Adult on Campus

When I was a child I spake as a child but then I got my act together. If the time ever does come when I stand before my maker and speak about my life I hope to say I became a man. I do not mean the craven, self-absorbed, meretricious boy-man of my era as they’re merely children in big boy clothing. By my lights a man acknowledges his neighbors and fosters what used to be called civic standards. Call me a boy scout if you wish. But kindness, loyalty to virtues, the courage to tell the truth—even about the self—trustworthiness—and yes I know its hard to take anyone seriously who evokes the boy scouts but let’s think of them as having been liberated by their rhetoric if not by their leadership.

In this way I stand before you. I’m a 64 year old blind guy who’s spent the last thirty years fighting for what we call “inclusion” nowadays though I prefer the term civil rights. Inclusion is so clean. Civil rights are tougher to promote as they require knowledge of the law, ambition for those who’ve been marginalized, and a willingness to insist on equal treatment for all. Inclusion seems tidy—seems to suggest that equality has already been achieved and all you need is a ticket to get into the pleasant, inclusive big top. Where civil rights are concerned its best to consider the ways that human systems resist moral scales whenever it’s convenient.

The man or woman or child who insists on civil rights is inconvenient. (S)he’s likely outspoken when the moment calls for garden party politeness. Meanwhile, as Michael Eric Dyson has said: “Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.” The speaking can be uncomfortable to hear. Invoking an approximate analogy or metaphor, speaking truth about civil rights must necessarily be irate love. Inclusion, for me, doesn’t cut it.

Inclusion is a fine term but its subordinate to a larger expectation that civil rights, equal rights have been achieved. I’m a university professor. See me in your mind’s eye, walking across the campus with my guide dog. I struggled all morning to get an accessible version of an academic article; I argued with a dean about the needs of a learning-disabled student whose accommodations didn’t happen in a timely way; I learned that a major renovation to an audito­rium won’t be accessible to wheelchair users—these things within a single morning. Now multiply this five-hour period by 365 days per year, minus college vacations—make it 276—then again, multiply by years. Do not think me rebarbative or an agitator. I am not a bellyacher. In this instance I’m walking the agora, head up, fleet of foot, holding ambitions for every disabled learner who stands at the portcullis.

In this way I’m an adult.

I’m alone…

I’m alone like a cabdriver who sleeps in his taxi dreaming of childhood. Red geraniums. Black currants. Sleep is a still life.

Last night I dreamt of my father, now long gone. He appeared beside a tall window at dusk, snow falling, and he was abosrbed, reading a book. I said, in the murmurous way of all sleepers, “that’s just as it was in life…”

Today the sun is strong. We’re allotted approximately 3 billion heartbeats in this life.

We’ve got a problem, Iowa

I was in graduate school in the early 1980’s when literary theory became the star of the show. Where once literary criticism was the circus ring master (examining how texts are constructed and the themes within them) now asserting literature was subservient to cultural forces beyond a writer’s control was the new normal. The writer was dead. There were no writers at all. There was only destructive, pejorative, propagandistic language layered like a hundred mattresses atop each other—the artist formerly known as the writer far beneath like the proverbial pea.

Now the term theory is considered noble in a scientific age and its application to literature was meant to confirm the seriousness and high purpose of textual analysis. But it was also a move toward speciminizing primary texts—rendering novels, poems and drama smaller—Emily Dickinson had no idea what she was doing, she was a paramecium of sorts, but don’t worry, the theorist professor would tell you about the petri dish with its agar of cultural forces beyond the ken of the Belle of Amherst.

Beware the primary text.

By the time I was teaching in the graduate nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa in the late 2000’s I had students who’d been through the theory mills. The problem was apparent: they’d no idea what a text was made of. They could only say how it related to dominant cultural forces. “What’s a scene?” I asked on day one. (From their transcripts I knew that my dozen students had attended Yale, Columbia, Berkeley, Swarthmore, and the like.) No one could venture a guess. Their silence was something more than silence—it was the quiet below the coffin.

Now a literary scene is a basic building block of narrative. If a room filled with graduate chemistry students was asked what’s the composition of salt and they couldn’t answer—well you get my point.

Scene by scene construction is central to fiction, drama and nonfiction. By asking the question I wasn’t being cheeky.

Not one of them could describe salt.

“Iowa, we have a problem.”

In the weeks that followed I labored to show them how scenes work. “A scene,” I said, “can be a sentence or a full chapter in “War and Peace.”

“In its essence,” I said, “a scene is a unit of language in which we see a human being or an environment being acted upon or revealed—whether modestly or grandly.”

I could tell some of them didn’t see why it mattered but a few took notes.

I showed them scenes.

