Tuesday, January 17

Ninety Days

It has occurred to me that, while I have shared some of my opinions, I have shared little of my background.

I was born October 15, 1953. I was due to be born mid-January 1954, but more about that later. Being born three months premature created some problems. Perhaps the biggest problem of being born early was that I almost wasn't. A few years ago, an episode of Dateline NBC claimed that babies that were born three or more months premature during the early fifties had about a twenty percent survival rate. The fact that I weighed two pounds eleven ounces didn't help. I was told that I was small enough to fit into a shoe box, which explains my unnatural fear of shoe boxes to this day.

Having survived the odds of a premature birth, I now had to survive the prevailing medical knowledge of the day. In the early fifties, it was believed that premature babies needed to be in an environment of enriched oxygen during their first months. It was determined that I should be placed in an incubator with an elevated oxygen level for six months. That treatment came to an abrupt end when my mother came in and saw that, as a result, the glass in the incubator had frosted over. Mother's intuition overruled medical advice. It was later determined that dozens of premature babies had suffered optic nerve damage as a result of this treatment. Once again, I had beaten the odds. But luck has a strange way of running out and the next of life's challenges would follow me for the rest of mine.

I was a happy-go-lucky baby for about a year. But about the time it was determined that I should be able to take my first steps, I couldn't. My premature birth had left me with a condition known as Cerebral Palsy. The doctors told my parents that I could crawl, be carried or pushed in a wheelchair, but I would never walk.

An optimist sees the glass half full of water and a pessimist sees the glass half empty. A realist sees the glass, liquid and unlimited possibilities. I have had an incredible journey over the past fifty years. Many people have expressed their feelings of how unfortunate it must have been to have never walked or run. I can see their point, but I can't agree with them. I have acquired an insight and philosophy of life that I don't think I would have had if I had been physically normal. Still, there are times when I wonder what my life might have been like if I had waited out the clock another ninety days.

I entered this world on a Thursday. According to the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme, “Thursday's child has far to go." Another ninety days would have been January 11, 1954, a Monday. That same nursery rhyme states that, “Monday's child is fair of face.” Okay, in this case both descriptions are true. I also know that I would have been born under the astrological sign of Capricorn instead of Libra. I've read that people born under the sign of Capricorn are practical, prudent, ambitious, disciplined, patient, careful, humorous, and reserved. On the other hand, those born under the sign of Libra are diplomatic, urbane, romantic, charming, easy-going, sociable, idealistic and peaceable. I can state without the slightest sense of bias that I am the latter four of the Capricorn traits, but I'm all of the Libra traits. Although this is not a scientific study, I'm pretty satisfied with the traits that I drew. Chalk one up for the early bird.

This brings up an interesting point. Many of us like to believe that our behaviors, likes and dislikes and perhaps our entire lives are preordained. Religious teachings tell us that there is a plan for each of us. Whatever your belief, I believe that each moment in our lives defines every subsequent moment in our lives.

When it was determined that I wouldn't be able walk, my life was, for the most part, relegated to a wheelchair. The wheelchair really wasn't all that bad on a daily basis. I lived in a middle-class suburban community that, despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act was years away from being enacted, was pretty much handicapped accessible. Most buildings were no more than two stories with most stores and building entrances at street level. Life was good. I had a lot of friends who made sure that I was a part of most of the moments that make growing up so enjoyable. I couldn't run or jump, but since I had never been able to, I really didn't know what I was missing. While my friends played baseball, I played mascot. Maybe it was my personality, the fact that I wasn't angry or maybe it was just that it was a different time, but I was always accepted by the other children. As I said, life was good and I was happy until one incident that would change my life forever.

I was in junior high school when I wanted to take a speed-reading course. The course was being given in an office building not far from my home. It was raining pretty heavily as we arrived at the building. That was not a problem, but the fact that the class was being given on the second floor and there was no elevator was a very big problem. The course rules had stated that you couldn't miss any of the first three lessons. It would have been too physically demanding to ask my folks to carry me and the wheelchair up the flight of stairs. For the first time in my life, I would not be able to do something that I wanted to do because I was handicapped. My tears rivaled the rain on the windshield as we headed home. It was then that I decided that I would never again be put in the position of not being able to do something because of my disability.

