Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Basted Words

We were having brunch at the food court. Gay men can brunch anywhere. I had picked up my tempeh wrap and was taking my seat. One table over there was a guy, about 30, with Down Syndrome. His head was down and he was shaking it slowly.

Two tables on the other side were a husband, a wife and a family friend. They saw the fellow, head down, sadly shaking his head. And wow did they go to town on him:

how sad he must be to be Down Syndrome

how difficult things must be for him

how his parents must be such brave and special people

how lonely and desolate he looks and therefore how lonely and desolate his life must be

they called him a boy when they spoke of him, even though he was clearly a man

They were eating burgers but gorging on pity. And they were loving it, loving basting their words in prejudice and preconceptions.

Then, and this was magical, his wife returned from the bathroom. She saw him with his head down and shaking it. "What's wrong my honey?" she asked.

He looked up from the paper in his lap and said, "I don't think the Leafs have a chance again this year."

I couldn't help it.

I burst out laughing.

I glanced over at the table from which waves of pity had come. They looked confused. Really, really confused.

I love that kind of shit.

Really love it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Me, My Legs and I

It's hard for me to write about my own relationship with my body. My body has been the subject of so many posts, but always as the object of other people's either revulsion or derision. I want to claim some space and some air time and in doing so I push aside:

what happened in the mall yesterday when I got off the elevator to the horrified expressions about my body by mother and daughter

what happened in the gym when, for the first time another member, one that I've not seen before, came out of the weight room, saw me exercising and burst into laughter

what happened that made me have Joe move to block the view of people openly gawking at me when I was waiting in line to make a purchase

It isn't easy to push these aside. They all call to be written about, but that's not what I want to write about. I want to write about me, and my relationship with my body. It is after all mine and it makes sense that I would have my own issues with where I live.

Many of you know that I've been exercising. Most of the work I've been doing is upper body work but I've been moving into, very limited, lower body work. I discovered I can 'march in place' while sitting in the wheelchair. I can do leg lifts and foot circles. I can, when standing, lean against the wall and do some standing leg exercises. I have to be careful because falling is definitely an option with these ones. So, I am exercising as much of me as I can.

About a week or two ago I encountered a big ramp, long, steep and, I thought, impassible. Then without thinking I turned around and placed my back wheels at the base of the ramp. I lifted the foot pedals to give myself room. Then using my legs and my arms I started. Pushing with my legs, pulling with my arms, I quickly, really quickly, made the top of the ramp. I wasn't even breathing hard.

Later when thinking about it, I discounted the achievement. I had done it with the help of my legs, it didn't count. I used the same technique in a couple of other places and again, I dismissed these as non-accomplishments, I'd used my legs. In my mind, and I was set on this, it's only the arms that matter.

It was then I realized that I was angry at my legs.

I remember the exact moment my legs failed me. I remember having to leave 3/4 the way through a day long presentation because I'd lost the use of my legs. I remember getting out of bed to go to the bathroom and falling down, knocking furniture every which way. I remember being so frightened when I woke up in intensive care. I remember all of that. My legs gave out. My life changed.

Please do not read this and interpret it into the typical disability narrative, I am happy with who I am as a disabled person, I'm even grateful for this journey and what it's meant to me, but standing one day, falling the next takes some adjustment.

In all the busyness of hospitalization and the introduction of the wheelchair and the getting home and reestablishing new routines, I never had much time to think about my legs and their failure and the impact of that failure on my life. And because I didn't, I've discovered a kind of residual anger at my legs. I kind of developed an 'okay, you aren't going to work, I'll show you I don't need you' attitude. It's an attitude that served me well, but it's an attitude that needs both examination and resolution.

My legs don't do what they originally did. But they can add to my mobility, and that's okay. It counts. It matters. Getting up a long, steep, ramp, is getting up a long, steep, ramp. That's all. It doesn't matter how it's done, it's still my body doing it, it's still my independent action that got me to the top. It's still me doing it.

So, I'm working to make peace with my legs.

To accept them as possible solutions to impassible terrain.

And to have it matter to me that my arms and my legs can work together to get me further.

I have legs.

They help me sometimes.

I need to get over that.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Visit From a Dog

We have a dog visiting us today. He's a big one, about a year old, and is a combination of coiled muscle and impulse decisions. It's nice to have a dog in the house. It's nice to be reminded of a dog's ability to check out the environment and the people in the environment. Here's what I noticed.

1) He immediately set about finding out what the boundaries were. Where he could go and not go. What doors he could push open and which remained closed. Who he could jump up on and who he couldn't. It's important for a dog to know these things. He was an expert and had it all sussed out within about 5 minutes.

2) He then had to determine where his stuff was, the things that gave him pleasure and comfort in equal measure. He found the ball. He found his stuffy toy. He found his bedroom. You could see him relax knowing that what was important to him was here.

