Counting my blessings

Smiley-FaceOne of the good things about having a deeply unhappy mother is that it made me think about the things she does that lead to that chronic unhappiness.  Objectively, her life is very, very bad (old, widowed, heart problems, chronic pain, limited mobility) and her life is very, very good (she’s reached a grand old age, she’s got loving children and grandchildren, she lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world, she’s getting state-of-the-art care for her heart and pain, she lives in an excellent skilled nursing facility).

Rather than seeing both sides of her life, or focusing on the good stuff, my Mom insists on seeing only the very, very bad stuff.  There is no good.  She’s terrified of dying, but it’s awful to be old.  She never sees her children or grandchildren enough.  Marin is nice, but it’s not Europe.  Sure, they manage the worst of her pain, but she still has pain and it’s so terrible.  The nurses at her skilled nursing facility are awful.  And so it goes, on and on, focusing relentlessly on the bad things, and reducing the good things to bad.

I long ago made the conscious decision to go the other way.  Or as I told her, if you can’t change your situation, change your attitude.

There are things in my life I wish I could change; indeed, I wish most desperately that I could change them.  But mostly, I know that I’m singularly fortunate.  I live in one of the most beautiful areas in the world; in one of the nicest neighborhoods ever imagined; in a spacious, comfortable home; with children and dogs who adore me (sometimes to the point of exhaustion).  I have a sister who is my best friend; Don Quixote (another best friend) is just a phone call away; and I have innumerable acquaintances who make my life better.  I write, work out, read, and generally get to do things I enjoy.

I think Dennis Prager would be proud of me:

Apparently Michael Jackson was reincarnated as an American high school student

It’s a talent show at Pitman High School in Modesto, California (the Central Valley). One skinny white guy got up and proved to everyone that the ghost of Michael Jackson is inhabiting his body. He’s lip syncing the words, but the moves are all Michael. Most impressive:

You can read more about Brett Nichols here.

These feet were made for dancing: Charlie and Jackie, still doing the “Shag” after 30 years

Clearly, I’m in a video mood today, as well as a dance mood.  It therefore seemed entirely appropriate when this video appeared on my Facebook feed.  Before you watch, you might want to know what you’re seeing:

The type of dance they are performing is called Shag. This phenomenon was found in the 1950s by Billy Jeffers and “Chicken” Hicks in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Shag clubs have sprung up from Baltimore to Miami totaling in over 100 clubs. ShagAtlanta, the club Charlie and Jackie belong to, was established in 1989 with the merger of two metropolitan Atlanta shag clubs, the North Atlanta Beach Club and the Atlanta Beach Club. Each year thousands of shaggers get together for the Shag Festival to celebrate Shag.

Once again, Amy Purdy’s turn on Dancing With The Stars blew me away

0709-amy-purdy-1836Maybe I’m overestimating the difficulty of doing a fast swing dance with two prosthetic legs, but all I can say is that, when I watch Amy Purdy, I am beyond impressed.  She’s the one who caught meningitis when she was 19, lost both legs below the knee, and went on to become a champion paralympic snowboarder.  Now, she’s trying to become a Dancing With The Stars champion.

I don’t know that Amy will win, because there are some better dancers on the show, but it’s not always clear on DWTS that dancing is what it takes to win.  Last season, Amber Riley won, even thought she wasn’t the best dancer.  She was good enough, but Corbin Bleu was an extraordinary dancer — but she won.  Amber’s strength was facial expression and upper body movement.  Purdy has all that . . . plus she can dance. (And it doesn’t hurt that she’s working with Derek Hough who is quite possibly the best choreographer working in America today.)

Amy Purdy’s cha-cha on Dancing With The Stars

I’ve mentioned here before my fondness for Dancing With The Stars.  I really enjoy watching people learn a new skill, and I enjoy watching ballroom dancing.  This season, I was completely blown away watching Amy Purdy do the cha-cha:

Nice cha-cha, right? If you were paying close attention, you might also have noticed something about Amy Purdy: she was dancing on prosthetic legs. She caught meningitis when she was 19 and had both her legs amputated below the knees. She just won a snowboarding bronze at the Paralympics in Sochi, and now she’s on Dancing With The Stars.

