Archive for May, 2012

The Cultured Cocktease: or, Why you can’t Take a Blind person to an Art Exhibit

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder, but if, like me, your eyes don’t behold much beyond shadows and the occasional patch of sunlight, beauty, or at least visually-appealing beauty, is bound up in the equally creative art form of the descriptions relayed to you by sighted companions.

so when a group of friends and I decided to head into downtown Gainesville several weeks ago to check out the local art walk, I anticipated an evening of free entertainment provided by my friends’ running commentary. As I meandered in and out of each gallery, I admit to being more preoccupied with the challenge of nibbling pretzels, sipping lime punch, and weaving through the maze of masterpieces while silently praying that my guidedog wouldn’t suddenly demolish the entire display with a single sweep of his lethal Labrador tale. I was also teetering precariously on high-heals, a dangerous fashion choice in the current environment for someone who epitomizes the proverbial rhinoceros in an antique shop. Still, considering I have about as much class as blue jean cutoffs at a 5-* restaurant, I managed rather well despite feeling a bit like Eliza Doolittle at the embassy ball. I kept waiting for someone to expose me as the uncultured, squashed cabbage-leaf of Covent Garden—I, who probably can’t tell the difference between a priceless Renoir and a child’s finger-painting, even with the gift of two working eyes.

My last trip to an art gallery of any kind occurred when my college roommate and I paid a mandatory visit to our university’s local art exhibit to complete an essay assignment for an online class in which we were both enrolled. My roommate, understandably, chose what seemed the least complex of the pieces on display: a glass jar filled with sand, containing a miniature car, palm tree, house, and scattering of seashells—some eclectic assortment of items you’d expect to find in South West Florida.

“OK, I don’t get it,” my roommate declared after describing the piece to me.
“What don’t you get? It seems pretty straight-forward to me,” I replied.
“Well,” continued my roommate, “the piece is called Neapolitan Landscape, and I don’t get what any of this has to do with ice-cream.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” I managed between bursts of hysterical giggles.
“What’s so funny?” asked my roommate.
“Well,” I said slowly, “I’m not exactly an art expert, but I’m pretty sure ‘Neapolitan Landscape’ isn’t referring to a flavor of ice-cream. I’m pretty sure it’s a reference to Naples, Florida. You know…the city we live in?”

I couldn’t help recalling this story as I wandered past various carvings, photographs of mountain-ranges and sunsets, and the occasional hunk of twisted metal masquerading as a masterpiece. Suddenly, the friend with whom I was walking paused and laid a hand on my arm.

“You need to see this,” she said. I should point out that she was using that phrase fairly loosely; by “see,” she naturally meant “Someone really needs to point this out to you, because your inability to see it shouldn’t deprive you of what the rest of us have to suffer.” It was rather like the time in middle school when a friend of mine insisted on removing the rubber bands in her braces at the lunch table and thought she would enliven the process by making noises so that I wouldn’t feel left out of the entertainment. While I love my friends, I think I can safely say that this just takes the concept of accommodation to a level beyond appropriate.

Anyway, it turned out that my friend and I had stopped before a sculpture of what was unmistakably a naked man. This in and of itself wasn’t terribly shocking; what my friend felt compelled to point out was the fact that the artist, for one reason or another, decided to represent the man’s genitals with a pine cone. Perhaps Said artist was attempting to remind the viewer of the link between man and nature, or maybe he’d just run out of whatever material he was using for the sculpture. In any case, because my inner child has the maturity of your average four year-old, I was intrigued by the pine cone penis.

“You’re not serious. A pine cone penis?”
“I’m totally serious. It’s…definitely interesting,” said my friend. This description wasn’t nearly colorful enough to satisfy my curiosity.
“Are we allowed to touch it?” My friend hesitated.
“I…don’t think so. There’s a sign that says don’t touch.”

Well, this was disappointing, mostly because suggestively fondling a piece of local art would have been the most action I’d gotten in some time. Reluctantly I went off in search of a piece of art on display that was less touchy about being tactilely appreciated, but needless to say, I left that night with a very different impression of the concept of the cock tease than what is generally meant by the expression.

Question: what is the strangest piece of art you’ve ever seen?

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One for my Baby: Should Stillborn Infants be issued Birth Certificates?

