October 1, 2022

The meadow

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 8:17 pm by chavisory

The last few years I’ve been going home to the Midwest more often in the summertime, as various factors have made it the easier time to have large family gatherings, and the pandemic has made it the safer time, too. But almost never is it the case that I see anything that makes me happier about new development in the area where I grew up. There’s always a new subdivision of identical-looking houses in yards without trees. Another cheap-looking strip mall of chain restaurants and mobile phone stores on former grassland or woodland. Almost all of the woods along Highway 9 into Parkville are strip mall now. A local shopping development turned a patch of grassland into parking decks and chain stores and restaurants, and the pandemic subsequently turned most of it into a ghost town.

My old school district, last I checked, was planning to put a new elementary and high school complex on the site of some of the very last original forest in the city.

But this year when I was back for the 4th of July, as we turned off the highway on the way home from the airport, a corner plot of land that had been a usually-fallow soybean field for as long as I could remember, and then untended scrub that I was increasingly afraid was about to become another barren housing development any minute, was, somehow, forest. Extremely young forest, probably not more than four or six acres, but forest. It was a variety of shock I’ve never experienced before in my life. Somehow the opposite both of turning a corner to see a building where there wasn’t one before, and of turning to find a patch of sky where last you checked there was a building. For a second I was so disoriented I doubted where we were, even though I’ve driven that way probably hundreds of days of my life.

A friend said that apparently there’d been an agreement made to leave the plot undeveloped as flood control. Another roadside plot a little ways down is now a monarch butterfly preserve full of wildflowers and milkweed, and a sparse patch of woods across the street is protected watershed.

I’ve seen buildings both appear and disappear seemingly in the blink of an eye. I’ve come back to the city from summer stock to find apartment buildings where there had been a parking deck or a vacant lot. I’ve seen buildings demolished and natural habitats destroyed for buildings, and buildings long since decayed and abandoned and the land they occupied gone feral. I know of places this has been allowed to happen, though mostly long before I was born, like North Brother Island or Doodletown. Earlier this year as I returned home from a hike via a subway station I hadn’t used much in recent months, I emerged onto the sidewalk to a patch of sky I’d never seen before in my life where an older building had been demolished to make way for a new mixed-use development. The new building rose and eventually blotted out the sky again, but for a few weeks, a patch of sky existed that hadn’t been seen for decades.

I’d never seen a piece of land restored to something approaching wildness within such a shockingly small amount of time.

And I didn’t think I was going to see such a thing twice in one summer, either, but back in NYC, I was out walking in Central Park one night and took a turn up a trail I don’t follow much because it only led to a scraggly hillside along the road dividing the Ravine and North Woods from the ballfields. But I did, and rounded a corner to find a landscape I’d never seen before.

Signs on nearby fences said that the Central Park Conservancy was restoring a plot of native meadow.

There were plants I’d never seen before, insect sounds I’d never heard before, a kind of light I’d never seen, about half a mile from the apartment where I’ve lived for 18 years. Clouds of chimney swifts darted across the sky above.

As I stood and just looked at it, I watched probably half a dozen people stop and do the same. I like the idea that for people who are kids now, this is just the way it will have always been.

[Three photos of an urban meadow with tall grasses and purple and yellow wildflowers under a deep blue sky]

September 13, 2022

My letter to my Senators regarding #StopTheShock

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 10:45 pm by chavisory

As many of you probably know, the autistic community has been working for many years to oppose the use of an electrical shock device, known as the GED, employed as punishment and behavioral control at the Judge Rotenberg Center, a residential facility for autistic and intellectually/developmentally disabled people.

(It should be noted that the type of electric shock employed at the JRC is not ETC, or electroconvulsive therapy, which has an immensely troubled past but also legitimate and ethical uses, notably for treatment-resistant major depression.)

While the FDA banned the use of the GED device in 2020, the ban was later overturned on appeal. The autistic community is now advocating to #StopTheShock by asking the Senate to pass the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Landmark Advancements Act of 2022, including language as passed by the House of Representatives that would once again ban use these devices on autistic and intellectually disabled students. Below is my letter to my Senators on this issue.

***

Dear Senator Gillibrand/Schumer,

I am an autistic New Yorker, and I’m writing to ask you to vote to pass the FDASLA Act, including the language banning the use of electric skin shocks as behavior modification, as the House has already done. This is a practice the U.N. has found to constitute torture, and I think it is shameful that this kind of mistreatment is still being practiced on autistic and disabled students in this country. There are far more effective and ethical ways of helping autistic people with the most intensive needs.

