Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Special Person and a Special Anniversary

I could easily write yet another outraged post about something racist or sexist or xenophobic that one of the candidates said. I could easily write about the misinformation I read online, or the folks who prefer to compare people they disagree with to Hitler.  But not this time.  Today, I want to focus on something positive.  I want so talk about someone who means a lot to me.  His name is Jeff, and he is autistic.  Today marks the 31st anniversary of when we met.

In August 1984, I was between jobs, trying to establish my radio consulting business, and seeking ways to make some extra money.  I saw an ad for vacation relief workers at a human services agency, and since I had a degree in counseling, I figured I would apply. The pay was low-- you don't get into human services for the big bucks. [Note to self:  I need to write an outraged post about how poorly we pay the workers who do some of the most difficult and often thankless jobs in our society, including home health care workers, nurses' aides, and care-takers for people with special needs.]  But it was work I could feel good about doing, even if it wasn't going to make me rich.

I found some agencies were very committed to the folks they were caring for, and tried to treat them well; but sadly, I also found agencies that operated over-crowded, under-staffed facilities, with management that seemed indifferent to the people they were supposed to help. It was in one of those places that I met Jeff.  He was 27, and had never spoken.  He made various noises, he screamed and hit himself, he rocked back and forth, he repeated what others said (a behavior called "echolalia").  He usually seemed oblivious to the chaos around him-- a good strategy, perhaps, since the group home where he lived was indeed chaotic.  There were a few very kind staff people, but they were clearly overwhelmed.

I don't know what there was about him-- but I don't believe there are accidents in life, so I am sure that he and I were supposed to meet.  And there I was, a very driven and often impatient professional broadcaster, spending time with an adult with autism who rarely acknowledged anyone and was mostly fixated on food. (I later found out that he had previously been in an institution where staff starved him if he "misbehaved.")  And there he was, unable to make eye-contact, unable to communicate, with a sort of haunted look about him.  Because of his behaviors, and because of a lack of staffing, the group home "managed" him with large doses of psychotropic medications.  And that was his life.

I was told I was wasting my time to talk to him.  I was told he'd been this way for years and there was nothing that could be done. I was told I wasn't an "expert" in autism.  But when I looked into Jeff's eyes, I saw a human being, and I made him a promise that I would become his advocate.  It was a promise I honored even after I went back to my broadcasting career.  I also promised I would get him out of that group home and find him somewhere he could get the help he needed and deserved.  At first, I had no idea if he understood a word I was saying to him, although I wanted to believe he did.  It took six months before he spoke to me-- the first thing he said was "I love you, Donna."  It still makes me emotional to remember that moment, even though right after it, he returned to rocking back and forth.

But gradually, he began to communicate more.  My then-boyfriend (and now husband) would take him swimming or hiking; I took him to museums and restaurants.  We both kept encouraging him and teaching him, whether he seemed able to respond or not.  Fast-forward to today:  Jeff has over 350 words in his vocabulary, and while he isn't what you and I would call "conversational," he is very capable of making himself understood.  After a battle with the state bureaucracy (which I won), I was able to get him out of the group home; and I also worked with some doctors to get him off of the medications he didn't need.  These days, he lives with a very nice family, has a job, and is supervised by an agency that is very committed to his well-being. My husband and I see him nearly every weekend.  As for the behaviors I was told he would always have, they are rarely seen-- he seldom screams or rocks back and forth.  In fact, if he knows you, he'll say hello and he likes to be hugged.   He thinks of me as a mom-figure, and he thinks of my husband like a dad.

Other than knowing the members of Rush, I can honestly say that knowing Jeff changed my life every bit as much, although in a different way.  He helped me to become more patient (it takes a while to teach him something new, but once he learns it, he doesn't forget it).  He helped my husband to become more outwardly affectionate (my husband is a very kind person, but he grew up in that era when guys were supposed to be "macho."  Jeff likes to be hugged ... so my husband became more comfortable with public displays of affection from someone who looks like a big guy but thinks of himself as a kid).  I continue to be amazed at how much has changed for the better in Jeff's life, how he has achieved so much more than anyone thought he could.  I remain his advocate, but these days, he is surrounded by lots of people who love him, and who reward what he can do rather than punishing him for what he can't do.  And if there's a message here, it's that things are not always what they seem, and when someone says "oh you'll never be able to do X," that just might not be true... Happy anniversary Jeff; I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see how far you've come, and to be a part of your journey.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Kids Without a Country

