Posts Tagged 'musings'

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2013: Stop Doing More with Less

Last year on May 13, I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s degree in communication with a journalism emphasis. Today, May 1, 2013, almost a year later, I still do not have a job. My parents constantly remind me this is nothing to be ashamed of. There is a good chance that I wouldn’t have found a job by now even if I wasn’t blind. The recession is technically behind us according to economic experts, but companies are still slow to hire, fearing what our dysfunctional Congress might do next. The unemployment rate is dropping, but this is largely because a lot of people have become so discouraged they gave up looking for work altogether and these people aren’t counted in the unemployment figure. My brother-in-law earned a PhD six months ago in Microbiology, and he hasn’t had any luck finding a job either. Even so, I cannot help feeling like my blindness stacks the deck against me in ways that it shouldn’t in the 21st century, in the United States, a country founded on ideals of fairness and equality.

     I blame this on corporate CEO’s. Every time I listen to an interview with a company CEO on a news program and they mention phrases like “efficiency” or “doing more with less” a wave of frustration surges through me because while I am not an expert on anything, I have the sneaking suspicion these phrases are part of the reason why 70 percent of the blind population is unemployed.

     It seems as if all industries put these phrases in to practice to some extent, from government, to manufacturing, to medical care and education, but especially journalism. Print journalism could be, should be, and I think used to be a very blind friendly field. With all of the screen reading software, or even a notetaker with a refreshable braille display, writing stories or taking notes during interviews is no problem. If a story requires interviewing someone at a different location, all that is needed is someone–like the photographer who had to accompany the reporter to take photos of the interview subjects or a scene anyway–to drive the blind person to the site and assist him/her in finding the location where the interview will take place if it is a site the person has never been to before. The actual interview requires no vision at all to yield excellent results. My junior year of college when I inquired about an internship opportunity, a person told me that I couldn’t interview people, a major component of that internship, because looking at an interviewee’s body language is an essential part of interviewing. I did not end up applying for the internship because I wasn’t in the mood to waste time and energy fighting this narrow-minded person’s misconceptions, and I ended up finding another excellent internship with a wonderful, open-minded supervisor. But the fact is, while it is true that blind people cannot watch someone’s body language, we are very attuned to a person’s tone of voice, and tone of voice almost always betrays the same things as body language. So interviewing is a very blind friendly task as well. At one time, this was all that journalism used to entail: researching a story through interviews with primary sources that witnessed or were involved in a news event and writing short articles about these events. Photographing an event was a separate job for the photographer, and broadcast journalism was a separate field. But while I was in college, the combined effects of the recession and the exponential growth of social media and free smartphone apps ravaged the journalism industry. By the time I graduated, newspaper staff was dramatically reduced, and just as professors had warned, newspapers were now looking for multitalented reporters who could write well but also produce photos and videos. After all, the biggest expense incurred by businesses is paying employees, so if technology allows for one person to do a job that used to be done by two or three people, the business saves money.

     I wouldn’t mind having both writing and photography duties if technology made this possible for me, but as far as I know, technological advances related to photography have been about making cameras smaller or allowing synchronization to other devices or live streaming to an internet site. There has not been any advancement with regard to helping a totally blind person know where the camera is pointing. I have tried shooting photos and videos of my face and my pets on my iPad for posting to youTube or Facebook just for fun out of curiosity over what it might feel like to be a sighted person with a camera. But despite my sighted parents’ best efforts to explain how the camera needs to face the image I want to capture and be held a couple feet away from it to capture the whole image,  only a couple of the several attempts made were deemed acceptable for public viewing by my parents. Often times, I thought I had the camera facing where I wanted it to be, but the image couldn’t be discerned at all, and on a couple of occasions, I inadvertently captured some, well, inappropriate images if you know what I mean!

     Anyway, my point is that because of my disability, I cannot shoot photos or videos, but I could be an excellent interviewer and writer. Yet when I peruse job postings online, I hardly ever come across jobs that don’t have at least one or two responsibilities that would be iffy if not impossible given the fact that I am totally blind. It’s not just newspapers that are guilty. As I came to appreciate the fact that journalism is a very competitive field and even people without disabilities have a difficult time nabbing a journalism job, I decided to look at Public Relations jobs instead since journalism and public relations skills overlap. But even with these job postings, hiding somewhere in every list are phrases like, “participation in the selection, production and coordinated use of still images and videos,” or “exceptional attention to detail and a keen sense of design,” which to me insinuate in a subtle but firm way, “blind people need not apply.” In my idealized childhood mind, I remember thinking that if I just advocate for myself and all the things I can do assertively enough, or impress an interviewer enough with how well-spoken and educated I am, I could get hired for any job I wanted and my coworkers would like me enough that they wouldn’t mind pulling a little extra weight by handling the visual stuff. But then I gradually became aware that the corporate world is different than the warm, friendly and accommodating school atmosphere. Corporations are not about friendliness, warmth or accommodation. They are about turning a profit. There are laws, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act that try to force employers to hire and provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but with a simple form letter, an employer can just pretend they found a better qualified candidate. If a person with a disability gets this letter after attending an interview and suspects that the company really just found a candidate without a disability so they wouldn’t have to go to the extra expense and effort to accommodate a disability, you cannot prove this intention with absolute certainty in court, especially since as I said earlier, lots of people without disabilities are also unemployed.

     I am careful not to mention the fact that I am blind in my application materials unless I am applying for a job with an organization that serves the blind, so I am confident that the fact that I haven’t been called for an interview is due to nothing more than the competitive nature of the job market for everyone and my resume just didn’t stand out. I haven’t applied to any jobs since March because of the very few job postings I find in my field, none of them appealed to me so I am considering giving up the job search and maybe going to graduate school to see if more education opens up better opportunities.

     But when I was looking for jobs, I would apply for ones that looked like they only had one or two visual responsibilities: Jobs with multiple visual responsibilities intermingled with the writing duties scared me away. And then I would await the form letter, half hoping for an interview but also half scared about how I would tout all that I could do and convince an ignorant HR person that my skills were worth the extra effort and expense of accommodating my disability, even if that meant hiring another person to handle visual stuff when the company only planned on hiring one person to do it all. I hate to be cynical, but I would almost be glad to see the form letter of rejection before the company could meet me and find out I am blind because as greedy and profit centered as corporations seem to be, I am convinced they would pull this dirty tactic on me, showering me with fake kindness when they see me walk in with a guide dog and pretend to interview me when they have already made up their mind that hiring me would be too much of an imposition.

     I don’t think more laws are the answer to this problem. If new laws are passed, some people will only find new loopholes to avoid complying with them. Besides, I don’t want to be hired just to meet a company’s quota in compliance with the law, especially if I can pick up a vibe of resentment. I also don’t want to be taken advantage of, hired as a charity case by a company and then paid a lower wage then someone without a disability doing the same work. Sadly, even what I thought were upstanding nonprofit organizations like Goodwill are guilty of this practice, and I think it is wrong. In other words, like most people with disabilities I have met, I don’t want to be treated any different than everyone else.

     With that in mind, in my opinion what is needed is not more laws, but an overhaul of the whole corporate mindset of doing more with less. I have noticed that even people I know who do not have a disability hate this mindset because when companies try to do more with less, the quality of their services and the health of employees often suffer. For example, I am friends with former nurses who noticed that gradually more and more responsibilities were being heaped on to them. When nurses would retire or quit, they sometimes were not replaced and if they were, they were replaced with young nurses right out of college that the company could pay way less. Of course, all young people in any field need to start somewhere, but when a company opts to hire a disproportionate number of inexperienced people rather than a nice balance of experience and youth, mistakes are inevitable. In terms of my own field of journalism, because I read newspaper articles on NFB Newsline, a free service blind people can sign up for to access newspaper content more easily, I am not aware of the proportion of advertisements to articles in a newspaper. But my parents have said that the Sunday paper which used to be fat and full of articles, is now thinner and has a lot more advertisements. I have no doubt this is because when a reporter has to take on more stories due to staff cutbacks, and be a writer, photographer and videographer rolled in to one, of course they cannot produce as much content as they used to. And instead of being just pleasantly tired but satisfied at the end of a hard day’s work, I know people from all fields who come home exhausted from burning the candle at both ends all day.

     The journalism industry really is struggling as people shift toward free web content for their news, so I understand why newspapers would need to cut costs, although on a side note, people need to get used to the idea of paying, even for web content from a newspaper. People have always payed for other forms of information like books and we will pay for intellectual services like legal advice. So paying for high quality journalism from a respected newspaper that has professional standards and rapport in the community shouldn’t be viewed any differently. But aside from that, at the same time many corporations said the recession forced them to “do more with less,” and even plead for government bailouts, they continued paying their CEO’s ungodly salaries, and when the recession was technically over and they were found to be making record profits, many did not hire back the people they had laid off. Yes, the reality is companies do need to be financially cautious because Congress has been gridlocked and useless lately. But if a corporation is making any profit, especially “record profits” they could hire more people. I think some corporations are just using the uncertainty in Washington as a convenient excuse and justification to continue being greedy.

