Friday, February 28, 2014

Cyber Disgrace?

      If you weren’t born yesterday—or during the past 25 years— maybe, like me, you’re not totally up to speed on technology and social media. Of course there’s a range of incompetence, bottoming out at downright (and deliberate) ignorance.  On one extreme, there’s my mom and her friends in their 80s.  Most of them don’t have cell phones, computers or ipads.  For them, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, “download” and “Apps” are a foreign language.  My Mom prefers phones with cords, books from the library and handwritten notes. I’m sure there are plenty of elderly people who feel differently, but I haven’t met many.

     As for us baby boomers, our comfort zone with technology and social media is broad and varied.  Most middle aged adults, who have been in the work force since college, have gradually made the transition from typewriters to computers, fax to pdf and onto laptops, cell phones and ipads.  It’s not even possible to be a responsible parent if you don’t stay on top of technology. How else can you protect your child from cyberbullying, sexting, and on-line pedophiles? There are probably countless other worries, but fortunately my kids are 23, so I don’t have to pay attention to the latest and (not necessarily) greatest advances in technology. What is Snapchat, anyway?

     On the other hand, I’m extremely grateful that my son, Max, forced me to become semi-computer literate.  Starting in 6th grade, Max attended a school that required him to do practically EVERYTHING on a laptop.  The good news was that most homework assignments were posted on-line.  No more forgetting or losing those pesky papers with teacher’s instructions—a huge benefit to students like Max with ADHD.  The bad news was I had to monitor how much time Max spent IMing and going on Facebook instead of actually doing the homework. That meant I had to join Facebook, get his password and invade his messy minefield of a room to check his laptop screen.  In some ways, I felt like an ungainly or oversized ship, being tugged out of my safe harbor of ignorance. 

     Along with other parents, I had to learn enough about my son’s social world and its intersections with technology to help him navigate safely and politely. We had to invent new rules of etiquette.  Is it okay to email a thank you note instead of writing one? Share your password with close friends?  What about IMing while talking to a parent? Texting while out to dinner? Or posting questionable photos on Facebook?  These were the common issues of the day.
     Less common but equally important, was educating my daughter, Sarah, on the autistic spectrum, to use a computer and understand the basics of social media.  Her special schools were so busy trying to help her overcome behavioral and social challenges and teach her basic academic skills (like reading and math) that there was no time or energy left to focus on technology. It was hard enough for Sarah to make one or two real friends in her class, let alone learn how to email or understand the ins and outs of Facebook. 

     Persuading Sarah to use a computer was much more difficult than I would have imagined.  With low muscle tone in her fingers, Sarah had struggled to hold a pen correctly before finally learning to write loopy script that teachers could barely decipher. The irony was that Sarah LOVED writing script, because it was the only thing she accomplished before her twin brother. Sarah was painfully aware that Max was more proficient in computers, social media and all other academics, so she didn’t want to try.  

     Toward the end of high school I had to ask teachers to insist that Sarah type her papers.  There was no chance she could go to college without basic computer literacy.  I had to help her, so I had to help myself first.  Then I had to persuade her that to make and keep friends in the real world, she needed to go on Facebook.  It was a long, slow process, but now she has more than 100 Facebook friends; a few of them are friends in the real world.

     Speaking of the real world, I often feel that I’m on the verge of obsolescence.  I became so comfortable with my Blackberry that I have owned an iphone for less than a year.  Should I be embarrassed (or proud?) to admit that I have only recently learned to take and upload photos on my phone, along with using navigation and voice commands?  This blog is less than a year old and I needed a LOT of help setting it up, learning where and how to post it.  As for Twitter, I’m not a big fan, and usually tweet only once a week, (instead of every day like most people in the modern age).  I’ve never included a hash tag.  According to my frame of reference “hash” is either roast beef or something you smoke. Does that leave me at the shallow end of the social media pool?

     Maybe the people in the shallow end are those young people on dates who don’t talk to each other.  They don’t hold hands or even make eye contact because they are too busy texting other people on their respective phones.  Even worse, is when one person talks on the phone or texts, and the other just sits there, virtually alone.  What happened to romantic evenings when people talked and had eyes for only EACH OTHER?  For that matter, what happened to friends having intimate conversations or laughing TOGETHER instead of on separate screens? Are we destined to communicate in emotional shorthand with abbreviations, initials and emoticons?

     Technology has opened the world and connected many people in a variety of ways, not all of them good. Time, energy and paper have been saved and many tedious jobs eliminated (good for some people and ruinous for others). Robots and mini-drones are only a heartbeat (or key stroke) away.  Depending on your age, viewpoint (and investment portfolio), these developments fall somewhere in the range of wonderful, innovative examples of human evolution and cyber disgrace.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Now What?

