Sunday, December 26, 2010

That's the spirit(s)

"[I]t was a Christmas party, one could assume there was [drinking]"

Of course! That explains it.

Why didn’t I think of that?

I’m so glad that a Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s spokesman, quoted a week or two ago in the Los Angeles Times, offered this explanation as to why there was a brawl at a Christmas party for Men’s Central Jail employees, resulting in seven deputies being relieved of duty. It certainly cleared things up.

Never mind that the Christmas party, attended by about 100, including family and friends, was for jail staff. That’s already something to get one’s head around.

And never mind that, as the spokesman helpfully pointed out, "Deputies are supposed to be peacemakers, not law violators."

What’s more, "they’re not supposed to be assaulting their fellow co-workers."

Just in case you’re wondering.

But - excuse me - I’m sorry.... I don’t get it. I’m still confused.

It’s bad enough that New Year’s Eve is devoted to drinking, if not to getting drunk. (Much for this reason, I don’t like New Year’s Eve and spent many holed up at a Quaker retreat deep in the dark, dank California redwoods.) But at least it’s done just to mark time, to celebrate a significant passage. At least it’s not done for Jesus.

I don’t get why Christmas is an excuse, an obvious, natural excuse, for drinking. I don’t get how getting drunk and even out of control celebrates the birth of Jesus, who was all about peace and love.

I’ve never forgotten about the attendant I had years ago who told me she had to stay home on Christmas Eve to make sure things were safe, what with her parents and others drinking.

So much for all being calm and bright.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sitting here in limbo

On one front, things look good, but on the other front, they don’t look so hot.

Or maybe not.

Put it another way, are we taking one step forward and another step back?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

It could be that we’ll end up taking two steps forward or two steps backwards.

Who’s to say when it comes to Proposition 8 here in California and the don’t-ask-don’t-tell rule in the U.S military?

Earlier this month, there was a hearing on Proposition 8 in an appeals court after a judge had ruled the same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional. It was reported that the appellate judges - two of the three of them were known as liberal - appeared to want to rule in such a way so that the case won’t go to the U.S Supreme Court. A big fear is that the U.S Supreme Court, which would close the case for at least a while, is increasingly conservative and could well set this cause back decades if it got its hands on it.

However, this reporting was really just tea-leaf reading, and the ruling is likely not to be out for months.

Meanwhile, the congressional repeal of D.A.D.T is, after lots of fanfare, all but dead in the water. There is a bit of talk about bringing it up again, probably on a separate vote, in this lame-duck session, but that looks like a tall order after the brutal fight over the tax-cut extension and when an usually popular nuclear arms reduction treaty is an iffy proposition. Prospects for the repeal look even dimmer come January, when the Republicans will take over the House of Representatives and gain seats in the Senate.

Then again, the courts will likely repeal D.A.D.T anyway. Good - but this path will be more abrupt and a rougher ride for the military.

Good grief! Enough already! Can someone please make a decision? The problem is that everything rides on who makes the decision. Sure, we can have a say on who makes the decision, but, again, that takes time.

Marriage and military service may be abstract and far-fetched for me - unlike, say, attendant-care funding - but, as a gay man with gay friends, I am sick of being a political football, a pawn in a social game, dependent on what time it is and who’s in charge, making the decisions, at the time.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Rainbow radiance

This past weekend, I was at a gathering which I attend several times a year and about which I have written about before. Near the end of the weekend, a man told the group about being an openly gay teacher at a big-city junior high school in a poor, rough neighborhood consisting of mostly immigrants.

Although he was already "out" at the school, after the recent spate of highly publicized gay teenage suicides, the teacher decided that he had to speak out more. With the other teachers’ blessing, he went to all the seventh grade health classes, beginning the conversation by asking, "Who here is gay?" After some denials and giggling, he would say, "I am." This would produce considerable shock, but then there would be lots of good, constructive questions from the students, which the teacher answered as honestly as possible. When the teacher asked if any of the students know anyone who is gay, most did - a cousin or such - and said that "they are alright."

The man explained that the school shares the campus with a much larger high school and said that, one day after these conversations, he decided to sit outside during recess, knowing that he was taking some risk. He noticed some seventh-grade boys looking and pointing at him and went over to ask what was up. The boys asked him more provocative questions ("Who gives the sperm?"). The teacher was beginning to answer when he was hit by an open carton of milk thrown from afar.

The seventh-graders were nearly as shocked as the teacher and asked him why this happened. The teacher asked the boys if they saw who threw the carton. One or two pointed out a high school student. The teacher, still dripping with milk, went over and confronted the boy, who told him, "Don’t talk about gay stuff!"

After finding out that the high school student is the older brother of a seventh-grader, the teacher was told by school administrators that he had to get a number of witnesses in order for anything to be done about the incident. The teacher found that many students refused to get involved, but he did get enough of them to point out the high school boy, who was then sent to a juvenile rehabilitation facility.

We can admire this man and say that he is brave. We can say that he has balls to teach at a junior high school - not to mention one in a tough inner-city neighborhood and being known to be gay. But that would be too easy.

This man is doing what we in the GLBT community all should be doing, the hard work every one of us needs to do. He is getting out there day after day, standing up for all to see and being honest about who he is. Not only that - and more importantly - he is not letting those who want to deny his existence, shame him and destroy him succeed. In being his true self, he shines and is the one who, in the end, is stronger, survives and thrive.

The failure to do this is clearly evident in the success of Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, in California. The gay community couldn’t even say "gay," and the opposition ran with it and made it all the more shameful and frightening.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Another closet heard from

Last week, I attended a forum at Pomona College sponsored by the Pomona Student Union on "The Future of American Atheism." I had not heard of the three speakers - Hemant Mehta, David Silverman and Chris Mooney - but while they are not big names like Sam Harris, Christopher Hutchins and Bill Maher (who they often referred to), they are apparently respected commentators, bloggers and leaders in the "atheist movement." The basic question of the evening was "Now that not believing in God isn’t a big deal, now what?"

Who knew there was "atheist movement?" I didn’t. Well, there is - not unlike there is a "gay movement." In fact, what struck me is that, throughout the 90 minutes, I kept thinking that I could well have been listening to three gay men. Indeed, they repeatedly mentioned the gay community.

In answering the initial question about how they discovered atheism, all three men talked about thinking that they were the only person who didn’t believe in God until they went to the library or went on-line and stumbled upon writings by other people who didn’t believe in God. Near the end of the forum, someone asked the panelists how they realized that they were atheists, and all three answers sounded like when gay people talk about realizing that they weren’t attracted to or aroused by people of the opposite sex (as opposed to people of the same sex). Classic coming-out stories.

Things really got going and the gay analogy just kept showing up when the panelists were ask to talk about their goals as atheists, what they want to accomplish in the greater society. While all insisted that they are not out to recruit or convert people - a hoary gay stereotype, right? - but there was some disagreement about how active and "militant" - how "out," it occurred me - one should be.

Mr. Silverman, who is the vice-president of American Atheists, was continually ribbed by the other two about being "angry," but he kept saying that he is just "honest and blunt." He pointed out that he doesn’t like the term "militant," but he did sound a bit like a member of ActUP or Queer Nation and was the one who is most concerned about the U.S Supreme Court is one vote away from tearing down the wall between church and state. Despite or because of this, he was quick to agree with the others that America shouldn’t be an atheist country.

No, these atheists - at least - don’t want to push their non-belief onto others or live in a country where religion is banned. What they want is to be accepted and able to live openly and comfortably in the society at large. Sound familiar?

Friday, November 5, 2010

A prayer for Johnny

It riles me up enough when I hear about parents who kick out a child when they learn that the child is gay. As a friend once said, how can a parent love a child one day and then not love the child the next day? I don’t get it.

I also don’t get parents who are so into drugs that they neglect their children. I have seen this up close and personal more than I care to admit, unfortunately with people I have hired as attendants in the past, and it is disturbing and ugly to see. While I understand about addiction and its power, I still, perhaps naively, don’t understand how anything can be more important than one’s children.

Then I read the article in the Los Angeles Times last week about Johnny. Johnny is a 6-year-old boy rescued last year from his drug-addicted mother and her gang-leader boyfriend, "Bullet," and their "associates" who continued to abuse and torture him after the L.A County Department of Children and Family Services declared that he was "not at risk."

From the article: "According to Bessinger and the Los Angeles County documents, Johnny was forced to eat food scraps and lap water from a bowl like a dog; he was denied access to the bathroom; he was made to eat his own feces, urine and vomit and drink soda mixed with soap. Johnny’s tormenters made him sit in a corner, unable to lie down or move for extended stretches, sometimes taunting him with a plate of food they forbade him to eat... His tongue was torn, and one of [the] associates forced him to perform oral sex, leaving extensive sores in his mouth." The article also states that the boy was beaten repeatedly and burned with a glue gun and hot spoons.

How can a child be treated this way? Yes, it is a scandal that the L.A County DCFS is riddled with lax oversight - this was only the latest revelation - and I am horrified that the mother and boyfriend could be such monsters. But my heart is with Johnny, who is, after all, a child, a child of God.

Reading the article makes me want to scream and cry into the night which now is all the darker and colder. I can only hope that Johnny, who is reportedly doing well in intensive therapy and a class for gifted students, will be like one of those kids who thrive despite tremendous odds and grow up to shine into the night, making it just a bit less dark and cold.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Trouble with the help

"The ‘myriad reasons’ voters might need help carrying out their intent could include language barriers and memory problems or learning disabilities that make word retrieval difficult, the high court said.

"‘Providing the proper spelling of names written in English could assist those voters who want to vote for a particular candidate and need assistance in ensuring that they write the candidate’s name correctly,’ the court said."

The ruling late last week by the Supreme Court in Alaska, reported in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, is seen as helping Senator Lisa Murkowski, who took the extraordinary step of mounting a write-in campaign for tomorrow’s election after being defeated by a more conservative "tea party" candidate in the Republican primary election. Ms. Murkowski and her supporters were concerned that voters would have difficulty with remembering how to spell her name and wanted a list of write-in candidates to be made available to voters who ask for one at the polls. In response to the ruling, right-wing radio talk show hosts urged their listeners with similar names - who knew? - to get on the list, with the result being that there are something like 160 write-in candidates in Alaska.

