Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Twitter: messages in bottles from stranded naufragés

A very dear friend Twittered last night that he might be dying.*

Depuis 15 h, ma température est passée de 99,3 à 100,7. Je suis conscient que ma vie peut se jouer dans les heures à venir. Sentiment d’aventure…

He’s worried about the folks he’d leave behind.

Il y a des gens ici qui ont besoin de moi. Je ne dis pas émotionnellement, bien que cette dimension soit évidemment présente, mais directement, de manière très concrète, parce que leur vie est imbriquée dans la mienne. Je ne connais pas de tristesse plus profonde que ce sentiment de devoir, peut-être, abandonner ces gens qui m’ont donné leur confiance. À nouveau se battre.

He has a form of muscular dystrophy. Ten years ago he weighed 56 pounds, including the three steel rods in his spine; today he probably weighs less. He has trouble breathing because of his muscle wasting and he has just caught some sort of nasty cold from one of his staff. She was really really sick, so he is expecting to get really really sick, and when someone in his condition gets that sick they don’t always get better. He was watching his temperature go up last night and wondering whether to call an ambulance to be taken to the Montreal Chest Hospital. I’ll be making calls later this morning to find out the outcome.

He and his sister (who has the same genetic condition and lives in an adjacent apartment) do some wonderful, intensive work for people who are marginal in our society. They have employed illiterate people, drug addicts, people without family, and immigrants – particularly from Haiti. They employed me. They don’t pay much: they receive an allowance from the government to hire staff for a little over minimum wage, so the staff they hire are people who are unable to find better-paying work. They teach them french, they coach them in relationships, they explain Québec culture and help people figure out how to cope with their new situations. They have shared their living space. Whatever they can do to help someone develop their full potential. Most of all, they offer profound, unjudging friendship.

My friend is a disabled man without paid employment, but far from being a burden on society he is a householder who will leave behind people who will be poorer for his loss.

We all know he is going to die. We first met in the late eighties, when he was seventeen. He thought he might have ten years left then, for the last five of which he wouldn’t have the strength to lift a pencil. He’s outlived everyone’s expectations. But we all hope… not yet. Please.

*** *** ***
A friend responds, “What an incredible opportunity to thank him for all that he has meant to you and the world.” Wise advice, and I will follow it.

* If you’re wondering why these tweets are longer than 140 characters, it’s called Twitlonger.

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

messy (evolution of)

I remember when I was about four or five and my father was trying to get me to put my things away, I finally told him that I didn’t care. If he cared, he should put them away. He called me a princess. I was confused because in the books I read, princesses were always virtuous heroines but by his tone of voice my father didn’t seem to be praising me. I tried to get him to explain but he had lost patience by then.

When I was about ten or eleven I was sitting at the dining room table working on a craft and dropped something on the floor. I was about to lean over and pick it up, when I realised that I didn’t have to. I didn’t need it right away and it was perfectly fine sitting on the floor until I did need it. All I had to do was remember where it was. This epiphany was accompanied by a worried suspicion that I was going to regret my insight.

Anyone I have lived with has, with a single exception, complained about my messiness. With that single exception, none has cheerfully accepted my other contributions to the household as adequate compensation for needing to pick up after me.

When living with that single exception, who did not, after all, pick up after me, rather the opposite, the house was so filthy that when a pregnant friend we were chatting with on the sidewalk needed to pee, we lied and said the toilet didn’t work. I think that was when I faced the fact that there was something seriously wrong. We never discussed it.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, there’s a scene where a pathetic, dependent character breaks something and there’s glass on the floor. This is one more contribution to a discouraging sequence of events, not because she attached value to the broken thing but because “now she would have to remember.” As in, it doesn’t occur to her to sweep up the shards; instead she will need to spend the rest of her life trying not to cut her feet by not walking in that spot. I was shocked to discover that I was a type.

For a couple of years one of my annual objectives at work in my performance review was to clean up my desk. I never really got around to doing a complete job. My boss eventually gave up. For the past four years or so my bosses have been elsewhere — Winnipeg or Mississauga or Toronto — and have not seen my desk.

