God Grant You

God grant you’ve a dog at your side and a bigger heart than the one you had in childhood. And you’re mindful—if not prayerful than steadfastly self aware of your bounty for the dog, your dog, gives you her concomitant belief in the function of two. You are, together, a neurological “cat’s cradle” of strings: instinct strings and dashing strings; loyalty strings and strings of agreement for which we have so few words. Sometimes I think of invisible refulgent twine, glittering faith laces holding us together, the blind dude and his guide dog. Some strangers see it. A very old man in a rural Vermont hardware store sees us coming through the door. We’re with our pal Ralph. We’re looking to buy sneakers, for in this little town you buy your sneaks at the hardware which still has a faded sign out front that says “Dry Goods” and now we’re inside the shop which has an honest to God oiled wooden floor, the kind you have to sweep with sawdust and a long handled broom, and we’re standing in a swirl of rich leathery fragrances when the old guy says: “There’s two souls alright!”

God grant you’ve a kind wind on the lake. You and your dog push out from shore in your old rowboat. It’s hard for some to imagine, but the blind man goes rowing and often at night. The lake is peaceful then. The motorboats are gone. Sometimes we hear loons. There’s only a creak of oarlocks, the sprinkle of stray drops, and sometimes breezes make their sound of waves in the pine trees.

It’s instinct we love. It isn’t complicated. We love the small, celestial kisses of opportunity.

 

Beware the Comfy Chair

 

The Comfy Chair

 

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” You likely recall the “bit” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Savonarola and his henchmen bursting into a tasteful living room, all wearing scarlet robes, their timing perfect, as a disputatious husband has blurted to his wife: “what is this, the Spanish Inquisition”? How I loved this routine when I was in college, back when there was nothing on TV and the Pythons delivered to us provincial suffering youth something like, very like, an evening with Marcel Duchamp and Oscar Wilde.

The inquisitors push the husband into “the comfy chair”—“nobody expects the comfy chair”!

It was a great skit. A modernist inquisition employs no rack, no thumbscrews, but simply bores a man to death in comparative ease.

My wife decided not so very long ago to buy a “comfy chair” and off she went to our local Syracuse, NY “La-Z-Boy” franchise. Disclosure: I’ve had one of their recliners for years. I keep it in my study and frankly, with low vision I get headaches, and I rest in this chair and it’s been a fine bit of furniture for me. I believe Connie went to the La-Z-Boy store because I recommended it. “They’ve got great chairs,” I said. Off she went.

She bought a comfy chair. A few days later they delivered it and I saw it was far nicer than my old one. I had chair envy. Hers was wider than mine, had more room; it rocked AND reclined; it was a really beautiful thing.

Disclosure: I did not think of Monty Python. Not right away.

After a couple of days Connie said: “Can I ask you to sit in my chair?”

“Sure,” I said, “what’s the problem?”

“Well,” she said, “it smells funny. Like chemicals.”

I sat. Rocked a bit. God it was luxurious. It was a cream puff chair.

“Just stay there for a few minutes,” she said.

It was true. The chair smelled like iodine and creosote. I recalled being in Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain fell—there was always a prevailing odor in East Germany—a heavy blanket of burnt coal mixed with strawberries. Everyone who’s ever traveled to the former Warsaw Pact countries knows this odor. My wife’s chair smelled worse than that. Think of this: her recliner smelled worse than Bratislava. Moreover, the longer you sat in it you’d have a sensation of being wrapped in a cloud of toxicity.

“Yeah,” I said, “it smells pretty bad.”

“It must be the fabric protector they sprayed on it,” she said.

“Must be,” I said.

“Let’s give it a couple of days,” she said.

“Sure,” I said.

The comfy chair really smelled. But Con kept giving it a chance. Each night she’d sit in it with her MacBook Pro and work, or watch a little TV, and one evening she even fell asleep in it.

Later she reported experiencing dizziness, a vague sense of disorientation, and a bad taste in her mouth.

“The stink really surrounds you, like a tent,” she said.

“Let’s take it back,” I said.

We called the La-Z-Boy store. Explained the problem. “Maybe it’s the anti-stain spray,” we said.

“Oh,” they said, “sure.” “Let’s get you another chair that doesn’t have the spray.”

A week later a nice man came and took away the toxic chair and brought in the new one.

We signed the proper papers. He drove away.

The new chair was imperial and stately. It was refined and sat nicely in its corner. It seemed to have feng shui. “Nice,” I said.

“Yes,” said Connie. “Nice.”

I went back to my study and began preparing for my next class at Syracuse University, a course on creative nonfiction. I was reading an essay about the loss of innocence when Connie came in.

“Can you come and sit in my chair?” she said.

“Oh no,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “the new recliner has the same exact odor.”

She was right. I sat and a “poof” of cordite and flaming crow feathers wafted around my head.

“You’re not imagining it,” I said. “This fucker stinks.”

“Do you think it will go away?” she said.

“No,” I said. “It’s in the fabric.”

I pressed my nose against the cushions.

“That’s a smell, alright,” I said.

