Monday, October 31, 2005

Writing as occupation


I spend my time thinking about the topic of writing as occupation and whether or not it carries any therapeutic benefits. Here is an interesting article that caught my eye: Writing helping young Katrina survivors. I'd love to discuss these ideas with other people, so here are my thoughts - if anyone is interested.

Why would people be interested in the private writings of another person? Bunkers and Huff (1996) explain that "diaries are not so much inclusive because they contain everything from a given day, as they are inclusive in the sense that they do not privilege 'amazing' over 'ordinary' events." This celebration of the ‘ordinary’ is a longstanding theme in understanding meaningful occupation. Diary writing and diary reading provides a vehicle of social connectedness through the ordinary. This is a human need and is the basis of interactivity between the writer and the reader.

The use of the diary as an interactive tool provides an example of what Rowles (1996) describes as a ‘surveillance zone,’ or an extension of personal space that has multiple uses. These zones surround individuals and act as an area of potential socialization and contact with others. Through the use of a diary, a surveillance zone may serve as an extension of a person’s self-definition and identity.

Online diaries are a postmodern methodology for studying this kind of information. The term ‘postmodern’ is appropriate in this instance because it describes a virtual context where local environments and local relationships are no longer the basis of interactivity. Rather, people congregate online at virtual places (websites) where information is shared and where writing occurs. The nature of online interactivity includes, or even forces, dependence on the written form for communication.

There is very little information in the literature about online diaries and their uses, although the proliferation of journaling sites on the Internet is notable. In addition to the groups of people online who attest to the enjoyment of interactive journaling in a virtual context, some researchers are beginning to see this forum as a good source for narrative data for research studies. Henker, Whalen, & Jamner (2002) identified anxiety patterns in a population of teenage girls through analysis of online journals. Oravec (2002) discussed application of weblogs and online journals as educational tools and identify that they can be used to enhance students' critical thinking and literacy skills. It is important to note that online journaling is not restricted to populations of teenaged girls and college students; most online journaling sites have users from a broad age and geographic representation.

In addition to online diaries there are other ways that writing can act as an extension of Rowles’ ‘surveillance zones.’ For example, Stern (2002) discussed the opportunity of the Internet home pages as a forum for young women to create a narrative of their experiences. This narrative becomes a performance of their lived culture and provides a means of self-expression. Chandler (1998) applies the Levi-Strauss concepts of bricolage in describing the process that people use in construction of their online identities through authorship of their web pages. The new virtual context, essentially described by its reliance on the interactivity of writing on the Internet, is a powerful and important forum for individual self-expression. The Internet will continue to have a significant impact on the occupation of writing in the future. Hypertext allows people to write in a non-sequential post-structuralist format, such as was advocated for by Derrida; hypertext also meets the demands of multivocality, intertextuality and de-centeredness (Landow, 1992).

Writing offers a rich source of narrative information for conducting inquiries into other occupations. Occupational scientists who understand the power of writing will be able to use it both as a research methodology as well as a subject itself for further inquiry.

Occupational scientists should be particularly interested in studying hypertext as a new form of communication and self-expression. The accessible format of online journaling and the associated proliferation of journaling websites are both instant sources of data for qualitative studies. Occupational scientists might be particularly interested in investigating how writing is an occupation that has an empowering effect on human and social development across time.

***

References:

Bunkers, S.L. & Huff, C.A., (Eds.). (1996). Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women’s Diaries. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Chandler, Daniel (1998). Personal Home Pages and the Construction of Identities on the Web. Retrieved on 4/2/04 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/ short/webident.html

Henker, B., Whalen, C.K., & Jamner, L.D. (2002). Anxiety, Affect, and Activity in Teenagers: Monitoring Daily Life With Electronic Diaries. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 41, 660-670.

Landow, G.P. (1992). Hypertext-The converence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.

Oravec, J.A. (2002). Bookmarking the world: Weblog applications in education. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 7, 616-621.

