What we can learn from Overwatch.

“If you don’t start playing video games, you’re going to kill yourself.”

My friend Paul tends toward the hyperbolic, but he wasn’t quite wrong. It was summer 2017, I was six months into my new life as an amputee, and I was regularly waking up screaming or just not sleeping at all. Medications and therapy were making a dent, but I had long spans of night when my friends just weren’t around, and I had nothing to do but write, watch long stretches of SVU and Golden Girls,  and think about what I’d lost. It wasn’t a good look on me and people were worried. I was worried. I needed a place to put my anxiety that was a little more responsive than writing or television.

So I was gifted a refurbished Playstation 4, and a small budget to pick up a few games. And thus began my love affair with Overwatch. It’s set in a world a few decades in the future, after a human-robot war and the rise and fall of a team of superhuman peacekeepers. It’s a multiplayer first-person shooter where you play one of 28 characters on a team of (usually) six, against another team of six, trying to accomplish an objective, from defending a base area to escorting a payload vehicle down a path, to capturing a flag, and a host of others. The characters are colorful and diverse in look and personality; from a Russian female bodybuilder with a gravity cannon to an Egyptian-American Indian in a flying mech suit to a cyborg ninja/gangster archer set of Japanese brothers to a tinkering Swedish machine-smith dwarf, there’s a LOT of different looks and backgrounds thoughtfully presented here. And as the game has grown, so too has the diversity; three new characters are added a year. Since the game’s launch, we’ve seen new playable characters that are a female Egyptian senior citizen sniper/healer, a Mexican young woman who’s a mischievous hacker, a heavy weapons centaur robot with a personality programmed by a west African child prodigy, a Nigerian super-villain with a titanic right arm, a Celtic female mad scientist/biologist, a shield maiden who’s the daughter of the aforementioned Swedish dwarf, and now a hyper-intelligent hamster in a giant mech derived from a modified exercise ball.

The game is big, it’s weird, it’s bright, and I love it. While there’s a good deal of violence, it’s within the boundaries of childhood episodes of G.I. Joe; lots of shooting, without gore.

As I started spending more time with the game, and fell for it hard, I also noticed something a little different and subtle: disability has an interesting presence in the game. Specifically, as built into the game’s futuristic setting, many of the characters have overtly survived trauma in their backstories, or more subtly, hint at survived trauma via prosthetic limbs. There’s Junkrat, the Australian tinkerer with a prosthetic leg, or Symmetra, the Indian autistic architect and savant with a robotic left arm, McCree, the western gunslinger with a cybernetic right arm, and Genji, the ninja who survived a battle with his brother and had his body rebuilt from near-scratch. Torbjorn, the Swedish dwarf, sports at least one hand and eye that are prosthetic.

As a new amputee just getting used to my prosthetic, this meant a lot to me; I’d spend days hiding from the world, and would spend almost every night looking down at what was left of my left leg as I got into bed and bursting into tears. It was ugly to me. It represented otherness. It was a signifier that others had and would continue to use to judge my worthiness or lack thereof; in my mind, it made me less-than. But every time I picked up a controller, here was a roster of over two-dozen battle hardened warriors, half of whom brandished prosthetics, all of whom lived in a world of technicolor positivity and teamwork. What we invest in becomes our story and then becomes our world;  on a level at leas un- or subconscious, Overwatch’s presentation of heroic disability helped save me.

Disability and diversity are woven and coded into the visual language of the game; these warriors are respected, often presented as role models, and are different sizes, shapes, colors, and possessing different alterations and methods of mobility–all without shame, all with equal sense of confidence and acceptance.

We’ve come a long way from Buster Bluth, I believe; with one exception (the sociopathic assassin Reaper), no character bemoans or exudes pathos from their appearance or scars. It’s refreshing and exciting to jump into this diverse world and kick a little ass.

So what can we learn about this radical visibility in pop culture? I think that’s pretty clear: we have to emulate it. We so often build a staid, beige-y sameness into how we present ourselves; we hide our differences and classify them as wounds, things that detract from our ability to welcome and connect.

And we are so very, very wrong on that front.

