To make an envious mountain on my back

The situation was awkward, I have to admit. I had my arms full of groceries as I attempted to make my way through a glass door in the little roadside mall where I’d parked my car. It seemed too heavy a door for the size of the corridor, and for some reason, it opened inward. Anyway, as I struggled to pull it open, trying not to squash some of the more delicate produce in my bags, I saw someone on the other side who looked puzzled at my dilemma.

“Here, let me help you,” I heard her say -or rather saw her lips say- through the thick glass. I suppose I would have been grateful for the help under any circumstances, but the offer came from a frail looking middle-aged woman in an electric wheelchair scooter -you know, the type you see travelling on sidewalks throughout the city, often with a little flag fluttering above them in the wind of their passage. Her legs were strapped carefully in place, in case they, too, might end up blowing off if she hit a bump. And, in case they did I suppose, she had strapped a fold-up walker onto a sturdy-looking rack behind her seat.

Without a blink, she skillfully maneuvered her little craft to the door, and pushed it open with a wheel then, after entering, held it open for me with her hand.

“But how will you get out again?” I asked, amazed at how easily she’d entered.

A smile suddenly appeared on her face as she pointed at the wall beside me. “You just have to touch that button,” she said, pointing to a waist-high metal plate that was painted a bright orange colour. “You learn to look around when you’re in one of these,” she added, patting her wheelchair as if it were a pet.

Perhaps it was the look of surprise on my face, or maybe I hesitated just a fraction too long before I moved towards the open door, but I could see a sudden twinkle in her eyes as she watched me. “What a turnabout, eh?” she said, with barely disguised mirth. “The disabled helping the abled… Who’da thought?”

I must have blushed at the fact she’d read my mind -or at least my body language. “I… I didn’t mean…” I mumbled rather clumsily. But even as I said it, I wondered if my reaction had been that obvious -that, well, rude.

The lady chuckled at my discomfort. “Sorry,” she interrupted, “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable or anything.” Her face relaxed into a broad grin. “You just looked so surprised…” Then, with a quick and practiced turn of her vehicle she backed it towards me. “Here, put some of those bags on top of my walker on the rack -they look heavy. I’ll help you to your car if you’d like.” And she turned in her seat and winked at me.

Funny, but ever since that time, I’ve begun to look at disability in a different way. It’s almost as if the members of one kingdom were looking over the border and seeing people doing the same things as them, only differently -the us and them version of society they’d been taught dissolving as they watched.

Maybe that episode was what attracted me to an article about disability in the Conversation a while back: https://theconversation.com/should-i-say-disabled-person-or-person-with-a-disability-113618  The author, Mary Ann McColl, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and member of the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance, observed that ‘Disability is a sensitive topic. Fear of saying the wrong thing prevents people from saying anything at all, and makes us avoid having important conversations about disability.’

Her point, I gather, is that we should listen to how the person in question talks about their disability, both to understand how they envision it, and to help us address the issue in terms they find appropriate so we can avoid the cutesy language that is supposed to show we ‘understand’. As examples, McColl cites, ‘Language like “differently-abled” or “diverse-ability” suggests there is something wrong with talking honestly and candidly about disability. It might even suggest to some people that there is something shameful about disability; or that we can’t talk about it directly unless we make it cute or pretty or funny.’ Cute they’re not -they’re demeaning. And as  McColl writes, ‘Having a disability doesn’t make someone a hero, a saint, a victim, a burden or a soldier. This type of hyperbole gets in the way of having authentic relationships with people with disabilities. These words suggest one-dimensional characters.’

The lady in the mobility scooter certainly wasn’t one-dimensional, in fact, if anything, she seemed more engaged with the world than I usually am -more interested in helping than in being helped, I think. During that brief encounter with Doris, I realized that once the surprise of her -what, disability?- had worn off, I forgot that it even existed. She was just a woman helping a total stranger in a time of need. She even introduced me to a similarly scooter-bound friend who was waiting for her out in the parking lot. The friend had a lot more levers and buttons on her scooter than Doris, however, and one of her arms was folded, unmoving, on her lap.

“Wednesdays are our shopping days,” Doris explained. “So we usually meet for lunch and a few laughs.”

Stacy, her friend, giggled like a little girl and her eyes flew over to my face to welcome me. “That’s mostly on Wednesdays,” she added with a mischievous smile. “Normally we just go to the park, or to a show… You know, retired-person stuff…”

I couldn’t help but remember the two of them as I read some of McColl’s suggestions: ‘Is the disability a pertinent issue in the conversation you are having or the introduction you are making? We don’t specify a person’s gender, ethnicity, occupation or many other personal details when introducing them. Disability is a condition of life, like those others. It will be salient in some conversations and not in others.’