Rowles, G.D. (1996). Beyond performance: Being in place as a component of occupational therapy. In R.P. Cottrell (Ed.), Perspectives on purposeful activity: Foundation and future of occupational therapy (pp. 201-208). Bethesda, MD: AOTA, Inc. Reprinted from American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 45 (1991), 265-271.

Stern, S.R. (2002). Virtually speaking: Girls' self-disclosure on the WWW. Women's Studies in Communication, 25, 223-253.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Missing Stephen

I was invited to teach a class at Keuka College. I used to be on the faculty there so it was something of a return for me. Although I thoroughly enjoy what I do, I have to admit that I miss teaching.


The students were leaving the room, and I sat in the front of the class as is my custom and I watched them as they moved on with their day. Then they were all gone. As I turned out the lights in the room where the students had been just a few moments earlier, I felt a little sadness that I was alone. I considered how the room had been busy and full of chatter and even some excitement. We were learning about evidence based practice and early intervention.

As I sat alone in the room, on a mat table in the corner, I remembered Stephen.

Stephen was probably the most learning disabled child I have ever worked with. This will undoubtedly be very difficult for anyone to understand who does not know about learning disabilities. These kids walk and talk and superficially appear just like every other kid. There is no wheelchair to set them apart, and no disfigurement. As a result, some people doubt that they really have problems at all or will simply attribute their problems as 'behavioral.' Also, there are many different types of learning difficulties, and this only confuses the situation.

I worked with Stephen when he was six years old, and last I saw him he was about eight. Stephen had such a difficult time when learning new tasks. For a while I strongly considered that he was mentally retarded, but every time he was tested he was found to be functioning in a scattered range of capabilities - but that he was NOT mentally retarded.

Working with Stephen was so hard and frustrating to us both that on bad days I secretly hoped that someone would tell me that he was unteachable. That would get me off the hook, and then I could stop trying to remediate the problem and work more on compensating and advocating around it. But this relief never came.

Stephen had to be taught EVERYTHING. He was as literal as a person could be, and he had no concept of abstractions in language. He had such poor motor skills that I actually had to teach him how to eat soup with a spoon, had to teach him how to put on a coat, and I even had to teach him how to wipe himself after going to the bathroom. With Stephen there was no such thing as intuitive.

You can imagine the disability that this degree of difficulty causes. Concomitantly, you might imagine the degree of purity of Stephen's soul. He had no blemishes, and since so little stuck into his memory banks and became the basis for further and future processing, his demeanor was as pure and as innocent as any person I have ever met in my life.

When Stephen came for therapy, he would expect me to be in the room waiting for him, sitting on the red mat table. When he entered the room I would see a large smile appear across his face and I would smile right back at him, yelling "Stephen!!! You're here!!!" This always caused him to come and give me a big bearhug hello.

I enjoy watching children think. I like the way that they pause thoughtfully before they ask questions. One day while we were working on puzzles he asked me, "What do you do when I am not here?" I shot back immediately, "I wait until you come back." The answer didn't seem to surprise him at first, but after several minutes he persisted, "You must go home. I know that you have a family probably." Seeing this as an opportunity for grand fun, I insisted, "Stephen, when you leave, I go right to that mat table and sit, waiting for you to come back again."

This concept intrigued and amazed him. Each time that he came in I would be sitting on the mat table waiting for him. He only came twice a week, but I always had my secretary warn me that he was coming so that I could assume my place on that red mat table.

Up until the last day I saw him, Stephen was convinced that the sole purpose of my life was to play with him twice a week and talk to him about the things that were hard for him to do, and to teach him strategies on how to make those things easier. He would leave the room, and as I sat on the mat, I would ask him to turn out the lights for me, and I told him that I would be waiting 'right here' for when he would come back.

After a while, when watching him leave, seeing those lights turn off, I imagined that Stephen was the sole purpose of my life. And it made me sad when he left.

I remembered that today. And I missed Stephen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ways to convey occupation


I had a busy day today. I feel like expressing the daily variation in my clinical responsibilities. These are all single-frame descriptions. If you read them quickly, maybe you will see me moving. Is this the nature of disconnected discourse? How can I make this 'real' for you?