     So forgive me if this sounds like a socialist statement, but I really think the only way we will improve employment prospects for everyone, including people with disabilities is to get the corporate mindset away from the whole idea of turning a profit as the primary goal. If a company wants profit that they can invest back in to the company to expand it, at some point that is unsustainable. I know someone who was laid off from the company he worked for precisely because they expanded too much and went almost bankrupt because they expanded beyond the level of demand for their services in the market. If a company wants to turn a great profit so that the owners can retire early and live lavishly, that is just immoral when so many people, even in the United States, can barely make ends meet. And it could ultimately be unsustainable too if there comes a point when these practices put so many people out of work that nobody has money to buy a company’s product or service anymore. So it is time for companies to put less emphasis on profit and more emphasis on social responsibility.

     When corporations talk about social responsibility, this usually means donating a little bit of their proceeds to local schools or assuring consumers that they only buy from fair trade producers if they sell things like chocolate, coffee or clothing. This is great and corporations should continue these practices. But companies also need to think more about how they can apply social responsibility “at home” so to speak. Company CEO’s need to start asking, “has the quality of the company’s product or service deteriorated at all since we rolled what used to be two or three jobs in to one?” If the answer is yes, and if the company has enough money to separate these jobs again, they could practice social responsibility by not sitting on so much of this money and hiring back some people. If a company has enough money to hire people, there is no excuse for the current situation where people lucky enough to have jobs are worked to the point of exhaustion while so many people cannot find work at all. But this kind of social responsibility could benefit the company as well because if the burden on each employee could be lightened by hiring more employees, and if each employee could focus on their unique talent and perform that talent well, rather than frantically trying to do it all on an inevitably mediocre level, employee morale and the quality of products and services could be improved, and maybe consumers who stopped buying products from a company when they noticed a decline in quality would decide to return and the company could make more money! Maybe it wouldn’t be the record profits they used to make when they rolled multiple jobs in to one, but I bet it would be enough.

     A lot of people don’t like well-intentioned but ineffective laws that try to address diversity problems with quotas and I don’t blame them. Perhaps I am among them because I don’t want to be hired by a company just to satisfy a quota either, nor do I want companies to view accommodating my disability as an imposition or treat me as a charity case. But the “doing more with less” philosophy hasn’t been good for anyone except maybe the CEO’s, so while you could call my thoughts naive and unrealistic, I truly believe that a change in mindset, not laws would be a much more effective solution that would indirectly improve the employment prospects for people with disabilities, while generally improving the quality of life for everyone.

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Soul Searching

When I was in third grade, I had an inexplicable fascination with the Iditarod Dogsled race held every year in Alaska. The race retraces the journey from Anchorage to Nome, made by a brave dog named Balto to get medicine for children suffering from diphtheria in 1925. While most of the topics covered in third grade Social Studies put me to sleep, I couldn’t get enough reading about the Iditarod, and long after the Iditarod unit was over, I would daydream about being a “musher” when I grew up. Nowadays, I have no desire to be a “musher” and when you get right down to it, if someone actually offered me the chance to race sled dogs, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it then either. After all, I could barely keep my balance walking through snow, so standing on a sled while being pulled by dogs would have been out of the question. Also, the potential perilous situations that can occur in the Iditarod like thin ice wouldn’t have appealed to me then and don’t appeal to me now. So why I daydreamed about being a “musher” was for a long time a mystery to me.

     Then in fourth grade, the combined effects of a vacation to a cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend and a whole curriculum based on pioneers like Laura Ingalls Wilder had me dreaming about being a modernday pioneer, abandoning the modern life of hurried mornings, long days away from home and annoying television programs in the evening and raising kids in the north woods. But as I matured I realized I was making that kind of life sound more glamorous than it really was. Using an outhouse? No thank you! Cooking meals over an open fire? As it is, I am still afraid of burning myself while cooking on an electric stove. And we haven’t even gotten to my fear of bugs and my disdain for rugged trails. I still love the smell of the air when we occasionally make it up to the north woods, and could maybe see myself renting a cabin to retreat to once a year (in early spring or autumn to avoid the bugs of course) when I am older. But to live as a pioneer isn’t my calling after all.

     Around the end of fifth grade through seventh grade or so it occurred to me that I really enjoyed writing and so I started dreaming of being an author. Even though I cannot read print books, I have always found beauty in the glossy covers and pages of books. Even now if there is an idle moment, I will sometimes pick up a print book lying on a coffee table and just savor the texture of it. I used to think about how thrilling it might be to be the writer of a real, glossy published book sold in bookstores all over the world, and more importantly about what a peaceful life the life of an author might be, just sitting in a quiet office with no time clock or boss, escaping to a fictional world created by your imagination and writing from the heart. But when I learned that most authors also must still work a day job, that even if a publisher does accept your book, royalties made on the book usually don’t exceed the cost of publishing the book and that authors often have to cave to writing what sells, not necessarily what inspires them, I decided that wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to live either. Believe me. Since I cannot even wrap my head around how J.K. Rowling came up with such an elaborate plot and created such well-developed characters, I don’t think I have the talent to make it in the author business.

     Then in eighth grade as a community choir I was involved in prepared to tour Italy, I started romanticising about making my living singing in a choir and touring the world. But again, I discovered that world travel isn’t as glamorous as it is cracked up to be, what with jet lag, fears of pick-pockets, bumpy roads that are very difficult to walk on and the constant fear of my medicine getting lost or stolen since I think Walgreens pharmacies can only be found in the United States. Besides, choirs don’t pay wages, so between choir tours, I would still have to work a day job.

     By high school, I was finally starting to grow in to myself and form a more realistic dream. When teachers started praising essays I wrote and I had a wonderful experience in a career exploration program offered by my school that gave me the opportunity to work with the news editor for a local newspaper, it occurred to me that I would enjoy a career in journalism. It would be an exciting career that would take me somewhere different each day. I enjoy participating in discussions on news and politics and was starting to notice and get frustrated about all the injustice in the world which I might be able to expose and change with the “power of the pen.” So I thought interviewing people and writing about news and politics would be a perfect fit for me. I was disappointed when I got to college and learned from professors and guest speakers that reporter positions were hard to come by since the shift toward online sources for news forced some newspapers to fold, and all newspapers, including our local newspapers to cut back. But I chose to stay the course, reasoning that maybe I would be one of the lucky ones who would land a job as a reporter. If not, I could settle for a public relations position with a company as the demand for Public Relations is growing and journalists commonly carry over to public relations positions because there are many parallels between these fields. For example, both fields value high-quality journalistic writing that keeps in mind concepts like the inverted pyramid (most important information first, least important last). The difference is that the goal of the journalist is to be objective whereas the goal of someone writing a press release for a Public Relations position is to spin the story as ethically as possible to favor the company. I wasn’t as passionate about Public Relations as I was about journalism but as I began my senior year of college, my mindset was, “hey, a job is a job. I could take a public relations position to pay the bills and then write freelance articles about politics or something as a hobby.”

     But then I read In to The Wild by John Krakauer. It was a book assigned for a Creative Nonfiction course I took in the fall semester of my senior year, and it was one of the rare books assigned for school that I didn’t want to put down. It absolutely captivated me!

     The book retraces the story of a young man named Christopher McCandless who had a seemingly normal upbringing in an affluent suburb near Washington D.C. But after graduating college, he cut off all contact with his family and hitchhiked all across the country. His ultimate dream was an Alaskan odyssey where he wanted to hike to the remote wilderness of Alaska with minimal supplies and live off the land. In 1992, he embarked on this dream with only a light backpack, set up camp in an abandoned bus used by hunters, hunted game and used a book on Alaskan plants to find edible flora. But the dream did not end well for him. In the summer when he was ready to end his voyage, he discovered that a stream which had been calm and shallow when he first crossed it had turned in to a raging river that he knew he could not swim across, so he returned to the bus where he eventually died from eating damp seeds which had developed toxic mold. I agreed with my classmates that what he did was foolish, even a little selfish. Perhaps he also had some degree of mental illness too that was exacerbated when he found out that his father was living a double life, secretly seeing someone else when Chris was little. But when the rest of my class had probably long forgotten about him and relegated his story to the mental file of “just another book assigned for a class”, something about him stuck with me. It was a feeling on the order of “wow! I wonder what it would be like to do that!”

