Stepping Out on Nothing

Gore Vidal once remarked that “politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch” a sentiment I’ve valued for years though I now understand it’s also knowing who picked the lettuce. Nuance is hard to achieve when you’re young. In my late twenties and early thirties I was the exclusive product of academic English Departments which if you don’t know, are still to this day built from Victorian blueprints. Things are right or wrong; black or white; single issue analyses are derigeur even in the age of postmodernism and postcoloniality. Politics is knowing who’s grabbing the check and hating them for it. At thirty I hated everyone who voted for Reagan. I also hated K-Mart. As a blind person I hated most white men who were the deans and professors discriminating against me in graduate school. You must hate the people who oppress you and also resent everyone who looks like them, even the relatively innocent man or woman paying for your caesar salad.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” (Cornel West)

There’s seldom love in the political. Try to find “love studies” in the English Departments. Like it or not we live in the era of oppression studies which has some merit but not enough to achieve West’s kind of justice which is a celebratory coalition. It is hard to celebrate if you’re enraged all the time. And it’s impossible if you’re convinced by single issue politics. Cornel West:

“The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

I find the phrase “stepping out on nothing” to be particularly meaningful because as a blind person I cross streets with a guide dog and take a leap of faith dozens of times a day. My sighted companions talk at street corners about bowling and I’m concentrating on the life or death situation before me.

The English Department won’t teach you about serving others. I learned something about how to do it by leaving the academy for five years and working at one of the nation’s premier guide dog schools. Each month blind folks come to the school from around the nation to train with a guide dog. The students are straight out of the pages of “Leaves of Grass” for they’re trans-gendered and black, old and Asian, young and Latino, white and largely poor though not exclusively so, and being among hundreds of blind people I learned that no one experiences disability in the same way, that no one is a symbol, no one is without the need for understanding and friendship, that everyone is hoping to land on something. I learned you have to be impatient with evil and patient with people.

American universities scarcely know how to teach such a thing. In fact, at least in the humanities, students are taught to be impatient with evil but also to categorize people as representationally evil without nuance and reflection. The country is in deep trouble in no small measure because the expansive and spiritual practice of voluntary selflessness are out of fashion when all we’re doing is thinking like Gore Vidal. BTW Vidal ended up a bitter man.

Turi, Turi, Turi

Turi, Turi, Turi

Caruso, the boy, eats a blood orange sorbet outside the café Risorgimento. They call this dessert the “frozen sunset” –a dish of scarlet juice and ice, misted with lemon. All morning he’s been singing love songs to the fiancée of a very rotund man from Caserta. “Only a boy can carry my heart,” says the fat man to his beloved. “Boys are still sweet as the baby Jesus!” Then he clapped his hands the way impresarios do: a fleshy sound of exaggeration. 

The girl seemed embarrassed. This was a street urchin, a boy in a dirty shirt. A child hired to sing love songs! This thing is a joke! But there on the via Carraciola in the din of carts and boats and street hustlers the boy sang Bellini’s Ma rendi pur contento his black eyes shining with joy and concentration so that passersby stood still. Two men, twin brothers from Rome stopped eating their sugared almonds. There in the heat of the day in that unforeseen place was a prodigy. What could surpass the unassuming purity of such a child’s voice?

The boy sings as if the edge of his heart is catching flame. 

The fat man from Caserta is delighted and bobs his head like a pheasant, struts, ruffles his feathers. His fiancée,

Elena  Bianchini-Cappelli tips her head in wonder, her features softening, a portrait reversing to a sketch. Her enormous hat with its absurd ribbons cannot hide the smile. 

Now the boy sings Bella Nice, che d’amore, his hands stretched out, palms up, without irony. Could anything be this sweet again? Vin santo and peaches? Cloves in the boiled sugar?

The boy and the hot Neapolitan day are working together, visioning ice, ice on the fat lip of a hungry lover. There are these oddities to Naples, street boys and libidinous passions and simple coins.  

Eye Rolling and Disability, a Brief Explanation

Do the blind have occult powers? I’m not sure generalizations about any group are worthwhile but as a blind man I can hear sighted people roll their eyes at me.

I hear this at least twenty times a day and sometimes the incidents number higher.

When sighted people roll their eyes it makes a sound like the world’s smallest theremin. It’s a squeaky Hollywood monster movie effect almost below the level of human hearing.

In a meeting with colleagues I say: “I need an accessible version of this handout,” and I hear a dozen teensy monster movies around the table. “The Thing” has risen in all those unseeable heads. The blind guy needs access. We don’t feel comfortable. Oooooweeeeeeeoooooo!

In monster movies it’s not the monster himself (herself) who starts the theremin music. It’s the scientist behind the creature.

I like to think of normatively constructed civic life, which is narrow and grudging about disability in public as the scientist behind the creature.

We can call the scientist the social construction of normalcy as we tend to do in the field of Disability Studies. But the invisible hand of normalcy is perverse, phobic, gloating, superior before its private mirror. The cliche we use most often when thinking of social normalcy is “thinking outside the box” and I’m here to tell you that the disabled are always outside the box. This is where all our thinking and working occurs.

The compulsive normals in their invisible lab coats don’t like inconvenience which means anything or anyone that alters their routines. Need a Braille menu? Theremin. Need an accessible website or application? Theremin. Need a functioning wheelchair lift into a university lecture hall. Theremin. Want audio description of a film being shown on your campus. Theremin. Ooooooweeeeeooooo! If you ask for these things you’re the monster. And worse, you’ve gotten loose. Quick! Hide the children!

There’s theremin music in the supermarket. The little child sees the blind person with a cane or dog and says: “Mommy, what’s that?” And mommy replies: “Shhhh! Don’t look!” Cue the scary music.