 I should be simply thrilled that my “special needs” daughter, Sarah, is graduating with a BA from Pace University in May. (Knock on wood.). But “simple” is not in my vocabulary, at least not when it comes to Sarah.  Diagnosed on the autistic spectrum with a variety of labels at one year old, Sarah, at 23, has far exceeded the expectations of many evaluators, doctors, and educators with whom she and I had the misfortune to meet during the last two decades. Of course I AM delighted and proud to see Sarah graduate college. In fact, I wish all of those negative prognosticators who said she would “end up in an institution, never go to college, marry, or have children” will read this blog. I want them all to apologize and attend the ceremony at Madison Square Garden on May 21st when she receives her diploma.

     Success is the best revenge, and Sarah has certainly overcome enormous challenges, including (pragmatic language delays, social skill issues, perceptual, visual and motor planning problems and severe learning disabilities, especially in reading and abstract thinking. Today she is a senior in college with a 3.6 average and a yearly merit scholarship of $17,000. But Sarah’s educational accomplishments are not the whole story. They barely scratch the surface of my daughter’s humanity, of who she is and who she might (or might not) become.   Leaving aside the question of marriage or children—a worrisome prospect for any parent of a child on the autistic spectrum—the big question after graduation is: “Now what?” 

    Sarah yearns to be “normal,” like any other college graduate.  She desperately wants to find a job, live on her own and get married someday.  Let’s start with Sarah’s job prospects. Now her situation gets dicey.  Googling employment opportunities for college grads with autism has yielded no useful links so far.  I’m in pioneer territory once again, as I had found myself over 20 years ago when beginning my search for therapists, schools and colleges.  Recently autism has received a lot of attention, as more and more children are diagnosed “on the spectrum.” Today there are plenty of links for colleges  with support programs for high functioning students on the spectrum, most of which did NOT exist 5 years ago when Sarah was looking for colleges.  The U.S College Autism Project (USCAP) lists about 20 colleges with support services.  Interestingly, Landmark College (where Sarah earned her Associate’s Degree) and Pace University are missing from the list.

     I have already consulted with the internship/job placement person at Pace University’s OASIS program, specifically designed to meet the needs of autistic spectrum students. Originally, we had thought Sarah could be an assistant teacher for young children if she could pass NYC’s certification test.  She has been a summer volunteer, working with special needs kids for the past two  years at Learning Spring. My daughter loves working with 5 and 6 year olds.

 “I like teaching them how to use their words and how to behave appropriately,” Sarah says,  smiling proudly.
Of course she does.  Sarah was once one of those difficult, out-of-control 5-year olds.  She has lived in their world, and in fact attended the very same school (a predecessor) where her speech therapist is now the school director.  In some important ways—including empathy—Sarah is uniquely qualified to work with these children.
     But now it turns out the city is not giving the certification tests for assistant teachers because there are NO openings.   I’m told that neurotypical candidates with masters’ degrees are competing for these jobs nowadays.  

     The good news is that Sarah will spend half the summer acting as the female lead in “Night to Shine,” an independent film about two young adults on the autistic spectrum who struggle to connect romantically.  This full-length feature is an expansion of a short film made by director Rachel Israel as her thesis project for Columbia University, where it won “Best Film” among other honors.  (See my earlier blog, “Sarah’s Fifteen Minutes).”

      So what about an acting career?  I’ve always been an optimist and encouraged Sarah to set her sights high and work hard, but well… I also have to be honest. Sarah is “a natural” at playing a young woman with disabilities, but a Shakespearian actor she’s not.  Even talented neurotypical actors, with years of training, struggle to make ends meet by waiting tables. And most of them never succeed.   Sarah had no time for acting lessons; she was too busy with tutoring and therapy.

     From the beginning, Sarah’s goal–and ours—was for her to go to college and graduate.  When our daughter was a toddler, college seemed like such a long, hard journey, with the destination light years away…. During our darkest and most difficult days, we couldn’t help but wonder if the naysayers were right.  Had we embarked on our own hellish version of “Mission Impossible?” The answer was more than enough to worry about. Back then we thought there was plenty of time to help Sarah choose a career. We’d worry about it later. But now “later” is only a few months away.

     Now what?



Friday, February 14, 2014

Hearts and Flowers

     A close friend assumed I would be writing about Valentine’s Day this week.  Actually, I hadn’ t planned on it.  Why not?  I could see the question on my friend’s face; her expression was  puzzled and playful.  Immediately, I began thinking about the answer, and –of course—my plans changed. After all, it seemed a shame to skip the one romantic holiday of the year unless, well, that’s the interesting part.

