Coming Soon: “What a Dog Can Do”

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Stephen Kuusisto.  I’m a poet and nonfiction writer who lives in Syracuse, New York.  I’ve recently completed my latest book, a memoir, with the working title “What a Dog Can Do” — a somewhat uninspired thing to put on a cover, in my humble opinion.

That said, the book’s publisher Simon & Schuster has given me the green light to open this up to a contest of sorts.  I’m looking for title suggestions from dog lovers who “get it”.  YOU know what a dog can do so let’s have a little fun with this.  If the title you submit is ultimately selected I’ll credit you in the book’s acknowledgments, and give you two signed copies. The memoir is scheduled for publication in Spring 2018.  I’m opening this “contest” up until Tuesday, February 28th.

“What’s the book about?” you ask?  Keep reading; below is some early jacket copy I’ve written…

What a Dog Can Do: a Memoir by Stephen Kuusisto to be published Spring 2018

Click the “KeepMePosted” button above to join subscribers for occasional updates regarding the publication of “What a Dog Can Do” (working title).

In “What a Dog Can Do” memoirist Stephen Kuusisto, who’s been blind since birth, shares the intimate story of what it’s like to train with a first rate guide dog and discover a newfound appreciation for travel, independence, and joy.

Instead of getting a pet, Kuusisto finds he’s entered into a profound trust-agreement with a dog named Corky who has startling abilities. He writes:

Now at Guiding Eyes for the Blind I had Corky’s large paws on my shoulders. As our first minutes together unfolded we began the lifelong art of learning to read each other. We sat in a small dormitory room forty miles north of New York City and I was thoroughly “be-dogged.” I was uncommonly happy and Corky appeared pleased with my company. Then I saw she had something else along with joy–a quality of absorption. She seemed to examine me like a tailor. She wasn’t searching for a ball to be thrown. Was it just my imagination or did this brand new guide dog actually have the most comprehending face I’d ever met?   

Joy with a guide dog is a state of mind and a method. Walking with Corky in Manhattan for the first time Kuusisto discovers he’s “living the chaos of joy—you’re in love with your surroundings, loving a barefoot mind, wild to go any place. Sometimes crossing Fifth Avenue felt like traveling to the top of Mt. Olympus.”

This is a dog story unlike any other, a spiritual journey of light and shade. Kuusisto shares the perspectives of a blind traveler who in middle age bonds deeply with a remarkable Labrador from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Along the way he tells the story of guide dogs and how they’ve come to be accepted in the US and around the world. Above all else, “What a Dog Can Do” is a lyrical love poem to Corky and to service dogs everywhere.

What, my friends would you call such a book?  

You are welcome to enter your title suggestion in the comments below but I highly encourage you to do so on my Facebook page.  That’s where all the action is.  If the title you submit is ultimately selected I’ll credit you in the book’s acknowledgments, and give you two signed copies.  I’m opening this “contest” up until Tuesday, February 28th.

Thanks ever so much!

Steve Kuusisto

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Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening”, the acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” and two collections of poems from Copper Canyon PressHe is currently working on a book tentatively titled What a Dog Can Do.  Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy.

Why the Times Gets Blindness Wrong

Last week the New York Times published an article about blindness with the inestimable title, “The Worst That Could Happen? Going Blind, People Say” —and here I’m using “inestimable” in the province of unfathomable, as the damage caused by such a headline is nearly limitless. Let me put my cards on the table: I side with the National Federation of the Blind, one of America’s leading blindness advocacy organizations, who attest “that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.”

Low expectations indeed. The Times article by Jane E. Brody takes a purely medicalized approach to blindness and confuses vision loss with life itself, a model of living we tend not to believe if we’re talking about hair loss, foot pain, or even cancer. I include cancer because it’s been forty years since Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor first made its appearance. Didn’t we learn that a woman isn’t her diagnosis? Haven’t we discovered that fear of disablement is simply fear? That it gets in the way of living?

Of course we did. But you’d never know it according to the perfervid ophthalmologists quoted in Brody’s piece who hold that blindness as a calamity. Blindness is at most an inconvenience, but it’s manageable. The Times’ failure, and it’s a considerable one, is to hint that the public’s perception of vision loss has merit. There’s nothing awful about blindness. Fear is easy where disability is concerned. Few imagine disablement as a preferred condition. But you see, it doesn’t matter what one thinks of it, the reality is always different, and in the case of disability, when met with education, life is better than any supposition.

On Being Called a Malcontent

Word reaches me from well informed faculty colleagues that some higher ups in the administration at Syracuse University have branded me a “malcontent”—a badge of honor perhaps, as contrarianism is it’s own reward and one can say, “I must be doing something right.” But since I’m a disabled professor the term is revealing. Within the disability community we know being labeled “dissatisfied” is a feature of ableism—equivalent to “uppity” or “bitch” in usage. It’s always the first response from bureaucrats who are grudging or clueless about disability both in the letter and spirit of the law. The disabled are keenly impacted by poor service—the bank that offers no means of communication for deaf customers, the movie theater with no audio description for the blind, the airline that stops an autist from boarding. We cripples forward these stories on Facebook and Twitter.