I could comment on how this not only is yet another example of Alaska’s wacky politics but also shows that voting there is now officially even wackier than voting in Florida. I could also be snide and point out that Sarah Palin will probably rail against this ruling that will one day help her "special needs" child.

What I want to say, though, is that this reminds me of when my mother took me to vote for the first time. When my mom asked for two Democratic ballot, the old man manning the poll gave her a dirty look. No doubt he was a Republican and thought I was retarded and thought my mom was voting twice. (I now mark a "permanent absentee voter" ballot at home and drop it off at a poll.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Spooked off

Halloween sucks.

Okay, I don’t hate it, but am I a bad gay man if I don’t just love Halloween?

It started when I was little. There were a few times - well, at least one time - when I was sick on Halloween and couldn’t go out. When I could go trick-or-treating, my mom and dad would always fight over who would accompany me, pushing my wheelchair and helping me say "trick or treat!" (For the record, Mom always lost and had to take me out.)

And it was tough finding a costume that looked good in a wheelchair. (This was before I got fabulously creative.) I was thrilled when I got the idea of being a black blob. I had my mom dye a sheet black and throw it over me. It was cool until the sheet began getting caught in my wheels.

Later, when I had my own place, I had another problem - handing out candy. Answering the door and giving out candy was a problem. Plus I didn’t really like being the real freak show. I began leaving the candy out on the porch.

One year, I skipped out and went to West Hollywood and met some Radical Faerie friends at the street festival there. My friends were adorable - like little boys in a candy shop way past their bedtime. But the scene was insane, with people constantly running into me and $10 parking to boot. Also, I gave a lesbian friend a ride out there and lost her two times. I should have put a leash on her.

The last straw came a few years ago when I left the candy out on a chair. It was a nice, sturdy, dining chair - from Ikea, with blond wood and a rattan seat. The next morning, not only was the candy gone, but the chair was gone, with pieces of it strewn up and down the street.

One thing I like about Halloween is the annual special column I write for the Claremont Courier, the latest of which follows here. Some people hate it. Good. That means I’m doing my job.

WHEN THE TRICKS ARE THE REAL TREAT

Oh, Horror of Horrors! Oh, Terror of Terrors! It is that time of year! Yes, once again, it is time for me to greet you, oh, Most Ghostly of the Ghostly, oh, Most Ghastly of the Ghastly, before your night of nights, when you rise up in all your heinous glory. This, indeed, is your season of seasons, the season of All Hallow’s Eve.

And, as always, it is the greatest of privileges for me, your humblest of minions, to have this opportunity to come before you and to wish you the best - or, er, the worst? - on this most auspicious of occasions and to report to you on the doings among the mortals in this all-too fair town of Claremont. I do regret that I’m quite far back in your receiving line, with 11 days to go until Halloween, but I can’t help be pleased with this date - 10/20/2010. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch - not anything like 10/10/10 - but you know what fools these mortals be with their numbers and their attributed meanings. Besides, if this was in Europe, today would be 20/10/2010.

But this, as you well know, oh, Raj of the Ridiculous, is America, and, as you also know well and as is common, this October 31, in a most delicious irony, comes right before Election Day. No doubt you’ve already heard lots about the perfectly ugly mud-slinging and the wonderfully nasty barbs, both in this state and all over the U.S, especially with the Republicans and the rabid "tea partiers" going all out and widely believed poised to take back at least some power from the Democrats. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, since it is pretty much a mirror image of what was going on under eight years of President Bush.

Claremont is also voting on a school bond on November 2, and there has been a nice amount of dust kicked up over the issue. There is even an organized group arguing against Measure CL, saying mainly that it is too costly in these recessionary times (whether or not the recession is over, as was recently touted - not unlike "Mission Accomplished!"), but I wonder if this is yet another vocal minority in this town that so prides itself in its educational institutions and strong sense of community. That a school board member has endorsed a "no" vote on the bond makes this all the more delightfully vexing.

I have to tell you, oh Saint of the Sniping, that there was no raucous town hall meeting this year, with people yelling and screaming and even hitting at each other, but you’ll no doubt be pleased to know that there has been a steady stream of letters in the local paper here, mostly on national issues like healthcare funding and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, from liberals and conservatives attacking each other, often in quite personal and nasty ways. The letters seem to be from the same people and are entertaining in a delectably weird way, and many people say that they are tired of them. The paper has tried to limit these letters from time to time.

I hope you’ll allow me to editorialize just a bit here. I am astonished, even as your underling in all things dark and dubious, at how people, like the "tea partiers" and other conservatives, rail against things that will surely help them.

Take healthcare funding reform. Not only do these people not want to help others, many of them, judging from the huge number of uninsured, don’t want to help themselves. I think these people are, as you’ll be happy to hear, either greedy (over and over, I’ve heard people say something like "I’m already insured, thank you....") or fearful, especially after September 11, and easily manipulated. Or both.

Then there’s President Obama. I have to say I actually feel sorry for the guy. Everybody wants to crucify him, either for being too much of a Jesus or for not being enough of a Jesus.

Excuse me for getting off track... You might be interested to hear, oh, King of Chaos, the there was a bit of a bruhaha this year over Claremont’s cherished July 4 parade. In this event beloved for kids riding by on bikes and groups of neighbors twiddling their thumbs in formation, there was a remarkably large contingent of people from different churches marching in support of same-sex marriage. This may or may not please you, but I know you’ll love it that some people were so upset that there has been a proposal to ban such "political" entries from this parade that supposedly fetes America’s freedoms. The really crazy thing is that the contingent won two first-place awards!

There is also the story of Bell, of which you’ve no doubt heard, with its outrageous salaries for its city manager and other officials. What does this have to do with Claremont? It turns out that it hasn’t escaped such a municipal mess. As a Los Angeles Times columnist pointed out, Claremont is stuck paying most of the hefty retirement pension for its former city manager, Glenn Southard, recently retired from Indio and known for his imperious attitude, lavish spending and bungling the Landrum shooting.

Mr. Southard probably should be given credit for bringing lots of businesses to Claremont during his tenure here. However, I’m not sure if he could save Claremont from the recession (oops - I forgot - it’s over!). There are perfectly lovely signs of the downturn, such as large, prominent stores in the Village, like Casa Flores, standing empty for months on end. And just in the last two weeks, the popular Cruise Night being closed down and Barbara Baretich’s remarkable horse statue being knocked over only adds to the gloriously sorry mess.

Before I leave you, I can tell you that, just this month, a 79-year-old Claremont resident, Joseph O’Toole, plead guilty to and could face 5 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 for attempting, with a partner, to export weapons to Somalia without a government license. This is terrorism, oh, Duke of Destruction, not unlike when, several years ago, a man held a threatening vigil outside of a local bank for months and was found to have a stash of high-caliber weapons hidden in his Claremont home. That Mr. O’Toole ran (unsuccessfully) for City Council here and was an outspoken leader of a group calling itself, without tongue in cheek, the Citizens for the American Dream, set up to foil an affordable housing project in Claremont - yes, the proposed site was too close to a freeway, but it also was in or near the most affluent part of town - will, I’m quite sure, warm whatever cockles are left in your cold, black heart.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The right to tell them where to stick it

These people are sick. They need to shut the hell up.

Yes, Fred Phelps and his Westboro, Kansas Baptist Church - they of the infamous "God Hates Fags" signs - have been at it again. And they’ve up the ante, showing up and picketing at the funerals of slain U.S soldiers. They argue loudly and in the boldest of colors that the dead military personnel will or should go to Hell for fighting for a country that tolerates homosexuality.

See? These folks are sick. That’s some truly twisted, sick, screwed-up logic.

What’s more, they’re fighting for the right to do this. At the Supreme Court.

A couple weeks ago, in one of the first cases of the new session, the justices of the highest court of the land heard arguments stemming from a lawsuit filed by a father against Phelps’ congregants for picketing the funeral of his son who had been kill in the war in Iraq. The father, who is Catholic, felt not only that the protest marred and degraded the solemn rite but also libeled by the protesters saying that he raised his son in a bad way. The craziness was topped off by one of Phelp’s wacky daughters herself - not an attorney - arguing for the protesters, citing free speech.

Guess what.

I think she when right. I think the justices should rule in her favor.

I say this not only as a writer and journalist who believes strongly in a free press. This is more than taking a highly principled stand.

I say this as a gay, disabled man who fights everyday to get out and be an active, visible part of society. I want a man to be able to wear a hat with a Confederate flag on it, because I want to be able to go around in my bright, gay-pride rainbow tie-dyed overalls and with rainbow laces in my shoes.

I say this, because I want to be free to say that these people are - or act like (I’m a Quaker who sees God in everyone, remember) - sick, evil, twisted, stupid, heinous assholes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Facing up

I liked Jesse Eisenberg in "The Squid and the Whale," and I adored him in "Adventureland." Even more than Michael Cera (especially in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), he owns the market in playing the cute nerd - slightly scruffy, slightly hippie, slightly punk. So it was a bit of a surprise and a real treat to see him doing such a fine, fine job in playing an arrogant asshole as Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder, in "The Social Network.

Whether or not this portrayal is completely accurate and fair, Eisenberg is mesmerizing, contributing to the film being a terrific, absorbing two hours, with zippy direction by David Fincher, crackling dialogue by Aaron Sorkin and driving music by Trent Resnor (the new Danny Elfman?) of Nine Inch Nails. Making a heady intellectual property dispute downright thrilling, with intriguing characters, this is an old-fashioned, good, adult drama - the kind Hollywood used to be so good at making but rarely does anymore.

What I like best about the movie is the way it sharply evokes college life, especially on the east coast - running through a freezing midnight drizzle in a hoodie and flip-flops, studying alone under a bare florescent light in a tiny dorm room, riotous partying in centuries-old, stately, stained-oak rooms. Reznor’s steely music adds to the sense of loneliness and alienation felt even at the heart of this exclusive, clubby setting. This is one of the best depictions of the strange, protected, suspended life in academia since Mike Nichol’s production of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?"

