Attention for the Underworlds

From the newsletter:

Any movie with Francis McDormand is a sure thing for me. I love how she’s evolved from a lovable, quirky character in her husband’s movies to a sinewy, “fuck you actress” who doesn’t bother to hide her age on the red carpet. While Susan Sarandon might be my doppelgänger, McDormand is my aging role model. 

After a year of Friday night viewings of Marvel movies with the autistic kid and other escapism on Netflix with the husband, I decided to prep for the movie the right way. I read the book first. 

The book describes the lives of folks in the autumn of their lives, who couldn’t relocate to a nice condo in Florida to play Mahjong with the girls at the clubhouse. Victims of real estates crashes and a global economy that shipped good jobs to China, hordes of old folks are living in vans retrofitted with cots and hotplates. 

According to Jessica Bruder, these retired-shouldbees can’t pay the rent with a $500 social security checks, so instead they haul their arthritic bones around massive Amazon warehouses putting your books and sneakers in mylar bags and boxes with air-puffed pouches. (Feel guilty, yet?) The book is more harsh on Amazon and our society with its fraying safety net than the movie, which portrays the nomads as counter-culture heroes. The book is clear that these folks are lost souls, discarded and forgotten by the winners in the new economic order. 

Heroes or victims, these nomads are certainly not part of the beautiful world, the GOOP world, that is about to get even more fabulous as the stock market surges this year. 

In Caitlyn Flanagan’s review of Nomadland, she wrote,

Nomadland is a movie that appeals to the four quadrants of the show-business apocalypse: menopausal women, people with life-threatening illnesses, people interested in poverty, and anyone with time on her hands who can’t find the remote.

It’s a popcorn picture for the damned—and so it spoke to me. I live my life on the fading dot where these four demographics converge, and I found the movie powerful, informational, boring, generous, and hopeful.

I, too, am part of the damned world, despite my husband’s Wall Street Job, my good health, and a corner property in a yoga-mat-and-green-smoothie suburb. Because my kid has autism, I’m in a shadow world. My son isn’t included in the reindeer games of the high school, so I don’t even know other parents in town. 

So anxious to keep the weird kids away from the rest of the school, the district actually puts kids like mine in a windowless cinderblock basement. One time, I complained about that windowless basement at a school board meeting. The superintendent interrupted me and said that the room was fine, because they had installed a ventilation system in the room. Simply providing air for the weird kids was good enough for administrators. That’s nice, right? Asphyxiation is such a gruesome way to check out. 

Sitting in the back row of the school board meeting, I’ll listen to administrators describe new honors programs and clubs, watch the fifth grade tech kids demonstrate a robot, and listen to the school president rattle through the athletic accomplishments of the week. None of that is part of our reality. On Pluto, we’re very far from the sun. While we’re not living in a van, I feel solidarity with other untouchables. And there are so many. 

Jonah came home at midnight from his summer job at a restaurant. He said he was late, because he spent the last hour playing tic-tac-toe with the five-year old son of the dish washer, a woman from Guatemala. The boy stays in the basement of the restaurant all day by himself doing homework on his computer. He emerges after the last diner finishes their $20 personal pizza and waits for his mom finish the clean up. 

The pandemic has exacerbated the distance between the beautiful world and the underworld. My particular underworld — special ed parents — was hit very hard this year. I hear stories on my running dates, at cocktail hours, and on social media. Those kids have not gotten vital therapy. Being isolated in a bedroom for 16 months is a really bad thing for kids with autism. The lost of help will have lasting damage. 

On Wednesday, I ran into a neighbor in the waiting room of a therapy center. She said that we are lucky that our kids were on the schedule before the pandemic, because there’s now a waitlist to talk to a therapist. A whole groups of typical kids became disabled this year without the support of a functioning school system. 

I’ve been talking about disabled kids and mental health issues consistently since March 2020. It’s been very hard to get attention to these issues from those who aren’t part of our basement world. I sent at least a dozen essays and opinion pieces to every major newspaper and magazine on this topic this year and heard nothing. Crickets. I’ve lost readers and burned bridges with editors who only want to read cheerful education articles. Yes, the articles about the abandonment of disabled kids is finally getting attention, but it took a very long time. And there is no remedy in sight. 

To get remedy, we first need attention. We need people who are untouched by the illness, poverty, or disabilities to listen to us, to take their hands off their ears. Those folks have about a five minute attention span for depressing issues that do not impact them. Hello, Francis McDormand! I have a movie idea for you!

8 thoughts on “Attention for the Underworlds

  1. Wrong link for the article on the effect of the pandemic school losses/closures on disabled children (the link goes to the Flanagan review, as of this moment).

    I am feeling a bit of nihilism today in which I am not seeing the progress (and, yes, your depressing stories about economic nomads and children in basements are examples). Each of those groups is almost certainly better off than they were 50 years ago. But are any of them going to be OK? And, what role do those of us who are on the other side of the divide have to play? individually? collectively? and as a nation?

    And I’m kind of struck by the idea that people care less about the others when they are doing well (maybe because it becomes more and more clear that as your wins become locked in that grace isn’t what separates you from the RV dwelling 60 year old working at Amazon, lots of money is).


    1. Thanks. Link fixed.

      Yes, I’m nihilistic, too. Right now, my main job is making sure my boys are okay. Family first, advocacy second. But I’m still going to keep posting depressing links any way. I don’t mind being annoying.


  2. I also think Frances McDormand is awesome. I was looking at the clothes at your link, and thinking those are awesome but she must be tall to pull them off? But she’s not at 5′ 5″. Makes me think I need to try it out. Still might not work, ’cause I am smaller in person than I am in my head, but, worth trying.

    I think Rita Moreno is my aging model, though citing her might be a bit like citing Angela Basset or Helen Mirren who probably have paintings in their attics:


  3. I thought of you today when my wife (school mental health worker in a high school) complained that she has a child who needs residential treatment. She can’t recommend it to the parents because if SHE does then the school district will have to pay for some or all of it. And she will be in trouble or fired. She spends her time with the parents trying to lead them to make the conclusion themselves while hoping the child will be ok. (I know this is not exactly the same as your situation).


    1. I’m talking with an education consultant in one hour about a residential pre-college program. I’m not sure if we can afford it, even if the district pays for some of it. We’ll see.


      1. Yes it’s terrible. It also means she is undermined because when the parents get a recommendation for the right treatment from another practitioner she looks incompetent.
        She is in the teacher’s union and I think she is tenured after some years so I wonder if she will have more latitude after that.
        Her immediate supervisor has told her she can go to the mat for a case twice a year. Beyond that she has to toe the line.


    2. Terrible. In my naive world where I don’t have to deal with any of this, I would hope that this situation is what unions are supposed to protect against, for teachers and staff to have the freedom to do their job properly. I don’t *like* having my bubbles burst, but it’s good to see more clearly.


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