Saturday, January 31, 2015

Max's Story

Parenthood is over.  It's one of those classic network TV dramas they probably won't make ever again, not a lot of cool factor, not a lot of anti-heroes and super-sleek dialog and broody, alpha-dog pretensions (True DetectiveBreaking Bad, House of Cards, etc.).  Parenthood just did what it needed to do, detailing the lives of a sweet, sometimes loud, messy, middle-class family in Northern California as they live their lives (and sometimes got into a few trumped-up, only-on-a-network-TV-hour-long-drama situations).  I've always been a big fan of shows like this, from thirtysomething on, because they have a soothing comfort emanating from their very cores, an optimism that doesn't seem fake as much as utilitarian in a heightened way:  people getting by, only in better clothes and better light.  Like the family hour-long dramas before it, Parenthood transforms domesticity by trying very hard to be real, elevating banality into a beautiful consumerist Utopia:  backyard candle-lit family-style dinners, low-key folksy alternative music defining scenes, set-decorated kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms and other spaces radiating that lived-in loveliness, but also somehow perfect, like museum exhibits with people added in.  You just want to jump into those scenes and be a long-lost relative with your own narrative arc, your own Iron and Wine song on the soundtrack.
The one narrative arc I want to write about the most is Max Braverman's, played by Max Burkholder.  Diagnosed at the beginning of the show with autism, Max's story has always been defined/coded/enlivened/oversimplified by that labeling, and yet without the label Max would not be Max.  Which is always the problem with representing people with disabilities in pop culture:  you don't want the diagnosis to be the only narrative force, and yet you can't ignore the force of a diagnosis on someone's story.  Parenthood worked all of this tension through allowing Max to be both a "hindrance" and a "blessing" and then getting rid of that binary and getting down to business by allowing Max to grow up just like anybody else.  The one phony and kind of dopey road the show took was allowing Max's mom and dad, Adam and Kristina Braverman, penultimate helicopter parents, to open up a special charter school for "people like Max," so he could be "protected" from bullies and other obstacles.  The school opened the beginning of the second-to-last season, and it really didn't come to any kind of dramatic fruition in this season:  it became a blank space, occupied by a nameless cast of "people with autism" peopling the background while Kristina and Adam figured out how to run it.  Max was a student there, and he got into just as much crap as he probably would have in any other school, but the show's folksy, romanticizing, politically-correct gaze made the school seem idyllic without showing us what "idyllic" means. 
But still, there was Max, at the end of the show, all grown up, with a camera.
The camera is the key.
Max was introduced to the camera by Ray Ramano's Hank Rizzoli, his Aunt Sarah's boyfriend who also turned out to be her one true love.  Hank, a professional photographer, through meeting up with Max, soon discovered that he himself was "on the spectrum," and Max and Hank's relationship blossomed from awkward side-glances to a true friendship/mentorship.  Hank taught Max the professional-photography ropes, Max got an internship, a summer job, and then finally, by the end of the show, a career path. 
When characters with developmental disabilities on TV shows like Parenthood appear, they are often tokens or background music, ways to define other people's kindnesses or meannesses.  In Parenthood, though, Max is given agency and desire, and he is also allowed to discover he can do things, he can have a professional life even though he's been labeled, consigned to a "special school," and often the object of ire and derision, when not being overly comforted by his sweet parents who just want him to be happy. 
Max's narrative arc, from lost boy to wedding photographer, is heartening because it pushes away notions of consignment, and allows us to understand the way "community" actually is supposed to work.
"Community" is one of those buzz-words right now in the business I'm in, trying to help people with developmental disabilities make lives for themselves.  Right now, the service system is in a tizzy because of rules and regulations coming down from the federal government concerning both "congregate settings" and "employment."  These new rules are borne out of a civil-rights-minded way of thinking about service-delivery to people, not a "medical model" notion of services "fixing" people.  Supports that help people with developmental disabilities become a part of the world are often funded by Medicaid:  services like in-home help, transportation, recreation, and job coaching are more often than not paid through that program.  And the feds have been working on ways to use this old-school funding system as a way to change an old-school cultural system.  This is making everyone I know kind of nervous. 
The history is pretty bleak:  people with developmental disabilities grouped into programs that "help," but that also isolate and sustain isolation as a way of life.  The new Medicaid rules are saying that Medicaid funds aren't going to pay for "congregate" service-delivery:  no more sheltered workshops, no more day programs in anonymous strip-mall buildings, etc.  So a lot of my colleagues are nervously waiting on how the feds are defining "community."  It's a topic of conference sessions, blogs, newsletters.  What is "community" going to mean in the context of funding rates, providers, programs?  "Community" this, "community" that.
It's kind of funny.  I think we all maybe know innately what "community" means, and yet now the "official" definition is coming down from on high, and this makes people anxious and angry. It also makes them skeptical and short-sighted. 
Parenthood may have it right somehow,  Even though they started down the road of a congregate "special school" where people like Max are consigned to be "helped," the actual narrative arc defining Max has nothing to do with the service system he's in.  He is able to discover what he wants to do, what his passion is, what his future night be, by living it like any other kid.  He got a camera.  He fell in love with what he can do with a camera.  He got help through his aunt's fiancĂ©e.  He got encouragement from his family.  He's on his way.
I guess that's what I'm trying to understand in real life:  how to help people discover that narrative arc that will set them on a path to what they need and want to do, so that the service system won't define them; they will define the service system.  And building "special buildings" and "special programs" just doesn't seem the right technique.  It's about figuring out how to make situations happen without waiting on permission.  It's about life as it's lived, not programmed or paid for.  Medicaid more-than-likely will have to be a part of it for a lot of people, but now even Medicaid is saying, "Let's stop the madness."  I like that, I guess.  I don't want to cling to history, don't want to depend on the past.  I don't want to wait around for what "community" means either.