29 June 2010

A Letter To a Thief

Dear thief,

A quick note from the people you stole from, it seems the least that we can do. Since we don’t actually have a relationship, this letter might at first seem awkward to receive, even more strange to read. But really, not any more awkward than it was for us to have you take my wife’s purse and my baby son’s diaper bag. So, a relationship based in awkwardness, that’s what we’re left with. I see we just wing it, don’t you agree?

Just a little bit about us; we are college professors, and our son is 17 months old. I would tell you more, but you probably have learned a good deal from photographs, receipts, and the like, all of which are in the purse. We are, as you might’ve been excited to find out, from the United States, specifically from a state called Michigan. We were visiting your country to be with our in-laws who live in Ottawa Ontario, about five hours east of where you took our things.

We are certainly curious about who you are. Although we will probably never meet, I have been assuming your characteristics for the last 24 hours. And, if I’m being honest, which I suppose there are good reasons not to be, most of these are not flattering. For example, I have been assuming that you are an idiot. That you are overrated in your social circles, are known for flatulence not intelligence, that you drink beer from paper cups, and that your feet smell. That, upon finding my wife’s iPhone, you giggled and hee-hawed back to the pop-up tent you are renting from your uncle, in whose backyard you use it for a home. Then, after you had somebody help you figure out what it was, called your one friend who has a phone to tell him all about it.

And I guess this is one of the reasons I dislike you so much; you make me think bad things about human beings. And for that, you are a son of a bitch.

But I feel I owe you a couple of explanations. Mostly, I think you should know what you have taken from us.

First, I bought that purse for my wife three years ago for Christmas. I don’t think she ever liked it all that much, but it became something we talked about, laughed about together. In other words, it became part of our story, part of our narrative. It would come up at almost every other occasion in which we would give each other gifts as the “what not to buy” gift. So when I gave her string of pearls for our anniversary, we talked about that purse. When she gave me TiVo for the next Christmas, the purse came up.

When we sat nervously in the waiting room at our first appointment at the adoption agency, she had the purse and we commented on it. That laughter helped ease what we were feeling.

In the purse of course you found a wallet with credit cards, $40 in cash, Social Security card, drivers license. All the predictable things that you were hoping for. Oh congratulations, by the way. $40 should buy a good deal of baked beans for you and your dog.

But you probably also found a picture of my boy Moses. I hope you meet him someday, and he and you become friends. Then maybe you room together somewhere, maybe in graduate school (though not likely if my sketches of you are correct), and that you share a lot in common. That you hang out, talk about important things, important ideas. And you might even stand up in each other’s wedding. My son will have been plotting this the whole time. He was always trying to get you comfortable with him, waiting for the moment. Were you comfortable? Did you completely trust him, even up to the moment when he kicked your butt, and told you what a doofus you were for taking his diaper bag and his mother’s purse. Even when he turned you in to the Canadian authorities, who were at the time were not considering any statute of limitation laws, assigned you to a work camp in Nova Scotia, or somewhere else very cold–did you trust Moses even then?

His diaper bag had a bunch of stuff in it that didn’t matter, bottles, Tylenol for children, some wet wipes. But it also had a shirt in it that I bought him in Arizona, along with a pair of shorts that my mother, his grandmother, bought him on that trip as well. Just clothing to you, but to me and my family, pieces of the story. The bag itself, that’s another part of the story. My wife and I had been waiting seven months to get the phone call we finally did that Thursday, a boy had been born who needed some parents. That night, frantically, we zipped through the lines at babies R. us looking for things we thought we needed. The one thing we knew we needed was a diaper bag. That bag would eventually hold the first stuffed animal I bought Moses, about 10 minutes before I met him. I have a picture of that little black dog sticking out of the backpack.

But because of you, I don’t have the backpack. I don’t have the photographs, the purse, etc.. You have them. But you have so much more, as I hope the person reading you this letter has explained. It’s like you ripped out pages from a book that we all have been writing and used them as toilet paper.

In closing, here is what I hope. I hope that you needed this stuff more than we did. In the end, it’s just stuff. Luckily, our sentimentality and memories remained untouched by your sticky fingers. Our story remains.

Hoping you are well. Keep up with the phonics lessons. They will help.

Chris, Lisa, and Moses

01 June 2010


The flow is so good, the wind is perfect.
Dodging shadows to stay warm, scavenging the sun will do me good at 9 AM this morning as I make my way to my office. My arms feel good, Moses feels the sun. So do the tree and the Raven. All three sink in to my skin, their black ink warm.

