Corporate Culture and Disability Employment, or Blueberries and Battleships….

While the GOP pushes its anti-unionist “right to work” narrative I think it’s high time the disabled steal the slogan. My global village remains unemployed. The right to work should be a matter of citizenship.

In their 2005 article “Corporate Culture and the Employment of Persons with Disabilities” Lisa Schur, Douglas Krusez and Peter Blanck raised a number of vital questions about business culture and disability: “What role does corporate culture play in the employment of people with disabilities? How does it facilitate or hinder their employment and promotional opportunities, and how can corporations develop supportive cultures that benefit people with disabilities, non-disabled employees, and the organization as a whole?”

(http://disability.law.uiowa.edu/lhpdc/publications/documents/BSL_JanFeb_2005/Corporate_culture.pdf)

One thing that really caught my eye in the article is this prodigious quote:

“When individuals with disabilities attempt to gain admittance to most organizational settings, it is as if a space ship lands in the corporate boardroom and little green men from Mars ask to be employed.”
—John, a 58-year-old employed man with paraplegia.

John, who I’ve not met, is my neighbor in the global village. If, like me, you’re disabled and have a job you’re automatically exceptional though the chances are good you’ll not feel that way. That is, once inside the workplace you’re still a little green man or woman. Meanwhile 6 out of 10 disabled people of working age remain jobless in the United States.

(https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/07/25/only-four-out-of-ten-working-age-adults-with-disabilities-are-employed/)

The Schur, Krusez and Blanck article highlights “the taken for granted beliefs” within corporate cultures:

“These ‘‘taken-for-granted beliefs’’ usually are unspoken and often unconscious. More formally, corporate culture at this level consists of a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

The espoused values of the organization generally reflect what has worked in the past. Inviting green men and women into the community has not been a part of past practice.

**

Now the obstacles to change within organizations are considerable. Several years ago I came across a small pamphlet called Rejoicing in Diversity by Alan Weiss. The subtitle of the booklet was: “A Handbook for Managers on How to Accept and Embrace Diversity for Its Intrinsic Contribution to the Workplace”–-certainly a mouthful and perhaps not much of an advertisement. But I liked the word “rejoicing” and I also liked “intrinsic” for when you put these words side by side they speak of poetry. (The Chinese have two ideograms that stand together for poetry: a figure for “word” and a figure for “temple”). In any event, diversity in the workplace is seldom framed in ways that suggest spirit. Yet at the core of culture, spirit is all there is. Take away politics, real estate, the fighting over which end of the egg to crack and what you have left is the human wish for meaning. We tend to lose sight of this in Human Resources circles, substituting phrases like: Raising the Bar, Leadership, Assets, and the like. Talking about spirit is embarrassing. It’s like talking about the philosophers’ stone. Not even medieval historians feel comfortable talking about alchemy. You might look foolish. And we all know that the workplace should not be foolish.

I have advised many organizations on matters of disability and inclusion over the years. These opportunities came about because my first book of nonfiction was a bestseller and because for a time I was a senior administrator at one of the nation’s premier guide dog training schools. I had the opportunity to travel widely. Between 1995 and 2000 I visited 47 of the states in “the lower 48” and spoke at local, state, and federal agencies and public and private colleges. I have advised lots of blue chip organizations including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum, the Kennedy Center, even resorts and hotels. Inevitably, wherever I have spoken I’ve heard the rhetoric of middle management: “empowerment”; “equal opportunity”; “productivity”; “zero tolerance”; “bias”; “sensitivity” and the like.

There is nothing wrong with these terms but to paraphrase Bill Clinton there’s nothing right about them either. And this is because the terms have no alchemy in them. They’re just nouns. Not all nouns have spirit inside them. The word “battleship” has no spirit but the word “blueberry” does. One of the first things a poet has to learn is that not all nouns are obedient to the soul.

Well meaning organizations (and some that may not be so) rely on the rhetoric of inclusion without imagining the opportunities for soul–and I mean “soul” the way Marvin Gaye would mean it: its what’s goin’ on. The human soul is present everywhere whether management acknowledges it or not. By way of analogy one can think of management as playing “battleship” while the soul is picking berries. Human souls are looking for ways to be fed and to be happy; management is often trapped in brittle or arid pronouncements.

Alan Weiss wrote:

“I have had the rather unique experiences of providing comprehensive reports to top-level executives on the acceptance of diversity in the workplace, only to have them shout, wide-eyed, “That’s not my company you’re describing!” Yet the feedback has been based on extensive focus group and survey work. Who’s wrong?

No one is wrong. What’s happened is that the respondents have reported what they are actually experiencing, I’ve conveyed that feedback accurately, and the executives are using their own intent and strategy as their frame of reference. The psychologists would call it cognitive dissonance–fully expecting one set of circumstances, while experiencing quite another.

The phenomenon at work is what I call the “thermal layer,” which is a management layer capable of distorting communications and directives it receives, turning them into something quite different. Managers in the thermal layer are the ones who actually control resources, make daily decisions and deal with the customer. They often have strong vested interests in preserving the status quo…think they have a better way of doing things, don’t trust senior management, don’t buy-into the strategy or, for whatever reasons, have some agenda of their own. “

Alan Weiss has perfectly described the breakdown that most often creates obstacles to true diversity and inclusion–or to use the language of the soul, communal berry tasting and picking.

