The Journey to Sit Still (with Big News)(or, honestly, a tease of it)

I came north last August, planning for the beauty of thefall, the frigid isolation of winter, the softness of spring and the joys of summer. Some of those things have happened. The rest won’t, at least not for me, but I’ll get to that by and by.

First, though, the last nine months in review. (No, there are no babies magically appearing in this narrative. Like Freud’s cigar, sometimes nine months is just nine months, not a hint of the human gestation period.)

Fall in Pittsburg is defined differently than autumn in the town inwhich I grew up. In Durham, summer runs until the beginning of October, making that first month of school torture. (Being in school qua being in school makes the rest of the school year unbearable.) Here, though the trees were already turning beautiful colors in mid-August, and, despite some Indian-summer short-sleeve days, the earth locking of fall begins in October. The ground concretizes, and jackets are always within reach. Autumn here is brief but glorious, like life itself, and from its beginnings the death knell of winter sounds inthe background.

I loved the Tiny White Box in autumn and was glad to have begun the journey of sitting still.

I’d assumed winter would make me crazier than the gods have already decreed, that I’d develop cabin fever and go mad. It didn’t, and I didn’t. I talked with my friend, Doc, yesterday about this past winter. Doc’s been up here a while, and said this past one was pretty typical, except for getting three northeasters in 10 days. Usually, there aren’t more than two. We had a week or 10 days in January when it didn’t get above 0 degrees, but we also had days above freezing. I wrote a lot, drank a lot of coffee and didn’t feel any crazier than usual. The Tiny White Box, thanks to the genius of my friend and its builder, Gavin Beland, stayed insulatedly warm enough that I kept a window open all season. Really.

I loved the Tiny White Box in winter and was glad to continue the journey of sitting still.

Spring began, I think, the day before yesterday. We’ve still got ice on the lakes and some snow on the ground, but I hike on mud instead of ice these days, and I write this in short sleeves sitting in the sun.  While the winter was whites, blacks and browns broken by the clear blue of the sky, now we have infinite shades of green added to the palette. Tomorrow I may wear shorts, exposing the fish-belly whites of my legs for the first time since last summer. This, of course, is another advantage of living alone in the wilderness.

Which I’ll do for another three weeks.

I’ve written about my trip to New Orleans a few weeks ago. Although some readers guessed, that was in connection with a job which was in connection to a column I wrote six weeks ago. That column, which I think of as an open letter to the universe, garnered a fair amount of traction. Think of Mary Poppins when Jane and Michael Banks’ letter describing the perfect nanny, which Mr. Banks tears up and throws in a fireplace in the second or third scene of the movie. Somehow, my letter traveled all over the country and was responded to by a number of nonprofits looking for quirky leadership with a skewed vision.

I visited New Orleans to talk with Roots of Renewal, a truly impressive organization. There, I interviewed for the position of executive director, ate a ton of good food, hung out with great people and learned all I could about Roots. It deserves your attention and support, and has worked miracles in many folks’ lives. Still.

Aphorisms aren’t usually reversible, but I’d like to talk about one that is. Voltaire is often quoted as saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” by which is meant “focusing on achieving the transcendent can prevent us from enjoying immanence” or, “don’t let your desire for infinite wealth keep you from grabbing the 20-dollar bill on the floor.” Its near-opposite, though, is also true: “the good can be the enemy of the best.” The Roots of Renewal position demonstrates this.  It is a good, even a great, position in an unreservedly great organization. Still, I withdrew my name as a candidate in favor of the best position for me at this time, a job even designed for who I am and what I stand for.

What job is that?

You’ll have to tune in later to find out.

I will continue to live in the Tiny White Box, and will sit with what I’ve learned on this journey to sit still.

Terror is the Given of the Place

I’ve had a lot of lives, one of the advantages of not dying. In addition to being a disk jockey, an improv actor/director, school principal and drunk, I’ve also been a special-education director. Going through some files the other day, I came upon the following essay, written during that period, on the challenges of diagnosing students with emotional and behavioral disorders, what used to be called emotional handicaps by special educators and out-of-control pains in the ass by many teachers. I share it now, not because I think it has great insight, but because I don’t think things have changed much since I wrote it.

“Terror is the given of the place.”  So Joan Didion began Salvador, but it might also serve as an introduction to the world of the chronically mentally ill.  Although our culture has glamorized mental illness over the years, in such books and films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, King of Hearts, A Beautiful Mind and Harold and Maude, the reality is much grayer, starker and more frightening.