My first task was to attend a planning meeting for a young child who has high functioning autism. He just transitioned into a kindergarten classroom and the parents asked me to participate. I have known this child for two years and had some input that was hopefully useful to the educational team. This meeting went well. Phew, they don't always.

Next I had a phone conference regarding a 4th grade child in a distant school district. The family traveled a great distance to see me and I spent a full day (a couple weeks ago) completing one of our infamous 'intensive' evaluations. This CSE meeting also went well, so I was feeling pretty lucky at this point.

Then I drove to see a little friend, just 17 months old and having some difficulties with feeding. He did an amazing job today of tolerating mixed textures (those dehydrated apple thingies in with his Stage II fruit). Amazing progress. 3 for 3! What a morning!

Next was lunch at Quiznos, which was unimpressive. Oh well.

My afternoon started with a session with an adolescent who has autism. He has been having some increased self injurious behavior lately and just hasn't seemed to 'be himself.' Any day that we make it through without serious SIB is positive, and the fact that I got him to do some academic work today was an added bonus. Not bad.

Next I saw my good buddy who has a metabolic disorder - he is seven years old and the doctor gave the parent a hard time about the child's recent weight gain. Boo for the MD and dietician who discussed it in front of the child. As if we don't have enough issues to contend with - add self esteem to the pile now.

Next was another seven year old who has some borderline learning difficulties. Not much to say about this fellow yet - I am still learning about him. We did have fun with an obstacle course, which he made me race him through. The good part was getting to have a reason to dive into the crash pillows today. The bad part was that he wanted to be P1 and I could be P2, and he scripted our play like a video game. Hm.

Then I saw an adolescent who has dyslexia. We developed a color coding system for his notebooks and schedule, and I taught him about how set this all up. Good news was that he actually seemed to catch onto the idea. Bad news is that the paper they use in assignment books is so thin that highlighter markers bleed through to the other side - making a real mess of organization attempts. So we switched to colored pencils. Onward...

Finally, I saw another good friend who I got into the argument with last week about classification of farm animals. Good news tonight was that he can tie his own shoelaces! Bad news is that he has shoelaces that don't stay tied very well. Mom is looking into flat shoelaces - should fix the problem.

So that was my day. What did you do?

Friday, October 21, 2005

on being off course


I’m in Chicago tonight. This is my last bit of travel for the rest of the year. I never expected to have to travel much when I chose this occupation, but this year alone I have been sleeping in hotels for over 40 nights, not counting three weeks of vacation this year. In other words, it is good that I work for myself because no employer in his right mind would ever tolerate this. In fact, if I wasn’t so invaluable to the organization I would probably fire myself. This is the insanity speaking; it was that kind of a day.

I saw a group (not really enough to call them a flock) of seagulls today while driving to the airport. No big deal, except that they had located themselves in the middle of some completely landlocked farmland. Not a speck of water in site: no major rivers, no major ponds or lakes around for miles. And certainly not the ocean.

Although to be technically correct I guess there is no such thing as a 'seagull.' I whipped out my Peterson's field guide and saw that there are glaucous gulls and iceland gulls and Kumlien's gulls and ivory gulls, etc. But no seagulls.

I stopped the car and watched them for a little while, sitting in the middle of a field. I wondered why they were there. Wondered why they didn't see what nearly every other gull had probably seen. Wondered why they seemed content to sit in the middle of a cut field of hay.

But mostly I wondered about how they had gotten off course. Perhaps one of them couldn't continue the migratory pattern and so they ended up there. Maybe they just got tired of flying. Maybe they had a vision of where it was they were supposed to go, but somehow something got in the way of that vision.

I yelled out the window to them, "Why don't you go find the ocean?" They didn't respond. I didn't understand.

But then I realized something. Maybe the gulls didn't mean to land there. Maybe they didn't know what to think of it. Maybe the only way they would end up understanding it would be: "Remember the year that the ocean dried up and disappeared. Perhaps those cows drank it all." Those gulls would talk about it for generations and it would take on mythical truth.

