Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The TV show

I can appreciate passion. If anything, I think people are not passionate enough about the things in their life. After all, only the things you’re truly excited about are really worth doing. It doesn’t always have to be about the big goals like changing the world and saving the planet as noble as those causes are. Sometimes it’s OK to set your sights on something smaller, like… saving your favorite TV show. Have you heard about Randy Bragdon? He’s a man living in California, who one day decided he wasn’t happy with what he was seeing or rather not seeing on TV and vowed to do something about it. He wanted to support the cast and crew of the recently canceled dramedy '''GCB”. What’s remarkable is how he went about it. He created a continuously expanding community of tens of thousands of people signing his petition and getting the word out everyday. He seems to be working tirelessly 24/7 trying to engage everyone from celebrities, news media to your average folks like us. I like it because it’s different and cute. And  takes a lot of commitment. On some levels it seems to be working- it’s resonating with some high profile people. He created one of the biggest TV related movements in history and that is quite impressive. But I also see a lot of people reacting with a large dose of negativity. How is this newsworthy? They ask. There are so many bigger causes they say. As someone who has been involved with those ‘bigger causes’ let me tell you. One does not exclude the other. You can still be excited about a TV show and numbers don’t lie- millions are. It’s a huge industry. Somebody must be watching. Then why not voice your opinion about how you want to be entertained? For a number of years I was involved with The Jordan Klausner Foundation that worked with children with Cerebral Palsy. Now I’m working to establish a new nonprofit that will educate people on disability law and put together a traveling presentation. And let me tell you- it’s very difficult to get people to get excited about anything. If anything this might be an impulse to seek other causes. Besides my experience tells me that the critics don’t necessarily join any of those big causes either. They just need something to complain about. It’s not as if online publications have space limits to how much they can publish anyway.

Yes, GCB is flawed. But it’s a work in progress. It has a wonderful cast and great potential. As someone who is born and raised Catholic I  can tell you there was nothing offensive about this show, but then unlike some people I don’t intentionally look for things to offend me. The biggest issue is that it tries a bit too hard. It also tries too hard not to offend anybody. The title, not quite edgy, and not entirely well received either unnecessarily added to the controversy, while the show is more like something you find on ABC family or on early Disney during ‘Good morning Miss Bliss’ era. But then, many TV hits were not runaway successes in the first season. Dynasty, Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, Seinfeld were all given second seasons on a leap of faith. Bragdon does a better job at marketing this show than ABC ever did

But I refuse to say that this is a trivial matter. We have a choice in saying what kind of entertainment we are willing to embrace. A lot of things people watch influences our culture greatly. There is so little creative, intelligent writing on network TV. There are so few things that convey positivity and humor. How will we ever ever dig ourselves from underneath the pile of reality tv, procedurals, medical shock dramas and the stars dancing, skating or cooking that are polluting the airways if we let this one go?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jumping to conclusions

You get used to people trying to give you money on the street. You try not to let it bother you.  Why should you allow it to ruin your night and your mood? Only a week ago another young man came up to me after digging through his pocket, saying :”Do you need some change?”. I called home after one of these incidents to explain to my parents what was going on and why this was upsetting me. “Were you sitting up straight?- my mom said- Were you dressed nice, did you let yourself go?”. What does it have to do with anything- I thought at first- Why should it matter what people wear, how long is their hair and if they have shaved.  So what if they were hunched over. Shouldn’t we all get respect regardless? Some people can’t help how they look. Don’t we all deserve it? And quite frankly, I don’t think that any of the people who offered me cashed took the time to notice my clothing, face or pose. All they saw is my wheelchair. But then I  realized that we all do it. We all look at people and we assume things about them. In that initial 30 seconds we make our mind about people on the street and first impressions are very hard to beat. We size people up, stare them down and decide if they are worth our time. We analyze or dismiss them and pick the most obvious characteristic. You’ve done it at some point in your life and so have I. Do you always take the time to get to know somebody really well before you form an opinion?