Overwatch takes a risk and presents a plurality of experiences and backgrounds, including disabilities gained from trauma that in turn lead to triumph; over 35 million people are crazy for this game, which is more than just a glimmer of hope that life can function this way. We can be this, if we want to be.

Disability: Big Steps and Church Responsiveness

I’ve written a lot here about the hurtful invisibility and casual dehumanization that often happens to the disabled within church cultures; we often become elevated examples of otherness, alternatively lauded as inspirations or projects to “fix” when not being ignored because to do otherwise would require all of us to face our differences, fragility, mortality and how far we really need to go to make radical inclusion a reality.

I’m cautiously optimistic today about Anglican forward motion on this inclusion, however. Last week, at the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, a resolution was presented and passed that will create a task force dedicated to accessibility and inclusion; my friend Charis was instrumental in the hard work, advocacy, and visibility necessary to make this happen, and I’m doing backflips of joy (metaphorically), I’m so proud of her. Today, as part of a conference at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury introduced More Than Welcome, an initiative presented in partnership with UK-based advocacy group Livability, dedicated to creating resources and altering perceptions in order for churches to be more welcome and inclusive to those of us with disabilities. And this is such a needed and transformative step; with that said, it’s a step in a sequence, and so much more is needed for the promise of dignity and belonging t0 be offered to those with disabilities in all church settings.

When I first found myself in a wheelchair, people I’d known for decades started leaning over to talk to me, and shouting while they did so; it was bizarre, but so many of my friends who also use wheelchairs laughed and made note of the same thing. As soon as it’s pointed out, people stop this behavior, or actively try to correct it. Being able to have that conversation, and keep it going without shame as a continuum of dignity is created, is so necessary, and so often much more fragile than it needs to be.

Earlier this year, I found myself in a roundtable cultural discussion about accessibility in the arts. An executive director of a prominent arts organization lauded a symphony’s single-instance offering of a program for deaf and hard of hearing patrons, in which they could feel vibrations on special equipment as a symphony played a specially-designed piece.

I got stuck in this, and in its single-service nature, and how it was presented as such a win: I kept thinking, “Is this really accessibility?” It was certainly an invitation, and it required a whole lot of work, but it felt like a novelty, a different experience to provide SOMETHING that wasn’t quite the art form in a new and accessible state, and the joy and satisfaction at its creation felt awfully like checking a box. At no point will we rejoice conclusively: “WE SOLVED DISABILITY ACCESS! YAY!” We don’t work that way. The challenge doesn’t work that way. Everything is a step, but the journey doesn’t end. We stay on the process and keep evolving as the needs do.

And drawing this back to church: it’s my hope from this Anglican initiative, from the conversation within the Episcopal Church, that the value of being seen and heard and rising to the challenge is the most important part of this process; slapping down a ramp or installing an elevator or making sure audio description and open capturing are precise and useful are immensely helpful, but they’re so often treated as conclusive actions, when true access is conversational and adaptive.

As the saying goes: nothing about us without us. And there’s no such thing as checking a box that will end this process and end the challenge. See us, hear us, actively participate in and enjoy the dialogue with us. We want to be here and we want to be in communion with you, and there’s such joy and growth to be found in that, on all sides.

A friend described the single-instance actions of diversity as inviting someone to a party; true inclusiveness is inviting someone at that party to dance. I like that; It’s high time we all had a shot at showing off some sick moves, right?

Forgiveness as Self-Care

I hold onto things. Often for way too long.

I’m not saying I’m a hoarder, but I do have some action figures in package from thirty years ago–they are not cool, they are not valuable, they just are. I remember the day and the sentiment with which they were given to me. And so I keep them, mint in package, despite the space they occupy. It’s a small sample of how I live my life. I keep things around far past their time. This is true of relationships, as well. All friendships, loves, etc. aren’t meant to last.

Often the evidence of this shelf life shows up in conflict. You’re not supposed to make one another feel bad about life, but there it often is. I’ve held onto these toxic bonds for way too long in friendships, collecting pals like Pokemon. The numbers are stupid. The best thing about being critically ill is that you learn very quickly who sticks around and why.

