2019: A Reader’s Digest

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If you’re taking the time to read this, I’d like to commend you. While 2019 was a year of many events— on the local, national and international levels— there’s one activity that didn’t rank too highly in our collective lives this year. Reading. You know, the process by which the brain computes letters into words that eventually become ideas that we can think about inside our brains?

Frankly, it’s not surprising that no one reads anymore. Given our online world, if something can’t be shared in a meme, a 30 second video, or a 140-character Tweet, we are not interested. We’ve conditioned ourselves to only digest information in small amounts— like penguins regurgitating fish guts to baby chicks. So, to that end, I’ll try to keep this year-end summary brief.

On the international front, once again it was a great year for dictatorships. Vladimir Putin expanded his sphere of influence in Syria, Turkey and Ukraine, bringing Russia into a golden era of power not seen since Comrade Stalin gobbled up Eastern Europe like PAC-Man.

But, the real power-player of the year was Xi Jinping of China. After previously declaring himself the Wizard of Middle Earth, Jinping contained a huge public protest in Hong Kong, all while secretly detaining over a million people from ethnic minority groups into concentration camps— which the Chinese government lovingly call “Education Centers for Naughty Hobbits.” It’s very important, though, that no one talk or write about any of these events in Middle Earth because no one wants to pay more than $5 for a bottle of aspirin.

Science made a lot of discoveries in 2019. Astronomers released the first-ever photograph of a massive black hole captured by an intricate system of telescopes. Black holes are described as having gravitational forces so intense that nothing can escape— including light, atomic particles and Lori Loughlin’s career.

In New Zealand, biologists discovered ancient fossils from an unknown species of giant parrot that could grow to be three feet tall. That’s a really big bird. I bet it’d be a challenge to find a cage large enough for a parrot that is the size of a human toddler.

But, hey, maybe US Immigration could part with a few of theirs?

On the domestic front, the news-cycle has been dominated by tweets written by President Donald Trump at 3 o’clock in the morning. These tweets are widely shared because, as we established earlier, 140-characters is the maximum amount that most Americans can read at one time. This short-attention span has been very beneficial to the president because when Robert Mueller’s long-awaited 448-page report was finally released in April, no one actually read it.

In Hollywood, movie adaptations of the Avengers, Spider-Man and Captain Marvel all raked in the most cash at the box office. There are only two possible reasons for this. Either Americans can’t be bothered to read books made of cartoon drawings, or we’re desperate for a hero to save the world from certain doom.

In political news, we began 2019 with 25 Democratic candidates running for president. In the months since, an additional 379 people have joined the race. This includes a surprising number of billionaires— like Mike Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, Bruce Wayne and Scrooge McDuck. The candidates all claim to be able to beat Donald Trump, but their platforms and ideas exceed 140-characters, so I fear their chances of holding onto an audience are pretty slim.

Meanwhile, Congress has been awash with hearings of all kinds— hearings on presidential impeachment, hearings about executive abuses of power, and hearings about whether using the Oxford Comma would be seen as too socialist. No one knows how it will all turn out, but it still remains that less than 20% of Americans can find Ukraine on a map.

Back here at home, California is still no closer to building the high-speed train that was begun during the Millard Fillmore administration. Budget and cost overruns have plagued the high-speed rail process. Yet, at the same time, Governor Gavin Newsom’s pearly white smile remains suspiciously well-maintained. I don’t know if these two things are related, but I once bought Crest tooth whitening strips at Target and they cost more than the pair of pants I’m currently wearing.

In Patterson, it’s been an eventful year, too. As the revitalized Patterson Family Pharmacy is constructed, several new establishments have opened, as well— including a Starbucks and a Round Table Pizza. The latter establishment unfortunately joins the 692 other places that sell pizza in town. But, the new Round Table does distinguish itself by giving customers cool space-age wristbands. After these high-tech wristbands precisely dispense beer into cups, customers have the option of getting beamed onto the Starship Enterprise.

As 2019 comes to a close, we have much for which to be thankful. We can be thankful for our family, our friends and our great community. Lastly, we can also rejoice that we won’t often need to use those reading glasses we bought at Walgreens.

After all, it’s pretty easy to squint or trombone-through something that’s 140-characters, or less.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy 2020.

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Thanks & Giving

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(originally appeared in The Patterson Irrigator)

It’s Thanksgiving. The time of year when Americans devote much of our energy into thinking about the varieties, types and quantities of foods we’re going to cram inside our bodies on a Thursday afternoon. We watch cooking shows, flip through old family recipes, and buy more stuff at the grocery store than we could possibly need or consume— like greedy squirrels hoarding nuts stolen from other (more hard-working) squirrels.