We are trained to speak, walk, stand in a certain way for a reason. We only have one chance to make a good first impression and we are judged constantly. Everybody does it and it happens to all. It’s human nature. Attempting to read or rather skim people, figuring out if they are friend or foe and how much of a threat you really are. Often a lot of those assumptions are plainly wrong. But rarely we take the time to find out. There is an all Polish saying that says;’How they see you is how they write about you’. Perception is everything  and how we come across matters. I don’t think anybody is immune to prejudice and stereotyping. We learn about other people and their  lives everyday. Just because you’re a member of one minority doesn’t mean you understand all other forms of prejudice.  We all assume, we all jump to conclusions. That saying about making a donkey out of you and me when you do it is there for a reason. We are human and we trust what we know. My hope is that we can learn, expand our horizons and understand more.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Electric or manual?

When we first came to Gainesville, my parents bought me an electric wheelchair from a local store before they left. They wanted me to have a sure way for me to get to school and be everywhere on time. I’ve had very little experience wheeling myself around and we didn’t practice the route from my apartment to the university. I didn’t even have the bus routes figured out until the very first day. I resisted using it on day to day basis, but it was like an insurance policy of sorts. But I remember being in it that one day I went out to explore the town a little bit. Then the battery died on me at 1 o’clock at night. I wasn’t really sure what I should do, the chair was heavy and not really designed to be pushed at somebody. I discovered I was able to get a little more juice out of it, by turning it off and on again. I was progressing in small increments… on/off/on, a bit forward until l believe two hours later when I ended up i8n front of my building with no power to go any further. Luckily, someone must’ve called the police and they helped me in. I haven’t used it since. I didn’t want to feel that powerless, figuratively and literally ever again. As slow as I may be, I vowed,   regardless of how much earlier I would have to get up in the morning, I will rely on my own body and my muscles. And over time I did get better. In those initial few months my arms got bigger, I’ve lost some weight and I became stronger. The chair started gathering dust, then was shipped off to a storage unit. In my new apartment it ended up rusting on the patio, until we’ve had to throw it out on my last move. And I’m reminded of this story every time someone suggests I get an electric chair. Bus drivers comment on it a lot although they’re not really allowed to make that kind of remarks.

Truth be told I never wanted one, but that’s a personal preference. I know plenty of people who live active, exciting lives riding in those things. I just felt very passive- like the world was only happening around me and I was watching, not fully interacting with it. I like to depend on me. I like to do as much as I can for myself. I choose to retain as much control over my life as I can and I enjoy putting my body to work. I have also never been one of the people who are naturally slender. Having to roll myself for blocks and blocks up the hill makes me sweat and my heart beats faster. In my day it’s probably the only type of exercise I have. And  it can be exhausting. I have never seen so many people with weight problems until I moved to America. And I see it particularly with those who use scooters and electric wheelchairs.

And I understand why- they barely move all they long, just sit in one spot maneuvering with a  joystick. Bad diet and no exercise can make you really big. I’ve seen people who barely fit in the sit. At least when I get somewhere far and I come back and my arms are sore I get a good feeling about myself. Also, my wheelchair is an active sports model. Made out of carbon fiber and titanium, it’s superlight and cost $4400 when I got it. It was not a cheaper choice than a scooter it was a conscious choice of a lifestyle. Built to my measurements in Switzerland. If I need a ride, taking it apart, loading, unloading and assembly is a breeze. And looking at the state it’s in now, with all the mileage on my tires I’d say I got my money’s worth.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

“What makes you go on?”

