What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

Believe in Your Own Flight and the Flights of Others

Alert, gravid, a bit edgy thinking of the republic where I reside, wondering if it’s possible for 21st century Americans to acquire the self awareness required for true citizenship. I’m not a pessimist. I don’t believe Facebook and iPhones have destroyed our body politic. I don’t think the polarization of the so called left and right are inevitable and permanent. American history proves otherwise. And yet, at its best, citizenship is about informed discernment, knowing what you think and why you think it. These days it seems few Americans routinely ask “how did I acquire this position and what might be wrong with it?”

On the right people think anything that smacks of socialism is bad. On the left they think the profit motive is bad. Meanwhile the nation runs on both.

How to not hold one’s head? Take a walk in the winter garden. The earth smells of damp pears.
There are tracks of animals in the snow. I feel a tremendous, terrible freedom under my shirt.

I’m going to ask questions. And here I am, walking on ice polished by the wind.

What’s required to be optimistic?

I’m a believer in life much like proteins “are” life.

There’s a smell of smoke from my neighbor’s house.

Today he is believing in life.

Be in your own flight but believe also in the flights of others.

Typing Mister Roberts

As a ten year old who though he’d become a writer I attempted a novel. My model was “Mister Roberts” which meant that I was writing about the Navy and imagining the doings of grown men at sea. How I wish I had those pages now and could see what a blind kid thought the maritime world of wholly fictive adults would be like. I suspect I imagined an adult world that was honorable as a distinction to my grade school life of constant bullying. As a disabled child in public school I was a target for physical and emotional abuse. The novel “Mister Roberts” and the film based upon it suggested shipboard life was decent.

I think of this now because I know better. As Wallace Stevens famously wrote: “the world is ugly and the people are sad”—and while that may not be a life’s goal, that is, to live in wantoness and depression—these are factors in the reality principle. The Navy may have honorable men and women but their stories and presences aren’t always probable. We’ve a land of permanent wars and poverty and bigotries of every kind. And the grade school bullying I once endured still goes on for children everywhere and I even experience adult forms of it in the workplace.

It’s the utopian hope of writing that’s so compelling to me. When I write I clean streaked windows with vinegar. Animals come. Some eat from my hands. Strangers come to understand each other. And these things are not entirely of imagination Wallace Stevens notwithstanding.

Yesterday I took an Uber ride. My driver spoke very little English. He was from Central America. He loved my guide dog Caitlyn, a yellow Labrador. Suddenly he said in his halting English: “I wish her long life!”

The world is ugly but people still have love. In turn I’m not certain I’m all that different from my ten year old self. That kid was insisting on decency.

His grown up variant still does.

From a notebook….or, “the warlock hair”….

This morning I’ve too many thoughts to hold in place. No meditation “app” will help. Mozart on the stereo is doing his best. Good old processed Mozart.

Late stage Capitalism is eating my wiring like a wild mouse. Good old processed Kuusisto.
I’ve got the algorithm blues.

I type too much. My neck is a mess.

There’s a single black hair growing on my nose. I’m a warlock.

Because I was beaten as a child I’ve a warlock hair on my nose. Nothing stays hidden.

Of course I’m imprisoned in myself. Of course that self is something else. Of course these words are something else.

There are stones inside my fingers.

I’m trying to not age out of hope.

Blind I cannot track the flight of birds but I know they happen all around me.

The history of the mind is not the history of ideas.

Miniver Cheevy! I bet he had a warlock hair.

I remember a thing or two. Just like my tongue does.

Of course I found a spoon in snow
While missing you,

Gulls above the harbor
Baltic yellow mid day mid winter

A policeman talked softly to his horse
I was proud of my new wristwatch

Cheap but Swiss made
Being of the scholar class

It was a totem thrill on my wrist
You my brother my twin

Gone in infancy who followed
And follow—listen

I’m sewing together
A seahorse like the one

We rode in the womb

Where shall I put this shaved magic hair?

Disability by Any Other Name

I’ve been disabled all my life and I hate the term. Beneath it, like Poe’s tell tale heart, is the pulse of loss. The “d” word is Karl Marx’s term: a 19th century mark for injured workers. It originally meant the lack of utility or earning power owing to a broken body. I prefer to be called a citizen.

That I’m a blind citizen should matter not at all. Did you know that blindness is nothing more than being born left handed? Disability is a false name which pulses underneath us and continues to cause human beings with diverse bodies terrible harm.

Of course there are cutesy efforts to fix the d word like putting the “dis” in parentheses to emphasize ability. This has always seemed to me like putting antlers on a cat. Diversions are seldom more than gestures and unless you’re using sign language gestures don’t mean much. Most if not all disabled will agree we’ve had enough of gestures.

The d word can’t describe me or the hundreds of d people I know. My band is made up of practical men, women, and children who have imaginations, wisdoms, loves, sorrows, tastes, and ambitions. For them the d is a horse collar—outdated, heavy. No one needs a horse collar anymore. Blind I’m disabled by the idea I’ve nothing to give. Disabled I’m doubly blind—not seeing becomes figurative worthlessness.

Citizen is better. I’d like my value to be understood as a matter of the hive. And yes, “value” is another tell tale heart. Value for whom? What does value mean? Why should the tax payer pay for a kid with Down syndrome to go to school?

Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters” to suggest the state shouldn’t support the unproductive. The presumption of competence, that the disabled have potential can’t co-exist in a purely industrial and essentialized vision of human bodies. It’s a terrifying vision. The d word is outworn, dangerous, and like the horse collar above, unsuited to a century when work itself is being reexamined.

I believe the future of work will involve more and more autonomous systems—robotics, driverless cars, supply chains that are fully automated. What will work mean for humans? It’s possible that deconstructing the d word will be important for everyone. Or it already is.

The Old Jokes

Old Jokes

1.

Where do they go the old jokes? The Sumerian howler—”Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Up the chimney they go.

It’s safe to say almost no one laughs at the residue of smoke.

2.

But we do. Farts. Smoke. Bad breath. The old jokes tell us we ought to weep.

And poor old Freud who had no sense of humor and wrote and wrote and wrote about the matter.

3.

“You go first” was in fact the first joke.

4.

When a friend was dying I told her I’d just come up with punch lines, minus the tedium.

“OK,” she said. “Show me.”

“I’m not that kind of a pig,” I said.

Punch lines don’t need support.

5.

Sometimes I think dogs invented the first jokes because of their noses. We can only approximate dog words. All their words are hyphenated. Grey squirrel standing in gorse. Muskrat nibbling on chicory.

6.

Don’t forget last words. Oops. The finest epitaph.

Brief Essay on Wasting Time, the Virtues Thereof

I can waste time with the best of them. Whitman’s loafing. Though I suppose he meant something lurid.

I can loaf without an agenda. I am almost a Buddhist loafer. I am not kidding.

I can drink a pot of tea and admire the snow.

Spend half a day listening to Chopin’s concertos which are better than I remembered from my lonely childhood beside the phonograph.

Walk in circles around my neighborhood with a dog for company.

I can waste time.

I know soon enough time will waste me.

I’m not afraid.

Do you hear me clocks?

The nothing that is not there and the nothing that is….you don’t scare me.

The power that comes from drifting.