A close friendship came to an end in March; we couldn’t keep the sections of our lives separate, and the traumas of the last year had left both of us dinged up. There wasn’t anything positive left in our interactions.

After a period of being supremely angry, that faded out. Like the disciples when they arrived at a town not ready to hear them, there was nothing to do but dust off my feet (real and synthetic) and walk on, or like Jay-Z and Obama offer us, just get that dirt off my shoulder.

And for a while, I was comfortable with that. In May, he contacted me when I was hospitalized with a worry of congestive heart failure, to tell me he didn’t want to talk to me but was praying for me. I had a few friends in the room at the moment; the phone got passed around in a game of hot potato swapping from indifference to rage to disbelief to humor. Prayer, especially in situations of tension between people, remains a deeply personal thing; I don’t know what comfort I was expected to gain from being made aware of it in this situation. Ultimately, my friends helped me realize this milquetoast reach-out had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him. And it helped me let it go.

I received another contact request from this person yesterday, asking for the reestablishment of a baseline relationship in which at the very least we could interact amidst our shared circles. My instinct was to initially respond warmly, to accept his offer to talk things out, to make an attempt at reconciliation. We loved one another once. That had to matter.

Then I remembered the message in May, and where and how I’ve been spending energy since the end of our friendship. It wasn’t like me to knock that dirt off my shoulder and move on; when a friendship ends, I spend months Monday-morning-quarterbacking things, certain it’s  my fault, certain I’m deeply flawed, resolute that I’m not the wronged party.

And this time, it just wasn’t so. I didn’t appreciate the notification in May, and I didn’t appreciate this contact, either. But I realized I could forgive him, and I had to. And that it had very little to do with how it would make him feel. From my vantage, what had happened was so beyond not okay that it had colored my perceptions and reactions. I wanted no part of that ever again. The person I’d loved just didn’t seem like an entity anymore. And so I took a deep breath. I cleaned the dust off my feet. And I moved on. I forgave and sent a short email back explaining the situation.

And I felt better than I have about this situation than I had in two full years, long before the friendship ended. Saying goodbye without guilt, or shame, or an adolescent need to chew on why we don’t want to be friends anymore–all of that was so freeing. It’s like the space in my head this person had occupied is cleaned out and available for rent again.

I wish I’d learned this earlier than 36, but hey: the only way out of the labyrinth really is to forgive.

 

 

Beautifully Built, Traumatically Altered.

I’m writing this while receiving a whole bunch of information on the first half of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, held last week and this week in Austin, TX. Perhaps there will be more on that later. Right now, I’m mildly incensed at how inaccessible much of the itinerary is; I’ve received more than a dozen reports of people in wheelchairs or walkers unable to get to locations of witness, into restaurants, to external events, and more. Visibility of disabled persons seems to be at a marked low; there are marginalized communities in our church that are raised up for witness and homilies thus far, on hotbed issues of gender, sexuality, race, immigration, sexual abuse, and more. But we’re largely invisible. And so I watch from a distance and lament our absence, in image if not in actuality.

It’s about being seen. about navigating the world before us, about independence and control of our place in all this, as real or illusory as that may be.

And so, here’s my place in that story.

Two weeks ago,  I received my second generation prosthetic; much more flexible, quieter, lighter, and higher-tech. I wanted it to be beautiful. My first left leg had been named Daniel Day Lewis, as it was My Left Foot. This one was an art project; it’s a bright lacquered blue, and looks beautiful. It will eventually let me move like I used to, down to the patented Elliott Dance of Caucasia (it’s a thing). It’ll bring goofiness back to my physicality. And with that, I named the new leg Agadore Spartacus, after Hank Azaria’s faithful house-man in The Birdcage.

I thought a lot about my new leg, and intention, and how this was a full-bodied attempt to reclaim agency over myself. I wanted more expression with it to reclaim yet more of that agency. And so I hand-drew a tattoo for it: a bird leaving a cage, with MORE LIFE inscribed beneath.

And so it was fabricated with that tampographed on it, permanently. It wasn’t enough for me.

Five years ago, my friend Jamie passed away after his third go-round with cancer. We weren’t always friends; in college, we wanted to strangle one another on the regular. But sometime around 2009 we buried the hatchet and started swapping ideas. We became weird internet friends. And we got seriously sick at around the same time.

