Blood Smoke

I am unaccountably sad this morning like a boy who recalls his prior life beside a river but has no words and the memory is without images, it’s nothing more than smoke in his blood.

Sometimes when I stand I feel my dead brother behind my knees. He was my twin.

It’s true: there are mornings when the first word that comes to mind is river.

Sadness is virtue. At least in this life.

Steam rises from coffee.

Water pipes groan Inside the walls of this strange hotel.

Cesar Vallejo, I love you.

Soon I must enter the day, leaving my kindly ghosts here in room 233.

It’s possible to be deeply sad and yet hopeful.

We’ll never know each other. We have no language for blood smoke. None at all.




America with your history of eugenics.
With your hostility to the global charter on disability rights.
With your jails, stocked with psychiatric patients—worse than the Soviet Union. We are Gulag Los Angeles; Gulag Rikers Island; Gulag Five Points in Upstate New York.
America with your young Doctor Mengeles.
With your broken VA.
With your war on food stamps and infant nutrition.
With your terror of autism and lack of empathy for those who have it.
Wih your 80% unemployment rate for people with disabilites.
With your pity parties—inspiration porn—Billy was broken until we gave him a puppy.
With your sanctimonious low drivel disguised as empathy.
With your terror of reasonable accommodations.
With your NPR essays about fake disability fraud, which is derision of the poor and elderly.
With your disa-phobia—I wouldn’t want one of them to sit next to me on a bus.
America when will you admit you have a hernia?
When will you admit you’re a lousy driver?
Admit you miss the days of those segregated schools, hospitals, residential facilities—just keep them out of sight.
When will you apologize for your ugly laws?
When will you make Ron Kovic’s book irrelevant?
America, you threatened Allen Ginsberg with lobotomy.
Ameica you medicated a generation of teenagers for bi-polar depression when all they were feeling was old fashioned fear.
When will you protect wheelchairs on airlines?
When will you admit you’re terrified of luck?

–Stephen Kuusisto

The Boy-Man Epidemic

It was simple when I was twenty: appetite wrapped stone, stone was appetite, scissors, you guessed it, appetite. Every man, woman, house plant, thesaurus, phone book—every one of these could be absorbed for the sake of hunger. All boys at 20 are this way. How does one not turn into a predatory creep? The answers are as variable as the social contract, but safe to say one finds a binding, a principle of community, and appetite turns to a deep desire to belong. One can get there through poetry or dance, but also with fair minded business practices, entrepreneurship, any desire to provide services that assist others. Some people refurbish ambulances and sell them at fair prices. Some dedicate themselves to clean water. I do not say only grown men accomplish these things, only that grown men become gracefully “beyond” themselves. I’ve been teaching college courses for over thirty years and I’ve seen “the boys” who won’t make it, who will become embittered when the shine of the fraternity houses fades. And I’ve seen the boys who want to live in the world with something no one can precisely describe but we know it for it’s palpable, and one may call it decency or civics or respect.

This is becoming a sermon. Forgive me. Don’t stop reading. I’ve a quick story to tell. It’s deeply personal. It concerns my family. My maternal grandfather didn’t care if people lived or died. He simply loved machines and explosives. Really, one may think of him as an anarchistic tinkerer who loved dynamite. He bought run down farms all over the state of New Hampshire solely to indulge his dynamite habit as he loved to blow things up. By things I mean telegraph poles, large boulders, houses, fences. He enjoyed TNT the way regular people like to work in their gardens. The man didn’t give a shit about people.

He was an American “type” who really did say to his 11 year old daughter (my mother) “shoot first and ask questions later” when he left her alone on the farm for three days. He was an American “type” who stirred dynamite into the drink of a game warden who chanced to visit. He was the “type” who sat on a flaming sofa with a pitcher of water beside his feet because eventually he’d have to put it out, but he was enjoying his cigar. He had a special kind of “screw you” and he never relinquished it. He was, in short, an American boy for whom personal growth never materialized. Unlike many boy-men he didn’t become a serial divorcer. He stuck with his family and destroyed everyone.

The Jungian psychoanalyst Marie-Louise Von Franz wrote a compelling book about men who have big bodies but remain children. Such men are often the life of the party, charming, at least at first. Then they tire of you (insert “children”; “wives”; “girl friends”;  “friends”) and jump ship (insert “leave home”; “skip town”) and find a new circle to hoodwink. While I know of no studies linking these “flying boys” (Von Franz’s term) with sexual assault, it’s a good bet that groping, rape, violence, and child abuse are all parts of their arsenal.

So I’m in mind of these matters during this election season. In mind of boys who remain boys, embittered, predatory, loud, overtly talkative. In mind of our contemporary fascination with public relations and self-branding, which are deeply tied to the “boy-man complex” (insert Billy Bush). I believe every journalist in America who covers local, state, or national politics or business, or sports, or yes, higher education, will read Von Franz’s book about the devastating consequences of the boy-man epidemic.