It’s not that I like being messy. I don’t even like ordinary cheerful clutter; I love a stark, open, spare space. One of the first things I did upon getting a regular job was to hire a cleaning lady. It’s more that it seems too complicated. I like doing laundry, and do it diligently even if it means hauling it to a laundromat, even if it takes all weekend. Laundry is self-limiting. There is not an infinite amount of stuff that could theoretically be put into a washing machine. Once it has been washed, it needs to be folded and put away. Very simple. Not only that, I know where laundered things go. Clothes have drawers and shelves and hangers; sheets and towels have closets; dog blankets go back on dog beds; soft furnishings go back where they came from. If I start to clean a house I never know when to stop: there’s always something I didn’t get to and feel guilty about, always a decision that I don’t know how to make.

Mark determined that part of my problem is that not everything has a place to go. I feel bad when stuff is lying around in heaps, but it’s not as though changing the situation is always a simple matter of putting it in its place. There often is no place for it, so more radical intervention is called for. When he moved in he put a lot more storage in. It helps. 

Still, the other day someone said that if I were an employee, she’d fire me; that if I were a roommate, I would be out on my ass in two days. She doesn’t even know me that well. It’s just that obvious.

My boss is in town for a day. I cleaned off my desk this morning in preparation, which mostly consisted of stashing papers and the binders into which they are some day to be filed, into drawers and bins where they will be invisible to the casual visitor. Still, I feel better.

Mark has been stomping around crossly for the past few weeks, issuing dark warnings that we both need to change if we value the relationship. I’m not sure I can change, exactly. But perhaps I can put “cleaning off the dining room table every Saturday” into the same doable category as “laundry.”

Monday, November 8th, 2004

I left…

Filed under: disability,Europe,family,fear,illness,Margrit,travelling — alison @ 07:59

… for Holland a little over two weeks ago, on Thursday evening.


Mark had left a week early so that he could get his jet lag over with in time to be human for the upcoming festivities. Somewhat baroque arrangements had been made for the dogs and house. Mary was to look after both for two weeks except for the three days Ina, Hilary and Esmé were visiting from New Jersey, Esmé being three years old. As I judged that cranky, spoiled chihuahuas and bright, demanding youngsters were not a good match, I made arrangements for our regular dog lady to come and pick up the wretched creatures (as my grandmother so accurately refers to Pepe and Poupoune) and bring them back after all danger was passed. Mary was free to stay or return to her own apartment as she pleased during this interval, which was not as obvious a choice as it might seem because Alessandro was staying in Mary’s one-bedroom apartment in turn, house sitting and looking after her cat Squib. In the event, Alessandro left for New York that weekend, vacating Mary’s apartment so that she was free to go home. These arrangements involved lots of trust, duplication and mailing/taxiing of keys, delicate requests and from what I can tell worked out for all. I am well pleased to have such understanding friends.

Day 1:

Seven hours later on Friday morning, having dozed perhaps two hours on the plane, I was met by Mark at Schiphol. We took a train to Nijmegen about 125 km SE of the airport, where my mother-in-law Margrit has been staying since her stroke in a rehabilitation centre facing the house where she gave birth to Mark. (Yes, in Holland when you point to a house and say “that’s where I was born,” you mean it literally.) At the train station in Nijmegen we made our first joint travel decision and resolved a question that would stand us in good stead for the rest of the trip: yes, it is worth the outrageous fees to stow your luggage in lockers instead of lugging it on busses. Just make that policy decision and swallow hard.

Margrit was well but anxious, worrying about the details of her upcoming birthday party which she was not exactly organising but was being held to her specifications. She apparently spends her days parked at a spot at a particular table so that staff can find her when they need to provide her a meal or fetch her for some therapy. She can’t see the women across the table from her (while I was there I only ever saw one resident man) because of the many large vases of flowers that fill it up: I imagined family members leaving botanical stand-ins for their presence and affection on their weekly visits. Another complicating factor in the institutional social life is that Margrit gets more visits and attention than most of the other residents, giving rise to a certain amount of resentment.

On the way to Margrit’s bedroom from the common room we passed a demented woman with Parkinson’s disease parked in the hallway who reached out to passers-by moaning for help when she wasn’t deliberately and with great effort reaching over to aim at and press the button to call nursing staff. From all appearances her anxiety and need were so disturbing that she was isolated in the hallway so as not to bother the other residents. Nursing staff would pass her many times an hour on errands anyway and could judge for themselves whether she needed assistance without having to respond to her continuous calls for help.