For many years I’ve been asking folks at the universities where I’ve taught to take ownership of disability and accessibility and I have found a deeply invested thermal layer–a phenomenon I like to call the “Campus Rope-a-Dope” to borrow from Mr. Ali. The Campus Rope-a-Dope takes advantage of highly silo-ed administrative hierarchies to in effect pass the buck where disability and accessibility are concerned. Let’s be clear: no one wants to be identified as being part of the thermal layer just as no faculty member wants to be outed for being “dead wood”–and let’s also be clear that the person who persists in calling for blueberries when everyone else wants to talk about battleships will eventually be the victim of considerable distortion.

Alan Weiss again:

“Organizations seldom if ever fail in their intent, executive direction or strategy formulation. They fail in the execution and implementation of their initiatives. Nowhere is that more true than in the accommodation of diversity.”

For my own part I’ve called for universities to provide accessible bathrooms in buildings where I’ve taught. The struggles were astonishing. At the level of departmental administration, no one knows who’s in charge of these matters. That’s because the thermal layer is in charge. And the T.L. has a hundred silos. It also has committees.

I was once upbraided at the University of Iowa by someone from the human resources department. I’d been calling for the installation of assistive technology in the classrooms where I’d been teaching for over three years. The lack of compliance and communication around the issue had been comical and my method of handling it had been to bring my own talking laptop into each classroom and manfully wired it to the projection system–sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. My every teaching experience was therefore a kind of gamble. No one was in charge. How was I upbraided? I was told that by calling attention to my difficulties with assistive technology compliance I’d done considerable damage to my reputation with the committee that handled disability issues–the point being that I’d apparently not gone through the proper channels in my requests for accommodations. This is how the thermal layer works. The thermal layer likes to deflect by distortion. And there were no proper channels.

Alan Weiss:

“How could anyone oppose an accommodating, equal-opportunity workplace?”

“Well, we know that some people can, sometimes with malicious motives, sometimes with prejudicial judgment, and sometimes because they perceive themselves to be adversely affected by the policies. You must be constantly on the watch for thermal zone reactions and distortions. If there’s a policy or value which causes conflict in the workplace, bring it to the surface and discuss openly. If there are misconceptions about policies, resolve them. The failure to do this doesn’t make the policies go away, it simply preserves the thermal layer until, like the executives above, the key decision makers get some shocking news. The reaction to that is usually worse than any other alternative, because senior management will try to legislate change rather than help people to embrace it.”

This brings us back to blueberries vs. battleships. The spirit of diversity vs. the demeaning of diversity initiatives through the employment of thermal language.

Because no one is really in charge when it comes to planning and implementation all disability accommodations are treated reactively and not proactively.

**

Workplace culture is a misnomer. Workplaces are generally affected by habits, old ones, and the thermal layer is where old patterns reside.

The green men and women are afterthoughts.

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 

Universal Design and Utopian Insistence

If you’re disabled you must explain yourself always. You’ll never get a medal for this. You’ll say I belong, I participate, I’m equal, though the phrases are gestural, utopian. You might as well say there are mermaids inside the sun.

A poem then:

Five crows in a dream last night
Faces of the old—a woman
Older than iron came near
The skin on her face
Like ice to a pond
But she was speaking
The language of crows
I saw it—the myth
Of speech—
She made no sound at all

**

I’m up early rummaging. Being disabled is a garage sale of the mind. I’m always moving things around. Seeing if things have more value in different settings. The salt shaker on a window sill feels better than when it was in the corner of a cupboard. Does this have something to do with what they call “universal design”?

Design: from Latin designare—to mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint. Later in English it comes to mean to form an outline or scheme. It’s a hopeful word if you bleach all the history out of it.

Universal is so hopeful it puts Shirley Temple to shame.

**

I think we can’t achieve universal design unless we understand what we mean by defect. I am not a defective sighted person. My friend D.J. Savarese is not a defective talking person. My pal William Peace is not a defective walking person though he gets around with a wheelchair.
Until we understand that defect or defective is as unhelpful as the mermaid inside the sun we’ll get nowhere. We will go on designing things that the majority of people cannot use.

**

The majority of people is a wonderful phrase. Too bad it’s unconnected to reality. It assumes that humans are static. Real people age, go blind, have industrial accidents, become wounded in wars, develop illnesses bases on genetics, have auto accidents, dive head first into shallow ponds, it’s a longer list than we’ve time for.

The majority of people are not defective, they are us.

It’s better I think to say we’re a planet of universal defectives.

Let’s call ourselves unifects.

**

A poem then:

Letter to Borges from London

When I was a boy I made a beehive
From old letters—dark scraps from a trunk,
Lost loves; assurances from travelers.
It was intricate work.
The blind kid and the worker bee lost whole days.
I made a library for inchworms.

Now I’m a natural philosopher but with the same restless hands.
Some days I put cities together—
Santiago and Carthage;
Toronto and Damascus.
If strangers watch closely, Borges,
They’ll see my fingers working at nothing.

In Hyde Park near the Albert Memorial and alone on a bench
I reconstructed the boroughs of New York—
Brooklyn was at the center, Kyoto in place of Queens.
This was a city of bells and gardens, a town for immigrants.
The old woman passing by saw my hands at work.
She thought I was a lost blind man, a simpleton,
Said, “Poor Dearie!” and gave me a quid.

Excerpt From: Stephen Kuusisto. “Letters to Borges.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-borges/id564556086

Now I hate to sound like a high school English teacher but really, which of us is the more disabled in this poem—the blind guy thinking or the old woman?

The blind guy has design. He’s imagining better cities.

The old woman, who we’ll say has a tender heart, believes in the 19th century social construction of disability. In her unexamined view, the disabled belong in special places, are helpless, and need charity.