The film and all its publicity made me think of how much Facebook has changed our world. A few days before its released, in a most bitter irony, a gay Ruttgers University student committed suicide after being filmed on-line, for all the world to see, having sex with another man. Although the roommate and friend who did the broadcasting saw it as a lark, it strikes me that this is the 2010 2.0 version of what happened to Matthew Shepherd.

I have to say that I suck at Facebook. I have heard about thousands of people going off Facebook because of it eating up time and being a substitute for face-to-face contact, but I hardly get on it.
Yes, it is good for getting the word out, like when I have a new blog post, and I’m sure I’m missing out on some things, but I don’t really care that Jane is enjoying a nice bowl of homemade asparagus soup, and I don’t want to spend hours playing games with animals. I understand all those people wanting face-to-face contact rather than Facebook.

Then again, on the day I saw "The Social Network," I had the extraordinary, moving experience of going to visit a friend I had been out of touch with for 25 years - half my lifetime. He had found me on Facebook.

Now, that’s a status update worth sharing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Those pesky disabled folks and their A.D.A

I can’t tell you how many times I have read or heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act being blamed for problems. The costs for a construction project sky-rockets due to A.D.A regulations. A project is delayed, because it turns out that there were A.D.A regs that were overlooked - and costs will also go up. A good idea, like toilet kiosks in New York City, is shelved because it violates - yes - the A.D.A. Or making it A.D.A-compatible would be too expensive.
Damn that A.D.A. Things would be so much better, easier, less costly without it.

This is pretty much the message I get. In the mainstream media, I rarely see stories about how the A.D.A, which was enacted about 20 years ago, makes life easier for those of us who are disabled. The stories are always about how expensive, how restrictive, how much of a hassle the accommodation law is.

Sometimes the A.D.A doesn’t make my life easier. I get angry when I get a hotel room and find that the bathroom has a tub - rather than a walk-in shower - with bars on the walls. I assume this passes muster with the A.D.A, but I can’t use it. And I don’t think there about many people in wheelchairs who can.

But I was reminded recently when I read an article that the A.D.A has even more of a black eye - with help from the disabled. The story in the Los Angeles Times was about a guy in a wheelchair going around and taking pictures in small stores and these pictures being used by a lawyer in sending out dozens of letters at a time threatening to sue for A.D.A violations and demanding thousands of dollars. The article pointed out that this is going on despite a law designed to prevent such schemes and that a new law is being developed.

I have read about such schemes before, and "schemes" is definitely the right word. This is definitely a case of advantage being taken - not to mention a good thing being given a bad name. It is one thing to use a law to make things better and quite another to use it as a money-maker. I would even ask if the guy in the wheelchair taking pictures is really disabled, but perhaps I’m in denial that a disabled person would be in on this.

And I bet the new law being developed will make it harder to file legitimate A.D.A claims.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The man with the ten hats

Not a ten-gallon hat. But ten hats - actually, perhaps nine - on his head. Literally.

This past weekend, I was at a gathering of a group that I have been involved in for ten years. There was a guy, a very sweet, gentle guy, that was there for the first time who turned out to have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism which makes social interaction and relating to others (empathy, etc.) difficult. I soon noticed that at each meal, he would have an additional hats on his head. (The stack started with cowboy hats and was topped off with a few billed caps.)

I asked a friend what this was all about, feeling stupid for wondering if this hat-stacking is a characteristic of Asberger’s Syndrome. He explained that the guy told him that he wears the hats to attract attention to himself and away from his disability and to help him interact with people, with them asking him what’s up with the hats.

"Smart guy," I told my friend. "He’s a smart guy."

I said this, because I know exactly what he is doing. As I have written about before, I do the same thing with my overalls, as well as my mismatched high-tops, rainbow shoe laces, dreads and hats - although I wear one hat at a time. I use them to focus attention on myself and away from my disability. When, at one point during the weekend, the guy said with considerable pride and warmth, "I’m the crazy, autistic man with the hats," I totally related and was thrilled.

What’s more, I said this and also that the guy is brave, even though I usually hate it when people say this about me. Okay - I admit it - I admire this disabled guy and found him - yes - brave and
inspiring!

What’s even more, I went to the gathering with my new Vmax speech synthesizer, and it was a huge success. Not only was I able to talk more to more people, it turned out to be, once people saw how I use it, a magnet.

Like those hats for that guy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Who would Jesus hate?

"Would you want to be adopted by a pair of faggots or lesbians?"

I didn’t find this quote in the deep, dark nether regions of the Internet. It isn’t from some ultra-conservative radio host, and I didn’t hear it from a gay-bashing skinhead scowling on the sidewalk.

No, I saw it in the Los Angeles Times two or three weeks ago, and it is from a bishop - an archbishop - Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez, archbishop of Guadalajara and one of the most senior Roman Catholic prelates in the nation. He said this in reaction to Mexico City’s ordinance allowing same-sex marriages and adoptions and the Mexican Supreme Court’s upholding it. (He went on to accuse the court of taking bribes.)

Never mind how I would answer his question, and forget, for the moment, the whole gay rights issue. My question here is, how can a respected man of the church - not some fringe minister, a la Fred Phelps - spew such hateful gutter-talk ("faggots").

I may sound shocked. I should be shocked. I wish I was shocked.

But I’m not. This fits right in with the furor over the building of a mosque two blocks from "ground zero" in New York City. Never mind that it will be more of a community center open to all, that it will be run by sufi Muslims, who are the blissed-out flower children of Islam, and that it certainly won’t "loom over" the Twin Towers site. There are people calling the building of the mosque a jihadist victory, a symbol of "Islamic triumphalism."

New York City isn’t the only place where there’s consternation over a mosque being built. It is happening in several communities across the nation, including Temecula, not far from here, and there was a fire a few days ago where a mosque was under construction in Tennessee.

Then there are the increasing number of Americans who believe that President Obama is a Muslim - as if that’s a bad thing. I was at the market the other day and saw a tabloid paper at the check-out stand with a large photograph on its cover of Obama wearing a white robe and a turban - "SHOCKING PROOF THAT OBAMA IS A MUSLIM!"

Even more disturbing and sad to me is that a number of mosques are cancelling their festivals - a big deal for children in particular - marking the last day of Ramadan, which this year happens to fall on September 11. This is a bit like cancelling Christmas morning, and it is being done because they don’t want people to get the wrong idea - that they’re celebrating 9/11.

It has been observed and lamented that it appears more and more that, contrary to the official rhetoric, America (and the West) is in a War on Islam.

Not unlike those who are against same-sex marriage saying they simply want to "protect marriage" when it is all too evident that they are against queers.

And meanwhile, Glen Beck and his rallying crowd, who more or less all loudly label themselves as Christians (there might be a few Jews, but that’s okay, because they’re in the Bible, unenlightened though they are) claim that all this, all this hate, is about "honor" and God.

I recently saw a production of "South Pacific," and I keep thinking of the song, "You Got To Be Carefully Taught," about how children learn to be prejudiced. It seems to me that it took some extraordinary teaching to get people to believe that Jesus espoused or endorsed all this bigotry and hate.

Either that, or it took a lot of people being scared shitless.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The power of theater

Here is a column of mine, published in the Claremont Courier a couple months ago, that reflects and explains, at least in part, my passion for live theater. (Okay, I’ve been very busy, and it’s really hot. Yes, this is filler, but I hope it’s good filler!)


SOMEWHERE A PLACE FOR COMMUNITY THROUGH THEATER

"You guys make the world awful!"

There was no doubt about this when, minutes later, the gunshot rang out. The bang was enormous in the cavernous theater, and, with it coming from offstage, it was all the more jarring. Of course, it was no surprise - of course, Tony was going to be shot, leaving his beloved Maria to mourn and to hate - but it was a shock nevertheless.

This was West Side Story, after all - a musical, yes, but not one ending with laughter and the peal of wedding bells. The Claremont High School production of the masterpiece by playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, dealt with the age-old problem of racial hatred and rivalry, set in the gritty world of New York City street gangs in the mid-1900's and with songs that are beautiful and sometimes funny but also cynical and bitter. As Doc, the cafĂ© proprietor, points out in addressing the gang members, it is about everything that makes "the world awful."

This was pretty heady stuff for the high school students. It made the year-end musical production in Bridges Auditorium a couple weekends ago just that much more big-time
No doubt it was a big weekend for Andrew Lindvall and Emily Dauwalder who played Tony and Maria. They shone onstage like the stars on the ceiling of the renowned auditorium. And so did the dozens and dozens of kids who appeared. I was especially impressed with the boys dancing with precise and daring scissor-kicks, choreographed by Daniel Smith, in the high-flying, metropolitan spirit of Jerome Robbins.

As always, these students were supported by at least twice as many others behind the scenes, handling the props and costumes and the lighting and sound, making the show run smoothly. Although none couldn’t be seen, they clearly did an ace job, looking like pros. When I attended on Saturday night, even the sound, which is usually tricky and which always presents a problem in Big Bridges, was pulled off with only the slightest of hitches.

And then, of course, there was, as usual, Krista Carson Elhai, the legendary C.H.S director who, along with Musical Director Joel Wilson, whipped these hundreds of students into spectacular shape. Yes, it may be the case that "boy, is she tired!" after having directed over 250 productions in her 26 years of teaching theater, as her program bio crankily noted, but, as was evident in this production, she hasn’t lost her touch in getting teenagers to do wonderful, magical stuff.

I also can’t praise her enough for having them do mature, provocative work. This show ranked up there with The Laramie Project, the Who’s Tommy and Metamorphisis. Ms. Elhai is confident and isn’t afraid to trust and challenge her students, as well as her audiences, with these brave shows.

Yes, there was plenty to be proud of that weekend. Yes, it was the big-time show in big-time Big Bridges. My one real complaint is that the music wasn’t live. I think these hard-working kids and the beautiful, grand venue deserved to be accompanied and serenaded by a live orchestra.

What’s more, it was a celebration of community, a celebration of a school and of students and teachers supported, encouraged and nurtured by our community. There was a large, slick program loaded with ads and sponsors, and there were lots of cheering parents and friends. This was very much something put on by the community. I kept thinking that it was like a warm-up for our Fourth of July fete.

I also saw this sense of community, of a community coming together and growing, at another play, another musical, I saw a few weeks earlier. It was in Temecula, and it was Rent and it was a delightful surprise.

