When I was 17 a friend's mother asked me if I had any heroes. I named Groucho Marx. My friend's mother was indignant and said that real heroes are people who make a difference like "Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr." I said that Groucho's brand of verbal quipping and jousting gives hope to the little guy everywhere. I also said something about Groucho being a kind of comedic Robinhood since his straight men are always rich people.
Even in high school while undergoing a substantial bout of depression, I knew that comedy was a potent tool and that humor has a lot to do with self preservation. Groucho was a rule breaker; an impostor as a college president; a farcical ruler of the mythic country of Freedonia; a stowaway; a fraudulent hotel manager in Florida; a phony impressario of the stage; on and on--he was the guy who was faking it in his every occupation and managing it by talking faster than everybody else. He was the perfect hero for a teenager with a disability. He remains firmly atop my private version of Mt. Rushmore along with Sojourner Truth, Bob Marley, and Phil Ochs.
It wouldn't be long after my adolescent infatuation with Groucho that I discovered the associated joy of contemporary poetry. I found the insouciance and subversiveness of the Marx Brothers in the works of Kenneth Rexroth, James Tate, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Simic, and many others. Poetry as practiced after two modern world wars was a medium where the self and its hidden components--the smaller selves we eschew for the appearance of public competence, can be seen and celebrated. We are all like T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock who is frightened to eat a peach for fear that others will laugh at us. Modernity regulates human sensitivities until we are frozen in the speculative conception of what must be appropriate action. After the triumph of what Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex" we all live in perpetual alienation: we are all "sub-normal" and robbed of what the English department types like to call "agency". You see, the problem is that after two world wars and with a third one never ending, no one knows how to be normal. Consider these lines by Marvin Bell:
The Self and the Mulberry
I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry.
It had no trouble accepting its limits,
yet defining and redefining a small area
so that any shape was possible, any movement.
It stayed put, but was part of all the air.
I wanted to learn to be there and not there
like the continually changing, slightly moving
mulberry, wild cherry and particularly the willow.
Like the willow, I tried to weep without tears.
Like the cherry tree, I tried to be sturdy and productive.
Like the mulberry, I tried to keep moving.
I couldn't cry right, couldn't stay or go.
I kept losing parts of myself like a soft maple.
I fell ill like the elm. That was the end
of looking in nature to find a natural self.
Let nature think itself not manly enough!
Let nature wonder at the mystery of laughter.
Let nature hypothesize man's indifference to it.
Let nature take a turn at saying what love is!
If you are at all like me you will laugh out loud with relief while reading this poem. Maybe after you've known the poem for a couple of decades you will smile. Perhaps the smile will be hidden by your leaves. I for one just "crack up" over the line: "I kept losing parts of myself like a soft maple." People who have disabilities know a good deal about emulating normalcy and the corresponding hopelessness of the enterprise. PWDs are the jaywalkers, the ones who get stuck in elevators, we hold up traffic, our accommodations trouble the public's nerves. We can't stay or go. We can't cry right. And this very insupportable condition is the stuff both of comedy and of poetry. People with disabilities are the part of nature that ruins the desperate wish for normalcy. In fact our very stories turn normalcy into the silly search for a natural self.
So with this round of the disability blog carnival we are highlighting those stories that remind us of the improbable and impossible wit that goes with being merely para-normal.
If you have, or know someone who has a post to share for the next Disability Blog Carnival, the link is below. The theme we've chosen is "Laughter, The Best Medicine" however, all contributions are welcome and appreciated.