Denied a Cab Ride, Grieving for Who We Are…

Tomorrow I’m heading to the University of Michigan to participate in a program on accessible publishing hosted by the UM Press and the University’s library. As a blind writer who teaches I know as much as almost anyone about how difficult it often remans to get access to books, journals, online publications, websites, software platforms—it’s a long list. So my hat is off the the folks in Ann Arbor for taking seriously the challenges of access for people with disabilities and putting together an ambitious workshop on accessibility.

In a mood of warm anticipation, packing for my trip from Syracuse to Detroit, I was wholly unprepared for the mean spirited encounter I had by phone with a cab company in Ann Arbor this afternoon. Just recounting what happened is an exercise so objectionable I’m forced to be brisk as the altercation was nasty.

I told the man who answered the phone I needed a ride from Detroit-Ft. Wayne airport to the U of Michigan. He was agreeable. Then I said I had a guide dog. He was disagreeable. He said:

“These dogs are stinky, they go to the bathroom, they’re dirty, I can’t have them.”

“Not the first time this has happened to me,” I thought.

“Guide dogs are allowed everywhere,” I said.

“I don’t care, now you’re going to tell me all about your rights,” he said. (Sneering, he was. Your rights…uttered as if I was some whiny baby.

“Well yes,” I said, “it’s a violation of state and federal laws to deny a blind person and his dog a cab ride.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“You should care,” I said. “It will become a big story. Plus there’s a huge fine associated with this.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“This will become a news story,” I said. “I myself write for newspapers like the New York Times…)

It’s hard to describe the effect this had on him. He began shouting that Donald Trump had won the presidency and “you people” (apparently meaning blind New York Times readers) “don’t matter anymore.”

He was absolutely vicious and crowing about how people like me don’t matter.

I said, “well, I’m going to turn you in to the Department of Justice.”

He said he didn’t care.

I hung up.

I went upstairs to tell my wife.

Five minutes later he called me back.

I answered.

He said, “I have allergies.”

He’d apparently shared his conversation with someone else. This was his effort to pull his leg out of a hole.

“It doesn’t matter, you still violated my civil rights,” I said.

He began abusing me again. Hot, geothermic mistreatment.

I hung up.

I posted his company’s name and phone number and a description of what I’d experienced on Facebook.

I didn’t know the man’s name.

He apparently received dozens of phone calls throughout the afternoon, including some from the press.

He’s now claiming victim status. He has allergies. He can’t be expected to take a passenger with a service dog.

The law is very clear on this matter. He doesn’t have to. All he has to do is find me a cab that “will” take me.

He chose contempt and mean-spirited bullying.

Some people on Facebook have messaged me to say he now regrets the matter.

Me too.

Whatever happened to saying, “hey, I know all about having a physical condition! I have one myself. I can’t help you but I’ll get you someone who can.”

Instead he went into a rebarbative snarl and wouldn’t stop.

He apparently told someone on FB that I ruined his day.

I have in fact filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

I’m still shaking. I want to close by saying I’ve heard promptly from the U of Michigan. They’re as upset as I am.

Is Trump’s ascendancy now a patented script?

If you hail from a historically marginalized group you know the answer.




Morning Again

In last night’s dream trees came close—near as window panes and I pressed my tired eyes against them. The heavens turned silently. When I woke, the first words on my lips were “watch what you say.” The rhetoric of trees, I thought, so formally complete. I remembered a line by William Gass: “Culture has completed its work when everything is a sign.” Trees in a dream, I thought, possessors of consummate poems. 

There are lots of men my age with even less reason to like themselves. Was it I who sat up writing in the weak morning light?



Confessions of a University Professor

I often find students in my classes who want more than just a course. They’re eager, sharp, apparently more energized than their classmates. For years I’ve tried to get a handle on what makes them different from their peers who, for the most part, are smart but largely without ambition. This is an old mystery and professors tend to wax philosophical about it. Whatever subject we teach we’re prone to saying: “if I reach 20% of my students, I’m doing pretty well.”

Around ten years ago I started calling this the “20% cop out” because I’d overheard too many faculty bemoan the inadequacies of undergraduates as if they were stale muffins or defective lawn ornaments. It’s easy. It’s the pedagogical equivalent of shooting snakes from a truck—a dubious sport but it sure takes your mind off of work.

I’d just turned fifty. I was the stepfather of two kids who were having a hard time with high school. They didn’t have huge issues—they just felt the familiar teenage angst of not fitting in.

It was a Holden Caulfield thing: adults are phony, society is hypocritical, and as Philip Larkin would say, “books are a load of crap.”

Cynicism is to ambition as sea water is to farming. Fair enough. But what lies behind ambition? What’s good and what’s bad about it? How can it be encouraged? Shouldn’t it be better understood by educators and students alike? By my half century mark I’d grown uneasy teaching without understanding what was in the petrie dish.

The word is revealing. It arrived in English by way of Middle French and of course Latin. It originally meant “going around” especially in search of votes or favors—ambulatory covetousness if you will. By the time it entered British and American usage ambition was largely a pejorative term, so much so that Benjamin Franklin wrote in his “Last Will and Testament” that he thanked God for “such a Mind, with moderate Passions, freed early from “Ambition.””

Even hard driving Franklin distrusted the meanness, the pestilence of the “A” word as did most 18th century thinkers. Many educated people in the American colonies owned Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy which said ambition was: “a canker of the soul, an hidden plague … a secret poison, the father of livor, and mother of hypocrisy, the moth of holiness, and cause of madness, crucifying and disquieting all that it takes hold of.”