Most everyone finds home sooner or later.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

small differences in perception

I am having one of those days where I am not communicating clearly. At first it was just at work but in preparation for this entry I found that I also can't communicate with my own children. While taking the picture above I was having a hard time finding a suitable background that had enough light but not too much glare.

I said to my daughter - "Go find me something that I can use as a backdrop that can absorb some of the light so I don't have so much glare. She gave me a sponge, obviously interpreting 'absorb' a little too literally. Note to self: daughter needs basic lesson in physics of polarization.

***

Today I was working with Adam, who is a wonderful seven year old boy with superior intelligence and some gross motor delays. After some vigorous activity using the suspension equipment, I thought it would be a good idea to transition him back to his parents with a quiet activity so he wouldn't be bouncing around the car during the ride home.

"Let's play with the animals, Mr. Chris!" he suggested.

I have a large bin with plastic animals and dinosaurs. They serve multiple purposes. They can be sorted and categorized, they are good for fantasy play, and they are good for little hands as they are developing motor skills. Adam appreciates order and structure, so he immediately began sorting. "These are the animals that can be domesticated, these are the wild animals, and these are the dinosaurs." He got down to serious work, quickly calming and focusing while happily sorting through the animals just as I hoped he would.

But then he got to the pigs.

"NO WAY!! THAT IS NOT RIGHT!!!" he suddenly yelled out. "THAT IS TOTALLY NOT FAIR!!!" The calm that we had just achieved went flying out the window.

"What's the matter?" I asked quickly. "You're doing fine."

"NO I'M NOT!!" he screamed back. "THIS IS A PREHISTORIC ANIMAL!! IT CAN'T BE DOMESTICATED AND IT ISN'T THE SAME AS THESE WILD ANIMALS!!"

I looked to see what he was upset about, and he pushed a plastic pig into my face. "Adam," I began calmly. "It's just a pig." That was the wrong thing to say.

"THAT IS NOT A PIG!!!! THIS IS A PIG!!!" he shouted as he thrust another animal under my nose. "PIGS HAVE SHORT SNOUTS. THIS PIG HAS A SHORT SNOUT BUT THIS ONE HAS A LONG SNOUT."

I could see that I was already in deep trouble, so I didn't want to say too much. "Um, so?"

"SO???? SO????!?!?" he repeated indignantly. "THIS SUPPOSED TO BE PIG IS NOT A PIG. IT IS A MOERITHERIUM. MOERITHERIUMS LIVED IN THE SECOND AGE OF MAMMALS, AND THEY ARE RELATED TO ELEPHANTS, NOT PIGS!!! AND THEY CAN"T BE DOMESTICATED, BECAUSE HUMANS DIDN'T DOMESTICATE ANIMALS BACK THEN. BUT IT ISN'T ONE OF THOSE WILD MODERN ANIMALS EITHER, SO THIS ISN'T FAIR!!!"

I should know better than to argue, but he was the last child for the day and I obviously wasn't thinking clearly. "Adam, it's just a pig with a long snout."

"WELL THAT JUST GOES TO SHOW HOW MUCH YOU KNOW. AND IF YOU THINK I AM GOING TO PUT A MOERITHERIUM IN WITH A DOMESTICATED PIG THEN YOU ARE NOT BEING FAIR AND I AM NOT COMING BACK HERE EVER AGAIN." Adam stormed out, grumbling on his way out the door, "EVIL THERAPIST!"

I always make it a point to be educated in a well-rounded way. This includes a review of light physics, being able to debate the merits of Dora vs. Blues Clues, and tonight it took me on a search of moeritherium.

Here's a picture. I can understand his point, and will try not to be so EVIL next time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Cameron's Heart


Cameron was not impressed to see me. He had been kicked enough, I was sure, and did not need to have some other adult come into his life (only to leave, eventually). Still, his cardiologist wanted me to see him, to get him out of bed, and perhaps to do a little 'attitude de-funking.' Of course the script wouldn't say that exactly, but that is what the doctor asked me to do with him.