From that moment on I did everything I could to get out of the wheelchair. The long-legged braces, a superstructure of steel with leather belts and pads that I had only worn occasionally became a permanent fixture. The braces locked my legs rigidly straight for hours at a time. My father was a resourceful man who had an answer for just about any problem. In an attempt to lessen the pain of muscles stretched beyond their limits, he removed our dining room table and replaced it with a pool table. I often reminisce on my misspent youth spent shooting pool but the truth was that while I was lining up a shot I would forget about the pain of the braces and that, the doctors said, would go a long way toward correcting the condition that my premature birth had created.

When I reflect back to those days, I'm reminded of a passage from the novel “You Can’t Go Home Again." by Thomas Wolfe. George Webber is looking out his apartment window at a drunken beggar on horseback. He compares the beggar with the trials and tribulations of his own life saying, "It mattered not that the beggar was drunk and reeling. What was important was that he was mounted on his horse and, however unsteadily, was going somewhere." In essence, we are all drunken beggars on horseback looking for ways to survive and move forward through the trials and tribulations of our own lives. Although the braces did little to strengthen my legs, they did strengthen my endurance and my resolve that I could still overcome my handicap.

My disability has also taught me invaluable lessons about people. Spending most of my first two decades in a wheelchair meant always being in need of assistance. I became colorblind at an early age because a helping hand of any color or creed could not be ignored. I became an observer of life, which was something that would help me later on as a reporter and interviewer. More importantly, I learned that we all have disabilities. My disability is out there for all to see and for me to accept and deal with. But there are so many disabilities that are unseen and much more devastating. Prejudice, ignorance and pettiness create more limitations than my physical disability ever will.

After graduation from the University Arizona I was offered a job if I chose to stay in Tucson. I had bigger plans as I set out for Los Angeles. It was one of those defining moments that brought me to where I am today. I could write a book about what happened between then and now and someday I might do just that and become a rich, successful author. There's an old saying that no one becomes a writer to become rich and I can tell you that having personally tested that theory, it seems to be true. But any success that I find as an author will never equal the success that I have already found in my life.

Success, it turns out, has nothing to do with big bank accounts or fancy cars. I've known powerful people who couldn't control their own lives and I've known rich and famous people who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on psychiatrists trying to determine why they're not happy. Being happy appears to be the Holy Grail that we are all so desperately searching for but never seem to find.

From a wheelchair to crutches, I have moved through life at a slow, steady pace while most of humanity ran past me. To those people who remarked how unfortunate it was that I was never able to walk or run, I answer that I've always considered myself fortunate because I was forced to slow down and savor the moment. When nondisabled people attempt to slow down, they are looked upon as experiencing a lack of ambition or drive. They are seen as having derailed off the fast-track to success. I have found the success that they're looking for so desperately. I am happy and, believe it or not, I owe it all to those ninety days.

Friday, September 9

Job Security?

There are days when I wish I worked for the government. I've been a writer for 30 years. Since you don't become rich as a writer, I have also worked at a variety of jobs over the last three decades. Although I've learned new techniques and routines on-the-job, I always knew the basics before I started. Apparently, when you work for the government, knowing the basics is not as important as knowing the boss.

The appointed head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, not only a lied on his resume, but had limited experience working with emergency management agencies in general. The good news was that he knew President George Bush. The bad news for Americans was that he knew President George Bush. So "Brownie," as George Bush calls him, was appointed head of the first response agency at a time of national disaster.

Everything would've been fine if the mother of all natural disasters hadn't hit the United States of America. Now Brownie had work to do. The only problem was that he had no idea how to do it and people died.

Michael Brown was fired as a result of his ineptitude. Excuse me, I was thinking of what would happen in a regular company. In the company called the United States government, he was called back to Washington where he will sit behind his desk and push papers while he continues to collect his paycheck.

So it seems you I will continue to pay Michael Brown his fraudulently gained paycheck until public pressure forces his good buddy the President to replace him with someone who might be able to save lives when the next natural or man-made disaster occurs.