Being a writer and an information hoarder is useful and dangerous in moments like this, as I spelunk back to our last written conversations, before a brain tumor took his life.

He asked how I was doing. I said I was heavily in denial. And then:

I think a certain amount of denial is healthy. Obviously not total denial, but I can say from experience that the worst thing you can do is let it consume you. And, then the next day I’d be mad that the stuff from the day before passed by me, but it was my own fault because I couldn’t get my head right in the first place. I’m not implying that’s what you’re doing. I’m just saying that’s totally what I did wrong.

That, and pushing people away, especially romantic relationships. I don’t know what your situation is with that, but I know a lot of the time because I saw myself as “scarred” or something I pushed girls away because I thought they would see me as some sick person if they really got to know me, even after I was completely better. Everyone gets sick. Some people just not to the extent of others, and most people are far more understanding then we give them credit for.

It’s hard for parents to watch their children get sick, to almost die. And, my father, like when I’m well he doesn’t let me get away with anything, I mean a real hardass. But, when I was sick, the sky was the limit.

I’m beginning to think growing up is just realizing how little you knew the last time you checked. And, in another year you’ll probably realize that right now when you think you sort of have a handle on it all, in fact, you don’t. But, that’s okay. I think that’s the process for everyone, everyone who takes the time to think about it at all that is. Anyway, I’m glad that you’re doing well. It’s not an easy struggle. And, ultimately, there really aren’t any words of wisdom that can ease the experience. Though, don’t blame people when they try. That’s just human nature. But, I do genuinely believe now they every day above ground is a good day…just try missing one.

Jamie

I marvel at this; It’s Jamie’s responsibility that I haven’t ended my life, four years and change after he left this planet. I miss him in ways that surprise me.

He had the word ENDURE tattooed over his heart. And now, after last week, I do, too.

More life. More art. More art used to connect ourselves to life, to express and exert influence over these beautifully built, traumatically altered bodies we are given.

More life.

Called to Protest, Called to Support, Called to…

“The thing you have to understand,” the woman said to me, “what you need to really get, is that we’re called ‘God’s Frozen Chosen’ for a reason.”

Let’s go back to September 13th, 2013, a Friday evening in a beautiful coffee shop with sadly terrible coffee. She was a member of the committee tasked to find my diocese a new communications director. I hadn’t been fully vetted or offered the job yet, but she was fairly certain I’d be the candidate selected; she was right. And she wanted me to know, amidst my perceived creativity and ideas, that I’d possibly be facing an establishment mindset of Christians who were comfortable in quiet traditions; that my newness and difference and perhaps loudness and codified sexual orientation would be a shock to the system I might not professionally survive: “you’re going to want to button up.”

The short of it is that I started the job the following Friday and began the great professional adventure of my life thus far; that’s a bigger story for another time. What I want to talk about today is that sobriquet: “frozen chosen.” My dad used to throw it around all the time when talking about church, when pre-teen me would ask about why we Elliotts didn’t have a faith tradition. He’d talk about some Episcopal experiences he had growing up, good and bad, and quickly change the subject. But he’d never fail to talk about “God’s Frozen Chosen.” There’s a deeper faith conversation my father and I owe one another, sooner rather than later. But the first brand I learned of the Episcopal Church as a kid, and reinforced by the conversation that opens this piece, is that Episcopalians were stuck in place; Frozen Chosen is an awfully vivid and terrifying visual, after all, of a static existence of comfortable, icy stagnancy, without change or growth.

That hasn’t been my experience, to be sure. And I think about that initial image in conversation with our current cultural moment a great deal; we’re amidst a period of great unrest and transformation, to be sure. And I like to think that Jesus would be on the front lines of this change were he among us as a man today, calling us to action and carrying the banner high, aloft with the holy spirit and some undoubtedly clever signage.