“Maybe I’ll give it a day or two,” Connie said.

“Well, OK,” I said.

But the chair never gave up. It was steadfast and toxic. I began to imagine it was manufactured from recycled military mattresses and asbestos gloves.

“We’ve got to return it,” I said.

“Do you want me to call them?” I asked.

“No,” Connie said. “I’ll do it.”

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” My poor wife! She drove to the La-Z Boy store with the stinky chair in the back of our Subaru, thinking they’d refund her money without a hitch.

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

The manager wasn’t in but was reachable by phone. “No,” she said, “we don’t have to take the chair back after three days.”

My poor wife! Always fair minded, decent, upright, kind. She’d really tried to give the fetid recliner a chance to reimagine itself.

The manager wouldn’t take the chair back!

Then she said, “Well, we can take it back, but we have to charge you a ‘re-stocking’ fee of $125.”

“Really?” Connie said. “Are you kidding?”

No,” the manager said.

“You must be kidding,” Connie said.

“Nope,” the manager said.

Outside, sitting in the car with the chair emitting vapors, Connie Googled La-Z-Boy recliners and funny smells. She found dozens of links about a phenomena called “off gassing”—apparently La-Z-Boys are known to emit foul chemical odors.

She called me. “It’s not just US!” she said.

“What should we do?” she said.

I scratched my head. “Tell them we’ll alert the local media,” I said.

Every city has a local TV station that airs reports about bad customer service. Syracuse is no exception.

“That’s an idea,” she said.

She went back into the store.

In the end she got her refund. They took the chair.

“Nobody expects the inquisition…”

I suppose the moral of the story is “don’t keep a toxic thing imagining it will right itself.”

God the chairs were soft. Beware.

 

 

 

 

 

The Love Song of Professor Smugs: A Campus Disability Narrative

I’ve never been accepting of authority figures. If you’re disabled nothing’s worse than a junior high school principal unless it’s a college professor—the one who says your “condition” poses a serious problem in his classroom. (Translation: I’m a succubus, scarcely able to teach; who “lucked into” an academic position long ago; who opposes thinking about pedagogy to any degree.) Yes, I’ve met this “prof” more than once, both as a student and as a blind member of the faculty. Yes, he or she is still among us, preternaturally central and in every academic department. Let’s call her Professor Smugger. We’ll call him Dr. Weatherman. (I’m certain there are prodigal and acquisitive meteorologists but most stand before projected maps reading scripts someone else has prepared, wearing suits that wouldn’t pass muster in the former Soviet Union—you know the type if you’re on the faculty.)

They are the gate keepers, the neo-Victorians, even if their specialty is post-post-modernism or they profess to loving Walt Whitman, they believe their classroom is sacred space, rarefied, the very door to the classroom is a portal for the elect. How many times have I heard college faculty say, unguardedly, over coffee, “I teach for the good ones.” “Who are the good ones?” you ask. “You know them,” they say. Usually they walk away. Neo-Victorians see the world in black and white, good and bad, Jekyll and Hyde, civilized and primitive, though as I say, they imagine they’re post-colonial, gender informed, progressive. Cue the sound of screeching brakes. Dr. Weatherman is absitively horrified to find there’s an autistic student in his sanctum sanctorum. Oh Sweet Christ on a Crutch! The autistic kid has a note taker! Hinx Minx the Old Witch Stinks! This will never do! Everyone knows “learning” is a solitary matter.

When I was a graduate student and had readers who helped me conquer mountains of pages, who were variously reliable or unreliable according to the incontestable vagaries of their respective lives, which means I had to work extremely hard to not only schedule my help, but problem solve when help was not apparent, a matter Dr. Weatherman and Prof. Smugger will never imagine, for they believe the disabled student is merely a clay pot, a dingus, I learned that words are a communitarian matter, democratic, sweet, equalizing, and not always easy to attain. Which means I discovered what every writer has ever known. The literary arts are never leisure. Nor are they to be received like an office memorandum.

Department Chairs, Deans, Program Directors, and too many administrators to count believe they’re obligated to “have” the disabled on campus. In this way, their attitude is no more sophisticated than the view that they’re obligated to report staph infections or stolen cars. Authority figures on college campuses don’t by and large feel obliged to convey enthusiasm about admitting or supporting the disabled. As a matter of course the stories of disabled students cross my desk—how else should it be, I’m a reasonably prominent faculty member who belongs to the “crippled” set. I hear the story of a freshman who didn’t get note taking provided for her in a timely way and who in turn failed a class unjustly. The university has so far failed to redress the injustice. Administration deflects. Simple problems apparently can’t be resolved. One is tempted to believe that there’s a pervasive feeling, unstated, but true as rain, that if spoken would sound like this: “Isn’t it enough we’ve admitted them? Now you want us to problem solve? How do you like my Soviet suit?”

My Finnish grandmother, an authority figure if ever there was one, used to say: Tämä uusi suunnitelma on vastoin minun ajatellutapaani. (This new plan goes against my way of thinking.”