Something odd happened to me on Tuesday night.  Someone wanted to talk to be about suicide. It was one o’clock in the morning and I was ready to head home from my weekly karaoke outing when a young man stopped me. He explained he wanted to know more about me, because for the longest time he wanted to take his own life and I seem to have it together. He asked: “But you’re in a wheelchair! ( a sentiment he repeated many times throughout the conversation), what makes you go on every  day?” it was unthinkable to him that indeed I can have a disability and still find happiness in life. It’s not that I’m always ecstatic and life goes my way all the time. There are times that I feel confused and lost and sad or downright unhappy. Everybody has those moments when they want to be someone else somewhere else. But I can honestly say I never had any thoughts to end my life. I don’t want to trivialize his experience. He was 24, seemingly funny,intelligent and good looking, with nothing visibly ‘wrong’ with him. He did say he just broke up with his girlfriend, but that he’s been having those thoughts continuously for quite some time now. And I don’t know what it must be like to be in such a dark place all the time that nothing you do can ever bring you joy, I just can’t relate. But I think it’s a real problem, an illness of the mind and soul that prevents you from enjoying all the things you were blessed with.

I know that people say that if someone wants to take their life they just do, while others just talk about it. But I really didn’t want to take that risk, so I  stayed a bit longer. I ordered another drink and I introduced him to all my karaoking friends, as eclectic of a bunch they are. He told me he looks up to people “like me” when he sees individuals in wheelchairs every day. But to me, he’s the inspiration. It makes me appreciate what I have so much more. I have passion and gladness in my life, things that I often take for granted. When you don’t like it where you are, you move somewhere else. When you don’t like who you’re becoming you strive to change who you are. But I can’t imagine what it must be like to not like yourself to an extent you would just end it, because one thing you can never escape from is yourself. One place you can never leave behind is your head.

It’s simple really. My wheelchair has always been a bigger issue to those who noticed it and turned it into one than it ever has been for me. From where I’m sitting if the outside world is not accessible enough for me to get somewhere, yes, it’s upsetting and yes, it’s annoying, but the problem is not with me, it’s with the world. And I’m out to change it.  When he asked me what are the things that keep me going I said I have plenty. I have a family that loves me and plenty of friends. I have places I go to and things I like doing. I have dreams and goals and I want to help other people. I’m trying to start up a non profit and stir up some awareness. I have passion for what I do, plenty of humor, I can’t wait to get started and network and start accomplishing things. I like mochi and Starbucks, movies and karaoke. I like to travel and explore and there’s so many things I haven’t seen. I get excited about getting a sandwich at Subway or a salad at relish. I strive to make my parents proud and I really do get excited about the little things in life.  I’m always curious about other people. Meeting someone new is often more fun than a movie or a night of playing trivia. And a lot of times  I feel like I’m inspired. And motivated. And on a mission.  I always say- if my Cerebral Palsy is a problem for you, then, well, you’re the one with a problem. Because I’m just getting started. What it boils down to I guess is that I do like my life. I have plenty of faults but I do like myself. I wanted to help him, because if there was anything I could do I would do it, even at the cost of him thinking it’s so much worse for me. I really don’t think that’s the case- I enjoy my life. Could it better/ Of course. But it’s mine and it’s a work in progress.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

“Dynasty” and me.

You’ll probably laugh when I say that American TV shows were a big part of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong- I read a lot, I swallowed books whole as a child and my mom made sure I had varied interests and knew a thing or two about the world.  I’m talking about a cultural phenomenon that took Poland-a nation coming out of communism- by storm.  No TV show was bigger than Dynasty. It’s hard to explain what it was really. Entire generations would watch it together, kids, parents, younger people and seniors. My grandmother who lived on a farm and my family in the city. Yes, we knew it was ridiculous and over the top but it was incredibly fun to watch. It was a different time then. We only had two TV channels as opposed to a gazillion repetitive stations we have today with nothing interesting ever on. Families actually watched things together and talk about it afterwards. It was a bonding experience. Today it’s embarrassing to admit you even own a TV set not to mention you watch something on it. My mom would make us some tea or a fruit homemade shake or a snack before it was something to look forward to. Dynasty in all its silliness appealed to all classes and all ages. There was a ‘Dynasty’ bubble gum that was sold in Poland because children watched the show too and one of the commercials for the coffee creamer Completa famously claims that a beverage without it was like Dynasty without Alexis.