Scrolling through the news the other morning, I chanced upon this article about an Australian couple seeking a birth certificate for their stillborn son delivered at five months. Since my research—more specifically my dissertation—considers in part the ways we define motherhood and the personal, political, and cultural constructions of maternal narratives, I was naturally intrigued by the ensuing debate.

According to the article, Tarlia Bartsch was five-months pregnant when her baby died in utero. After eight hours of induced labor, Tarlia and her husband, who named their stillborn son Jayden, insisted that they wanted a birth certificate issued because, as Tarlia put it, “without a birth certificate, he didn’t exist.”

I find this issue so fraught with technicalities that it makes my head spin, and I’m not entirely sure where I stand. I also feel compelled to preface any further remarks with the statement that I am not a mother, and I cannot begin to fathom the depth of the Bartsch’s’ loss, particularly the futile eight hours of induced labor to “give birth” to their lifeless son. From an emotional perspective, Tarlia’s desire to reaffirm her son’s existence is the natural reaction of a grief-stricken mother. Objectively, however, the claim that “without a birth certificate, [Jayden] didn’t exist” is highly problematic, not least because according to law, any stillborn delivery prior to twenty weeks is regarded as a miscarriage. Jayden had been nineteen weeks in utero when his heart stopped. This is such a marginal difference that it naturally gives rise to hair-splitting technicalities, but as far as his parents are concerned, Jayden did exist, and they want confirmation of that.

This begs the question, however, do they *need* confirmation? For one thing, Tarlia is already a mother—she has another son with whom to share her maternal love. (I don’t mean to suggest that in her grief and her desire to keep Jayden alive, that she is showing parental neglect toward her other son, nor am I implying that because she has a responsibility to this son, that she has no right to mourn the loss of her miscarried child). What intrigues me is the need to make Jayden’s existence “official” in the legal sense. Having carried and ultimately delivered a stillborn child, Tarlia has nothing and no one to legitimate her experience as an expectant mother. From an academic standpoint, her anxiety about Jayden’s nonexistence seems less about her son and more about reaffirming her maternity. To whom does she need to prove that she was pregnant? Who is doubting that she underwent the physical and emotional transformation of carrying a child? If Jayden’s spirit was so alive to her, if he lives in her heart as he once did in her womb, then that alone makes her as much a mother and him as much her son as if he’d been born healthy—at least, in my opinion.

Then, of course, we come to the problem of legality; if Jayden is going to be issued a birth certificate to prove that he lived, he also would, in all technicality, need to be issued a death certificate to prove that he died. NO where does the article address the additional consideration of this point.

Finally, and not surprisingly, there’s the fact that pro-life and abortion activists have appropriated this issue to service their own political agendas. In short, altering the law to issue birth certificates to stillborn infants who die in utero calls for a reexamination of the definition of the moment at which life begins. This is fertile ground for the pro-life and pro-choice activists—ground that they’ve been tearing up for decades. I’m not interested here in expanding in detail on my own views about the pro-life or pro-choice debate because, quite frankly, there is too much polarity attached to these labels. It seems, however, that such a change in the law concerning the issuing of birth certificates necessitates standardizing the definition of life—acknowledging that it does, in fact, begin at the moment of conception. Tarlia and her husband obviously believe as much; the naming ritual itself gives their stillborn son something of the identity he might have forged for himself had he lived a full and healthy life.

Though not a mother, I cannot deny that every expectant mother’s report of that first kick bears witness to the budding life that is forming unseen inside her. I cannot disagree with Tarlia in believing that her son lived—in some form. What I remain uncertain about is whether or not there is justification for the legal legitimation of his existence beyond that of assuaging their grief. (And perhaps, some might argue, that is reason enough). Whether this debate simply serves to add wood to the ongoing flame wars between the pro-life and pro-choice extremists, or if it challenges us to reevaluate what we as a society hold to be true about the way we define life, I hope that these parents can find peace in the memory of Jayden and comfort in their remaining son.

Question: should stillborn infants like Jayden be issued birth certificates?