Derek Hough is the perfect partner for Amy. He’s probably the best choreographer in America today, as well as being one of the best dancers. That combination will enable him to come up with all sorts of wonderful ways to work around her prosthetics. I look forward to watching Purdy for however long she lasts on this season’s show.

Because I am a pedant, I instantly used Amy to remind my children that attitude isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything. We all come into the world with certain gifts — academic intelligence, athletic abilities, artistic sensibilities, organizational abilities, etc. — but they are meaningless if we do not put any effort into cultivating those gifts, and it’s our attitude that enables us to do the hard work of cultivation.

Found it on Facebook: Just because it’s so pretty

This is somewhat off the beaten track for me, because I don’t usually post images solely because they’re attractive.  This, however, was so pretty I couldn’t resist passing it along.  I have no idea if it’s a photograph of an actual “flower dress” or if it’s an exceptionally realistic drawing.  I don’t know who did it or where it’s from.  I just know that it made me happy to look at it.

Flower dress

Thinking about the autism spectrum — and what you can do — might make you feel more hopeful

Ido in AustismlandThe news can easily make one feel terribly hopeless.  The world is boiling, and we seem to lack direction.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that America has been in the past a very resilient nation; that there’s sometimes a virtue to shaking things up simply because change is inevitable, so let’s get it all over with at once; that people at home and abroad are beginning to appreciate that America was never an Evil Empire, but was always a force for freedom and stability; and that ordinary Americans are seeing what socialist policy — economic, international, and societal — looks like, and they’re not pleased with what they see.

Here’s the other good news:  There is always hope.  Otherwise, why bother?  Without hope, why bother reading the news?  Why bother writing about the things we want to change?  Why bother thinking, voting, talking, working, or even getting up in the morning?  Things can and do change, and we who are hopeful have a responsibility to do whatever we can — to contribute whatever skill we have — to fulfill that hope by changing the political and social dynamic.

Since 2008, hope has been an overused and misused word.  To begin with, it’s not a thing in and of itself.  Only very shallow people believe that you can elect something called “hope.”  Instead, “hope” is a very special human emotion that motivates us to leap over seemingly insurmountable barriers and face off against despair, all the while embracing behaviors that lead to increased individual and national freedom, self-reliance, and prosperity.

And while I’m on the subject of hope — real hope, not the politically-packaged pabulum — I’d like to take a moment to talk about families dealing with relatives who fall within the autism spectrum.  Ido Kedar is one of those people.  I’ve known Ido for a long time, although not as well as I could wish.  Mother Nature gave Ido what appears to be a raw deal:  His autism leaves his maturing brain in a body that responds to his wishes only with the greatest effort.  He’s almost non-verbal, impulse control is an issue, his spatial awareness is limited, and coordination is a problem.  On the plus side, though, he is endowed with a brilliant brain; a strong moral compass; hypersensitive senses, which means that, even though he can be easily overwhelmed, he sees, hears, tastes, smells, and touches a world of beauty denied to the rest of us; and a fierce drive to connect with the world which has enabled him overcome so many of his deficits.

If you read Ido’s autobiography, Ido in Autismland: Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison, you see that he isn’t just the physical embodiment of the abstract word “hope.”  He doesn’t introduce himself to you by saying, “You can call me Hope.”  Ido is, instead, a person whose parents never lost faith in him and a person who always had faith in his own abilities. That faith gave them the emotion that is hope, and that emotion in turn gave them the energy to search, research, act, practice, and excel.

Ido is not unique. There are many other young people (and their families) in the autism spectrum who never give up. They take their belief in future possibilities and turn that into present action. One of the institutions that actively helps them with this (instead of just mouthing “hope”) is the Friendship Circle . . . which is having a fundraiser Bike Raffle. If you know someone with autism, or someone who lives with or cares for an autistic person, and you feel like contributing to the cause, this is certainly a nice way to do it.

For more information, check out Raising Asperger’s Kids.

