A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Taxi-drivers: Historians, Scientists, Economists, Philosophers, Poets

Thursday’s cab driver from my home in Seattle’s Central District to Ballard, Seattle’s Norwegian North, was a philosopher, as so many cab drivers are. He was kind, maybe sixty years old, with a relatively lean body and the heavy accent of an Italian transplant. He must have had a language disability because his speech seemed to be from the back of his throat, low and monotone. His lips didn’t move much, and because I don’t hear well I had to listen carefully to understand what he said. He was a talker.

Though I describe him as lean, he said that when he goes back to Italy his cousins call him “Fatty.”

“America is the land of the free and the obese,” he told me, turning to face me. I laughed nervously, amused and wanting to be friendly but also wanting him to look at the traffic in front of him. “It’s not the sugar,” he said, turning briefly to glance at the traffic in front of us before turning back to me. “It’s the salt. People say they love fresh orange juice, but it’s full of salt. ‘If you want fresh juice,’ I say to them, ‘you have to squeeze it yourself.’ Don’t get it from a can. Too much salt. The ADA started in 1972 under President Nixon. It’s B.S. Now we’re even more obese. Fifty pounds more even though the ADA started because of obesity. 1972. B.S. America is obese in every way.”

He turned back to the road, and I relaxed, both because he was facing the road and I wasn’t trying to interpret his accent through his disability any more. The traffic wasn’t moving, so he turned again to face me. “Traffic,” he said. “How long have you lived in Seattle.”

“Twenty-four years. Since 1991.”

He glanced briefly at the road, the cars still not moving, and said, “Then you’ve seen changes. Me, 1993. I used to know everyone in this town. I was the only cab driver who would go to your neighborhood then. No one else would go there. Too many guns. Too many knives. But everyone knew me.”

“Today, the traffic is because of the president of China. (He then said some things that I couldn’t decipher.) The Chinese government keeps American money. When Americans spend money in China, the businessman has to give it to the Chinese government for Chinese money. The government devalues the American dollar and collects American money for, say, five years. Then they raise the value and sell it back for more money. B.S. I wonder if the president and his wife are eating in the International District. Probably not. Brought their own chef. They have money. It’s B.S. What’s the address again?”

Somehow, my economist taxi-driver knew that the traffic ahead had moved, so he looked forward and drove to the next stoplight, braked, and turned around.

The light changed, the traffic opened, and he finally turned to face front and drive, turning back from time to time to toss his words over his shoulder at me. “We will have another warm winter,” he told me. “People say it’s CO2. Al Gore. B.S. The world was made from CO2. People make CO2 when they go to the bathroom two, three times. You know what I mean. A hole in the atmosphere. B.S. The earth is warming because the core is cooling and the heat escapes and goes into our atmosphere. That’s where the CO2 comes from. Not cars. A person makes more CO2 than a car. Al Gore. B.S. What’s the address again?”

“I was on a research project in Ecuador in 1967. We learned that. I was seventeen, making $35 an hour. That was a lot of money then. B.S. America is obese in every way. The land of the free and the obese. What’s the address again?”

I love talking with taxi-drivers, though I didn’t say much to get this one going. I didn’t say much to get the guy who drove me home going either.

I had to wait a ridiculous 45 minutes for this driver, but he turned out to be worth the wait. He was friendly, and helped me and my backpack into his cab. He wore jeans and a green baseball cap, and I wondered what it would be like to have a job where I wore a baseball cap.

He apologized for being late and explained that he’d gotten the call on upper Queen Anne. Something wrong with the computer. It was a pretty day, and I didn’t have to be anywhere soon, so I didn’t mind. I was glad this driver didn’t turn around to look me in the eye when he talked to me.

We headed down the road but stopped because a workman holding a stop sign indicated we should. As a crane entered the street to work on a giant new apartment building, I said that I was amazed by how much construction there is in the city now.

He took off his green baseball cap to scratch the bald spot in the back of his head and said, “We need rent control in this city. My daughter’s rent just went up, so she bought a condo and pays about the same as she would have paid in rent. In New York, our family lived in a rent-stabilized apartment. Nice. They have rent control in New York for people whose families have been in the same place for generations, but rent stabilization is what they have now. Rent can go up 3% a year and there’s a court devoted to disputes with apartment owners. Big court. Giant. That’s fair. That’s what we need in Seattle. Nobody has rent control anymore. So do you work, or what do you do?”

