Sunday, August 30, 2015

Live and learn

For quite some time, I often reminded myself and I told others that my level of maturity had little impact on the way people treated me. Whether I was 20 years old, 30 years old or 40 years old, many small children will gape at me because of my appearance, and many adults will take my picture without asking. It doesn't matter how old I get, the behavior of others toward me won't change. When I am 50 years old and when I am 60 years old, some children will still be curious and some adults will still be rude.

I think I regularly told myself this because I was frustrated that my maturity as an adult had little bearing on whether I was treated as an adult.  Though I spoke of it just last week during a presentation to a group of junior high school teachers, I don't dwell on this concept as much anymore.  But just last Friday, I was reminded that no matter how much time passes, and no matter how much we learn, difference and the awareness of difference -- whether that be good or bad -- never lies too far below the surface.

I was working as the bartender at the Chicago ADAPT Fundraiser.  Chicago ADAPT is a local disability advocacy group.  Each year around August or September, they host a fundraiser. Often times, the fundraiser is a roast.  This was my third time working as the bartender at an ADAPT fundraiser.  It's a good way for me to participate because I can be part of the event and, for the most part, all the talking I need to do is structured around serving drinks.

I like talking to people. In most situations, I just find it difficult.  I also find roasts difficult. In order to roast someone, people try to be mean and they pepper in a lot of profanity. Sometimes the roasting can be funny but I find it strange to watch someone I know go up on stage, say the word "fuck" a lot, and say mean things about someone with whom they are friends.  A couple of years ago, at an ADAPT event, I donated some money in order to have a few minutes to roast someone. I tried to do so without saying the word fuck and by being clever instead of mean. I failed.

On Friday night, just as the doors to the event opened and I was prepping behind the bar, one of the roasters came up to me.  He told me that as a warm up, he was going to say something about me.  He said the joke he had prepared was related to my stature. He wanted to warm me and check if I was okay with that.

"Sure," I said. Within the ADAPT circles, it's an honor to be roasted. This was a small step toward a full on roasting. Also, the roaster who approached me is pretty smart.  I thought he had probably come up with something perceptive and enlightening.   But roasting must be a pretty difficult thing to do.  When his turn came, and when he got around to saying something about me, he said something to affect of, "...everyone says Gary is this great PR guy. But when I see him, I just see a munchkin. No, I just see an Ewok."

I was a little disappointed.  I was hoping for something about my height serving as a metaphor for thick skin, or something about my height as an accurate reflection of genitalia.  Again, jokes are not easy. Roasting is not easy. But munchkins and ewoks?

I also asked myself, do people really become different from who they are when they roast, because they try to be mean? Or, deep down, do we all just harbor mean, superficial, insensitive thoughts?  Who knows, but if I go back to a roast, I will study up ahead of time on Dean Martin and Don Rickles.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

From midget to little person and beyond

Who knows how old I was when I first heard the story about Eddie Gaedel, a little person hired by Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns Baseball Team. In 1951, according to what I have read, the Browns were one of the worst teams in the history of baseball.  As a publicity stunt, Veeck signed Gaedel to a contract with the St. Louis Browns. First, Veeck had Gaedel jump out of a birthday cake that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the American League. Then, Gaedel led off the second game of a double header. He immediately drew four balls from the pitcher, walked to first base, and was replaced with a pinch runner. That was the end of Gaedel's baseball career.

I've heard the story many, many times. At first, and probably for many years during my time, the story focused on Veeck and Gaedel was always referred to as a "midget."  Several years ago, someone from ESPN sent me an email, asking me about appropriate language to identify people with dwarfism. It's possible, the ESPN inquiry was part of a broader shift in language and a broader awareness about dwarfism. Today, an internet search of Eddie Gaedel yields plenty of references to the mword but the term little person is also used a good deal of the time.