     But why? Was it the fact that it mentioned the beautiful-sounding wilderness of Alaska, re-awakening my silly Iditarod or pioneer fantasies from when I was younger? Was it God’s way of telling me I was meant to have an Alaskan odyssey too, or live as a modernday pioneer after all? “No,” I realized. I am still not fond of wilderness that is too rugged and I have absolutely no desire to break ties with my family, become a hitchhiker or die alone in a bus out in the wilderness! I suppose all children have wild ideas at some point during their childhood. But I was now an educated and thus supposedly mature woman in my twenties. Why, when all my classmates and my parents focused on how foolish Christopher’s actions were, was I still enamored by him?

     I didn’t have much time to think about this book as I raced to the finish line of my college career, got caught up in the excitement of graduation and then had to deal with health problems last summer. But around October when I was adjusting well to Celiac Disease and feeling much better, I started to get a restless feeling in my soul and a yearning for a purpose. This was a good sign, my parents said. It meant that I was feeling better now and ready to think about my future. So for one week in Mid October, I dove headlong in to the task of applying for jobs. If I were collecting unemployment benefits, I would need to apply for two jobs a week, but I could do better than that! Every day that week, I woke up determined to apply for at least one job a day. So on Monday, I applied for a social media representative position with a retail store. On Tuesday I applied for a public relations position with a healthcare company, and so on. At the beginning of the week, I was actually a little upset because as luck would have it, the week I was finally motivated to apply for jobs was a short week. On Friday morning of that week, I had promised Mom I would go with her to Indiana for a family reunion and a long weekend at my grandma’s house where I would not have internet access to apply for jobs or check my e-mail for interview offers on the ones I had applied for.

     But sitting in the car singing along to the radio with Mom that Friday morning, it occurred to me that I wasn’t as eager to keep applying to jobs as I thought I would be, and rather than feeling a sense of accomplishment over the jobs I had applied for already, something troubled me. A few hours in to the car ride, I felt like reading, but as I scrolled through the list of books I had downloaded on to my braille notetaker and saved in my pleasure reading folder, none of them peaked my interest at that moment. Then I remembered In to The Wild. I still had it saved in my college books folder. Although I loved the book, unfortunately that semester was so demanding due in large part to my senior capstone seminar I had to take that semester that I couldn’t really savor the book. In fact, when it occurred to me that I was spending so much time on this book that I was neglecting my responsibilities for other courses, I had to resort to skimming through the second half of the book. In the car that day, I decided that it didn’t matter that the course was over. A book that captivated me that much was worth finishing and savoring. Over the following week as I savored that book, I still couldn’t put my finger on why this book captivated me so much, but I noticed that particular quotes jumped out at me in both readings. My favorite of these quotes was in a letter McCandless wrote to Ronald Franz, an old man he had befriended in Arizona. Toward the end of the letter, McCandless says, “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future” (57).

     Maybe all young people upon college graduation need some sort of retreat to search their souls and adjust to a new chapter of life because when you are really small and life is easy, the idea of soul searching isn’t even on your radar, and when it is, the demands of childhood from homework, to fitting in and participating in after-school activities leave little time for soul searching. Several of my college friends took vacations to Europe after graduation, perhaps to fulfill this need. Maybe given Christopher McCandless’s troubled mind, he just took it to the extreme. Was it possible that maybe all I yearned for was a smaller-scale version of a retreat? What if I invited one member of the family (Mom or Dad) to accompany me, and we rented a little cabin way out in the middle of nowhere for a month, bringing with us nothing but food from the nearest grocery store and books from home? When I thought about it, I pretty much went right from the joy of graduation to the worry and uncertainty of addressing my health problems. After my health improved, maybe I jumped in to the next step in the sequence of life that society expects of a college graduate who elects not to go to graduate school, at least not right away–looking for a job–too quickly without really stopping to honestly contemplate what I want the rest of my life to look like. Maybe a retreat in which I couldn’t log on to Facebook to compare my job searching progress with that of my friends, in which the peace and serenity wasn’t constantly being interrupted by the telephone, where I could cut myself off from the world and its commercialism and negativity, would give me the space I needed to think. Mom wasn’t too keen on this idea. She liked the vacation to nature part, but not the part about leaving all phones at home. It is important to be there if people need us, and these days, it is foolish to be without a phone in the event of an emergency. At first I was frustrated and about to give her the same lecture Christopher McCandless gave Ronald Franz about being too attached to security and conservatism. But after settling down for a few hours and thinking about it more carefully, I realized she was right, especially given my medical issues. And when I got really honest, I like my security too. In fact, I had no idea why I even suggested a retreat because I hate the uncertainty that comes with traveling. What if we found a wonderful cabin, only to discover that the grocery store in town only carried cheap processed stuff full of gluten and I was stuck eating nothing but raw wilted lettuce for a month or something? In fact, I have had moments in the past where I longed for serenity and had no problem finding it on our patio in the summer or in the peaceful sanctuary of my bedroom. If I needed a break from the social pressure of Facebook, I could find the willpower not to log on. Realizing that I really had no idea what I was looking for and was doing nothing more than frantically grasping at straws, I resolved to just clear my mind for a few days, read other books and trust that life would work out.

     Then the following Sunday, Mom and I went to church which holds an event every year called Harvest Fest, an event in which some of the missionaries the church supports come home and speak to the congregation about the work they are doing all over the world. Monday through Thursday of the previous week, the missionaries spoke at evening events, but since we didn’t return home from Indiana until Tuesday evening and were actually leaving on another trip the following Monday, we were unable to attend these events, but a couple of the missionaries spoke to the congregation that Sunday. I couldn’t see the rest of the congregation but I was on the edge of my seat. They were so inspiring! And, again I felt that same “Wow! I wish I could do that!” feeling. But as usual, on closer examination, I realized I wouldn’t really want to live in the rough conditions they described, and given my medical conditions, serving in a third world country would be foolish. As admirable as their work was, it wasn’t the life for me.

     But maybe these long hours in the car was God’s way of giving me the retreat I wanted earlier because on the second trip, I started doing some analyzing. It was during this trip that I thought about everything mentioned in this entry, all my dreams I fantasized about as a child from being a musher in the Iditarod, to a journalist, as well as Christopher McCandless and the missionaries and realized that all these ideas, as unrelated as they may seem on the surface had one thing in common. They all indicated that as far back as I can remember and still to this day, I admire people who dare to be different.

     I admire people who have found something that they are passionate about, and weren’t afraid to pursue it. I admire people whose demeanor seems to suggests they will never be one of those people who look back on their life with regret and say “I always wanted to…” because they are doing what they have always wanted to do. I admire people who don’t feel like they have to be good little soldiers, resigning themselves to a job they don’t find passion in but pays well. I admire people who appear to have jobs where they aren’t spending their lives counting the hours until the work day is over, the days until the weekend when they can take a vacation or something and the years until they can retire, because their job brings them such a sense of joy and fulfillment that they look forward to their job every day. And, in the case of the missionaries and Christopher McCandless especially, I admire people who truly believe and practice a life that has a higher purpose than accumulating wealth and saving for retirement. I still haven’t figured out how this revelation can be translated in to a path that is suitable for me. I have some ideas which I will elaborate on in the next entry, but what I did figure out was the answer to my troubled thoughts after my week of applying for traditional public relations jobs. I was troubled because I realized that I was falling in to line with society’s expectations like a good little soldier. After completing each application, I was full of excitement and hope at the time, but realized on the trip/retreat that I was not excited about the jobs themselves. I was actually dreading the thought of having to put on a happy face and spend my days announcing doorbuster clothing sales on social media or write about the features of heating and cooling systems for buildings if I got one of these jobs. So meaningless in the grand scheme of things! That was how it came to me that the reason I was troubled was because I was letting myself become someone who was only excited about the paycheck, and all of my childhood dreams and the kind of people I admire prove this is not the kind of person I was meant to be, so I pray every day that I won’t cave in to synicism and let myself become someone I wasn’t meant to be.

Taking a Leap of Faith

Well readers, at the end of my previous entry, I mentioned that there were other events that transpired in the absence of my braillenote but which needed a separate entry. Well, the most important of these events that came to mind first was my leap of faith, literally. I think I have mentioned in past entries that I was Catholic? Well, this is no longer true. I now officially consider myself a non-denominational Christian. It was a somewhat wrenching decision, as I knew it would upset my grandmother, who was also my confirmation sponsor. But as I transition in to adulthood, it occurred to me that while respecting elders is important, I could no longer ignore the yearning for a more meaningful church experience. I am so blessed to have a mother who understood where I was coming from and felt the same way herself. We had been going to this non-denominational church full-time for about a year, but perhaps out of guilt, we kept putting off making the plunge, so to speak, by becoming official members of this church. But in February when we found out about a membership class being held February 28, we decided we were ready. So I guess it is fair to say, ironically enough that Pope Benedict and I both resigned that day.