Eardrums buzzing. My friends Willie and Lucinda.

"This guy, he's driving right here on the road, right by my car, right now. In his wheelchair. He must be nuts. Probably from that big rest home on 32nd right by Eddy's House? Crazy. Anyway, my plan is to be there..."

The flow is so good, the wind is so perfect.
9:15 AM after an amazing weekend with 18 pounds of joy, my life partner, my family, and the warmth of friends singing, laughing, kind of watching a baseball game while catching up. It was very hot. I sang "if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands -- if you're chubby and you're sweating, it's your fault." Same melody.

A person on a bike just rode past me, she's counting all the different ways to tell him that it's over. Or maybe she is wondering about God. Or maybe she, like me, does the latter unconsciously. As a sort of pedal tone of my day.

9:20 AM, the sidewalk.

To the person who invented the modern technology of making sidewalks with creases, you are a son of a bitch.

Bump. My foot moves .5 inches towards a place I don't want to to be.
Bump. My hat jiggles. Will it fall off this time?
Bump. My hip jostles, and not in a good way, not in the Marilyn Monroe way. But instead, in an infuriating, "crap, I'm screwed," manner that I have understood most of my life. Sidewalks, curbs, gravel, bumps in my own lawn. They can shift my world.
Bump. Double moves for my elbow and arm.
Bump. I guess a good one this time, helps me move my arm backward where it wants to be.
Bump. The foot falls all the way.

Bump. Bump. Bump. Damn bump.

9:40 AM, the sidewalk ends.

"I don't know,... crap. How does that guy think he is going to cross this street? Unbelievable. Don't they take buses these people?"

And then it's over, the frustration of the sidewalk way behind the walk I am taking now, the sun is back. I have work to do. An amendment to the creator of sidewalks: you are still a son of a bitch, but I thank you for the bumps. They move me.

04 February 2010

Against Zoos: Figuring out Being A Vegetarian Dad

I knew we would have a problem when I saw the Tiger. Several families scuttled around the 2 inch Plexiglas, the surface of which was badly smudged by sniffing noses and slapping hands. Four, maybe five toddlers were in front of me and Moses, my six-month-old son. He was in my chest carrier, and I was hovering behind the gawkers in my wheelchair. The tiger was growling –“oh can you believe it, can you believe our luck!?” The mother screamed this as she hoisted her plump two-year-old onto her shoulder.

I wanted to yell, “Yes, I believe it you nimrod!” But I didn’t. I’m a new dad, can’t do that stuff now. But I still wanted to yell at this woman, these children. Of course the Tiger is growling, he’s scared, ticked off, hungry. And when he looks up he sees you idiots, not birds or trees, or anything that mimics where he should be. His growl is not one of triumph; it is one of sorrow and confusion.

Or so I have begun to believe.

Over the past year and a half, thanks to some persistent friends, I have stopped eating meat (sans a little fish now and then for dietary purposes, but even that is getting less frequent as I find natural substitutes). I have begun to put into practice what I have felt since I was a kid, namely that animals are amazing creatures that show love, pain, and the like. They are my companions; they are co-conspirators in the way that I make meaning for my family and myself. And as such, they deserve my respect and protection. I’m trying now to work against systems that don’t respect or protect them, namely the factory farm, fast food establishments, and obvious animal cruelty. A bunch of my friends are vegans and vegetarians, and I am completely aware of the posh nature of being such in this day and age; people now adorn themselves with ideology rather than the skins of animals. The latter is certainly less stinky, but nonetheless a wearing of some kind.

I guess it all starts with my dog Glenn, who died about five years ago. Up to my time with Glenn, I had always loved animals of all types; dogs, cats, hamsters, though not birds or snakes. Sure, these last two are blessed, beautiful creatures, just not my favorite types. But dogs, wonderful sloppy dogs, those are my favorite. And Glenn was the saint of all dogs. Glenn joined my life via an organization called Canine Companions for Independence, a not-for-profit group that matches service dogs with people with disabilities. Glenn was an enormous English Labrador, about 140 pounds at his biggest. And he was amazing.

