Thoughts on the AWP, Christopher Hitchens, and Jefferson’s Idea of Happiness

Last evening I spoke with several scholars who are researching histories of confinement among the disabled. This morning I’m reading about the latest failure of the AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) which just concluded its annual national conference having once again treated disabled attendees miserably. Confinement means the asylum or special hospital but it is also the product of disdain—find a conference site with insufficient elevators, no shuttle service, make sure no one answers the accessibility helpline, make public your indifference to disability inclusion and you’ve got what the leading consortium of academic creative writing programs thinks is OK where the cripples are concerned. Maybe they’ll go back to the institution—and we don’t mean the Ivory Tower.


“Imagine that you can perform a feat of which I am incapable. Imagine, in other words, that you can picture an infinitely benign and all-powerful creator, who conceived of you, then made and shaped you, brought you into the world he had made for you, and now supervises and cares for you even while you sleep. Imagine, further, that if you obey the rules and commandments that he has lovingly prescribed, you will qualify for an eternity of bliss and repose. I do not say that I envy you this belief (because to me it seems like the wish for a horrible form of benevolent and unalterable dictatorship), but I do have a sincere question. Why does such a belief not make its adherents happy? It must seem to them that they have come into possession of a marvelous secret, of the sort that they could cling to in moments of even the most extreme adversity.”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “God Is Not Great.” iBooks.

I’m a fan of Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great” as it forces me to play with aspirational circuits in the spiritual Neo-cortex. The “SNC” is where creative optimism fires its fastest signals—listen to Beethoven’s sixth symphony for an example of its art—so here, thinking of the above, lets just say that Christopher Hitchens has planted a red herring and I suspect he knew it. In truth all people are sad. It’s possible melancholy plays a role in human evolution for no matter what you may say about it, it’s the precursor for growth. Religious people are human too—their sadness is in no way different from the miseries of atheists. Thank you Mr. Hitchens for reminding me of this. There’s no secret among the sincerely religious—only what I’ll call muscular hope and a willingness to not give up on decency. And you bet there are bad Christians.


You see, I’m able to say, though it may be un-American, that I often wake up unhappy. My job as I see it is to work it. I say un-American with irony, as I think Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness long ago morphed into the expectation of happiness. I’m in the Jeffersonian camp. And you bet: I won’t mind the help of others as I lift my portion of weight.


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

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

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 

Why I Can’t Forgive John Lennon

When the Beatles were new John Lennon made fun of the cripples seated down front of whatever theater—he’d do a retard act. I’ve never forgotten this nor can I find it in myself to forgive him. I was a disabled kid and now I’m a disabled man. I have to enact patience and forgiveness daily. Ableist behavior is legion. I make it through by means of small dispensations, little pardons, absolving the bus driver who resents me, willing beneficence, handing out invisible coins of absolution to the cab driver who refuses me a ride. Lovingkindness is the Christian word for this. I try to love my oppressors.

Ableism, taken nominally, is insufficient to highlight real circumstances. Those who think themselves superior to a woman in a wheelchair or a man who walks with a stick are exceptionalists and if they’re not educable they become tacit eugenicists for social Darwinism lurks behind most disability discrimination. The fascist wants to make the world clean, wishes for a sanitized sameness in the population, argues passionately against expenditures for the care and rehabilitation of those who require assistance. Meantime the disabled muster some forbearance and get on with it. The taxi that refused you will likely be followed by one that accepts you. Yet the message is clear: disabled, you’re a problem on the street, in the airport, in the classroom, the supermarket, the hotel, health club, doctor’s office, college campus, the theater, symphony hall, and all workplaces.

“Problem” is not the right word of course—problems are solvable or at least they’re invitations to find a solution, or what I like to call “solvation” much as Jamaican people say “no problem mon!” True ableism requires an antipathy to finding disability solutions and it depends on a willful lack of irony individually and collectively. The singular ableist is someone like the junior high school principal who says “no” when a 12 year old girl with cerebral palsy wants to bring her authentic service dog to school. Collective ableism is the school board behind the principal. They say: “of course we cannot have a service dog in the classroom! Think of the children who will somehow be ruined by this!”

In order to think this you must be an inherent exceptionalist who despises intellectual and bodily difference. Such people believe not in solvation but in segregation, deportation, and even annihilation.

Lovingkindness is the hardest thing in my life. I know I’m working daily with college faculty and administrators who resent the disabled. I try thinking of how damaged they are—that they’ve been made to accept compulsory normalcy by means of many cruelties. They were always racing to get one step ahead. For them disability represents the thing they fear most: the loss of distinction, both intellectually and performatively. At the big conference cocktail party where faculty are first anointed they must “present” as having just arrived from the gym.

I find I can’t forgive John Lennon. Later he wrote a song called “Crippled Inside” which is just as offensive as his youthful face pulling. And I can’t forgive the social Darwinists around me. I’m a little worn out from all the forgiving I have to do in the customary street to forgive those whose educations and talents should prevent them from outrageous bigotry.

Your Voice in Times of Tyrants…

If words have import they must be like rain. Be careful how you speak. A torrent and invested meanings are washed away. A pittance and if you’re lucky perhaps you’ve written a poem, though this is not likely or assured.