     It was a three hour class with speakers who discussed the history of this church, what this church believes and what it means to be a member. Then the day after the class, I filled out my membership candidate form, which asked for general stuff like contact information, but also a testimonial about our life before faith, how we came to find our faith and what life is like now. At first I wasn’t going to publish my testimonial on this blog because it is personal, but when we met with our group leader to discuss it last Sunday, fulfilling the final step of the membership process, and the leader said it was really well written, I thought it might inspire others to reflect on their own faith journey as I did, and give them the courage to make a change in their own spiritual lives if necessary.

     It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have faith in Christ. I was raised Catholic and had wonderful moments where I felt Christ’s presence in my life. I was also inspired by my grandmother whose devoutly catholic practices gave her peace which got her through the tragic loss of two sons. But unfortunately, as I got older, I started to notice that I was viewing faith as a one hour a week obligation. I was just going through the motions to respect my family, especially the previously mentioned grandmother who has a strong bias against other Christian traditions. I think this negative attitude intensified when this church’s leaders wanted to renovate the church and school but were having difficulty raising the funding because it was the height of the recession. The priest often spent sermon time showing videos about how great these renovations would be and pleading with the congregation to “prayerfully consider donating more money.” When there was a proper sermon, I often felt like the priest was just rambling about how the readings can be applied to the mission of that particular church, but not really using the bible to go deeper. I felt like I wasn’t growing at all and in fact was possibly regressing. I would rattle off the prayers with the congregation while in my heart I wanted to roll my eyes. When mass was over, I left with a “glad that’s over with for the week” attitude. Something had to change.

     I came to a Sunday morning service at Elmbrook Church for the first time on August 31, 2008. I had just moved in to the dorm at Carroll University and heard that a lot of students went to Elmbrook Church. I had heard wonderful things about Elmbrook from my mom who was also looking to grow in her faith and quietly discovered and joined a Tuesday morning women’s bible study. I couldn’t wait to get home from school on Tuesdays and hear about the dynamic speakers she heard that morning, and we were both inspired by the global mission mindset of Elmbrook. Hearing about all this made me secretly want to attend a church service at Elmbrook and see if this church might bring my faith back to life. But in an effort to respect his mother, my dad did not want to try a different church, and since Mom worked weekends and I am blind and thus cannot drive, my only choices were the Catholic church or no church at all, so I decided to stick it out at the Catholic church. But when an older girl in the dorm offered to take me to Elmbrook that first weekend in the dorm, I joyfully accepted.

     From the moment the service started, I loved it! The music was more modern and way more joyful. Even though I didn’t know the words to the songs at the time, just hearing everyone else singing them made me feel more awake and alive than I had felt in a long time. After the singing, some church members who had just returned from a mission trip came forward to speak and I remember thinking “wow! I wish our church did that!” Our catholic church would take up a collection for a school or church in another part of the world each lent and send teenagers to rural, impoverished areas of this country in the summer to help poor families with home repairs and things like that, but nothing to the extent of Elmbrook’s mission work. And I was awake and engaged through the whole sermon, one based solely on the bible. When that service ended, something told me I would be coming back.

     Unfortunately, I could not come back as soon as I would have liked. Living in the dorm proved to be difficult for me and my new service dog, so my parents and I came to the consensus that I would have a much less stressful college experience if I moved back home. While this was a wise decision for the majority of the week, unfortunately it meant going back to my old church every week. It would have been too much of an imposition to ask the student to pick me up at my house or Dad to take me to Carroll to meet up with the student. Even a year later when my mom got a different job and didn’t have to work as many weekends, she wanted to try and stick it out at the Catholic church, even though she also wanted to grow more in her faith, simply for the sake of family unity. Occasionally if Grandma was out of town, we would sneak off to Elmbrook and Dad would go to the Catholic church by himself, but mostly we still felt obligated to stay with the catholic church.

     But with each passing week, I was feeling more and more frustrated and disengaged. When I confided to Mom that as soon as it was financially possible, I couldn’t wait to try living on my own again, ideally in an apartment close to Elmbrook so I could arrange transportation and go to Elmbrook by myself, Mom and I decided it was time to go where we felt called. We both felt guilty that Dad was going to church by himself, but we decided we couldn’t put our faith life on hold any longer. By the time Elmbrook started the Famous Last Words series (a series that delved deeper in to the significance of the last words Jesus spoke before his crucifixion), we were going to Elmbrook full-time.

     Taking the leap and switching to Elmbrook full-time was one of the wisest decisions I have ever made because my faith life has changed dramatically. Church is no longer an obligation. It is an hour I look forward to all week. And when the service is over, I think I can speak for both Mom and me and say that we are so inspired that our worship continues all week. In the car on the way home from Elmbrook, we always feel compelled to discuss how that day’s message is relevant for our own lives, whereas I pretty much forgot about the catholic sermon by the time I got to the car and the discussion was on to “what’s for lunch?” The songs Elmbrook chooses for worship continue to fill me with joy the way they did that first service I attended, but now that I know the words to many of them, I’ll catch myself singing them with passion all week as I go about the house. My favorite is Beautiful (a powerful song about how we can see God in everything from the sunrise to the galaxies and how we will soon be “coming home.”) While I still fall in to sinful behavior sometimes, I have become more aware of when I am being sinful and pray for guidance and forgiveness on a much more regular basis.

     But the most dramatic and probably important way my faith has been transformed by Elmbrook has been in the revelation that being a follower of Christ is not about observing the right rituals, memorizing the right prayers or donating enough money. It is about following God’s commands laid out in the bible, having a personal relationship with Christ and praying from the heart. Or in the Pastor’s words from the Stuck series (where he talked about sinful patterns believers get stuck in) that still stick with me, “it’s not about religion. It’s about faith.”

     I’m still not the devoted follower I would like to be. I will be the first to admit that sometimes when I am faced with a difficult situation, I forget to pray and instead rely on my own strength, and as a member of Elmbrook Church, I will need to make a more concerted effort to take my worship beyond the church service out in to the local and global community. I will even admit that when watching the news or encountering people skeptical about the existence of a god, I have questions sometimes. But I have come a long way, and as a member of such a large, loving and supportive Christian community as Elmbrook Church, I know my faith can only grow stronger.

‘Tis Better to Live an Uncensored Childhood

Well readers, last week I saw an article online about a small publisher which was editing the classic poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to “meet the needs of today’s children.” I guess some parents have been frantically tearing out pages of children’s books because of the stanza about the pipe Santa held tight in his teeth, and the smoke that encircled his head like a wreath. Yes, parents are afraid that hearing these two lines in a fictional children’s poem will corrupt their children and they will grow up to be smokers.

     How fitting that I should see this article during Banned Books Week because while controversy over this poem didn’t get the media saturation that The Hunger Games and Harry Potter received, to me such altering of a classic is just as troubling as banning a book.

     ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was my absolute favorite poem as a child, and still is today. We have a Christmas CD that my mom purchased to support the Make a Wish foundation even before I was born, on which Rush Limbaugh recites the poem. (Yes, I know all about him and don’t condone his views, especially his recent commentary at all, but I put politics aside at Christmas because he does an amazing job with this classic). And guess what? Despite hearing the unabridged poem all my life, I have never touched a cigarette or pipe and have no plans to start. Maybe it could be argued that this poem is different for sighted children because when they get this poem from children’s books, they aren’t just hearing the words but also having them re-enforced by an illustration of Santa’s pipe. But I don’t think that makes a difference because my sighted peers who heard this poem as a child aren’t all smoking either. That is why even though I am the furthest thing from a parenting expert, I wish I could tell parents just from my experience as a recent child that the opportunity to live an uncensored childhood is among the best gifts my parents gave my siblings and me. The interesting thing is, my parents didn’t purposefully declare “our children will have an uncensored childhood!” or make a conscious point of exposing us to all kinds of influences. We simply lived our lives.

     If my parents or teenage siblings wanted to watch a movie or TV show with violence or profanity, I was never sent out of the room. Those “due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised” warnings meant nothing. When it came to profanity, my parents instilled in me from as young as I can remember that “these words are out there in the world but they are not nice words and you should never repeat them.” (I do find it unfair that my parents let my older siblings get away with a little swearing, but if I so much as say “dammit” when I stub my toe on something, they freak out. When I mentioned it to Mom once she laughed and admitted that she didn’t want her youngest precious angel to take up swearing, which I can understand. I’ll probably be that way with my youngest child, but that’s besides the point). The point is by being allowed to hear these words all my life, it wasn’t a big deal when I got in to the less innocent world of high school and college where I heard them right and left.

