Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Too many rights, not enough care

   I have a confession to make: I think there are some disabled people who shouldn’t be living out in the community. At least temporarily.  
   This is really tough for me to say. Some years ago, one of my attendants remarked that she wished we were living in the 1950's, “when everything was simpler and less crazy.” I pointed out that if we were in the 1950's, I’d probably be living in a back room, if not in a large hospital. She said “oh” and shut up real fast.
   I used to love reading The Disability Rag, with its unabashed advocacy, championing disabled rights. It was really where I got the idea that disability is a societal problem, with society not being accessible enough and not providing enough services, rather than a problem with someone not able to do certain things.
   Mouth magazine was even better. I loved its homemade look and its hands-on, out-there, fiery vision of radical inclusion. Editor Lucy Gwin was full of terrific passion, which really kicked me in the butt and got me even more out there. But I couldn’t go along with her when she kept saying that the mentally ill should be allowed to not take their meditations. I wanted to be p.c and agree that, like me, the mentally ill should be able to live as they want, but I couldn’t.
   Never mind that many mentally ill people end up homeless, living lives of not-so-quiet desperation, cycling endlessly through hospitals and jails, often at fantastic public expense. This was before there was the steady stream of mass shootings that we now live with in the U.S, with the shooter almost always turning out to be mentally ill.
   Yes, there is a huge problem with how easy it is for people to get guns in this country, but the problem about mentally ill people getting guns is more than about how easy it is to get guns.
   After all, the southern state lawmaker who appeared on Sunday’s episode of 60 Minutes - I’m sorry I can’t remember his name and state - had his face scarred from when his mentally ill son attacked him with a knife. Soon after the attack, the son, who was reportedly sweet-natured and liked playing bluegrass music, shot himself. The congressman later read in his son’s diary that the son had the idea that he would go straight to heaven if he killed his father who was evil.
   The point is that not having a gun at the time didn’t stop grave, if not lethal harm, from being done. Guns are just handy and easier to use.
   The 60 Minutes segment, entitled “No Place to Go,” was about how family and friends have very limited options in getting help for their mentally ill loved ones. In the case of the congressman’s son, for instance, he was sent home after a hospital visit when the six hours to find a facility where he could stay and get care expired. The congressman has introduced legislation to extend this placement period to 24 hours in his state. In another interview during the segment, a mentally ill hospital patient explained that he hears voices telling him to kill himself or occasionally others and that “that’s not who I am.”
   This tragic, impossible situation will the mentally ill began in the 1980's when most of the large mental institutions were closed. The mentally ill were at last given rights, including regarding their care, giving them autonomy and dignity. This was great, but the problem was and is that no funding was provided to care for the mentally ill out in the community. Even more of a tragedy is that it’s not so much that money is not available - it’s that no one wants to talk about the mentally ill.
   Until this is resolved, until we can talk about the mentally ill and then decide to provide the care they need, there will be more of these shootings and other tragedies. Until then, in order to protect them and others, I’m sorry to say that more restrictions, if not also fewer rights, should be placed on the mentally ill.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Welcoming King - eventually

   Things have been pretty quiet here in Claremont for the last two weeks after the holidays. That’s because the college students are still on Winter break. Things will be picking up, and I’ll be going out to lots of lectures, soon enough, with classes starting for the Spring semester on Tuesday. I know this, because Monday is the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, and the Claremont colleges have been starting their Spring semester on the day after the King holiday.
   This has been the case for the last several years. It certainly wasn’t always so. Perhaps the real reason that the date of the first day of Spring semester classes at the Claremont colleges is hard-wired in my brain is that, for many years after the King federal holiday was established some 30 years ago, the Spring semester classes started on the King holiday.
   The Claremont colleges are private institutions, and, as such, they can do pretty much what they want, at least in terms of scheduling. There have been many years, for instance, in which they haven’t observed Labor Day. But I always thought that it was weird that there were not only classes but that they began on the King holiday. I always imagined it was something like a slap for the relative handful of black students, faculty and staff at the colleges.
   I can’t say if there was racism - conscious or unconscious - going on. But I can say that I thought that the noon ceremony held annually on that day, with the college presidents attending and with august words spoken and stirring anthems sung, didn’t cut it.
   No, it wasn’t enough. Especially not with students, especially those feeling like they were in an alien environment, scurrying around, preoccupied with working out their class schedules, buying their books and getting and feeling settled. The ceremony - no doubt the last thing on these students’ minds - felt tacked on and empty.
   That is, if it didn’t feel like a bad joke, being a substitute for a genuine tribute.
   As far as I know, there never was any protest about this. I didn’t hear or see any outcry. I suspect - or would like to think - that there was quiet grumbling over the years. In any case, I thought it made sense, thought it was right, when, about five years ago and with no fanfare, Spring semester classes started on the day after the King holiday, as has happened since. It felt like a wrong was quietly righted. And the series of talks by noted black activists and scholars over the next month or so helps, even when there is a whiff of patronization about these presentations.
   Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by all this - not when the Methodist church has a nativity scene featuring a fatally shot Treyvon Martin and not only makes national headlines but also gets letters and online comments from Claremont residents condemning the scene as sacrilegious, saying that it is a “shameful” and “disgusting” perversion of the Christmas story.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The presents - and presence - of the past

   This was my column in the Claremont Courts two weeks ago. The holidays and the new year are often a time for reflection. I must admit, however, that, at least when it comes to thinking about the future and a new year, I am much more of an one-day-at-a-time guy. As my friend John once said, I don’t do New Year’s.