Last night, I tweeted my opposition to Donald Trump's assertion that ALL undocumented immigrants must be deported, including their kids-- even if those kids had lived here most of their life.  He also expressed opposition to birthright citizenship, although it is in the Constitution.  (In fairness to Mr. Trump, he is not alone:  birthright citizenship is something that other Republican politicians would also like to see eliminated.)  Responses to my tweets were courteous, which I appreciated, but seemed to break down into two types:  all of the conservatives agreed with Mr. Trump, while those who were not self-identified as conservatives disagreed.  I realize I cannot change hearts and minds, especially those that are already made up.  But perhaps I can put a human face on the problem.

Let me tell you about a former student of mine named Chris.  He was an excellent student, articulate and hard-working, as well as a talented athlete with a bright future. Then, one day, he told me something he had only shared with a couple of other people:  when he was sixteen, he found out that he was undocumented. He truly didn't know before that.  He had grown up in Los Angeles, and was told that's where he was born (as it turns out, he was brought here by his parents when he was two).  He never suspected anything. He had a normal childhood, surrounded by a loving family: his parents were poor, but they worked long hours to provide for him and his brother.  He never questioned them because he didn't think there was anything wrong:  they never discussed how they had come to America, and he had no idea they were here illegally.  He grew up thinking he was an American and only when he tried to get a driver's license did he learn the truth.

Chris has never been to Latin America, as far as I know.  He has no idea where any of his relatives from "the old country" live, but he would have a hard time communicating with them, since English is his first language.  He follows American teams, he identifies with American culture-- in short, he thinks of himself as American.  But he's not.  And if Donald Trump and others like him have their way, he will be deported to a place he has never been, punished for something he never did, deprived of the one place he knows as home, through no fault of his own-- simply because his parents broke the law.

Mr. Trump is quite adamant, as are many of my conservative friends, that Chris should not be allowed to stay.  As they see it, every "illegal" should be deported as soon as possible.  Whether this is financially or logistically feasible is not the issue. It's a politically popular stance, and Mr. Trump is happy to assert it, to the cheers of many like-minded voters who see "illegals" as the big problem in America today. Even though statistics repeatedly show that undocumented immigrants do NOT commit a disproportionate amount of crime, even though statistics repeatedly show that undocumented immigrants are NOT "mostly rapists" nor gang-bangers, many voters believe the myths; they believe that "illegals" are the worst of the worst, and they applaud Donald Trump for saying he'll ship them all out. 

Mr. Trump seems fine about saying the kids, the innocent victims, should go too.  He says they have no right to stay, that they don't belong here.  Well, where then do they belong?  They never asked to be here, and yet here they are, trying to live honest and ethical lives, going to school, wanting to make a positive contribution-- some have even asked to join the US military, while others want to be doctors or teachers.  But that doesn't matter to those who are absolutists.  They have no compassion for these kids:  they don't care that one of them might be the next Einstein or the next JFK. They're all "illegals," they broke the law, and they must be deported.

I sort of understand-- we can't have everyone ignoring laws they don't like, and I know there are rules for becoming a citizen. But there's a dirty little secret about our current system:  it's heavily weighted in favor of people with money, and favors immigrants with certain skills.  And whether skilled or unskilled, it can be an expensive, lengthy and often arbitrary process. Among the costs and fees that legal immigrants must pay include applying for the appropriate visa (do you have a relative here, are you coming here for a job, do you have a specific skill, etc); applying for a work permit; paying for the medical exam and necessary vaccines; attorney fees (some cases are complex and require the guidance of someone experienced in immigration law); translation fees (if your documents are in a foreign language, they may need to be translated so that American officials can validate them); there is even a fingerprinting fee.  The total can run well over $2,000, a lot of money for someone from a poor country.  And even if you do everything right, it can sometimes take as long as ten to fifteen years to be approved, depending on where you are from:  according to CNN, people from Mexico, India, China and the Philippines face the longest wait times.

And yes, jumping the line is wrong.  But there are always some exceptions.  In some cases, the so-called "illegals" were escaping civil war or persecution or they feared for their life.  There have been news stories about women from third-world countries who fled with their children because a daughter was about to be forcibly married, or they wanted to escape having her endure female genital mutilation.  They didn't have ten years to wait.  Were they wrong to come here illegally? Probably.  But do I understand their desperation?  Absolutely.