     Violent movies never scared me because I never had much of an imagination, so I knew the plots were fictional. But my parents even let me watch stories of real violence; Dateline murder mysteries, the local news, even America’s Most Wanted which occasionally mentioned cases of children kidnapped from their bedrooms or backyards and brutally murdered. These cases scared me the most, especially when John Walsh would say, “he could be anywhere tonight.” Could he be under my bed, or lurking outside my window? I would wonder. Sure it may have been nice to grow up in blissful innocence, never hearing these stories, but I have heard that children sheltered from such stories grow up to be too trusting of the world, do foolish things like get in a car with a stranger and thus they are more likely to be victimized. But instead of turning off the program when I seemed troubled by it, they would use the opportunity to remind me that most people are good. There are just a few bad people out there. If I took basic precautions–never trust a stranger that tries to lure you with candy or a lost puppy; scream loud to attract attention if someone grabs you; never answer the door alone, etc.), it was statistically unlikely that anything would ever happen to me, and nothing ever did. I have heard experts say that children are innocent and delicate and shouldn’t be exposed to such things, but by being exposed to these things, I feel like I am safer. As my parents hoped, I believe that most people are good, but I have a healthy awareness and respect for the dangers of the world which keeps me from doing foolish things.

     Maybe I was unusually airheaded as a child, but somehow I really don’t think I was that unusual in the fact that as small children, you are often in your own little world of play and innocence where the last thing that occurs to you is to analyze poems and even songs you hear. Getting back to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for example, I completely overlooked the implications of Santa smoking a pipe. (As a matter of fact, I never even thought about them until reading that article last week). As a child, the visions of sugarplumbs and the child witnessing the arrival of Santa and his reindeer were all that I noticed. As an older child (young adult), I loved the poem for its fun rhyme and rhythm and the expressiveness of Limbaugh’s recitation. The same is true of many songs I loved as a child. In preschool, one of my absolute favorite songs was Reba MacEntire’s song Fancy. I loved the sound of Reba’s voice and just the beat and almost theatrical quality of the song that I would want Mom to play it over and over on our CD to the point that my older siblings told me when I was older that they longed to bash the CD player in with a hammer. Eventually, my obsession with this song waned and I even forgot about the song until the summer after sixth grade, the first summer I had my very own CD player in my bedroom. That was also the summer when a whole bunch of old CD’s that had been misplaced re-surfaced, including the once beloved Reba CD! Just for the nostalgia, I asked Mom to hand me the Reba CD so I could hear Fancy again. She didn’t have to tell me what track the song was. I recognized it instantly. Instantly, I remembered how much I loved the sound of the song, but the nostalgia was tainted by the fact that as an older child who knew more about the world and paid better attention to lyrics, it occurred to me that this song I loved so much as a preschooler was about a poor mother who spent every last penny she had on a fancy dress for her teenage daughter whom she turned out of the house, encouraging her to go in to prostitution! But you know what? My mom with her wisdom knew I wasn’t paying attention to the words, that even if I was, the adult ideas of the song would just glide right over my little head. (We were discussing this just the other day and she told me that if I had asked questions about the song, she would have explained it in an age appropriate way because it is a reality of the world we live in.) But she knew that while little children are generally oblivious to adult lyrics, they are very aware of how their parents react, and thus frantically rushing over to the CD player to skip over that track would have only gotten my curiosity up. “Why do you always skip that song Mommy?” I likely would have asked, backing her in to an unnecessary, awkward corner. She understood that children just play and live in their own little world, so if you just go about life and not frantically tear out pages, skip tracks on a CD, change a channel, shoo kids out of the room or yell “hey! little ears!” if a guest tells an inappropriate joke or something, children likely won’t even notice and no harm will be done. After all, how can you be corrupted by something you are not even paying attention to because you are too young to understand?

     Getting back to the article on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, it occurred to me while reading it that just the previous weekend, I had another experience in which I had never really paid attention to a song I had heard a million times. My parents and I were in the car running an errand listening to the oldies station as usual when it dawned on me, “Whoa! Did that song just say I get high with a little help from my friends?”

“Yep!” they answered, “it was written in a different time, the Hippie era when many didn’t know or perhaps knew but didn’t care, about how harmful drugs were.”

     Of course, as an adult it was no longer necessary to approach subjects delicately, but what a perfect way to address a situation, one which any parent could use if their child did notice the lines about Santa’s smoking. They could just gently explain, “this poem was written long, long ago when people didn’t know that smoking was harmful to health.” This could also be a perfect opportunity for a rudimentary “just because you read about something in some poem or book doesn’t mean it’s right” discussion. If a parent isn’t interested in deep discussions, they could even just say that since Santa is a magical, immortal being, he can get away with smoking, but regular humans don’t have this power.

     I am already thinking about hoarding copies of this and other controversial classics in case this editing becomes the trend because I want my kids to have the privilege I enjoyed of an uncensored childhood. Because to be honest, I would rather risk my children taking up smoking when they grow up than raise them on censored poems and risk them growing up to accept without question a George Orwell type world where erasing and re-writing history “to suit the needs of people today” is the norm.

     But the risk is low of them growing up to take up smoking anyway for other reasons; education about the dangers most importantly; the fact that it is now banned in so many places; the cost of the habit–(I saw a Facebook status just today from a boy who decided to quit when he saw that with all the taxes, one pack of cigarettes now costs over $8)–and the positive example of non-smoking parents which as I said earlier, kids pay much more attention to than lines in a poem or song. And although I haven’t officially researched this, it seems as though people I know of who do smoke do so out of a natural college thrill of rebelling against parents, and a feeling of invincibility. I never was tempted to smoke because it smells disgusting to me, but I rebelled in other stupid ways as a college freshman–eating spectacularly unhealthy meals in the dining room, and walking to class on single-digit days with no coat on for instance–so while I don’t understand the appeal of smoking, I can understand the thrill of doing something your parents don’t condone and feeling invincible while doing it. I understand how out of love, parents would want to do everything in their power to keep their children from doing stupid things, especially since smoking is addictive and one cigarette in college quickly can become a lifetime habit. But the hard truth is, the natural desire of young adults to rebel against their parents is out of any parent’s control, and has nothing to do with Santa, so I predict that even if this censored poem takes hold, it will make absolutely no difference in smoking statistics.

     But more importantly, as I have said so many times already, it is what the parents do, not the media children are exposed to that matters. Reba’s song Fancy did not spark an interest in prostitution because by the time I understood the implications of the song, my parents had cemented values of honest work, Christian morals and self-respect. Despite hearing profanity at an early age, I don’t curse like a sailor–in fact I hardly curse at all, only when I stub my toe and my parents aren’t in earshot–because my parents have talked with my siblings and me about how people who curse on television go for the cheap laugh, but being funny or making a statement without using a stream of curse words takes more creativity and intelligence.

     I hear a lot about parents who are very strict about what their children are exposed to and think that in this way, they are teaching good values. But blocking any references to violence, profanity, prostitution, smoking or drug use also blocks teachable moments. An uncensored childhood and good values can go hand in hand, and in fact, I think that by taking advantage of these teachable moments and not trying to shelter me from the realities of the world we live in, my parents shaped my values more firmly.

Remembering Trusty Rusty

I never could understand people who hate owning stuff once it gets old. I know someone for example who bought a beautiful fancy car, drove it for a few years and loved it, but then traded it in. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the car. This person just wanted it off his/her hands before it got old and things started going wrong with it, decreasing its value. It’s a free country, so I have nothing against this person’s decision. But to me, there is a certain special joy in owning something old. I am thinking about this in light of this past weekend when we traded in the minivan we drove for seven years.

     Except for some squeaking and rattling, it drove beautifully. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Mom and I took a trip to Virginia Beach with it. Dad wanted us to fly, fearing that our old car would give out on some treacherous mountain road in West Virginia, but Mom and I much prefer the pleasures of the open road over the inconveniences of airport security, luggage limits and flight delays, not to mention the outrageous costs of airfare and hidden fees that add up these days. There was a little more stress than we anticipated. When we drove through West Virginia, it was raining so hard that at one point, a state trooper was directing cars because part of the road had washed away and if you weren’t familiar with the area, you could drive right over the cliff! But that had nothing to do with the car. The car never once let us down!

     Because of this, part of us thought it would be fun to see how many more miles we could squeeze out of it, but the last time Mom went to get tires, she was told by the mechanic that this was the last time he would recommend putting it on the lift because the underbody had rusted. And on our trip to Virginia, I opened the glove box to get something for my mom and noticed that everything was wet. My sister’s husband said it was likely because some firewall that protects the glove box had also rusted. It was starting to get pretty squeaky and rattly too, so we realized it wouldn’t be too much longer before repairs would cost more than the car was worth. But because of the car’s amazing reliability for its age, even when we did some pretty rugged driving, my parents and I dubbed that car Trusty Rusty.

