Dad, Supernova

At my dad’s funeral, a friend from his youth told me that my dad was a genius.

Perhaps wanting to ensure that I grasped his sincerity, he elaborated: “If your dad had been born at the right time, he would have been Isaac Newton.”

It was only some months later, as I was doing some reading, that his comment came back to me.  It occurred to me that there might be something truly significant in what I took for heartfelt hyperbole.

After I stumbled across Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), I knew it would be relevant to so many people I care about. That’s what spurred me to create an introductory page on the subject.  It was a challenge to put it together: intricate and nuanced, TPD charts a fine line between flourishing and suffering, and I knew it was important to get the explanation right. It took me a long time to do so.  And by the time I started the website, it was already too late, because the person I most wanted to share it with was my dad.

When my family visited D.C. in July 2015, Dad brought me a used copy of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. He was so taken with this book that he wanted me to jot my thoughts in my copy; then, he said, I could call him and we could turn the pages together, he in Detroit and I in DC, and quite literally compare notes on it.  In our single such telephone conversation, Dad expressed his characteristic childlike amazement with the notion that one could learn the art of expression and emotional care. He was the son of an archetypal stoic Finn of the Copper Country, you see, and for him, this was revolutionary.

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Dad and Jessie, 2002

I knew TPD could build on that revolution, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to convey the essence. “Oh, that sounds neat,” he would say (neat is a Dad word). I could tell I hadn’t quite captured his full interest, but he was willing to hear more.

 So I read more, trying to pull together a useful narrative.

There’s an ongoing discussion in interested circles about whether TPD’s concept of developmental potential (DP) is essentially equivalent to giftedness. The general consensus seems to be that not all people with DP are gifted and not all gifted people have DP, but these two Venn diagram circles overlap enough for TPD to find many adherents in the gifted community, including gifted education specialists.

This led me to a documentary called Rise: The Extraordinary Journey of the Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted. I ordered a copy. Soon after I popped it in the DVD player, my eyes were wet. Because these kids seemed “normal” to me.

They reminded me of my dad.

Mom reminded me of a story recently, about how Dad’s own dad would bring home old radios and other such devices for young Keith, who would joyfully set about smashing them open to see how they were made.

Oh yeah, I recalled. I remember him talking about that! He obviously was excited about it. That would have been, what, around middle school?  Mom said that as far as she understood it, it was more like lower elementary school.

This brought to mind my dad’s childhood Christmas stocking, still hanging from the mantle in December 2015. He and his brothers and sister all decorated their Christmas stockings themselves, using colorful patches of fabric. A few years back, my sister and I asked him what the indiscernible shapes stuck to the red stocking base were supposed to be.

“Those are the parts of a radio!” By then in his sixties, Dad still radiated the enthusiasm of a small child. “See? This is what it looks like when you take it apart.”

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Emily, Dad, and Jessie work on a puzzle, shortly after Christmas, circa 2013

I had already known that by the time he was in high school, he had a free pass to go play in the lab all through chemistry class; the teacher (who still remembered him when I was in high school) merely required him to show up for tests (which he aced) before going back to the lab to do his own work. I also knew that he would go out to Ann Arbor and hang out with the grad students at U of M, who were always happy to find someone interested in their research.

At age 15, he was a founder and president of the Electro-Magnetic Research Society, which I always figured was just the sort of thing that a kid does when he and his friends love science. One of his buddies brought to the funeral a clip that our local paper wrote about the group, dated August 4, 1965:

20160218_095729-2President Keith Mannisto explains that the club organized one-and-a-half years ago. The club’s constitution states that its basic purpose is “to conduct experiments, research projects and other educational activities designed to increase the knowledge of the membership in the methods of science and in the special technologies related to it.” […]

The members discuss their individual projects at the meetings. Keith says, “If someone needs help on a project he can bring it up at the meeting and he’ll get help.” […]

Keith has done research on cheme luminescence which, translated, means the study of light produced by chemical reaction. He has $600 worth of equipment in his lab including a complex tesla coil. […] Keith is also studying glass blowing and classifies himself as an “amateur” glass blower. He hopes to become skilled enough at this new interest to produce glass tubes and equipment for the club.

Those who study high intellectual ability often group these individuals roughly by standard deviations, the better to identify their needs as students and determine other challenges they might face. As people get further from the mean, they tend to become increasingly idiosyncratic, with more unusual needs and habits. Educators often divide speak of the “moderately gifted,” “highly gifted,” “exceptionally gifted,” and at the extreme, the “profoundly gifted.” Various tests will put various numeric scores on each of these labels, but the key is the number of standard deviations from the statistical norm on a given test.