Likewise, such psychologists as R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz theorized mental illness out of existence, declaring what we call “insanity” a sane reaction to an insane world.  Unfortunately, this panglossian view does not match reality.  Instead, we must look to the harsh day-to-day existence of Susan Sheehan’s Sylvia Frumpkin (in the non-fiction masterpiece Is There No Place on Earth for Me?), with her repeated suicide attempts, her ever-unsuccessful stays in group homes and her complete lack of social skills, nay, her mastery of anti-social skills.  Sylvia’s life in and out of various psychiatric institutions is a far cry from Ken Kesey’s fictional McMurphy and the other lovable lunatics of Cuckoo’s Nest.  Likewise, Mark Vonnegut’s classic memoir, The Eden Express, presents a realistic and unflinching report of his experience with schizophrenia.  Although Vonnegut’s acute psychosis has passed, and he became a successful pediatrician, the reality of his struggle with reality lingers and horrifies.

While we glorify a type of mental illness in the abstract and on celluloid, we demonize those who suffer from the real thing in the here and now.  The deinstitutionalization movement, despite its theoretical and philosophical moral strength, unleashed thousands of folks with mental illness literally onto the streets, so that many Americans’ most vivid experience of serious mental illness is the vacant-eyed stare of the crone digging through a dumpster.

Certainly not all children identified as emotionally disturbed or behavior disordered are mentally ill; still, children and young adults with mental illness, whether schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other major illnesses are so identified.  Because of this, clinicians and educators must take great care in recommending this label for students with emotional problems which interfere with learning.  One could, in fact, make a case that the label “emotionally disturbed/behavior disordered” is the most stigmatizing educationally handicapping condition.  Even mental retardation seems to have shed its once-prevalent connection with sexual deviancy and potential violence and has been, quite rightly, sanitized through the use of less judgmental labels such as “developmentally disabled” and “cognitively impaired” and through the example, for instance of Sean Penn’s character in I am Sam.  Realistic and chronic mental illness, contrariwise, has no such poster boy.  Because of the potentially negative power of this label, then, it should be applied only as a last resort, after all possible attempts have been made to provide academic and extra-academic support.  While this process should, of course, be used in the identification of all disabilities, it may be nowhere so important as with the emotionally disturbed/behavior disordered population.

One of the major difficulties with this label is its very broadness, including five separate characteristics.  Because of the scope of this disability, it encompasses the socially isolated child, the depressed child, the school-phobic child and the actively psychotic child.  While it is true, for instance, that the category “cognitively impaired” includes both the child who is identified as moderately intellectually and developmentally disabled, with an IQ of 60, and the profoundly intellectually-disabled child whose IQ is for all practical purposes unmeasurable, the continuum in that disability seems, at least in most teacher’s perception, more clearly demarcated.  That is, teachers may be reassured by the apparent objectivity of the IQ scores used as signposts in identifying the degree of intellectual disability; the apparent subjectivity of clinical interviews and projective testing done by psychologists may not offer the same clarity and confidence to a teacher.

Along with the caveat that the emotionally disturbed/behaviorally disordered label is potentially stigmatizing comes the dictum that the net not be set too widely in searching for such students.  That is, too often in education the belief and practice is that diagnosis must precede remediation, that diagnosis is in fact transcendent over the immanence of remediation.  This view, drawn from the clinic, does not always serve the child well, particularly in cases where remediation can conceivably be offered sans diagnosis (e.g., a student can regularly see a school psychologist or outside therapist without being formally identified as emotionally disturbed/behaviorally disordered) or, more chillingly, if no known remediation exists (e.g., the child whose psychosis does not respond to medications).

Likewise, the special education team must ensure that its judgements are culturally and racially as value-free as possible:  oddness does not equal illness.  Whether examining the inner-city African-American child, whose experience with justice and violence may make his world-view strikingly different from the examiner’s and other team members, or working with a child of members of an exotic snake-handling Christian sect, special education teams and psychologists must try to distance themselves from their own values and determine rationally the best interests of the child and whether these interests are served by coding the student or whether the necessary remediation can be offered without a formal diagnosis.

In summary, in looking at the theoretical, psychological and social issues involved in the detection of children with emotional disturbances/behavioral disorders, one must always be aware of the potential stigma attached to this label and its effects both in and out of the classroom on a child’s growth toward adulthood.  Along with this, one must consider the possibility, even the likelihood, of a self-fulfilling prophecy; teachers told that a student is emotionally disturbed may, consciously or unconsciously, expect inappropriate or even bizarre behavior and through their very expectation, help to bring about the behavior and attitudes they fear.

 

 

Opening Up the Kimono (in the name of science)

I’m always shocked by which columns draw readers. For instance, I wrote one on my mystical clown leadership style last weekend. Based on all the conversations I’d had the previous 10 days about nonprofit leadership, I assumed the response would be overwhelming. I was wrong. It was not even underwhelming. In fact, it barely whelmed at all.