How right she is. In fact, I have joined both Stacy and Doris for lunch a few times since we first met, and not once did either of them introduce me to their friends as non-disabled. I’d like to think I fit right in…

Cry Baby

Every once in a while on my journey through the years, I stumble over something that is so commonplace it is invisible -well, not invisible maybe, but at least so common we ask the wrong questions about it, if we ask at all. Crying, for example; why do we cry? Is it a way of diverting our own attention? A catharsis? Or, to be crass, a manipulative device? Whatever the reason, it’s sufficiently universal, that I would have thought we would have discovered whether or not it serves some physiological purpose by now.

Not that everything is attended by a purpose, of course, but we do feel better when we find one… Okay, I feel better when I think something is doing it to keep me healthy, or at least has an evolutionary explanation, however atavistic. So it was with great expectations that I jumped into an essay in the Conversation by  Leah Sharman, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Queensland (Australia). She, I hoped, was going to answer a question I never thought to ask before: why do we cry? https://theconversation.com/no-crying-doesnt-release-toxins-though-it-might-make-you-feel-better-if-thats-what-you-believe-106860

I mean what would prompt me to ask? I laugh, I cry -I seem to know why it happens, but do I? Or am I just extrapolating from the circumstances when it occurs -making the all too easy assumption that association is the same as cause? I entered the article with my hat in my hand and my breathing held in reverent abeyance as I might on entering a grand cathedral. Unfortunately, I heard no organ playing, and whatever echoes reverberated through the nave, were produced by disparate voices, not the stirring lower registers of majestic pipes.

For example, the rather banal observation that, ‘Studies show, on average, adult women  tend to cry two to three times in a given month, and men only once. Although research is limited, it suggests crying frequency is highly influenced by social and cultural factors, our beliefs about the value of crying and how it is evaluated.’ Followed by ‘This is particularly exaggerated in many Western countries, where women report crying more often than those from non-Western countries. And in non-Western countries the difference in crying frequency between men and women is smaller. In some instances, it’s non-existent.’ Imagine that.

Then, a hint of teleology: ‘Scientists have long speculated why we cry and what happens in our bodies when we’re doing it. Some have suggested crying may be expelling chemicals that are built up during feelings of distress, or that crying causes a  chemical change in the body that reduces stress or increases positive feelings.’ But again, a hush: ‘But we don’t actually know that much about crying and most of the studies out there are based on self-reporting.’

‘The most pervasive idea about crying is that we do it because it’s helpful in some way; perhaps it provides relief or catharsis. But the research on this is mixed, with crying sometimes showing an improvement in mood and sometimes a worsening… Despite the overwhelming perception crying is useful at a personal level, most research suggests crying is more of a social phenomenon. Crying is an extremely effective signal to others that something is wrong and that you may be in need of help and comfort.’ Not terribly surprising, I suppose, but it seemed to be getting into more of the meat of the process.

That is, until I read further: ‘But before you go crying in front of others for support, just remember other studies show doing so may actually lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment.’ Okay, then, pick your study…

But in fairness, the article did get better -did attempt some evaluative science. ‘Crying seems, at best, to do not much at all, and, at worst, to increase our physiological arousal.’ For example, in the author’s lab, they ‘attempted to test whether crying reduces or interferes with the levels of the stress hormone (cortisol), and whether it may be able provide some other physical benefit, such as numbing, which could explain why we cry when we are in either emotional and physical pain. We found crying had no effect on stress levels and people weren’t able to withstand pain more readily than those who did not cry. But those who cried were more in control of their breathing rate. This suggests people may hold their breath during crying in a bid to calm themselves down, and perhaps use the crying behaviour to initiate the calming strategy.’

For the most part, though, it strikes me that the article merely ran through a checklist of unremarkable sociological parameters that left me no further ahead than I would have been had I confined myself to the confirmation biases on my Facebook. As an example, she says, ‘Crying is a personal process. Whether you cry, and how often, may be related to your culture, gender, and emotional expressiveness.’ Uhmm… well, yes I suppose so, eh?

Now that Sharman has raised the subject, however, I would still be interested to know if other mammals -primates, say- do, or even can cry. In other words, is crying an evolutionarily derived mechanism to serve some purpose, or is it an exaptation of something else, now exclusive to homo? Sadly, I did not find out, despite my suddenly piqued interest.

Fortunately, there is Google, and after scouring -sort of- the entries on crying, I did find a naively non-academic one that seemed to cover most of the bases -a 2013 article by Amanda Smith in The Body Sphere: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/bodysphere/features/4837824 It’s titled ‘Why are humans the only animals that cry?’ I’m not sure it even answers its own question, but at any rate, it did attempt some interesting explanations of why humans cry that I hadn’t heard before. It included this rather innocent and dewy-eyed one: ‘Darwin’s own theory of tears claimed that ‘in our evolutionary past, babies would close their eyes very tightly to protect their eyes when they were screaming for their mothers,’ says Dr Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. ‘The closing of the eyes very tightly would squeeze the lachrymal glands and bring out the tears,’ he says. By a process of association thereafter, any kind of pain or suffering became connected with tears.’

I know, I know, it’s a sort of kludgey explanation, but in a touching way, it’s kind of uplifting, don’t you think? Soothing, almost…