These toys set out in the bail bondsman’s waiting room seem sensible, and are only a punch to the gut when you stop to think about them.
At least they are, momentarily, unused.
My brother-in-law Vincent is now off on a short hospital stay due to an infection. Decades of morbid obesity compromised the circulation to his legs. He’s thus susceptible to chronic infections and sores that require IV antibiotics and other interventions. The hospital nursing staff has been quite kind. Vincent is having a good stay, made more enjoyable by friendly banter with the kind and appealing nurses who are providing most of his care.
At some point in the evening, one of these nurses asked Vincent: “Is your pain a 7 or a 10?” Vincent responded with embarrassment, looking to my wife for an answer. He remembers all of the nurse’s names, but he does not know whether ten is greater than seven. He cannot process numerical information that way. Like many men and women living with intellectual disabilities, he requires different strategies for pain assessment. This is a well-known challenge, with many potential solutions.
This wasn’t a big problem, but it wasn’t unimportant, either. Vincent’s leg was hurting, and he wanted some pain reliever for it. And this mundane encounter underscored a broader difficulty. Doctors and nurses must come up to speed regarding people who live with intellectual and developmental disabilities, not to mention people who live with communications disorders and related difficulties. These issues are a part of life in 2016 America. We can do better.
Dear Miss Isabel* :
This is a letter from another grandfather, to mark my appreciation of your work on Friday to help your own, Secretary of State John Kerry, sign the Paris Climate Agreement on behalf of the United States. Photos of you both have been seized on and circulated by the world’s media, with little thought for their deeper meaning.
Normally young children are entitled to privacy and discretion from strangers. However, your grandfather chose to put you for a short but important moment on a very public stage, with the world watching. I therefore feel entitled to write to you, and hope that your family will keep this open letter (published on my group blog) along with other mementos of the day, for you and perhaps your own children to look at in the years to come. Sadly, you will be unlikely to retain any direct recollection, and the public record must serve as your memory.
Your function was a very important one. You represented and symbolized a billion children all over the world, including my own grandchildren Cassie, Alice and Jayson. It is the quality of all your lives that is under grave threat from global warming. The Paris Agreement, which your grandfather did much to bring about, is the last great hope of mobilizing the general will to stop – and ultimately reverse – it. By the time you read this letter, if you ever do, we will know whether this was enough. Perhaps it won’t be.
But all each of us is ever asked to do is simply what we can. You did your part on Friday: in fact you nailed it. This was not just being cute and photogenic. Very many toddlers can do this, when not complaining about the many injustices of life. What you did show, and this is much less common, is concentration on the work your grandfather was doing, not playing to the cameras. You were I think overawed, and quite right too. This was no ordinary occasion.
Some will say that you were not a fair representative because of your background of privilege. You family is much wealthier than that of most Americans, let alone most citizens of the world. You will probably never have to worry where your next meal or rental payment or tuition fee is coming from. You will be free to quit any job that does not satisfy you. Virginia Woolf wrote in the 1920s, “freedom is £200 a year and a room with a lock on the door”. That freedom you will always have, unlike most.
Wealth does not ensure happiness. I am suspicious of the moralising trope that wealth emasculates the drive for fulfilling work and the esteem of peers, and encourages a life of idle hedonism. Your own family are counterexamples. When the children of celebrities go off the rails, there are more likely to be photographers at hand. Still, the challenges are genuine. Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich”, has to undergo a painful sentimental education before she finds her true path. However, that prospect also holds for Cassie, Alice and Jayson too, minus the “rich” part, and does not draw a sharp dividing line between them and you.
One other thing that family wealth cannot give you is the public good of a rich and healthy environment. In that respect, you are in the same boat as my grandchildren – the only Ark we have, the world itself. The climate is either safe for all, or dangerous for all. That was the reason your grandfather took you with him to the podium of the United Nations, to remind us of the fundamental reason why we must all act, now: you, and those you stand for.
Thank you for being there.
April 24 2016
* Or is it Isabelle? The media can’t agree.
The distinguished writer Neal Gabler wrote a confessional essay about his family’s financial struggles in the Atlantic this month. My response to it, on the Atlantic website, is here.
If you read Gabler’s piece, or maybe if you re-read it, you’ll notice conspicuously few specific dollar figures. A fascinating aspect of such pieces is the combination of painful candor about some matters, while other things are conveyed in general terms or held even closer to the vest. There are good and bad reasons for discretion. Most of us presumably do that when we make use of self in our public writings. One obvious consideration is to protect another person’s privacy.
This combination of revelation and selective reticence is especially striking in financial accounts, where a few concrete numbers would provide so much greater clarity.
Charles Murray made waves with his “Do you live in a bubble” quiz, which made the News Hour. I scored poorly on the test. I got something like a 27. Although Vincent and I are frequent Applebee’s customers, I apparently lack sufficient expertise regarding the real America–that is the world of rural working-class white folk who drive pickups and enjoy NASCAR.
I wish that I knew more about the richness of this world, which was certainly familiar to my in-laws who lived in Oneonta, NY. But of course that is only one world, no more authentically American than anyplace else. I wish that I knew more about the world of south-side Chicago, the immigrant communities of Little Village and Chinatown, too.
Speaking of bubbles, here is a profile of Mr. Murray in the New York Times Magazine in 1994:
THE MAN WHO WOULD ABOLISH welfare was flying to Aspen, Colo., sipping Champagne in the first-class cabin and spinning theories about the society unraveling 30,000 feet below. In the past, he says, people were poor because of bad luck or social barriers. “Now,” he says, “what’s holding them back is that they’re not bright enough to be a physician.”