“Great Expectations”

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

“Roughing It”

“We had fifteen passengers, and to show how hard pressed they were at last for occupation and amusement, I will mention that the gentlemen gave a good part of their time every day, during the calm, to trying to sit on an empty champagne bottle (lying on its side), and thread a needle without touching their heels to the deck, or falling over; and the ladies sat in the shade of the mainsail, and watched the enterprise with absorbing interest. We were at sea five Sundays; and yet, but for the almanac, we never would have known but that all the other days were Sundays too.”

“Silas Marner”

“In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses—and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak—there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?—and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?”

**

Scenes are not just extensions of mood or prosaic establishments of tone: they tell us how human beings are caught in the act of behaving and how that behavior is often an extension of their surroundings.

In the literary universe of theory the only important thing is to explain how people became poor in the first place or how Twain’s characters are colonial tourists or how industrial capitalism makes Eliot sentimental.

Not one of these opinions has anything to do with creative writing as an art form.

Imagine sending students to music school knowing only that the violin is merely the product of the historical need for higher tunings.

By speciminizing primary texts the theorist disables literary writing.

Volition is action following deliberation. Both are facets of wish. They are the two wings of the imagination.

Literary theory scoffs at the imagination’s volition by saying it is merely “intentionality” which means a pipe dream since no writer can be original when she’s inherited a fallen language, a polluted idiom, a word hoard of varnished propaganda.

You see how this works? The imaginative writer is just the wriggling thing in the dish.

In turn many MFA students today have little recourse but to engage in ironic play—the self is unreliable, the forms of literature (scarcely understood) are undependable, the paintbrush (writing the scene) is tedious. Today’s students are taught that the deadening effects of culture are a worthy subject and the smallest self is a good story. Moreover exposition has a larger place at the table in creative writing than it’s ever had before. By this I mean the writer interprets her narrator or characters rather than writing scenes.

Here’s the opening paragraph from a recent novel that’s received some positive attention, “Juliet the Maniac” by Juliet Escoria:

“It is hard to tease out the beginning. When I was living it, my disintegration seemed sudden, like I had once been whole but then my reality swiftly slipped apart into sand. Not even sand, but slime, something desperate and oozing and sick. But looking back—I was a slow burn that eventually imploded.”

This simply isn’t good writing but its the standard in a world where students are taught cultural theory before scenes.

Here’s another example, the first paragraphs of Rebecca Makkai’s new novel “The Great Believers”:

“Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting. Yale checked his watch as they walked up Belden. He said to Charlie, “How empty do you think that church is?”
Charlie said, “Let’s not care.”
The closer they got to Richard’s house, the more friends they spotted heading the same way. Some were dressed nicely, as if this were the funeral itself; others wore jeans, leather jackets.”

Compare the above to writing that takes us “into” the place and circumstances of people—the beginning of Toni Morrison’s novel “Home”:

“They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.
We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place. Like most farmland outside Lotus, Georgia, this one here had plenty of scary warning signs. The threats hung from wire mesh fences with wooden stakes every fifty or so feet. But when we saw a crawl space that some animal had dug—a coyote maybe, or a coon dog—we couldn’t resist. Just kids we were. The grass was shoulder high for her and waist high for me so, looking out for snakes, we crawled through it on our bellies. The reward was worth the harm grass juice and clouds of gnats did to our eyes, because there right in front of us, about fifty yards off, they stood like men. Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder. One was rust-colored, the other deep black, both sunny with sweat. The neighs were not as frightening as the silence following a kick of hind legs into the lifted lips of the opponent. Nearby, colts and mares, indifferent, nibbled grass or looked away. Then it stopped. The rust-colored one dropped his head and pawed the ground while the winner loped off in an arc, nudging the mares before him.
As we elbowed back through the grass looking for the dug-out place, avoiding the line of parked trucks beyond, we lost our way. Although it took forever to re-sight the fence, neither of us panicked until we heard voices, urgent but low. I grabbed her arm and put a finger to my lips. Never lifting our heads, just peeping through the grass, we saw them pull a body from a wheelbarrow and throw it into a hole already waiting. ”

I’m of an age now when I can lament with discernment the erosion of serious literary writing in my time. I saw how it got started in the English departments of the ’80’s and have seen while teaching in top tier MFA programs how the effects are winning out. If you can’t write a scene you can’t know substantive literary consciousness which engages with the land, the eyes, the mistakes, the aspirations, the getting lost, the micro luck, and the depth psychology revealed in acute awareness.

Specimization indeed.

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 in the Future Perfect Tense

1.

It’s axiomatic that disability—personal or collective—is generally represented as a pure disadvantage. The word itself comes to us from the Industrial Revolution when disablement signified workers injured on the job. The term is outworn, inexact, and now itself an obstacle to people with physical differences like a bad curb cut.