So, yeah, it’s the quintessential American holiday.

When we’re not eating, or watching overpaid NFL players run around in Spandex, we should pause to be thankful. The holiday isn’t just about how many cranberries your nephew can stuff inside his nose before you have to take him to Urgent Care. It’s about more than that. We must also appreciate the community we live in, the country that supports our rights, and the duty we all hold in safeguarding these rights for everyone. For example, it would probably be pretty handy if your nephew had health insurance that would cover cranberry extractions.

While much focus is given to the “thanks” part of this holiday, I’d like to highlight the “giving” part, too. There can’t be one without the other. Thanks can’t be without Giving. Bert can’t be without Ernie. And Rudy Giuliani can’t be without an Indictment.

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving is known as “Giving Tuesday.” It’s a day that charities and non-profits aim to generate support and donations for their causes. Giving Tuesday is especially important to local or smaller charities. Those are often overlooked for the big non-profits with the flashy marketing budgets that allow them to send me free return address labels with my name wrongly spelled as Elizabeth Guacamoo.

So, this year, I invite you to put down those cranberries and to celebrate Giving Tuesday. Support a local, Patterson-area organization that does good works in our community— like the Patterson Volunteer Firefighters Association or the Westside Food Pantry. There are many local groups to choose from. Or, if there is a specific cause you care about, find a grassroots organization that is making a difference for everyday people on the ground— not just the big non-profit conglomerates sending you free personalized Post-It notes with smiley faces.

If you’re unsure where to donate this Giving Tuesday, check out the website: www.charitynavigator.org

The acclaimed site has a wealth of information about countless non-profits and charities. It’s a good way to screen organizations and also to learn more about causes and missions you care about.

In the meantime, I wish you, and yours, a healthy and happy holiday. I hope it’s full of squirreled nuts, squishy cranberries, and lots of football commercials.

And, maybe, just maybe, if we all work together, Giving Tuesday doesn’t just have to come once a year.

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Aliens, Shrinking Potions & Ten Long Months

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Three weeks ago, I finally got my new wheelchair. And, when I use the word “finally” I really mean it— for I began the insane process of getting a new motorized wheelchair over ten months ago. That’s a considerable amount of time. It doesn’t take folks this long to buy a new car— which is surprising given my new wheelchair costs just as much as a Ford Focus.

But, honestly, ten months is a long time to spend working on getting a medical device that helps you, well— survive. Try imagining all the things that could be accomplished in a similar amount of time. Have you ever thought about this? Well, I have. Because I’ve had ten months to do so.

So, here goes.

Elizabette’s List Of Things That Take Ten Months To Do

  • You can gestate a full-sized human baby. Should you desire to do so, this also includes a few extra weeks to breastfeed. (Hopefully, you live in a society that allows you to do it freely in public and not hidden away in a cave like a troll.)
  • You could learn a new language.
  • If you’re a white man, you could go on a 16th-century ocean voyage around the world to “discover” places that already exist.
  • You could plant, grow and harvest a vegetable garden.
  • You could serve a full prison sentence for raping an unconscious woman. (But, don’t worry— you’ll probably get out in only three months.)
  • You could become a licensed electrician.
  • You could write a book.
  • If you’re Donald Trump, you could read a book… Just kidding! (He doesn’t read.)

But, instead of doing any of these things, I spent ten months of my life jumping the bureaucratic hoops to get a new motorized wheelchair.

It would be natural to think that I’d be ecstatic when the new wheelchair finally arrived. But, I wasn’t. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t happy. I was, of course. Obviously. But, the arrival of the new wheelchair heralded the most critical (and hopefully final!) stage of the process.

Making sure the wheelchair fits.

You’d think this would be a given. That all the measurements taken by the wheelchair provider would be accurate. That it would be simple to fit me into a wheelchair that was custom-built for me.

But, it is not.

Three weeks ago, when my new wheelchair rolled into my house, right away I saw a problem. It was over three inches too wide. That’s a lot. Yes, my ass is big. But, no, it’s not that big.

“Uhm… just wondering… did Howard Taft order a wheelchair? And, if so, did I get it by mistake?”

The wheelchair technician, Raul, looked at me— then looked at the new chair:

“Yeah. You’re right, this chair is way too big.”

I felt dread pool in my gut. My mind began to run with an assortment of cuss words. In various languages. (Don’t forget, I had ten months to work on my vocabulary.) Would they have to send the damn chair back? Would we have to start again? Was there a chance that I wouldn’t cry in despair??