     Just like my parents, I would never buy a used car (or any other expensive appliance in my case). It is fun to experience appliances that are shiny and new after all, and of course when you buy a used item, you could be buying someone else’s problems too. But when your brand-new appliance gets old, I love how our family savors the joy of driving the old car until it is no longer practical, rather than rushing out to buy a new one.

     Sure, it is fun to touch the clean, shiny unblemished finish of a new car, but on the other hand, you love its shininess so much you cannot relax in it. You feel like you shouldn’t park too close to another car whose driver might fling the door open and put the first ding on the new car. With every new car, we have found ourselves hesitant to eat or drink in it and risk spilling something and putting that first stain in the shiny new carpet or seats. My parents didn’t want Gilbert to ride in our new minivan until they bought a pad for the floor that can be easily washed so that maybe the car won’t smell like him, at least for awhile. But when the car gets to be a Trusty Rusty, you relax and park anywhere. Once it’s starting to rust, a ding is no big deal. And once the car is rusted and dinged on the outside, a little spilled beverage or dog puke incident on the inside is no big deal either.

     Sure, it is fun to play with new features that weren’t available when you bought your last car. But once your car becomes a Trusty Rusty, you forget the frustration of trying to read the manual and figure out how the new features work. On Saturday for example, I took my first spin in our new minivan to the farmer’s market. All was going great until we got to the market, I opened my newfangled automatic door to get out, but when I pushed the button to close it, it just beeped at me and wouldn’t close. So for what seemed like forever, we sat in the car combing the manual, finally figuring out that for safety, it won’t respond if two people are pushing the button at the same time. At the same time I was pushing the button on my door, Dad was pushing it remotely from the front seat. When we couldn’t figure out how to cancel and start over, we collectively sighed and closed it manually, the Trusty Rusty way we had been doing our whole life. Sometimes I think driving around with a Trusty Rusty is less embarrassing than the first few days of a new car when we maybe could have been done buying our produce in the time it took us to figure out how to close the automatic door! But the good new is, since we parked far away from other cars, it is likely no one noticed.

     I love that distinctive new car smell, and it is fun to break in the new seats. But I am never sad when the seats are broken in and the car starts to smell like us; a mingling of Gilbert, and the meals we eventually give in and enjoy on that first roadtrip. When the seats feel unfamiliar and the car hasn’t smelled like us yet, I have always had a strange feeling like I am riding in someone else’s car. But by the time that car becomes a Trusty Rusty, it smells and feels like home.

     It is comforting to drive a car with the latest and greatest safety features, and while there hasn’t been much difference between Trusty Rusty and our new car in that regard, I remember how fun it was when I was younger and we lived on the edge for a while with a not-quite-as-trusty, and probably much rustier old car.

     In 1999 when my grandpa’s health had been failing for awhile and he could not drive anymore, Grandma gave us an old car of his. I think it was a 1984 Eagle, but our family affectionately referred to it as the Ghetto Cruiser. Sorry for the lack of political correctness, but the name was fitting. I don’t know what the car looked like of course, but it must have been pretty embarrassing since my teenage siblings forbid Dad to pick them up from extra curricular activities in it. And Dad said he never feared for his safety driving through bad neighborhoods in it because it blended right in. If by some strange chance someone stole it, it would not have been a hardship because in its condition, it wasn’t worth much.

     On the inside, I guess it was trusty in that it was reliable. I don’t ever remember hearing that it died on the side of the road. But I remember finding it strange when it was time to drive it back with us from Indiana, but both parents insisted I ride home with Mom in the minivan rather than with Dad in the new-to-me car. In fact now that I think about it, I only remember riding in it on short trips to school or the grocery store. I later learned there was a reason for that. I don’t understand car mechanics, but there was something wrong with it where if the car was driven too fast, it would bounce all over the road and it was all Dad could do to control it. He didn’t mind living on the edge and driving it on the freeway to work every day, or by himself to Indiana and back, but it wasn’t a risk he was comfortable taking with his precious children in the back.

     For awhile, Dad was even reluctant to allow Mom to drive it. Eventually, Mom convinced Dad she could handle it and he gave in and let her drive it a little bit. But I will never forget how before handing over the keys, Dad gave Mom a firm warning on the bouncing issue, and the importance of using pliers to turn on the windshield wipers, or else the car could catch fire!

     A couple years later, my parents decided that while the car had served us well as a cheap means of transportation across the city to work for Dad, they were getting tired of putting their lives at risk, so Dad sold it to a work buddy for $500 and bought an inexpensive, safe new car. But I don’t know if it was because I am blind and had no idea how awful the car looked, or just the fact that when you are little, Daddy is cool no matter what he drives, but I loved the distinctive old smell and feel of that car. Of course, being blind means I will never need to buy a car, but the nostalgia and laughs that still come to mind when I think of that car make me think that if I were sighted, I would be the kind of person that would get a thrill out of buying a brand-new car or procuring an old car from a trusted family member, and proudly driving it for twenty years to ghetto cruiser condition and beyond.

To the extent my parents put up with it, I already do this in a figurative sense with other things. I will continue to wear gym shoes, even when they have holes forming in the soles and are giving my feet blisters, until my parents notice and drag me kicking and screaming to the shoe store. Just like with the seats in a new car, I feel like I am wearing shoes meant for someone else until I break them in. Unlike most people, I have always brushed my teeth with my mouth closed. (Maybe I was traumatized from gagging on toothpaste that slid to the back of my throat or something when I was really little.) Anyway, this quirk means that as it is, my toothbrushes get worn out faster than they do for normal people. With my mouth closed, I cannot help chewing on the bristles until they are all bent. But bent bristles never bothered me. I only get a new toothbrush when Mom happens to see it on the counter if I forget to put it away and says “You need a new toothbrush,” as she simultaneously chucks it in to the garbage can, allowing no opportunities for argument. That new toothbrush never feels right the first week or two.

I am still running JAWS 9.0–I think the rest of the blind world is up to version 13 now–and an outdated version of internet explorer on what people these days would call a Trusty Rusty four-year-old computer. I often get pop-up alerts that I would have a better web experience if I upgraded my browser, and some sites I cannot access at all. But I don’t want to upgrade! For one thing, the few times I have attempted upgrades, the upgrade process never went smoothly. I have tried several times to upgrade my brailleNote from keysoft 9.0 to version 9.1 and 9.2, but every time, I am told the installation failed, despite doing EXACTLY what the directions said! The last time I attempted and failed last Sunday, I decided I am not wasting another minute of my life on something that always ends in defeat and frustration. Some of the features available with the upgrade would be awesome, I admit. Supposedly, Keysoft 9.1 could recognize files with the .docx extension and version 9.2 can convert PDF files. It sure would be wonderful to have these features on my BrailleNote rather than having to use JAWS to read these files. But unless I happen to meet someone with a magic touch who can do the upgrade successfully, I would rather be stuck in 2003 with .doc files than waste any more time being frustrated. Who really needs the newfangled features anyway when the old ones work just fine? And with my luck being so bad just upgrading my simple blind-friendly BrailleNote, there is no way I am attempting an upgrade on the much more complex desktop computer. And don’t even get me started on how much I hate Windows 7 which my college upgraded to my senior year. Maybe it has some cool features for sighted people, but for me, it made processes that were once simple, such as opening e-mail attachments and saving documents, much more complicated. Every time I had to work on an assignment at school, I came home with a renewed commitment to take extra good care of my Trusty Rusty, easy-to-use Windows XP, so I can put off upgrading as long as possible.

     But the best example of my loyalty to old appliances is my first treadmill. In eighth grade, I wasn’t very diligent about healthy eating, but I was at least trying to take better care of myself by exercising more regularly. When my parents noticed me doing jumping jacks or marching in place every day, they got me an inexpensive treadmill for Christmas which I loved.