When we reassured Margrit that things weren’t that bad – they could be worse – this is the woman we were silently thinking of.

Bus back to the train station to retrieve our luggage, then another bus to Malden (about 8 km south of Nijmegen and so small I can’t find a web page with information on it) where Margrit’s house is. The electricity was still on but no phone and thus no Internet access. It will be cleared out for the next tenant by the end of November; Margrit has finally decided to take her name off one waiting list for an assisted living residence (new building, large rooms, two-year waiting list) and to put it on another (old building, tiny rooms, three-to-six month wait… and near a university, meaning many of the residents were professors or the spouses thereof, a good thing). With this decision made, arrangements can finally be made to close down the house, distribute some of the goods and put the rest in storage. In the meantime it’s a convenient hostel: we stayed there, and a grandchild had stayed there a couple of months with his wife when they moved out of one house before the next was ready for them.

I had an outfit I wanted to wear for the birthday party, made of blue and green silk M. bought in Viet-Nam five years ago and gave me when we were courting. Margrit gave me a turquoise-blue necklace for my fortieth birthday and I thought it would be a nice match. The problem was that the outfit wasn’t finished yet: the jacket was still missing major seams and while I had cut out the skirt I hadn’t done anything with it at all. After taking a short nap I set myself up at Margrit’s sewing machine and worked away, late into the night.

Day 2:

Saturday and the buses were slow. We hitch-hiked into Nijmegen. Mark chatted with our benefactors but after nodding blankly for a while I finally blurted out, “Sorry, I’m not being rude, I just don’t speak Dutch.” Conversation switched to English and moved to the topic of foreign lands: it turned out that they had worked in Kenya for three years and were thinking about what a good idea it would be to go back again once they had children.

We visited with Margrit, then took the train and bus to Mark’s sister Maaike’s house in Arnhem about 19 km north of Nijmegen.

I had met Maaike and her husband Rob when I was in the Netherlands two years ago, also on the occasion of Margrit’s birthday, but this was the first time I met Baukje, their younger daughter. Baukje had just turned sixteen and there were signs of a recent party still in the house – streamers and balloons – but she had mono and spent much of her time sleeping. We ate the last of her cake.

I got a tour of the house, paying particular attention to the kitchen, bathrooms and water-heating systems. The ground floor had a large double room, Montreal-style, for the living room and dining room. The difference is that in Montreal you would have a long, skinny apartment with one window for a small and narrow double room in front, and behind it would be one or more bedrooms getting the light from the back alley. Here the double room was grander in proportion and had daylight from both front and back; bedrooms was upstairs. The kitchen was small, typical for the Netherlands. The kitchen fridge is the size of what North Americans would call a bar fridge. It fits under the counter and has two pull-out drawers and a tiny icebox. There is also a freezer in the cellar (no, not a basement: the only below-ground space in this house is a small room dedicated to food storage). The microwave is in the dining room.

The bathrooms, in contrast, are large and could be comfortable if not for the stench. When you open the door to a room containing a toilet (one on the ground floor and one upstairs) you are assaulted by what I can only describe as chemical warfare, toilet deodorisers such as I have never encountered this side of the pond. I idly wondered why until I used the toilet and was forcibly reminded of a peculiarity of the Dutch vision of self-care: the inspection shelf. The toilet is designed such that turds are collected on a shelf, well out of the water, literally to permit the producer to fully inspect the texture and quality of the turd before flushing. Actually, “permit” is not quite the right word: in a multi-user household, “require” is more like it, as flushing is not sufficient to clean off the shelf and you need to stand over the toilet with a brush, actively participating in the flush to prepare the toilet for the next user.

(If that had been my house I would have wanted to remodel to eliminate the downstairs water closet and add that space to the kitchen. The house isn’t so big that it’s strictly necessary.)

Anyway, upstairs. A sewing room, a grownups’ office and computer room, a bedroom, a water closet just as aggressive as the one downstairs… and a large and lovely bathroom. No toilet, but a sink, bathtub and free-standing shower. Space to move easily and comfortably between all three. A water-heated radiator designed to hold towels. The house was built in 1930 (about the same time as our Montreal apartment) and has all original features (woodwork, layout, door handles). While the bathroom has been remodeled – the sink, bathroom and shower are all new – it occupies the space originally designed for it, and the radiator cum towel heater/dryer is original. Sigh.