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Here Comes the Bride’s Maid (or, reflections on growing up)

After a typical hither-and-thither Sunday afternoon of church and errand-running, I leaned against my kitchen counter and idly scrolled through my cell phone to check for any missed calls or texts, expecting the usual ‘0’. To my surprise, I had not one, but two missed calls from my oldest and dearest friend: two missed calls, but no voicemail or text. With the mind-reading efficiency that comes only as the result of a friendship spanning two decades, I deduced that my Siamese twin (hereafter referred to as S.T) had something to tell me that she deemed of too great importance to communicate in a voicemail or text.

With best-buddy antennae tingling, I settled on the sofa to return her call, with a very clear suspicion of what I was about to hear. After greetings and small-talk were exchanged, I waited in breathless anticipation for what I knew was coming.
“I’m engaged!” (Ha! Girl Sherlock wins again! Seriously, if I could high-five myself in admiration of my kick-ass deductive reasoning powers, I’d be doing that right now.).
“And I wanted to ask you if you’d be one of my Bride’s maids?” Um, hello? Does Colin Firth look hot in a wet shirt?
“Honey, we only planned this about, what, 20 years ago?”
“I know, but I had to ask. Make it official.”

Congratulations were given, dates were discussed, and the call ended far sooner than either of us would have liked, but adult responsibilities called. Gone were the days of spending hours on the phone inventing elaborate contraptions that did everything from math homework to unenjoyable chores. Speaking of being an adult: holy shit, batman, my best friend is getting married! And I’m not talking about Game-of-Life-add-a-little-blue-plastic-dude-in-a-car getting married. I’m talking about an actual wedding, with an actual bride and groom. This is the same girl who split granola bars with me at lunch; who read my teeny-bopper fanfiction (not that I wrote teeny-bopper fanfiction); who dutifully remembered the secret code name of every single boy I had a crush on; who inadvertently saved the life of a classmate while impersonating the “lice lady” and finding a tick in her hair. If you want to put our friendship in quantifiable terms, between the two of us, we’ve held about 8 million conversations, shed nine thousand buckets of tears, and consumed a rough estimate of 84 million calories in brownies and ice-cream. Most of the sleep debt I accrued before graduate school is probably the collective result of every single Siamese twin slumber party we ever held.

Still cradling my phone in my hand, I sat on the sofa and gazed out the window as a slideshow of memories rolled in my brain, amazed, and feeling supremely blessed, to have kept that solemn oath of friendship made with clasped hands on a school playground long ago: “One for all and all for one…and a partridge in a pear tree!”

Considering the fact that I fell asleep that night and had a very strange dream involving Livia Firth designing me a sustainable bride’s maid dress woven out of something resembling palm-tree branches and a pair of shoes made of recycled Coke cans, this whole experience is going to offer significant amounts of blog fodder.

Question: Have you ever been in a wedding party?

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Browsing my Bookshelf: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

This novel has been calling to me from my shelf for nearly a year, and I finally decided to pluck it from the to-b-read pile.

 

Synopsis: Nothing can stop Sarah Nickerson: a smart, sophisticated, Harvard Business School-educated Vice President of Human Resources for a Boston Consulting Firm, not to mention a wife and a mother of three. Adept in her climb up the corporate ladder, Sarah is keen to catch and juggle the many curveballs that life throws at her from all directions, until she suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that, quite literally, reshapes her world. Left Neglect prevents Sarah’s brain from registering sensory information on her left—everything from food on the left-hand side of her plate to the left side of her own body.

 

As Sarah struggles to cope with the day-to-day frustrations of living in a world of which she is only partially aware, she is challenged to see just how short-sighted she has been and that the key to conquering Left Neglect is to focus on the corners of her life that she has filtered from her field of vision. Forced to reach into the black hole of neglect to retrieve her life, Sarah discovers not just herself, but the hands of her children, reaching out to comfort and be comforted, the touch of her loving and supportive husband, and the embrace of a mother who had for so long existed, unseen, in the blind spot of Sarah’s life and heart.

 

Left Neglected is a novel that powerfully reminds us of how a single moment can change the course of an entire life; of how loss, in its own strange way, offers us gifts we could never otherwise have received. With Tenderness and authenticity, Lisa Genova offers us a story that bears witness to the triumphs that emerge from tragedy and the journeys that we can only take when we recognize that the first step is accepting that we must allow others to walk with us. A novel that is a true testimony to the ways in which health, illness, ability, and disability are inevitably a part of the vocabulary that shapes the stories of our lives, “Left Neglected” also speaks universal human truths about love, loss, friendship, and trust.