Thank you so much for your time.

Sincerely,

{My Name}

July 21, 2022

The strange loneliness of liking too much

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:53 pm by chavisory

A Facebook memory from about four years ago popped up in my timeline recently; I’d been looking for someone, anyone, else to talk to who’d been listening to both the Rabbits and Point Mystic podcasts. Rabbits was another podcast by the creators of TANIS, a mystery involving a missing woman and something that might be an elaborate role-playing game or might be something much darker or might be all in the imagination of the narrator. Point Mystic in its early days was kind of like if Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman had teamed up to write a family-friendly horror podcast for old Millennials (and if that sounds like something you’d be into, well, I highly recommend it).

Two friends had heard Rabbits. None had heard Point Mystic, and so obviously none had heard both, and I was just helplessly desperate to find someone to talk about common themes and symbols between them with, and I was completely out of luck.

To the best of my knowledge, I still am.

Or I saw a slightly older horror movie a few years ago called YellowBrickRoad, and wanted someone to talk to about its parallels to both LOST and Limetown, and there was just…no one. Or no one interested enough, anyway. Even though Limetown had been hugely popular at the time, and the movie had come out the same year LOST had ended, it was an indie release that just not enough people had seen, I guess. Or they did, but no one saw what I saw.

Lately I’m really into the relationship between ghosts and time travel, and that’s a hard one, even though it seems like it shouldn’t be. I was reading a book called Ghostly Matters by Avery F. Gordon last summer and I’d love to see someone discuss Twin Peaks in light of that work, and it seems so obvious to me, like they were written for each other, but no one really has, as far as I can tell.

I was also stewing about this in relation to question about what the things are that you feel are chronically under-appreciated. And the problem for me isn’t quite that, although those things do exist for me, being autistic and all. I do have a lot of favorite media that not very many people are familiar with, but the people who are love it a lot, even if they’re few and far between.

But the thing that really gets me, that leaves me feeling alone in what I love so often, is seeing relationships and parallels between my niche interests—or sometimes even between things that aren’t really niche phenomena but that just don’t tend to share a common audience—and the combination of uncommon interests and uncommon pattern recognition is what will really leave you without anyone to talk to, going “I can’t be the only person who’s seeing this, right?”

Take for instance Amazon’s Outer Range, which, with its initial appearance of being more of a Western family drama, seems somehow to have captured an audience that overwhelmingly doesn’t watch any other fairly popular television sci-fi. Reviews mentioned superficial resemblances to Stranger Things occasionally, but there should’ve been people yelling about the ways it was invoking tropes from the X-Files, Fringe, and Doctor Who.

And I half suspect that the rise of binge watching (and the production of much shorter seasons more suited to binge watching) might actually be accelerating the phenomenon. (A recent Tumblr post confirms that at least I’m not the only person perceiving this to be the case.) Where even shows that become massive smash hits are a flash in the pan as far as how long they really stick in the popular consciousness, as opposed to building a presence in the public awareness over time, so that a story’s language becomes our language. Instead, a show that’s a year or two old, let alone five or seven, seems to just have no grip on public memory anymore. And things don’t build followings by word of mouth over time, so that there are fans in various different stages of engagement. Everybody saw something when it came out a year ago, and now nobody has any sense of its connection or relationship to anything else.

I think there’s an aspect of age to it, too. When I was a teenager, you couldn’t really be too sincerely enthusiastic about much. Now you can, a whole lot more, but younger people watching the same things as you just don’t have the same background knowledge. So I watched the first season of Good Omens a couple of years ago, just constantly going “So we’re really not going to talk about the whole dialogue with the Screwtape Letters happening here? We’re really not going to talk about that at all?”

Anyone?

Bueller?

And I feel like there’s an inclination lately to ask whether an experience like this is ~an autism thing~ but I hesitate about that, because I don’t think it’s something just intrinsic to that or something other people aren’t capable of experiencing. Although I think it’s probably more likely to be a corollary of having a fairly broad range of somewhat niche interests, a stronger than average attention to detail, and a much longer than average memory.

There’s a loneliness to having too narrow a range of interests, to being in love with something that nobody else is, or that’s very displaced in time compared to the rest of your social circle (being obsessively in love with the music of Buddy Holly when you’re eight, or the Moody Blues when you’re 13 will not get you any conversation partners). There’s another kind, ironically, in having too broad a range of enthusiasms.