And that gets me back to Chris, and all the other kids like him, conveniently ignored by the politicians pandering for votes, and the angry citizens who believe "illegals" are causing all the problems.  Chris caused no-one any problems.  He didn't even know he was undocumented. He just wants what every kids wants-- the right to a safe and secure life, and the right to be respected.  He doesn't want to be a bother to anyone.  And he definitely doesn't want to be a kid without a country.

Mr. Trump may find it easy to attack him, but the truth is our immigration system really is broken, and evicting innocent kids isn't going to fix it.  And while I have no magic answer, I hope that those who utter the harshest words and want no exceptions of any kind, will take a step back.  It wasn't long ago when the Senate, in a rare example of bipartisanship, passed a comprehensive immigration reform law.  It was tough but fair.  Yet the House wouldn't even vote on it.  And Donald Trump sounds like he would only consider deportation and nothing else, no matter who the person or what their circumstances.

At times like this, a Bible verse comes to mind-- Micah 6:8.  It tells us to do justice, but to also love mercy and to be willing to humble ourselves.  What I am hearing from Mr. Trump and others like him is heavy on the justice part (the law, and no exceptions); and heavy on the arrogance (I cannot picture him, or many of the other candidates who espouse the same harsh rhetoric, taking a moment to put themselves in someone else's place).  But I find Mr. Trump's total deportation proposal totally lacking in mercy.  It may get him votes, but is unbending absolutism, to the point of cruelty, what we want in a president?  Will America be a better place if we tell Chris and other kids like him that they have to leave immediately?  Surely we as a country can come up with better answers than that.  But at this point, I am not hearing any.  And I find that very disappointing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Tribute to "Murdoch Mysteries"

I just got back from Toronto, where I attended a fan event for the popular Canadian TV show "Murdoch Mysteries" (which airs in the US as "The Artful Detective"). I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with the show's executive producer Christina Jennings (who is also the founder and CEO of Shaftesbury, the company that produces it), as well as meeting and talking with cast-members, including the star of the series, Yannick Bisson. The fan weekend featured a tour of the studio where the show is produced, and we all saw some amazing props and sets, including a faithful recreation of a police station circa 1900.  It was like stepping back in time.  I wrote an article about the fan event for the Toronto Star.  You can read it here: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2015/08/11/fans-show-their-love-for-all-things-murdoch-mysteries.html

I was especially impressed by the devotion of the fans. A total of 2500 of them, including the group I was part of, Murdoch Mysteries Experience, participated in the event.  In a way, their love and dedication reminded me of the passionate loyalty that rock fans display toward Rush.  For me personally, this past weekend was an interesting contrast-- when it comes to Rush, I'm not exactly a fan, given my relationship to the band and their management for so many years; but when it comes to all things Murdoch, I'm just Donna who really likes the show.  And like any fan, I was totally delighted to tour the set (thank you, Shaftesbury; thank you, Murdoch Mysteries Appreciation Society, thank you Murdoch Mysteries Experience). It was amazing to go behind the scenes and see the places where the magic happens.

I'm not going to do a TV review, but I will say that this show does a lot of things right.  It has beautiful costumes from the Victorian era, interesting plots, characters who are relatable (including several strong female characters), clever writing, and a unique way of teaching history. (One critic referred to it as a Victorian version of CSI.) Taking place at the dawn of the 20th century, the stories focus on the exploits of Detective William Murdoch, who uses the new science of forensics to solve crimes.  But in addition to the mystery plots and the attention to historical detail, the writers often give a wink and a nod to current day issues:  one scene featured the characters marveling at an automobile that went (gasp) about twenty miles an hour, and a discussion ensued about a time when new highways might need to be built to accommodate more cars ... but then everyone decided that cross-country highways would never be practical and who would want faster cars anyway? 

I can tell you as a media historian that every time there was a new invention, the discourses were often utopian ("this will solve our problems and change everything for the better!"); but there were also the curmudgeons who wanted to be heard ("things were fine before, and this will ruin our lives!").  The writers  of Murdoch Mysteries understand this tension between change and tradition, and they represent it well.