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Open Your Eyes: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012

Those of you who know me or who have been following this blog for any length of time know that in addition to being sexy, intelligent, witty, a decent cook, and modest to a fault, I am blind: or rather, I am a person who happens to be blind. There is a difference between being a blind person and a person who happens to be blind, and it is not a subtle one. Every day, we tell ourselves stories about who we are, and those stories shape the images we create of ourselves and the world in which we live. To call myself a blind person would be true, but it would also be a gross understatement—an oversight of the many ingredients that, mixed together, make up the unique flavor of my personality.

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and as I reflect upon the ways in which society defines me by the disable label, I also find myself thinking about the eye-opening moments I have been privileged enough to share with those who have been willing to look beyond that label.

Last spring, I taught a course in 20th Century British Literature, but I was transparent about my passion for my area of specialization—the Nineteenth Century—and especially my Jane Austen fanaticism. One of my students, who I afterward affectionately termed my “Jane Austen student,” came gushing to me after class one day about her trip to England the previous summer and, in particular, her visit to Chawton House—the residence of Jane Austen.
“I have pictures,” she informed me. “If you’d like, I can bring them next class and show you.” Insert very long, uncomfortable pause punctuated by chirping crickets. Class had been in session for roughly four weeks at this point; either this student was terribly unobservant of the Labrador that sat curled at my feet during every lesson, or she needed to have her own eyes checked out. That said, I have non-confrontational tattooed across my forehead, so rather than point out the obvious and add an even thicker layer of awkwardness to an already awkward situation, I smiled and responded, “I’d love to be able to see them.” ‘Hurrah,’ I thought. ‘I am paragon of inner poise and diplomacy.’ I said “I’d love to be able to see them,” which was, I thought, the truth. I would, but I could not.

“great!” responded my student. (Did she need a bomb to drop on her?). IN this case, it was my dog discretely, or not-so-discretely, treading on her foot with his paw.

When I walked into class the following day, I wondered whether or not Jane Austen student would in fact remember to bring her pictures of Chawton and, if she did, how I would explain to her that I would not, in fact, be able to see them, much as I wished to. ‘Idiot,’ I thought. ‘Golden opportunity for a teachable moment here, and because you’re such a politically-correct chickenshit, you’ve let it slip right past.’ As I suspected, Jane Austen student did in fact bring her pictures and suggested walking to my office with me so she could share them. Now the moment had come; there was no way out, but how could I offend her when she’d gone out of her way to bring the pictures and seemed so enthusiastic about sharing them with me?

We walked across campus together, chatting about the weather, classes, my dog—safe subjects. As we drew nearer my office, I was still wondering how I might be able to salvage what was left of this uncomfortable situation and transform it into a teachable moment. While I rarely if ever call attention to my blindness, I try whenever possible to educate my students about how best they can be of service to someone with a disability when the need arises.

When we arrived at my office, I thought I’d let the student initiate the dreaded picture conversation and see what might happen; I was buying time. At this point, “Lovely, but I can’t see it” was still the only thing I could conceivably think of saying. Subtlety is not a virtue I claim to possess in large quantities–in any quantity actually. To my astonishment, with no prompting from me, Jane Austen student brought out her pictures and, flipping through them, proceeded to describe each and every shot to me in detail. It was as if she were simply sharing her adventure with me, using the pictures as a way to refresh her own memory. She must have spent a good hour with me, describing in detail the landscape surrounding Chawton House and sharing the story behind each picture—like the one of the exit-ramp off the highway where she and her friend had accidentally found themselves when her GPS inexplicably switched from the pedestrian setting to the car setting.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this instance, it truly became that, and so much more. IN that moment, it was my ignorance, and not my student’s, that had been exposed—my assumption that this girl wouldn’t be able to fathom how to bring the world into view for someone who couldn’t see it.

In honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day, I urge you to check out Gin and Lemonade, a wonderfully witty blog by a wonderfully witty woman who, among other things, writes prolifically about living with a disability. She rocks—and (quite literally) rolls.

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