Department Of Grief And Relief
I’m thinking about my friends, JWW and MW. MW’s mother, Molly (a lovely Irish name for a lovely Irish-American lady) died last Monday, after a long physical and mental decline. Molly was never officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but had significant memory and cognitive problems over the past decade. After her husband died she lived with MW’s sister for several years, then came to stay with MW and JWW.
Molly was a sweet woman, and maintained her gentle and loving disposition (she was a favorite at the Memory Care center MW & JWW eventually found for her, in a nearby town), and did not seem to descend into the fear and anger that can affect people with memory problems. It was sweet, watching MW and JWW interact with Molly, showing her unqualified patience and love. But as is often the case with an elderly parent who can no longer live independently, love cannot conquer all. MW & JWW realized they could not provide Molly with the safe, 24/7 care she needed, which was made evident to them in many ways over many months, particularly on the day when JWW came downstairs to discover that Molly had removed her favorite polyester shirt from the dryer, put it on, and realized it was still damp. It seemed perfectly reasonable to Molly to finish drying her shirt – while she was wearing it – by holding her arms over an open flame on the stove…which is how JWW found her (fortunately, before Molly set herself on fire).
Now, MW & JWW find themselves in that odd life stage, as I was with the death of my own mother: between grief and relief. Such a strange feeling, also – to find yourself feeling both sad and somewhat amused by the fact that you feel like an orphan in your 60s. All the orphans of classic literature were way younger, right?
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Department Of Tricky Questions, Trickier Answers
Dateline: earlier this week, doing an am workout in our family room, listening to a podcast story. The afore-mentioned description – developmentally delayed – was used in the podcast to describe the podcast story narrator’s brother, who had a broad list of cognitive and emotional impediments. MH entered the room just in time to hear the term DD. He paused for a moment, then posed a question (to the universe, as much as to moiself), “What does that mean?”
He was not exactly being rhetorical. I knew that he knew what DD meant…then began to think beyond what I thought I knew…and, really, what does it mean?
I told him a few of the emotional and cognitive defects (of the narrator’s brother) which had been mentioned in the podcast ,and offered my opinion that the DD label, in the particular case of that podcast and in what has become its common usage, is it meant to replace an older term which has now entered the retirement home of words-not-to-be-used-due-to-derogatory-potential: “mentally retarded.”
The concept and label of mental retardation was widely used, by both laypersons and medical professionals, up until relatively recently. 
In the 1950s the word retarded was progressive, an improvement over feebleminded, imbecile, moron. It shares a root with ritardando, a musical term meaning a gradual decrease in tempo. Think: the musicians’ fingers letting the moments stretch between their notes.
To retard, to slow down. As in: Your baby’s growth is retarded.
But retarded soon came to mean dumb or incompetent. As in: I just lost my phone. I’m so retarded.
(from “The R-Word,” by Heather Kirn Lanier, The Sun )
MH and I began to wonder aloud with one another (one of our more frequent conversational formats) about the fact that although the term developmentally delayed may be less open to derogatory usage by laypersons, it isn’t very helpful in the way that all terminology is supposed to be: by being specific or descriptive.
Close-to-the-heart example: My friend FP is blind. FP once told me about her scornful objection to the term visually impaired. In FP’s experience, some Well-Meaning People ® think the word blind is somehow insulting. One WMP actually corrected FP when FP described herself as blind: “Oh, you mean you’re ‘visually impaired?’ “
To FP, “blind” is merely, vitally factual: I’m not simply “impaired,” I’m blind, and that is important for people to know. It’s not that I just see things dimly or unclearly – I don’t see them at all, so when I ask for directions to the bathroom and you tell me it’s ten steps ahead but don’t tell me that there is an ottoman in the way I will trip over it and break my #*%!? nose.
Delay, in its various noun/verb/adverb/adjective forms, involves actions or objects that are postponed and hindered. But delay also carries with it the possibility of catching up. In describing people as having developmental delays, the term is so broad/vague as to provide little functional information: I have heard it applied to a 4th grader with mild dyslexia as well as to a young adult born with such severe brain deficits he has never been able to communicate, much less toilet, feed and care for himself and thus has required 24 hour professional/institutional care since his toddlerhood.
The scope of conditions categorized under the label intellectual disabilities is broad, and with early intervention the outcomes for many developmentally delayed children (who is the past may have been labeled mentally retarded) is much brighter than in decades ago. But it’s not as if, say, the boy with Down Syndrome is merely delayed academically when compared with his older sister, who is taking calculus as a junior in high school. It’s not as if, Sure, he’s behind now, but he’ll catch up one day and do higher mathematics – it’ll just take him a few years longer.