On the other hand, a few I wrote a light-hearted column about my battles with Mr. Lefave, my sixth-grade science teacher. Battles which I lost—although I did win the war as I defined it:  making a good and decent man show he was upset. The example I gave had to do with my assertion that since rust was a slow form of oxidation and combustion was a fast form of oxidation, rust was a slow form of burning. This is logical, based on my premises, but clearly absurd. I stuck to logic, while Lefave had science, experience, common sense, etc. In short, I put my money on verbal legerdemain and gave the poor teacher the rest of the universe. When he didn’t accept my trick, I declared him illogical and crazy. He then sent me to the principal’s office, where I added to my fistful of detentions.

People responded to this piece, in a weird way. They agreed with me! I’m not used to convincing people when I’m demonstrating my trickery. Reading over the couple handfuls of emails and texts, I felt like the street magician who shows how to force a card onto a mark, then finds his audience is treating him as a wizard.

If there were a verb meaning “to believe falsely,” Wittgenstein tells us, it would have no first-person present form. “I believe falsely,” according to that philosopher, is an absurd pronouncement. He’s probably right. Still, people who have been shown the truth cling to bogosity. Let me explain in more detail, where I was wrong, how I slipped poor Mr. Lefave up, and give an illustration that may help further understanding. (Or not.)

“Oxidation” is an umbrella term that can be used in a number of specific and general ways. For a sixth-grade science class, Mr. LeFave quite appropriately used the broadest definition: oxidation is a process requiring oxygen. Therefore, both rusting and combusting are forms of oxidation—using this general layperson’s term. More specifically, though, rusting occurs only on iron when oxygen and moisture are present and produces iron oxide and negligible hear, while combustion requires only a fuel and oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, water and significant heat.  (I realize the words “negligible” and “significant” in the previous sentence smell weaselly—sorry about that.)

To argue rusting is slow burning is to argue only from that very simple definition. To say rusting is slow burning is verbal gymnastics worthy of a 9.9, even from the Romanian judge. To propose a teacher is crazy because he won’t recognize that rust and fire are the same event is intellectually dishonest.

Let me illustrate with a sort of visualization that may help.  If it doesn’t, please forget it immediately.

  • Chicago is 260 miles from St. Louis.
  • Nashville is 260 miles from St. Louis.
  • Chicago and Nashville are the same place
  • In the alternative, Chicago and Nashville are 260 miles apart.

Clearly, this is an absurd argument, and residents of both Chicago and Nashville would be disgusted to hear it. Still, it’s not fundamentally different from my nonsense.

Having set the record straight, demonstrated I was not just a stinker but a goddamned verbally manipulative stinker, I am still pleased at my ability to persuade.

Tomorrow: Why You Should Invest Your Money in My Trip to Sedona

 

 

The Burning Logic Trap

When I was in sixth grade, my science teacher was Mr. Lefave (most definitely not pronounced “Lefebvre,” although that name is pronounced “Lefave.” I suspect his family Americanized their name from that Scrabble-dream French moniker, confusing, I’m sure Jim Lefebvre, the second baseman for the Dodgers and an aspiring actor at the time. Lefebvre—the second baseman, not the science teacher—appeared on Gilligan’s Island and Batman, a strong foundation for a future as a thespian. He’d been Rookie of the Year, though, and was part of an all-switch-hitting infield, a bit of trivia with no real meaning. Much like this digression.)

Mr. Lefave was a kind man, a smart man, a patient man. In other words, he was the sort of teacher I wanted to upset, whose face I wanted to turn red, whose tongue I wanted to turn to butter with my nonsense. In the words of Bugs Bunny, I was a stinker and I wanted to make Mr. Lefave my stinkee.

One way I did this was by trying to work mucus, urine and feces into most discussions of general science. If we discussed nutrition, I wanted to know if it was possible to extract flushed vitamins from feces. If we reviewed friction, I wanted to know how to calculate the viscosity of mucus as it dried. If we had research to do on interactions between and among various substances, say calcium chloride’s ability to absorb liquids, one of the columns in my lab report would be urine—with a detailed description of its color.

Mr. Lefave was forced to teach, interact with and maintain patience toward a very verbal three-year-old in a young adolescent body. My assault on him with various bodily fluids, though, was not enough to make him crack. He merely listened to my poop-, pee- and snot-based results, and moved on. I set out to find his weakness, and exploit it.

My probe for cracks in Mr. LeFave’s calm and cheerful dispostion began as a serious question on my part, but by the end of the year had become a way for me to bring color to the teacher’s face just by using a single word, a four-syllable word perhaps never used before to crack a man. The word?  “Oxidation.” Let me explain.

Mr. Lefave taught us rust is a slow form of oxidation, using a simple definition of the latter word as “a process requiring oxygen.” He was absolutely right. He also taught us combustion is a quick form of oxidation. Also, absolutely right. Using the logic of the 12-year-old, I stated, “So rust is a slow form of combustion? Rust is slow burning?” I, of course, was absolutely wrong.