It’s worth remembering that this 19th century view required a design to begin with.

**

Here’s some helpful prose from the National Disability Authority in Ireland:

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.”

This is excellent.

The problem arises, especially in higher educational settings, when people are asked to consider the diverse needs and abilities of students.

University faculty and administrators are not skilled when it comes to thinking about diverse learning styles or needs. In historical terms the university is built on a model of exclusion, a narrow model, one which suggests quite openly that only certain bodies and minds need apply.

Jay Dolmage writes in his wonderful book “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education”:

“Disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education. Or, let me put it differently: higher education has needed to create a series of versions of “lower education” to justify its work and to ground its exceptionalism, and the physical gates and steps trace a long history of exclusion.”

Without universal design in classrooms, curriculum, teaching methods, websites, the university creates a de facto “lower education” system. If the blind student has to struggle to get accessible books; the wheelchair user can’t sit in the front of the room; the autistic student can’t use the proper accommodations for her needs, then the educational system is exclusionary. Let’s be clear: there are some faculty and deans who like it this way, just as they like lots of step steps that mark off the university as a place of climbing and advantage.

Colleges and universities are the least disability friendly places in the United States. The average airport is more accessible and engaged with design.

In order to have universal design in higher ed we must have inclusive education in mind when we teach.

**

I’m a blind college teacher. There should be nothing remarkable about this. Yet my daily presence haunts the academy. At all three universities where I’ve held tenure I’ve met obstacles to my participation in everything from meetings, classroom teaching, library research, online systems, even simple sporting events. All these basic things have been largely blocked.

Bad as these stumbling blocks are, and I promise you they’re lousy, what’s worse is the extraordinary degree of ableism I’ve met over the course of my roughly thirty year teaching career. Setbacks are one thing, perhaps even to be expected (at least initially) but prejudicial behavior is worse and I’ve experienced it over and over again. I’m a well known blind person. I have managed despite these problems to achieve “senior status”—that necrotic term for full professors.

Yet I’m not a full professor at all. I’m essentially a steerage passenger on a luxury liner, one who has wandered onto the wrong deck. This analogy should be ridiculous but it isn’t.

I’m still waiting for accessible “on boarding” materials at Syracuse University though I came there eight years ago. I asked for them four times. Because I’ve never received them I know less about the place where I work than almost everyone.

Getting accessible research materials in a timely way is grueling and often impossible yet I’m expected to teach as much as anyone else—oh, and also to be a leader in my field.

A colleague criticized me not long ago for speaking out about accessibility problems, saying, “you set back our reputation.”

In the meantime disabled students tell me almost weekly how they’re patronized by faculty and how difficult it is for them to get the help they need to succeed. What do I do? I complain. All too often my reward for speaking “behind the curtain” to multiple administrators about access problems is that I’m essentially conceived of as a malcontent. The eye rolling says it all: I should go back to steerage immediately.

My “non-disabled” faculty colleagues are not generally reliable allies. Even the ones who theorize disability and confront the social and economic history of disablement are seldom on the front lines when it comes to speaking up. Can’t get into the famous basketball arena with your service dog? That’s too bad. We’re all going to the game tonight.

A famous scholar once wrote about the “spoiled identity” the disabled are forced to endure—have been forced to suffer—every day. The word for this is stigma and everyone who hails from a historically marginalized background knows what it feels like. There’s a moue of unhappiness at the sight of you. Many sighted people think the blind don’t know it when it comes but we do.

Lately blind students have been filing civil rights complaints against colleges nationwide. I have not done this because I keep thinking my persistence and whatever in me passes for eloquence will pay off.

But you see, there’s the problem. I want a broad coalition of faculty to speak up.

In order for this to happen we must educate faculty about inclusive education as a human right and underscore the central place of universal design in that expectation.

**

Why is the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion at universities invariably so wooden and dead one would rather succumb to the prolixity of self help manuals? Give me Leo Buscaglia over prose exhorting the building of individual competencies or better, let’s imagine collective talent and free students (and staff) of the corporatized idee fix of the happy happy individual. If we’re to be honest we should admit universities are competitive and structurally opposed to whatever is meant by inclusion. (I like Paolo Freire’s sense of it, grass roots, promoting literacy for all, but on the American campus the term seems to mean—“tag along” as if we’re all going for a nice walk and you’ve been invited, lucky you.)

Lucky you indeed. It’s estimated that almost three quarters of disabled college students fail to graduate. What was it? The food? Must have been the chow. Yes, inclusion stops at the classroom door; stops at the inaccessible website; stops when the disability services office posits there are just a few hoops you have to jump through to get accommodations and you better follow the procedures exactly or your semester will go down the drain faster than your costume jewelry. Structurally speaking disability is to inclusion as mice are to kitchens.

At most universities and colleges disability isn’t included under the rubric of diversity. As a former administrator once said in my presence: “we don’t want people to know we have learning disabled students, it will affect our rankings.”