Now I know a thing or two about true malcontents. My Finnish grandmother was a full fledged fun-sucker. She could (and did) destroy every moment of cordiality and/or innocent fun. She was a sour Lutheran fundamentalist who, seeing a child enjoying her ice cream cone would say: “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” A genuine malcontent is a conspiracy theorist. Something sinister is behind every human moment. Did you know the chocolate bar you’re now eating is the product of slave labor? The infuriating thing about malcontents is that more often than not they’re right. My grandmother was always correct. You were truly happy with your ice cream and yes, you’d better get right with God because you’re going to be dead a long time. Malcontents aren’t famous for flexibility.

Me? I’m just a consistent voice for inclusion, accommodations, transparency, dignity, and professionalism where the disabled are concerned. I’m also incredibly persistent. Hence the label. Rather than admit that the university has a poor record when it comes to providing basic accommodations—instead of boldly doing something about it—it’s much easier to say that the students who complain, or that blind professor, or that deaf one are problematic. When “malcontent” is used as a pejorative term for the disabled it means “you’re here on sufferance.”

It means, “we let you in, now what?” “You want accessible texts? Websites? Access to auditoriums? Accessible housing? Sign language interpreters for campus events that aren’t part of your course load?” Yes. You must be a malcontent.

Truth is, I’m funnier than my grandmother. She was such a sorrowful and aggressive soul that one day, as we all rode together in the family station wagon, and she began exulting about the beauties of nature, my father, suspecting that he’d delayed too long replacing the muffler, thought to himself: “God God! This is a woman who’s never said a positive thing in her life! We must be getting carbon monoxide poisoning!” He pulled over. Shoed everyone out of the car.

He was right. Grandma was the canary in the coal mine.

I know more about malcontents than anyone in bureaucracy will ever know.

Of Rudy Giuliani, Disability, and Academic Creative Writing

In April of 2000 when I was 45 I had me a little quandary: should I join the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, take a job teaching creative writing at a Big Ten university, or stay where I was, directing student services at a well known guide dog school? I thought how fortunate I was to have career choices. Disabled people struggle in the employment sector and it’s rare to be given options. Then, as now, approximately 70% of the disabled remain jobless in the US.

It’s flattering when the Mayor of New York asks you to serve as the Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. I had a one on one meeting with Rudolph Giuliani in his paneled office at City Hall. We talked about unemployment, about the power of government, about the difference leadership can make. I said the MOPD should be a bully pulpit for the private sector, that it was high time for New York to lead the nation in disability employment. I was offered the job. I asked for a couple of days to discuss the matter with my family.

I had a big problem on my hands. I was a Democrat, a left of center one, a Jesse Jackson voter, and I’d more than a few concerns about Giuliani. He’d fired the prior director of the MOPD for insisting the city meet ADA requirements in construction. (There was a lot of ADA fudging under Rudy’s administration.) I understood the lay of the land. Knew they wanted me because I’d been on Oprah Winfrey, had a handsome guide dog, and yes, I was a “communicator”—a term in American politics akin to being a fast mule skinner. (Relax, boys, the chili will be ready before you know it.)

There were stories. A cleaning woman with arthritis was fired because she couldn’t climb stairs. Without a job she was dropped from relief programs. Giuliani cut off federal food stamps for the poor, slashed funding for homeless shelters and low income housing construction. The Giuliani administration was a horror show.

I called my father, a retired college president and professor of political science. “I know I can’t do this,” I told him. “What’s the best way out?” “Well,” my dad said, “tell them you’re a writer and you can’t separate literary writing from your professional life. Trust me, they’ll get it.”

That’s exactly what I did. I took my old man’s advice. I’ve never had a minute of regret. But alas for me, just weeks later I did not take my father’s advice when he told me I shouldn’t accept a job offer from The Ohio State University to teach in their MFA program in creative writing. He said, essentially, “stay away from higher ed. They’ve always treated you badly.”

He was right about that. I’d been treated to discrimination in graduate school in the 1980’s because of my blindness. Later teaching as an adjunct I also endured violations of my rights. In the latter instance I filed a suit and received a settlement. “You’re taking a chance,” my dad said. I wouldn’t do it.”

I took the job at Ohio State not realizing there were faculty in the creative writing program who thought I couldn’t do the job. I had a best selling memoir to my credit, a brand new book of poems forthcoming from one of the best poetry publishers in the country, a degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a decade of teaching under my belt. It turned out I got the job on the strength of faculty votes from the larger English department rather than the writing program. Of course I didn’t know. It became apparent after I showed up.

