What Offends This “Disabled” Man

Watching The Great American Read on PBS, and seeing so many of my favorite books profiled, I am reminded why I love to read, and why I love to write.

I have cerebral palsy. And I am legally blind. Fun times! Truly, I choose to see these traits as two factors that add to my life, and not two obstacles that detract from it. You may choose to agree with me… or not. I don’t care. It’s my life, and I’ve learned over many years that, as the great Ricky Nelson once crooned, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

At a young age, this is the mentality I took into writing. I had two people to please: My elementary school teacher, whoever it happened to be that year, and my Papa Dick. (The identity of the latter never changed.) Beyond that, as long as I was happy with it, any story I wrote was good and useful to teach me more about the mechanics and the craft of writing.

Years passed apace. Much quicker than they appeared to go by as they were unfolding. Those years that seemed to go by me as might a lumbering truck on a logging road–I look back on them now and see race cars in the rear-view. Through these years, I began to write seriously, and with the hope–the faraway wish–that other people might read my words.

I never thought I’d finish a novel. Short stories were easy. You conceived the piece, wrote it, and it was there for you to gaze upon and marvel at within a few days or weeks.

Novels, on the other hand, were an undertaking. What did I have to say that merited such room, such expansion of word counts, such varied language as must be used in a novel to avoid too much repetition? A lack of variety?

I always enjoyed novels. But I could never escape into them as so many of my peers claimed to be able to do. There was something in my head that told me: As much as you want to be a baseball player, you can’t be. You’re Derek. Your legs and your eyes don’t work. Sorry. No fun in the athletic realm for you.

As much as you want to be a super hero, you can barely walk. And you’re reading a book where people fly? Sorry, kid. Not happening.

Mysteries are fun to read, sure. But do you really think you could write one? Mysteries require clues and red herrings and compelling evidence and twists thought up well before they find the page. Your eyes will barely let you watch television. And you would presume to be able to write a mystery on par with the greats? With Doyle and Christie? Not gonna happen.

There was one subject I was steeped in and had researched my whole life. Being a guy with palsy and bad eyes, and wondering why. What if I could write a story about that? Then I could turn my deficits, the things society sees as lacking in me, and make them character traits as opposed to character flaws.

But would anyone care to read such a book?

“You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

I’m just gonna write the thing, and we’ll see what happens, I told myself.

Ten years later, my manuscript was ready. I was ready. Time to find an agent who’ll love my book the way I love it; completely and without reservation.

Every writer knows rejection. They know it hurts and it sometimes scars, but it is also an important part of the business of books. When any writer is first writing, as a kid, what matters is the storyMake the story good. By the time they’re an adult writing books for public consumption, what matters is, Will the thing sell?

I remain haunted, after many years, by one particular rejection note concerning my book, What Death Taught Terrence. It is the book I was always meant to write. The main character has palsy and bad eyes, as do I, and he wonders after the purpose of his life. He wonders why.

Rather than a generic form rejection, the kind all writers are used to (“We regret to inform you that we will not be looking to represent your novel. Our opinion is, of course, subjective. Keep searching to find your book’s perfect home. Good luck to you!”) what I got in this particular rejection note was an agent (or an agent’s assistant) who actually sat down and wrote to me, “Clearly, you’ve written this book for people with cerebral palsy.”

You will never find a surer way to offend this disabled man. I don’t remember the name of the person who wrote that note, but I definitely remember the sentiment it carried.

Would anyone ever say to Lee Child, for example, “Jack Reacher is white. Clearly you’ve written this book for white people”? Would they say to the great Mr. King, “You’ve written Misery to scare writers exclusively”? No. But somehow it’s okay to marginalize a book written by a disabled man simply because the person marginalizing it failed to understand it?  That’s how I took that particular incident, anyway.

I would hope our world is better than that.

The world in which I wish to be a published author whose words affect the people who read them–that world is better. And, if it isn’t yet, it will be.

I don’t want to please everyone with my words. But, while pleasing myself with them, Dear Reader, I sincerely hope they will get to you one day and make you question the world we inhabit. And maybe, just maybe, they will make you feel a little bit better and make this life a little bit easier to live.

 

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Disneyland Is Where I Feel Freest

When I was a kid, there were certain things I took as gospel, even though none of them were in The Bible. These were:

-My Papa Dick could cook anything. (Always was true, always will be true.)

-Bob Barker would host The Price Is Right forever. (Until Drew Carey comes along and turns  slightly less than a quarter of the airings into shows with themes. It’s kinda weird, but the new games are kinda cool.)

-The Mariners would be in last place forever. (This particular belief was proven wrong in my thirteenth year, 1995, when the baseball gods decided to smile on our little hamlet.)

-My dad was going to be a famous writer someday.