One day the summer after my sophomore year, the part of the emergency stop pin that hooks to me broke. My parents and I had no idea if or how it could be replaced. Mom thought about improvising with duct tape, but I assured her I would be careful and that this wouldn’t be necessary. I kept my word and never once fell. Then one day during my junior year of college, my dad came down to the basement to do something else and came up concerned because he saw the treadmill belt slowly moving even though I wasn’t on it. This wasn’t news to me though. It had been doing that for awhile. I don’t remember exactly when, but one day I remember finishing my workout, unplugging the other end of the pin (there was an actual stop button too, but on that treadmill the pin was easier and safer for me to find), taking my shoes off and then casually plugging the pin back in for the next day as I always had. With my workout done, my guard was down and I wasn’t holding on when the motor started humming and the belt started moving slowly. Fortunately I have excellent reflexes and I grabbed the handle before I fell. I knew if I told my parents that in addition to the broken safety pin, the treadmill had started moving when it wasn’t supposed to be, they would freak out and I didn’t want to get rid of a treadmill that was just starting to have a few quirks but “drove” just fine. So I just quietly adapted. Instead of plugging the pin in to have it ready for the next day right away, I would either drape it over the handle, or hold the pin while I took my shoes off and then plug it back in once I was safely off the treadmill. Either way, I would make sure that at least one hand was holding on to a handlebar at all times until both feet were safely off the treadmill.

On the days I draped it over the handle, I would have to remember to be careful the next day because the belt would sometimes, but not always, jerk to life before I set a speed. Even though the speed lever was on zero, I was always able to stop the belt by calmly pulling down on the lever. Since it didn’t happen every day, the start of each treadmill walk was suspenseful. On the days when the motor started humming before I was ready, I would just hold on tight and pray, then laugh about how much fun unpredictable old appliances are once I was safely walking.

Once Dad found out the treadmill was doing that, he went treadmill shopping right away and both parents gave me a firm “be careful!” as I headed downstairs to work out on the old treadmill until the new one could be delivered.

I have had my “new” treadmill, complete with a new intact safety pin for a year and a half. I don’t mourn the old treadmill because for one thing, I love the new features of this one like the ability to set an incline for even better workouts, and nice big blind-friendly buttons for setting speed so I know exactly what speed I am walking. (If Mom or Dad set my speed on the old treadmill, they could see the speed the lever was set to on a print display, but when I set it myself, it was less scientific. I would just gently push the lever up until I liked the pace.) But more importantly, I have had it long enough that it feels like home now, and it won’t be long until the minivan will too. And the way the years seem to fly by, it won’t be long before my family and I will get to relish the joys and advantages of owning a Trusty Rusty once again.

Some Necessary Perspective on Celiac Disease and Life

Well readers, there is so much more I want to write about eventually regarding my new Celiac Disease diagnosis mentioned in the previous post. Navigating this river has been an interesting journey, complete with wonderful experiences, funny moments, unexpected surprises, and so far only one melt-down. But for this post, I thought I would take a break from feeling sorry for myself to talk about people recently who have found themselves in a sandbar so awful that it almost makes me ashamed to be mournful about my Celiac diagnosis. There are in fact things that are much, much worse. Like going out for what you anticipate to be a fun date, the midnight opening of another Batman movie, never imagining that you or your partner wouldn’t leave that theater alive. Or being a family just going to their usual worship service on a peaceful Sunday, perhaps thinking that after worship, they would enjoy dinner on the grill or a walk in a park, but instead finding themselves in a hospital in critical condition, or planning a funeral for the senseless death of a loved one.

     The movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado happened two days after my Celiac diagnosis. Mom had Good Morning America on and told me about it when I came downstairs, but I was so self-absorbed in getting used to eating gluten-free bagels which have a different texture than “regular” bagels and realizing once more that this whole Celiac thing wasn’t a dream–it was my reality, for the rest of my life–that I didn’t grasp the magnitude of this shooting until the evening news. As I was watching the evening news, I decided that I would make it a point to keep things in perspective and ensure that my conscience never got wrapped up in such trivial roadblocks, which Celiac really is in the grand scheme of life. I never imagined I would have to put this in to practice so soon, that another senseless shooting would hit so close to home (Oak Creek is just a half hour drive from where I live), or that in America in the year 2012, people were still being targeted because of their religion. But from that day forward, I have found myself savoring the not-quite-as-tasty gluten-free bread when I realized that just across town, there were nine families who would likely give anything for a life where Celiac Disease was their only source of hardship.

     It is only by the grace of God that you or I have never, and hopefully will never face such a tragic, senseless sandbar. My mom and I had just gotten back from worship ourselves when we heard about the shooting at the Sikh Temple. As if there was no doubt that our worship would be peaceful and safe and we would get home alive, we made plans that morning to throw sausages and vegetables on the grill and enjoy a beautiful Sunday at home as a family. Those Sikh families across town were probably just as casual as we were in making Sunday afternoon plans. In America, houses of worship are sacred and safe, after all. At our church, nothing happened and we returned home as always and put our sausages on the grill as we watched the local news coverage. But just across town, a whole faith community never got to enjoy that Sunday afternoon, and six families will never get another Sunday afternoon with their loved ones again. The Sikh people may speak a different language and have different beliefs, but when you get right down to it, they are no different than Christians. Their faith teaches love, compassion, service to those in need, virtues that Christianity emphasizes as well. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s to say next time, it won’t be us?

     These recent shootings also reminded me of an incident in college I had put out of my mind but will never forget. One day in the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I walked in to another Introduction to News Writing class, as I had done every Monday and Thursday at 4:00 all semester. Nothing had ever happened in all my years of school, so I am sure as I waited for the professor to start class, my mind was wandering to what we would have for dinner that evening and what evening homework I needed to do. But that day, a troubled student got in to an argument with the professor in front of the class. Since she was causing a scene and a guest speaker was expected shortly, the student was asked to wait until after class to continue the argument. I didn’t hear it because I didn’t sit near the student, but the next time our class met, campus security was standing outside the door. Another student sitting near this troubled student reported to the professor that this student had muttered under their breath, “this is how things like Virginia Tech happen.”

     Fortunately, another Virginia Tech didn’t happen in that news writing class. I don’t know how the situation was ultimately resolved with this student. This student never came to class again, nor have I heard anything about this student since. But even though nothing happened, it was an incident I will never forget because something could have. It is so easy to think that nothing could ever happen at my warm friendly college/church/theater/community, but unfortunately as long as there are guns everywhere and troubled people in the world not getting the help they need, Virginia Tech/the Sikh Temple/the Aurora, Colorado theater shootings could happen anywhere.

     As is always the case, time will pass, and as it does, the memory of these recent shootings will fade, at least for those of us who don’t know any of the victims. But I hope that say, a year from now if I find myself stuck in a restaurant with no gluten-free options, that instead of sobbing because I am tired and hungry and the restaurant isn’t accommodating, I might think back to these shootings, hug any loved ones at the table with me and realize there are much worse things to be sobbing about.

College Graduation Part 1: Anticipation and Anxiety

Well readers, I still cannot believe that May 13, a day four years in the making, (or 22 years if you look at it from the perspective of all my school years) has come and gone. I am officially a college graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Communication, and a proud alumnus of Carroll University. I apologize for not updating sooner, but the weeks leading up to graduation were so busy and full of excitement that updating the blog was the last thing on my mind, and these weeks after graduation, I think I have been so exhausted physically and emotionally (in a good way) that I haven’t been inspired to write about it. To be honest, I am still at a loss for how to put such a beautiful milestone in to words, but now that we are in to June and I am approaching the one month anniversary of my graduation already, it is time that I push myself to write about this event, not only for you curious readers, but also for me. Sighted people often rely on Facebook pictures and videos of an event to record and recollect an event. I have both Facebook pictures and a video of this special moment, but as a blind person, pictures do nothing for me, and videos only capture half of the experience, the sound of the moment. But a written account can recall all of the senses and even the emotions running through the mind leading up to the event, which even pictures cannot do justice. So I find blogging to be the most meaningful for capturing special moments. In a two-part series, I hope to capture as much of the experience and emotion of that day and all of the hard work and emotion leading up to it in this blog so that the memories never fade.

     I don’t know if this happens to anyone else or if this is another thing that makes me a strange person, but for me, anticipation of exciting milestones is often accompanied by needless anxiety. At first, it manifested itself in fear of the unknown path my life would take after college. (See Living on Easy Street). When Mom calmed this fear by advising me not to think of life as a road but as a river, to let the river carry me as it may and know that while there may be rough waters, everything always works out, my fear turned to a more pressing paranoia. Sometime in April while I felt myself becoming invested in the excitement of inviting relatives and helping my parents plan a party, it occurred to me that school wasn’t over yet. There was still a chance I could fail something and not graduate, or be allowed to walk at commencement, but be told that my degree wouldn’t be official until I repeated a course the summer after. I cannot imagine what a let-down that would be. If that had happened to me, I would have skipped the commencement ceremony and postponed the party.

     In retrospect, I should have just taken a deep breath and realized I had nothing to worry about. After all, I made the dean’s list every semester and my classes had been audited by both my academic advisor and the Registrar to ensure I had the required credits, and that same audit from the Registrar indicated I was on track to graduate Magna Cum Laude!