And while the series focuses on a different murder mystery each episode, there is no gratuitous violence, nor any bad language beyond "bloody hell"-- the favorite curse of Inspector Brackenreid, Detective Murdoch's boss.  The show has plenty of action, a number of plot twists, even some romance... but it's also family-friendly, a rarity on TV these days.  (And "family-friendly" doesn't mean dumbed down or boring-- this is a show that appeals to people of all ages, and when I interviewed fans for the Toronto Star story, a number of parents and kids told me they enjoy watching it together.)

The Victorian era was certainly an exciting time, filled with new inventions and improvements: phonographs, telephones, wireless telegraphy (which ultimately led to radio), electric lights in homes and businesses, etc.  It was a time when horse-drawn carriages were gradually being replaced by automobiles, and a time when courtesy and proper manners were expected in any social or business situation.  I don't think I would have wanted to live in that era, given the restrictive roles most women endured, but whenever Murdoch Mysteries is on, I can immerse myself in that bygone time, knowing at the end of each episode that I am free to return to my life.  The best TV shows provide that temporary escape-- with characters you feel you know, and places that feel familiar.  I can't wait for the new season of Murdoch, and I'm glad I found it (thank you, Netflix and Hulu).  My applause to Shaftesbury for producing such a quality series, at a time when too much that's on the air just isn't worth watching. Whether you know it as Murdoch Mysteries or The Artful Detective, it's nice to know that such a classy show exists.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Some Observations About the End of the R40 Tour

I wasn't going to blog about Rush this week-- there are so many other things to talk about (not that talking about Rush isn't important too).  But then I started getting all the emails and posts on social media:  so many people have been getting in touch over the past several days, telling me how sad they are that this may well be the final time Rush tours.  International fans are facing the prospect that Rush will never come to their country; US and Canadian fans are facing the prospect that this the end of an era. And maybe it is.

But then again, maybe it isn't.  Let me first say I have no inside information.  I've asked Alex about it, and he told me that this tour was unique because the band was focused on the "now" rather than making any future plans.  It was almost liberating to do it that way-- taking it a day at a time, with nothing hanging over them, nothing to worry about, just getting out there and playing music for the fans.  Simple, really.  And yet, disconcerting for the rest of us.  Fans want certainty, and I can understand that. They love this band, and not knowing what the next thing is can be terrifying.  Is this the end of live tours?  For more than forty years, fans (including me) have had the comfort of knowing that Rush was still out there performing.  Millions of people saw them.  Friendships were forged at Rush concerts, and numerous fans (and fans-to-be) gathered before, during, and after a concert just to share the experience and keep it alive a little longer.

For some of these fans, especially those whose love and loyalty spans forty years, this feels almost like a death in the family.  No, I am not trying to be melodramatic-- people really bonded with this band, and felt like they had some personal connection to the guys.  Of course, you can say that about any band, but somehow, based on what I saw over the decades, the connection to Rush was something special, something unique.  It was often based on gratitude:  appreciation for how Rush's songs had spoken to the fans in a personal way, how the music had changed their lives for the better, how the lyrics had eloquently expressed their own emotions.  Fans understood that they probably would never hang out with Geddy, Alex or Neil; and yet, these guys still felt like trusted friends.  They were not the typical rockers-- they cared about philanthropy, they cared about ethics, and they cared about their skills as musicians.  They never had a big top forty hit, nor were they willing to compromise their art in order to have one, and yet they earned the respect of their peers in the music industry (including other musicians), as well as earning the respect of fans world-wide.

So, while I can't predict the future, I can say that I believe we will still see Rush performing again.  I doubt there will be any prolonged tours, but perhaps small ones or perhaps what Geddy discussed when he suggested a series of performances in one city.  But sooner or later, there will be opportunities to create new music or make some appearances.  It won't be like it was over the past forty years; but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  I know from first-hand experience that everything changes:  in my own life, I had to leave radio and reinvent myself as a college professor.  The guys in Rush are now in their early 60s, and they too will be making some changes.  I keep thinking about the lyrics to a song that is not by Rush-- a top-40 hit from 1998 by Semisonic called "Closing Time," which contains a line that has always seemed very astute: "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."  And so we find ourselves at the end of one cycle.  But rather than mourning what we lost, I suggest that we look forward to what is yet to be.  Only Geddy, Alex, and Neil know what that will look like.  I trust them to do the right thing, for themselves, their families, and the fans.