What was I doing seeing Rent in Temecula? As I discovered a year or two ago when I went to the Old Town Temecula Community Theater, although it is 60 miles away, it takes no longer to get there than it takes to get to a theater in L.A or Santa Monica with the nearly constant city traffic - and the drive is considerably less stressful. Besides, this was the first time I could see this work for less than something like $65 a pop.

Still, I was quite wary. Although the relatively new theater is very attractive and state-of-the-art, the rock opera by Jonathan Larson dealing with prostitutes, druggies and drag queens didn’t seem to fit in this rural (but growing) town with its distinctly western themes, complete with wooden plank sidewalks and country music piped in on the streets. Rent is a long way from La Boheme, although it is based on the Pucinni opera, and Main Street, Temecula, is definitely a long way from Hollywood or Santa Monica Boulevard. It also didn’t help that I had been less than impressed with the previous production I saw there - a victim of a lazy director.

When I entered the theater - late, I’m afraid - I was immediately thrilled, even electrified. Not only was there a live band jamming onstage, there was a young, long-haired man, dressed in the red, plaid pants and black t-shirt of a rocker, singing to a stripper about losing his stash and how he might be falling in love with her. I certainly didn’t think I was in Temecula - or what I think of as Temecula - anymore, Toto!

The play went on from there and didn’t let up, driven by the band, with its stories of people in New York City dealing with eviction, drug use, whoring, AIDS, homelessness, etc. Many of the songs were punctuated with the strongest of profanities. No doubt some in the audience found the work eye-opening, to say the least, but even they had to admit that it had tremendous heart and was being performed, by the Temecula Valley Players, with tremendous heart. I had the sense that the challenging, daring quality of the work inspired the players to do such a fine job with it.

I also had the sense that there was a group of young people in the audience who were cheering especially often and especially loudly. I wondered if they had been to at least one or two of the other performances. I wondered also if they felt that they were finally being heard and understood.

This is the sense I have of live theater and the unique, magical power it has. It can bring a community together. It can inspire a community - all the more so when it challenges the community. And it can open eyes in a community to other communities, other worlds, other ways.

Theater brings us together to build, strengthen, nurture community. Indeed, as everyone sings in West Side Story, "take my hand, and we’re halfway there."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The big question

"Let’s see how fast you are with that."

I was at the local Borders Books, using my new Vmax voice synthesizer to order a book which wasn’t in stock, when a guy came up behind me and said, "Hi, John!" I wasn’t quite sure who he was - not atypical around here where I’m well-known - but he seemed to know me and about the Vmax, impressing the young man who was assisting me, and who was at first a bit impatient although curious, even more. By the time I had the device voice "sweet" and "peace out," which I have pre-programed, after he gave me a receipt, he was laughing, clearly charmed and stoked.

I was pretty fast with the Vmax, which operates using a camera tracking a silver dot now attached to my glasses and which I have posted a few times about getting in recent months, this time, and this adventure with it was a big success. Some adventures, since having the Vmax attached to my chair a month ago (it is easily removable, and I have it removed when I eat, write, etc.), haven’t been so successful, but they have all been a learning experience - really a full-time learning experience - and I can tell you a lot.

I can tell you about...
...the Vmax being placed right in front of my face for the first few days and my having to peer around it when I traveled. Horrified, the therapists at the hospital set it a bit lower and at a slight angle, making all the difference in the world and enabling me to more or less see where I’m going and also to unlock my front door. Also, it turned out that the dot falls off my forehead when I sweat, and it lasts much longer and seems to give me more direct control with in on my glasses. (Also, people don’t ask me anymore if I’ve converted to Hinduism, and my glasses, which also have a bit of foil on them, are now, appropriately, my tiara.)
...going home in my wheelchair and having the Vmax start to fall forward; the clamp had loosened with the bumpy ride (I suspect that typical Vmax users don’t go out like I do). I was scared shitless that the $8,000 device would smash to the ground. The next day, a friend who works at the hospital cleverly devised a velcro strap, which appears to have done the trick.
...how I love the Vmax’s word prediction. It not only predicts the word I’m typing; it predicts, with impressive acuity, the next word, speeding things up all the more. This is one powerful program!
...discovering at a picnic that the Vmax doesn’t do well in the sun. The screen is hard to see, and the camera kind of goes haywire. Bummer - especially at those pool parties and when my wheelchair breaks down when I’m out. My hospital team is talking about devising some kind of shade.
...how I’m figuring out when and when not to have it on my chair. Should I have it with me whenever I go out - even, say, when I’m shopping with an attendant?
...people either being fascinated by it or not seeing it at all. This is weird - how can they not see and be curious about this big thing in front of me, especially when it’s on and glowing? Is it just another high-tech gadget? Are they just used to seeing John - or that guy - in the wheelchair?
...having trouble with the screen coming on at other times, instead of just when I touch it, and with the battery lasting 2-3 hours instead of the 4-6 hours that it’s supposed to last (even that is silly and frustrating to me). The Vmax takes a very long time to power up - impractical when I want to talk to someone - and, to conserve the battery, I have the screen set to go black after 5 minutes of non-use, but it keeps coming on when I look at the camera or the camera picks up something. Do I have a bad battery? Should I get or make a little cap to go over the camera? Meanwhile, I’m having the device plugged in, including when I use it, as much as possible.

There are other issues, but I think the biggest is knowing when to use the Vmax and when to speak. This came to the fore when I attended Pacific Yearly Meeting, a five-day gathering of Quakers from California, Nevada, Mexico and Hawaii at the end of July, where I got a lot of practice and feedback, where I found out I am much better using the Vmax with individuals and small groups than with a large audience (making me nervous and less able to focus) and where, despite having a note in the daily newsletter explaining the Vmax, at least one or two people thought I use it for playing games.

The big question: Would you rather be patient trying to understand my speech or waiting for me using the Vmax?

I think my experience at Borders gives an - but probably not the - answer. I think the thing to understand, including by me, is that this device is not a miracle, but it is a powerful tool that can help, really help.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A couple lights still left on

I have broken a vow. Two times. But one time was an accident. Really! And - what’s more - I don’t know if I can say that I’m really sorry.

Last weekend, I went to Grass Valley, quite a ways up north, to camp out at the California Worldfest music festival, and I spent a night on the way up and a night on the way down at two different Motel 6's. After saying that I would never again stay at Motel 6.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was quite happy staying at Motel 6 and paying its low prices, making travel somewhat affordable to me, until a few years ago, until it began having only one bed in its wheelchair-accessible rooms. This forced me to pay for another room for my attendant, which I felt was unfair, discriminatory and immoral (making money off the disabled). (I considered suing, but it turns out each Motel 6 is separate.) Then there was the time when two rooms were reserved for the wrong night, and I was charged for them anyway. This was the last straw, and I swore off Motel 6.

Two or three months before this recent trip, I was telling a friend who uses a wheelchair that I had made a reservation at a Super 8 Motel for the drive home but that, unlike with other Super 8 motels I have stayed at in recent years (they, along with Days Inn, have wheelchair-accessible rooms with two beds and are inexpensive and nicer than Motel 6), this motel’s wheelchair-accessible room had not been so wheelchair-accessible when I stayed there two years ago. When I told him it was in Bishop (I wanted to drive down the spectacularly picaresque Highway 395, after having a picnic lunch at Lake Tahoe, again), my friend suggested I stay at the Motel 6 there. I was surprised, but he said that its wheelchair-accessible room has two beds and is adequate and that he often stays in it.

I called the Super 8 Motel in Bishop the next morning and cancelled my reservation. Then I called the Motel 6 and reserved its wheelchair-accessible room. (You can’t do this on-line or by calling the 1-800 number - a lesson I learned the hard way years ago.) I happily imagined I had found the only two-bed Motel 6 room left that is wheelchair-accessible.

Meanwhile, I had also made a reservation at the Super 8 Motel near Santa Nella on Highway 5, which I had been pleased with a couple years ago, for on the way up to Grass Valley. Imagine my surprise when my attendant and I pulled up late at night and found that it is now a Motel 6. I was a bit alarmed but discovered the exact same, nice, two-bed, wheelchair-accessible room.

Perhaps the light is not completely off at Motel 6 for us wheelchair-using travelers with attendants. Who knew? This recent trip was a big success thanks partly - and surprisingly - to Motel 6.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A few thoughts on what can't be discussed

Late last month, I watched a documentary film on P.B.S called "Ask Not," dealing with the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy which bars gay men and lesbians from being out while serving in the U.S military. I wasn’t sure if I had seen the film before, and I had, but it was worth seeing again, especially now that President Obama is trying to repeal this wishy-washy and ultimately corrosive law that, as the film makes clear, President Clinton endorsed in a moment of caving in. It is definitely provocative and certainly brings up a lot.

It is shocking - and damning - to see, as the film shows...
...gay people being turned away and even arrested when they try to sign up at recruiting stations d mention that they are gay.
...the large number of people who have been kicked out of the military for being gay.
...that some of these people who can’t sign up or have been kicked out due to their sexuality have language skills that would be most helpful in the Middle East and could have even detected and prevented the 9/11 plot.
...that the military, struggling to get enough people to sign up, has been accepting some convicted criminals - but not queers.
...the staggering list of countries that let gay men and lesbians serve openly in the military.

As a pacifist Quaker, I have wondered if I should stand against this policy, and, indeed, I have heard it argued that queers should be grateful that they are excluded from the opportunity to fight in a war. This not only misses the point - it is foolish. This is not about war and whether one should fight or not; it is about equality. It is like gay marriage, where I know gay guys who enjoy being single and have no desire to marry. And as someone points out in the documentary, how can we credibly demand other rights if we don’t demand the equal opportunity to serve in this way if so lead?

Finally, it is evident in the film that "don’t ask, don’t tell" is all about homophobia. There is amphibians footage of enlisted men, generals and politicians saying essentially that they just don’t feel comfortable being near gay men. Meanwhile, there is also brief footage of some soldiers having fun at a swimming pool. It occurred to me that, if they didn’t have their trunks on, it would look for all the world like some pool parties I attend. Mmm...

