Of Floating Barrels in Virus Time

In Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” which I consider to be his greatest accomplishment (for it is Twain as scholar, essayist, and social psychologist) he describes a crew of riverboat men who think they’re being followed by a floating barrel of supernatural origin:

“Everybody was sober and down in the mouth all day. I don’t mean the kind of sober that comes of leaving liquor alone—not that. They was quiet, but they all drunk more than usual—not together—but each man sidled off and took it private, by himself.”

Now a barrel is just a barrel and a virus is just what it is. The virus does’t care about your mood and while you can use war metaphors all you like it is not your enemy. This is why Donald Trump’s press conferences are so dreadful. Dr. Fauci recognizes the virus is just what it is and needs to be confronted with reason. Trump turns it into a figure of sinister foreign origins or a hoax or a political cudgel.

^^

I carried around with me for years a tattered copy of the “Oxford Book of Superstitions” and I think I still have it somewhere. In Scotland it was believed as late as the 18th century that upon leaving the house if a man or woman met a blind person they would go blind UNLESS they went to the woods and located a tree with two trunks—a tree with a crotch filled with water. They had to gather that water and, as they say in cookbooks, put it aside. Then they had to find a black cat and burn it. Retrieve the water and mix it with the cat ash. Rub this fetid unguent in your eyes. The “Oxford Book of Superstitions” does not say where this apothecary and alchemical nonsense originated.

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I hope you’re too wise for superstition. If you’re American I have my doubts of course. In general the great migrations of the late 19th century brought plenty of evil eyes and hats on the beds to the good old USA. My Finnish grandmother once shook hands with Richard Nixon and she didn’t wash her hand for a whole month. Imagine.

I’m guessing my good old Finnish grandmother thought Nixon’s handshake a harbinger of luck. She’d have been better off hanging a golden horseshoe above her door.

Did you know the Romans used to hang horseshoes above their doors to ward of plague?

**

Americans also like to “knock on wood” and cross their fingers.

My favorite widely believed contemporary superstition is “the itchy palm”:

There are many variations on this superstition. But the idea of having an itchy palm generally refers to someone who is greedy or has an insatiable desire for money.

In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Brutus says, “Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself are much condemned to have an itching palm.”

Some believe that if the right palm itches you will meet someone new, while an itchy left palm means that money is coming.

Others say that an itchy right palm means money coming in and a left-handed itch foretells money going out.

The superstition warns you not to scratch your palm unless you want to counteract the effect. The only way to scratch it without stopping the effect is to use lucky wood or brass.

https://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living/10-common-superstitions/

**

The disabled are thought to bring bad luck and if you think I’m joking just look at the ableist narratives going around. Our lives are deemed in many quarters to be sacrificial.

Mr. President I’m One of Those Who Needs Reassurance

I’m disabled, Mr. President. I work with the disabled. We represent every ethnicity and nationality: we’re old, young, veterans, parents; we’re gay and straight, and yes, we have physical and other limitations that cause us to be medically and socially vulnerable. When yesterday you rebuked NBC reporter Peter Alexander for his “nasty” question about how you might reassure anxious Americans you essentially dismissed the 60 plus million Americans with Disabilities. I think you knew you were doing it.

Not once in any of your press conferences about the novel Coronavirus has the word disability been uttered. Not once. I know why. You think Americans who need “reassurance” are weak. Moreover you think without irony that life is unfair. When asked why star athletes are getting virus tests while ordinary Americans are waiting you told us this is how life in America operates. Reassurance is a pesky word isn’t it? It means to restore people to confidence. What about those of us who’ve never had it in the first place? While you berated Mr. Alexander you were essentially saying America is a cruel craps game and the losers can go to hell.

There was nothing nasty or corrupt about Alexander’s question, Mr. President. Where will the disabled get treatment when the majority of our hospitals and clinics are only conditionally accessible? Where will those who rely on Medicare get help when so many states have been cutting services prior to this health emergency? What is the VA doing to assist wounded warriors who may contract the virus, especially older veterans? I suppose you’d say these are nasty questions too.

When the Nazis came to power Hitler declared the disabled “useless eaters’ and insisted the only valuable citizens in Germany were those who were hail and hearty. That’s an extreme way of saying life is unfair. By showing no empathy toward the most vulnerable in society you’re essentially saying the same thing. No wonder the health experts who stood behind you yesterday looked stricken. No wonder they wanted very clearly to hide their faces. You thought you were demeaning NBC but you were stomping on those who need help the most.

Has Someone Stolen Your Broken Soul?