“No, Keith. Rust and combustion are completely different actions.”

“But they’re both oxidation?” I asked.

“Yes, they are both forms of oxidation, but rusting is a slow process requiring oxygen and moisture, while combustion is a quicker process that only requires oxygen,” Mr. LeFave said, maintaining a smile.

“So rusting and burning are the same thing, except the moisture slows down the fire?” I asked, both intrigued by the notion, and enjoying watching my teacher squirm.

“No! They’re not the same thing!” LeFave was now exclamation pointing, a sure sign I was getting to him.

 

“Well, as a Boy Scout,” I said, appealing to my own authority—I hadn’t been kicked out of scouting yet—“I know moisture slows down combustion. I mean, it’s hard to burn wet leaves or wood. I just didn’t know a slow fire was rust, which is what you’re telling me.”

“I’m NOT telling you that!!” said LeFave, doubling his exclamationing. “I’m telling you the opposite of that. Rusting and burning are not the same thing!!”

“No,” I replied, pausing for effect. “Of course they’re not. You said rusting is slow, burning is fast but they’re both oxidation. Therefore, rusting is slow burning. That’s simple logic. Thanks for the information.”

“That’s not information!!!” he screamed, demonstrating I’d won the battle. “That is twisting my words around to make me look crazy!!!”

“Gee, Mr. LeFave, you don’t need me to make you look crazy. You do it every day, and all by yourself. Give yourself more credit. You’re stuck in a dead-end job, you talk at kids for seven hours a day and you don’t know how to spell your own last name. I think you deserve to be as crazy as you want.”

Here, like an umpire making a close call at the plate, Lefave made his hand into a fist with a raised thumb and I went to my home away from class—Mr. Platine’s office. I knew I’d get a detention or three, but I’d probed Mr. LeFave and discovered a weakness.

He didn’t understand simple logic.

“. . . And do you know the moral of the story?”

As a boy, I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s discussed the current Russian scandal with me, a man who assumes Boris Badenov is an historical figure (to my mind, “Shut up your mouth!” is a great rejoinder to almost anything). I also believe a dimwitted moose and a smart-aleck squirrel have repeatedly saved America—after Bullwinkle has transformed a rabbit into a lion and pulled it out of his hat—from Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader.

Where have you gone, Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose? We need you.

 

Likewise, fairy tales are best when fractured, Dudley Do-Right is the prototypical Canadian Mountie, and I believe in my heart of hearts, in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. Most of all, though, I love the interstitial bit where Rocky and Bullwinkle are on a boat and Rocky holds a piece of paper with gibberish on it and declares it “Fan mail from some flounder.”

I was thinking of that when I got the following email from a new reader:

“Hi Keith,

I just discovered Tiny White Box after the story on ‘Chronicle.’ It sounds as though your life has been a series of funny ups and even funnier downs. My favorite ‘column’ so far is ‘Sally Piper Had a Peck of Unplanned Pregnancies,” because it seemed to balance the joy of adoption with the sadness of being released for adoption. Have you thought of writing a book on adoption?”

Because I’m always looking for a way to turn simple courtesy into a column, here’s my response to Bethany.

“Hi Bethany,

Thank you for your too-kind words! As for an adoption book, I did spend some time putting together a non-fiction proposal for a book tentatively to have been called, ‘Who’d Give Steve Jobs Away?’ Although my agent at the time got some bites, no money was ever offered, so the book itself never got written. Instead, the only stuff I’ve published on adoption is in these columns. I’ll try to write some more if you promise to dive into them and just keep swimming. Best, Keith”

Bethany, whatever else she may be, is not a fish. She is not a flounder sending me fan mail. She will have no idea why a man is responding to her serious question about adoption with a final line drawn from Finding Nemo.  Bethany, I’m sorry sometimes to be who I am, but I’ve come to accept it, and hope you will, too

I get a number of emails (keithhoward@gmail.com) each week from readers, and try to respond in a timely manner. Many of them are asking for specific information (“You said your first car was a ’68 Chevy Malibu. I had one of those, too. Mine was red. What color was yours? Your Friend, James”) that can be answered simply (“James: Blue.”) If I were to send that as a stand-alone response, I’d never hear from James again. Leaving aside the question of whether James or I would be sadder at losing a nascent friendship, I instead say, “Dear James, Thanks so much for writing! It means a lot to me when I get feedback from readers. BLUE. Do write again. Best, Keith.” So much kinder, that latter answer. Or at least so much wordier.

When you write me, know I’ll do my best to get back to you right away. I’ll do my best to respond with good sense and kindness. I’ll do my best to write you a thoughtful note demonstrating sense and kindness. My best, which may not be all that good. Feel free to follow up with a Boris Badenov quote:

“Keith, please, shut up your mouth.”