Talk about “Typhoid Mary”—disability might be catching! But back to the rhetoric. Consider the following, a fairly typical “letter” which a prospective college student must give to a physician in order to receive accommodations on campus:

Please provide the following information under separate cover and on practice letterhead. The authorized release of information is to include but not be limited to the following:

1. Presenting diagnosis(es) utilizing diagnostic categorization or classification of the ICD or DSM IV. Diagnoses should indicate primary, secondary, etc., and significant findings, particularly in respect to presenting problems.
2. Date the examination/assessment/evaluation was performed for the presenting diagnosis, or if following the student for an extended time, date of onset and date of an evaluation of the condition that is recent enough to demonstrate the student’s current level of functioning.
3. Tests, methodology used to determine disability. PLEASE do not send copies of the student’s medical records.
4. Identify the current functional impact on the student’s physical, perceptual and cognitive performance in activities such as mobility, self-care, note taking, laboratory assignment, testing/examinations, housing conditions/arrangements. Is this condition temporary? If temporary, what is the expected length of time to recovery?
5. Describe any treatments, medications, assistive devices/services the student is currently using. Note their effectiveness and any side effects that may impact the student’s physical, perceptual or cognitive performance.
6. Recommendations for accommodations. Explain the relationship between the student’s functional limitations and the recommendations.
7. Credentials (certification, licensure and/or training) of the diagnosing professional(s).

This information is kept confidential except as required by law.

**

Again, the prose above is standard boilerplate. It’s what’s for breakfast. If you have a disability and want to go to college you’ll need to be medicalized and sanitized. This is what passes for accommodation language at matriculation for most university students. Get a doctor or a psychologist to affirm you are indeed disabled—moreover, ask a medical professional to articulate “for you” what you will need in order to succeed in higher education. The falsity of the claim—that a standard MD or Ph.D. knows much about disability and it’s circumstances is nearly laughable but not quite. Inclusion is in the balance. Let’s see your disability certificate kid. Let’s see what it says we “have to” do for you. Do you feel included? What’s that? Not quite? Perhaps you have a bad attitude.

A campus that’s inclusive is accommodating because it’s classrooms, it’s digital domains, it’s syllabi, it’s assignments, it’s library, all are “beyond compliance”—which in turn means no one should need a letter from a doctor or a specialized office with its reliance on “treatments” and “functional impacts” and “cognitive performance” and the like. This language by its very nature is not inclusive nor is it meant to be—it’s designed to weed out students who might be tempted to fake a disability, because lord knows, maybe extra time when taking a test will give certain underachievers an advantage. I know of no other area of diversity where one’s provenance and authenticity must be vetted and confirmed.

**

Back to universal design— from the National Disability Authority in Ireland
it is:

The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used
To the greatest possible extent
In the most independent and natural manner possible
In the widest possible range of situations
Without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and
Means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person.

Universal Design should incorporate a two level approach:

User-Aware Design: pushing the boundaries of ‘mainstream’ products, services and environments to include as many people as possible.
Customisable Design: design to minimise the difficulties of adaptation to particular users.

Viewing Universal Design at the Micro Level

A single design feature or a simple product, designed so that it can be used by as many people as possible.

At this level, the designer is not expected to find one design solution that accommodates the needs of 100% of the population, as Universal Design is not one size fits all. Rather, designers are urged to explore design solutions that are more inclusive; those designs that push the boundaries as far out as possible without compromising the integrity or quality of the product.

If more than one option is available for a design feature, choose the more inclusive feature. For example, when installing a handle on a door, it is always better to opt for a lever handle, rather than a door knob, as the lever handle can be opened using the elbow or a closed fist, benefiting people carrying shopping bags as well as people with limited strength in their hands.

Viewing Universal Design at the Macro Level

At this level the designer has the opportunity to combine accessible and usable design features, with customisable or adaptable features, alongside more specialised design solutions that deal with the most extreme usability issues (see levels 1-3 above).

By stepping back from the individual features and looking at the product, service or environment as a whole, designers are in a position to investigate alternatives providing equivalent experiences to users.

Examples include a user-friendly website that meets web accessibility initiative’s (wai) web content accessibility guidelines 2.0 (wcag 2.0), has a customisable user interface, and is compatible with assistive technologies.

From micro to macro, Universal Design has implications for the design of any single feature of a product, service or environment, as well as the design of that product, service or environment as a whole.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University.The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications. According to the Center for Universal Design in NCSU, the Principles “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.” 
Principle 1: Equitable Use
Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use
Principle 4: Perceptible Information
Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

**

The issue of inclusion for people with disabilities in higher ed is a matter of culture: far too many colleges and universities fail to imagine that people with disabilities represent a cultural movement. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the powerful statistical urgencies represented by the finding that nearly 10 per cent of matriculating freshmen are self-identifying as having a disability.)

A cultural understanding of disability means at its very core that students or staff with disabilities are our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues. But it means more than that: an academic or curricular awareness of disability means that our nation’s institutions of higher learning will finally sense that what they “do” they do for all and with no oppositional and expensive and demeaning hand wringing. Such a position requires that disability services and academic culture–matters of curricular planning and cultural diversity be wedded as they should be.

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 

The Original American Good Man: Walt Whitman Discovers Disability

As we honor the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman it’s worth recalling the poet who praised the human body was also our nation’s first writer of disability memoir. This often surprises people since his great opus “Leaves of Grass” famously celebrates strapping health. In fact one may say Whitman turned physical desire into a sexy religion: America’s body was ecstatic, eternal and spiritually orgasmic. In Walt’s nation there were no bad couplings. That was Whitman circa 1855. Then came the Civil War.

One response to crisis is the making and shaping of a new imaginative body. In his seventies, and having suffered paralysis from a series of strokes, Whitman began collecting, arranging, and then supplementing his civil war prose written while he served as a nurse in the terrible army hospitals in Washington. Revisiting his old journals, their pages literally blood stained, he worked both with his paralysis—he could barely write—while giving shape to a historical moment of national crisis. In effect, Whitman created the first American disability autobiography.