But the early 1990’s was a different time in Poland. We didn’t have much and the world outside was still ugly and grey, but there was a sense of optimism I couldn’t really explain and that I never got again. We felt like the sky was the limit.In 1991 I was twelve. A lot of people took lives in their own hands and opened businesses. Everybody wanted to run something and own something. My father opened a local bar with a poolhall and a gym with whatever money we had left.  Not because we’ve had a lot but we were shaping our own reality. An American Dream in the heart of Europe. We owned something, something that we’ve built, something that was ours. How could we fail? For a lot of people cruel reality and hard market conditions tested and shattered their dreams and goals but for that short period, a window in time we were entrepreneurs. And I guess it makes sense. In early 1980’s Dynasty’s popularity coincided in America with the Reagan era of consumptionism . People felt it was all right to be excited about material possessions, to want to have things. And I guess this is how the Poles felt in that initial window of freedom. Much less bureaucracy, papers and permits. But kids loved it too. The Sunday morning children’s show Teleranek would often include a Dynasty corner or bits from the set.

I remember how my classmates would reenact certain bits of the show,we would slam the door, storm out and some of my friends would practice  their German class conversations on a fight that Joan Collins’ Alexis had with another character she was out to destroy that week.  My friend, a boy no less- used to do a spot on impression of her in the sixth grade.I never really related to my grandmother- she lived in the country side and had her own little world there. But it was fun to think that this is something we all shared. Last week I decided to have a Dynasty party- a lot of my friends got excited about it, because the name reminded them of a different time. Of course it’s different for Americans,  but over here people were watching the show with friends, getting together for drinks often in character.  Americans loved it for pushing the envelope- it was a show of ‘firsts’. A first strong ,business savvy female antagonist and a first openly gay character on a TV drama. We liked it because of the theme, the sophistication, taste, the over the top elegance of the characters  even when they were being vicious. It’s an 80’s thing. You had to had been there.

For me oddly, I think about the closeness with my family. It’s similar to how westernesque Bonanza brought families together in the 60’s. When I was in rehabilitation institution in Poland after all day of exercising I needed something to look forward to. I needed that escapism. And I was curious how I’d react to it today. The idea came to me when talking to a good friend of mine who has never seen it. Given how much older she was I thought to myself how can this be? We better remedy that.I ’ve had people over and I was surprised watching the pilot episode how well acted it was and how much fun we had watching it. Of course with the missing son, the long lost daughter, the made up country of Moldavia it all lost its flair. But not everything on the tube needs to be believable to be enjoyable, it’s fantasy. Lynda Evans, Joan Collins, Catherine Oxemberg were part of my childhood in a very interesting time. The time of transition. There were of course other TV show, probably not with such incredibly wide appeal (and it’s funny how the show exploded in world wide popularity after it was cancelled in America) and other cultural aspects of that time that I remember (perhaps one day I will write about the first CD player my mom brought from Germany), but it’s interesting how the Carringtons and Colbys hypnotized the entire nation at one time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dressed for success