This stands in contrast with the data we as individuals aggregate through the process of living. We start out defining our family as “normal.” By the teen years, we may determine that our families are actually “weird,” but then, eventually, we may realize that most teenagers think their families are weird, which brings ours right back to the norm.

dad-and-mom-camping-cropped
See?  My parents are normal.

So what is it like to have a mental system wired in such a way that it puts you three or four standard deviations above some kind of nebulous norm?

Here is how the Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted, an organization in Canada that offers psychotherapy and educational consulting to support the overall development of exceptionally and profoundly gifted people, describes their clientele:

Possessing astonishing cognitive capacity, extraordinary sensitivity, and trademark intensities, this sub‐group comprises remarkable and idiosyncratic individuals. When properly supported, their boundless enthusiasm and appetite for all that life has to offer, insatiable curiosity, empathy, and energy unlock wellsprings of matchless potential. They are driven to learn, to live fully in accordance with a heightened awareness of who they are, and to make a positive impact upon, or contribution to, the broader world.

As with any special needs group, however, it is vital that we provide knowledgeable parenting, teaching, and psychological support that is truly congruent with the needs of the profoundly gifted — intellectual, emotional, social, moral, and in the areas of their individual talents. Lacking an informed and mindful approach in our interventions, we may inadvertently squander their remarkable abilities, and crush the animating essence at the core of their being, that fuels their passion for learning and gives meaning to their existence.

It was after reading this that I ordered a copy of their documentary, Rise.

The film featured a range of scientifically, mathematically, verbally, and artistically talented girls, boys, and young adults. There was one boy in particular whose story made me think of my dad. This young man, though only 12 years old, was doing 11th grade work and participating in an early college program, where he had developed his own experiment on antibacterial soap and its impact on drug resistant bacteria.

I really wish I had had a chance to show Dad the video.

Dad’s childhood wasn’t easy.

It’s outside the scope of this post to get into these details, and I don’t even know that much myself.  Dad didn’t talk much about his youth.  But here’s some of what I know: his family didn’t have heat for the first few years they lived in their house (and this is in Michigan). They didn’t have running water; the kids were allowed only one shallow bath a week. It was Keith’s job was to tend the chemical toilet. He also had to dig out the basement of their house. By which I mean, they didn’t have a basement, so Keith dug out the dirt and hauled it away.

After my mom read a draft of this piece, she suggested that I add that he wired his parents’ house. I don’t mean “set up ethernet” or something like that (though he certainly did that regularly as an adult)—I mean that as a boy, he did the original electrical wiring. Several years later, an electrician looked at it and said there was one small tweak he had to make in some panel; otherwise it was up to professional code.

Mom also cited one story that stood out in her memory, which Dad had shared early in their marriage: he told her about a boy he knew whose father had an important job with one of the Big Three auto companies and therefore was able to procure funding for his science fair project. My dad wished he could receive that kind of support, but saw no way to get access to such resources. (It’s true that he spoke in the newspaper article of having $600 in 1965 dollars of resources available in his personal lab; a fact of death is that I cannot ask my dad about this. All I can say is that as a child, he met a barrier, and it caused him frustration and pain.)

I can see why, given the other things people like my grandparents have to deal with, that they would be inclined to say, hey, Keith is a bright kid! He’ll be fine! This often happens to gifted kids when there aren’t resources to help them, in the unlikely event that they’re identified at all.

Class issues are a real concern in gifted education policy. But my dad’s story is proof that just because we’re terrible at identifying highly gifted children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families does not mean they’re not there. And they stand to suffer even more, because even more than a well-to-do highly gifted kid, these young people likely have no one to help them figure out how to channel their energy and get by with their weird brain.

Dad had a counselor, Vicki, with whom he’d been working for several years. Sometimes he would cheerfully recount observations from their sessions. “Vicki said maybe I have a personality disorder,” he mused one day. Or another time, thoughtfully: “Vicki suggested I might have ADHD.”

I’ve come to learn that it’s common for highly gifted people to display behaviors that check boxes on diagnostic charts for ADHD and personality disorders. Putting aside the social construction of “mental disorder” for the time being, it’s possible that someone could be highly gifted and have those conditions as well; for instance, if personality disorders can come from adjusting to a very challenging environment in one’s youth, then my dad might have had that. But even if that’s the case, being X standard deviations from the norm—naturally out of sync with most of those around you—surely compounded the effects of poverty and struggling parents. The exceptionally and profoundly gifted are simply not common enough for most psychological professionals to have experience with them, to understand what’s normal in this population, and to come up with guidance suited to a very unusual brain. Gifted children and adults are, as this article notes, often surprised to realize that they are different.