His response to social and personal crises is expertly detailed in a marvelous essay by Robert J. Scholnick entitled, “‘How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?’ Whitman and the Dis-ease of the Perfect Body.” This essay appears in the breakthrough collection, Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.

Scholnick examines Whitman’s early positioning of the healthy body as a metaphor for a strong democracy and shows how the poet used disability to represent political failure as America headed into the Civil War. Referring to Whitman’s unpublished 1856 essay “The Eighteenth Presidency!” Scholnick notes that Whitman is: “Expressing his belief that a healthy body is a metonym for a healthy nation and, the converse, that an enfeebled body reflects a failure within the body politic…” (248). Scholnick correctly observes that Whitman, who is writing about the political failure of the Buchanan presidency to stop the spread of slavery into the western territories resorts to disabling metaphors:

…[Whitman] deployed a rhetoric of health, disease, and disability to address the national crisis. Describing the supposedly enfeebled political class as “blind men, deaf men, pimpled men scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people’s money,” in “The Eighteenth Presidency!” he summoned what he imagined as a generation of vigorous young men to take charge. “Poem of the Road” (later titled “Song of the Open Road”) warned that “None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health” (Leaves 232). (248) Scholnick observes that Whitman’s disabling metaphors are balanced by a call not just to political health in the United States, but also by a prescriptive exhortation to America’s citizens to practice the art of good health:

Whitman’s urgent summons to his fellow citizens to adopt the practices of healthy living constituted a significant portion of his agenda for America. “All comes by the body only health puts you in rapport with the universe,” he wrote in “Poem of Many in One” (later titled “By Blue Ontario’s Shore”). “Produce great persons, the rest follows,” he affirmed (181). “Poem of the Road” stated flatly, “He travelling with me needs the best blood…” and warned that only the healthy are eligible to join him in the great American procession. (249)

Scholnick quotes Whitman in “Poem of the Road:

Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself! Only those may come who come in sweet and determined bodies, No diseased person no rum- drinker or venereal taint is permitted here. (249)

In turn, Scholnick details Whitman’s reified and “schizoid” body politic:

In promoting physical health as a means of fostering national stability, control, and improvement, Whitman excluded those lacking the best blood. This exclusion raises the question of just how he and his contemporaries understood the etiology of sickness and disability. (249)

Robert Scholnick’s essay explores how the language of Whitman’s later notebooks displays the poet’s alteration from rhetorical inattentiveness about the disabled body to a position of cultural empathy. By ministering to the maimed and dying soldiers, Whitman faced unimaginable physical suffering. The poet’s prose reveals Whitman’s new and profound appreciation for the literal suffering of men and the spiritual suffering of the nation.

I agree with Scholnick that Whitman is the progenitor of the “disability memoir.” He created a new and wholly conscious rendering of altered physicality in prose. Whitman begins his reminiscence (which he called “Specimen Days”) in a wholly new mode. This is not the metaphorized body of the ideologically constructed man of robust, democratic labor:

Specimen Days

A HAPPY HOUR’S COMMAND
Down in the Woods, July 2d, 1882. — If I do it at all I must delay no longer. Incongruous and full of skips and jumps as is that huddle of diary-jottings, war-memoranda of 1862-’65, Nature-notes of 1877-’81, with Western and Canadian observations afterwards, all bundled up and tied by a big string, the resolution and indeed mandate comes to me this day, this hour, — (and what a day! what an hour just passing! the luxury of riant grass and blowing breeze, with all the shows of sun and sky and perfect temperature, never before so filling me body and soul) — to go home, untie the bundle, reel out diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print-pages. (Whitman 689)

This is Whitman, the disabled poet working to shape and re-shape his memories as well as his present circumstances. He does so with fragments, jottings, things untied, things untidy, nature notes, bureaucratic memoranda… He is announcing his intention to create a “lyric collage” –and by announcing that this is for the printed page he is also announcing that this is a work of art, one created out of a new urgency.

Here is Whitman again, writing of his increasing paralysis and its effect on his ways of living:

Quit work at Washington, and moved to Camden, New Jersey — where I have lived since, receiving many buffets and some precious caresses — and now write these lines. Since then, (1874-’91) a long stretch of illness, or half-illness, with occasional lulls. During these latter, have revised and printed over all my books — Bro’t out “November Boughs” — and at intervals leisurely and exploringly travel’d to the Prairie States, the Rocky Mountains, Canada, to New York, to my birthplace in Long Island, and to Boston. But physical disability and the war- paralysis above alluded to have settled upon me more and more, the last year or so. Am now (1891) domicil’d, and have been for some years, in this little old cottage and lot in Mickle Street, Camden, with a house-keeper and man nurse. Bodily I am completely disabled, but still write for publication. I keep generally buoyant spirits, write often as there comes any lull in physical sufferings, get in the sun and down to the river whenever I can, retain fair appetite, assimilation and digestion, sensibilities acute as ever, the strength and volition of my right arm good, eyesight dimming, but brain normal, and retain my heart’s and soul’s unmitigated faith not only in their own original literary plans, but in the essential bulk of American humanity east and west, north and south, city and country, through thick and thin, to the last. Nor must I forget, in conclusion, a special, prayerful, thankful God’s blessing to my dear firm friends and personal helpers, men and women, home and foreign, old and young. (1298)

In lyric terms this prose is necessary to assure the poet’s survival. Gregory Orr’s useful polarities of lyric incitement come to mind: Whitman is experiencing “extremities of subjectivity” as well as the “outer circumstances [of] poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one.” As Orr points out: “This survival begins when we “translate” our crisis into language–where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it” (4).