3) Then he set about measuring up the people around him, especially the two new people. He cared little for any of the superficial things. He wanted to know who was the easiest touch for a treat. Who was a sucker for his eyes, when he made them look sad. Who was willing to put things down to pet him. Who took instruction well about where he wanted to be scratched. Who had a safe touch. What had a safe tone. Who would care for his needs - get him outside and let him back in. He had that done quickly too. Smart dog.

The dog entered our home with no prejudice. He simply wanted to know who we were and how safe the place was. He did that by our behaviour. What we looked like. Who could walk. Who was fat. Who was bald. Who had the most refined nose. None of these things matter.

He looked at what we did.

He looked at how we responded.

Then he determined if this was a safe place to be.

Funnily enough, as a disabled person, I realize, I need to do exactly the same thing.
Talk is talk. Words can be beautiful. Mission statements can be read with the national anthem playing.

Beauty is just beauty and it doesn't mean anything else. People act like it does, but it doesn't.

It's what we do that mattered.

Now excuse me, he's here and looking at me with big eyes ... he knows I'm the treat guy. Can't let him down.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What We Both Saw

Zero tolerance for bullying! I hear that so often, and when I hear it, it is said with determination and there is fire in the eyes of the speaker. They say it. They believe it when it's being said and they know it's the right thing to say.

But that's the problem with all of this isn't it?

Words.

Sometimes they have meaning.

Sometimes they don't.

I was watching kids playing in a pool, it was a summer camp activity. I knew this because there were camp staff with them in the pool. I could easily identify them as camp staff because they all wore singlets with the words 'camp staff' on them.

Right in front of me I saw a bully standing under a devise that, when full, dumped a blast of water on whoever was below. He was centered directly under the dump bucket and was taking, to his delight, the full impact of the water. There were kids around him, pushed in close, who were taking the left over splash. The brave ones tried to get closer and the bully elbowed them hard and they moved back. This was his and he was keeping it.

This was seen.

I clocked three of the camp counselors notice this.

But nothing happened. They made no move. Two shook their head in disapproval, but that was the extent of their action.

But there was a boy, with a disability, who was in the pool, several feel away, who saw what I saw. A bully using force and entitlement to take from other kids the experience of a direct blast of fun. His elbows and his attitude were his weapons, his expectations of inaction by the staff was an integral part of his strategy for domination of that area of the pool. The kid with a disability saw all this.

He was accompanied by a staff. He got their attention and he pointed. It looked, from my viewpoint on the other side of the glass, that he didn't use words to communicate. He pointed, they saw and looked away, he pointed again, and they looked away again. He was getting frustrated and it showed.

"Tell the staff,""Tell someone in a position of authority" is one of the strategies we teach children, people with disabilities, and each other. It's a common sense strategy. If you see or experience bullying, or violence, or abuse, report it.

But bullies, and aggressors, and abusers, know that 'zero tolerance' often means 'zero acknowledgement' that people will simply 'not see' what they 'don't tolerate.'

That child, the one with the disability, was the one kid in the pool that did what needed to be done. He clearly took responsibility and because he did he SAW what was happening and he took action.

But that's where the action stopped.

Then, the whistle blew and the kids clamoured out of the pool.

I saw the bully standing, smiling from the fun he had. I'm not sure if that fun was the water bucket or the fact that he had it to himself.

He won.

Everyone else lost.

And he knew it.

Zero tolerance doesn't exist if there is zero determination and willful, purposeful, refusal to see what won't be tolerated.

And maybe we need a new strategy.

Maybe we should be promising something different, not 'zero tolerance for bullying' but 'zero tolerance for inaction' to the issue of bullying, abuse and social violence.

That's what I'd like to see.

That's what I'd like to experience.

That's what may make the world a little bit safer.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Story Unprompted

My father joined the Canadian Forces when he was 19 and served overseas during WWII. This was something he never really talked about with me, even though, as you can imagine, I tried. I was interested in where he'd been and what his experiences were and he was interested in not talking about it. I understand many vets were reluctant to tell their stories and my father was one of their number.

During his time in the hospital he did talk a little more about being in the war. I had brought up the movie "Dunkirk" and he said that it was good for people to remember. Then he talked a little more about his experiences, not much but more.

I want here, in this last post I'm going to write about my Dad, for now, I want to remember a brief conversation I had with Dad about the war when I was just becoming a teenager.

First though, let me say that I never heard my father utter a racial epithet. I'm not saying he never did, I don't know that, I was a boy and know only how he spoke around children, I no nothing of how he spoke around other men, but I never heard him. This is noteworthy because, of course, I heard those words elsewhere and I heard them used unchallenged. It was somewhere around 1964 when I was about twelve that I had a conversation with Dad that I have always remembered and in a sense, it has guided me.