   Two women. Both were about my age. And both, like me, grew up in Claremont.
   One of them, I knew well, with her a few houses down the street for years and our families very close friends. The other, I didn’t know, but I heard about her and met her two or three times.
   Devon Williams Bishop and Amy Gusman Miller. It was sad to see their obituaries in these pages in the last month. Both succumbed to cancer. Both were 50 or so, and both left behind husbands, children and at least one parent.
   I already knew that Devon - Devon Williams, as I knew her for much of my life - had died (I was the one who gave the news to the rest of my family, living up north in the Bay Area for many years now), but seeing her obituary, with her picture, was a hard jolt. It was even more of a sad surprise to see the obituary for Amy, who I knew as Amy Gusman when her mother, Harriet, listed as a survivor, was my teacher.
   These deaths, even coming after long illnesses, were bad shocks, earth-shattering in their sadness. As when anyone who dies leaving behind both or one parent (not to mention relatively young children), as when anyone my age or younger dies, they were especially upsetting, more of a tragedy. Furthermore, their cold similarities were heart-aching.
   But these deaths also brought forth a flood of warm memories.
   With Devon, there are memories of being in a group of families who went to the same church and whose fathers taught at the colleges. There are memories of shared birthday parties and Easter brunches, of spending a weekend together in Idylwild every year when there was snow, of going caroling and having a party with a pinata at Christmas. I also remember my older sister and the girls in the other families spending hours and days and nights together.
   Later, I was thrilled to see Devon in an episode of “thirtysomething” on TV (okay, I was a fan!), and I have enjoyed exchanging Christmas cards in recent years. I think the last time I saw Devon was something like ten years ago in the Village when she had a baby in a carriage and was in town visiting her father. Or was it a year or two later in Memorial Park on the Fourth of July?
   In the case of Amy, it is her mother that I remember. Mrs. Gusman was one of my last teachers at Danbury School, back when Danbury School was still at Danbury School (where the Hughes Community Center is and where, if I’m not mistaken, Amy had attended earlier when there was a wing for non-disabled students).
   There was something unique about her. Although my other teachers at Danbury expected much of me despite my considerable disabilities, Mrs. Gusman pushed me even harder. She made it clear that she had high standard and had me doing a steady stream of reports and projects - never mind that it meant hours at a typewriter (this was long before personal computers). There were many times when I wasn’t happy with this, but, in so doing, she was a big part of why I was successful when I was mainstreamed at El Roble and went on to the high school and U.C Riverside, where I spent days at a typewriter, and have thus been able to work as  a writer. (Years later, I laughed when Carol Schowalter, another teacher with high standards who I had for English at El Roble and who died a few years ago, groaned that Mrs. Gusman had “stole” her Greek mythology unit and taught it to me, probably when Amy was in her class at El Roble.)
   Like all the bright lights that have been strung up everywhere this month, these memories give me light and warmth when it is dark and cold. Yes, it is sad, tragic, that these beautiful, bright, energetic women have passed on, passed on too early, but their presence here and the memories that their presence brings  enriches the life I have in this community.
   We saw this most clearly and dramatically with the death of Nelson Mandela a few weeks ago. While Mandela’s death was sad, although expected, and left South Africa with challenges, it was an opportunity to celebrate, even with singing and dancing, his tremendous impact and legacy in South Africa and the world. Not only that, it was a time to re-commit to his ideals of equality and reconciliation.
   Yes, Mandela was a leader who ended up having great world-wide impact, but these two women and their lively creativity and caring have had an impact, adding to what makes life here unique. In this season of gifts and hope, their lives, filled with love, and the memories of them leaves a warm, glowing sense of gratitude for all the good in life and inspiration to make the best of it.
   This is the same lively creativity and caring that we see and cheer when the students perform at the colleges. There was last weekend’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Claremont Concert Symphony and the Claremont Concert Choir, with students from Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer colleges, as well as the Claremont Chorale, under the direction of David Cubek. So many found these performances, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Garrison Theater and the tenth anniversary of the Performing Arts Center at Scripps College, inspiring that people had to be turned away.
   There was also a recent Wednesday evening performance by the Pomona College Sea Chanty and Maritime Music Ensemble. Who knew there was a Sea Chanty and Maritime Music Ensemble at Pomona College? And who knew the students were learning sailor songs and how to play the concertina and hornpipes?
    This was essentially an open class, with the director, Gibb Schreffler, very much participating and noting that this was the first sea chanty class, not only at Pomona College but perhaps at any college. The students sang their hearts out, performing a slew of songs such as “Walkalong, You Sally Brown,” “Stormalong John” and “Pull Down Below.”
   I can only hope they keep singing.