It’s interesting in this context to note that Whitman imagines his paralysis as part of the unfolding drama of family loss as well as the national trauma of the civil war:

1873. — This year lost, by death, my dear dear mother — and, just before, my sister Martha — the two best and sweetest women I have ever seen or known, or ever expect to see. Same year, February, a sudden climax and prostration from paralysis. Had been simmering inside for several years; broke out during those times temporarily, and then went over. But now a serious attack, beyond cure.

Dr. Drinkard, my Washington physician, (and a first-rate one,) said it was the result of too extreme bodily and emotional strain continued at Washington and “down in front,” in 1863, ‘4 and ‘5. I doubt if a heartier, stronger, healthier physique, more balanced upon itself, or more unconscious, more sound, ever lived, from 1835 to ’72. My greatest call (Quaker) to go around and do what I could there in those war-scenes where I had fallen, among the sick and wounded, was, that I seem’d to be so strong and well. (I consider’d myself invulnerable.) But this last attack shatter’d me completely. (1297-1298)

One notes Whitman’s use of military metaphors to describe the onslaught of paralysis: the disease “broke out” and “then went over” –figures that suggest the illness has scaled the healthy wall of his body, the fortress of self. It’s interesting also to note that Whitman arrives at this correspondence between his paralysis and the national trauma of the civil war by way of his doctor who believed that the strain of working in wartime hospitals was the likely cause of Whitman’s stroke.Describing his youthful and healthy body Whitman writes, “I doubt if a heartier, stronger, healthier physique, more balanced upon itself, or more unconscious, more sound, ever lived, from 1835 to ’72” (1297-1298).

By distinction Whitman as the writer of lyric prose is no longer unconscious and balanced but self-conscious and obviously unbalanced. This “imbalance” is reflected by the unevenness of the memoir. Sentences read like fragments. Memories and the contemporary circumstances of the writer are narrated “paratactically” –the past and the present are presented side by side.

One is reminded of the contemporary American poet Gregory Orr’s assertion that:

…our instability is present to us almost daily in our unpredictable moods and the way memories haunt us and fantasies play themselves out at will on our inner mental screens. We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control. How to respond to the strangeness and unpredictability of our own emotional being? One important answer to this question is the personal lyric, the ‘I’ poem dramatizing inner and outer experience. (4)

In the case of Whitman’s lyric prose this instability links with the art of memory to address the very meaning of the lyric self: the self that possesses comic irony—a self that understands it is a shaped thing. It can be shaped by personal or physical suffering or by social forces. Whitman ends “Specimin Days” by speculating about the divine or philosophical nature of suffering:

Just as disease proves health, and is the other side of it. . . . . . . . . The philosophy of Greece taught normality and the beauty of life. Christianity teaches how to endure illness and death. I have wonder’d whether a third philosophy fusing both, and doing full justice to both, might not be outlined. (1300)

Here Whitman, writing in paralytic bursts, wonders about the construction of normalcy and its origins in stoic philosophy Then in one swift lyric shift, he wonders about the Christian view of illness, a view which leads in Western civilization to the so called “medical model” of disability. This is the “I” of lyric prose, working its way through inner and outer experience. The “I” of lyric prose assembles its greater sense of irony from scraps.

Whitman’s lyric prose is more than the short hand for a self help book. The prose he wrote in crisis lead him away from his early figurative representations of the muscular
democratic body. He wrote in the civil war hospitals on pages stained with the blood of dying soldiers. He wrote fast and he wrote about something larger than ideological metaphor:

FALMOUTH, VA., opposite Fredericksburgh, December 21, 1862. — Begin my visits among the camp hospitals in the army of the Potomac. Spend a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle — seems to have receiv’d only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt. (Most of these bodies were subsequently taken up and transported north to their friends.) The large mansion is quite crowded upstairs and down, everything impromptu, no system, all bad enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody. (712)
In the Preface to Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote, “All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain” (11). As the writer of lyric prose Whitman writes:
I must not let the great hospital at the Patent-office pass away without some mention. A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there many times. It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot — the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees — occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d — sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no

relative — such were the sights but lately in the Patent-office. (The wounded have since been removed from there, and it is now vacant again.) (717-718)

Think of Whitman writing after a series of strokes, revisiting his old notebook pages, tying them together with seasoned reflections on his diminished body. By gathering “Specimen Days” and arranging its pages, Whitman claimed disability—both for himself as well as the civil war veterans. Claiming disability requires claiming the lyric. If people with disabilities have been exiled by history, by the architectures of cities and the policies of the state, then the lyric and ironic form of awareness is central to locating a more vital language. The lyric mode is concerned with momentum rather than certainty. This is the gnomon of lyric consciousness: darkness can be navigated. The claiming of disability is the successful transition from static language into the language of momentum. But of particular importance in this instance is the brevity of the lyric impulse. The urgency of short forms reflects the self-awareness of blocked paths and closed systems of language. The lyric reinvents the psychic occasion of that human urgency much as a formal design in prosody will force a poet to achieve new effects in verse. Igor Stravinsky put it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” We are in a hurry. We must tell the truth about the catastrophe that is human consciousness. And like Emily Dickinson who feared the loss of her eyesight we will tell the truth but “tell it slant”—the lyric writer may not have a sufficiency of time.
Twice then we see Walt Whitman, lacking a sufficiency of time, writing the lyric claim.

