Craig Vick's Scattered Thoughts

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Apologies to Sam

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Sam liked to impress the teacher. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in junior high it seemed to me to be a sin of the worst kind. Respecting the teacher was fine. Trying to be the teacher’s favorite crossed a dark line.

It was the first day of the semester. The teacher, whose name I’ve forgotten, was new. Sam’s desk was next to mine in the middle of the classroom. The teacher was explaining the rules. “You must raise your hand and wait to be called on before talking”, the teacher explained.

I looked at Sam, smiled and whispered, “I don’t have a hand.” Poor Sam took the bait. He blurted out in a loud voice, “Craig doesn’t have a hand.” The teacher was not amused. Her face burned with anger and disgust. Sam was chuckling at his success in using my little joke until he saw the teacher’s face. One look reduced him to silence.

Confession is good for the soul. I freely admit that I knew exactly what I was doing. Sam, if by some strange chance you’re reading this, please accept my apology.

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Brotherly Love

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I was twelve years old. My brother was seven. He took our Beagle Gigi out for a walk and came home in tears. He had wandered into a part of our neighborhood that was new to us. A couple of children living there had thrown sticks and rocks at our dog. My brother ran all the way home.

Being older, I realized it was my responsibility to come to the defense of my brother and of our family pet. I put Gigi back on her leash and set out for a walk. After a short time I came near the house of the Beagle violence. The two culprits were playing in their front yard. When they saw me they stopped in their tracks. Their eyes were wide open. Their jaws dropped. Astonishment, wonder and a little fear found expression in their faces. I should probably explain to my readers that have never seen me in person – I’m a congenital amputee, missing both arms below the elbow and my left leg at the knee.

The older and braver of the two children found his voice. “What happened to your hands?”, he asked. To which I responded, “You see that dog!”

We never had any problems after that.


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Winners and Losers

Competition runs deep in our culture. We pay tribute every weekend  in our sports arenas and through our televisions. We invest heavily in sports not just in terms of money but even in terms of our emotional well being. If my beloved Green Bay Packers win this Sunday, all is well. If they lose it will take me a couple of days to adjust. When my team wins I exclaim, “We won!!” This is odd given that I didn’t even play, nor do I have a personal relationship with anyone on “my team”. I read of many horrible things that take place in our world. I’m ashamed to admit that I respond more violently to a “bad call” by an official than I do to poverty, totalitarian brutality and gross injustice.

Our love of competition goes deeper than sports. We make everything a competition. It’s not enough for me to be a good software engineer. I must strive to be the best engineer. My company is out to crush all competing companies. We have competitions, formal and informal, even where they might seem to be out of place. Who is the greatest artist, dancer, philosopher, actor, teacher or preacher? We latch on to objective, measurable indicators of victory. The best preacher isn’t the one closest to God (we’re not sure what that would mean) but the one with the greatest following. If a matter seems undecided, we can always take a vote. Our legal system is implemented via competition. Our political system, our democracy, is expressed as a series of contests. If Derrida had been an American his two great dicta would have been “There’s nothing outside of sports” and “It’s competition all the way down”.
Many years ago I used to speak to various churches on the subject of competition. My talks were based on the insights of an author I’d love to credit, but, unfortunately, I’ve forgotten his name and the title of his book. His main point was both simple and compelling. Competition is good, but always as a means rather than an end. The word ‘compete’, for example literally means to strengthen with. ‘Contest’ is to test or challenge with. I may, for example, run on my own and achieve speed, endurance or both. If I run in competition with another, we strengthen each other. We run faster and better than we would have run on our own. Competition, then, is good when it serves a good purpose.
Our adversarial court system is good, we believe, because it has the best hope of achieving justice. The prosecution and the defense battle the case and, hopefully, truth prevails. There are no guarantees. We understand that our system isn’t perfect, but we believe that it is better at assuring justice than any other system.
Disaster occurs, however, when we forget the greater good. The greater good gives competition meaning. Without it, competition is meaningless. Worse, without it competition risks becoming something evil. A prosecutor may win a case by obfuscating evidence. Most of us see such behavior as immoral even when legal.The goal is a just trial, not a win. The same goes for sports. A sports franchise that holds a community hostage in order to get a stadium built, without regard to the needs of that community, is immoral. It’s evil. It’s wrong.
When my son was young he played in several sports. At times, leagues would attempt to hide winning and losing. The thought seemed to be that losing was so detrimental to the self image of a young boy or girl that it’s better if we make it appear that all the children win. At times we wouldn’t keep score. At other times we’d change the score at halftime if one team was too far ahead. I find such practices to be pretty silly. Even so, they do show a recognition that competition can do harm when we forget the greater good. A better approach, it seems to me, is to teach our children the real value and meaning of competition. We need to teach that the goal isn’t to win, but to make our opponents better as they make us better, to strengthen together. We do that by playing the game with passion, working to win and working at playing justly. Winning or losing doesn’t automatically make us better people. Winning is meaningless as an end in itself.
Because of my disability, I wasn’t able as a child to do all that’s required to participate in sports. I couldn’t run, which made it close to impossible to get to first base even on a good swing of the bat. I was also far too easy to catch and sack, which would seem to preclude my ever being a quarterback. We might think that my childhood was spent on the sideline, watching my friends play. We’d be wrong. My friends included me in all of our games. We simply changed the rules so that I could meaningfully compete. In baseball, someone would run for me. In football, we outlawed rushing the quarterback. We found that rule gave me too big of an advantage, so we changed the rules again. We allowed rushing the quarterback after counting to five. With very little reflection, we knew that the rules of competition should serve us rather than the other way around. Dare I say we understood that the greater good, our friendship expressed as we played together, was what gave meaning to our competition?