(I can’t help thinking of when I was working out recently at the local rehabilitation hospital. A young man, a patient at the hospital, was being raised to a standing position and said, "Wait, I’m not straight—I mean, I am, but my legs aren’t." Okay - you’re not gay - thanks for the heads-up, dude! Was he so insecure about his sexuality that he felt he had to make a point of clarifying it? Then again, he was no doubt wrestling with his new identity as a disabled man.)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Party pooping

It’s all fun and games, all peace and love, until someone dies. Which is exactly what happened.

Last weekend in Los Angeles, the Electric Daisy Festival, called the biggest electronic music event and featuring five stages and carnival rides, took place over two days at the Memorial Coliseum and Exposition Park, with 185,000 people attending. A 15-year-old girl attended on her own, although no one under 16 was supposed to get in without an accompanying adult, overdosed on drugs and was pronounced dead a few days later. Now these sorts of these events have been "temporarily banned from the venue, which is owned by the city, county and state.

I have many questions right there - Why wasn’t the girl’s I.D checked? How did she get the drugs, or was it an accident (a laced drink, perhaps)? Did her parents know where she was? Would it have been any better if she was 16 or even 17? - but it gets more complicated, much more complicated.

Something like 125 people were arrest for using or dealing drugs. What’s more, thousands were injured when some barricades were stormed.

And - get this - right before this fourteenth annual festival, hospitals in the area went into crisis mode, like they do when there’s a train crash or earthquake. They knew what was coming.

Something is wrong, terribly wrong, with this picture.

With hospitals literally getting ready for a disaster, with doctors pleading for an end to these raves, I have to say that I support the ban. At least until the folks to put on these events figure out how to make them safer and saner.

I don’t like saying this. I am all for having fun, and I really believe in the power of music to bring many different people together in peace. I also hear those who say that the vast, vast majority, thousands and thousands, of people had a good, safe time and shouldn’t be punished because of the foolish, thoughtless actions of a relatively few. Perhaps I’m not over the anger in my last post about another celebration turning into a melee, but, with the notable violence and death at this event (and other similar ones recently), I feel irked that the talk of peace and harmony, of groovy, global love, especially by the promoters and even music critics, not only rings hollow but sounds flat-out irresponsible.

Am I the party pooper here? Or is it those who act recklessly and those who insist on intoxicating substances being in the mix? Or is it those who put on and profit from these events and then pretend not to know what will happen?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Another win for violence

"A typical scene played out on Figueroa Street... As police in riot gear approached, the crowd hurled unopened cans of energy drinks at them. Several men stomped on a SUV parked on the street, breaking its windows.

"Police chased the roving groups for about two hours, pushing them further afield until they dispersed and relative calm returned.

"Before it was over, police had fired tear gas and stinging pellets to disperse a scrum of several hundred people who surrounded a city bus filled with passengers and attempted to yank the driver out through a window. A cabbie fled when his taxi was set upon by another mob that kicked in the windshield and set it ablaze. A local YWCA, several restaurants and other storefronts had windows smashed. At least eight people, one of them beaten unconscious, were taken to area hospitals."

No, this article in the Los Angeles Times last week wasn’t about another racial riot in L.A. It wasn’t about another uprising in the Middle East or Africa or another volatile spot. It wasn’t about Iraq or Afghanistan.

No, the article was about what happened in L.A after the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team beat the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the N.B.A Finals for this year’s championship. Thousands of people streamed out of the Staples Center, where the game was played, and mayhem erupted.

A riot after the hometown team wins. I don’t get it.

Maybe I could understand - barely - if there was rioting in Boston. And the rioting this year wasn’t as in previous years. Yes, "the rioting this year" - this has tended to happen every time the Lakers win the championship (at least when the final game is in L.A), and there was much pleading before this game, including from the Lakers, not to riot.

Still, there was rioting, and, as the Times article focused on, merchants in the areas were the real losers, being left with plenty of cleaning and fixing up to do. At least one had prayed that the Lakers wouldn’t win.

I thought people riot when they are angry, when they have a grievance, when they lose. I really don’t get this.

One psychologist quoted in the article says that it is due to emotions and chemicals, especially testosterone, with fans being heavily invested in a team and aroused, with increased aggression, when it wins. I’ve also heard it argued that drinking is the culprit. Remember, many of the revelers had been in bars.

I’m not sure. But I keep thinking of the studies that show that gay bars are more able to use glass (bottles, cups), because it is less likely for violence to occur in these venues, as opposed to straight bars.

What I do know is that this rioting is completely ridiculous and uncalled for and that L.A Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should have called off the victory parade, which was on Monday. But then there would have been real rioting.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sweet troubles

I got it!

Last week, a large package came in the mail. This week, two more, smaller boxes arrived. I had been told a few days earlier to expect the deliveries, and they did indeed turn out to be my Vmax - the wonderful, spectacularly high-tech speech device that I’ve been posting about in recent months and looking forward to getting - and the accompanying camera and stand that attaches to my wheelchair.

I should be ecstatic. I should be brimming over with unmitigated joy. After all, I’ve been waiting for this for about a year, and it will supposedly make things easier for me and for others and change my life for the better.

Then why aren’t I?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very excited. I’m thrilled. But I’m also full of questions and worries. And I’m scared.

For one thing, I’m mystified. In late May, I learned that my doctor had not sent in the prescription for the device to be submitted to Medi-Cal. This means that not only did Medi-Cal approve - which I had serious doubts about - but it approved this extravagant machine, which, I’ve learned, costs $8,000, in two or three weeks. This almost doesn’t make sense, when Medi-Cal won’t cover dental work and I have to wait months for my wheelchair to be repaired. I guess my dad’s theory is correct - the more common a request, the more likely it will get bogged down or be questioned. There aren’t many people asking for a Vmax.

But, more than this and perhaps feeling guilty about it, I am worried - and, yes, scared - about how I’ll do at using it. It may be that, in a sense and despite my griping about it, I was expecting the long Medi-Cal approval process to enable me to put off dealing with these concerns.

I am afraid of breaking the device once it is attached to my chair. Yes, I’ve been assured that it’s quite durable, but the camera which tracks the sticker on my forehead looks pretty delicate. I go over many rough bumps when I’m out, and what if I’m not as careful as I always should be when going through a narrow doorway or by a table?

I am concerned that I won’t be able to operate the device fast enough, especially for those who know me who may be impatient or are expecting too much. I am realizing that I may well be included in this group. Will I find the balance between having the device function slowly enough for me to effectively use and between quick enough for whoever is waiting to hear what I’m saying?

Perhaps most interestingly, I am anxious about how I’ll be speaking spontaneously or "on my feet," so to say. All my life, I have thought out what I will say when I speak - sometimes to a lesser extent when a person is more familiar with my speech - picking words that are simpler and easier to understand. A result is that my mind sometimes goes blank when it’s time for a quick comment - perhaps a sharp, witty interjection - or I need to quickly answer a question requiring more than the simplest of answer. Sometimes, because of this, I just take a pass and don’t speak. How much will all this change with the Vmax? Will people expect me to rattle off spontaneously? Will I become known for having a quick wit? Will it be any easier to chat with a guy, face to face, who I meet through an on-line hook-up ad? Or will it change any of this at all?

There is also the question of when and with whom to use the device or not use it. I still want to speak and have people try to and get to understand my speech. I don’t want to be mute and have people always rely on the Vmax. (This was also an issue for me when I got the LightWriter, the small typewriter/speech device that I used for a while, but I imagine this will be more of an issue with this device, since it is significantly easier to use.)

Another thought that I’ve been having lately is that I wish I had gotten the Vmax years ago when I had more energy to deal with the changes it will bring. Then again, isn’t it supposed to make things easier, especially now that I have less energy?

It occurs to me that all these concerns and worries (and others like how long does the battery last? and what happens when I’m out in the rain?) aren’t really that much more than the usual anxiety when facing a big change, even when it’s for the best. I have no doubt that if I was told I would be able-bodied tomorrow, I would be on Cloud 9 but also totally freaked and scared shitless. And maybe having to be more careful when driving my wheelchair will force me to slow down and take it easier - like I really should and (sometimes) want to.

It also occurs to me that the Vmax came at the right time. I now have, with the support of "my team" at Casa Colina Hospital at least for right now, a great summer project.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Dental gap

I liked her. She got me right away.

I had taken a note - a note explaining that I’m a college graduate and can understand when spoken to in a normal tone of voice, a note explaining that I usually go to the dental surgery center at Loma Linda University because of it now being too difficult for a dentist to work on me when I’m not sedated (because of my sudden involuntary movements) but that Medi-Cal isn’t covering dentistry (except extractions), a note explaining that I had come to this dentist office, recommended by another hospital I’m working with, to make sure my teeth are okay and don’t need work. When the hygienist had read it, she said that she went to school at Loma Linda. I immediately felt she understood my situation and that I was in good hands.

I was already feeling quite comfortable. The office, although it was in a strip mall, was spacious and unusually attractive, and the waiting room felt like a living room (the cookies and lemonade were a nice, homey, if completely illogical, touch). The staff was nice and accommodating, without being overly cheerful or patronizing, and I was allowed to stayed in my wheelchair instead of having to be transferred to a chair. The x-ray technician and hygienist were thorough in their examining but were also patient and understanding of my limitations.

But I felt like I didn’t belong. No, this wasn’t about not wanting to see the dentist. I felt like I was there not by mistake but almost by luck. I felt like I was getting away with something I perhaps shouldn’t be. I felt something like a stowaway.

I was paying cash for this visit - cash provided by my parents, after finding out that going to Loma Linda would cost me $1,200. This was weird enough. What was weirder - and flat-out alarming - was wondering what would happen if my teeth need work. Can my parents keep paying? And will the dentist be able to work on me without putting me to sleep?

Will Medi-Cal ever kick back in? Can I ever go back to Loma Linda? And what about all the other people like me who don’t have parents who can help out, at least a bit?

I was in a quiet panic when the dentist, a kind-looking, white-haired man from India, came in. After looking over the x-rays and in my mouth, he said everything was okay and bid me good day.

A good day, indeed. I had gotten away with it. This time.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sign-up shame

Should I go, or should I not go?