One Glenn anecdote is about all I can bear without tearing up. Here goes. I was home with the flu, alone. My wife was teaching a class at the University of Iowa, and my daughter and I were holding down the fort. At one point in our afternoon of watching television, I coughed super hard and fell forward in my wheelchair, unable to reach my arm back up to my controller. Screwed. Or so I thought. After about three minutes of showing Glenn what I needed, he (by the grace of almighty God, and by the tender mercy of the Holy Ghost) placed his head under my hand, lifted that beautiful head just enough so that my hand found purchase on my controller once more. I cried, he licked my face.

Glenn was with me for 12 years before he died of old age and a rare skin disease nobody could figure out how to cure. And when I put him to sleep (I had waited way too long to do this) I laid to rest one of my best friends. And honestly, I mean that. I’m a firm believer that God offers animals to us as conduits of his admiration for his creation. I know that we named them in the beginning, but in the end they seem to do most of the naming of us: friend, master, pal. That Glenn was a service dog actually clarified some of my feelings about animals. I’ve come to believe, thanks to people like Jon Katz, that dogs serve all of us in very particular ways, and that our actions towards them must equal that love and devotion. In his book The New Work of Dogs, Katz shares the stories of people and their dogs, and points out that dogs are in fact our new surrogates. That they are attached to us comes as no surprise, as he suggests, because they manufacture and put forth our own lives in front of us.

So, I began to ask myself how I was able to honor dogs but not other animals like chickens, cows, pigs, etc.? Some argued that the idea of service, IE that animals are designed to serve humans, transferred into the sacrifices made by these farm animals. When they die we live, that’s their service to us. But certainly, isn’t this also a form of slavery? Isn’t this a sort of moral equation in which we, the human animal, come out way better than they, the food-animal?

I have a close friend who talked to me about his conversion to veganism as a sort of spiritual awakening. His theological understanding of food, at first, seemed a bit over the edge for me, a bit too extreme. However, he did talk to me about rethinking the idea of “dominion.” Yes, God gives us dominion over the animals, but does that mean that we are to eat them vis-à-vis domination? I’ve come to think not. Rather, I choose to think about Dominion through the memory of my old dog Glenn. I fed him, took care of him when I could, loved him, and in the end (hopefully) showed him a great deal of respect. And I suppose that “respect” transcends our normal, politically correct definition of the word. Here, I speak of respect in the Levinasian sense (although he was speaking specifically about human relationships). Levinas sought respect as a product of dialogue, out of companionship, out of reciprocity and responsibility. All of these things blend into a pretty heavy concoction of love.

Now, back to the visit at the zoo.

With this newfound vegetarian worldview, I began to see zoos as something filled with disrespect for animals. For at least the following three reasons, my taste for zookeeping had changed: first, I found myself wondering about the construction of façades, these fake (yet so convincingly real) habitats constructed to make the animals feel at home. This is not there “home.” Instead, artificial habitats are manufactured memory meant to trick, and by extension taunt, the animal into feeling pleasure. Notice, the irony. It is believed that artificial façades will make the animals feel as if they are in their own habitat. However, we are so quick to say that animals don’t actually have feelings! Well, we can’t have it both ways. These façades do nothing but confuse the animals; trickery is only profitable for those who play the tricks. In short, these enclosures lead only to the insanity of animals, or so the California Supreme Court has concluded.

Second, it dawned on me that the Genesis of zoos is wrapped up in an aggressive process of capture. A logical definition of capturing boils down to a violent dismissal of context, a brutal erasure of comfort, and separation from community. Looking at the monkeys, in particular, I was struck that while there is an appearance of “family” being shared between these creatures, that it is probably the case that none of them came from the same jungle or natural habitat. Instead, each was brought to the zoo through a variety of channels, some legal, and certainly some illegal (depending on the zoo, of course). Again, slavery comes to mind, in particular the destruction of families initiated by a systematic ignorance of family itself. No, these zoo “families” are actually manufactured communities. These monkeys had real community that they were ripped from.

Third, and finally, what convinced me most in my decision to work against the zoo’s project had to do with the manner in which these creatures were turned into spectacle. It has been argued that the American freak show of the late 19th and early 20th century held some of the darkest moments for people with disabilities. Alternately, others and I would argue that some of these folks knew exactly what they were doing standing on stage, displaying their bodies. They were taking advantage of the rubes in the audience, the idiots willing to pay money, good money, to look at difference. However, it’s the first argument about freak shows that I tend to agree with regards to zoo freaks. These animals have no choice but to parade in front of passersby, they have no real agency, and they are reliant upon those who feed them in order to survive. But they are at least being fed, you say. To which I remind us to remember the power of the feeder. The created essence of animals, their instinctual innards push them towards finding food through their own volition. When we take that away, we take away so much more. The zoo seems to be a systematic manner of spectacularizing and slavery fueled by an animal’s taught ignorance of self.