Citations:

Orr, Greogry. Poetry As Survival. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Scholnick, Robert J. “‘How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?’ Whitman and the Dis-ease of the Perfect Body.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thomas. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002. 248-259.
Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

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:
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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 

Galileo, Blind, Saw Stars With His Body

Yes people go blind late in life and they go on living, seeing in different ways. Sight is an immoderate thing which makes its imagined absence a sublime condition, a vast terror, something beyond understanding. Blindness is not this at all. Trust me: I know thousands of blind people. They don’t live in the unlit depths of the sea. They’re not helpless on the streets. As with Galileo, blind at the end, they go on knowing. It’s painful to write such a rebarbative sentence but the sighted know nothing.

There are different kinds of not knowing and at the risk of going Hegelian let’s say that the largest of these is tied not to phenomenology but superstition. Seeing is more than believing, it’s conceiving. Why if you can’t see an object it simply disappears. The majority of people believe this, world over, and it doesn’t matter their respective level of education. Doctors, scientists, professors of education, analytic philosophers, data miners, mattress testers, all imagine that without sight the essences of things will vanish. The American poet Wallace Stevens concludes a poem called “The Snowman” with the line: “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”—a perfect jeu d’esprit for the sub-phenomenological dread of vision loss.

The blind of course, who are simply your neighbors, children, mothers, fathers, the college student in the room next door are always in the position of having to reassure the puny sighted that life without peepers has meaning. For meaning you can substitute any variety of terms: dignity, joy, hot sex or popcorn. “My life has as much meaning as yours,” says the blind girl though she says it in Morse code tapping her way down the sidewalk with her stick. Tap. Tap. Tap. I’ve got rhythm. Possibility. I’m fantastic. Do you see how fantastic I am? And of course the sighted can’t believe it. They’d sooner believe in alien abductions than rest assured that a man, woman, or child can have a lyrical, involved, sophisticated and examined life without billboards, Keep Off the Grass signs, and all the other quotidian junk the sighted absorb minute by minute. In fact I’ll admit it right here. I feel sorry for the sighted who are prisoners of whatever dopey nonsense they encounter: panel truck messages, junk mail, commercial art, what the Beatles once called “corporation tee shirts.” Far from needing to prove my life has value I think the sighted are the most wanton people, walking about with advertising slogans on their lips.

Now you’ll say I’m being a little hard on the sighted and you’d be right. But I’m not wrong to suggest the blind are forced across the globe to play out the “fear of blindness absolution charade” by performing logo-rhythmically a dance that says our lives have value. This is true for all disabled people. Our crippled existences are OK. You see? We are happy just like you! With blindness though there’s this extra twist: “We can be happy despite your all encompassing dread that objects and pathways forward exist only because of sight.” Our lives are more difficult to imagine owing to the weakness of the average man or woman’s visual centric ego. It’s as if the customary sighted person is no more than a child who believes that when his or her parents turn out the lights everything in the room disappears.

I’ve just returned home to Syracuse from a trip to Kazakstan where I met with blind children and their parents. Inclusive education is still not customary for disabled kids in much of Central Asia and I spoke to an audience of parents and young people with vision loss about having a life. After the hour was up I was on the verge of tears. The sighted believe the blind are not of this world. They believe it from Kansas to Nur Sultan. How many rooms have I entered just to say “your customary fears are groundless.” I”d put a question mark there but I don’t know.

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 Songs in a Far Land

I’m awake in a strange hotel in Almaty, Kazakstan. It is five in the morning. I’ve come here to sing some songs and write poems with young disabled people. The air conditioning hums in this high rise corporate hotel and just now I’m considering my insignificance for the circumstances surrounding disability are vast and my boat is so small. In Kazakstan children with disabilities are home schooled. I know what this means. Disability is inconvenient, shameful, a domestic trauma. I also know more than I care to about embodiment disgrace.

My life is so tiny. All I can do is sing a little and hope to foster personal connections. Help people with the little I know and it’s certainly little enough. I’m a blind poet with some razzle dazzle. Yesterday I surprised some people by dancing with my white cane on the street.

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 

Greeks, Spears, and Disability in Higher Ed

When Greeks (ancient) went to the theater they knew they were going to see a tragedy. Though comedy was sometimes performed it was rare. One can imagine a good old Greek saying, “I must get my fair share of abuse.”

To be abused was a matter of citizenship. With nuance and scruple one was reminded what being a good Greek (or a bad one) was all about.

In its pantheistic way the Hellenic world was engaged with suffering.

Disabled I’m eternally catching spears thrown by the able bodied. These spears have writing on them. On the arrow head it says, “I’m not like you.” On the shaft: “As God is my witness.” And if the spear has a ribbon it says: “Make them go away.”

Usually I catch the spears but sometimes they pierce me.

Because I remember the Greeks I know there’s no such thing as “me.”

I’m just one of the insistent ones at my university who says the materials distributed by the committee aren’t accessible; the websites and software packages used by the university are not accessible; the provision of equal opportunity for disabled students and staff is not readily apparent.

I catch spears for a living.

The difference between today’s disabled and any ancient Greek is we’re not afflicted by staid and superstitious ideas of fate.

We weren’t misshapen because of the gods.
We aren’t incapable of reason.
We don’t stand for anything other than embodied diversity.
Bodies don’t stand for anything other than the rich tableaux of human kind.
We do not represent the decline of society.
We don’t suggest the erosion of academic competence by our very presence.

Why is this so hard to absorb in higher education?