I don’t know what was originally in the garret, but now there are two bedrooms and a teenagers’ computer room… and the functions associated with the missing basement: the water heater, a laundry room and a woodshop all peacefully coexisting. (If it were my house, I would want to add a water closet behind the washing machine to ease morning congestion.) In M.’s old apartment in Rotterdam the water heater and the radiators worked on the same system, so that even if the weather was warm and he was not heating his apartment he had to turn on the heat five minutes before starting to take a shower. I asked Rob if their heating system worked like this and he was mystified: of course not. They had a hybrid heating system with a 5-litre water tank to ensure immediate hot water; when you needed more, that wasn’t a problem: water was heated as-needed by a gas jet as it flowed through the pipes to the shower or sink or dishwasher in an unlimited supply.

It’s possible the garret is uncomfortably hot in the summer, but it’s more probable that it’s properly insulated and just fine. In any case we were there in autumn.

My plan had been to sit and do handwork on my suit jacket as we sat and chatted, but I had forgotten my sewing kit in my rush to leave as Mark was impatiently hustling me out the door in the morning. I settled for borrowing the iron and ironing it instead.

Maaike gave us a lift to Heleen’s place for supper, also in Arnhem. Heleen is an old school chum of Mark’s with two sons, Max and Jan, six and three years old respectively. We had lingered too long at Maaike’s so Heleen had already eaten; she put Mark to work in the kitchen to rustle up some grub for the two of us.

Heleen put me in her weblog as the American Visitor and fantasised about me traumatising her children: we spoke in English, and though the children claim to speak English and French (‘Wan too sree. un deu trwa.’) they, uh, really don’t. Much to their chagrin. I thought they would be curious, but not at all. They became very quiet and ignored me completely, even when I addressed them directly. Finally, in the middle of the adult, English-only conversation the three-year-old cuddled in Heleen’s arms whispered to her, “I can understand everything you’re saying. Everything.” And Heleen’s heart was wrung as she witnessed the fear of a child whose mother has become incomprehensible.

Bus back to Malden for the night.

Day 3:

Sunday, Margrit’s birthday. Frantic work on the sewing machine. Realisation that I would never get the suit finished before the party. Throwing-together of an alternate outfit. Pinning of the jacket. Aagje, M.’s oldest sister, picked us up at one and took us back to Margrit’s residence where we went to the party room and decorated it. Or rather, I sat in a corner and did handwork on the jacket, and families streamed in and divided up into adults who decorated it, young children who ran screaming excitedly around the room, and teenagers who gathered around the exotic new Canadian family member and practiced their English. When Margrit was ready she came downstairs and at a certain point it became clear that the gathering of people had transitioned from preparations to the actual party. I pinned the rest of the jacket together, hid the threaded needle in a seam, and thereafter just presented my good side to people when introduced.

It was Margrit’s eightieth birthday so there were lots of old people. There were also lots of middle-aged people, teenagers, children and even a few babies – one of which I was allowed to hold briefly before one of the teenagers took it from me. About sixty people in all and a very nice atmosphere. Things were pretty relaxed. The food was catered, for one thing. Petits fours, hors d’oeuvres, juice and coffee looked after by the residence party staff. So that was cool. Some cellists had been hired to provide background music: they charmed me completely by introducing themselves to Margrit before setting up and playing, making it clear they thought they were there to honour a particular person and not just to be part of the décor. Then it turned out that their repertoire consisted of “Three Blind Mice” over and over again – they were young celllists – so while I remained charmed by the musicians I mentally questioned whoever had suggested them.

In heels, sheer black stockings, jewellery, makeup, a skirt and a half-finished silk jacket I was the most dressed-up person there, displaying my gaudy American style for all to see. Dutch style seemed to consist of a flowery dress (for some of the old women) or simply a nice blouse or shirt with trim-fitting pants. (Or perhaps a trim-fitting skirt for women over sixty.) People over thirty might also wear a jacket or sweater. Flat shoes for everyone. Little attempt to match anything or to coordinate colours seemed to be made. A woman who had lived many years in England was also the one most recognisably dressed-up to my eyes: she wore trim grey pants, a trim tweedy jacket over a cream sweater and a long pink-and-cream scarf wound about her neck.

