October 4, 2018

Thoughts from an Airport Cafe: International Indigenous Governance, and Home

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A parade of humanity streams by, each passenger more harried than the last. There’s no rhyme or reason to the fracas here in Terminal 4 of the Los Angeles International Airport. Gate 48B to be precise.

No less than four American flags at the arrival gates remind folks that this is #Murcia. But no one seems to pay them any mind. Wrangling young kids who would rather run off, and finding the proper gate capture the attention of most passengers who are either deplaning, making a connection, or hoping to board. 

I’m traveling solo, seated at a table for two. I’ve given up two chairs that surrounded my table to an Australian group consisting of two families and more kids than should ever be brought on an international trip.

Naturally, they were a lovely bunch.

My travels this week take me to New Zealand and the World Indigenous Business Forum. I plan to share the work we are doing at the University of Arizona to develop an International Indigenous Governance Consortium that will deliver access to education on Indigenous governance to Indigenous peoples around the world. It’s a tall order in a world that is constant motion - not unlike Terminal 4 here at LAX. 

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It’s a cliché (but a useful cliché) to say that what makes these jaunts worthwhile is the opportunity to share information with communities, and folks who haven’t been exposed to the ideas of Native Nation Building. It’s true that the foundation of our research began with the Harvard Project on Native American Economic Development some twenty years ago. But for most Indigenous peoples, twenty years is a drop in the bucket of time. And as recent developments across global jurisdictions demonstrate, the lessons are timely, relevant, and important. 

Whenever I take these trips, I set my phone to an image of home, 300-odd acres of Oklahoma plains, and the home place where my Parents, Grandparents, and Great-Grandparents built, lived, and made a life in a world devoid of traditional values. 

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Thinking about Grandpa back in Cotton County helps me keep in context the work that I do. It reminds me that our target audience isn’t really the academics and Indigenous business elite who are attending the conference, but the folks at home who live on the land, and deal with life in all of its complexity. 

And, of course, I think about my son, Clark, and the world that my generation will leave behind for him. Given the political quagmire surrounding our President’s Supreme Court nominee, it makes me question the future as he becomes a man. But I still have hope. For him. For the folks at home. And for the many people who will be attending the World Indigenous Business Forum. 

But such questions are far from the mind here in Terminal 4 at LAX. The irritated faces of travelers, and the frenetic announcements of the PA system all take top billing over such introspections.

Soon, I will join them and contribute to the broad stream of people who pass through LAX everyday. But my true north will always be far from the locales that I visit.

It remains as it always has - on 360 dusty acres in Cotton County, Oklahoma. Where Papa sits in his recliner watching Football, and the crickets chirp outside.

June 24, 2018

On Tragedy: Coming to Terms with Terms

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My son was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder earlier this week.

While the diagnosis was not a complete surprise, to say that the news was personally devastating would be an understatement. After five years of explaining away the symptoms, after five years of hoping and anticipating that Clark would simply “outgrow” some of his peculiar behaviors, an expert from the University of Indiana’s Riley Children’s Hospital summarily crushed those hopes with the click of a mouse, and the stroke of a pen. 

Naturally, I was crushed. 

I can’t speak to how other, better parents would have responded to such news. For my part, my mind went into a spiral with a massive, neon “NO CURE” sign flashing before my eyes while I tried to sleep. Mostly, though, I thought about the horror stories of autism that I had read: 

  • Incidents of trigger happy cops murdering autistic men of color for simply having a blank stare. (Seems like a double whammy since Clark is both American Indian and autistic).
  • And even the latest news out of Miami-Dade County that would see Clark enlist in a “voluntary registry” with the police as a child ‘suffering' from mental illness. (No way in hell). 
  • Would he even live to be as old as his mother, and reach the ripe old age of 36?

I didn’t sleep much on Monday night. 

The following day, I spent much of it trying to process the news, and how to sort out my own response going forward. Worrying certainly wasn’t helping.

Rather than worry, I tried to think about the language I would use when describing Clark’s diagnosis in my day-to-day interactions. It seemed wise to use the proper terms - both for my own edification, and given the fact that our society is fraught with offense. These days, people tend to get pissed off by nearly anything that rustles their jimmies. I certainly didn’t (and don’t) want to offend other parents of special needs kids unintentionally. Better to save a good offense for when you mean it.

In coming to terms with the terms of Clark’s diagnosis, the word that wanted glibly to sneak into my vernacular was the word tragedy. The Cambridge University dictionary defines tragedy as follows:

Tragedy Defined

I think the first definition is plainly eliminated. Clark isn’t dying anymore than we are all dying. And if the photo above is any indication, he isn’t really suffering either. His mischievous laugh, and megawatt smile certainly speak to the contrary. The third definition is also eliminated - at least until Clark decides to become an english major during college. 