“I worked in schools for 27 years,” I told him. “I loved it, but I got sick and had to leave that work. Now I’m at the University of Washington working on a Masters in Social Work.”

“Theodore Roethke taught at the University of Washington,” he told me. “He was a great teacher. Roethke said he couldn’t have been a poet without having been a teacher. He said everyone could write poetry. Great guy. You heard of him?”

“I have,” I told him. I didn’t mention that I quote Roethke’s poem, “I Wake to Sleep and Take my Waking Slow,” every morning.

“Great guy. One of his students died during a break when she was riding a horse. She lived on Beacon Hill. He wrote a poem for the funeral, “Elegy for Jane.” He read it there and gave her parents the original before he left. Nice guy. I won’t bore you with my analysis.”

I taught poetry in high schools for years and now I run a poetry club for seniors in an assisted living facility. I even have a poetry exchange at the bottom of our stairs at home. Of course I wanted to hear his analysis! I didn’t tell him about my background, but I did tell him I’d love to hear his analysis

Instead, he quoted the poem’s beginning:

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils; 

And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile; 

And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.

And she balanced in the delight of her thought, 

A wren, happy, tail into the wind, 

Her song trembling the twigs and small branches. 

The shade sang with her; 

The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing, 

And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose. 

“Good guy, Roethke,” my taxi-driver said somewhat wistfully. He pronounced the poet’s name with a hard “t” as if the “h” weren’t there, so I told him I’d always pronounced the “th.”

“No, he said it like ‘Rudke.’ He was a friend of my father’s. Great guy. He had a lot of friends. Big guy with teeny legs. He was friends with Dylan Thomas, too. They spent two days walking around New York together. Burly guys. They were not effetes. That must have been some great bullshit. Thomas always wanted Roethke to go salmon fishing in Wales, and Roethke wanted Thomas to go salmon fishing in the Northwest.

“My family reads “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” every Christmas. You heard of Dylan Thomas?”

I said I had, and he quoted from Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill.”

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.

As he finished quoting, he said, “There’s more. That’s not all of it. Which house is yours?”

I asked him to circle the roundabout and leave me off at my sidewalk, easier that way with my disabilities. As he helped me out of the car, he noticed the poetry box at the bottom of our stairs and whisked around with gusto to say, almost to shout, “What’s this? A poetry box? Are you a poet?”

He had been quoting enthusiastically from two of the English language’s most-loved poets. I have published one poem (unless you count the poem in my high school’s literary magazine.)

I said, “Yes” and bid him a good day. I was already having a good day, and it was still morning.

Monday, September 7, 2015


In memory of Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and writer

An obituary from The New York Times, titled: "Author Oliver Sacks was inspired by brain's quirks," earlier this week recounted the life of the man who wrote The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

This is the first narrative book (after Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems) that Ann read aloud to me after my neurosurgery. I have of course always known intellectually how amazing and impossible to understand the brain is, but I've experienced that awesome complexity in a new way since my diagnosis of a brain tumor in my fourth ventricle and brain stem eight and a half years ago.

After brain surgery, lots of odd things happened (like I craved banana and mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder Bread, a staple of my youth.) My Southern accent, which had waned after years in the Pacific Northwest, returned. (I still have it, and am glad I do.) A month or so after surgery, at a check up with my Rehab doctor, I showed her that when I touched my left middle finger to my left thumb, the two jumped around like Mexican Jumping Beans on a hot plate. 

I asked, "Why do they do that?" She shrugged and said, "Something in your brain." She was--rightly--more interested in the ways my neurosurgery impacted my living, but I was still  curious. Why did that happen?

I loved Sacks and his tales. I loved Sacks because, as a doctor and writer, he showed such respect for his patients and sometimes questioned common beliefs. For example, he told one story of three brothers, triplets, with autism. The three didn't communicate with most people but sometimes gathered in a tight circle and played a sort of game where one would announce a number, the next would share its square, and up they would go on for hours. They clearly delighted in sharing these numbers and opened their circle to Dr. Sacks when he participated (using a calculator on the sly). 

The three were "cured" of this obsession, and became functional enough to do janitorial chores--a success as seen by their therapists and those who worked to have them join the work world, the "normal" world. But Sacks noticed that they no longer huddled together and no longer expressed the joy he had seen before they'd been "cured." Sacks questioned whether this cure had been worth it in the cost of joy of these triplets. 