Thursday, September 1

In The Aftermath Of Hurricane Katrina, We Have Met The Enemy And It Is Us

The events in the Gulf are devastating. But the events happening since the hurricane are even more devastating. We are the most powerful nation on earth and yet we can't seem to take care of our own people. The disaster in New Orleans has focused the eyes of the world on our frailties, our inadequacies and our shortcomings.

As I watch the disturbing videos and pictures displayed before my eyes, I can't help but wonder why we are still unprepared for disasters in the 21st century. New Orleans has become a microcosm of what could potentially happen in this country if civilization were to suffer a complete and total breakdown after a catastrophic terrorist attack. As inconceivable as it is that we would see a dead body just sitting in a wheelchair pushed against a building, it is mind-boggling that people would be looting stores for electronics while people are starving and dying. Mostly, it is disturbing that a government so intent on helping citizens of foreign lands is so inadequate in their attempts to help United States citizens.

We have suffered a Third World disaster and we are dealing with it in the same way a Third World government would deal with this type of tragedy. Why weren't we prepared? Why can't we move faster to save the lives of people in this country who desperately need our help? The rhetoric coming out of Washington tells us that things are being done, but reality shows us that not enough is being done. More people will die while politicians talk.

We spend close to one billion dollars every week in Iraq. We need to spend that money in this country right now. Congress came back into session in the middle of the night to deal with a religious issue that related to one individual's right to life. They do not seem to be in any great rush to come back from vacation to save thousands of American lives.

President Bush has said that this hurricane is "a temporary situation." To the thousands who will die and the millions of Americans whose lives will be changed, hurricane Katrina is viewed as anything but temporary. We need to change our priorities before our current priorities destroy our way of life.

Friday, March 25

Will Congress Protect Me From The Jetsons?

Being a writer is a very solitary profession. A lot of time is spent figuring out ways to avoid writing. On one of those occasions, I was channel surfing through the 200 or so channels that I have on my cable system. I happened across a retro channel dedicated to old cartoons. An episode of The Jetsons caught my eye, but it was something that caught my ear that shook me to the core. Wife Jane Jetson was lamenting that she no longer understood her 15-year-old daughter, Judy Jetson. On the surface, parents not understanding teenage children would not be so earth shattering. But Jane Jetson went on to say that she was only 33-years-old. Now I'm not a math wiz, but even I was able to figure out that Jane gave birth to Judy when she was only 18-years-old. Jane was a teenage mom. I don't know how old her husband George was, but it is safe to assume that he was also a teenager when he and Jane first had sex. For all I know, they may not have even been married. What were the cartoon writers thinking in 1962? Where were the network censors? More importantly, why hadn't Congress protected me from this assault on my young, impressionable psyche?

Since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, the most egregious attack that this country has ever known, Congress has devoted hundreds of hours of committee and floor time debating whether four letter words uttered on radio and television or the accidental glimpse of a woman's breast during a nationally televised football game (a reprehensible act of visual terrorism happening so quickly that, unless you still-framed your digital video recorder, you would have missed it entirely) is contributing to the moral decay of civilization as we know it. The result of “Breastgate” was the imposition of millions of dollars in fines against the offending television stations. The Federal Communications Commission also threatened both television and radio stations with fines of up to $500,000 should they even accidentally hurl an expletive across the public airwaves.

I'm feeling better these days as I settle down to an evening of television with my unregulated microwave popcorn and bottled water. I drink bottled water because fines for introducing pollutants into the public water supply average a paltry $50,000, but I can rest assured that my mind will be kept pure.

In 1962, Congress worried about the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis. The current Congress seems more concerned about an imagined war on indecency than the very real war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism occurring on our soil. Apparently, the 1962 Congress was more concerned with national safety than what was being broadcast on radio and television because they never once brought up for debate whether or not a cartoon show called The Jetsons was promoting teenage pregnancy.

In 1962, politicians debated legislation aimed at protecting the lives and freedoms of all Americans. Morality remained a personal...not a political choice.