Jay Dolmage, author of several important books on disability and how we talk about it tells us that colleges and universities have always been built on the exclusion of certain kinds of bodies. In fact the university has functioned throughout history as an exclusionary gate to society. Dolmage writes:

“Disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education. Or, let me put it differently: higher education has needed to create a series of versions of “lower education” to justify its work and to ground its exceptionalism, and the physical gates and steps trace a long history of exclusion.”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” Apple Books.

Creating versions of lower education and lowered expectations is in no small measure what universities have been about. Eugenics, the organized pseudo-science of social Darwinism had a strong foothold in American universities including Stanford, Harvard, and yes, Syracuse. Faculty at Syracuse engaged in a study with the infamous Cold Spring Harbor eugenics institute, a study which sought to prove Syracuse University coeds were deficient as bearers of offspring.

Exclusion and deficiency have long been manufactured by post-secondary education. Small wonder then that almost thirty years after the adoption of the ADA colleges and universities are so far behind when it comes to supporting and celebrating disability inclusion and disability rights.

Jay Dolmage again:

“…the alternative to planning for diversity is pretty dire, leaving access as an afterthought, situating it as something nice to be done out of a spirit of charity, or as something people with disabilities are being unfairly given. Without Universal Design, the alternatives are the “steep steps” that are set out in front of many people with disabilities, or the “retrofits” that might remove barriers or provide access for disabled people, but do so in ways that physically and ideologically locate disability as either deserving exclusion or as an afterthought.”

Excerpt From: Jay Dolmage. “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.” Apple Books.

The Greeks understood dire.

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 

Of Book Tours, Antonio Gramsci, and the Unmade Bed

A friend, characterizing a mutual friend said: “he has a mind like an unmade bed” and trust me that’s how I’m feeling. Of the unmade bed I recall an episode of the television version of “The Odd Couple” when Felix discovers a half eaten submarine sandwich in Oscar Madison’s bed. Oscar didn’t say it, but I will: “detritus ye will always have with ye” though one must surely admit when his defenses are down. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate.

This isn’t listlessness. It’s not the blues. (Though I know I’ve got them—a blind guy’s slumgullion of concerns from genetic testing of fetuses (rooting out probable disabled babies, think eugenics 2.0) to the race baiting narratives of American cleanliness espoused by the United States government and increasingly large parts of the industrialized world (Reich 4.0).
Or I worry about your mentally ill brother, child, mother, especially if they’re a person of color, for they’ll likely wind up dead or in jail in our clotted, Dickensian nation. Meanwhile the eroding middle class watches the Kardashians.

OK. Sorry. But when you’re an unmade bed, well, you become that man who natters on the bus. Some mornings I’m a single dendritic spark away from either mumbling or ranting.
My unmade bed is starting to smolder.

I’ve been on a lovely book tour which has taken me to Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Calistoga, Denver, Richmond, and upstate New York. Talking with old acquaintances and new friends is a cleansing experience. I always meet good people on the road.

Check box: I’ve been talking to excellent human beings.

Check box: In Denver I got an Uber ride from a man who lectured me about the “end times” for twenty five minutes. He touched my hair. Said: “you’re already one of the saved. God loves you.”

Check: It’s raining in the airplane burial ground, as my friend Jim Crenner once wrote.

Crumbs from the bed…Marx was right about 40% of the time.

Bed: Antonio Gramsci was right about 80% of the time.

The above assertions are not incompatible.

Check: I’ve lately had several graduate students who don’t like to read and when pushed turn deflective and mean spirited. These are the children of “no child left behind” who’ve been trained for a decade to take tests. Confronted by the prose of Salman Rushdie they look at first perplexed, than hostile.

Crumb: The students mentioned believe they’re commodified, neutralized, oppressed, etc. according to their respective identities. They won’t read for strength. They believe ideology is strength. In this way they’re no more sophisticated than Donald Trump.

It’s a very hard time to be a professor.

Crumb: last night I realized for the 41,000th time that baseball won’t save me.

Check: I don’t care for popular music of any kind.

Ort. (Everyone’s favorite crossword bit)—scientists now believe outer space is filled with carbon molecules which they describe as “grease”—it means we’re essentially living in a vast kitchen drain.

Speck: The poet Donald Hall just passed. He was a good man on balance.

Note: I’m reading Dr King’s Refrigerator by Charles Johnson. Also: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli.

Speck: the thing about a book tour is you see with sufficient comic irony you’re not terribly important in the grand scheme.

Ort: I once introduced myself to the folk singer Utah Philips. Told him I was an anarchist at heart. He gave me a withering look. It said: “I’m the only god damned anarchist you little shit!”

What was it James Tate said? “No longer the perpetual search for an air conditioned friend….”

My step children are struggling to stay in the middle class.

I’ve a friend who’s lost his health insurance and has no job.

He doesn’t have the leisure for a mind like an unmade bed.

Like most halfway ethical beings I feel guilty.

Is sharing the unmade bed the best thing a writer can do?

That’s mostly what creative writing programs are all about.

The Finnish communist poet Pentti Saarikoski said: “I want to be the kind of poet who builds houses for people….”

Saarikoski was just kidding of course. The way poets do. He never built a house for anyone.

Is the unmade bed a place of ambition or escape. Is it both?

This is the point: I want to create unmade beds for everyone.

Check: we’d take turns being servants. The unmade bed mustn’t be class reserved.

What the hell am I talking about?

I fear for the life of imagination; what we used to call the life of the mind.

A student came to me not long ago and said he wanted to be a writer. Then he told me he hated reading.

I want to be a painter but I hate paint.

I’d like to cultivate my mind but not today.

Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

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