Remember. Nearly two thirds of the disabled remain unemployed in the US. It’s a staggering percentage. For the disabled it’s a utopian dream to think one’s skills and talents will be recognized.

Farce and tragedy depend on speed. When things fall apart it happens lickety-split.

I should have taken my father’s advice. I thought being hired was a sign of being wanted.

Funny: I was smarter about Giuliani than I was about Brutus Buckeye.

As I say, things come apart quickly. My mother died the night before my first class at Ohio State.

I taught anyway.

My assistive technology—talking computer and scanner, didn’t show up for two weeks. I asked the graduate students to read aloud from their nonfiction essays. And then, a student, a woman, a gay woman, someone who should presumably have been liberal minded, reported to one of the faculty who didn’t want to hire me that I didn’t know how to teach. Evidence? I was having students read aloud.

I got tenure there, eventually. But not because of my creative writing colleagues.

Since then I’ve been a full professor at two other universities.

But now, after 17 years I am forced to conclude my father was right. Higher education really is resistant to disabled faculty.

Moreover, given the problems of access disabled writers have been experiencing at the Associated Writing Programs conference—the national jamboree of the creative writing set—I’m further forced to conclude ableism is a particular problem in the CW world.

Why should this be so?

I think one reason is that healthy embodiment is largely imagined by academic creative writers as a prelude to a kiss. They believe creative writing “helps build strong bodies twelve ways”—to borrow the slogan from Wonderbread. Writing is “overcoming” or “healing” in this view. One may think of it as warmed over Hemingway. Literary scribbling is imagined to be a means of returning to health. You write. You become “strong at the broken places” and let’s be clear, if you’re overtly defective, blind, use a wheelchair, employ sign language, there’s something really wrong with you—something wrong with you on the inside.

Just look at the AWP conference website. Every photo shows a glowing man or woman. Everyone is robust. Many conferees in these photos would be hard to distinguish from advertisements for a gym or spa. The writing conference looks like club med. Moreover, that’s not an accident. The academic writing programs want collectively to appeal to youth. MFA programs need students. Small presses need readers who are recent graduates of those programs. Defects are a turn off. Even elders are problematic.

Disability can’t be overcome. It doesn’t go away if you say the proper things about it. It’s sexy or not sexy according to sophistication, by which I mean the sexiness of disablement depends on whether party goers are resistant to normative values. Certainly the creative writing universe could use a good “cripping” and that goes for the MFA programs as well as the national conference.

I’m old now. Or about to be. I’ll be 62 in March. It’s the back nine of the golf course. I spend more time now trying to imagine how I might be peaceful—not in a cliche sense, not like “oh, how will I be on my death bed” but more in spiritus mundi. I can’t change the world as I once imagined. Hell, I can’t even get the university where I presently teach to provide basic accommodations to students or staff without excessive delay and hand wringing. As a disabled man I face daily frustrations. They’re endemic to employment, to travel, to a culture besotted with health as metaphor, the glistening gymnasium body with its banana yellow spandex. The wide smile with clean American teeth.

No. I can’t change much. But I can call out ableism.

When my father said I shouldn’t go back to teaching, he was probably right. But I did it. And I try to keep my honor. Neither Giuliani or the MFA industry can have it.

The AWP and Disability Inclusion

The writer Quintan Anna Wikswo has written an “Open Letter to the AWP Regarding Disability Rights” which you can read here: http://bumblemoth.com/open-letter-to-awp-regarding-disability-rights/

If you’re not an academic writer—a poet, novelist, short fiction writer, playwright, or non-fictionist who makes her living teaching you might not be aware of the AWP, more comprehensively known as The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Essentially, American colleges and universities support the teaching of literary or “creative” writing and graduate and undergraduate students can take courses in the subject in formal programs at over 900 schools. Like other professorial associations the AWP hosts an annual conference. This year’s event occurred last week in Washington, DC and the unofficial word is that some 15,000 people attended. It’s a big jamboree. There are hundreds of book sellers, readings, panel discussions, impromptu dances, off site gatherings, and of course writers. Some are celebrities. Many are day laborers in the mills of poetry and largely unknown. The great thing about the AWP’s annual fest is there’s something for everyone who loves words. Unless you have a disability. If you’re disabled you’re essentially forced to participate by sufferance. That is, you’re allowed in. If you need ramps, sighted assistance, directions, or, perhaps more fundamentally, a welcoming smile, you’re out of luck. Quintan Wikswo has covered the territory so I won’t repeat her altogether excellent points. I’ll merely say as a disabled participant who attended the latest conference her letter is spot on.