Here’s the problem. My son loved the zoo. He delighted in the animals, even at six months. I’m not at all surprised that he has a penchant for animals. I mean, for crying out loud, his favorite three bedtime books involve hippopotamuses, monkeys, a patchwork elephant named Elmer, and beavers. And wouldn’t you know it! His all-time favorite book is the brilliant Goodnight Gorilla, a story about a stinking zookeeper! Serves me right. I bought the damn thing.

Inflating the problem are my own good memories of being at the zoo with my family (Lincoln Park and Brookfield in Chicago), along with my wife’s consistent dream to walk through the Detroit zoo with our new son (a dream she had long before he came into being). So what to do?

When people find out that my wife and I are vegetarians, they ask right away if we will be raising Moses to be a vegetarian? Our answer is usually something like “we will let him decide, once he is old enough.” Translation: until he is old enough to decide, we will decide for him not to eat meat. I think this is a fine parental plan. There are no indications that a vegetarian diet fails to provide the necessary nutrition of a newborn, toddler, or little dude (3 to 7 years old). Furthermore, while my wife loves the fact that being vegetarian makes me eat healthier, my real reasons are wrapped up in politics and ideology. So, in essence, I am passing on (forcefully?) a worldview to my son when I decide he won’t eat meat. This certainly is not any different than teaching him my faith tradition, my positions on racism, sexism, or any other ism.

But, he takes some joy in seeing animals at the zoo. I’m a new father; I know at least not to take away joy when it doesn’t harm him.

But even at this early stage of his life, I need to be careful about what gives him joy. The other day he was closing and opening the crate that one of my new dogs sleeps in (note, I don’t ever shut them in there!). He loves the way the metal makes a squeaky sound. However, he does not love the way it pinches his fingers at the pivot point of the door. So, while he gets joy from the squeak, I must point out to him that this joy isn’t actually worth it. It just hurts too much.

And I guess that’s how I need to proceed with the zoo. It may be fun, but it hurts too much, too many.

05 January 2010

The Spectacular Death of Vic Chesnutt

The day I met Vic Chesnutt was very cold, late February in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It had snowed all weekend, and it was quite astonishing that Vic and his cronies from the Undertow Orchestra had made it from their previous gig. Two things stick out in my mind today as I remember this first encounter; the green furry hat that he wore the entire time I was with him, and the way in which we shared a love of profanity. Perhaps we shared more than just a love of the F. word, but I think the profanity explains it all; we both shared by these bodies that inspired profanity. Tender bones inspire rough vernacular.

We ate dinner together and talked about gigs, stairs, un-accessible stages, cigarettes, unreachable bathrooms, and the power of music to make all these things disappear. I had been a musician since the age of 15, so clubs and bars of all types made up my understanding of what it meant to play out. But Vic was a real troubadour; he talked of early tours with REM in which he lost the wheel off of his chair about 10 minutes before the show. I didn't push this, how could you lose a wheel? Anyway, he had lived it pretty hard. And I was jealous. I told him that I chose teaching as a profession in order to be able to play music on the side, a sort of consolation prize. I told him that playing music for a living seem too rough for a guy with a body like mine, and he looked at me in a way that both understood and chastised. He did it. And he did it well.

After dinner we both had a very quick cigarette in the cool air outside the venue in which he was about to play. Very quick, so damn cold. As we spoke, the words we said were muffled by the snow. Quieted by the environment.

The show was great, and yet while he was finishing up his set my wife came into the auditorium to inform you that the gas tank was leaking in my van parked outside the venue. I had to leave the show early, and never had a chance to say goodbye to him. As I waited for a tow truck I could hear him finishing up a set of haunting songs. The crowd appreciated the songs, and so did I.