I presented myself to Margrit but didn’t sit with her long as there was a queue of people behind me waiting to greet her. So I presented myself to whoever was handy and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Meeting sixty of someone else’s family members in a foreign language may sound daunting but in fact was great fun. When everyone except the person you are talking to is speaking Dutch, you are relieved of the stress of constantly monitoring the conversations around you. You are free to concentrate fully on your «interlocuteur». So I did. And yes, everyone spoke English. Sometimes someone – usually a teenager – would give a panicked look when they realised they’d have to speak English, but when I proposed French instead they would quickly recover and assure me that really, English was fine. And it would be. With Amadou, a lawyer from Mali that Margrit met when working with an organisation for refugees, I spoke French until it became clear that the woman across the table wanted to join the conversation and we switched to English again. Amadou invited us to his house for supper, and after consulting with Mark and with Amadou’s wife we settled on ten days from then, on the Tuesday.

Then on to the restaurant for supper. People were divided up into groups containing a driver and at least one each of someone who knew where we were going and someone who needed a lift. Renate (Mark’s six year old niece) and I were in the latter category and were assigned to Mark’s brother Ronald and his wife Riet’s car who were in the former two. Mark had been originally planning to come with us, but being someone who knew where we were going he was reassigned to another car at the last minute. Renate was bitterly disappointed at missing intimate time with her favourite uncle and was with difficulty convinced to stay with us and not wander off in the night in search of Mark.

At the restaurant I asked the hostess, in English, where there was a toilet I could use. She answered, in Dutch. I understood her directions and found what I needed.

A restaurant meal for sixty people is not really ideal for an eightieth birthday. The guests are divided up into different tables and don’t have an opportunity to sit with their host. And deciding who is going to arrange the bib and cut up the meat of the host is tricky, because this person must also leave the host available for conversation with other people as they come by to say hello. As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot of deciding done. People sat with their friends and someone without other friends among the guests ended up sitting by Margrit and cut her meat.

I sat next to Jan Starink, a man the same age as Margrit. He had lived in St Ives many years until his wife died so his English was excellent. He gave me some history of Nijmegen and the people who lived there: it was the last frontier of the Roman empire and had a garrison. He told me about Mark’s father Karel, who spoke 32 languages [that’s a myth, says Mark: just Greek, Latin, Goth, Old Dutch, French, English, German and Dutch] and spent his little snatches of free time, waiting for a dentist’s appointment for instance, reading dictionaries. Karel had taught him to read dictionaries as well, and now Jan, though not as brilliant as his old friend, will amuse himself with the morning paper not by doing the crossword puzzle but by buying the morning paper in a foreign language and trying to read the news. He explained that by learning a few simple rules about how sounds were carried into different languages you could sniff out the cognates even when they looked completely unfamiliar.

Jan slept at Malden with us at Margrit’s house, but got a lift with someone else and arrived later. A third party had his suitcase, but that was all right: with a book and the clothes on his back Jan had all he needed.

Day 4:

After making arrangements with Jan about the key, and deciphering the arrangements he’d made to have his suitcase dropped off at Margrit’s residence, we left with Ronald to see the house he’d just bought. He’d sold his old house and his café in Nijmegen and bought some property just over the German border in Zyfflich, about 11 km west of Nijmegen, where land is cheaper. Education is paid for from income tax and not property tax, and as Ronald and Riet worked in Holland and paid income tax in Holland their son Jeroen could continue high school on the Dutch side of the border.

The house is a farmhouse built in the 1920s. Ronald bought it gutted and unrenovated and worked on it 18 hours a day for months: if he had let the owners renovate it he would have been unable to afford it. As it was he paid 400,000 E for it. A couple of hectares of land including a paddock for horses; a couple of outbuildings including a stable and the original 1920s garage; and a bright, comfortable, airy and well-insulated house. Ronald installed the toilets which were German-style with no inspection shelf. I think Ronald and Riet’s original plan had been to retire early and live off the rental income from vacation cottages they own in the area, but, um, they are still working. Nice house though. I asked Jeroen how it was being stuck out in the boonies with his parents and he didn’t seem to mind at all. He had a moped and could get around as he pleased.

After tea and coffee Ronald drove us back into town to visit Margrit. On the way we passed a sign for the town of Kleeve and the history of the place was brought home: this is where Anne of Cleves was born.