I personally believe that faith requires us to step out and be loud. We’re emboldened to pull up injustice by the roots. Loud has never been my problem; I’ve been protesting in ways healthy and un- since I was old enough to match my perspective with smartassery and take a market to posterboard. My failing comes so often in recognizing the faith and strength in the power of support. I feel called to march and yell and engage and argue, with love and anger and a desire for change as the fuel that gets me going. But so often, I miss that there are people who are just as energized for change and alteration and finding justice as I am, but do so in ways that are subtle and just as effective. Those influencers deserve my praise and admiration and fellowship just as openly as someone marching alongside me at one of the recent rallies.

I’m writing this because faith in anything and anyone requires a belief that we can change the circumstances of the world around us, to make it better than we found it. There’s nothing frozen about that, and we’re not chosen for it, but rather find a choice in it. And I want to be part of that agency of change, even as I recognize and raise people up who want it too, but have different volume levels and gifts at work in getting there.

More life. To be continued tomorrow, when I’ll talk a little more about my struggles with sustained faith over big moments.

The Grossness of Smugness and Beyond.

It’s funny how much I admire resolve in a person, and how little I’ve come to value chutzpah. From a distance, they look an awful lot alike; confidence and swagger and a sense of certainty can sure be attractive. But the devil’s always in the details, and intent matters. What it personally comes down to: resolve has a goal and never comes without self-awareness and a sense of listening, while chutzpah, or smugness, is a certainty that only exists in an environment where destruction is a value. You only build your ivory tower up, after all, by knocking down the structures that surround you.

Yesterday, I appeared on an episode of the RAFT podcast, or “Riverside Atheists and Free Thinkers,” based out of California. I was invited due to my Guardian piece from two years ago, and my journey from atheism to baptism. My warning feelers were up and out; as I’ve discovered in conversations with friends and otherwise, in speaking engagements, in press discussions, and more, these opportunities are often structured less around dialogue and more around that same smugness–a desire to prove me wrong, or stupid, or to bolster atheist confidence by swinging a hammer of “insightful” humanism my way. I have plenty of friends who are atheists and we find time and energy to have love and faith in one another. But the other side of that is the adage that hurt people tend to hurt people, and this felt like a vulnerable arena.

But I’m committed to doing the things that scare me. And as frustrated as I often am with the insularity of the communities that give me strength, be they recovery, or amputee, or church, or whatever–I’ve made a strong choice that change and growth in me and others can’t happen in an echo chamber. Homogeneity of ideas is a dangerous and flavorless form of Kool-Aid. And so, I said yes and stepped out.

I’m about 85 percent glad I did; it was a moderated conversation between a marriage therapist raised devout baptist who “deconverted” to atheism while studying towards her certification, a theologian who was raised pentecostal and found his church’s beliefs irreconcilable with his own in his twenties, and myself. I found my fellow panelists charming, smart, deeply human, and kind. I’m looking forward to sharing that part of the conversation with you when the episode is ready in a few weeks.

The upset happened in the Q&A at the end. A gentleman came up to the mic and my Spider-Sense went off the minute I saw the swagger in his hips. But you can’t judge intellectual content based on rakish pelvic angles, and so I waited for his question.

And he gave me a twofer: first, he dropped the oft-cited anti-gay chunk of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

For this reason, God gave them up to passions of dishonor; for even their females exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature, and likewise also the males, having left the natural use of the female, were inflamed by their lust for one another, males with males, committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was fitting for their error.

We have several problems to unpack with the above; first is the doubt that Paul ever wrote it, and that it was imposed into text at a later date. The second is the invocation of lust. and the splitting of hairs in the Greek language used in earlier versions of this verse and what they meant–whether the above is about carnal desire, or child molestation, or unbridled lust, or gay/lesbian interactions is hotly contested. Third, as I’ve said time and again–the concept of the Old Testament and New Testament and the current way we live our lives is proof that our relationships with one another and with God continue to evolve, and literal adherence to text written thousands of years ago makes very little sense. If we stick to this, we have to stick to Leviticus, too, and my silk boxers touching my wool pants as I write this would then be an ample invitation to just kill me super-dead.

