Friday, July 1, 2016

On Politics and Plane Rides

"Mom," announced Ethan recently after returning from playing with a boy two yards over, "they have a Bernie Sanders sign in their yard!"

"Mmm-hmmm," I answered, "I know." Then I envisioned Ethan piping up next door to whomever would listen, "Do you like Bernie Sanders? Who are your parents voting for? In our house..."

Yes, as so often happens, new experiences and unchartered territories enlighten for us many of the unspoken rules people pick up after time -- rules that are especially hard for Ethan to grasp.

Rules like not asking people who they're voting for, not boisterously volunteering your own political leanings to people you've just met, and not announcing who you are voting for, either. Ugh, talking about politics is such a disaster, even for most adults.

I'm just going to come right out and say it: neither Dan nor I are particularly thrilled with any of the candidates that have come our way for president this year. But we're also political junkies. Or, at least in my case, I love to watch news coverage about politics. For me it's more of a journalism thing, but I do love the tradition, the history, the sparring during debates (when it's not about the size of people's, ahem, hands). And in our home, Dan and I of course have spoken freely our opinions on each candidate. We've been known to yell at the TV. We actually LIKE watching CNN's "Best Political Team on Television" and sometimes act like commentators ourselves. Our kids have gotten on board and will jump into the heated conversation sometimes...which is why Ethan must wonder why we can be so vocal about this stuff at home but then in public act so completely hush about all things political.

I took him with me voting once and didn't realize until we were almost at the door that I needed to tell him it was NOT okay to ask anyone who they were voting for or to announce how we'd voted. Before he could even ask why I said, unsatisfactorily, "Because it's private." What in the world does that even mean to an eight-year-old?

At school this year he told me someone in his class (and her mom) loved Hillary Clinton. I asked if he had contributed to the conversation at all and he said, "I just told them Jeb Bush wasn't going to win." Well, he certainly got that right.

I can only imagine how this fall is going to go, especially with the way our presidential campaign has gone thus far. As it was, when we were marching in a parade in town not long ago and everyone passed a house with Trump signs on the lawn kids left and right started yelling, "They have Trump signs! Aaaaaccckkk!" and making gagging sounds. I'm hoping we are sure to communicate to Ethan this isn't appropriate, either.

I guess, when I think about it, maybe we could explain to him that we are careful talking about politics because of the way it can make other people FEEL. We live in a free country and people are free to support whichever candidate they'd like. Gagging in disgust is implying (ugh, such a hard word in the autism world!) that they are not as smart as you are and should choose better. Demanding to know who they support is sort of a mental invasion of privacy, like barging into their mind rather than into them in the bathroom. As a general rule, we should try not to do things that make other people uncomfortable...which leads me to point number two:

Airplane rides.

Riding on an airplane has a whole other set of unspoken rules, doesn't it? Especially when it comes to safety. Especially these days. That's what I'd forgotten while prepping Ethan for our recent trip. I showed him videos about security, the check-in process, and how loud the plane was at take-off. I'd forgotten the whole thing about the fact that you aren't supposed to acknowledge out loud that the plane could actually (however miniscule the chance) crash.

You know how it is? The flight attendants do their spiel and no one pays attention, or they pretend not to pay attention. I do subtly pay attention because I am a tragedy guru who always wants to have a plan, thanks to the awesome book "The Unthinkable" about people who survive disasters and why. Plus, I have too many episodes of Air Disasters in my head. But I don't talk about it out loud, darn it! You can't do that. You have to cooly look for the emergency exits and count how many rows you'd have to pass in the smoking dark if there was some sort of not-immediately-fatal emergency. You have to smirk at notions like the seats being used as "flotation devices" rather than announce loudly, as Ethan did, "Why do they have emergency exits? If the plane crashes we're just all going to crash anyway, not get out."

Yes buddy, you're absolutely right.

He also asked what would happen if the plane was stuck and we couldn't get out of it, back through the tunnel. I told him all about the inflatable slide ("it would be really fun, you see?!") even though I didn't have a clue what I was actually talking about. There was a pilot hitching a ride back with us sitting right across the aisle who was probably rolling his eyes at all of this.

On the first flight, out of Boston, I'd warned him it could be bumpy at times, and that was normal. But I forgot to mention that sometimes the plane would just bank sharply to the left or right and that was okay, too.

"What's happening?!" he demanded, glancing anxiously out into the darkness.

"It's just turning," I said sweetly, a modicum of calm. He didn't need to know I was trying to avoid humming the sorrowful symphony that plays in one of my favorite movies, Fearless, when the plane they are on crashes into a cornfield. Fearless? The irony. That's the funny thing about planes. Everyone acts fearless. Except those with fewer pretensions.

That flight from Boston to Chicago was really, really smooth, I can say from my somewhat limited flying experience. But we still had some "drop offs" here and there. During the biggest one Ethan actually cried out, "No! We're going down!" Palm slap. You CANNOT say this on a plane. Thankfully he didn't say it too loudly. And again I reassured him with my Serene Parent routine. He began to look to me the way we look to flight attendants. If they're not nervous, I'm not nervous.

The thing is, I can just see how this conversation would have gone, if we'd tried to discuss it ahead of time...

Me: Now Ethan, when we're on the plane, we can't talk about things like the plane going down or crashing.
Ethan: What? The plane is going to CRASH?!
Me: No, no, it's not going to crash. But we can't talk about it.
Ethan: But what about that episode of Air Disasters and the plane that crashed into that bridge in Washington, D.C.? It COULD crash!
Me: I'm very, very sorry you saw part of that episode. You're not watching that show again. None of us are. Plane crashes are very, very, very rare. Like getting struck by lighting. So it's not going to happen, and it makes people uncomfortable to talk about it.
Ethan: Why?
Me: Because sometimes people are already a little nervous flying, and that doesn't help them.
Ethan: Why are they nervous? Because the plane could crash??! ...
...and so on and so forth.

Thankfully, Ethan did not incite a panic on the plane. And he hasn't gotten into any fights with anyone about politics. Yet. These are just more...potholes we've come across along the way lately. Sometimes you don't see one until you're just upon it, and you hit it with a bang. Other times, you swerve like that plane, dipping its wings daringly. With autism, with social interaction, with life, there are always opportunities for course correction, for introspection. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we communicate the way we communicate, with so many unspoken rules, with so many games? It's like trying to explain how a plane flies. Or the 2016 presidential campaign. Jeesh.

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