What would be an alternative, more accurate label: developmentally compromised ? It doesn’t seem like there could be any term that would be acceptable to all, or even most people  …and maybe that’s the point. Here’s a realization worthy of a Hallmark Channel movie: treat everyone as individuals; no one label can tell you all of the strengths or disabilities (excuse me, challenges?  ) facing a particular person.
Still…today’s “She has a developmental delay” isn’t ultimately more informative than yesterday’s, “He has a mental retardation.”
And of course, Things Being What They Are ® , MH and moiself both felt somewhat… awkward…even discussing the issue, just the two of us, no language cops in sight.
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Department Of A Headline That Is So Evocative Why Bother
Reading The Newspaper Article – Just Use Your Imagination
Because Whatever You Come Up With Is Bound To Be As (If Not More)
Entertaining Than The Real Story
“Children Removed From A Facility That Limited Tampons”
(The Oregonian, 3-29-19)
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Department Of No April Foolin’
Yet another story inspired by a story I was listening to – this one on April 1, courtesy of NPR’s All Things Considered: How Vanity License Plates Are Approved and Denied in California.
Dateline: sometime in 1980; moiself is down in SoCal, visiting my parents. My mother shows me a newspaper clipping, about an employee of the newspaper (The Orange County Register) who had recently won an “argument” with the California DMV. “Don’t you know this guy?” my mother asks me.
I scan the article. “Peter?!” I burst out laughing. “Yeah, I know that Schmuck.”
I went to high school with He Who Was To Become sportswriter/columnist Peter Schmuck. He graduated the year before me; we had mutual friends (mostly the high school journalism crew) but didn’t know each other well. Moiself, like some of his peers, I’d guess, initially pitied then almost immediately admired or at least respected Peter, for having to deal with a first-last name combination considered redundant. Many of us who knew him attributed Peter’s sense of humor and in-your-face attitude – a combination of sarcasm and assertiveness sometimes bordering on aggression  – to having grown up with that name. It seems PS would at least partially agree with that sentiment, as per his interview with fellow journalist Steve Marantz:
“I‘m the only person in the world who thinks it was a big advantage to grow up with the last name Schmuck.. I’m pretty sure the distinctiveness of the name has helped me throughout my career. It also has given me a thicker skin – in a ‘Boy Named Sue’ kind of way – in a business where that isn’t a bad thing to have.”
I am not wandering off on yet another digression. Here comes the newspaper article/DMV story tie-in:
In 1980 Peter (or, his girlfriend at the time, as Peter has said) applied for a vanity license plate with his last name on it. That was the subject of the newspaper article my mother showed me: Peter Schmuck had been denied the vanity plate SCHMUCK because, in a letter the DMV sent to Peter, the DMV claimed schmuck was a Yiddish indecency.
I found that whole incident to be wonderfully WTF-ish to the nth (thank you, NPR, for the memory prod). I still smile to picture a state government flunkie whose job it was to tell a person that the person’s given/authentic/legal surname was indecent (Dude, you’re the DMV! Look up his driver’s license, IT’S HIS NAME).
As well as his first 15 minutes of fame, Peter Schmuck got his license plate. Yes, the Good Guy prevailed in The Great License Plate Indecency Skirmish. I saw it on Peter’s car (which, if memory serves, he referred to as the Schmuckmobile). Following his stint at The Register, Peter moved East and landed a long-time gig as a sports reporter and columnist for The Baltimore Sun. I forgot to ask Peter, when I saw him at a Baltimore Orioles home game oh-so-many years ago, whether he got the state of Maryland to issue him a new plate.
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May you, when it is your turn, find a graceful way to navigate between grief and relief;
May you be careful with your labels and also patient with those who use them;
May your choice of vanity license plates bring joy to the simple-minded masses;
…and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
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 In 2010 President Barack Obama signed “Rosa’s Bill,” (approved unanimously by Congress), which required the federal government to replace the terms “mental retardation” “and “mentally retarded” with, respectively, “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability” in policy documents.
 And trust me, when you get rid of “retard/retardation” it is replaced by turning the supposedly gentler term into a pejorative: “What are you, a special needs” kid?” which I heard, pronounced with multisyllabic sarcasm, along with “learning disabled” et al, on my childrens’ school yard playgrounds. Never doubt the ability of a grade schooler to turn the most well-intentioned label into a slur.
 Another adjective I’ve heard both embraced and mocked, and by people supposedly on the same side of the disability rights movement. “Intellectually Challenged” – that’s me, trying to follow a chess match.
 Translation: in high school, I thought him somewhat of an asshole. I figured he likely held the same opinion about me. Later on, I came to be, and still am, quite fond of him.