It is precisely the kind of statement that makes Charles Murray so infuriating to so many people: sweeping, callous, seemingly smug. The words are harsh, but the voice is genial and oddly reassuring, suffused with regret. He switches to a Bordeaux and recalls his last approach to Aspen, on a private jet sent by Rupert Murdoch.
“Intelligence seems to blossom in the barest ground,” he says, contesting the suggestion that the South Bronx is less nurturing than Scarsdale. “Now I know that’s an odd thing to say about the inner city, but at least they’re going to school and they have the television on all day. You couldn’t say that about blacks 50 years ago.”
A white wine follows, and Murray is bursting with anticipation about the corks that will pop later that evening at the home of wealthy Aspen friends. He is 51 and balding, but boyish in blue jeans and tennis shoes, and he leavens his sociological theories with personal asides. The stewardesses in Japan offered him “everything short of a body massage”; he boasts that his friends look at his wife with longing, “and think of what might have been.” He is smart enough to know that he is inviting caricature, and bold enough not to care.
Murray is a big jerk, but he is right that we should step out of our bubbles more than we do. Because we do live in narrow worlds in various ways–political, economic, cultural, by race or ethnic background. We live in other bubbles, too.
Caring for someone who lives with an intellectual disability has punctured my own bubble in various ways. By and large, my kids’ generation is better with that. Our local public school kids go to lunch and gym class with peers who live with a variety of developmental and physical challenges. So the waitress at Applebee’s and the young couple at the next table are more comfortable schmoozing an adult with intellectual disabilities than are my own professional peers and many of our privileged children in the curated bubble of our university’s fancy lab school.
That particular bubble exam is another matter. Joe the Plumber would probably ace that particular exam. Good for him. But he’s no more authentically American than I am, no more authentic than the inhabitants of more cosmopolitan or less non-Hispanic American worlds, either.
I am sad to report the passing of Dr. Quentin Young, age 93. Dr. Young was a fixture in Chicago and in Hyde Park. He was physician to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to a rising politician named Barack Obama, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and to many others in Chicago’s progressive community. He was, for decades, a passionate and prominent advocate for single-payer health care.
Dr. Young was also a critical figure in addressing Chicago’s disgusting medical care discrimination and segregation, which so harmed the lives and health of African-Americans in this city. In 1951(!) he helped to lead the Committee to End Discrimination in Chicago Medical Institutions, which began chipping away at the explicit racial segregation that pertained in Chicago. He helped provide medical care for civil rights activists down South during Freedom Summer and in Chicago itself.
Young had an acerbic wit. A reactionary councilman responded to Young’s rumored appointment as Chairman of Medicine at Cook County Hospital with the comment “Over my dead body.” Young simply responded: “It’s a deal.”
I didn’t know him all that well. We had coffee a few times. He was blessed to be vigorous and sharp well into his later years. He took me to task for my incremental views on health reform. He was very sweet to my daughter when we shared a lovely lunch four or five years ago.
He is missed by many, including me.
Glenn Loury and I two years ago discussing what might have happened had Dr. King survived. I don’t believe there would be an MLK holiday. He would have remained too a polarizing figure, as he surely would have gone on to do more difficult, controversial, and worthy things.
MLK Day always makes me remember fondly the old Jewish radicals, not least my parents and grandparents, who supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. They were way before their time.
I also remember 1968, the worst year in postwar American history. I was five, watching my parents staring in horror at our black-and-white kitchen TV. There was Coretta Scott King in mourning black. There were the sobbing mourners and the terrifying images of rioting and burning. The wheels were coming off. I didn’t know what to make of it. No one did.
Yesterday was a busy day for me. It was the official launch of my index card book. Yet what I will most remember about the day has nothing to do with that. It was the sight of the president wiping away tears as he discussed the continuing tragedy of gun violence. Mark already mentioned it. I just want to a little something.
Mayors, governors, and presidents bear witness to pain and tragedy. That’s particularly true in the area of gun violence, where politicians regularly meet with and seek to comfort survivors of horrific crimes. Politicians at that level are tough customers. They remain human beings. Their exposure to suffering and loss changes them, whatever their politics or the quality and ideological orientation of their policy decisions. It has to. It is a burden they carry. That is true of Presidents who comfort the victims of war. That is true of Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel, who has met with many grieving mothers and fathers. That is true of President Obama, father of two daughters, who comforted grieving parents of Sandy Hook.
Last night I got the chance to watch President Obama’s speech about gun violence. Many people in the room with him have been personally touched by violence. Some had lost young children, spouses, parents. President Obama quietly teared up when describing the murder of first-graders in Newtown. The moment was powerful, not least because President Obama is generally so controlled and dignified, emotionally self-contained.
This attracted the usual ridicule on Twitter and rightwing news media. In that moment, though, the president showed something valuable to many young and not-so-young people who might have been watching. He transparently expressed his sadness and frustration about the suffering that has touched so many people right there with him in that White House room. In doing so, he set a wonderful example.
Young people, particularly those who have witnessed sadness or trauma in their lives, need to see strong and effective adults who are unashamed to express their basic humanity. Shedding tears over mass murder of children is healthy and sane. It is certainly more manly than the callow macho posturing we’ve become accustomed to seeing, particularly in this election season.
It’s ok to care. We need to show our kids that.