This past weekend, I went to a semi-annual men’s gathering. This is a group of primarily gay men that I’ve been involved with for nearly 10 years and that I mentioned in a post in late November or early December ("Anything but Jesus"). For several days, I considered attending a workshop there on Sunday morning - was the timing intentional? - that was a discussion for atheists, agnostics and "other non-believers."

Although the workshop description said that "curious believers" were welcome, I was thinking about not going. After all, I go around sporting a picture of Jesus on the bib of my overalls, and I am known to spout off about him when given the chance. (Again, see the previous post and others.) My presence may be seen as inappropriate, intrusive or even hostile.

At the last minute, I thought "what the Hell?" and went. (It helped that I know the facilitator and that he’s cool.) I’m glad I did.

There were about 15 guys, including two or three other "curious believers," and the conversation was stimulating, substantial, heartfelt and utterly civil. There was talk about how the earth began, how the early church made up stories and rules to protect its position and riches and about workers in a government office displaying religious symbols and ending phone conversations with "God bless."

One comment really struck me, though - for an unfortunate reason. A guy said that when he was signing up for the workshop, he was given a bit of a hard time by other guys making defensive comments.

I thought of when, at a similar gathering in March, I facilitated a workshop on - of course - Jesus and how he can be reclaimed from those who has used him to suppress and oppress various people, including those who are gay. One man mentioned that he had been questioned and harassed when he indicated that he was attending this workshop. "Why would you want to go to THAT?"

And I thought of how I almost didn’t go here.

I think this is really sad - even tragic. It is not unlike coming out and how daunting, scary and even dangerous that can be. But if we can’t say who we are and what we are about, how can we have a discourse and hopefully understand and live with each other in peace?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Protesting a protest

At a local community center, there is a monthly presentation of documentary films, usually with a strong advocating, progressive bent. The name of the film series is "Conscientious Projector," which really tickles me. I think it’s a terrific, even beautiful, clever take-off on conscientious objector.

But there are times when progressive advocacy and action isn’t so clever and terrific. It is often not beautiful, it is often downright ugly, but there are times when it is just silly and foolish. Such was the case on two Sundays ago.

It was Commencement Weekend here in Claremont, when the colleges held their graduation ceremonies. The speaker at Pomona College’s event on Sunday morning was Janet Napolitano, the former Democratic governor of Arizona and current director of homeland security under President Obama, and I decided to go by and hear her after attending Quaker meeting.

I thought I would get there in time to hear Ms. Napolitano, but as I approached the site, I heard considerable noise, like a large crowd cheering or clapping. Was I too late? Did Ms. Napolitano already speak, and were the diplomas already being handed out? It was only about 50 minutes into the ceremony.

When I was able to see what was going on, it turned out there was a big crowd, but it was not cheering or applauding. The people - a few hundred of them, according to reports that I read later - across the street from where the graduation was taking place were chanting and drumming, and they were not happy or celebrating. They were quite angry and all fired up.

Maybe it was because I was coming from the silent meeting for worship, but I was shocked and confused. Then I saw their signs about Arizona.

Of course. They were protesting the new Arizona law requiring state and local police to request proof of U.S citizenship from anyone they stop and suspect is an illegal immigrant, and they were targeting the director of homeland security, Ms. Napolitano, the morning’s honored guest and speaker. Perhaps I should have known.

But I was still shocked. Perhaps I was just not ready for such a large, noisy and angry protest. There was also a bunch of police, and it didn’t help that I had to go through a small contingent of supporters of the new law. Yikes!

And, more significantly, I was still confused.

When I made it into the graduation area, I saw that I had made it in plenty of time to hear Ms. Napolitano speak. I heard a few others speak before her, including honorary degree-recipient Robert Towne, the screenwriter of such highly regarded films as "Chinatown" and also a 1956 Pomona graduate. Hearing them was no problem, but there was definitely no escape from the relentless, furious noise from the protesters. I was exhausted just wondering how they kept it up. I was also wondering why they were doing it.

It’s not that I didn’t agree with what the protects were saying. Like them, I think the new Arizona law will lead to racial profiling and is discriminating and divisive. I also strongly believe in speaking up and protesting. But it seemed to me these people were barking up the wrong tree - and being unnecessarily obnoxious about it, to boot.

Sure, Ms. Napolitano and President Obama are operating with some of the old immigration policy from the Bush and previous administrations, but both have said that it has to be changed and made fairer, and both have strongly and clearly condemned the Arizona law. President Obama has directed the Department of Justice to see if the new law is unconstitutional, and Ms. Napolitano has said that if she was still governor, she definitely wouldn’t have signed the bill.

So why were these people angry at her? It occurred to me that they were perfect examples of liberals who are angry at Obama for not being the miracle-making Jesus that they expected.

More significantly, I was frustrated - yes, mad - at being made to feel bad for wanting to hear Ms. Napolitano. It was like I was guilty, like I supported the Arizona law. Moreover, although the college official who introduced Ms. Napolitano, who also received an honorary diploma, said that it was very exciting and a great honor that the day’s speaker was playing such a critical role in a vital national issue and also noted that many in attendance were wearing white ribbons in opposition to the law (if I’d known, I would have worn one), I felt bad for the graduates and their families and friends, whose big day was being marred.

I do wish Ms. Napolitano talked a bit more about policy. Instead, she veered more toward traditional commencement sentiments - being secure in one’s knowledge and values, having conviction and courage. In any case, I noticed that by the end of the speech, the protesters had left.

I left after the speech, I ran into a friend who had taken part in the protest and who was helping carry away a large sign. I was asked what I was doing there. "Are you protesting discrimination?" I laughed and said yes as they walked past me. If there had been more time, I would have explained that I was there to protest discrimination and also to listen to Ms. Napolitano.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bad bad news

I’m being held hostage.

At least I was. I may or may not still be held hostage. Which, more or less by definition, means I’m being held hostage.

Last week, in the Los Angeles Times, there was a prominent article - big, section-leading headline - saying that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was considering the elimination of certain programs assisting the poor and disabled in debt-swamped California. The article noted that the governor was about to unveil his revised budget proposal (the "May revise") after the April tax revenue was even more abysmal than expected and that one of the programs that Schwarzenegger was thinking about ending was funding for in-home personal care attendants for the disabled.

That’s ending. Elimination. Not cutting. Schwarzenegger, who last year literally jumped to do a photo-op to save an apartment complex for the developmentally disabled, was arguing that he had to end these programs, because the courts had ruled that the programs can’t be cut. Yes, you’ve got it. The courts didn’t say that programs can’t be eliminated.

This would have been a hysterical farce, a beautiful example of Orwellian logic. Except that my stomach was being churned inside out. Except that it was my life that was poised to be eliminated.

What was even more upsetting and frustrating about the article is that it didn’t answer any of the questions that were screaming to be answered but that nobody thinks to ask. Questions like what does Schwarzenegger think people like me will do without the money to pay our attendants who get us out of bed, help us use the toilet, feed us, etc.? Does he think that our attendants, who need to make a living, will work for free, out of the kindness of their hearts? Does he think we’ll rely on family - even when, as in my case, they are too far away or aren’t able to help? Is he saying we should be forced into nursing homes, which is not only barbaric but far more costly? Or are we to be left to rot in our beds or on the sidewalk?

In a way, this is nothing new. Every year, for the last decade or two, when it comes time to pass a budget on July 1 (a deadline rarely not missed), there is some talk like this, and I worry. I worry for my life.

But this was the most drastic talk I’ve ever heard in such a flat, matter-of-fact way. Even as I knew it was just talk, even as I knew there is no way that the attendant-funding would end, I couldn’t help thinking the most drastic thoughts and worrying all the more. This was bad news told in the worst way.

Indeed, two days later, after Schwarzenegger had presented his updated proposed budget, the L.A Times story reported that it included cuts in - not the elimination of - the attendant-funding program. (Other programs, like the Cal-Works welfare-to-work program, are slated to end.) I don’t know what happened - perhaps Maria, with her Kennedy/bleeding-heart-Special-Olympics background, threatened to withhold sex from him if he terminated it. And hopefully the courts will hold their ground and not let the program be cut.

Hopefully.

(A p.s for faithful readers: At about the same time I was reading about the state budget and wondering also about Medi-Cal, I found out that Casa Colina Hospital only recently submitted the request for the Vmax speech device I have been writing about lately. I thought this was done weeks if not a month ago and that the response would be coming before too long. Hopefully, the delay was due to the therapists being extra careful in making a strong case and crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s for the notoriously nit-picking Medi-Cal. Keep those fingers and toes crossed!)

Friday, May 7, 2010

The politics of giving

There’s a new film out called "Please Give." I haven’t seen it yet, but the title itself is plenty provocative and controversial these days of program slashing and fomenting tea-partiers.

I was struck by two recent letters to the editor. One appeared in my hometown paper, the Claremont Courier, thanking those who attended and contributed to a fund-raiser for a local public elementary school. The other, appearing in the Los Angeles Times, had to do with a large donation by Hugh Hefner which will enable land next to the iconic Hollywood sign to be purchased, so that builders can’t develop it. The letter read, in part, "We have more homeless, unemployment is rising, education is suffering and our police and fire departments lack funding - and yet we have money for a sign. Yes, the sign is a monument of Hollywood, but so are the people of L.A. How about taking care of them?"

Maybe Mr. Hefner doesn’t care about the homeless and thinks the unemployed should fend for themselves. Maybe he rather save the Hollywood sign. Or maybe he already donates to the homeless, the unemployed, the schools, etc. After all, he has enough cash to spread around far and wide.

At about the same time that these two letters appeared, there was a massive free health clinic going on in a sports arena in Los Angeles. Thousands attended and got treatment, and while not as many were turned away as when the clinic was in L.A for the first time last year, some people did have to be turned away. Why? Because there still weren’t enough doctors and dentists volunteering during the week-long clinic.

Were there doctors and dentists who didn’t care or who didn’t want to take time off from their lucrative practices and work for free? On the other hand, there were doctors and dentists from other states wanted to come and volunteer and were frustrated that there are laws requiring a state’s license to work in a state.

The bottom line is that charity and volunteering are great and well worth cheering, but they can’t be relied upon. People are likely to give to a museum but probably not to the police or the sewer works. Or they may give to one school and not others. As if public schools should have to beg and rely on donations.