In the dictionary of rain are clues to sailing and growing wheat and yes, how to raise children and support the aged.

I’ve not read the entire book of rain speech though I’m pursuing it.

I understand as I open my throat I’ve a chance to turn this place into a cafe chantants with many dancers.

I do not know who you are.

Every opportunity for speech is a moral concourse with the body and landscape.

The first day the great tenor Enrico Caruso really sang—that is, lifting his face to the middle distance and calling up a rare angel—that first day, he felt larger than anyone, any man, like a colossus, but with this trick, he was a giant you could see through for such is a voice, an invitation to incorporeality.

This happened in Cairo in the Ezbekieh Gardens. The whole district had singers on every corner. Dancers. Puppeteers. Baccarat players. Men who put small coins on their tongues to kiss passing strangers.

He sang for the champagne supper crowd at the El Dorado, for the winners of trente et quarante…

And the voice was there, lifting his heavy torso. You could still see stars in Cairo in those days.

Know what you’re voice is.

Stand for your voice in times of tyrants.


            –Elegy for the folk singer Bob Gibson

I’ve got joy in my shirt and joy in my hair,

Got joy in my apple tree

Got joy up the stairs—

It’s just that kind of day.

Got rhubarb in my back seat

Got bananas in my trunk,

When I’m driving on the freeway I’m never in a funk

It’s just that kind of day.

Some people tell you all about their blues

As if they haven’t got a dime—

I tell them to stuff some grapes down their shoes

The dance turns funny every single time.

Bring on the tombstone, bring on the mule;

Turn your lamps down low.

When you’re gone you’re gone—that’s the rule—

Why carry on like a tired old Shmo?

I’ve got joy in my shirt and joy in my hair,

Got joy in my apple tree

Got joy up the stairs—

It’s just that kind of day.

You might hate me for singing this song,

But that’s okay with me:

You’ve got your job and me? I’ve got to get along

I’ve got joy in my blossoms and bees.

I’ve got joy in my shirt and joy in my hair,

Got joy in my apple tree

Got joy up the stairs—

It’s just that kind of day.

It’s just that kind of day…

(Sung to the tune of Bob Gibson’s "Joy, Joy, Joy")


Have You Heard? Laurie Rubin

Through my volunteer work at [with]tv I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of *meeting*
cyberspace) and corresponding with Laurie Rubin

Laurie is an accomplished Mezzo Soprano.  Listen to this CBS interview I just discovered and you will learn more about this "world class opera singer" who has "performed in the White House and in some of the worlds finest Halls…"

(Photo description: Laurie is on stage performing in her New York recital debut with pianist David Wilkinson.  Wearing a teal evening gown, she looks quite beautiful.  She’s standing in front of a grand piano; David is wearing a black suit.  We can see the backs of the heads of her audience in Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, March 2004.)

Laurie has released a CD of art songs by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Brahms, Hahn, Bizet, Copland, Rorem, Harbison and some beloved Yiddish pieces with pianists Graham Johnson and David Wilkinson on the Opera Omnia label.

"Faith in Spring" can be purchased via this link on Laurie’s web site.

A music critic I am not but I know what I enjoy, and Steve and I enjoy listening to this often…

Laurie, we look forward to the day when we can actually experience your musical gift in a live performance.  We’ll be keeping our eyes on you!

Till then!

~ Connie

Cross-posted on Blog [with]tv

Zombie Woof

Once when I was around 14 and full of zeal of a certain kind, I went to hear Frank Zappa and his rock band "The Mothers of Invention".  Zappa was a brainiac cross fertilized rock and roller with a strong interest in 20th century classical music and a more than passing understanding of jazz.  Unlike most rockers of the 60’s and 70’s Zappa looked down on the use of drugs and he used to whip out a flashlight and train it on the audience, casting about until he saw someone who looked especially stoned.  He would really make fun of that poor, witless guy.  The man hated playing to a stoned theater.  He wrote inventive and outlandish songs about drug users.  He would sing: "who you jiving’ with that cosmic debris?"

Frank Zappa could also play a peppery, lickety-split lead guitar and while other kids my age talked endlessly of the guitar mastery of Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix, I was convinced that FZ had the real chops.  I can still hear Zappa’s transcendent guitar solo from the song "Zombie Woof" on his album "Over-Nite Sensation"—I can hear it in memory, note for note, the way Hemingway said he could follow a trout stream in his imagination.

Frank Zappa died all too early from prostate cancer and I find that on this particular autumn day I miss his brand of social satire and his exceptional musicianship.  All I want to do is go down to my local record store and buy the latest from "the Mothers".

Here’s to intelligent and impatient rock and roll.  Here’s to a deep distrust of lazy audiences.  Here’s to living the art while disdaining the commercial music industry.

Here’s to a hot suspicion of authority but without all the contemporary cheap perfume of despair.


Musical Milestones

Before continuing with this post (written by Steve) as a contribution to the next Disability Blog Carnival, Steve and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Penny L. Richards for her all her continuing hard work and dedication to the Disability Blog Carnival, which she launched one year ago.  Bravo, Penny.  Bravo!  We’ve made many new friends thanks to you!

~ Steve and Connie

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