I think it appropriate, and not at all hyperbole, to say that Vic was one of the most profound songwriters of the 20th century. He needs to be recognized as a postmodern poet who chose to communicate with the help of guitar, a set of jingle bells at times, and a recorder. I'm not sure why his songs first attracted me? I've been thinking about them a good deal in the last week, and I think the only explanation for my initial attraction to his work would have to be the fact that we shared a similar physicality, we shared the same problematic relationship with gravity. Before Vic, I had no role models, musically speaking. Sure, I had my heroes. Though I never really connected with Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn, on any sort of authentic level. I had always been able to paint myself into their pictures, transplant my issues into the systems and layers of their music, but I never actually felt a deep connection. My physical disability was its own narrative, separate from theirs'. And so, when a friend bought me Little, his debut, my expectations were high. Finally, a man who ate at the same table I did.

"Isadore Duncan" was the first song I ever heard written and performed by Vic Chestnutt. Such a beautiful, strange song. Nothing about disability. And then the next two songs on that record, nothing directly about being in a wheelchair. The whole record, nothing in particular about living with a body that didn't work. Certainly, if I dug a bit, did a little excavation, I could find some hints of a disabled voice. But nothing immediately apparent to the guy sitting at his computer with his earphones on hoping, longing, finally for an empathetic voice. But what I couldn't find in terms of empathy was replaced by what I did find in terms of artistry. The tendencies of his songs were not similar to anything I was listening to at the time; out of place phrasing, strange registers of harmonies and melodies, alternative instrumentation that mocked some of my favorite music. Turn off the digital machines, he said. Pick up that ancient instrument and do something different with it. Five or six listens of the record made me a bit ashamed of my own songwriting, of my own preoccupation with being disabled, of my own musical boxes.

My expectations of a disabled brotherhood were natural I think, everyone has these feelings about art. We think that origins matter so much; if we find those who share our own Genesis moment, then the art they make must be my art, our art. In this way we make art a sort of Rosetta Stone, a cure for all that ails. But art can't do this. It can stagger us, shift us to a new place of understanding, make us feel comfortable but never perfect. This is why art involves the soul, the constantly moving part of us. It must propel us, good art. Because we move with it, we never sit with it. We walk with it.

I decided that I would bring this up in our next conversation; I was scheduled to interview Vic at the 2009 Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. In preparation for that, he and I started e-mailing back and forth while he was on tour in Europe with Elf Power. Time and again our conversations ended up in the real, not the aesthetic. In one e-mail in particular we talked very frankly about how the realities of our bodies always trumped the other stuff, the things we were writing, the performances we would give, the everyday flow of activities. The spectacle of disability that others saw from the outside, those were the realities that carved our abilities, expectations, and realities. They were not spectacle to us, they were unabashedly mundane.

E-mail conversations were all that we ended up having; Vic got an infection in his foot and was unable to make the festival happen. He was disappointed, but knew that I understood what had happened, why it has happened, and how pissed off he was that it did. I said, "no worries, we'll bring you back soon, and talk about all of this stuff, and get you on stage. My students need to hear you. Cheers."

Christmas Day, 2009, Vic died. I don't know how he died, and frankly I don't want to know. All I know is that he will no longer write these songs that I had fallen in love with. The curiosity of bloggers, journalists, pop anthropologists have led to curious criticisms and explanations of suicide, etc. Indeed, it has been a spectacular death for my friend.

Read the obituaries. Listen to his name being mentioned by important people in the music industry; "he lived to fight," "he was such an inspiration," "he was one of the strongest people I knew." All admirable epitaphs, but strangely similar. Some are talking about his music, but most are talking about the spectacle. I'm not willing to deny the fact that Vic Chesnutt lived as a person with a disability, but I am willing, more than willing, to let that only be one part of my memory of him. Like all of us, he was a combination of things, a combination of talents, demons, stories, experiences.

And yet we often choose to whittle people with disabilities down to their physical condition. And we are doing it to Vic. How much does it matter that he was in a wheelchair for all of his artistic life? Certainly It, the spectacle, played a role, but shame on us if we dictate the importance of that role differently than he did. The spectacle of his death comes from a human desire and fascination with difference. The difference of bodies, the difference of minds. What's at stake here is the loss of art in place of fitting Vic into generic Western narratives about overcoming, living through, and making the best of disability. That's not what he did. He did so much more.

Take a look at the cover of his record Silver Lake. The wheelchair is there, but it's not everything. Instead it's the face, the eyes, the glance of a man who seems to know how we will perceive him. Before we make our efforts to fit Vic into a story that makes sense to us, a story that we are in control of, we should all take a look at this picture. And then of course, listen to the record itself.