A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Those Happy, Bygone Days?

The French epigramist La Rochefoucauld observed, "Old men are fond of giving good advice to console themselves for no longer being able to set bad examples."
So in that spirit, let me pass on a survival tip to incoming college freshmen from my classmate, the late film critic Gene Siskel, who heard it from novelist John Hersey.
"Don't be unhappy when you're unhappy," he said. "Happiness is fleeting. Strive for serenity, instead."
And that's the deep, dark secret about college. Everybody's been telling you how lucky you are, how it's going to be the most fun you've ever had. So how come you're bummed out? You must be wondering: What's wrong with me? Why aren't I fitting in?
Relax, there's nothing wrong with you. Believe it or not, everyone else is scared, too. It's a big step you're taking, the first time away from home for most of you. Eventually, college is going to be everything wonderful they told you it would be. But it's going to take a little time to make the emotional transition.
 Trust me, I know. My freshman year started off with one of my new roommates looking me up and down with disgust and saying, "They didn't tell me they were going to room me with a Jewboy."
The next two weeks were a nightmare, with him pulling stunts like rolling a penny under a bed and saying, "Go get it, Jewboy," while the other roommate laughed.
Eventually the administration found out about it and moved me to a different dorm, where I made friends with a lot of very nice people and put all the unpleasantness behind me.
Or so I thought. In junior year I was dating a girl from Sarah Lawrence. On one of our dates she looked up at me with those beautiful blue eyes and said, "What religion are you?"
"Uh, ah, um, er, uh…" I stammered.
"You're Jewish, aren't you"? she said.
"Uh, ah, um, er, uh…well, yes," I finally admitted.
"I'm sorry, but I can't date you any more," she said.
Oh no, I thought, not again.
"Is it because I'm Jewish?" I asked.
"No," she said. "It's because both my parents survived the concentration camps, and I refuse to date somebody who is ashamed to be a Jew."
With that, she walked across the street and disappeared into the subway. I never saw her again. But she did me a big favor by making me face up to my cowardice.
Now, flash forward to my 35th college reunion. The penny-roller wasn't there, but the other guy, the one who laughed, was. We kept eying each other at a distance throughout the reunion until the end of the class dinner, when he came up to me, stuck out his hand, and apologized.
I don't know who was happier about it – him or me. Since then, he's the first person I look for at every reunion, and I'm the first one he looks for, too.
You see? It might take a while, but it all works out in the end.
So if you're feeling lonely, just remember: So is everyone else. If you're feeling intimidated, they are too. Try consoling someone else, for a change. They might need it more than you do. And you just might make a friend.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Clear View Of Discrimination

(Above: Belo Cipriani and his previous guide dog, Madge, at Madge's retirement ceremony last month.)

Belo Cipriani, the popular Writer In Residence at Holy Names University in Oakland, is an immigrant, a person of color, and gay. So which one gets him the most discrimination?
"None of the above," he says. "I get the most discrimination because I'm blind."
"Look at the numbers. The unemployment rate for blind people in this country is 70 percent. And most of the other 30 percent who do have jobs work for blind organizations."
Cipriani knows what he's talking about; he was a recruiting manager for Apple and Google before he lost his sight six years ago. He says employers don't realize that the blind can do pretty much any job sighted people can, especially if it involves a computer.
"There are a slew of adaptive tech toys that make most jobs accessible, such as a portable scanner to read print. And most of them cost less than $1,000, a negligible amount for a serious business."
Anti-blind bias even infects the language we use, such as "the blind leading the blind," which implies they have poor navigation skills.
"Actually, we have better workplace safety records than our sighted colleagues because we have an attention to detail that most sighted people lack," he says.
"For instance, when I cross the street I can feel the arch of the sewer system as I approach the other side, and then when I feel the ground dip slightly I know the curb is coming up."
But that doesn't stop well-meaning people from trying to "help" him. Once, a guy even picked him up, slung him over his shoulder, and carried him across the street!
"Sometimes all you can do is laugh," he says.
But the petty insults and trivializations just keep coming.
"People slow their speech down and explain things as if I were a child," he says. "When I go into department stores, the clerks tell me they don't have Braille clothing. When I go to a restaurant with a friend, the servers invariably ask, 'What does he want?' instead of addressing me directly. And when I showed up at a bar for speed dating night, they said, 'I'm sorry, but we don't have enough blind people for you to date.'"
The visually impaired also face discrimination in housing, although there are laws on the books against it.
"I've been discriminated against by 10 different landlords. They're afraid a blind tenant will fall down and get hurt, as if we can't walk or climb stairs."
And some of the worst problems occur when he travels with his guide dog, a friendly black Lab named Oslow.
"Cab drivers are notorious for flying away if someone has a service dog," he says.
Once, when he was flying to the East Coast, the plane's bathroom was too small for both him and the dog, so he left the pooch outside and went in by himself.
"When I emerged, the whole cabin erupted in applause. Several people said, 'You're so inspirational!' They think it's amazing that I can tie my shoelaces."
And I'll bet people with other disabilities have similar stories to tell. With October being National Disability Awareness Month, it's a good time for all of us to wonder: How many Helen Kellers and Franklin D. Roosevelts are being wasted because of our ignorance?