Getting dressed takes more time and effort for me. Think about it- If you walk you can stand up, pull your pants up in one move, tuck your shirt in before you and you are ready to go. I on the other hand put clothes  on sitting or laying down and I adjust everything when I kneel. When I’m on the floor I’m at a risk of getting dirty or picking up some lint. If I move to much, things I’m wearing may wrinkle, shift or turn to the side.  When I sit in my chair again I have to watch out for my dress shirt so that it doesn’t get pulled out of my pants. It’s a very physical process for me and I have to turn and change positions  frequently to do it right. My knees and legs are strongly spastic and it enhances when I’m stressing or pressed for time. If I have to fight with my own body that way putting on my pants and socks actually takes longer. Yes, I have some mobility in all my limbs so I can make work. I can lift myself or stand against furniture or with a grab bar around, but then I’m adjusting my clothing with just one hand. I kneel all roll over precisely because I need two to pull my shirt in and put a belt on. I also have only one fully functional hand, so while I use my right hand to assist me, I do buttons with my left one only. If I can’t quite get it at the first go, I get frustrated and stressed. Smooth dress socks have a very slippery feel and I’m not really comfortable in them if I’m wearing elegant shoes, given that my footrest is at angle and my feet feel like they are sliding out. And I do need the secure support that it otherwise gives me. The hair… it’s hard to play around with wax or gel with just one hand and laying down or leaning against something I  have to watch out that I don’t mess it up again.

I moved to Florida also because of the weather. Before I picked Gainesville, having completed a Cambridge run 2 –year course of English law, I was briefly contemplating picking a program in the UK. My parents wouldn’t have loved for me to be closer to home, but I had two major concerns that made me decide against coming to the British Isles. Accessibility and weather. Layers and layers of clothing, dressing and undressing, limiting your movements, getting caught in the wheels, or dirty from my tires. The thing about Florida is- you put on a T-shirt, jeans and some shoes and you’re ready to go.  My feet are too spastic for me to even attempt to wear flip flops and quite honestly, I don’t find it very classy to have your feet out in the open like that anyway, but less work means less time to get ready. I however chose a profession that requires me to make that effort very often. Wheeling yourself everywhere takes more energy than walking and I don’t have a car. Having a dress shirt on or God forbid a suit jacket make you feel really warm to be outside during the day in Florida. Sometimes it’s hot enough when you are wearing a T-shirt. Add to it the exercise of having to roll yourself for however many blocks to get where you need to. At the same time you need to watch out that the sides of your jackets don’t get caught in anything, that your sleeves don’t get too dirty and no item of clothing sticks out from your chair.  Tight shirts and jackets really restrict  your movement and I rely on my arms to get around so I must have that freedom. it feels like a day’s work already and you’re not even there. And all of this doesn’t matter. What does is how you present yourself.  And that you’re there and you look sharp. Because most importantly you must  be and look professional

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Football and the other football

I rarely use my blog to comment on current affairs, but not too often my home country hosts an international sports event of such magnitude. Poland has waited for decades for opportunity like that, an honor shared with Ukraine. The eyes of the world seem to be on those two states as they have an unusual chance to present themselves as modern, open and inclusive. Everybody back home seems to be eating, sleeping breathing football,  called soccer in America, as Euro 2012 European Football Championships play out. I’m of course on the other side of the Atlantic and I’m not much of a sports fun, but you can feel the excitement even here. It’s not simply a sporting event. It’s a cultural, economic and political opportunity, something unprecedented in my country’s history. And I’m obviously proud. But right next to headlines about rivalries on the field I read about how Polish and Russian  soccer fans, or should I say hooligans face off right before and after the game, starting riots all over Warsaw. Things got out of control, the police couldn’t contain it and there it was for the whole world to see, some people were not there to celebrate and have fun, but to beat the others to a pulp. It’s of course nothing new when it comes to Polish soccer and I even hear of team “fans” setting up intentional “honorable” fights. And it also happens in Western Europe, but is somewhat less visible. All this anger, aggression, racism and xenophobia tries to overshadow a carnival of sporting emotions. But I ask myself: why does it have to bare all those negative emotions. Americans also have something they call “football”, although they rarely use feet and it’s not really a ball. I don’t really understand it, but I like going to the games and I love everything around it.