Cameron was spending most of his time in bed, and it was complicating his status on the heart donor list. He was born with a rare condition called transposition of the great arteries - basically, the plumbing in his heart was all mixed up. He had gone through several cardiac surgeries in his life and there really was little else that the surgeons could do except wait for a new heart to come along. The problem was that Cameron was just wasting away in bed, and his inactivity and poor nutrition were complicating his immune status, and this in turn could have potentially compromised his ability to be eligible for a donor heart. So, that is why it was my job to 'de-funk' his attitude – to get him moving, out of bed, and in general help him become more healthy.

Cameron's medical history would take volumes to express, although he was only eight years old. His mom, 40-something and living the life of a transient Harley Davidson enthusiast, was really not in a position where she was capable of settling down and taking care of him. Her first marriage was brief and Cameron never really knew his biological dad. She later married a fellow from Arizona, Jim, who apparently didn't approve of her lifestyle choices and they ultimately divorced too. Somewhere in this process Jim took over as primary caregiver to Cameron, but then Cameron ended up in foster care because Jim technically did not have custody, nor was he blood-related. Jim went back to Arizona and lost contact for a while - until he learned that Cameron had returned to the hospital again. Then he packed a suitcase and came to live in the hospital room with Cameron, sleeping in the chair next to his bed, and acting as his parent for months.

The staff didn't trust Jim initially. No one seemed to understand why this man would travel all the way from Arizona to stay with Cameron. He was not related to him, had no legal rights, and could not even sign consent forms. Everyone wondered, at length, what his motive was.

Jim didn't expect much of Cameron; he just stayed with him. The staff thought it would be good to have Jim out of the room once and a while, so when I arrived I invited him to leave for a break. Cameron refused to look at me.

Usually I am capable of engaging kids, but he was clearly not interested in me, and wouldn't even talk. So I sat next to him, and just started chattering - and this is not at all my natural style. "Cameron, since you don't want to talk to me, I will just talk to myself." Then I would proceed to carry on a conversation with myself for the next half hour. Sometimes I would come and read a joke book, laughing to myself. Sometimes I would come in and sing. Sometimes I would come in and play with the toys in his room, ignoring him and not asking his permission. I can't imagine what he thought of me; I am certain that I appeared crazy.

Eventually, Cameron started watching me. Then after a while he would try not to laugh at me. Then, one day, he asked me not to leave. After that, we were good buddies.

Cameron was in the hospital for months and months. Sometimes his condition would deteriorate and he would be in the ICU for a few days. It was always frightening to see him when he was so swollen up and weak and on a ventilator. But Cameron kept bouncing back.

It was hard for Cameron to walk because he was often bloated and barrel-chested and carrying extra water weight - and this was complicated by his decreased strength from being in bed for so long. To complicate matters, his feet constantly hurt him as he had a hard time supporting his own body weight. In order to get him to walk more, I would take him to the floor where the cardiologists had their offices and we would 'sneak' into their rooms and steal their donuts and leave anonymous notes on their desks. It was grand fun. The cardiology staff always made sure to have extra donuts lying around for Cameron, and they never let him know they were in on the charade.

For Christmas, Cameron got a wonderful bike that had a molded frame like a motorcycle, and it even made motorcycle noises when you pressed the buttons on the handlebars. I tried putting training wheels on it as he would not have been able to ride it any other way, but it was still too challenging for him. The bike was a major source of frustration, but one day he decided that if he couldn't ride it that at least he could 'spit-shine' it. He spent hours shining that bike, and it brought him tremendous satisfaction.

Cameron longed for the outdoors that Spring, and desperately wanted to have a picnic in the woods. Leaving the hospital was not an option, so we just brought the picnic to him. We emptied out a play room, played nature sounds of birds and a babbling brook, had a red-checkered picnic cloth, and packed a delicious lunch of ham sandwiches. It was a big event, as all of his nurses, therapists, and even doctors enjoyed the picnic lunch with him. I will never forget the smile on his face throughout the whole lunch as he watched the event unfold around him that he directed and orchestrated.

One day Cameron and I were playing with legos, and just chatting back and forth. "What are you making?" I asked him.