One argument that I heard constantly in the furor over healthcare insurance reform was, "I pay for my health insurance, thank you very much. Why should I pay for others’?" There are also thorny issues like some people not wanting to contribute to the public funding of abortion and others not wanting to fund war or the death penalty.

Putting these questions aside - if that’s possible - I have a question: I always hear people complaining about politicians who "tax and spend." Forgive me if I’m being naive, but why is it so wrong for government to "tax and spend?" I thought this is the purpose of government - to collect money from its citizens and then spend it where it is needed. Yes, there is abuse, which needs to be taken care of, but why would there be a government if it couldn’t tax, and why wouldn’t it spend the tax money?

Friday, April 30, 2010

On Medi-Cal - or not

It’s the waiting game, and I know a lot about playing it. I’m playing it now.

I went back to Casa Colina Hospital a couple weeks ago as part of an evaluation for a getting speech device - the Vmax by Dynavox. (See April 7 post.) This was the last appointment in the process, and now comes the hardest part.

Yep - waiting for Medi-Cal to approve - or not approve - my getting a Vmax (a reader has told me that "the device" sounds like a disease).

The three therapists who have now seen me - I have a team! - have (hopefully) written a report, endorsed by my physician, arguing why I should have the Vmax and submitted it to Medi-Cal. (The report was still being written as of last week, when I was called with a question.) I have been assured that my case is strong (gee, why do I feel like I’m on trial?). I’ve also been told that it will take only about a month for Medi-Cal to process the request, which, based on past experience, I find hard to believe.

Actually, the appointment two weeks ago wasn’t about the Vmax. It was about my wheelchair. The two therapists who had seen me were not happy with my chair, and so I had this appointment with a physical therapist and a wheelchair vendor. I went with some trepidation, fearing that they would want to get a chair in which my movement would be severely restricted, and I took a note explaining in detail what I want and don’t want in a chair and why I like the kind of chair I have. The P.T was completely cool, agreeing with my assessment. She had me get down on a mat, and I said I hadn’t been looked over so carefully since I was about 10 - literally. The wheelchair vendor was a rather amusing, opinionated woman who couldn’t get over how dirty and gross my chair was. (Okay - I’ve had it cleaned!) It was agreed that I should keep this chair and have it remodeled, with the back moved back, so I’m not thrust forward with my legs splaying, etc., and with more supportive footrests and a better cushion.

I was told that it will take several months for Medi-Cal to process the request for this remodeling, which makes more sense to me. It also fits with what a few people I have spoken to about this have theorized - the is, that Medi-Cal is more likely to take longer with and perhaps deny requests that are more common. In other words, unlike with a wheelchair or wheelchair repairs, it is easier to get a Vmax, despite its high expense, because the demand for it isn’t high. This sounds backwards, but it makes weird, logical, bureaucratic sense. (I was once told by Medi-Cal that I couldn’t get a new wheelchair, because I was getting too many repairs on the one I had.)

This is probably what’s behind the decision to stop Medi-Cal funding for dentistry, except for extractions, when California’s finances got even worse last year. Everyone on Medi-Cal needs dental care, making the demand all but overwhelming and, thus, too difficult. Speaking of Medi-Cal not paying for dental care, I recently called the dental surgery center where I have work done (I have to be put to sleep) and asked what I would have to pay. The answer was a shock: $1,200.

I thought briefly about going to the free medical and dental clinic going on now at the sports arena in Los Angeles. Thousands of people are going there, many coming from far away and waiting hours and even days, and thousands were turned away when the clinic took place last year. Then I remembered having to be put to sleep (because of my uncontrolled movements). Besides, I don’t want to wait in that line. Am I spoiled? In any case, the pictures of people waiting in line and getting care in factory lines, all in one of the world’s richest cities, is an eloquent answer to the loud, angry questions about why healthcare insurance reform is needed in this country.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A thin - but saving - line

I was interested to read the obituary in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times marking the life of Dorothy Height, the black civil rights leader who died on Tuesday at age 98. Years ago, I saw her speak at one of the colleges here in Claremont, and I recall having only a vague sense that she was very important. (She did look very important, or at least grand, wearing a large, Sunday-best hat.)

Indeed, as was pointed out in the obituary, Ms. Height - she never married - was "overlooked" and "overshadowed" despite being considered to be the "Godmother of Civil Rights." Because of her gender, she was the seventh of a cadre of black civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph and Whitney Young, often referred to as the Group of Six.

Two incidents described in the obituary really caught my attention. In one incident, a police officer threatened her life when she defied his order to wait for a train in the "colored waiting room" rather than board with her white colleagues. "Don’t you go straight on that train or I’ll blow your brains out," the officer growled. Later, Roy Wilkins, one of the leaders of the NAACP, told her the she would have been dead if she was a man.

Perhaps being a woman was an advantage in this incident, but, in the other incident that stood out for me, it was a real disadvantage. In organizing the historic March on Washington, Bayard Rustin insisted that no woman should speak, arguing that women were part of all the groups represented. Ms. Height commented, "Mr. Rustin’s stance showed us that men honestly didn’t see their position as patriarchal or patronizing. They were happy to include in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household!"

No doubt Ms. Height was thinking what I’m thinking: Bayard Rustin, of all people.

It is said that hate stems from ignorance, along with fear. I’d like to think that these two incidents show that hate and ignorance don’t always go together, that ignorance doesn’t always lead to hate.

Bayard Rustin was gay, and, because of this, he too was marginalized in the black civil rights movement. He knew what it was like to be even more of an outsider; indeed, he was once arrested for homosexual behavior. I’d like to think that, unlike the police officer at the train station, Mr. Rustin, who was also a Quaker, was simply being ignorant and not hateful when he denied Ms. Height and other women the opposite to speak at the Washington, D.C rally. (Mahalia Jackson did get to sing the national anthem.) Ms. Height, who did most of her work with the National Council of Negro Women, implied the in saying that "men honestly didn’t see" what they were doing.

I’d also like to think that this is what is happening with same-sex marriage bans - that they will be rejected as more people know gay people. In California, Proposition 8 passed by less of a margin than the earlier Proposition 22, and it is thought that it can be overturned by voters in a few years. This seems to be in contrast to the hateful, apartheid-like bill approved by the Arizona legislature targeting illegal immigrants, even as more and more people accept their existence and agree they should be dealt with fairly.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Beware the Santa

I recently watched the PBS program with Tavis Smiley examining the sermon given by Martin Luther King, Jr., exactly a year before his assassination, in which he denounced the war in Vietnam. Unlike King’s "I have a dream" and "Mountaintop" speeches, this April 4, 1967 sermon, delivered in New York City’s Riverside Church, isn’t talked about much these days. Although it was arguably more powerful, this speech, demanding that justice requires peace, was dangerous.

The speech made King a villain in the white community, including President Johnson, who had been a friend and strong ally. Even the black community was upset with him. Everyone said he should have stuck with civil rights and not get involved with foreign affairs. One King associate interviewed on the program opined that King was killed because of the sermon.

Yet, King is now remembered quite fondly and lauded, almost as a saint and also a martyr. There are schools and streets named for him, and his birthday is a national holiday. How did M.L.K go from being a pariah to being a hero?

We have forgotten - conveniently - that King was a man, a man who was passionate and full of feelings, including anger. We ignore the fact that his soothing message of non-violence was something that he strove for and didn’t preclude strong opinions and emotions. We have sanitized him. As Harvard University black studies professor Cornell West explained to Smiley on the program, there has been a "Santa Clausification" of King. "He now comes with a bag of treats for the kiddies."

Not unlike, it has occurred to me, what has happened with Jesus.

It’s not that Jesus now hands out toys. In fact, to the contrary, he is, to a not insignificant number of people, a stern master who with-holds love and acceptance from those who don’t conform to a certain code of people. The condemnation of gay people in his name is an example of this.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t who Jesus was at all. Jesus was all about love and about reaching out to the other and the enemy. He also wasn’t some pious, prissy follower of rules. No, Jesus was a radical, a hippie (as the patches sewn onto my bibs say), who broke rules, who knocked over the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Furthermore, in being so, he was a man who got furious, had temper tantrums, and who questioned God and wept bitterly.

And he laughed. Taped onto the wall above my desk is a drawing of Jesus laughing, sent to me from a friend who said it was from Playboy magazine. My friend said that when the drawing appeared, Playboy got more hate mail than for any other item it had published.

So I guess Jesus can’t laugh (and be human and sexual). Funny what people want Jesus - and M.L.K - to be.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Keeping on with the talking

Last week, I returned to Casa Colina Hospital to continue the evaluation for a speech device. (See "Talking Needs" post, March 25) An occupational therapist joined the speech therapist and the representative from Dynavox for the session that was nearly two hours. It looks like I’ll be getting the device; I was signing a number of documents at the end that looked plenty official.

I continue to be surprised that Medi-Cal will pay for the device (or nearly all of it - see below), and I all but said so. It feels to me like the women at the hospital have been living in a cave and haven’t been reading and hearing what I keep reading and hearing about the state budget crisis and all the things Medi-Cal isn’t paying for, but, brushing aside my concerns, they insisted I need the device and said that they have a very strong case. Okay. I mentioned that I’m a Regional Center client, and they said this would be a back-up funding source.

Several other things came up during the session:

*I was frustrated, because I was having a harder time using the device than I did the first time around, but the women said I was doing fine and were, in fact, impressed. No doubt I was anxious as well as impatient and hard on myself - nothing new there. I also was a bit tired, which made me more aware that the device will require some heightened effort from me and that there will be times that it may be less effective. In addition, I realized later that I am worried that friends - and perhaps I - will think I will be able to rattle off comments with the device and will be disappointed when I won’t. (Stephen Hawkins pre-sets his comments - I asked.) Yes, I’ll get better with practice, but it is important for all to remember the device will be just another tool - a very powerful, easier-to-use tool, but still a tool.

*Speaking of a powerful tool, I found out something very cool about the device; it is, or can be, essentially a P.C. For a nominal fee, not covered by Medi-Cal, I can use it to write, e-mail, go on-line, read books, etc. It will be like having a laptop attached to my wheelchair. I can see myself doing work or e-mail on my patio or in the park! I can even turn on lights and my T.V with it.