-I was going to be a famous writer someday. (Not because of him, or thanks to him, but one of us might ride the coattails of the other, and that was fine.)

-Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth.

 

Of those beliefs, I’d like to briefly discuss the last three, the final one in detail. First, yes, I believed then, and believe still, that my father, and myself, can be famous authors. It is one of my deepest dreams that this will become so for us. I don’t know if I desire fame so much as the security that can be found in doing something you love and being paid for it.

I didn’t turn to writing because Dad was writing. I came to it because it was always easy for me, and I love it. Then, as now, I love it. I have finally written the story for which I feel I was put on Earth. It is mine to tell, and I’ve told it. The only mystery now regarding my book: Who will read it, and what will they say when they do?

Where did I learn to believe in dreams? From my dad and my papa and the people who love me, sure. But where else was this belief reinforced?

Disneyland.

The happiest place on Earth.

In my opinion, it’s part of the Disney culture to champion dreams. And I love that.

Being handicapped, you get used to hearing what you can’t do. It is a refrain, and nowhere is it louder than at amusement parks: “You can’t do that. Sure, it looks fun, and other people are doing it. But you would be a liability.”

“Why?”

“If you got hurt, you might sue, so it’s just easier to tell you no from the outset.”

It’s like places blame the disabled for being disabled, as if it’s something we did or let happen knowingly, with full knowledge of what our disability would mean in life going forward. So many doors will be closed to you, but you know that, right?

At Disney, they take this happiest place on Earth stuff seriously. They mean it. Being handicapped is no disadvantage. For once, when I’m there, I feel as though I’m on equal footing with the able-bodied.

This is a thank-you, not just to the folks of Disneyland but to all of Disney, for always making this handicapped guy feel welcome, ever since I was a kid and first walked with Mickey down Main Street U.S.A. Having just spent the better part of last week in California with my loving girlfriend, we made memories we won’t soon forget. Thank you all for helping to make that possible. I feel at home in your midst, and I always will!

A Handicapped Guy Who’s Always Loved The Fast Rides!

P.S.

If Hyperion Books (a Disney-owned publisher) ever saw fit to make my book available to the world, I would be eternally grateful. Just putting that little thought out into the universe and seeing what might come back, considering the fact that I’ve always felt a part of the Disney family!)

 

 

 

 

Where Does A Handicapped Man Fit In Donald Trump’s America?

The state of our union feels fragile today.

The five stages of grief are real. And I went through all of them yesterday when it became clear Hillary Clinton had lost her bid for the oval office and Donald Trump would be our 45th president. Mingled with my grief, in its various ebbs and flows, was a question important to me personally.

Where does a handicapped man like me fit in Donald Trump’s America?

I am frightened of what a Trump presidency will mean for me. Will he take my social security away because he doesn’t value the contributions of the segment of the population to which I belong? What I mean by that is this: Does he value us enough to see that entitlement programs like social security–entitlement being the wrong name for it, in my opinion; it truly is a social safety net–exist because they make life easier to live but are nowhere near some kind of financial windfall every month? Will he treat us like second-class citizens? I suppose I’ll have to wait to have my questions answered in full, and that has me beyond worried.

I realize campaigns are full of rhetoric. They’re full of bluster and bombast, both things Mr. Trump does well. But being president is entirely different. If he truly is going to be the president for all Americans, as he claimed in his acceptance speech, that means accepting that not everyone looks like him, walks like him, talks like him, or thinks like him, and being okay with that. I’m not sure, in my heart of hearts, that he can do this.

Just like a gay man or a black woman can’t change the qualities that make them them, nor would they want to, I will always be handicapped, no matter what I do. No matter how many books I write. No matter how many times somebody tells me I’m a brilliant editor. No matter how many people love me. No matter how many times someone says, “You’re normal to me.” I can’t imagine living in a country whose president would mock me with relish. While my disability doesn’t define me, it is a part of me. It contributes to my life-experience.  So when I saw Mr. Trump mocking a New York Times’ reporter this campaign season, it felt to me like a stab to the very heart of who I am as a man. Here’s a man in Trump who was mocking another with my same disability, and the mocker wanted to be–and now will be–the leader of the free world. I was, and remain, disgusted.

When Trump actually won the election, I was distressed. I cried. I’m crying now. I have never voted for a republican presidential candidate, admittedly, but I respect this country and the people in it. I simply want to know I won’t become the new kind of “forgotten man or woman” to whom Trump made reference in his acceptance speech. I want to know that, even though I can’t serve it, my love for this country is just as valuable as the love exhibited by someone who does.

In conclusion, whether you believe in an organized religion or not, and a fair number of people I know don’t, I thought it appropriate to end this post with:

God bless you, and God bless the United States Of America.