The short version: we’re beautiful, imaginative, thinking creatures capable of metaphor and expansion and deep connection. And assuming that brainwashing to the point of literal devotion to text pisses me off. This guy attempted a gotcha and I called him on it. I said he wasn’t going to change my mind on this one, and he clearly came locked and loaded to the table without knowing me or my story. All he saw was a Christian he wanted to stymie, not another human being. And I said that I found his smugness gross and it was time to move on.

I’d said earlier in the day that God doesn’t create suffering, and I’d lost friends to the argument of “Why does God give kids cancer?” And this limb loss horror gave that argument a run for the money for me; that I came back to faith means something, and I hold to that. I hold that God is with us in suffering, even as we do a great job of causing it for ourselves, in combination with happenstance. But S/He never leaves us without a lesson to grow and transform through as we suffer, and understanding our relationship from that perspective is crucial. This gentleman then threw some quotes from Isiah at me. I called it for what it was.

I wish this guy well; I think the tone and content of these moments probably said a lot more about him than it did about me and my faith journey. At the same time, as my life goes through several transformations in these next few weeks, I can’t help but think about what John Green said about his own work, his life, and the dangers of being loud about one’s Christian identity:

There is a certain branch of Christianity that has so effectively hijacked the word “Christian” that I feel uncomfortable sometimes using it to describe myself. But I am a Christian.” 
I worry about that a lot. I worry about that as I get loud about disability advocacy (next post) or what’s about to happen as progressive Christians attempt to make their voices heard in an organized fashion (the post after that).

All I can say is that we’re here to love, to learn, to bolster one another up, to use our slow-grown anger for positive purpose, and to screw up again and again, acknowledging that grace is an opportunity to fail better each and every time.

But yeah, smugness is gross. And I want it minimized in my life. I’ll call it out when I see it and won’t tolerate it as part of healthy and meaningful interactions.

And thus, that was a good lesson for the first Saturday in April. To be continued…

Lent and the Magic of Loss.

We’re not built to compare each year of our lives against the others; still, we do.

Or I do. Anyway, 2017 was a lenten adventure in loss, getting used to losing a leg and familiarity with my body, a series of considerations on who I used to be and who I became, measuring my manhood, my workplace persona, my skills, my worth as a human being, and everything else against the body parts I was missing and my own perceived uselessness.

I had a lot of people seriously come through for me and show up. And that’s why I’m still alive, walking, working 60+ hour weeks, and trying to be grateful.

And it’s still Lent, and I’m still choosing to give up things, and I’m still losing.

Tuesdays, I have two support groups; I co-run the first one virtually and tend to not say much in the second one, an evening in-person gathering at a local rehabilitation facility. I’m questioning the usefulness of these at this point for myself, but hanging on because I’m still trying to milk some form of understanding and acceptance from this gross thing that happened. I talk a lot and this defining awfulness set into my body; maybe someone else can learn a thing or two.

I find myself stuck in the above as a mantra. There’s something almost selfish to it that I can’t put my finger on.

Performative assistance sets my teeth on edge. “I’m pulling for you” became the “thoughts and prayers” of the ten or so of us with newly amended limbs; it’s a phrase and a way of life that says and means nothing. It says “here are some happy words, please feel free to let go at any time, this is meaningless and I don’t know how to make myself feel better via my attempt at you feeling better so I’m going to go now, ta!”

I have faith and faith in some people and prayer matters and means something, often, but you have to act. Loss comes in the form of the strength of character you apply to the things you believe in, too, and that sort of loss is the part of Lent we don’t always talk about. The relationships and connections that are tenuous and low on meaning fall away or explode violently. And that’s okay.

At the end of all this, we’re supposed to be reborn with a new understanding of what really matters. I hope that’s so. It would mean a great deal, this year, that the loss of all of these parts and people meant something.

The first time comes back.

So my book is nearing completion, even as my health bounces in new directions and adds different wrinkles. And I’m cataloging things that happened as part of the narrative. The first time I tried to stand without a leg. The first time a doctor told me what would happen. The first time painkillers wore off. The first time I hit the button for pain medication and didn’t need it. The first time I realized I wanted pain medication for reasons other than pain. My first steps. My first pull-up. My first support group. My first time leading a support group. My first conversation about God being a construct. My first moment of peace at the thoughts of ending my own life. My first decision to live. My first realization that anger at God means belief in God. My first return to church

My first time defining despair.