My spiraling thoughts were interrupted when Raul said:

“Don’t worry. I think I can shrink it down.”

Really?”

I was dubious. It was unlikely he carried shrinking potion from Alice in Wonderland in his toolbox.

Over the next hour, he dissembled my new wheelchair in the middle of my living room. Pieces were scattered everywhere. It was like a really expensive LEGO set had barfed all over the carpet. Then, we began to strategize new ways to use the existing parts. Using different configurations. And, slowly, my new wheelchair began to take shape.

Nearly three hours after arrival, we did it. I was seated, driving, and fairly comfortable, in my new (smaller!) wheelchair. It was a feat of engineering, creativity and luck— which, come to think of it, is the essence of life with a complex disability. But, for while the chair is functional and comfortable, there’s a small (yet, large!) difference. I’m sitting over an inch lower than I was in my old wheelchair.

Another key part of life with a disability? Learning to adapt. This skill is essential. And, unfortunately, in a world that’s not always accessible, it’s a survival tool, as well.

An inch may not seem like a big difference. But, when you have everything in your daily life and routine adjusted to a very specific height, this is significant. For example, imagine if aliens came down from outer space with a technology that transferred your head onto another person’s body. How would you feel?

Probably pretty awkward.

(And, no, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones won’t be able to save you.)

Adjusting to the new wheelchair feels very much like that. Even with most aspects being similar (if not nearly identical!), it’s still a challenge. In fact, I’m currently typing this on my desk that I had to recalibrate to fit the new ‘me.’

Honestly, it’s going fairly well, but oddly, on my computer keyboard, I’m now having trouble reaching the key for the number ‘nine.’ I’m sure I’ll figure out an adaptation for it eventually, though. But, in the meantime, I suppose I could refer to the number as 8+1. Although, if I’m feeling especially tired, it might be best if I spell it as 5+4 since those keys are closer together.

We’ll see. It’s not as if numbers are all that important, anyway.

Nonetheless, I must roll onward in this new set of wheels. If you see me, though, please don’t comment on how I’ve grown shorter (yes, this has already happened to me twice).

Also, just because the top of my head is now more within your reach, don’t take that as an invitation to pat me on the head like a cocker spaniel. And definitely don’t ruffle my hair the way your uncle Tony greets every child he meets under the age of 8+1.

Because I really hate that.

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Facing Voldemort

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When you’re disabled, you learn to adapt… tweak… make-do. These skills are essential, because as much as the modern, progressive world likes to think it’s ‘woke as **ck‘ — it’s really not. Full inclusion of disabled people in society is a long way off, and these issues barely register on even the most liberal political agendas. In fact, during this election season’s rounds of televised Democratic debates, I haven’t heard one of the 318 presidential candidates even say the word ‘disability.’ Considering disabled Americans are the largest minority group in the country— one that spans race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background— you’d think it would come up. At least once. (Just like Bernie Sanders yells and shakes his fists at another candidate at least once a debate.)

It’s possible the candidates are just being thoughtless in ignoring disability issues in the debates— like when careless people forget to put another roll of toilet paper in the bathroom after they’ve used the last square of Charmin. But, perhaps there is another, more sinister meaning. What if they are subconsciously afraid of saying the word ‘disability‘ aloud because then it acknowledges that we actually exist? And, maybe, just maybe, they are frightened of us? It could be possible. After all, this was why everyone was reluctant to say Voldemort’s name aloud in Harry Potter.

Let’s not forget that even The Ministry of Magic discouraged folks from saying it at Hogwarts. They worried that if someone voiced the name of Voldemort, the most dreaded wizard in the land, it would give him the power and recognition needed to rise up. And that was definitely not okay… because then all the normal wizards would have to face the fact that they were only one Death-Eater attack away from a nursing home run by Hufflepuffs.

So, yeah, you can see why they’d prefer to pretend like we don’t exist. It’s scary to imagine the power potentially wielded by 1 in 5 Disabled Americans. Because not even the mighty Teamsters Union can muster these kinds of numbers— even though Joe Biden desperately wishes that they could.

I think maybe it’s time for us to be a little scary. Be a little loud. Because we are not only fighting for ourselves. We are fighting for everyone. After all, we are also the only minority group that anyone can become member— at any time. Plus, if you live long enough, you’re probably eventually going to need the homecare services we are fighting so hard for, too.

I hate to break it to you, but not even the best Patronus charm can do a damned thing about that fact. Eventually, you’re going to need someone to help you get out of bed in the morning. You’re going to need someone to help you prepare your meals. Hell, you’re probably going to need help wiping your own ass. But, here’s the thing: unless you meet the impossibly stringent & poverty-driven Medicaid guidelines, you won’t qualify for homecare services.