     For those of you unfamiliar with weird academic terminology, Suma Cum Laude is the best of the best. I think this distinction requires a grade point average between 3.8 and 4.0 or something like that. Magna Cum Laude is second best, but pretty awesome too! I think it requires a grade point average between 3.5 and 3.8. Mine was right around 3.66 every semester!

     Every semester, I would score poorly on an assignment or two. While I freaked out about it freshman year, I quickly realized that it was normal to get a poor score occasionally, and my excellent scores on everything else balanced everything out so that I always got A’s and B’s. But last semester when I got a couple low scores on assignments in my public relations class, I found myself freaking out again. Graduation announcements had already been mailed to former teachers and my sister’s flight booked when I got these grades! I don’t think that even a piece of rhubarb pie (Garrison Keillor reference) would be enough to get the taste of shame and humiliation out of my mouth if I failed now! But of course, just like what always happened before, my excellent scores on everything else compensated and I passed with an AB.

     But even as part of me was anxious about my grades and wanted to make sure I got perfect scores on everything to end strong and ensure my graduation, another part of me was battling a serious case of senioritis. I would go up to my room with every intention of working on a paper or studying, but then my mind would wander to life after college and unable to focus, I would find myself goofing off on Facebook or listening to music. I will say I was proud of myself for finishing the final research paper of my communication conflict class on Sunday evening when it wasn’t due until Tuesday May 1. But that unusual decision not to procrastinate was overshadowed by revisions on a user manual in my technical writing class that ended up being more time consuming than I thought. So on Monday April 30, I still ended up staying up until 2:30 in the morning finishing the written revisions of my user manual on my braillenote, then setting an alarm, which I don’t usually do, to make sure I was awake and on the real computer by 6:30 to make visual revisions I forgot about like bold type and larger font for some text and a table of contents. I shudder to think what could have happened if I procrastinated on both my user manual and my conflict paper!

     On May 3, I was inducted in to two honor societies; Lambda Pi Eta, the Communication honor society and Pi Sigma Alpha, the politics society. I smiled as I was presented with medallions and cords which I would wear at graduation, but the realization that exams hadn’t been taken and grades for final papers hadn’t been entered yet nagged at the back of my mind. “Has anything ever happened where a student was inducted in to an honor society and then had that honor revoked because they failed an important paper or exam their final semester?” I wondered to myself. Can you imagine how humiliating that would be?

     Now that I have graduated, I will admit to any professors who read this that I rarely read textbook chapters from cover to cover. If a professor put a lot of emphasis on the importance of reading a particular section of a chapter during lectures, I would read it, or if there was something unclear from class, I would search the textbook chapter for clarification. When professors made study guides, I would scan the study guide and if there was a term that wasn’t ringing any bells in my memory, like “principled negotiation” and it couldn’t be found when searching my notes, I would find the section from the textbook about it. Early in my college years, I did read the textbook chapters dutifully from cover to cover, but sophomore year, I started noticing that despite reading the chapters, I was scoring terribly on reading quizzes and essay questions related to the reading. It occurred to me that it may be because textbook chapters are so ridiculously long and overly detailed that by the time I got through them, my brain was fried and I had retained nothing. But when I started skimming readings and reading only the information related to the daily essay questions assigned as homework in a politics class, my scores on these essays improved dramatically! I quickly discovered that by paying close attention and taking detailed notes during lecture, I was able to retain the rest of the information better and thus did great on tests in that class and subsequent classes as well.

     Of course, this approach didn’t always serve me well for reading quizzes, but these were relatively rare and worth a small percentage of my grade. Perhaps the time not spent frying my brain reading chapters cover to cover meant I had more time and mental energy to write better papers, which more than compensated for the low quiz scores. And while I had a mental blank on a couple questions on the communication conflict exam (they were questions I remember discussing during class lectures but the answers were on the tip of my tongue), I nailed the question on principled negotiation which I had found while skimming the textbook the night before, a question I may have gotten wrong had I read the whole chapter when it was originally assigned, let myself be lulled in to complacency and not consult the study guide since I read the chapter already, (something I used to do), which would have resulted in that term getting lost in the shuffle of other extraneous details from that chapter.

     Maybe it was a guilty conscience, or simply the realization that I cannot fail now since the weekend before graduation, my mom made a twelve-hour round-trip drive by herself so that I could finish a group project and portfolio for public relations and Granny (my maternal grandmother) could witness my graduation. (If that graduation didn’t happen, this sacrifice of love would have been for nothing and I don’t know how I would ever recover from the humiliation.) But while Mom and Granny cheered and declared a celebration was in order after my public relations exam May 7, and the Communication Conflict exam May 8, (the final final of my college career), I couldn’t stop silently fretting over the couple questions I went blank on and whether after four years of late nights, tired fingers from typing papers and the occasional tears, these questions would make it all a waste.

     It didn’t help that on Saturday May 5, a day I had planned on making dramatic progress on the final portfolio for Public Relations, I had a nasty headache and didn’t make near the progress I had hoped to make as a result. That put me behind so that Sunday night when I would have started looking over the study guide for Public Relations, I was finishing revisions on portfolio pieces, and on Monday, even though my exam wasn’t until 1:00 in the afternoon and even after cancelling my weekly Big Brothers Big Sisters visit, it took me until 11:45 to add the final visual touches to my portfolio on the real computer and get it printed. That left just enough time to get dressed, eat a quick lunch and review my notes in the car. In fact, since I have a better memory than many people, it was not uncommon for a quick review of notes in the car to be the extent of my studying these four years, but because of my graduation anxiety, this was the one time when I desperately wished I could have studied the night before.

     Since my procrastination mindset had returned and I had no sense of urgency to start working on my contribution to the group project, or the portfolio for Public Relations, I studied hard for my first amendment exam on May 3 after the honor society festivities and walked out of that exam feeling relaxed and confident. (I went blank on the names of a couple of theorists, but the professor for that class is one of those merciful professors who will give you credit if you get the general concepts, which I think I did.) But in my frantic efforts to finish the portfolio for public relations, the exam for Public Relations simply snuck up on me.

     Mom tried to calm me by asking, “if you weren’t anxious about graduation and you had time to study, would you have studied?”

     “Well, probably not,” I admitted.

     “See, then you’ll be fine,” she said, “if you’ve never studied before and you have always done fine, you shouldn’t worry.” She was right, but it is kind of funny how the one time I wanted to play it safe and study in advance as college students are supposed to, it doesn’t work out.

     On May 7 after my public relations exam, my mom made chicken dinner to celebrate my (paternal) grandma’s birthday, but all through dinner, the online, 90-question multiple choice exam for my technical writing class nagged at my mind. I had taken online exams before and thus was familiar with the interface which was very accessible. But in a reminder e-mail about the exam, the professor cautioned against waiting until the last minute to take this exam to allow time for problems like internet outages, which happen occasionally with our internet provider. The exam would only be active until May 8 at 1:59, but taking it Tuesday was risky as I had my conflict exam that morning. The exam was made available May 1, but it got pushed to the back burner, and I was just sure that fate would punish me for this procrastination by causing the internet to fail me and I would be screaming at the computer, re-taking and re-submitting the test until 3:00 in the morning, or not be able to complete the exam at all. But to my relief and delight, fate was nice to me. Although I was a little surprised and disappointed with my score when the system automatically graded my test, (it claimed I scored 69/90, but I felt more confident than that while taking the test), at least the internet worked on the first attempt and my test was submitted by 9:00 that night, leaving plenty of time to study for the conflict exam.

     But it wasn’t until Thursday May 10 when grades were due and I went online to discover that I earned an AB in all of my classes that I truly started to relax and enjoy the festivities. In retrospect, now that the rat race has been over for almost a month and I can actually think clearly, I wonder if it was not my grades that I was anxious about after all, even though that was how the anxiety manifested itself. Maybe the real source of my anxiety was over fear of the unknown. As I mentioned in “Living on Easy Street”, I have experienced many transitions, but through them all, there was always one constant: I was merely transitioning to another school, not another life and another world. Or maybe, after being in school my whole life, the prospect of graduating college and no longer being a student felt so surreal that deep down, I couldn’t believe it. Indeed, my anxiety peaked on the last official day of classes before exams when the professor of my first amendment class said “Have a good life.” Have a good life! Wow! That’s when it hit me that I wasn’t just taking a temporary reprieve from the world of school to “have a good summer” the usual refrain of teachers all of my life. I was embarking on a new life. How did that happen so fast? There must be a mistake. But there wasn’t a mistake.

     I didn’t, and still don’t know what life has in store for me, but when I saw my grades May 10, I decided it was time to put anxiety over the future aside, savor the present and let the festivities begin.