     As a child, I looked forward to Valentine’s Day because it was an unparalleled opportunity to eat LOTS of chocolate and pastel colored hearts.  The downside was that I had to write Valentine cards to all the girls in my class at school—even the ones I despised. Of course, I received similarly insincere expressions of affection (hearts and doilies) in return.  We all understood that our parents were teaching us to be kind and inclusive (however tedious) in exchange for extra candy.  It was NOT a big deal.

     All of that changed when I became a teenager and young adult.  Before I was married, Valentine’s Day morphed into a really big deal, the definitive commentary on my love life.  If I had a boyfriend, I expected him to send flowers, buy a card and be especially passionate and romantic on that day.  It was a stain on his character if he forgot or didn’t believe in such gestures, a sure sign that he wasn’t THE ONE.  I’d grown up with a father who always delighted my mother with flowers, romantic cards and gifts, not just on Valentine’s Day but all year round.  Why should I settle for anything less?

     If I didn’t have a boyfriend, Valentine’s Day was usually a sad, lonely affair.  I’d come home from work and see all the flowers downstairs with the doorman  for Elizabeth,  Rebecca, Alison… but not one of those lovely, fragrant arrangements had my name on it.  Another year was passing without even a secret admirer.  I opened my mailbox knowing there wouldn’t be a pink or red envelope “sealed with a kiss” waiting for me.  No hearts or flowers (or sex) for me.  Valentine’s Day was a cruel reminder that I was alone.  Time to dive into the deep end of the self-pity pool: Nobody loved me and (quite possibly) no one ever would.

     Now that I’ve been married for 25 years, Valentine’s Day is sweet and fun, but certainly not the big deal it once was.  Henry and I exchange cards with hugs and kisses and inside jokes.  And like my dad, Henry brings me flowers, not just on Valentine’s Day, but on other days too.  Sometimes he’ll bring home roses to cheer me up, or if I’m sick, or just because a particular bunch caught his eye.  In some ways, those flowers are more special and romantic, because they are not part of an obligation, a tradition, or a commercial holiday.  They are just about us.

     It bothers Henry (and me to a lesser degree) that the same flowers he could buy any other day of the year are marked up $10 for Valentine’s Day. We both hate the fact that so many restaurants create “special Valentine’s Day” dinners” for tremendously inflated prices.  Restaurants turn Valentine’s Day into another price gauging opportunity, like New Year’s Eve.  Henry and I make a point of going to restaurants with normal a la carte menus.  Being ripped off is not our idea of a romantic evening or celebration.

     However, I don’t mind supporting the greeting card industry. It’s fun to pick out the “perfect” Valentine’s card.  Sometimes the cards express exactly how I feel in pictures and words; on other occasions a card is a wonderful starting point to express my own thoughts and feelings.  It’s all about taking a few minutes (at minimal expense) out of our busy demanding , lives to say “I love you,” something we could all do more often.

     I guess Valentine’s Day has different meanings, depending on where you are in your life.  To judge from the cover article, “Sexless but Equal,” in The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, it seems to me passion and romance may be foundering. The article quoted a study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage.” The study found that when men did “feminine chores” like laundry or vacuuming—couples had less sex, even though this is exactly the housework many women ask their husbands to do. Moreover, women reported better sex with husbands who performed so-called “masculine chores,” like taking out the trash or mowing the lawn.  It wasn’t just sexual frequency that improved.  At least for the wives, greater sexual satisfaction was reported when the husband concentrated on masculine chores instead of feminine ones.

     Even more surprising to the author (a marriage therapist) was that “no matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other’s emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.” With more women working outside the home, and more men helping out at home, perhaps it is becoming more difficult for two exhausted equals to meet each other’s sexual needs.

     Husbands in the article were also baffled. One said: “I know what a 50-50 marriage should be like.  But what is 50-50 sex supposed to be like?” According to Jules Brines, author of the chores study, “the less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.” Our efforts to become gender-neutral  may have backfired in the bedroom. 

      Couples therapist Esther Perel, who wrote “Mating in Captivity,” explains that “egalitarian marriage takes the values of a good social system—consensus and consent—and assumes you can bring these rules into the bedroom. But the values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust.” She added that “most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.” Does that mean it’s becoming more difficult for couples to switch gears and indulge in dominance and submission fantasies?  By blurring or erasing the lines between masculine and feminine, have we somehow ruined the mystery and arousal that goes with exploring differences?  Maybe it’s true that opposites attract (but perhaps don’t make the best marriage partners). It’s an interesting and complicated question.