Despite what you may believe, Medicare and private medical insurances currently do not cover homecare. So, you could lose your house, your retirement and all the things you worked your entire life to achieve just to pay for medically-necessary care costs.

Thinking of just going to a nursing home? Good luck with that— the care received in institutionalized settings are substandard, dangerous, and far, far more expensive than the costs of providing care in your own home… in your own community.

Given that homecare is cheaper and safer than institutionalized care, isn’t it surprising that it’s not covered by Medicare and private insurances? Wouldn’t logic say that it should be covered? Well, yes. But, denial is a powerful thing. And the denial of the notion— the reality— that anyone could become disabled at any time in their life is even more powerful. It’s no wonder no one wanted to say Voldemort’s name in Harry Potter. That was some scary shit, yes?

But, if these services existed— and were more available— maybe disability (and even old age!) wouldn’t be so fucking scary to everyone. Maybe then we could change the whole narrative around it.

However, first, a narrative must begin. And, to do that, someone needs to talk about it. But, I’m afraid that with the current slate of presidential candidates, that’s not likely to happen. Why?

Well, the top contenders Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and—yes, Donald Trump— are all over the age of 70. Given society’s subconscious aversion to disability and old age, these four main contenders definitely do not want to draw attention to how old they actually are. (I mean, no one wants to yell Voldemort in a crowded cafeteria, do they?)

Even though you’d think these presidential contenders would be ideally suited to discuss these issues (given they are closer to the age of needing these services), there’s NO damn way they are going talk about that. Just look how long it took Bernie Sanders’ campaign to acknowledge his recent heart attack? Look how evasive Donald Trump is in releasing his full medical records? (And, no, it’s definitely not because he’s got the most greatest health in the history of all American presidents— including, of course, all the leaders of the most bigly and powerful nations in Earth history.)

So, who is going to do the talking, if not us? Who is going to make people uncomfortable so that they can face the reality of their own human frailty? That they will need help someday? I guess that falls to us disabled folks.

This election season, perhaps you should give this some thought. Who will best fight for you when you need it most?

Because, like it or not, Voldemort is coming.

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Birthday Evolution

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When I was young, I hated the attention I received on my birthday. I hated when people would sing me the “birthday song.” I would whimper. I would cry. And, if my weak SMA muscles would have allowed it, I would have slithered into a ball under a table at the first note of the famous tune.

Many people that know me now would be surprised by this. But, it’s very true. If, on my birthday, I could have burrowed into a hole in the ground like El Chapo evading the Federales, I would have done it.

Por supuesto.

Being a small kid with a visible disability, you always get looked at differently. Always. Even as a tiny child, you sense the eyes that follow your every move. The assessing. The wondering.

The what is wrong with that little girl? gaze that becomes so familiar. While it’s not a scary experience, it is an annoying one.

If you’re wondering what that look is actually like, here’s how I would describe it. You know those ASPCA commercials with that mournful Sarah MacLachlan song? The ones with her singing “Angel” as they show a montage of sick and undersized puppies that will die if you don’t donate $15 a month? You know that sad (nearly tearful) look that your face gets when you see that commercial?

That’s the face I’m talking about.

So, yeah… pull it together, dude.

Anyway… when you’re already ‘different’… and used to being recognized by many as ‘different,’ you don’t want any more attention than absolutely necessary. So, your birthday is yet another extra spotlight that shines upon you each October.

I felt this way for many years. I didn’t want the additional fuss, or the attention, that came with that day. I had enough of it already.

But, as I approached my 30th birthday, a birthday that many doctors had predicted that I may never reach, I began to feel very differently about it. It evolved in my mind. It felt like a milestone. An achievement. A mark of a battle that I was winning.

And, suddenly, celebrating my birthday became something that I wanted to do. It was something that I didn’t want to tuck into a drawer and pretend didn’t exist. I wouldn’t be like Rudolph Giuliani ignoring a Congressional subpoena.

I would face it. And enjoy it.

So, now, here I am, years later, on my birthday, proud to be alive and proud to be a part of this world. It’s been a lot of hard work getting here (and I’ve had a lot of help along the way)— but, I did it.

Happy Birthday to me.

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(Yes, that’s a pumpkin spice latte. Duh.)

Becoming Oliver Twist

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Life with a complex disability, like SMA, is obviously challenging. It takes a great deal of physical, emotional— but, most importantly, logistical— strength to power through each day. Your brain always has to be 2 or 3 steps ahead in order to anticipate challenges that life, and this very inaccessible world, love to throw at you. It’s exhausting. It’s like playing an endless game of Whack-A-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese. You know those little heads are going to pop up somewhere. So, all you can do is keep slamming the mallet down on the board hoping you earn enough tickets to buy a Slinky at the counter.