My first time receiving The Look.

it was January 30. I’d been in rehab a few days. A nurse came in to check my vitals. It was six AM, the end of a long night for both of us. She didn’t know me well and didn’t know my history; she was normally on the other side of the floor and was filling in, this one time. My phone was on the small table in my room, about five feet from my bed, where I was sitting on the edge with my back to it, my leg and its absent partner sweatpantleg dangling off the side of the bed.

I asked the nurse to hand me my phone. She blinked at me. There was annoyance in her voice:

“Can’t you do it?”

And in that moment a narrative unspooled. I looked like a privileged white boy, asking a black nurse to hand me a gadget. The way I was sitting, she couldn’t see my legs. Lots of people come to physical rehab for various reasons; I was sitting up and looking mostly healthy. I could hear the weariness and personal invective towards me in her voice.

I stammered. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t.”

She made a noise like a locomotive releasing steam, and scooped up my phone. She came around the bed to hand it to me and she saw the bottom of my left pantleg and everything clicked. I never want to make anyone make that face again.

She put her hand on my shoulder and apologized and I realized I’d been crying. Or maybe I’d just started. But my face was soaked and I just could stop. And she stood there for a few minutes with her body in contact with mine, sorry for the exchange, trying to provide comfort as I went into full shutdown.

I’m still in that moment. I’m still recognizing how people I love look at me now, a mix of pity and privilege, like all they can see is a combination of the loss and what I should be doing and expectations of how badly I’m screwing this up and how I should be magically okay.

or maybe that’s just me. But it’s despair. I count that as the first moment it set in, that my worth had become altered and I wasn’t going to get who I was back, from first impressions right on through the first fistful of  dirt dumped on my casket.

All that was left was this, a tightrope of perception of how I’m expected to behave based on whether or not people know what’s missing.

I’m feeling it hard tonight, after a day of illness and emotional and intellectual punches. I’m lonesome and not handling it well. And I’m lying to myself that it’ll all be okay.

I’m more worried frankly, about what happens when I get more objective about the truth of this. But that’s not a problem for tonight.

Me too, even if not #metoo

This needs a prelude:

Four weeks ago, I was talking to a friend at 4 AM. He’s an emergency services dispatcher and sleep comes at a premium for me, so our best conversations tend to soak through into the night. Prior to the Weinstein story breaking, we had a long chat about the gendered politics of sexual abuse. And how people are and aren’t expected to carry it.

So, for purposes of volume and honesty, I dragged this out: from ages 11-13, I was sexually taken advantage of by an older boy in my neighborhood. I wasn’t the only one; it happened dozens of times over two years to at least four of us I know about. It took me years to develop the vocabulary and perspective to realize I’d been abused; that I didn’t feel anger about it at that point or ascribe issues of weight, masculinity or orientation to it isn’t of consequence. I had the “first time we all had sex” story swap over beers with friends in conversation at 19 and realized via their reactions that what happened to me wasn’t normative and okay.

I don’t know if anger is the emotional crux of what I feel, 25 years later. I tracked him down via the internet; he’s married, in North Carolina, with three kids. And that’s where I’d like the story to end. But as my dispatcher friend reminded me, you can’t undo what happened. Whether or not I’m aware of how I express myself, I do carry the marks of what happened to me.

So, first time I’m talking about it publicly: I was a child and the victim of sexual harassment and assault. Me, too. And I didn’t talk about it for so long because I’d nornalized it and ascribed my status as a hairy, masculine and physically intimidating man to my invincibility: not so. We dismantle environments where this can happen and sit on the shelf for decades by creating, instead, environments in which we can talk about what happened without shame.

And yet, I’m a fervent believer that #metoo isn’t about me. This isn’t about what happened to me or how it happened; it’s about the gendered use of power to attain sexual gratification and harm and take things from another. That’s not quite what happened to me, as a sixteen year old took advantage of me. But it’s part of the same horrific continuum.

This isn’t up to women to solve, or the victims of any gender to own and speak out and tear down walls. We know this happens. Men know this happens. And men have the power and requirement to solve this. It’s way past time. And ignorance of our position in this is culpability, as if we did it ourselves.