So really, the only way to classify autism as a tragedy is if one buys the second definition, and the narrative that autism is a situation or result that is ‘bad.' And I’m not really convinced of this either.

It’s very difficult to talk about the results and outcome of a life and call them bad when Clark hasn’t really begun to live. Sure, as life milestones go he was born. He learned to walk. He has mastered potty-training (thank God). He’s even developing speech and language skills. But the rest of the broad canvass that is his life is wonderfully, beautifully blank. 

Now, it could be that his diagnosis will enable him to make a positive impact on the lives of many. I suppose it could be the opposite. After all, no one wants to think of raising the next dictator, but somewhere in the world there’s a couple or a parent who is doing exactly that. Regardless, it seems misguided to use a term like ‘tragedy' to define a life that has not yet truly begun. Clark is five years old. His concerns this summer are when he will go swimming, and whether he can have only two Go-Gurts or perhaps sneak a third during breakfast. It’s a bit dramatic to say that his condition is a tragedy.

Having reached that conclusion I calmed down a bit. I did some more investigating. I was intrigued to see that there are scores of parents and autistic folks who agree that tragedy is NOT how they would describe their lives, or their kids. From one parent, I learned that I’ve basically been doing everything wrong since Clark was born. From another, I was inspired to see that maybe I’m actually doing alright, and that perhaps triumph is a better 't' word to describe Clark.

Given the disparate reactions, I was relieved to confirm a lingering suspicion: no one has cornered the market on how to respond to adversity - particularly when it relates to medical conditions affecting loved ones. And especially situations that no one can control. 

In all, I can’t say that I have any more answers than I did almost a week ago Monday evening.

But I can say that I love my son. And that as long as I draw breath, I will strive to given him every advantage that I can, and meet every need that he has. Despite the seriousness of the news, it’s a comfort to see that, in some ways, nothing has changed at all.

June 17, 2018

Why Dads Matter

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It has been a long while since I’ve graced the pages of Pax Plena with a new post. Given a quiet Father’s Day Sunday here in the U.S., I couldn’t think of a better time to resurrect our ailing blog once again. Like Lazarus rising from the dead, this disease of blogging silence never quite seems to lead to death. Our blog has merely fallen asleep.

 

What prompted me to write this afternoon was an opinion column by the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle that shared some personal reflections on why fathers matter.

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Truth be told, I don’t really know of any camps that are ardently claiming that fathers do not matter. Granted, an article in the Atlantic, circa 2010, made the case that “there’s nothing objectively essential” about the contribution of a father to the well-being of a child. The point seems a bit weak. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Indeed, other sources cite a wide body of literature that assess the importance of fathers and their role in fostering the well-being of their kiddos.

Then again, it is the Atlantic, so one would do well to consider the source... 

By contrast, McArdle notes of her own family life that "my mother was usually the one who dressed wounds if you fell off the jungle gym; my father was the one who encouraged you to climb a little higher than felt strictly safe.”

Sure, the point is anecdotal, but I think it's about right. In our family, Mother was always the one who set the rules, bedtimes, and made sure that we went to church. My Father seldom went to church, and had zero inhibitions about letting me ride in the open bed of a pickup truck while we drove around dusty county roads picking up cans to take to the recycling center. Note: This wasn’t something we did for the sheer virtue of a good deed, or environmentalism. There were no such bourgeois luxuries in the Fodder family of the 1980s. We just needed the money.

Such parenting today would immediately draw the ire of the nearly every child advocacy group in America, and quite possibly one’s local Department of Child Welfare. Suffice it to say, times were different in the 80s. And, to be fair, if Dad had insisted that I sit next to him inside the cab of the truck, I probably would have pitched a royal fit, and left him wishing that I had just rode in the back of the damn truck to begin with. We poor kids could be a precocious lot. 

But there was something that was actually quite important that I learned from those dusty drives with dear old Dad. I gained a sense of independence, and self-sufficiency that I never would have gotten had either of my parents been the “helicopter parent” that’s en vogue today. From Dad, I learned to search within myself, and try to solve problems instead of complaining about them. I learned that you can’t always have what you want, but that you can obtain what you want if you’re willing to work for it. And I learned that there are literally millions of ways one can perish by eating a Twinkie.

(Family Joke: Whenever someone passes away, and one is foolish enough to inquire as to their cause of death within earshot of my Father, Dad's glib response is always that they “choked on a Twinkie.” We usually groan and laugh, but I suppose normal folks might think this is morbid. Tomāto/Tomăto.) 

And really, that’s why Dad’s are important: they show love to kids in a fundamentally different way from that of a Mom. And the difference is accounted for in that each parent brings their own lived experiences to the child rearing table, and kids are better for it. After all, what kid doesn’t need more love in their life?

So, to all of the Dads out there, take heart: you matter. And don’t let the Atlantic tell you otherwise.

© Pax Plena
Maira Gall