And so Dad felt like something was wrong in his life, and he was trying to fix it. Armed with the information available to them, he and his counselor brainstormed options.

Vicki, a wonderful lady, came to his funeral.

Normal is nebulous. Everyone who’s not sitting right at the center of the bell curve must grapple with trying to mesh their “normal” with “true” normal, which only means the center of the normal distribution, with no value judgment inherent in it, even though such judgments often emerge as people too far from that normative peak cause and experience social dissonance.

Hanging above our Amiga computer in the 1980s was a picture that, I think, Dad got at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. It consists of two long horizontal panels, matted in a single frame. In the top panel, bland cartoonish figures walk through a machine and emerge on the other side in all kinds of quirky, individual glory. This panel is entitled “Birth.” In the lower panel, the colorful personalities walk through another machine and emerge uniform and colorless, all with the same expression. Except for one: this single figure managed to hang on to his wacky shoes and, as his cohort walks forward in lock step, he raises his hand, grins, and gives a peace sign. This panel is entitled “Society.”

artwork-from-dads-desk
Here’s the best I could do with the camera on my phone.

My dad’s brother, my Uncle Dennis, recently came over to help my mom and me sort through some of dad’s assortment of junk and treasures (and which is which?) in the basement. Mom was wondering if there was anything worth saving in Dad’s wacky electronic music record collection from, I think, the 1960s and 70s, I guess. Uncle Dennis (who continues their family’s tradition of hanging out in Ann Arbor and having interesting conversations with people) urged Mom to hold on to them as there were, and I quote, students at the U of M School of Music who were “salivating” over Dad’s “avant garde” LP collection.

“That’s the problem with a mind like Keith’s,” said my shnoo Max after I related this story to him. “It’s going to be wildly inaccessible to almost everyone, except a few people who are going to get very excited about it.”

But Dad always just did his thing.  He had taken over the past few years to asking people, “Wanna see my new microwave?” When the confused listener responded with, “uh…okay,” he would ever so slightly undulate his fingers at them, grinning until they finally rolled their eyes to indicate that they got the punchline. In college, whenever I made a dumb joke, people would tell me, “You sound like your dad.”  (I always took this as a compliment.)

I wish I could ask him: Dad, do you think you might be like these kids? Because I think that might be one clue to help you get “there.” But then, maybe he did know that: later editions of Emotional Intelligence, after all, had a subtitle: Why It Matters More Than IQ. It’s not something my mom is aware of him ever talking about. “It’s something you discuss about your kids, not about yourself,” as she said.

Dad was always proud of anything neat his kids did. For instance, he drove two hours one way to see every one of my college band concerts (we weren’t even that good!), and he carried around what he called his “pocket souvenir” of business cards and public transport tickets from the family visit to Expo 2005 in Japan, where I had been working, so he could tell everyone what his daughter was doing.

But Mom said maybe it was always a little hard for him, because he never had those opportunities. And he would have made great use of them.

That’s why I want to tell the world about my dad. Both in his honor, and so that his story might be significant for others like him.

It’s normal for our interest in a person’s story to peak when that person is suddenly taken away from us, but it might also be said that my dad’s heart attack was particularly cruelly timed.  He had been saying—he said it multiple times over the few months preceding last February—that he thought he was really making progress, see.

I suspect that Vicki was largely serving as a sounding board for my dad’s own autopsychotherapy, through which he was finally reaching Dabrowski’s Level IV-V. That’s what he meant, I think, though I didn’t yet understand the intricacies of the Theory of Positive Disintegration well enough to frame it this way for Dad.

I believe he got there.  I just wish he could have gotten “there” sooner, and had more time to stay.

Using the metaphor from my last post, in which I compared giftedness to the stellar main sequence, I can say that after all that I have read, I am convinced that my dad was certainly a B, maybe even an O star—exceptionally, maybe even profoundly gifted.  I wish that as he looked for labels to make sense of his struggles, he could have tried on these ones, which might have illuminated a lot with less implication of personal defect.

And like those O and B stars, in the end, he became a supernova.  And the heavy elements he created enrich the galaxy of those around him.

Thank you, Daddy.  I miss you.  I love you.

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