We were speaking about a report on television about racism. Out of the blue, and without any of my persistent questioning, Dad told me a story. He said that when he enlisted he expected to find camaraderie amongst his fellow recruits. He did. This was a war with Germany. His was a German last name. He found himself expelled from the social life of his unit. There was another fellow experiencing the same thing. A black man, also Canadian, also enlisted, also excluded. They hung around with each other at first by chance and necessity and then by choice. They liked each other. But my dad notice that while he was socially excluded, his friend experienced exclusion accompanied by force. Dad never felt endangered, but he knew that his friend did. He hated that.

My dad said that the saw first hand what prejudice did to people. He had tasted it but he'd seen the full measure of its cruelty inflicted on someone he cared about. 

That was it.

I wanted more.

I didn't get more. I don't know what happened to this man. I don't know what his name was. I don't know if he made it through the war.

I did know, though, that war changed my father. Both on the battlefield and in the barracks my father got a glimpse of the various kinds of horrors that humans do to humans.

I'm not sure why he told me that story that day.

But it mattered to me.

Then.

And now. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

My Father's DNA

I don't know why I found it so hard to ask, but I did. It took me several weeks, or maybe even months, to make the call. But I did.

A little over a year ago I joined a big study done through one of the major hospitals in the city of Toronto. It was a study involving what doctors lovingly call 'morbid obesity' and I had been approached to be part of that study. The study consisted of filling in a lot of questionnaires about life and weight, some of the questions being quite personal.It also involved an interview and a blood test.

The people running the study, well I guess I should say the nurse who is my contact to the study, is a truly kind individual who has never treated me with anything but real respect. She is easy to talk to and takes a genuine interest in me as a person. A while ago I was informed that they had found something in my DNA that they were zoning in on as it seemed to be present in others like me as well. So I was asked to consider asking my family to participate in the study by providing DNA samples.

Yikes.

That's a really personal request to make of someone.

And, it would involve me making myself quite vulnerable in talking about the study, about my weight and about the process of gathering DNA.

I finally made three calls.

I called my mother first. I explained to her the study, I explained what she would have to do, I explained why I thought it was important.

She agreed. Quickly and absolutely.

I called my father next. He was in the hospital and I could hear the sounds of the daily goings on in the ward behind him as we talked. I told him all he had to do was spit in a tube and that was the end of it. He said, "I guess I'll spit anywhere you want me to." That was that.

Then I called my brother. I left him for last after informing the nurse that my parents had said yes and did they want my brother. They did, I called. He like the others agreed quickly and easily.

As my father grew more ill, my brother called and said, "If you want Dad's DNA sample you better have them send the equipment quickly. I wrote the nurse and email, gave an address and encouraged her to send the DNA kit quickly.

It was clear, to all of us, that Dad would not wait for the mail to deliver the parcel with the materials that were needed for the study.

The night before he died, my brother, his wife and my mother had stayed at the hospital in the evening leaving the next morning. My brother sensing that he should go back, did. An hour before my father died, they discussed the DNA test and how much it seemed to mean to me.

They called the nurse and explained the situation. They asked if it would be possible for them to collect a sample of my father's DNA for the study. The nurses at Campbell River Hospital have been incredibly kind and compassionate through my father's long stay and they didn't blink an eye at the request. The nurse hurried out and then came back and took the sample.

It was done.

Minutes later my father died.

This act of generosity on the part of my brother and my father, in the minutes before my father's death astounds me.

Astounds me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Father's Slippers

When I was a boy. An immature boy. I had no idea of what real adult love was like. And I had no idea of how my own cruelty would stay with me, permastamped in my memory.

This is a story of the boy I was.

And the man that my father was.

It was Christmas. I had bought, probably with my mother's assistance, my father a pair of slippers. I am convinced that, if not for slippers, fathers may never get a gift. Anyways, they were wrapped and put under the tree. On Christmas morning my brother and I woke to a bounteous harvest of presents under the boughs of the tree.

I remember little of the gifts that I got, or the dinner that we ate, or the activities of the day. I remember only one scene. It was of my father opening my gift and putting on the slippers. I was delighted by the fact that they fit perfectly. My father expressed how he'd never had a pair of slippers fit quite so well.

I was chuffed.

I noticed when Dad got up to go to the kitchen that it looked like the slippers were much too tight. When he sat down, he took them off and discovered that there was paper tucked into the toe of each slipper. He pulled them out and I laughed at him. I thought him silly. I thought him dumb. How could he have not noticed that the paper was in the slippers. I acted like an arrogant, foolish, bully. My dad said nothing of my behaviour, but I remember the look in his eyes when he looked from the slipper to me.

It was only later that I realized that my father had pretended a good fit to please me. He wanted me to feel happy about the gift that I gave him. He wanted me to have a good Christmas and so he put up with a bad fit, he was acting gracious and kind.

And I mocked him.

As an adult I understand how, sometimes the gift we want to give to others is our appreciation, our gratitude, even if the fit is a bit tight.

As an adult I understand why my father did what he did.

And because I understand that, I understand how mean and stupid I was in response to my father.

But I learned.

The pain I feel for having been that boy at that moment has taught me something.

About grace.

About kindness.

About how to be a good man.