Monday, June 26, 2006

Beyond FINESSE: Authors Patry Francis and Emily Perl Kingsley

My week got off to a great start this morning when I read the June 25th post on author Patry Francis’s blog, Simply Wait. Patry is what folks in the publishing industry call an “emerging writer,” though I suspect she’s been putting pen to paper for many years. Her debut novel, The Liar’s Diary, is due out next spring. I’ve already told Patry I’ll be in line at her first Denver book signing. She writes from the heart and captures a scene with simple eloquence. I’d love to see a collection of her insightful, lyrical posts published some day.

While this may seem like a diversion from my usual diversity posts, I think there’s something to be said for looking on the bright side when things don’t go as planned. As Patry writes, “true love is all about the unexpected.” Many parents with children with special needs cope with the unexpected on a daily basis. Like the bride in Patry’s story, they learn to accommodate often immense challenges in order to savor the love that shines through even the darkest days. My current book explores obstacles faced by families with a child with Down syndrome. One of my favorite works on the subject is the 1987 essay “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley. While welcoming a child with Down syndrome into one’s family may not be the easiest thing to do, Kingsley writes, it’s not the worst, either. It’s simply different. Perhaps not as imagined or planned and perhaps not perfect, but that’s okay. Like a bride who realizes a little rain (okay, a lot of rain!) doesn’t change the fact that she’s in love and newly married and surrounded by family and friends who cherish her, so do many parents (like Kingsley) whose children have special needs come to realize there are still many things to celebrate and many joys to anticipate as they face the future.

Photo © Levi Lenaerts – FOTOLIA

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Beyond FUN: Yet Another Playground Story

But one with a happy ending. I’ve heard many stories of children experiencing prejudice on a playground, but yesterday I enjoyed watching just the opposite. My son, who’s 13, was entertaining one of his sisters on what I call a reverse teeter-totter. Two kids can stand across from each other on this thing, hold onto bars above their heads, and use their weight to rock each other up and down. It’s pretty nifty.

Even more nifty is the fact that I went off to watch my other kiddo and returned to find my son on the same teeter-totter with a new companion—a boy named Andrew. I’d seen Andrew with his big sister in another part of the playground earlier. He was probably around 10 or 12 and appeared to have Down syndrome. He really seemed to appreciate having a new playmate for a few minutes, and I was sure to tell my son that later on our drive home. I told him most people choose to ignore people like Andrew on a playground or in another public place. They don’t know what to expect from them and prefer to keep their distance. I added simply that he’d done a really nice thing and should feel good about it.

Today, I read an interview with Elizabeth Cox from a book called Conversations with American Women Writers in which Cox explains her strategy for overcoming writer’s block: “I look away. I read something else, like science, or poetry, and often that helps me to become unstuck. I get the stuck passage in my mind; then I look away. I walk or go for a swim, or read; then I come back and see it differently.”

That one phrase—I look away—resonated. I’m familiar with Cox’s strategy and have certainly used it myself many times. Terrific insights into a character or a tricky chapter often come out of the blue when my mind’s occupied with something else. Weeding works well for me; so does cleaning house. (I should actually be doing one of those things right now, but this is much more fun!) What struck me, though, was the fact that “looking away” is what I’d just told my son most people opt to do in difficult situations—but he doesn’t. On one day he’ll confront world issues and questions and heartaches head on, and on another he’ll reach out to a lonely boy on a playground in a very simple, kind way…by asking him to play. I wish more people were like him. If more would opt not to look away—or maybe to look away for a moment to gather their thoughts or nerve or whatever it takes and then return…like so many writers do…to address a tricky situation—maybe then there’d be fewer incidences of “playground prejudice” on and off the playground. Maybe then more people would “come back,” “see differently,” and not dismiss a person who fails to conform to a widely held notion of normalcy.

At least yesterday, on a breezy Colorado morning on the first day of summer 2006, one boy chose not to look away, and another boy was happy for it.

Photo: Alaska Chapter of the National Down Syndrome Congress

Monday, June 19, 2006

Beyond FAMILY: Loving Day

I missed Loving Day! One week ago on June 12 was the anniversary of the 1967 passing of Loving vs. Virginia, a ruling that finally made it illegal to restrict interracial couples from marrying. Please note that my biracial husband’s courageous parents married three years before that. Also note that my children would not exist if their grandparents hadn’t been brave enough to ignore public opinion and follow their hearts into what was then such an unconventional marriage.

For a comprehensive look at the history of judicial decisions leading up to Loving vs. Virginia, as well as an interactive map of the changing laws, personal stories of interracial couples, the campaign to establish Loving Day as an annual day of celebration, and resources on interracial issues, check out the Loving Day page of the stellar Mavin Foundation site.