"Just something that reminds me of us," he said. And then he handed me a small creation. It was a simple base with four wheels on it, just large enough to accommodate two small lego figures positioned back to back in a long sitting posture. Instead of wearing hats or having hair, flowers sprouted from the tops of their heads. He gave this to me many years ago, and it still sits on my desk - unchanged from the original way he presented it to me.

Jim still stayed with him for the remaining months, never faltering in his dedicated and selfless support. I suppose that with time people can become cynical, and this is true especially of hospital workers. I am sure that most of the staff never really came to realize that Jim really loved Cameron. He literally dropped his life and came to tend to Cameron. People had a hard time believing that.

One day it was evident that Cameron’s condition was deteriorating and that he was not recovering. We watched for a few days, praying that a heart would come available, but it never did.

Cameron's hospital 'family' of doctors, nurses, and therapists gathered around him and tended to his final needs. His hair was combed, his body bathed, his hand held, his forehead caressed gently and kissed. Not knowing what else to do, I came into his room, played with his toys, sang to him, and massaged his feet. I remember how cold his feet were underneath my hands, and how I tried to will life back into them. But I could feel that he was leaving his body.

Cameron died that night, after Jim stepped out of the room for a moment. There were no doctors or nurses or therapists there. He must have wanted to go that way.

The funeral was a blur: hundreds and hundreds of people were there. I remember seeing a little Power Ranger figure someone placed in Cameron’s hand. That is what I remember most, for some reason.

Cameron waited and waited and waited for months on end, hoping that he would get a new heart. Somehow he never lost patience and never seemed to get depressed. Cameron, whose heart was twisted and deformed, taught everyone around him about how hearts are really supposed to work.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

why he writes


I received an email earlier this week, asking me 'why' I write here. That was a hard question. Interacting in people's lives every day makes me think of so many stories, and sometimes I am not sure where to begin to make sense of it all. Writing them down helps me to understand them in the present, just long enough sometimes to begin to understand. T.S. Eliot wrote:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Writing helps me to understand the dance.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

first grade confessions


I had the privilege of observing a child in their school this week, and I spent a few hours watching the typical routines of the classroom. I was a little surprised at the amount of information that some of the kids shared with me.

I love talking with children. They interest me, generally far more than adults do. What I like best is that there can be gaps in the conversation and you can drop a subject or pick up a subject easily. I think I also appreciate the eye contact that children give me - which is generally more than adults do. Lots of adults don't stop to notice that kids are really good at visually attending to a conversation. I think they are often too busy talking to other adults, or they are above the eye level of the kids, or just too preoccupied to notice.

Anyway, Rachel had me enraptured. She is one of the children in the class, and her eye contact was just so wonderful while we talked. I also caught her studying me several times during the day so I would smile at her. Because she is just a kid, she wasn't embarrassed, and she smiled back at me.

While eating lunch (in a relatively quieter environment and away from the commotion) I started interviewing the kids. I asked Rachel to tell me about her family.

"My Dad is in jail," she plainly revealed, before going on to tell me about her siblings. "And my older sister just had a baby so she has to go back to school and graduate, but she will do that next year." She went on and on, telling me about her siblings and her mom who has to work all the time to pay the bills, and how she loves being the baby of the family.

Because there are fewer social rules when talking to kids, I just plainly asked her to tell me more about her Dad. He has tattoos, and he apparently likes Def Leppard. "He went to jail because of 'bad touching' with my sisters. But he didn't do it to me. My sister saved me from that."
There really wasn't much else for her to say about it, so then we started talking about other things.

As beautiful little Rachel talked about her favorite zoo animals and tried to teach me some grade-school handclapping game that little girls enjoy, I prayed to God that time would freeze. Things are ok for her now, I thought. But with a single mom struggling to make ends meet and with her older sisters being sexually active and having babies and with having lived in an abusive home and with not having a Dad there just seems to be a lot to overcome.

So this week I prayed for first grade to last forever, because I don't know how long Rachel's innocence can hold out on its own.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Child Pedestrian Safety

I hope that everyone has the opportunity to read the latest study about child pedestrian safety. I have the press release, report, and safety tips available for download on the ABC Therapeutics website in the 'NEWS' and 'RESOURCES' sections.