Meantime I hear the eye rolling everyday. Catch a cab? Squeeee… Boarding an airplane….
Entering the restaurant. Just walking on the ordinary street.

Checking into a hotel.
Attending a sporting event.
Once, when I was entering a major league baseball stadium with my guide dog, a rather drunken woman said loudly to her man, “why would a blind man go to a baseball game?”
Oooooooweeeee….

The disabled ruin the neat social order.

I almost never have a day without the music.

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 

Don't be Rich in the Darkling Cosmos, A New Year's Resolution

One of the Roman poet Martial’s verses goes this way (as translated by Garry Wills):

“This darkling world he claims, with rue,
Has run itself into a ditch.
And he can prove his thesis true:
In such a cosmos—he is rich.”

As 2019 concludes this surely is a darkling world. Certainly the thesis true is pessimistic. One’s reminded how cheap the pessimism is.

I’m reminded of Chesterton who pointed out that fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

Fashionable pessimism is all the rage.

This is an old story.

Chesterton again: “the reformer is always right about what’s wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right…”

Reformers are better than pessimists because they believe in actions. But as Chesterton rightly points out, reformers can miss what’s good.

Harkening back to Martial I have the following New Year’s resolution: I will not be rich in the darkling cosmos of my own making.

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 

Farewell MLB

My friend Gary Whittington has a devastating take on the state of Major League Baseball over at Medium which is worth reading whether you care about sports or not. In a sense what he’s written is an indictment of neoliberals in sports management whose dreams of ever greater profits gave us steroids and disrepute in the 1990’s and who now are cheating the fans with electronic cheating.

Gary calls MLB’s cheating a form of depravity and it surely is. At issue is the recent discovery and disclosure that the Houston Astros rigged the game by stealing signs from their opponents catchers and signaling to their own hitters what pitch would be coming next. If you wanna say “well hasn’t this always been the case” go ahead but the answer is no. Electronic pitch tipping is a real time action and far more advanced than old fashioned hand signals from base coaches.

Gary writes:

“The careful planning of this form of cheating makes its depravity complete. Pitchers on other teams lost money in free agency because their performance suffered. The effects of a few timely hits rippled through the destinies of the other 29 teams, and the possible outcomes of untainted seasons entered the cloud of unknowing. This is stealing.”

Indeed. MLB should be concerned about the possibility that tens of thousands of fans like Gary are about to walk away. This is not simple rule breaking. By destroying the honest competition between hitters and pitchers (arguably the best thing about the game) MLB has effectively signaled that the foundation of baseball doesn’t matter.

Gary, a lifetime fan of the Astros, has thrown away his souvenirs and the Astros jacket I bought him for his birthday 12 years ago.He writes:

“Of course, this is not the first time that people driven by ego and greed have gone astray. I suppose that if Pope John Paul II can forgive the man who shot him nearly to death and left him drained of all but a few pints of his lifeblood, I can get around to forgiving the players who cheated. If Altuve was involved, who could stay mad at him? But I plan to spend my time doing other things, and my travel dollars on destinations other than baseball stadiums.”

Albert Einstein once said “logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” For me what MLB is proving is that the sport’s biggest power brokers have no imagination left. Money ball is now corruption ball and as the baseball Czars seek to destroy minor league ball and cover up their misdeeds all at the same time they appear not to care who knows it.

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 

Disability Day Every Day

Today is the international day of people with disabilities. It’s one of those symbolic days that often don’t translate into the other 364 days of the year. The principle reasons for this are fairly simple: democracies view disability as belonging to the social contract but it’s also an inconvenience. Totalitarian states see it as a sign of cultural weakness: the disabled are defective. I’m using a sharp paring knife. Certainly no one who’s disabled would dispute these assertions. 

Now having a “day” is really rather fascinating when you get down to it. One imagines it’s a bit like Andy Warhol’s declaration that in the future everyone will get fifteen minutes of fame. Today is your day so don’t waste it. 

Alright. As we’re fighting for a livable future and the salvation of our planet I offer the following thoughts with sufficient hope for sharing. As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her remarkable novel Animal Dreams: “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” 

Livable cities are inclusive cities. Accessible was good, but livable is better. Livable is beyond compliance: it means scalable, breathable, recyclable, open, clean of design, all of which mean human usefulness and dignity can be affirmed for all. I chose the word “usefulness” for a reason: when I enter a library and there’s no system for me to get accessible books and materials then the system is saying I lack usefulness. This tacit design flaw with its associated ableism is akin to the idea that taking care of the environment is simply inconvenient. There’s no difference. 

We disable the environment and we disable people. Advanced design and sustainability can change this. Moreover we must stop disabling people as a principle of war and colonialism. We must see disablement as central to human rights and the attainment of peace. 

And on this day let’s remember that even a Nordic country like Iceland is eliminating children with Down syndrome. Let’s remember that the advanced countries embrace of euthanasia has a eugenics twist. Let’s remember that disability rights are human rights. One should say this is simple but look what happens when the disabled have a “day.” Fifteen minutes isn’t enough.

Human Rights Watch puts it this way: “Worldwide one billion individuals have a disability. Many people with disabilities live in conflict settings or in developing countries, where they experience a range of barriers to education, health care and other basic services. In many countries, they are subjected to violence and discrimination. People with disabilities are also often deprived of their right to live independently, as many are locked up in institutions, shackled, or cycled through the criminal justice system. Many of these human rights abuses are a result of entrenched stigma and a lack of community-based services essential to ensuring their rights, including under the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” 

I’ll add to Kingsolver’s idea of hope: we have to live inside it but carry it into the light of day.

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