Now if this was the first time the disabled were poorly treated by the AWP one might say, “golly, they’ve got some learning to do.” But this isn’t a new subject—either with the creative writing crowd or with other academic conferences. The truth is, the disabled are viewed as a nuisance by academics. There are lots of reasons for this, but for my money the single biggest one is professors by and large don’t view disability as a matter of diversity like race, gender, or sexual orientation, and imagine that it’s a rehabilitative issue—a 19th century view to be sure—but one that’s widespread. Most colleges offer “special” services for “those students”—there’s a segregated office that “handles” those folks. Most professors know the rubric that’s supposed to be included on the syllabus. If you need accommodations go here….”

That disability is a matter of culture; that the cripples are among the concert goers, the literate, the citizenry is hard for academics to fully grasp. Even the University College of London has recently made the news by inviting Judith Butler to give a lecture in an inaccessible auditorium.

These stories are legion. Syracuse University, where I teach, held a summer conference on disability and philosophy two years ago and the organizers—faculty and students—failed to make the events accessible. Imagine.

While attending the AWP this past week I found myself in an elevator with two women. Picture it: a man with a guide dog and briefcase and two professional women who were conference attendees. As the elevator descended in the Renaissance Marriott one said to the other: “I wish those people weren’t so blind about the matter.”

So of course I said: “Please don’t use blindness as a metaphor for lack of knowledge or comprehension. In fact, don’t ever use disability as a symbol of diminished competence.”

They were embarrassed. They apologized. I said, “you can’t apologize for the whole culture. Just admit the disabled are like everyone else.”

The AWP has made great strides with multiculturalism. But the disabled are part of multiculturalism too. They are. If people of color were treated to eye rolling, maladjusted sniffing, the old moue of disgust, there’d be a considerable outcry. I remain dismayed by the academic conference industry’s grudging, ill mannered behavior. I’ve written about this before. I even vowed to never again attend the AWP. Then I was asked to be on a panel. I thought, “well maybe they’re getting better.”

I spent $1,700 dollars to go. And my people? The disabled were treated badly. It’s especially galling to pay money to be told you’re an inconvenience. Take a look at Quintan Wikswo’s letter.

If you’re an American writer who believes in human rights, let the AWP know that enough is enough.

Looking at a Portrait of Stevie Wonder

It is sad to be blind among the sighted but I mustn’t say so for the organization men of sightlessness say the most one can claim is inconvenience. Properly accommodated blindness is just a nuisance like stepping in chewing gum. Admitting sadness is weakness. You must be the perfect cripple—a walking masterpiece of physical difference like King Fucking Kong. Smile always even when taxicabs race past you in the rain. Grin as they hand you unreadable documents in meetings, though they knew you were coming. Flash the chiclets when, in the same meeting they say, “oh we’ll get this to you later, but what do you think?” Without accommodation blindness shrinks to entrapment. What do you think of the movie you can’t see? What do you think of the blind man in the flick you can’t see? Does the groping seem accurate? I say the blind know little of helplessness even when the world nips at their trouser cuffs.

A Few Thoughts on The Last Day of the Pre-Trump Era

Donald Trump, what’s he done? Not much. He’s a heavily leveraged real estate developer and that’s hardly a big-league resume. It’s estimated that had he taken the millions his father bequeathed him and invested the money at ten percent he’d be richer today than he’s become through his own business. He reminds me of a student I once taught at the University of Iowa who said one day he wasn’t into working hard. “I’m majoring in inheritance, Prof. K,” he said. You needn’t be a shrewd analyst to spot anger lurking inside inheritance boys—they’re belittled while entitled. The only thing Trump has accomplished in his rebarbative life is to express contempt for others while inviting the soggy public along. He’s the school kid who says, “C’mon, we’re going to egg some old people’s houses.”

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom flying about: Trump stole the Democrats’ bacon; Trump spoke the true feelings of the rust belt, farm belt, bible belt; voters were sick of business as usual. But Trump won the presidency because he was the best vulgarian in high school. He beat a candidate, perhaps the best person to ever run for the Presidency, on the basis of coded misogyny. And racism. Ableism. Xenophobia. “C’mon, we’re going to egg some Jews’ houses.”

America is now falling like a leaf through space. Ghosts of the hanged stand behind the chairs in the elegant cafes.

Those who hope to resist Trumpism can’t do it riding the rhetorics of conventional wisdom. Americans will embrace bigots and demagogues but they hate cowards. Trump is the egg-boy. He’s a foolish, petulant, ugly man who has virtually no talent for personal happiness. The people of the United States hate losers. The Donald blustered his way onto a stage where his failings will now show, and he’ll demonstrate them quickly. The confirmation hearings for his cabinet appointees have already started this revelatory process.

I’m never going to see him as a legitimate leader. I stand with John Lewis. But I’m also never going to spread the CW. If have my failings, but justifying cowards ain’t one of them.