Margrit was tired but happy. The party had gone well. Good.

She was dying for a smoke so we headed down to the café. Turns out that smoking is not allowed in the café until 1:00, which is when she had her physiotherapy appointment. Fortunately she was able to buttonhole her physiotherapist in the café and arrange to switch appointments with someone else. Promptly at one the cigars were brought out to visible enjoyment.

On to Rotterdam, about 110 km due west of Nijmegen and about 55 km SW of Schiphol, the airport I’d arrived at three days earlier. It was Mark’s home for about twelve years before he moved to Montreal.

We arrived in Rotterdam a little earlier than we were really welcome at our host’s, so we wandered around a bit in Mark’s old shopping concourse. He bought a canister of camping fuel and some cookies, and we found somewhere for me to pee for free.

Finally it was time for us to be received at Tonio and Helmi’s. They have recently bought a house. (In Rotterdam when you buy a house it usually means two floors of a four-story building. The two units – the lower and upper two floors – will have been designed and built as separate units. When you buy a property that’s part of a larger building you form a corporation with the other homeowner and you both pay into a fund for repairs and maintenance. More like a tiny co-op than a condo.) We got the tour, including a magnificent view from their rooftop terrace and inspection of their mercifully inspection-shelf-free toilets. Also including the huge piles of *stuff* everywhere. Tonio has collections (a large vinyl record collection, for instance) and a temporarily homeless cartoon magazine Zone 5300 the archives and associated everything of which are stacked through the house. Someone in the house also accumulates miscellaneous tchotchkes – artificial flowers, snow cones, spider catchers – and I suspect Helmi because she’s an artist. Because this is their first shared living arrangement they also have at least two of everything. Three cats. Two refrigerators, which isn’t that bad because, this being Holland, they’re the bar-sized fridges and stack nicely one on top of the other. With the comical exception that one opens on the left and one on the right. (And this being Holland, the kitchen *is* minuscule.) Even though she’s an artist and I would have thought very comfortable with material objects and technologies, Helmi is apparently defeated by kitchen technology. The toaster was broken and the toaster oven didn’t work right, but rather than disposing of either or both she kept them around to reproach her for her incompetence. (Or perhaps this was Tonio, but they seemed to belong to her.) Four mattresses. One they slept on and the three others, only two of which were useable, were stacked in one of the rooms of stuff. This worked out well for us: the two good mattresses were laid beside one another on the living room floor and made into a very comfortable guest bed for two.

I felt very at ease in this large house with only about half the space useable: I felt at home. People who have visited me in my lair will understand why. And the upstairs office was impeccable: orderly book cases, large and well-organised desks. So they had their oasis of peace to retreat to.

Also visiting that evening was Finn who was making a CD. I thought it was finished, but Mark says it wasn’t. Tonio had played a cameo on one of the songs and Helmi had criticized the first draft, so there was great interest. The CD cover art was done anyway, and was much admired.

Tonio made supper, a vegetarian pasta meal with two yummy salads. The kitchen was really too small for two, and certainly no room for a helpful dinner guest, so he toiled alone. The dining room being occupied by the Zone 5300 archives we ate on our laps in the living room. Dessert was the Sinter Klaus cookies Mark had bought that afternoon: Speculaties, soft spice cookies filled with almond paste.

Then off to the Sneak. We didn’t leave in time to walk, and there wasn’t a spare bike for me even if I did ride, so Tonio carried me on the back of his bike. “It’s easy,” he explained. “I’ll start, and you run along beside and then just hop on the back, side-saddle.” Well, I made Tonio start cold with me on the back. I still sat side-saddle, which I’m not sure was the best choice, as by the time we reached the theatre I had cramps all through my midsection, front and back, and was having the most awful time keeping my fatigued legs up and out of the way and kept kicking Tonio’s feet and the pedals.

The Sneak is a late-night “sneak preview,” meaning an unannounced movie. You buy your ticket, sit down in a nice seat, and find out what’s playing when the lights go down. Afterwards you get to rate the movie. Perfect for groups: no arguing about what you want to see. The problem was that this theatre had art-house leanings and there was every chance that the movie would be in Japanese with Dutch subtitles: not that helpful for me. So we asked about the language, were told that it was in English with Dutch subtitles, and we were in. Well, parts of it were in English; the movie was about three Dutch runaways in Scotland, so the neighbours spoke English. But the main characters all spoke Dutch. Mark whispered translations in my ear from time to time. “‘Shit’ means ‘shit’.” Or, “‘Kom hier nu’ means ‘come here now’.” But even when he wasn’t being so helpful – for instance, when the dialogue was fast and difficult and he was concentrating – I was pretty much able to piece things together. I was pleased with myself.