Burton’s use of “livor” means jealousy. Before the 19th century ambition was thought to be essentially a sin, a condition worthy of inclusion in the Ten Commandments. What happened? How did a putative transgression become a virtue—so much so that it’s uncontested as a figure for respectability?

Back to my college students. I noticed most if not all of my “go getters” were happy to acquire knowledge. The cliche—the oft-stated bromide that ambitious students are formatively centered or have already chosen careers or graduate school, was largely untrue. I didn’t need to collect data to learn this. All I really had to do was hold lots of office hours. Moreover I made it a condition of each course I taught that every student must come to office hours at least twice. One discovers quickly that undergraduates are eager to learn but often flummoxed by what a curriculum or major really means (or doesn’t mean) and even at 20 many still struggle with “ghosted ideas” a la Holden Caulfield. They’re not without avidity. They just have an 18th century view of ambition. It’s possible while you’re still an adolescent to suspect that ambition may not be cool. Faculty who hope to exceed the 20% cop out need to know this.

In his excellent book Ambition, A History, William Casey King traces the development of ambition and follows its transformation from an 18th century sin to a modern academic and business shibboleth. This shift (as you’d likely guess) had to do with land. The colonization of North America required settlers, lots of them, and not just mere travelers but emigrants who believed they’d get their piece of the rock at long last. The unseemly values associated with “wanting” had to be reformed if men and women—whole families—were to risk the high seas in the name of ownership. Where once the King owned all the land now commoners might have a stake. It became a patriotic duty to make a claim. As William Casey King puts it, ambition went from being a “Christian sin to a problematic virtue.” Ambition was effectively harnessed. Each colonist became a knight with virtue painted on his shield. The American Revolution would be the ultimate signature of the new ambition.

Can you instill ambition in people who distrust it? It’s like asking if you can teach creativity. In my view the answer is yes. One may be more or less imaginative but most people enjoy a creative writing workshop even if they won’t become Emily Dickinson. A famous poet once told me “the world isn’t harmed by bad poetry” which takes me back to teaching and purpose. Giving up on the 20% cop out as a faculty member means finding the inherent interests students may have or are in the process of finding. It means talking. It can’t be managed with advising software. It requires lengthy office hours. Just as anyone may write a poem, all students possess nascent  curiosities. Abandoning the 20% cop out at fifty made teaching more compelling for me and yes, more human, even though it meant thinking harder about the sins and constructed virtues of desire. Ambition may not always be cool. It’s OK to say so. But to date I’ve not met a student who has no inquisitiveness. 20% indeed.




Nobody Told Me

A friend tells me her tattoo continues weeping—I had no idea—I always imagined despite the pain it was a dry affair. And when I was young I thought one could step from the rowboat to walk across water lilies—I had no idea—didn’t know they were simply for ghosts.

What was it Nietzsche said?

Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species. 

Oh Friedrich, not so rare, the living contain the ichor of first causes. This is why the dead stick around.

This is why the body weeps after we write on it.

Whitman’s Shoes

No one thought to preserve Walt Whitman’s shoes. They were hand made, sturdy, water marked, the instep heels worn by pronation. It’s a fancy, my trick to be happy, imagining his shoes came from the Brooklyn shop of Edward Horsman who stitched New York’s first baseballs. He peeled rubber from dead boots, molded it into spheres, covered them with sheep’s hide and sent them to the Atlantic Baseball Club and those balls were judged the finest to be had. I imagine Whitman’s shoes were made from the scraps of those “lively” baseballs–see the poet walking down to the field, 1862, to watch the first home runs in an age of darkness.

On Giving Thanks Just Now

It’s difficult to give thanks in America when we’ve decided bravery is simply a matter of bullying and bigotry. When we’ve forgotten courage was once a defense of the weak and that sustaining humanitarian values was what we imagined we stood for. At least that’s what we said. At least we used to say it. Maybe we only said it between 1932 and 1945. And maybe even then we didn’t mean it. Ask Japanese-Americans. Ask the Jews of Europe. Ask the men who were experimented upon at Tuskegee. Today you might ask the brave men and women fighting the Dakota Standing Rock pipeline. What values does America defend? One is tempted to say, “thanks are so old school.”

I’m giving thanks for our literary culture and it’s unafraid practitioners—those who dare say the Emperor has no clothes, who still believe our souls can clap their hands. From Chris Abani to Carolyn Forche; W.S. Merwin to Ethelbert Miller; Alberto Rios to Sam Hamill—oh it’s a long list…Rita Dove to Dorothy Allison; Marvin Bell to Natalie Diaz; Mark Doty to Gregory Pardlo—the list is vital, enduring, sweet and sour, filled with ichor and iodine, our tough minded American writers who believe still in Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Dewey.

I think the coming years will be painful, arduous, and mean spirited. When, last week,  Newt Gingrich floated the idea of a new House Un-American Activities Committee, one could only imagine the plan was already “off the work bench” as Newt never has an original idea and “The Donald” hates contrarianism, free speech, the press, academics, and science. I’ve seen several posts on Facebook quoting Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines:

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

Against this, or alongside, one may add Churchill’s axiom: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

I’m giving thanks for the continuation, the fights to come, the ardor that is poetry and literature, the rising notes and the silences just before them when we imagine impeccably how the song will go.