I want to talk about Radical Face’s “Family Tree” album cycle and Ray Bradbury and “The Nevers.” And Ray Bradbury and Tales from the Loop. And even though JK Rowling is totally canceled, I want to talk about all the X-Files easter eggs in Harry Potter. I want to read about time travel and trauma, about time and memory and the precise relationship between the Austin and Murry O’Keefe families. Sometimes I go searching fanfic archives, sometimes academia.edu or JSTOR for the kind of meta-discussion I want to be reading, though rarely to much satisfaction. Lately I really want to talk to somebody about Josh Ritter’s The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All and also Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.

I know entirely too well that what a lot of people would say is “Well, you could write about all of that!” That you have to write the things you want to exist in the world if no one else is going to do it. I am borderline afraid that this is what finally drives me into grad school, just for the opportunity to pick a topic no one else is ever going to and spend several years writing 200 pages about it.

But I could spend the rest of my life writing essays about this stuff just to placate my own restless brain, and it’s still not the same as getting interpretive feedback with people who can also see what you see. As getting to have a conversation.

“Is this something no one else has noticed and that’s why no one is talking about it?” I spend a lot of time wondering. “Or is it actually so obvious it doesn’t bear mentioning?”

In most cases, it’s a question I never get an answer to.

July 12, 2022

Blogging “My Ántonia”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 4:21 pm by chavisory

Hi all! I don’t have a clue how many people may be interested, but just in case, I am going to be blogging my reread of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia over on my Tumblr (where I tend to keep more of the photography, random thoughts, and early drafts of things than I put here).

My Ántonia is a book I read far too young to really appreciate it, and though I have a sense of having liked it, I truly remember almost nothing about it. My curiosity was rekindled when I ran across this essay, and when the local high school that hosts my polling location was having a library book giveaway this past election, I snagged a copy of an old Cather anthology (as well as a replacement for the copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I lost in college when the neighbor I’d lent it to dropped out three weeks into our freshman year and took it with her).

Not promising any particularly deep or organized analysis (though you never know!) or even necessarily a schedule) as opposed to thoughts and observations as they occur. Relevant posts will be tagged “my antonia.”

June 18, 2022

Visible mending practice

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 7:37 pm by chavisory

Near the beginning of the pandemic, I had one decent pair of jeans that was on its last legs, having had fraying holes in the inner thighs patched twice. I bought two more, with the intent that one pair, I’d wear then (I had a personal policy of always putting on jeans or a skirt for the day, not just living in my pajamas), and one that I’d keep for returning to work and civilization.

And the pandemic outlasted them both.

And I’ve been working, but something about not being able to do theater right now, probably, has made me crave the ability to feel good at making something again. Even though as a stage manager, I’m not an actor and I’m not precisely a member of the creative or design teams, when a show opens, I get to say “Look, I helped make that!” and I’ve been missing it. I don’t have a lot of space at home for doing very involved arts and crafts, but one thing I can do while I’m watching TV or movies at my desk is sew. And so when my latest new pair of “good” jeans started fraying (and me getting pissed off at constantly replacing jeans that don’t last), I started trying out some visible mending.

The basic idea is that by not trying to hide or disguise clothing repairs, you add artistic character to clothes in addition to extending their life.

These jeans still have a lot of work worth doing on them, but here’s one of my favorite patches so far:

A dark blue patch with a floral pattern attached to a pair of jeans with pink stitching. Yes, that’s Old Navy mask fabric.

Patch on a blown-out elbow of my favorite flannel shirt:

Burgundy-colored patch with a pattern of pink and white blossoms on a pink and burgundy plaid shirt. Yup, also a former Old Navy mask.

Some not-so-visible mending on an older t-shirt I love but whose front had worn full of tiny holes. I stitched squares of light cotton on the reverse side to reinforce particularly damaged areas, and also since the original t-shirt fabric is so delicate, to prevent new stitching from just ripping out:

A moss green t-shirt with an elaborate embroidered front has a whole bunch of tiny green embroidered stars hidden in the original pattern to close small holes.

Detail of crossed heart on sleeve where there used to be a hole:

A heart stitched in cream-colored thread on sleeve of green t-shirt, with a green star stitched over a small hole in the center.

I have to say, it’s definitely made it conspicuous that after 12 or so years of zombie apocalypse, no one in the Walking Dead is wearing significantly repaired jeans…

June 9, 2022

Not Everything We Value Needs to Be “Compulsory”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:39 pm by chavisory

Hi everyone! I’m happy to have a column in OnStage Blog again this week, addressing the issue of mandatory arts education.