 

Finding your spark of genius

Albert EinsteinIn the post immediately preceding this one, I spoke about American gypsy girls who are steered into young marriage, followed immediately by a career as a homemaker, no matter their talents.  There’s nothing wrong with being a wonderful mother and homemaker, but one does wonder, of course, whether those girls were deprived of the opportunity to discover a hidden talent within themselves.

I’ve been thinking about the whole “hidden talent” thing a lot lately.  It’s been a part of my thinking for years, actually, ever since my sister went to college.  Her first boyfriend there grew up in a small farming community and was the first person in his family to go to college.  When he got to college, he was required to take his first ever language class.  He chose French, which is where he met my sister.  She was also taking German, as a continuation of her high school studies.

Over the course of just one semester, my sister’s boyfriend became fluent not only in French, which he was actively learning, but in German, which he was passively absorbing, both from my sister’s studies and from my parents German-language conversations.  It turned out that, when it came to languages, he was savant, and could learn any language with passable fluency over the course of a few months.  Had he stayed home on the farm, it’s likely this gift would have remained dormant forever.  As it was, within two years of meeting my sister, he was one of six American college students selected to go on a special Russian language program to the Soviet Union.

I thought of this guy just last week, when my high-school-aged son came home from his first day in art class at school.  He’s never had an art class before, but he brought home an incredibly good representation of his own hand, meticulously worked in 3D.  He didn’t need lessons in perspective; he instinctively understood it.  Had he not been required to take this class as a prerequisite for graduating, he might never have known he has this gift.

And in this same vein, I’d like to recommend a bad, but wonderful documentary.  The documentary is called “Blood Brother,” and it’s playing on PBS.  The young man who made the documentary focuses on his friend, an almost paralyzingly ordinary boy from Pittsburgh, who did wonderful things.  The documentary is bad because it’s poorly constructed, poorly photographed, poorly narrated, poorly everything . . . but it’s still worth watching.

The ordinary young man is Robin “Rocky” Braat.  Rocky grew up in a dysfunctional home, suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mother’s many boyfriends, got shunted to his grandparents for a few years, and then ended up with his father.  He describes himself as a kid who was so bad in school, he was “marginally retarded.”  When he speaks, he has the slurred, dull cadences of a stoner (although there’s no indication that he is, in fact, a stoner).

Rocky was aimless.  He had a short attention span, and felt that there was nothing for him in Pittsburgh.  He decided for no reason whatsoever to go to India, because he wanted to go someplace “authentic” (although why Pittsburgh, in its own way, isn’t as “authentic” as anyplace else in the world, I do not know).  Once there, Rocky came upon an orphanage.  What makes this orphanage unique is that all of the children and all of the staff have HIV.  Rocky had found his place on this earth.

Although Rocky readily admits that he didn’t like children when he arrived at that orphanage, there was something about the children there that called to him.  Watching the boundless love he feels for them, and the equally boundless love they return to him, is incredibly moving.

The best part of the documentary comes at the end, so you have to stick with it or, if you have it on TiVo, fast forward a bit.  One of the HIV-infected boys, a kid maybe 9 or 10, ends up in the hospital with God knows what.  His skin is a festering, bleeding, peeling mass; his eyes are so crusted and white they look like a corpse’s; he’s coughing his lungs out from tuberculous; and his kidneys are shutting down.  The child looks gangrenous and he’s in an Indian hospital in a remote region where care is minimal and death a certainty.

Rocky cares for that child as if the boy is his own flesh and blood.  Wearing only gloves to product his hands, he bathes the boy’s endless wounds, oils his broken skin, cleans his oozing eyes, and holds him as he cries in pain.  It is an outpouring of selfless love that would make Mother Teresa proud.

It turns out that, when it comes to caring for HIV-infected children in a remote region of India, Rocky is a savant.  Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, he would have been nothing.  If he worked, he would have had a low-level job.  He probably would have drunk too much on weekends, and wasted his days away in a haze of bad television, cheap food, and a kind of nagging existential despair.  Instead, because he wanted something more, he found himself.

One of the blessings of living in America is that so many of us have the opportunity to explore different pathways in life.  Maybe we’ll just have a variety of experiences that we’ll talk about later (and boast about when we’re old).  But for the lucky ones, their travels in America will introduce them to the genius within themselves.