An American football game feels in many ways like an entertainment event. Well prepared, polished and packaged. It’s a fun way to spend time with your family, I even see kids in attendance sometimes and everybody is having fun. It’s always very safe. And it doesn’t matter which team you’re rooting for. And yes, emotions ran high, I’ve seen grown people crying when their team lose. I  live in Gainesville, home of the Florida Gators. And the University has been very smart to capitalize on the popularity of the games, football is a significant source of revenue for the school. Alumni love the Gators so much, that they visit years later, buy season tickets or make a gift to the team. But it’s not only the football players who are the Gators, it’s all of us. All other teams share the Gator name, UF students call themselves Gator Nation and are “proud to be a Florida Gator” as one of the cheering chants go. There’s a sense of unity, there’s a sense of fun and excitement. And yes, the game is divided into quarters and it stops every  few minutes which is a good opportunity to push hot dogs, drinks and merchandise on people, but I’m willing to spend if I enjoy myself. From what I’ve seen, if it happens (and I’ve never seen it) that somebody gets rowdy, the crowd quiets them. We eat, we sing, we hold hands. It’s more like a picnic or a show (with strong product placement) than a game. I would never go to a match in Poland, I’d be too afraid that a disgruntled will hurt me. Here, I feel safe. It’s not even that emotions are being played down. We have an annual show called “Gator Growl” during which UF students repeatedly mock other teams and it’s low brow humor. Yes, we don’t like those other schools- they’re strange. Yet, there are never any problems when visiting students use the same buses, proudly display their fan gear or even sing their school spirit songs. Because sports are just that and rivalries should be friendly. I’m outraged to see that kind of behavior on streets of any European city however isolated it may be. This is not human behavior, it’s animal instinct.  I’m ashamed to even see it. We’re so proud of our heritage, our culture, our history. Europeans sometimes feel superior. Well, I did not see that yesterday. Americans could teach us how to have fun and relax and keep our emotions at bay.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My town

I didn’t know what to expect when I moved to Gainesville. My idea of what American college experience was like was lifted from TV shows, “Felicity” , “A Different World” and the final season of “Saved By the Bell”. I was hoping for an incredibly intellectual setting. Well read and traveled ambitious people having endless debates about philosophy and art at all night cafes. I was hoping to see a stimulating city of young students driven by their causes. What I found didn’t quite live up to that image, but it became home. I don’t even know if college town is a proper term for it.  After all it has a significant local population with families that have lived here for generations. It feels more like a small Florida town with a university component at its heart that suddenly exploded making the whole thing spread out and grew. The two sides of Gainesville, the local and the transient, as students graduate and eventually live, grew together side by side. Symbiotic to an extent that you can’t be sure where one ends and the other begins, yet very distinct in many ways. Often it feels like it’s two cities pasted into one. Many of my friends that came here from bigger places told me that there is nothing to do here. I used to respond that boredom is a state of mind and you should always find ways to entertain yourself. But truthfully, I think I was just excited that I was able to go places and do things by myself, something I couldn’t do in my wheelchair in Warsaw. Everywhere I went felt like fun, because I never experienced it before. And then you had school that occupies the rest of your time, so between your work and relaxation you really don’t go on thinking too much about where you are. You have a goal and you’re here for a purpose. When you graduate, things change. Many of my friends used the  years in Gainesville to get wild and crazy, to live it up before moving on to their respectable, study careers. Very few decide to stay because from their perspective this is not a place you live in- it’s temporary. Sure, twenty years later they will reflect on the period as the best times of their lives, but they won’t settle down here. A friend asked me today if I’m considering moving away after she read one of my other entries from a few months ago. And the truth is, it’s something that is always in the back of my mind. I like it here, but I’m not quite at home. If a work offer or an opportunity to join a cause in New York, Washington DC or anywhere in America arises I will consider it. Yes, Gainesville has a busy bar scene. It also has theatre, arts and culture. A lot of it is however offered through the University. It leaves you feeling disconnected when you’re no longer part of the student body.