*The therapists continued to be not happy with my wheelchair, so I have an appointment next week for a wheelchair evaluation. They say I will be better able to use the device in another chair, but I am wary. I suspect that what I like about my wheelchair - that I can move around in it (lean over, stretch my legs, raise my butt up, etc.) - is what they don’t like about it, and I don’t want to be pinned down or trapped in a chair. I will see what they have in mind and hear them out, but I’ll also make it clear what I want and don’t want in a wheelchair. While I am very grateful for - and moved by - all the attention and care that I am getting, I do not want to be told what to do or taken over.

One more thing: I was at a potluck on Sunday, and no one sat by me. In addition to wondering if it was because of the messy way I eat and if my attendant should feed me in such a situation, I thought about probably not being able to use the device while I eat.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What about them?

In this season of new life, promise and renewal, here is a recent column of mine published in the Claremont Courier.

LOVING THE NEIGHBOR WE DON’T LIKE

"We should treat sexual predators no different than murderers. Sexual predators should be put away for life. Period."

Period?

These are strong words, and "period" is the strongest, making the rest of the words all the stronger. And they, and other such words, are being heard more and more. No doubt they are heard in Claremont.

But does Claremont really want to say "period?"

These words aren’t from Claremont. They are part of a letter appearing two weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times, written in response to the rape and murder of Chelsea King, a high school student in northern San Diego County. The writer is from Chino.

Yes, the person who abducted Chelsea King (allegedly a man who may have killed another teenaged girl) was a killer as well as a sexual offender, but I have no doubt the writer’s words would have been just as strong if the person was just a sexual offender. And I’m pretty sure that Claremont, in this case, may well have been Chino. I could easily see this letter written here. For better or for worse.

This is a town that can’t even stand having a 7-11. For better or for worse.

Much more than even the outcry years ago over the opening of a Starbucks in the Village, the uproar over the proposed 7-11 convenience store, which would be open late at night and sell alcoholic beverages, at Foothill and Mills proves that Claremont goes out of its way to protect its image as a nice, clean, safe town. Never mind that there are two similar mini-marts a block away. Never mind that there is a 7-11 store on Foothill Boulevard in Pomona just outside Claremont. Never mind that Claremont can really use the sales tax from such a store.

The argument that a store selling liquor, much less at all hours, shouldn’t be across the street from the colleges makes the most sense, but let’s not kid ourselves. For one thing, does anyone think that the kegs at the big parties at the colleges are filled with root beer? I was once at a meeting of theater students where a party featuring 100 bottles of wine was being planned.

In any case, not wanting a store in Claremont is one thing. Not wanting a person in Claremont is another thing.

Of course, we don’t want anyone like who raped and killed Chelsea King living here. If any such thing happened in Claremont, there would be shock and outrage, to say the very least. And rightly so. Claremont takes great pride in being a good, safe place for raising a family, a good, safe place to grow up in. (It should be noted that Chelsea King lived in a gated community.)

I remember protests in Claremont over rapists and child molesters living here. Some years ago, a convicted child molester living in La Verne voluntarily returned to prison, because there was so much tension, including in Claremont, over him living there.

New laws have made it virtually impossible for released sexual offenders to live in the community. There are so many places - parks, schools, libraries, churches - that they can’t live near. In addition, where they live is made public. They are all but driven out of town. Any town.

To where they can’t get the help and support and the sense of community and belonging there so clearly need. To where they have more loneliness, more hurt and anger and all the more reason to lash out.

Is it just better to not let these people go after they serve their time? Is it just better to lock them up and throw away the keys? Or to just kill them, as obviously dangerous and worthless people?

And what about Marcia Meier’s brother? He’s pretty scary.

Ms. Meier writes about her brother in an op-ed piece that appeared a bit earlier in the Times, on February 28:

"He is agitated. Someone is trying to harm him, take his money. He’s going down to the sheriff’s office. He’s serious. He’s going to take a gun and shoot somebody if those people don’t back off.... And so my brother...is gesturing wildly, storming about the yard. I am wary. He threatened to kill me once.

"I look at him. Reed thin. Hollow cheeks. Half his teeth are gone. He is 52."

It looks like this guy should be put away, locked up with the key thrown away. He is definitely bad news, a real danger.

But, as Ms. Meier writes, her brother "lives in a world of shifting realities, voices and paranoia." He is mentally ill and disabled. He has severe schizophrenia and needs help.

Being in prison isn’t what he needs.

Ms. Meier worries about what her brother needs and how he will get it. Ms. Meier writes that her brother has been in and out of jail for petty crimes and that he has done drugs. She writes about how he lives - barely - on Supplemental Security Income and about how their mother always helped him out, buying stuff and paying a bill here and there. She writes that their mother has died and that she is now the one looking out for her brother.

Who, she wonders, will care for him when she no longer can? Will anyone?

I wonder if Claremont would. I wonder if there’s a place in Claremont for this man if he wanted to live here. I wonder if he would be welcomed, would be part of the community, here.

Some years ago, Claremont decided to restrict the number and location of group homes for the developmentally disabled here in town, saying they can’t be less than a considerable number of feet away from each other. To this day, I still don’t understand what it is about the developmentally disabled - which I technically am - that their presence have to be so limited.

At about the same time, there was much tension over a proposal to house developmentally disabled criminals at Lanterman State Hospital (now in the process of being closed down). A San Dimas man stated at a public hearing that he was concerned about a man "with a carrot for a brain" escaping and causing harm.

What I want to know is this: How much harm can a carrot-brained man concoct and accomplish? That is, if he can manage to get anywhere. Or are we, even in our post-9/11, on-guard society, that scared and paralyzed?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Talking needs

Last week, I went to be evaluated for a speech device at Casa Colina Hospital for Rehabilitative Medicine, a very well-regarded institution not far from here (in fact, I traveled there in my wheelchair, and I work out in a gym there twice a week). This had been a long time coming, with friends encouraging me to do this for at least a year and my calling for an appointment in October. To say the least, Wednesday afternoon was eye-opening, making the wait totally worthwhile. I was quite impressed, in every sense.

When I went, I took a note that I had typed, explaining that I had used a LightWriter, a voice synthesizer with a small typewriter keyboard, for about five years but that it ended up being frustrating and tedious, that the letter board that I use is only a bit better and that friends have asked me why I don’t have a device like Stephen Hawkins uses. Meeting with me were a speech therapist and a young woman from Dynavox, which designs and makes a variety of speech devices, and both clearly knew what they were doing. Within five or ten minutes, they totally "got" me.

I have to say that this was most refreshing. It hasn’t been since I was in elementary school that I received such caring and thoughtful attention in regard to my disability and what I need to make it easier to deal with it. The two women were even ready to order me a new wheelchair ("Look at the chair you’re in!"), although they agreed that I’m happy with and used to the chair I have! (See - I didn’t have this kind of evaluation when I got this chair.)

I like it that they quickly saw that, yes, I can type with a finger, but using my finger on even a touch screen is too much work and not practical in a conversation. I like it that, when I said I hate using a key-guard (I get my finger caught), they didn’t have me try one. I like it that they quickly saw that, even though I can easily click, push a button, flip a switch or whatever with my finger, my elbow, my knee or whatever (but probably not my eyebrow), it would be too tricky and not practical in a conversation. I like it that, for the most part, they didn’t argue with me or try to tell me I wasn’t trying or working hard enough.

So they had me try the eye thing, which involves a camera that follows my eye movements to operate a mouse on a screen that can feature a keyboard, words, phrases and predicted words. This pretty much drove me crazy and was clearly not practical. Later, I realized that this works with people like Stephen Hawkins who essentially can’t move, whereas my body, including my head, is in constant motion, and isolating my eyes is a real challenge - something like following the eyes on a bobble-head. (But I don’t understand how Hawkins "speaks" without pauses. Does he pre-program all his statements - even his replies in a conversation?)

Next came a sticker on my forehead, which the camera followed. So I looked like a Hindu, but that’s cool, because it worked! This may be the jackpot. Yes, I will need to practice, will need to try harder and work harder, but, with my getting noticeably better in the short time I used the device, especially when I sat up straight in my wheelchair, I have a clear sense that this effort will make things easier in my life. (Among other things, in addition to getting better at using the device, I’ll have to keep a supply of stickers and make sure one stays on my forehead, like when I sweat, and figure out what hats I can still wear. Also, after a lifetime of thinking out lots of what I say, spontaneous conversation will be almost a new world and an interesting challenge.)

The two women were almost more excited than I was. They saw me as a project, an unique challenge, with great potential. Calling me a "complicated case," they wanted to set up another appointment, also including an occupational therapist, requiring another prescription from my doctor. The Dynavox rep said she is even willing to get up early and drive through the morning rush-hour traffic from Long Beach for a 9 a.m appointment with me. I asked them point-blank if I am eligible for this device, even though they could kind of understand my speech, and they said, "Oh, yeah," that I "definitely" am.

When I left the two-hour session, I was drained and exhausted, and I went home with a bunch of feelings. Some were positive:

INTERESTED, FASCINATED - What is available now is really amazing, jaw-dropping.

EXCITED - Wow! I see my life getting easier and many possibilities, doors opening, etc.

HOPEFUL - This may well happen.

And some were negative:

FRUSTRATION, ANXIETY - This is taking so long! I just found out, finally, that my next appointment is on Tuesday. (The new prescription and occupational therapist were rounded up.) And, yes, I’ve been assured that the case for me getting the device is strong, especially with an occasional therapist chiming in, but what if Medi-Cal won’t pay for it? I keep hearing about what Medi-Cal won’t pay for and am amazed that it is paying for these appointments. If Medi-Cal does pay for the device, it will probably take months.

ANGER AND SADNESS - I shouldn’t be worried about all this. I should just get the help I clearly need to live the fullest, most productive life I can. Also, why didn’t I get this device years, if not decades, ago? Why was typing on the LightWriter deemed best for me? Why wasn’t this device considered at all? Or was I too proud and stubborn? Come to think of it, why, when I was in elementary school, did therapists make me spend hours dressing myself, and why did another squeeze my lips while I ate canned peaches, trying to get me to eat with my mouth closed? I don’t want to cry abuse, but....