Monday, March 21

The Hypocrisy of Major League Baseball

In light of recent congressional hearings into alleged steroid use by Major League Baseball players and the baseball commissioner's apparent unwillingness to punish offending players, I have to wonder whether the powers that be have any sense of perspective when it comes to regulating America's pastime.

Fifteen years ago, Pete Rose was banished from the game of baseball. He was, in every sense of the word, a superstar. Superstardom in a sport does not guarantee superstardom off the field. Pete Rose is a perfect example of that dichotomy.

We now know that Rose bet on baseball and on his own team to win. He broke the rules, but the rules that he broke were those of a corporation, not a legal system. Like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Rose denied the allegations to friends, co-workers, and the media. He blatantly lied about what he had done and, for that, he was banned from the game he loved for 15 years.

In this country, if you are convicted of manslaughter, you will probably serve less than 12 years in prison. Upon release, you are free to continue in your chosen profession as long as you don't kill any more people. This rule seems to be good enough for the United States, but not good enough for Major League Baseball.

The powers that be, want Rose to kneel before them and kiss their World Series rings. They say that his crime was so heinous that his banishment for life is justifiable penance for that crime. I wonder if these righteous men know the meaning of the word "hypocrisy?"

Darryl Strawberry violated the rules of baseball by taking drugs. Was he banished from the sport for life? No, he was put into drug rehab. When he came back to the sport and took drugs again, was he then banished for life? Again, the answer is no. The baseball commissioner apparently felt that illegal drugs that could affect Strawberry's performance on the field were not as bad as Rose's gambling.

So the question is, why is baseball's commissioner refusing to come down off his throne to pardon "Charlie Hustle?" The answer is money. You see, to most of us, baseball is nothing but a game. It's a diversion from our everyday 9-to-5 lives. To the baseball powers, it is not a game as much as it is a big bottom line. When Rose was a player he made a lot of money for baseball. He continued to make money as a manager, but his value was beginning to decrease. He became expendable.

The commissioner believes that Rose can best serve the game as the bad boy of baseball. Rose has become, what magicians call, a bit of misdirection. While the fans watch the controversy over Rose, they miss the fact that the sport of baseball has become more expensive, less entertaining and more businesslike. The commissioner can crow about keeping integrity in baseball as he and the owners take more from the fans and give back less.

It is true that Pete Rose broke a rule of the corporation for which he worked. But it is also true that he came clean with Major League Baseball and the fans.

Which brings us to Mark McGwire, who prefers not to discuss whether he ever used performance enhancing steroids. If his record-breaking baseball career was steroid-free, then why not proudly proclaim what baseball fans want to believe? Why have the asterisk of doubt hanging over his record? Perhaps he realizes that his silence will guarantee him entrance into the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose's only ticket into the Hall will come from a cashier.

Friday, March 18

Losing Our Rights to the Religious Right

While Terri Schiavo lies in a vegetative state in a Florida hospital bed, I can't help but wonder how the founding fathers must be spinning in their graves. Congress, the legislative body responsible for creating laws designed to protect and serve all Americans, is instead focusing on a segment of society that is more concerned with religious beliefs than individual rights.

Since September 11, 2001, we have seen a consistent erosion of our personal rights in the name of democracy. Congress has become the ruling religious party of the United States. Civil marriage of same-sex couples has replaced civil rights as a congressional concern.

Before her unfortunate accident, Terri Schiavo had expressed her personal belief that a life in which she would be kept alive by artificial means was not a life that she would want to continue. In their grief, her parents have fought to sustain Schiavo’s life at any cost. It is incredibly difficult for any parent to lose a child but, after 15 years of life support, it may finally be time to let go.

They say that love is blind. As they blindly reach out for allies in their struggle to keep their daughter alive, Schiavo’s parents have turned a personal belief into a political firestorm. Congress is working overtime to write a bill that would then be signed into law by a very sympathetic president. The law will keep Schiavo on life support. In addition, it will also give an incredibly conservative Congress and the Religious Right, new ammunition in the right-to-life controversy.

Once again, something very personal has become something very political. The quality of an individual's life has become a political football. Unfortunately, when this battle finally comes to an end, there will be no winners.

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