As I read the story, I wondered what makes a person human: work or joy? Joy. This, I think, was Sacks' point. (I've recounted the story as I remember it, so it may differ from his original.) 

I loved how honest Sacks was about his doubts and about his own "quirks." As I remember, he had a neurological condition with which he could function in the work world: He didn't recognize people's faces, so if his secretary got a hair cut (this is the example I remember), he didn't recognize her. 

I also read in the obituary that he was gay and had come out in one of his books. Being gay would have been considered quirky, too, at that time. Some people still think it's quirky, or worse. As I look back, I call his revelation of his own quirkiness courageous, acts of coming out that have made the world safer for me as a lesbian and as a brain tumor survivor.

How strange that we celebrate the "normal" and pathologize the "abnormal" in our culture. In the introduction to The Disability Reader, umpteenth edition, I read that this celebration of the 
"normal" began with the birth of statistics and its application to the social sciences (in the 19th century?) Being in the middle of the bell curve was--and still is--seen as good while being at either extremity is bad. 

This idea was and is especially strong in middle schools, where many kids just want to be "normal," and don't want to stand out, even for something adults may see as good. For example, a decade ago, when I was assessing ninth graders for a reading program for high school students reading at the elementary school level, I assessed one girl whose scores were remarkably low, but she read texts well above her grade level beautifully, with full comprehension. 

When I asked her why her reading scores from middle school were so low, she told me, "I purposefully didn't do well. I was afraid they were going to put me in an advanced class, and I didn't want to be there." I didn't ask her why. I just told her to do her best from now on because I had considered moving her into a class because I thought she read at the first grade level.

Perhaps she didn't want to be in an advanced class because she didn't like the paradigm of learning as competition. She was sophisticated enough so that this might have been her reason. Or perhaps she didn't want to be in an advanced class because she didn't want to stand out among some group she admired. This would have been appropriate for her age. 

This summer I've been studying a text, the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that codifies that middle school paradigm. Until 1973, the text,used throughout the US as the text on mental illness, categorized gay people as mentally ill. It still categorizes transgendered people as mentally ill. To me, these demarcations expose prejudices about difference, and raise an awareness that I may not notice other prejudices because they are consistent with my own.

My own "quirks" have become more noticeable throughout the years: first I was a Southern girl who didn't cater to boys and men, then a Southern girl who didn't want to marry, then one who did but left her husband and married a woman, then a lesbian, and now a brain tumor survivor with disabilities. 

As I've become increasingly "quirky", I've also increasingly appreciated the genius of those at the outer edges of the bell curve. My friend Lori, who doesn't communicate with speech because of advanced Cerebral Palsy, has taught me new ways to communicate (and has taught me to understand when someone is mocking me even if she can't speak). My friend Karen gave up a home and has been house and dog sitting for two years. My friend Tash identifies as trans, and I'm trying to learn to use the pronouns "they" and "them" with Tash. 

I admire this genius, even as I know I often seek to be as "normal" as possible: I don't seek help unless I absolutely need it; I gave up work and driving only when my disabilities made them impossible; I don't say much when I don't feel well (though I do let the world know that I need naps); I live in a middle class home in a middle class neighborhood (that's gentrifying); I argue (with my actions as well as my words) with people who seem not to see me as normal, and my argument is generally that my life is still valuable and I still have important gifts to contribute even if I'm not a valuable worker in this economy any more. (Essentially, I argue that I am normal enough.)

I want to embrace those who are "not normal", even when the person who is not normal is myself. I want our culture to move away from this insistence on normal. (Though gay marriage is now legal--and I'm glad it is--we've just been included in a circle of normalcy that still leaves many out of the normal club.)

As I was trying to figure out how to close this entry, my 95 year-old neighbor called and asked if I'd found my hearing aid. I did. It was on the table in the front hall. She laughed and said, "That's normal. I always lose my glasses or my hearing aids, and they're right there where I left them. You're either normal or you're cuckoo."

Today, I'm celebrating the genius of cuckoo or weird or whatever you want to call it. And I want to be a proud member of the outliers. I want to let my freak flag fly. I want to celebrate myself and others who aren't in the center of that bell curve.

As Emily Dickinson said in my first favorite poem:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog
I'm a weirdo, an oddball, a nobody, and there's genius in that. I suspect we all are. But unlike dear Emily, I think we should tell. How about you? Is there a pair of us?