There’s not much to do when you’re over 28, but not quite 40. I feel a bit too old or should I say, mature to hang out with the 19-21 year olds that do backflips on buses, trip on high heels and vomit on sidewalks, but I’m not old or should I say local enough to frequent some of those other places. It’s a problem for some of my other friends as well. Gainesville doesn’t have much for these who decide to stay here, but transition out of the college life and are not from the area. Another friend complained that dating for her becomes a problem when she can’t find a scene for people around 30 and  she refuses to meet people online.  I would appreciate more culture and  entertainment. I guess it doesn’t matter when you have a car and can easily drive to either Jacksonville or Orlando, but I don’t have that luxury.  I need change, excitement and stimulation. While I’m too young to turn old I think I’m starting to feel too old for my town. Yes, I can force myself and power through it to have fun, but that’s not the point.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The kids are all right

First, there was my brother. I don’t remember what the problem was, but I remember  hearing that quite a portion of his childhood was spent on doctor visits and X-rays. I know he had some posture  problems growing up and I don’t know if that’s related but he turned out fine. Then I was born. At the beginning there was a lot of worrying, praying, stressing about whether or not I’d survive. Then there was a childhood of exercising, of daily routines with my parents always on a mission to incorporate new things into my day to make me better. Conductive Education, horse ridding, swimming, crawling, whatever the next big approach to Cerebral Palsy was at the time. We would travel to meet big name bio energy therapists someone read about in a paper and healers, we even tried Japanese massage and some Russian magical device curing people with electrical currents. A lot of those novelties had waiting lists, visited the town on a limited engagement. There was no end to my parents’  hope and determination and I wrote about it before. Worrying about getting  me up the stairs to the classroom every day turned into adulthood of worrying if I can get somewhere in my wheelchair and how. I’ve learnt to live with my disability but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t effect me every day.

So when my brother had his first child not too long ago ( he has two small children now) and given he was in his late 30’s the one thought that kept going through my mind was- I hope it’s OK, I hope it doesn’t have anything. Because both my brother and I had something- affecting not only us, bot also our parents. But both my nephew and niece are healthy, regular children. And I was extremely relieved that my brother and wife were spared this life of worrying and forging new paths everywhere. It must be refreshing to be just like everybody else, to not stick out everywhere you go, to have problems, yes, but regular family problems like the ones people on TV shows have.The will get to go to school, get good grades, get bad grades, play sports, play instruments, date, break hearts and have their hearts broken and travel for fun rather than therapy. Just be normal. To not have a cause, to not be a cause, worry about ramps, awareness, prejudice, other people’s thoughts,  your posture, your mobility. I don’t mind my disability because I never lived without it, but I never signed up for it, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. When the kids were born and they were fine, I was relieved. For once, disability was not a front and center issue.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Homeless of Gainesville