     Where does that leave Valentine’s Day?  I’m not sure, but I still love those flowers.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Enough With Snow

     If you live in New York City and are NOT a school age child, I think you’ll agree that this is one of the worst winters ever (and it’s not even close to over).   Alas, this is only the beginning…of February.  We still have to survive March, which is supposed to “come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.” Really? I guess if you believe in animal metaphors, that means November through January  are a nightmarish Jurassic Park, with bone chilling cold and weeks of frigid temperatures in the 20s and below.  I think we even set an all-time record of 4 degrees last month.  Worst of all, we’ve had multiple snow storms, and  I’m not talking about a few slushy, inconvenient inches.  I’m no Lee Goldberg, but I’m willing to bet we’re well on our way to record breaking amounts of snow.   To make matters even more hellish, most of the snow has fallen when people were travelling –or attempting to travel—for the holidays.

     In all my 50-plus years of living in the city, I can’t remember so many snow storms in one winter.   It’s true there have been years when a foot or more of snow has fallen and crippled the city. But then it froze, melted and got shoveled away.  End of story.  This year, it’s one storm after the next –in every variety.  There’s the icy, blinding snow that blows right under your umbrella and hits you in the face.  Once on the ground, the snow becomes black ice turning sidewalks into unwanted mini-skating rinks. I bet business is booming for the orthopedists treating all the people who slip and fall, so maybe THEY are happy about it.  Then there’s the soft, sloppy snow that turns filthy gray and floods the crosswalks.  Sometimes the slush soup is so deep that you’re forced to wade through it, and even wearing snow boots, your feet still feel wet and clammy (after sweating indoors).   

     This is definitely NOT the season to be jolly. Cold, unhappy people are pushing harder than ever to get onto subways and buses on weekdays, and practically killing each other for cabs on weekends. Record numbers of people have been stranded and delayed at airports, shortening or lengthening vacations in every possible frustrating way.  For example, if your plane was delayed or your flight cancelled, rebooking was often more of a problem than a solution.  Certainly that was the case for many Jet Blue customers—including my son Max—who was attempting to get home from Los Angeles after the holidays. (See my earlier blog, “Fret Blue”).  As I write, he is trying to fly back to LA on Jet Blue in—as luck would have it—another snow storm.   Jet Blue’s web site said that Max’s flight was scheduled to take off on time.  The previous flight was cancelled, and the one after it will be delayed by several hours.  Do we really believe Max’s flight will somehow speed up, up and away on schedule?
      Miracle of miracles, Max called a few minutes past midnight to tell us his flight had landed in Los Angeles. With blizzard conditions and Jet Blue’s hard-to-fathom departure schedule, Max had somehow stumbled onto the best flight of the day and managed to escape New York without camping out at the airport.

     But there is (as always this season) more snow coming. Like a bear preparing for hibernation, I have been running to Food Emporium, CVS, Citibank and the dry cleaners, stocking up and cramming all my errands into one day.  The supermarket was so crowded with aspiring hibernators that I had to wait for an empty shopping cart.  Tomorrow there is supposed to be another snowstorm that will dump a few more inches on the Big Apple.   After a brief respite on Thursday, MORE snow has been predicted on Sunday.  This is lots of fun for all the kiddies who enjoy sledding in Central Park, but MOST adults have had ENOUGH.   All the doormen, super-intendants and home owners are exhausted from endlessly shoveling.  When will it end?

     Some people hope it never will.  In addition to the orthopedists and school children, the salt distributors, independent plow owners and operators, and the companies that supply salt to New York City are enjoying a financial bonanza this winter.
      As for de Blasio, the jury is out on how fairly and how well he has deployed the city’s resources to clear our streets.  Many people who live on the Upper East Side felt he was worse than blasé about our area, and that he cared more about plowing the outer boroughs and less affluent areas, his core constituency.   Bloomberg, our former mayor, was criticized for favoring Manhattan in snowstorms and neglecting the outlying areas, so perhaps de Blasio felt it was necessary to do the opposite to prove a political point.  I bet our new mayor—soon to be an Upper East Side resident at Gracie Mansion—will be feeling differently about where to plow once he moves in.  If de Blasio is smart, he’ll wait till the spring…if it ever comes.

     Of course there are those lucky New Yorkers who live on Fifth Avenue and Central Park West with magnificent views of Central Park who are able to photograph a panorama of the snow at its best:  a dazzling winter wonderland of pure white blanketing the ground and decorating the trees in nature’s version of white lace.  However, these pretty pictures are no consolation at all once the photographers step outside and must walk gingerly along slippery streets, trying not to slip, only to step into icy pools of slush, and hoping to find an elusive cab without being splashed by the passing traffic.
     Snow may be wonderful in ski areas like Colorado, Vermont and Idaho, but in New York City, it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable and in the end, just plain UGLY.  Almost as soon as the snow falls, the dogs turn it yellow and brown; soot, dirt and millions of boots turn the rest of it gray.

     Enough already.