Total Recall

I was a poet before I was a blind boy. There, I’ve said it. Bullies can go to hell.

Now and then one recalls hiding under the sink, playing with a wooden top.

In the woods bluejays and crows had a game which I studied

every chance I had—

they pretended to substantial bones.

And meanwhile darkness rushed around the eaves of the house…

More About Teaching with a Dog

I knew one in five of my students likely had a disability; that one in four had probably been assaulted sexually; that approximately 40% had alcoholic parents or relatives. One can’t teach without knowing such things—at least not be teaching properly. Could being disabled “before them” and working with Corky foster communicative possibilities beyond merely inserting my life, my story—the professor as “other?” I wasn’t sure at first. You walk into a classroom with a dog, it’s like a joke.

Since service animals can’t be ignored I said: “for Corky the past is prologue.” “She’s more well adjusted than most of us.”

“A guide dog’s childhood is impressive,” I said. “Love, encouragement, modest rules, then more love, more encouragement…”

“Who among us gets to have that?” I asked. No one raised a hand.

So here’s what I did. I invited students to coffee klatches with Corky. It was kumbaya. And so what?

We created a small circle around a dog.

I took the harness off.

Corky circled putting her head on people’s knees.

“In order for ideas to have value,” I said, “one must feel secure enough to be inquisitive.”

My coffee drinkers agreed this wasn’t easy.

We were newly minted adepts of John Dewey’s pragmatism, hugging a dog, insisting our everyday experiences mattered.

I will not tell my students stories.

But sometimes at night walking to the bus I thought of them bearing up under their burdens and of how they still desired lives of trust.

This is no small thing when you feel it. No small thing….

Teaching with a Dog at My Feet (Part One)

I returned to academe with a dog by my side. Entering a class at Ohio State students observed us with wonder. It was hard to know if they were surprised by a blind professor or by the sight of a dog, or both. “Oh!” cried three women in the front row. “Oh, I miss my dog,” said a boy.

“The only perk to being blind is you can take your dog anywhere,” I said.

Teaching with a dog at my feet was wonderful. All dogs radiate comfort and make the space around them congenial. They’ve been sharing this with humans for 30,000 years.

One afternoon when discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—one of the bloodier sections, Corky began moaning in her sleep.

“This even disturbs the dogs,” I said. There was nervous laughter.

Over time I saw how having a dog in the classroom changed teaching for me. It wasn’t just the shtick of the thing—as when students were silent and I’d say, “Well Corky knows the answer…”

It was a shy, unanticipated gracefulness as for the first time in my academic life I felt even-tempered and unflustered. Silence was good. I didn’t have to fill every gap in conversation but could afford to wait for a a shy student to offer up a Socratic answer.

And if a student was distressed he or she could have a dog petting session. Education is painful, steeped in competitions, often without evident maps or rules. “Dogs. Another natural place for dogs,” I thought.

We do our best learning when we’ve bonded, when we’re safe, when we experience intimacy with thought. We don’t learn well by arbitrary pressure and force. Dogs bond with us when they stare into our eyes, releasing in us oxytocin, the bonding hormone—lord knows it works, our pulse rates drop, our breathing steadies.

My own as well. When the teacher’s breathing is steady the whole room changes for the better. It wasn’t zazen, formal Zen Buddhist breathing, but still a slower more invitational mode of breath.

When a man or woman is breathing well, they like themselves better. Running. Sitting. Dog’s eyes. Even the fluorescent lights in a cheap university classroom won’t bother you.


After the Cruel Nun Threw Me and My Guide Dog Out of the Church

“Here’s the thing,” I thought as I stroked Corky’s beautiful face with one hand and brushed my tears with the other, “disability is not a clean ‘coming out’—just because you’re no longer hiding you’re still only accepted conditionally.” It was a hard thought, something like a friend’s betrayal.

There was a meanness out there. It might come from a nun, a bus driver, a person at work, the man who runs the delicatessen…moreover it wasn’t an infrequent nastiness. What to do with this?

I stood in the sunlight of Milan and thought, “abuse ye will always have with ye…”

What does one do about it? Discrimination is a sign of knowledge for the disabled. Your dog offers no fairy tale solution. Split the difference, maybe half the world accepts you and half does not. The numbers aren’t precise. You’ll never know the real numbers. Perhaps thinking half the world accepts you is too optimistic. Whole areas of the planet are opposed to service animals; large portions of the world treat the disabled as unwanted burdens. You know this and still you need to enter life, stand before Leonardo’s masterpiece, visit the opera, eat risotto a la Milanese with saffron, stand in the dear sunlight and whisper. Life beckons. You harness your dog and go.

“So I’ve come out,” I thought. “And there was less of a celebration than I’d imagined.”

“At least,” I thought, “I know who I am. They can’t take that away.”