What if I could tell you how the story ends? Would I be Bocaccio? Yes I’d be a moralist. Such a role is unappealing. I think we can all agree there are too many narrative moralists already. Laurence Sterne wrote: “Respect for ourselves guides our morals; respect for others guides our manners” One may fair say Americans have little respect for themselves. This is why our voters—the few who show up—dislike the most honest candidates. They require plenty of disrespect. If you believed Ronald Reagan’s oft repeated story about welfare queens driving Cadillacs you couldn’t possibly like yourself. The question before us now is can Joe Biden’s campaign which aims at reconciliation and kindness actually succeed? Can Americans decide that just for once they might vote for self-respect?

I’m not Bocaccio. Nor am I a TV pundit. I don’t have the skills of Steve Kornacki who, seemingly, can drill down into the most mullioned voter numbers. But I”d feel better if public analysis of our electorate focused on the victimization narratives that unhappy Americans live by. Left, Right, moderate, fascist, socialist, what have you absolutely all comers are like Rodney Dangerfield—they don’t get no respect. Donald Trump’s rallies are entirely about this. So are Bernie Sanders’ events. Someone is conspiring against you. You’re not sufficiently loved. There’s a deep state or the establishment or your third grade teacher who’s gonna get ya.

As a disabled person I know a good deal about persecution. I’ve been told I don’t belong almost everywhere and yes, ever since I took my first steps. I’ve lived the story of feeling like I’m not sufficiently loved. This is a trap. Victims don’t understand love. One thinks of Carl Jung’s observation: “Nothing is possible without love…for love puts one in a mood to risk everything.”

Victims take no risks.

Respect for others means you took a risk and it means you’ve learned some manners. What do I think that means? Not instantly criticizing someone who’s said something that trips your switches. Not immediately disdaining people who appear ill clothed but are driving luxury cars. Not hating yourself because some imaginary person has stolen your broken soul.

Contrarianism in the Age of Cancel Culture

In his excellent book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote: 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. A noble sentiment, and a good thrust at the Gradgrinds and utilitarians. Bear in mind, however, that Utopia itself was a tyranny and that much of the talk about the analgesic and conflict-free ideal is likewise more menacing than it may appear. These Ultimates and Absolutes are attempts at Perfection, which is—so to speak—a latently Absolutist idea. (You should scan Brian Victoria’s excellent book Zen at War, which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.)”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Apple Books.

If you want to cancel someone (a harrowing parlance) all you have to do is say he she or they is not up to the ideal of perfection. The Fascist or Stalinist doesn’t rest until the world is cleaned of imperfect people.

I’ve always been a problem because I trouble the public nerve of ableism—which for me means the industry of harming all marginalized people for the disabled are black, brown, Asian, Latino, white, old, queer, and owing to normative formations, (utilitarianism) wishes to eliminate all who are physically different.

Not liking what someone says is not sufficient reason to eliminate them though I may wish you’d shut up. I don’t believe in the language of cancel.

Nor do I believe academics should be fired for holding loathsome opinions. If the ideas are bad they’ll not stand the test of time. 

Hitchens again:

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

It’s hard to be a dissenter because you’ll not be much applauded. 

I’m a fan of Kwame Appiah’s book “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture” which troubles the incorporation of singular cultural positions. Identity is built around insider vs. outsider negotiations or worse, willful erasures.

Identities matter to people. They offer spiritual and juridical power and create the basis for critical solidarity and progress. As Appiah points out, identity gives us reasons to do things. They also give others reasons to do things “to you” and all human rights activists know it.

Appiah writes:

“In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you. Finally, all these dimensions of identity are contestable, always up for dispute: who’s in, what they’re like, how they should behave and be treated.”

Its the contestability of prefiguration I’m interested in. You shouldn’t subborn blackness or disability or gender to abstract, privileged philosophical thinking. But identity also creates hollow perfectionism as Hitchens knew.  I’ve seen blind people ridicule other blind people because they chose to walk with guide dogs as opposed to white canes. Cultural call out is aimed at canceling the contestable. It leads to public shaming and trolling. 

I’m also a big fan of the writer Roxanne Gay who writes about resisting the racialized and patriarchal oppression aimed at the diminishment of black women’s bodies.  No one should be able to diminish bodies. We defend our identities for excellent reasons. 

We have many things to do out there as Appiah says. Turning away from the humanitarian power of identity is not a good idea. Contesting the traps of identity rhetoric is important however. I have white privilege. I also can’t get into restaurants and taxi cabs because I have a service dog. I live in multiple identity traps. Appiah ends his book with a famous Latin quote:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

On University Constructions of Shaming Environments

I should come clean and straight off: I regret having been a disabled professor. Regret follows me from room to room and there’s no help for it. I’m considered less capable, less collegial, more of a nuisance than any of my colleagues. There are too few like me in the faculty ranks to be of consequence. I’ve been tenured at three major universities and been accorded more misery than I care to relate for it gets soggy and yet, without a cadre of disabled faculty I can tell only you that talking back to dismissive and ableist faculty and administrators who don’t like your relentless call for accessible websites and buildings earns one the reputation for being a malcontent. What keeps me going?