We have to be better and we have to do more. The victims are not responsible for the next stage or creating safe spaces. That’s on us.

Acting, Art and Amputees.

“Bull,” the new ratings smash on CBS, has hired an actual amputee to play a character missing a limb. I applaud this, to be sure. But why are we acting like it’s a daring move when it should be par for the course?

There are around 2 million Americans with lower limb amputations; we’re from all walks of life (terrible pun not intended and hopefully forgiven quickly). I feel strongly about representation requiring visibility, and, with all things being equivalent, casting amputee actors for amputee roles is a requirement, for simple reasons of authenticity and decency. One of my support groups, in a flagrant display of inappropriateness via attempted charity, was gifted tickets to Stronger, the Boston Marathon bombing movie that handles a double amputation via CGI. Everything about that situation smacks of emotional manipulation and inauthentic expression. That a bunch of folks in their first year of BKA status had tickets thrown their way just makes me even further predisposed towards film animosity. Anyway–didn’t Children of a Lesser God conclusively answer this not-quandary a generation ago? Conventionally abled actors don’t get brownie points for wearing a pair of green screen socks or dark shades and stepping into a world like ours. It doesn’t count. It’s blackface with wheels and shades and a cane. And it’s unacceptable.

And of course, my pal Alan just chimed in a moment of devil’s advocacy. Haven’t my WordPress adventures of the last month taught me that the devil has plenty of advocates?

We bounced from “Bull” to “The Good Doctor,” and from TCG’s piece last year on amputee stories in theater to the recent Broadway run of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime.” Alan’s son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in February, which Alan’s two younger brothers also have. We were talking ASD representation in comics last week, and settled on three X-Men who demonstrate an authentic portrayal…and that’s about it. Alan brought that back around to the current tv and theater portrayals of Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders; why aren’t there more actors and visible artists with these conditions in roles that demonstrate these conditions?

I had an answer for him, even as I wasn’t happy with it: the stage situation is one of consistency. Eight shows a week have to be delivered exactly the same, every time, to the tune of a hundred bucks a ticket. If an actor’s condition allows for him or her to do that, then yes, Asperger Syndrome doesn’t get in the way of casting the role. Otherwise, it becomes a difficult conversation in which a neurotypical actor assumes the part. I wish it were otherwise, but the regularity of playing the part for an audience takes precedence here.

What it comes down to: does a person’s disability or othered-ability enhance or detract from their ability to play a role and tell a story about their experiences from an authentic perspective? If it enhances that ability, tell the story. If it detracts from that ability, then it’s time for that uncomfortable conversation. Alexander Sharp and Marianne Elliott won performance and directing awards for “Curious Incident,” and a minor string of protests were set off when Tyler Lea was cast as Sharp’s replacement, the professional statement made by the casting agency making a version of my sentiments above; consistency and reliability at eight shows a week were the tenet that actors on the spectrum who auditioned weren’t able to guarantee. It unfortunately fell outside of reasonable accommodations. A recent production in Indiana cast an actor on the spectrum in the role, with significant accommodations made to bring this element into play. I wish I could honestly stand against the professional litany that claims this is different, but I can’t. Physical and cognitive differences have to be considered in separate continuums.

Alan also put forth people in entertainment who are often considered to be on the spectrum because of behaviors demonstrated, including Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin. And the slope gets even more slippery…I’ve worked with wonderful people who are incredibly successful in creative endeavors and employment despite and often because of being on the spectrum. It isn’t our place to put them there, though, or to assign them entry to a community they haven’t identified with or claimed. A diagnosis is required, as is ownership of that part of a person’s identity, as opposed to us watching tv and spotting links in behavior. The yet more slippery slope comes from self-diagnosis and ascribing community when medical professionals aren’t willing or able to do so. That’s a hair’s breadth from a similar experience to the ableist blackface I described above.

The bottom line of all of this: these roles are best cast by those who can authentically portray them, convincingly and professionally, and express the physicality of life experience. So hey, cast an amputee to play an amputee before Jake Gyllenhaal enters the room.

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