family in a way that no other domesticated animal is.

Currently in America, yes, because that's how our society is structured. It's different in other times/cultures: Arabian horses lived in the tent with their masters, some cultures don't see dogs/cats as pets at all. the ability to trust us, dogs have achieved something that no other animal has achieved.

With horses, it's less common as only a percentage of trainers use the methods that allow for that, but they & cats are capable if humans let them.

Benjy would be fine around a newborn. ... I would hesitate before allowing my cats in there. You just never know what a cat might do.

Your dog would be fine; that doesn't mean dogs as a group are. A cat might try to sleep with/on a baby, but that's about it -- some dogs will bite, though.

I must say, there's a gender difference here. I think that women tend to be, the minute they see something like that, oxytocin begins to flow and then the kind of maternal protectiveness, a nurturing instinct.

*gag* A lot of men are nurturing, a lot of women aren't; it's a stereotype! AFAIK, oxytocin's released just during labor -- women don't just randomly pump it out upon seeing young; a lot of us lack maternal urges towards babies or any urge to reproduce.

...people who work with pit bulls say, yep, [they're vicious despite upbringing].

All of the people I've encountered that specialize in rehabilitating pit bulls say the opposite: that their bad rep has been a recent issue from being raised to guard/fight, and can usually be overcome. *All* breeds have bad seeds, regardless.

...cats are so aloof.

People that feel cats are "aloof" have no clue about how to read their body language, or have cats that aren't used to people that can. That's from a lot of experience with even abused/feral cats.

And [cats will] bring back rabbits and rats and birds ....

Cats are like that IF they grew up outside with a mother that taught them; they bring prey home to nourish their human family. Cats raised safely indoors have no clue about hunting, often don't realize prey is edible (or know how to eat solid meat), and are more likely to just be scared if they get outside.

So dogs ...will not hunt because they know you don't like it.

No, a dog that doesn't have a strong prey drive can be trained to not attack. If the dog isn't well-trained, or if it inherited a strong prey drive, it will be too dangerous with a small species no matter how their owner feels.

I would choose a dog...because a dog would go wherever I go.

Well, provided it's well-trained, not aggressive, not afraid of cars/dogs/ many dogs.

[My cats] like walking on the beach at night...

I partly had to chuckle at the mental image of a huge litterbox that conjured up! Sadly, going outside cuts the average lifespan of a cat from 15 to 4. Like I said early on, read Do Cats Speak? by Paul Corey; this is one of the things it illustrates all too well.

[Cats] aren't going anywhere near [car rides].

No, your cats aren't. I've heard of people whose cats think it's great fun.

Benjy goes to the vet and lets them do whatever he needs to do.

...and plenty of dogs are the polar-opposite.

And the cats won't. The cats will maul [a vet].

I can only figure that maybe your cats are fearful or mistrusting. I've never run into a problem, not even with ones that were repeatedly hospitalized with chronic problems.

Sounds to me like this guy should have spent a lot of time researching other species and their places in historical societies before spending a book & interview spouting off about them.

Glee, Cop Rock for the millenium

To my surprise, Salon's TV reviewer actually posted a slightly confusing article criticising the show "Glee" for some of its flaws, in an article called "Glee" could be great -- if it weren't so awful. (Isn't "weren't" for plural subjects, and "wasn't" for singular ones?) I decided to throw in my ten cents, much as it might piss people off, with a letter called Cop Rock For The Millenium:
I tried watching an episode of Glee last year, and also had to sit through an episode or two of a soap opera that mimicked it earlier this year. I've heard the songs often enough to know the notes/timing, but they weren't my favorites, and I'm not picky enough to reject how they sound performed live or as a skillful cover -- yet they sounded butchered enough on those TV shows to make me cringe. I mean, much as I disliked its predecessor Cop Rock as a kid, at least it wasn't near-intolerable in the background.

So I'm stuck wondering how on Earth others *can* enjoy those renditions. Is it that you have a vague nostalgia for the tunes that comes from hearing them at central points in your past without listening routinely since then? Or are you hearing them, but not the sort of person to really pick up on the exact notes & timing? Or is it more because you're swept up by the excitement of the latest big "in" thing on TV?

Maybe Heather can explain in a future column, or Salon could post an article on the topic...