After the Sneak we went into the theatre bar for alcohol, tobacco and discussion of the movie; Marijn dropped by as well and was subject to much ribbing, being newly in love with a much younger woman who had been pursuing him for over a year. He walked us back to the house – Tonio didn’t insist on pedalling me back, much to my relief – and then the four of us (Tonio, Marijn, Mark and I) lounged decadently about on our mattresses talking and drinking wine until Tonio gave up and pleaded a need for sleep.

Day 5:

To Paris! Details to follow in a separate installment.

[originally transmitted by e-mail November 8, 2004]

Tuesday, August 13th, 2002

Michael Aronin – success handicap

Filed under: disability,motivational — alison @ 19:13

Okay, so it’s mushy, so you can’t help thinking about Dr. Johnson’s comment on women preaching. But I will defend to the death anyone who tells me to embrace my limitations.


My name is Michael Aronin, and I have been a professional speaker for five years. Prior to speaking, I spent six years as a professional comedian. Somehow trying to make people laugh while ducking beer bottles helped me develop my stage presence (at least the Blues Brothers had chicken wire in front of them!)

Being born with Cerebral Palsy has been a challenge, but becoming a professional speaker has been more challenging.

The way I walk and talk makes some people uncomfortable. When I walk on the platform, I can sense the tension in the room. Once they realize that first of all, I’m not going to fall, and secondly that they will be able to understand my slightly over-enunciated diction, they begin to relax.

One way I try to help this process along is through humor. Sometimes I say something like, “Gee, by the time I get up here, my time’s done. Thank you for coming!” My humor helps to break the tension when I hit the platform. I love feeling the transition from my audience laughing out of nervousness to laughing with me and seeing me for me, not my disability. And it happens every single time.

Having a physical handicap is not a laughing matter. But there is a big difference between a laughing matter and being funny. Humor is the highest form of social interaction and can relieve tension from the most uncomfortable situations. I am not comfortable to look at or listen to until my humor starts to flow. At that point my handicap becomes my greatest asset.

What kind of handicap can you turn into your biggest asset? C’mon, you have lots of handicaps. If you can’t list them quickly I’ll just call your spouse. He or she knows them all.

I deliver a two-pronged message. First, that people who face challenges can move forward and succeed. I use myself and my humor as an example. And second, that everyone – yes everyone – has a disability. Mine just happens to be physical. Yours might be physical too, or it might be something you try to hide within.

Handicaps are everywhere. From parking spaces to people who get on the airplane first. I didn’t choose to have a handicap, but I did choose to do my best to deal with it in a manner that fulfills me. Interestingly, as I seek my fulfillment, it also encourages others to seek theirs.

When I speak, I show and tell people that they have the choice whether they are going to let their disabilities drag them down, or help them to push on and become better people. I had the same choices. And somehow when people see me wiggling around on the stage almost falling with every step, but howling with laughter after I say something funny, it makes them feel as good as it makes me feel.

Handicapped people also have goals. One of mine is walking for two straight days without falling (just kidding). When I achieve a goal I set for myself, I give myself extra credit (my mother was a teacher!) by recognizing the extra challenge I faced in achieving my goal. This extra credit makes the achievement even sweeter. How much credit do you give yourself after you achieve a goal? How much do you celebrate? How much should you celebrate?

Isn’t it interesting that the words handicapped and celebration can appear in the same thought and the same sentence? One of life’s blessings is to take your best asset and share it with people so that they can realize their own gifts, which may be disguised as a handicap.

If you’re ever in an airport and you see someone walking down the aisle that looks like a drunken pilot, that would be me, and I’ll look forward to shaking your hand.

Michael Aronin is a nationally acclaimed speaker who teaches his audiences how to get past personal shortcomings and move forward productively in their careers.

For more information contact Michelle Joyce at 800-242-5388 or go to his website at

[Originally transmitted by e-mail August 13, 2002]

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