Nationwide, pedestrian injuries are the number two cause of accidental death among children ages 5 to 14. Each year in the United States, approximately 650 children are killed and 43,000 treated in emergency rooms as a result of pedestrian injuries.

The total annual cost of traffic-related pedestrian death and injury among children ages 14 and under is $5.2 billion.

We haven't gotten many calls on this issue - but hope that this will begin to raise awareness!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

An OT's thoughts on Love Canal


I am reduced to recycling my writing - but I have abused my responsibility to write in here so I feel the need to fill it up... I could focus on writing more if... (I won't bore anyone with excuses).

Because I have been so chipper and upbeat lately I decided to take a drive through a former toxic waste dump. Don't ask me why; I have no answers.

I don't live near this place, but it is not far to drive. Everyone has heard of Love Canal, but I felt some compelling reason to visit today - I have never been there before.

Perhaps this was prompted by someone giving me directions to their home recently. "It is on such and such street, but not on the Love Canal side." She said it with a conviction, and a hope. I didn't understand, so I decided that I better visit the Love Canal side of such and such street.
I hang out in Niagara Falls way too much. I have done some amateur anthropological studies, based on narrative searches for truth about why it is the way it is. I have theories - but I never considered the Love Canal angle.

Love Canal sits there in a corner of the city like a gaping thirty year old wound that no one talks about any more. Hooker Chemical is gone, or at least changed to Occidental. The 99th Street school has been razed, and now there is a cyclone fence that surrounds the primary canal site as if that could somehow really contain the sin that lies buried underneath. The School Board members are dead or gone, long having escaped their culpability. What remains is the obscene emptiness of the land, brown and barren except for one or two homes that hang on like the last remaining leaves on the tree in November.

I drove down deserted neighborhood streets. Sidewalks are still there. The primary site is contained by fencing, but the surrounding neighborhood is still open and accessible. You can tell that people lived there once, although there are no more houses. A little girl rode her bike through the empty streets that were cracked open, heaved up from disrepair, and with weeds poking through the middle of the pavement. It was obvious that people didn't live there anymore. Why was that girl riding her bike there? What was the pavement transferring onto her bike tires, and what was transferring onto her hands later if she had to add air into those tires?

Then I looked at the homes that surrounded the open and razed area. The dividing line appeared entirely arbitrary.. what made the land safe and the homes intact on one side of the street, and why were the homes demolished on the other? Why is the 95th St. School ok, when it is just on the other side of the creek from the Love Canal site? Do they call it the Geraldine Mann Elementary School so it doesn't sound like the 99th St. school?

Something is still wrong with Love Canal, and it is as plain and obvious as the worst human failing. If you drive through those streets you will understand.

After driving around a while I visited a former patient just a few blocks away. She is mentally retarded, and so are her parents. I don't know why they are retarded, and I am not drawing conclusions. The funny thing is that Lisa, the mom, understands rot. Her husband bought home some meat that was discounted for quick sale, and she wasn't happy. The whole time I was there she kept yelling at him, "This meat is no good, Dave. It smells, Dave. I am throwing it out, Dave." They fought about the rotten meat for ten minutes while I read a book with the little girl. Why does Lisa understand rotten meat but she lives spitting distance from one of the biggest chemical dumps in recorded history? That family won't eat the meat, because the mother would never allow it. They will all drink the water today though, and I have no idea if it is really safe.
We have all failed Lisa, and Dave, and their two retarded children.

The problem is too big for me to know how to fix. I have never understood a problem to be so large. I have encountered evil incarnate and I understand how to confront it even if it only means taking a moral high road.

But this is different. That little girl sat on my lap as we read a Lassie book, and all I could think about was driving through that empty neighborhood where children still played and rode bikes. It is so big, but you can just sense where the homes were but are no longer. As I sat and pretended to read with the little girl Lisa kept drifting in and out of a conversation with me.

After a while she didn't have anything to say, and neither did I - but the emptiness I felt was as big as the whole God forsaken Love Canal neighborhood.