I wanted to start the week on a lighter note by introducing my readers to the area I live in…. and its residents. I live in Gainesville, a college town in Florida, home of the Gators. If you look around my neighborhood however,you’ll find very few students, unless it’s late at night and they are frequenting the local bar scene. Downtown is were many locals live – and quite a few homeless people as well. My apartment is just a few blocks away from the old bus station that they adopted as their resting area, St Francis House, a local shelter, yet my apartment is considered to be in Gainesville’s prime location. Just a short walk from restaurants, shops and bars. Most of the city’s bus routes connect in my neighborhood, which is part of the reason I chose it, despite the price. You see, I’m in a wheelchair and I don’t drive. When I lived in other parts of town I’ve spent hours on the bus going to and from places to get food everyday. On weekends, in the summer and during holidays certain routes don’t run, finish early or are reduced making getting home a difficult task. But the trade off was not only paying more rent but also – my unusual neighbors right around the corner. Gainesville has a well established veteran’s hospital that draws a lot of homeless into the city. I don’t mind them, they don’t bother me. Many are talkative and respectful. I think we established a rapport of sorts. I see a lot of the same faces every day, and every day they ask me for money. If I decline, they let me be and often they want to help me. I don’t fear them as I leave my house or go back at night unless they’re somewhat disturbed. Sometimes I see people talking to someone as if they were standing right next to them, yelling or fighting an invisible enemy. Those situations are scary and I avoid passing the downtown plaza at night. Most however are civil. One man asks me for forty five cents everyday as if I would carry that kind of change exactly. Some make up stories: once someone wanted a dollar for the bus when the busses were no longer running, while other people claimed they were just released from Army or prison that day not releasing that I’ve heard that same  story a week earlier. My favorite was when a man said he needed to buy tampons for his wife. I used to give in to some of those demands when I didn’t live in the area, now I just don’t carry cash. They are never violent or aggressive in anyway at least to me and many seem to watch out for my safety. Some can carry a good conversation, stop and chat or even play chess. Many carry everything they own in bags and backpacks on carts or bikes. A man had a dog sitting in a shopping cart like a child and one time I saw something that appeared to be a dog sled on wheels ridding on the street. Some want to earn their money by helping local businesses and bars close. Others just go from person to person asking for a handout. There’s this one man, a street prophet named Eugene who claims to know the Bible by heart despite never reading it, making it rain when he cries and causing the wind to move the leaves on tree branches. He also takes sole credit for me passing the Bar exam. In midst of all of this I’m never  threatened and I always feel safe. I know it’s superficial and it could change at anytime, but for now, I’m fine. I am more concerned about crossing the street at a busy intersection at night than bumping into somebody [knock on wood]

Friday, June 1, 2012

The practice of law

I was lucky enough to be sworn in to the Florida Bar in a private ceremony by a judge with strong connections to the Klausner family. He was excited to see me started and encouraged me to appear at that courthouse on business frequently. It’s a new building, he noted, modern and wheelchair accessible, with everything I would need. But he was only partially right. Yes, the courtrooms had no steps, there were ramps everywhere, the building had elevators and you could remove any chair to have me sit there, be it the counsel’s table or the witness stand.  But trying a case out of a wheelchair creates a number of other complications. In the courtroom what matters is not only what you say, but how you say it and how you present it. In law school I’ve taken a class on trial practice and a large chunk of our time was spent discussing where and how to stand, how to move with confidence and what to do with a podium. You put it in a different place during direct examination and somewhere else during cross. Sometime it’s best to move around during questioning, sometimes it’s better to stay still. It’s not just distracting theatrics- you want to convey to jurors that you’re skilled  and able and you know what you’re doing. Presentation is key and people tend to jump to conclusions- so you want to put your best foot forward. When I was presenting in that courtroom a few years ago, they had no podium I could use at the height of the wheelchair. That essential tool that lawyers read from, lean against for a boost of confidence or move around the room was missing. I was uncovered, there was nothing but me sitting in a wheelchair for the jurors to see. There was no place for me to even put my papers down. And not having any workable solution in place stressed me out even further. We are used to reading the body  language of people when they stand or walk. What they do with their arms, position their body, cross their legs. Those signals are obviously obscured when you’re in a wheelchair and you have to use your arms to wheel yourself around. And a lot of those jurors will take their assumptions and prejudice to the courtroom with them. Happens to anyone, even to judges.

During my class presentation I was marked down for not wearing a tie. Judge thought I was unprofessional or disrespectful . I couldn’t wear one because my neck is too large for my shirt size to comfortably button them all the way up. With the last one undone it doesn’t look much better with the loosen tie. But the reason doesn’t matter. What mattered was the judge analyzed and assumed things just by looking at me based on his experience. I’m actually grateful for this because it made me think about what people think and how I come across . Those are the instances we know of. There must be other situations I’m judged and I don’t even know. And then I’m slowed down by carpets in the courtroom. Think about it, I need to be quick and elegant when I come up to the judges table, to the stand and the podium, but my wheels are sinking in the floor. But I’ve noticed there’s one instance where I have the upper hand and it doesn’t matter. When I’m presenting about disability issues, because it appears like I speak from experience, like I embody the case.