The future perfect is the verb tense that expresses the idea that something will occur before another action in the future. It can also show that something will happen before a specific time in the future. Example:

By next October the Boston Red Sox will have achieved first place.

As a blind person I’ve lived my life via the future perfect. At 18 I remember saying: “By the time I’m thirty I will be a writer.” The future perfect is critical for ambition. I can and will do this.

The thread-worn term “disability” has no future perfect about it which is why disability activists have taken up the ancient word “cripple” to designate, ironically, that they’re not without capacity. A cripple can work, the disabled cannot. Parse this however you like, the issue for the disabled is how the future will stand as distinct from the past. The future perfect.

The future perfect must be concerned with diversity and center disablement as central to human experience and not as an outlier position. Strictly speaking disability is the inability to perform a major life function—standing, walking, hearing, seeing, processing information, speaking—disablement is broad. Disablement is also part and parcel of every ethnicity and community. It’s at the center of diversity.

When I worked at one of the nation’s premier guide dog schools it became apparent to me that none of the dog trainers spoke Spanish. I pushed for this but was unable to convince my superiors that multi-lingual service and outreach mattered. There are blind folks who do not know that guide dogs are available and are without cost. Blindness is also at the center of diversity.

So the future perfect where disability is concerned is about inclusion but its also about something much more generous than that term may customarily signify: it’s about us. By next October the disabled will have achieved their just place at the table.

2.

The future perfect means understanding our ways beyond the scylla and charybdis of the medical model of disability vs. the social modal. The former suggests that an incurable patient is a defeat for the physician and hence he or she becomes a problem—a living embarrassment for the medical establishment. When I spoke to a graduating class of young ophthalmologists some years ago I said the number one worst thing you can say to a patient is: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you.” What can an eye doctor do for a blind person? Plenty. Why? Because of the future perfect. Even as I type advanced work is happening around the globe in the fight against genetic forms of blindness. What seems incurable now will be curable tomorrow, but not for the patient who disappears and never seeks medical help again because her doctor said good riddance.

I do not argue that the blind need to be cured to be citizens. Which leads us to the social model of disability. The disabled, as evidenced by the word itself are accorded a pejorative or second class status in society. This is a 19th century idea based on the principle that the built environment (the factory world) cannot accommodate a woman without hands. (For example.)
The term reasonable accommodation means, among other things, that redesigning our work environments makes good sense. In the future perfect almost every disabled person is employable. There are a hundred reasons why this matters but let’s put an accommodating work place in a broader context: when facilities are good for the disabled they’re actually better for everyone. This is indisputable. Who, when pushing a stroller, has not been grateful for a wheelchair ramp and an alternative to a revolving door?

3.

Folks who talk about diversity often don’t think of disability as part of the matter. They think of it in purely ethnic or gendered terms. This is understandable because there’s a lot of discrimination that’s still in force and which has not been sufficiently addressed. But the disabled are part of every socially and historically marginalized group. The future perfect says that a blind person of color should have a first rate educational experience no matter where she lives and that her schoolroom should be fully inclusive from the get go.

In the future perfect disability will be understood as cross cultural competency and not as an outlier position.

In his fabulous book “Strategic Diversity Leadership” Damon Williams notes that diversity is protean, that its language changes quickly and that the best university leaders must understand that the movement of identity language has everything to do with the awakening needs of diverse communities. He writes:

“Different people use different words or names to signify membership in a particular cultural group or to define diversity on a broader level. Because these terms can be culturally specific, diversity leaders should not assume they know them. Asking members of the group their preferred term is an essential first step.”

Excerpt From: Damon A. Williams. “Strategic Diversity Leadership.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/strategic-diversity-leadership/id1032365916

The preferred term is about the future perfect. We will not be who we were when other people named us.

Williams adds:

“Strategic diversity leaders must be ready to work with individuals and among communities where once-stable terms and categories are undergoing considerable scrutiny. What matters is that these leaders work to address the profound and continuing challenges that lie beneath these terms, including equality, inclusion, and fairness.”

Excerpt From: Damon A. Williams. “Strategic Diversity Leadership.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/strategic-diversity-leadership/id1032365916

4.

In her now canonical essay “On Being a Cripple” the late poet and memoirist Nancy Mairs (who had M.S.) wrote:

“First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.” I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People–crippled or not–wince at the word “cripple,” as they do not at “handicapped” or “disabled.” Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates /gods /viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.”

In the future perfect the disabled are central to every community and yes, they get to swagger.

Swagger is likely one of the many words first used by Shakespeare. It appears in English for the first time in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and its probably a take off on the word swag witch originally mean to sway ostentatiously. As Shakespeare uses it it means to strut in an insolent or defiant manner.