This constant state of preparedness is a necessary evil. It’s the thing that makes it possible for me to get out of bed in the morning. To have the ability to do the work I do, and I accomplish what I need to accomplish— all while balancing my complex medical needs.

As I’ve discussed frequently before, my custom power wheelchair is a big part of this effort. It’s the most important tool in my life. It’s the object that makes my life— my independence— possible. At the beginning of this year, I began the arduous process of getting a new wheelchair. Medicare requires that many steps be completed before an order can even be processed. Initial Visit With Doctor. Evaluation from Special Physical Therapist. Consult with Wheelchair Provider. Assessment With Doctor.

Each of these steps must be done in a certain order, the documents must be signed and authorized by all parties, and all of it must be done sequentially. Like a really complicated, and really French, pastry recipe. The foofy, pretentious kind. The kind that takes hours to make, you eat in two bites, and leave you hungry afterward.

It’s a fucking nightmare, frankly.

I have a Type A personality. I like to get shit done. This trait has come in handy with my SMA, because such attention-to-detail is why I’m still alive and thriving 35 years after most doctors thought I would be dead.

But, this ‘wheelchair vortex of hell’ doesn’t always reward such preparedness. Because, no matter how on top of things I am, I am still at the mercy of a large medical bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lets unsigned forms sit on desks. The bureaucracy will deny a claim because one date is mistyped on one form. The bureaucracy won’t pick their own nose without a memo telling them which finger to use.

Just a few weeks ago, (but, nearly nine months into the entire process!), Medicare finally authorized my request for my new wheelchair. This was after several paperwork kinks and delays that nearly made me sit in a corner and cry. But, with this authorization, the DME (durable medical equipment) company was then able to place the order with the manufacturers.

You’d think I’d be ecstatic. You’d think I’d be over-the-moon with happiness… you know, just like R. Kelly is in a room of underage girls.

But, I decidedly was not. For I knew that my current wheelchair had to survive until the new chair arrived— which could still take months. And that was the biggest gamble of all.

Because, you see, Medicare would not authorize repairs to an existing wheelchair while a new wheelchair is being ordered. So, I would be majorly SOL if my current wheelchair took a crap in the meantime. Therefore, each bureaucratic delay— each kink that I had experienced in the process— increased the probability of this happening.

And, yesterday, the laws of probability— the laws of mathematics— finally caught up with me. A “RIGHT MOTOR FAULT” error message brought my wheelchair to a halt.

This isn’t the first time this has happened during my wheelchair-using life. In fact, with this wheelchair, alone, I have had to have the motors changed FOUR TIMES. Yes, that’s right. So, when I saw this “RIGHT MOTOR FAULT” error message, I instantly knew that in about a week, my life was seriously going to go down the toilet until I could get new motors installed.

With the arrival of my new wheelchair nowhere in sight, and the necessity of having a functioning wheelchair, I had to do a painful thing. I asked the DME company to order me a new set of motors. I agreed to pay the hefty price. Because, this wheelchair is my basic tool of life, and without it, I can’t function. The DME company understands my pain and kindly agreed to give me a cut rate, but it’s still more money than most people pay for their first shitty car.

To be honest, I actually cried. I sat and cried because I was going to have to find a thousand dollars to fix a device that allows me to live.

It’s demoralizing. And it makes me feel very, very small. In an inaccessible world that’s already stacked against me— a world where I have to be smarter, wittier, and more prepared than everyone else— I still have to scramble for this most basic thing.

But, I don’t have a choice. So, I applied, and received, a disability grant from NMD United to help me pay for some of my replacement motors— and I set up a GoFundMe to cover the remainder of the cost.

The sad thing is, I shouldn’t have to do any of these things. This wheelchair is a medical device. It’s a lifesaving device. I have Medicare. I have a private supplemental insurance plan, too.

I shouldn’t have to peddle to others for something like this. No one with a disability should have to do this— yet, we are forced to do it everyday, in some form or another. It’s so Dickensian. So two-hundred-years-ago.

Yet, nonetheless, here I am, like little Oliver Twist, holding out my small pail—

Please, Sir, I want some more.

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Note: If you are disabled, and have experienced similar problems getting coverage for your specialized wheelchair repairs, please write in & share your story. We must try to speak out when we can. And speak loud. Wheelchairs are more than “durable medical equipment” — they are life-saving and sustaining.