You can read it here.

April 17, 2022

A small visual poem (not by me)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 2:07 pm by chavisory

From my evening walk in the park last night.

March 22, 2022

“When Something Finally Clicks”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 8:09 pm by chavisory

Hi all! This week I reviewed Mickey Rowe’s debut book, Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage for the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism! You can read it here.

March 4, 2022

What feeling represented feels like

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:09 pm by chavisory

I actually wrote this a few years ago, and for a long time I thought it was the bones of something else, before realizing it actually was what it was. I’m posting it between the occasions of this year’s coming release of season 4 of Stranger Things, and the recent death of author Gary Paulsen (1939-2021).

*

One day in 2017 I spend a rainy day off watching Stranger Things, and immediately afterwards start obsessively reading reviews and commentary. And I know by now I shouldn’t feel the wind knocked out of me when I read someone say things like “Sometimes she seems like a real person…at others she’s little more than a plot device,” or even “the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification,” but I still do. It happens every time. If I really, really love and identify with a character, and go looking for what other people have said about her.

Like I feel like I should just be used to the fact, by now, that every time I strongly and viscerally identify with a female character, she will be declared nothing like a real girl, and I can’t help but suspect that has some relationship to the frequency with which, growing up, I was told in effect that I had to be mistaken about what I was experiencing, because that’s not how things really are for people. That real people don’t work like that.

But Eleven disguised, in that ill-fitting dress and blond wig, looks the way I felt every time, when I was her age, that someone made me dress up kind of like their idea of a real girl.

I hated the way I looked like a boy in an uncomfortable girl suit with a tight collar, told to keep my hair out of my face.

She looks the way that felt.

And how everyone blames her for not being able to explain what she knows.

And only really value her for what she can do.

The way no one really thinks about what anything costs her.

The way they expect her to know things she couldn’t possibly, and the way she just says “no” to demands she knows she can’t meet.

*

At some point a popular blog publishes an honor roll of books containing examples of good representation of disabled people. It doesn’t make me want to read any of them.

The protagonists all sound like solutions to math problems, and I just don’t care.

*

Eleven has a back story that no one would believe even if she could tell it.

Treadway Blake can’t say “I’m sorry” in words, only in anonymously mailed sheet music and elaborate secret murder plots.

Amy Pond and Olivia Dunham both know what it feels like to exist in two different whole sets of memories.  I feel myself being re-embodied back into the world I belong to as Peter and Olivia do the same—Peter keeps defiantly being a person in a version of the universe he was erased from, Olivia learning how to live with memories of a whole life she wasn’t supposed to have had.

*

There were two books I had to read in 5th grade for the lunchtime book club. One was called On My Honor, and it was by far the more critically acclaimed, and one was There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, and that was the one I loved.

The main character was a boy who was nothing like me in a lot of ways, who was actually more like some of the real-life classmates I found incredibly grating. But he felt like he couldn’t get anything right, and he talked to his stuffed animals.

My mother asked which one I liked more and I told her, and she said “No, really?”  I don’t remember what I said when she tried to make me explain why. Probably “I don’t know.” I had too much alexithymia and not enough abstract language to say something like Bradley behaves in ways other people find immature and aggravating because he feels unheard and alienated by the social expectations of his peers.

“I just did.”

The American Girl dolls and books had become a huge hit around the same time that I had developed an obsession with 19th-century pioneer life. But whenever I got bought any American Girl things, they were Samantha’s.

Kirsten felt shabby and insufficient and alone in her new world, where she struggled to make herself understood or valued in an unfamiliar language.

Samantha was elegant, articulate, polished, at home in her own skin, and seemed to have the world handed to her again and again in a way I found baffling. People listened to her. Adults believed her. She looked more like me, with her dark bangs, but I couldn’t figure out why, otherwise, I was supposed to like her more, why I was supposed to be more like her.

When I first read The Lacuna, I didn’t even like the writing that much right away, but—and I couldn’t put my finger on why at first—Harrison Shepherd felt more like a real person to me than like a character. I actually thought, “I don’t like the writing that much but I like this kid.” I still feel guilty analyzing details of his characterization as if he’s a literary creation; it feels like betraying his privacy. He feels like a person.

And yes, he’s a multiply marginalized person, and yes, that’s significant, but that’s not why.

It’s the way he compares the tactile experiences of mixing plaster and making pastry dough.