Then last week, I can across an article on the ESPN Website about Gaedel's Grand Nephew, who plays professional baseball, Kyle Gaedele, proud relative of Eddie Gaedel, has full sized baseball goals.  I am not an Eddie Gaedel scholar, and have never done a search for stories that show the humanity behind the Bill Veeck gimmick. They probably were out there before this ESPN piece was published.  But for me, and probably thousands of others, Eddie was the vehicle for what is remembered as the biggest gag in baseball history.  I was happy to find the story about Kyle Gaedele, which portrayed Eddie as a beloved family member, much more than he had been before in my mind and probably the mind of millions of others.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Charles Schultz, Peanuts and dwarfism

Several years ago, in a conversation I was part of, someone mentioned that the appearance of the human characters in the famous Peanuts comic strip was based upon the appearance of people with dwarfism.  Even though Peanuts is a very famous and beloved comic, I wasn't thrilled to hear this.  It's similar to how I feel when adults refer to their children as munchkins.  Both are examples of the infantilization of people with dwarfism.  

I never pursued the claim that Peanuts characters may have been based upon the appearance of dwarfism.  I enjoyed most the of the animated television specials.  As a young child, I went through a lot of tissues, unable to stop my tears in front of the baby sitter and my brother while watching "Snoopy Come Home," for the first time.  I love the scene from the Thanksgiving special when Peppermint Patty is yelling at Charlie Brown for failing to produce a traditional turkey dinner, while in the background another character is joyfully tossing into his mouth the popcorn that Charlie Brown has served. Until I broke it a few years ago, my favorite coffee mug of all time was one with the image of Charlie Brown exclaiming either 'Good Grief' or 'Oh, Brother.' I was so attached to the mug, once, while my sister-in-law visited, I had to resist the urge to snatch the mug from her hands when she used it for a cup of tea.  Yet, I never paid much attention to the comic strip.  That is probably why I never gave much thought to the possibility of the connection between Peanuts and dwarfism. 

But today, I came across an article on social media that claims Peanuts lost its significance in the late 1960's and early 1970's.  According to the article, How Snoopy Killed Peanuts, as the cartoon began to focus more on Snoopy, and on the dog's desire to be and act human, attention was taken away from the human characters.  The author asserts that as this transition progressed, the comic moved moved closer on the spectrum to the feelings evoked in a Hallmark Greeting Card and moved away from a vehicle for social commentary and insight into what it's like to be young in a world that can be demanding and cruel.  If there is any truth to the author's hypothesis, the comic strip lost its value before I was even old enough to read. Reading the article, I imagined that, like most things I read, there was more to the Peanuts Comic Strip than what I saw on the page.  

The article made me wonder again about the connection between Peanuts and dwarfism.  I am no Internet sleuth, but a quick online search uncovered an article entitled, "The enduring wisdom of a Charlie Brown Christmas."  The article supports the idea that there is a connection. In one description of the Christmas special, the author writes, "Charlie rests his large Peanuts head on his diminutive Peanuts hand, endearing proportions paired with an out sized human spirit believed to have been inspired by a female artist with dwarfism Schulz had befriended at an early illustration job."  

I didn't find any other articles, but I also didn't dig any deeper.  If there is a connection between dwarfism and Peanuts, I hope that Charles Schultz didn't intend any sort of symbolic significance.  I hope he did it just because it is what it is.  Oftentimes, when a non little person assigns symbolic significance to dwarfism, the results are not good.  But in any case, the articles I found today did give me more of an appreciation for Peanuts.  I want to go back to find early comic strips. 

Also, I want to listen to the beginning of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" without watching the images.  I am motivated by a paragraph from "The enduring wisdom of a Charlie Brown Christmas." 

If, on the other hand, you listen to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with your eyes on the road and the DVD screen pointed to the back of the minivan, there is something about its remarkable opening passage and a handful of segments that follow that jump out at you. They have little to do with the commercialization of Christmas or the true meaning of Christmas, but everything to do with the things we are tasked with overcoming if we are ever going to express the love we really feel for one another.

It may be a Hallmark moment, but it's hard not to be moved by the words, "the things we are tasked with overcoming if we are ever going to express the love we really feel for one another."