Why would swaggering matter to a cripple?

Because it’s fun. In an inclusive world everyone gets to show off.

5.

Diversity within group identity is the future perfect. The black hip hop artist Leroy Moore who started a group called Krip Hop Nation puts it this way:

“Just like hip-hop is global, hip-hop artists with disabilities are global with common experiences of discrimination inside and outside of the hip-hop arena. These opportunities and my activism during the 1980s propelled my advocacy on activism, disability, police brutality in the US and across the globe.”

In the future perfect disablement is intersectional with all aspects of multiculturalism.

But there’s much more to think about.

Dancing for instance.

Everyone recalls Emma Goldman’s famous quote: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

Right now disability art is entering, has entered the mainstream. We’re beginning to see television and films from Hollywood make the first turn toward using disabled actors where possible. In the future perfect this will be customary.

We’re seeing more articles and essays about disability by disabled writers in publications like the New York Times.

In the future perfect disability won’t require its own section of the newspaper because it will be part of every diverse groups experience.

In the future perfect Leroy Moore has his own show on TV.

5.

A decade ago, more or less, I was sitting in a room with world class physicians and geneticists who were talking about the genes that cause congenital blindness. They were already finding ways to modify those genes as part of a future perfect plan—to restore sight in children born blind.

During the meeting one of the doctors pulled out of his pocket a brand-new device: the IPhone.

I’d no idea at that moment the iPhone and Apple Corporation would change my life profoundly.
They had the future perfect.

Today’s iPhone allows me to read anything instantly.

When I was a grad student thirty years ago the electronic scanning and reading machine in the university’s library was the size of a Maytag washing machine.

Not only will the iPhone read anything, it will take photos and then describe what’s in them.

The future perfect of disability is swagger, confidence, attainment, ease of accommodation, and respect in the public square.

The future perfect of disability will break down the biological and experiential aspects of identity formation.

The future perfect of disability will be a pure, swaggering agency.

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 

Reader I’m Sorry….

Let’s go up river though the current isn’t easy. Spiders skate in the shallows. A thunderstorm is coming. Open your eyes as wide as you can.

How easy it is to appeal to the reader.

**

Reader I’m sorry. I should own what I need and leave you be.

**

Last night I lay in wet grass among fireflies. Somewhere far away a dog was barking at something no human could hear.

**

I grew up beside a river.

**

The trick was this: I grew. I admit just this. I was sad at windows. I thought my boyhood shoes were hideous.

**

I was so busy with things under the trees, mushrooms, crickets, I paid insufficient attention to the sky—blindness be damned.

Emmanuel Kant and the Barometer

In the early summer of 1798 Emmanuel Kant decided to publish his lecture notes on metaphysics so that future scholars might use them. The Enlightenment was not without transparency—a matter easily forgotten in late post-modernity. It’s also often forgotten that Kant’s primary research topic was human nature.

For Kant, “virtue” was the point at which morality makes contact with human nature. Lately I’ve been (in my mind’s eye) viewing (daily) the Kantometer—like the barometer it measures pressures unseeable. Its point of departure is virtue as recognized above. There are other indices of course. They’re tiny gradients etched at the margins.

Morality meets the Aristotelian idea of the good, virtue index 12. A good score. Now a certain greasy American senator announces black people should go back where they came from and the Kantometer, measuring the virtue contact drops like the barometer in the Caine Mutiny.

Kant believed virtue and the pursuit of moral life are the duty of humankind.

The Kantometer is busy and mostly sinking.

**

I have tried to be a good man, though I fail, much as anyone must. The clouds come close, deer nest under the apple trees. I fancy vengeance as I want so much to consign all the meretricious bureaucrats to Hell. I ask Jesus to forgive me my lambent distress. I want to be good. I wish the love my animals show me to be merited. I want to be the kind of poet who builds houses for people.

**

I agree with Jurgen Habermas: “each murder is one too many.” I wander around grieving. There is so much death and its industries are fed by good and bad citizens alike. This is why terrorists hate the nation states. Try and locate the moral centers of the United States or France. Refugees stream across uncivil borders desperate for food and medicine and they’re met with realpolitik. Neither Vladimir Putin or Trump wants to save the children of this thirty years war. As I write, the half starved deer are nosing among the daffodils in my yard. I see them as children.

**

How to be good? “Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself” (Ludwig Wittgenstein) I think, “even Jesus went to Hell, and he came back, stronger.” We’re here to endeavor for strength. Such proud words. I fail and often. Old Ludwig Wittgenstein often sounded like my Finnish grandmother: “we’re not put here to have a good time.”

I’m the electrolysis of good—you too. That’s how we’re wired. God grant me more volts.