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Au Revoir Camp Joan Mier

Camp Joan Mier was a camp for children with disabilities. It was located in the hills of Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. For ten days every Summer, from age ten to eighteen, I was a camper there. It was in many ways the highlight of my year. I did a Google search on the name because I wanted to make sure I spelled it correctly for an upcoming disability parable. I found some sad news. Camp Joan Mier, my Summer camp, has closed. You can read about the closing here.

I confess that, after the sadness of realizing Camp Joan Mier had closed, I was a little annoyed by the remark in the above article attributed to Steven Rosenthal. He described Camp Joan Mier as “a great place for disabled children to learn how to tie their shoes and make their beds”. Why did this bother me? I’m sure he intended no harm. Perhaps something I ate for breakfast has made me more irritable than normal. For the record, however, let me point out a few things. First of all I doubt any child learned how to tie his or her shoes at Camp Joan Mier. We all knew how to tie our shoes before going to camp. The minimum age for a camper, as I remember, was ten. If the implication is that children who live with disabilities need a special place to learn how to tie their shoes, that’s at best misleading. There may have been some children with disabilities which prevented from or made it very difficult for them to able to tie their own shoes. Even so these challenges would have been solved long before coming to camp. The same goes for making our beds. Bed making was more strictly enforced at camp than at home (at least for me), but this was a matter of discipline, not learning. We all knew how to make our beds before going to camp.

Rosenthal’s remark, whether intended or not, points to a difference in perspective, the difference between viewing a disability from the outside as opposed to the inside. From the outside a disability is seen as a monster. It robs one of normality. The focus falls on giving back as much of normal as is possible. People are even seen as disabilities rather than as people. From the outside it looks like I can’t tie my shoes. Shoe tying is part of normal life. If I can only learn how to tie my shoes, I’ll be that much closer to normal. From the inside, I’m already normal (or at least as normal as I’m ever going to be). I don’t spend much time thinking about shoe laces. Tying my shoes may be difficult. It may be a big nuisance. It’s not a part of who I am.

I don’t want to end on a complaint. Though I’m a few years late, I’d like to give Camp Joan Mier a more proper eulogy by expressing my thanks. Thank you for being a huge part of my growing up years. Thank you for making so many friendships possible. Thank you to all of the staff and counselors who gave far more than was required. Many of you kept in touch even after the Summer ended. Your love and patience were tremendous gifts. Thank you for introducing me to rock n roll, days at the beach, sand crabs, star fish, rattle snakes, camp life, arts and crafts, swimming contests and a host of beautiful people. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to sing in a band. Thank you for providing some magnificent adventures and many memories. Thank you for being there as I chartered the very difficult waters of being a teen. Thank you for a cabin overlooking the ocean. Thanks to all who gave their support through donations or taxes. Many lives were enriched by your mission. We’re all a bit poorer now that you’re gone.


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A Book that will Never be Written

Many years ago I had visions of writing a book. I was going to call it Disability Parables. I was frequently invited to speak to children at schools, both public and private, about life with a disability. A good friend had started a magazine about disabilities (Ability Magazine) and I was a regular contributor. I was even active politically, being a member of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Council on Disability and at the scene of a few disability rights protests.

More than this, I had an observation based on my own experiences of living with a disability. I believed then, and still believe, that there was some wisdom in that observation. I had noticed that a disability looks very different when seen from the inside. More than a little is revealed in that difference. From the outside a visible disability, like mine, takes center stage. If the protagonist in a movie has a disability, the movie will usually be about overcoming the disability rather than about the character. If the movie has a religious theme our hero will be miraculously healed at the end. It has to be at the end because once the disability is removed the drama is over. A less religious film will still end when the disability is defeated, usually through some kind of crisis followed by wise counsel and a change of attitude.

This is the view from the outside. In my case, I’m generally happy. I love life. I love people. I’m blessed beyond my wildest dreams. From the outside my love of life looks like a tremendous victory over my disability. It looks like I’ve learned or acquired an almost magical life formula. In reality this is an illusion. I don’t see myself as a disabled person. I rarely think about my disability. I’m aware of the power of my disability to dominate perspectives especially of people I don’t know well. Over time, however, this power is greatly diminished. Those who know me well see my disability less and less.

Having a disability doesn’t make me a wise counselor. I haven’t overcome my disability. I haven’t even tried to overcome it. It hasn’t conferred upon me any advice that I can pass on to those who wrestle against the harshness of life and despair. With them I can only weep. It hasn’t made me a life coach or a self help guru. Yet, perhaps my disability has some lessons worth thinking about. These lessons aren’t direct. They’re not the result of what I’ve learned doing battle with an impairment. They are, in fact, indirect, hidden in plain sight. They’re like parables, and that’s how I arrived at the title for my book.

I had it all dreamed out. My book was going to be a best seller. I was going to become a famous author. I imagined a talk show tour. I had all my answers ready for the Oprah Winfrey show. I’m tempted to flatter you my readers by saying that I gave all that up so that I could bring you these parables on my blog. I’m afraid the truth is more mundane. I have great respect for anyone who is able to write and publish a book. I lack the discipline and the will. My book will never be written. Even so, I think these parables are worth some time and attention. I’ll publish them here and wait eagerly for your comments. Look forward to my disability parables appearing as future posts on my blog.