If you’ve a disability you know the phrase. Professor Smugger doesn’t like the fact you’re learning in a different key. She knows only one song. Everybody can imagine the title of that song.

Horse, Dream, Man, Helsinki 1980

 

Early morning and only street sweepers and a lone policeman are in view. The cop is Scandinavian, upright, descended from generations of straight men and women and he’s so bold he appears like a mythological extension of his horse, some god risen from an animal’s back. I don’t see well and have to draw near to find he’s a horseman and when I’m very close I hear the man talking gently, so quietly he’s like that ancient father we all long for, the horse father.

 

“My good girl,” he says, “my creeper, my softy hooved…”

“Lord,” I think, “he’s James Joyce.”

He says: “Girlie it’s a pinkpink morning.”

Says: “Experience, experience, it’s all in us.”

I’m walking home after a night of carousing. I’m 25, heartily youthful, so in love with the world my lips twitch, and in the coming years I’ll often talk to myself.

“You’re horse is beautiful,” I say, peering upward in rosy air. The horse is very tall and the man is tall and they are far above in emerging light.

 

Dog Stanzas

It’s a game I play, substituting “dog” for crucial nouns in famous poems. “So much depends upon a red dog, glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens…” That’s a good dog. He keeps an eye on the hens. He might eat them of course but he’s loyal to his woman who stands outside our field of view. I think she wears a dress printed with sunflowers. I think it’s summer. So much depends upon that dog, her dog, her red dog.

“A dog has how many stars, they asked me in Paris, and I, wolf by wolf, began to observe the solar system…” (Forgive me Neruda, you wrote of cats…you wrote: “a star is the tail of a cat bristled in the sky”—pretty good my friend, pretty damned good.) But dogs do not bristle among stars, for they are the stars, infinite, unexplored, and more loyal than men can know.

“Let us go then you and I, when the dog is howling at the sky…”

“Oh Me! what eyes hath dog put in my head which have no correspondence with true sight…”

“The murmur of a dog, a witchcraft yieldeth me…”

I’ve always liked this homely diversion. There’s nobility to it. Some know. Best of all the dogs, the true dogs, sleeping by windows dark, do not care.

 

Please, Don’t Offer to Pray for Me

No one who really knows me thinks much about my deviance. I mean, being blind and having a few friends—genuinely great ones—I see just how little vision loss means to them. I’m the guy who can’t see the baseball game and needs a radio. The one who’s lucky and gets to take his dog everyplace. Not a single one of my true pals says: “Now there’s a defective human.” At least not because of my blindness. We’ve come a long way where disability is concerned.

My boyhood neighbors, my parents, even my teachers didn’t like disability. They absolutely hated it. They’d grown up watching newsreels at the movies. In one famous short film from the 1940’s called “The Crippler” (a fund raising tool for the “March of Dimes”) unsuspecting children were attacked by polio, who appeared as a menacing shadow—a pervert at the playground’s edge. My parents believed disabled children were victims of malevolent forces.

Today we know better. Surely no one who meets a blind person on the sidewalk would say: “there but for the grace of God goes I” or “he must have committed some dreadful transgression in a prior life”—certainly not. So it’s peculiar when I meet a stranger who finds herself or himself driven by who knows what compulsion to say: “can I pray for you?”

This happens more often than one may think. It’s happened in multiple cities. It doesn’t matter what state of mind I’m in—happy, grouchy, dreamy, there’s no discernible synchronicity. This matters because if one was sufficiently superstitious or an over-the-top evangelical, one could imagine some kind of cosmic humility index—god has sent this unforeseeable man or woman to burst my little bubble of ego. (You were feeling grand walking on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and Lo! Now you’re reminded of your essential defectiveness. Moreover it’s a truly cosmic defect you have. Surely you must secretly desire salvation, most assuredly you should certainly want to get on your knees and pray for forgiveness right here on the street.

Of course blindness is a metaphor for a failure of spiritual vision: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see…” (“Amazing Grace”)

It’s possible I’m the only man in the world who’s not comforted by “Amazing Grace” since I don’t believe in blindness as metaphor. A person either sees or does not see. He’s also left handed or flat footed. Nothing about the body should ever stand for a failure of insight or perception.

Why do so many happenstance people think I need to be cured by prayer?

After years of mulling this over I’ve come to understand it has nothing to do with me. Basically when people see me they’re thinking of “Amazing Grace”—I’ve even had street corner saxophone players belt it out as I walked by.

I don’t want to be overly dismissive. Millions are comforted by this song. People need comfort and I’m not a “comfort Scrooge”—I’m no ham fisted atheist tearing at the curtains of believers.

In fact I’m an Episcopalian (American, gay friendly) and I love what we call “the smells and bells” of worship.

Once I tried to explain my deep antipathy to religious metaphors of blindness to a priest who told me I was merely angry and vain. “Maybe,” I said, “but if that was true I wouldn’t feel so peaceful when I say it.”

I’d like to ask all strangers to pray for themselves. I’d do so with absolute calm. The trouble is, I need to write a song.