“Mrs. Brown,” he says later, “I have an odd impairment.”

*

I’ve been thinking lately about how a lot of the social justice movement often treats people like collections of identities, and not actually like…people. I think those can look like the same thing, but they’re not.

*

I see these lists go around about how to write an autistic character or how to write a disabled character, and I’ve contributed to some, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about them, or where they miss the mark, even when I mostly agree with them.

Almost without exception, they start with “Say their diagnosis.” But we still live in a time when that isn’t the life that a whole lot of us have lived. A lot of our actual lives are going to fail those checklists and I don’t understand why I’m supposed to feel more represented by characters written as if experiences that broadly resemble mine are off-limits, or should be.

I read this list of books being honored for their representation of disabled characters and I can barely make it through some of the synopses.

But near the beginning of Zodiac, I watch Jake Gyllenhaal’s character walk into a conference room of fellow journalists who all act like they can’t hear him speak, and this character wasn’t created to make me feel represented (indeed, he is actually based on a real person), but I have never, ever, ever seen this experience—one of the earliest memories I have, one of the core constants of my whole life—represented on screen from the point of view of the person being targeted by it.

If there is a common thread to my experience of fiction, it’s probably that I fail to identify with the characters I’m supposed to, and do with the ones I’m not.

And sometimes these listicles about how to write an autistic character that I’m supposed to identify with just make my heart sink, because my life doesn’t add up right in this checklist, either.

In a way, it feels like yet another way in which disabled people are held to standards that non-disabled people aren’t in order to be considered good or real.

*

Part of why I think, even with so much guidance that now exists about how to write an autistic character, that I still usually find coded- or accidentally-autistic characters better-written than explicitly-identified ones, is that, when you can’t lean on clinical language or community-approved terminology lists to do your work for you, at all, you have to actually just write the experience. You have to show and not tell. You have to really be in your character’s head, and I’m afraid that a lot of the guidance I see on writing good representation, rather than helping in that regard, is actually just leading writers to believe that they can’t, that they shouldn’t, deeply and viscerally identify with their characters in certain ways if they don’t share a facet of their identity. And, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that prohibition serves either artistry or empathy.

“Write about us, but don’t write our stories.”

Well, I don’t want to read about a character if I’m not reading some facet of their story. What is the point?

*

If I’m thankful in one way for growing up not knowing the word for what I was, it’s that I never really had occasion to ask “What does this have to do with me?” when faced with the stories of people purportedly not like me in fiction or history. Any story might give me some vital clue about how to identify or understand my own experience. I had no basis on which to be picky about who was or wasn’t similar enough to me in some arbitrary way to warrant my attention, especially since a lot of characters with lives that looked like mine didn’t actually make any sense to me. I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me. But nobody was like me.

Attractive and graceful upper-middle class white girls with tight-knit friend groups and lives that added up and adults who were a dependable source of support just didn’t say anything for me. Those weren’t reliable signals.

So there was no real barrier to perceiving something important to me in the stories of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, or a boy stranded alone in the woods in a plane crash, or an Inuit girl who leaves a home where she’s not welcome to live with a pack of wolves, or the kind and humble daughter of an African king.

I don’t identify with characters because they look like me. I do when they feel like me.

When Jodie Whittaker becomes the 13th Doctor, I read the status of an immensely well-intentioned male friend, who says “Listen guys, for 54 years, we’ve always been able to see ourselves in the Doctor. And now it’s the other half of the population’s turn.”

And don’t get me wrong, I loved the casting choice. I love Jodie Whitaker’s work. I was happy, and I thought it was exciting, and right.

But the other thing is that I’ve never not been able to see myself in the Doctor just because he was a man. (Except, really, he’s a two-hearted humanoid alien masquerading as our preconception of a “man,” but, details.) I’m confused by and then I resent the implication that I never got to see myself in the Doctor when I did.

I agree that it’s ridiculous the way so many men insisted they wouldn’t be able to empathize with a female Doctor. Why is it not absurd to assume that people like me could never have empathized or identified ourselves with a male one?

I love the casting of a woman partly because I think male Whovians should get a chance to have that experience.

But I wasn’t not having it all along.

January 5, 2022

Drop

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:44 am by chavisory

[Image description: A single drop of water hangs from a twig of a bare, reddish brown tree branch, against a gray-blue sky.]

From a walk in the park a couple of days ago, a fitting image I thought for the start of a new year when many things still feel impending.

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