It’s actually appropriate for me to write this post on June 19 since it’s my mother’s birthday and it’s also the day after Father’s Day this year. Both my parents were wonderfully generous and welcoming to my husband when he drove from Connecticut to upstate New York 17 years ago to ask for their permission to marry me. (Yes, he really did that!) My parents personify the spirit of unconditional love that has allowed so many to embrace the challenges of marrying and raising a family across cultural or racial boundaries. I love them both beyond words.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Beyond FASHION: Curls Hair Care Revisited

So it turns out multi-ethnic hair care works for blondies, too. My friend Maura and her family spent two days with us, and Maura—who’s about as blonde and blue-eyed as you can get…her maiden name is McDevitt and she’s from Boston...maybe just a little Irish?—tried out my girls’ Curly Q Shampoo from the Curls line of multi-ethnic hair care products with terrific results.

My daughters get a kick out of the Curly Q name while their hair soaks up the conditioners. I’m learning not to shampoo their hair as often as I used to, and it makes a huge difference. They have the softest curls! And they love being Curly Q girls.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Beyond FICTION: THE NAMESAKE by Jhumpa Lahiri

Not only has Jhumpa Lahiri come to terms with her own hyphenated identity as an Indian-American, she has embraced the condition she shares with so many. The immigration experience, something she calls a “frequently humiliating process,” is explored in detail in her 2003 novel, The Namesake.

Lahiri holds multiple degrees and is a Pulitzer-winning author. Her work is thoughtful and thought-provoking: Scenes and characters are presented in expert strokes; themes are woven into a tapestry of revelations large and small; habits and traditions are introduced and revisited so the reader not only gathers glimpses into but is engrossed in a lifestyle and all the wonder and bewilderment it entails.

A portrait of a family of immigrant parents and their first-generation Indian-American children, The Namesake provides important insights into the challenges often faced by people who live bicultural lives. One telling scene has the main character, an Indian-American man named Gogol, at a party with his American girlfriend’s parents and their friends. One woman comments that Gogol and his family must be immune to illness when they travel to India and Gogol tries to explain that they often do get sick while in Calcutta. “But you’re Indian,” the woman answers. “I’d think the climate wouldn’t affect you, given your heritage.” When Gogol’s girlfriend’s mother tries to intercede on Gogol’s behalf, she does more harm than good. She insists that he’s American, that “he was born here,” but then turns to him, bewildered for a moment. Gogol sees immediately that after months of knowing him, she still isn’t sure. “Weren’t you?” she asks.

In a recent essay for Newsweek magazine called “My Two Lives,” Lahiri describes her own frustrating childhood as a first-generation Indian-American. She writes that as a child she “sought perfection” and denied herself “the claim to any identity,” that for her “one plus one did not equal two but zero, (her) conflicting selves always canceling each other out.” “As an adult,” she eventually adds, “I accept that a bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.”

As is a biracial upbringing for so many. Lahiri reveals much more than the details of Indian-American lives in The Namesake; she offers life lessons in understanding to those who are willing—and ready—to hear her story.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Beyond THE FUTURE: ProGroup Inc.: Creating Inclusive Cultures that Work

Karen Stinson, Founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based ProGroup Inc., began her diversity training and consulting firm in 1986 with one goal in mind: to give workers from diverse backgrounds the support they need not only to succeed, but to feel respected, valued, and appreciated. In turn, she’s helped mega-companies like American Express, Target, and General Mills educate all their employees about tolerance and discrimination issues in the workplace and improve their corporate cultures along the way. Surely the positive aspects of increased recognition and understanding on the job influence the way formerly alienated workers feel about themselves. Meanwhile, those who attend ProGroup-sponsored training, read their materials, or simply hear about various forms of discrimination gain new insights that very likely influence the way they treat others at work and elsewhere. As Stinson puts it, “We’ve changed hundreds of thousands of people’s lives.”

ProGroup offers a variety of services to help companies offer coaching, mentoring, training, electronic solutions, and innovative cultural audits designed to identify and address diversity issues in the workplace. Products offered include posters and books that target specific areas of concern. Resources such as 101 Ways to Celebrate Diversity, Religion in the Workplace, and Do’s and Taboos Around the World for Women in Business can be of use to individuals as well as organizations.

For effective and efficient on-line diversity training, consider “The Lobby,” ProGroup’s innovative “diversity courseware.” “The Lobby” helps participants identify their own biases, recognize how such biases impact their current interactions with other people, and learn skills to combat such biases and their impact on future interactions. Pretty nifty stuff.

I originally found the ProGroup site after reading about their annual Diversity Calendar. Offered in print and on-line versions, this calendar is designed to help employers recognize “what’s important” to everyone in their organizations by highlighting religious and secular holidays celebrated around the world. The Diversity Calendar features an index divided by religion, culture, and country, as well as helpful tips on how to appropriately recognize all the holidays featured. Anyone interested in increasing awareness of diverse cultures could put this calendar to good use. If this one tool reflects the insights offered by ProGroup’s various other products and services, executives across the country would do well to consider how ProGroup could help them. Awareness is one thing; Karen Stinson and her co-workers at ProGroup seem to share a vision not only to raise awareness of diversity issues, but to give corporate leaders the tools they need to address these issues and include their employees in this important process.

“I believe in this,” Stinson states. And I’m happy to help spread the word.