Sheer stubbornness. I’m of Finnish. descent. My people are granitic and quite stoical. I’m not happy with suffering but I recognize it as one of the effects of gravity. This means despite the fact that I’m a poet I’m also discerning. Why should academics be more tolerant of the disabled than any other group? Higher education is predicated on the unspoken notion that everyone is for herself or himself and they’re in a race against others. Everyone knows the story of the graduate student who finds the important pages razored out of the books on reserve. This is the way of it.

Here’s to the colleagues who haven’t joined me in calling for visual presentations to be fully accessible to the blind as well as the deaf.

Here’s to deans who’ve treated my demands for access both for myself and others are a sign of my problematic identity.

Here’s to the construction of shaming environments where the disabled feel more than marginalized, they are made to feel the full weight of their presence.

Here’s to the merciless stampede toward AI and autonomous systems in lieu of an abiding and conscious understanding of diversity. The latter means recognizing that people of color, queer folks, the disabled have been medicalized, tracked, and demeaned for centuries. And not much welcomed.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Just an Ordinary Morning with a Crow and David Hume

Without David Hume, no Thomas Jefferson. Without Jefferson, no Lincoln.

Early this morning a crow asked me his untranslatable question.

I think the crow is a fast learner and I’m a slow one.

Of slow learning vs. fast the disabled know much. I still remember with considerable pain the professor who told me that because I’m blind I shouldn’t be in his class. Why? Because I needed extra time to read. What is that?

David Hume:

“When it is asked, whether a quick or a slow apprehension be most valuable? Whether one, that, at first view, penetrates far into a subject, but can perform nothing upon study; or a contrary character, which must work out everything by dint of application? Whether a clear head or a copious invention? Whether a profound genius or a sure judgement? In short, what character, or peculiar turn of understanding, is more excellent than another? It is evident, that we can answer none of these questions, without considering which of those qualities capacitates a man best for the world, and carries him farthest in any undertaking.”

Excerpt From: “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.”

And that should be the question: “what will carry us the farthest?”

I know that’s what the crow was talking about.

Don’t you just love natural philosophy?

Stephen Kuusisto and Harley

ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Ode to Professor “P”

Not long ago I was called an “ignoramus” by a fellow faculty member at Syracuse University where I teach and run a program devoted to disability research. It is never appropriate to call anyone an ignoramus in an educational setting for the term’s antonym s are “brain “ and “genius” and its synonyms include: airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, bubblehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll (or clodpole), clot [British], cluck, clunk, cretin, cuddy (or cuddie) [British dialect], deadhead, dim bulb [slang], dimwit, dip, dodo, dolt, donkey, doofus [slang], dope, dork [slang], dullard, dum-dum, dumbbell, dumbhead, dummkopf, dummy, dunce, dunderhead, fathead, gander, golem, goof, goon, half-wit, hammerhead, hardhead, idiot, imbecile, jackass, know-nothing, knucklehead, lamebrain, loggerhead [chiefly dialect], loon, lump, lunkhead, meathead, mome [archaic], moron, mug [chiefly British], mutt, natural, nimrod [slang], nincompoop, ninny, ninnyhammer, nit [chiefly British], nitwit, noddy, noodle, numskull (or numbskull), oaf, pinhead, prat [British], ratbag [chiefly Australian], saphead, schlub (also shlub) [slang], schnook [slang], simpleton, stock, stupe, stupid, thickhead, turkey, woodenhead, yahoo, yo-yo…

As a disabled person I know full well what the delegitimizing effects of language can do to anyone who hails from a historically marginalized background but where disability is concerned the labeling I’ve described has a particularly specious and ugly history. Idiot, moron, half-wit, dolt, cretin are all familiar to the disabled. One would expect relief from these terms at a university. What’s particularly galling is that the subject I was discussing with the professor in question was ableism—namely that I’d said hello to him on an elevator, I, a blind man with a white cane, and he simply stared at me. No acknowledgement. When two students got on the elevator he lit up and talked breezily about how he hates snow. I followed him to his office and said that by not acknowledging a blind person he creates a social dynamic that feels off-putting and I wanted to discuss the matter. He became instantly contemptuous.

Now of course that’s because of the synonyms above. In this man’s antediluvian world view the disabled really shouldn’t be in the academy. Ableism is not only more pervasive than people generally understand its also more consistent at universities than is commonly recognized.

As for me, I’m an ignorant man to professor “p” for that’s what I’m calling him. “P” for privileged.

He doesn’t know it yet, but incapacities likely await him.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger