Robbing Banks

By Mark E. Smith

In the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-1980s, it wasn’t hard to get harassed by the cops if you were a punk teen. Smoking in public, hanging out in front of a convenience store, being on the streets too late, having a house party, and so on would all but guarantee the appearance of cops. I witnessed many such scenes. Among my peers, there was teenage social credibility to it all. If you wanted to be the cool 11th-grader on Monday morning in homeroom, a run in with the cops on the previous Saturday night did the job.

For me, it was hard to be that cool kid Monday mornings. The cops simply didn’t hassle a kid using a wheelchair like me. I was once hanging out with a bunch of smoking, punk friends outside of an ice cream shop, and a cop threatened to haul everyone away, then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I don’t take people in wheelchairs to jail.”

I was instantly stung by his remarks. I wanted to be one of the guys, as teens do, but the cop clearly pointed out that I wasn’t, that I was different. In my mind, I was just as much a punk as my punk friends, right down to my black leather jacket. How dare the cop discount my punkness due to my disability. Worse yet, how dare he give me a pass in front of the punk peers I was part of – but suddenly differentiated from because of the cop’s attitude toward my disability.

My immediate emotions aside, I wondered if the cop spoke a universal truth, that people who use wheelchairs aren’t taken to jail? If it was a fact, should I skip college and take up robbing banks?

All of this – the cop’s condescending attitude and the potential of never going to jail – made me more mischievous than ever. One night, as my buddy and I prepared to cruise the avenue in his car, I got the brilliant idea to put a pillowcase over my head in the passenger seat and pretend like I was dead.

The avenue was heavily lit, so everyone saw in everyone’s car. When my buddy stopped at traffic lights, I relaxed my body, pillowcase over my head, and flopped against the dash like a dead body. It seemed like harmless fun and got lots of attention – until the cops pulled us over.

It turned out that I played such a convincing dead body with a pillowcase over my head that multiple people took our license plate number and description, and called the cops.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the cop asked, holding my passenger side door open, the scene illuminated by the cop car’s colored lights.

“Nothing,” I said, the pillowcase still on my head.

He yanked the pillowcase off of me, my grin appearing.

“This isn’t funny,” he said. “You’ve scared a lot of people.”

“It’s a joke,” I replied with no remorse.

He looked in the back seat and saw my manual wheelchair, then looked back at me.

“Let’s get your wheelchair out and get you to Juvenile Hall,” he said. “I bet your parents won’t find that funny.”

Obviously, not arresting people who used wheelchairs wasn’t a universal code among cops. I was in deep trouble, fast, and my disability wasn’t getting me out of it. So, I did what any punk teen would do: I apologized profusely and explained that I never intended to scare anyone, that it was a dumb prank gone wrong, that I’d never do it again.

Fortunately, the cop let me off of the hook – but kept my mom’s pillowcase.

At 16, I learned a lot that night. I learned that what I thought was funny scared a lot of people and that wasn’t right. I learned that there’s nothing cool about getting in trouble with the cops. And, I learned not to rob banks because they do put guys like me, who use wheelchairs, in jail.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease

By Mark E. Smith

While writing a medical article about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), I was intrigued by the story of Lou Gehrig. Although “Lou Gehrig’s disease” is a synonym for ALS, little is discussed in literature in a linear form about how the most famous person with ALS actually dealt with the condition. In extracting parts of Gehrig’s experience from many sources, bit by bit, I saw an amazing story unfold, one with a profound lesson for many of us.

In 1923, Lou Gehrig joined the New York Yankees, soon taking his spot as first baseman. By the 1930s, he set an all-time record, playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record unbroken by another player until 1995. In the 1930s, Gehrig, alongside longtime teammate, Babe Ruth, became a homerun champion, as well. However, in 1938 everything changed for the baseball legend.

In the 1938 season, Gehrig had his first seasonal slump. Based on the 1937 season, he was still going strong, even in his mid-30s, but his performance was suddenly amiss. What’s more, Gehrig felt it was more than just an unlucky season. He struggled not only on the field, but with tasks as simple as tying his shoes.

By April of 1939, during spring training, even the press became concerned. Sports journalist, James Kahn, wrote:

I think there is something wrong with [Gehrig]. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers ‘go’ overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It’s something deeper than that in this case, though. I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely—and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that I do not know, his old power isn’t there… He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn’t going anywhere.

On May 2, 1939, Gehrig ended his consecutive-games record by pulling himself from the lineup. Six weeks later, on June 13, he checked into the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed in the following days with ALS, a degenerative muscle disease, fatal within two to five years. He was 36.

Although contrary to the actual diagnosis given, Gehrig’s initial reaction was expressed in a letter to his wife: “There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question.”

On July 4, 1939, with the news of Gehrig’s illness filling newspapers, he returned to Yankee Stadium to retire, giving his “luckiest man alive” speech. There’s little record of the speech, but the following pieced-together excerpt shows Gehrig’s disposition:

For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…. When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? …I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

One might think that upon retirement from baseball, with such a grim health prognosis, Gehrig would have settled into a quiet life. However, in keeping with his show-up-and-play nature, he took a civics job as a New York Parole Commissioner in January, 1940, maintaining a very low profile as he worked with prison inmates, where he believed in rehabilitation.

By 1941, while Gehrig worked as a Parole Commissioner, his condition dramatically declined. His wife, Eleanor, was his constant companion, helping him perform his duties. In May of 1941, Gehrig resigned his position due to ever-deteriorating health.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died of ALS at 10:10 p.m., at his home in the Bronx.

While many remember Gehrig for his Hall of Fame baseball accomplishments, his ultimate legacy may be a single quote that he left us with that applies so well to all facing such harrowing adversity: “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. …I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

Going All In

By Mark E. Smith

It was the sickest I’d ever been. In a matter of days, I went from the masculinity of a mid-forties man to the physical dependence of an infant. A corner was turned, and I was in unknown, uncontrolled territory.

Living with a disability may seem unique, as with my cerebral palsy, but there’s an equilibrium to it. Yes, there are limitations inherent to my disability that require assistance from my wife in personal ways that we’re both comfortable with. But, we all have discreetness and self-consciousness boundaries. In fact, such boundaries seemingly help us define our own sense of masculinity or femininity. Put simply, we say, I’m comfortable with having my spouse see me this way, but can’t imagine ever being comfortable seen in XYZ circumstance. These boundaries vary from person to person, couple to couple, including among my wife and me.

In my time of need and illness, I had no choice but to give up such preconceived boundaries. My wife was there, willing and able to help. I had to accept it based on my illness. I had no choice but to remove my constructed boundaries.

Often, we look at those jumping in to help as the strong ones, and they are. However, as I continue learning, it takes tremendous strength to let others in to help. However, when we do, it takes us to far deeper levels of connection and love. Boundaries can be great, but self-constructed ones of self-consciousness – which all of us have in some forms – can serve as walls that prevent us from getting closer to others and letting others fully know us. For me, sick in bed, totally dependent upon my wife, I realized not just her unyielding love and devotion, but how letting down my own guard allowed me to more fully immerse in our love.

All of this got me thinking, why does it take such extreme circumstances for us to allow ourselves to remove our boundaries, to further trust in love? Why do we cling so tightly to self-consciousness that it prevents us from fully opening ourselves to others?

Of course, the answer is, vulnerability. By nature our biggest fear, admit it or not, is rejection by those we love. Sure, we open ourselves up to love, but most often we have a last-ditch protection mechanism that prevents us from going all in – that is, we hold back in a few areas. However, if we’re being prudent and healthy in our relationship, there’s zero risk, so holding back simply holds us back. It shouldn’t take a situation like a serious illness to forego self-consciousness and fully trust in the deepest forms of love. Here’s all of me for you to love, and I cherish having all of you to love….

Trusting fully in deep love is tricky. It can expose our vulnerabilities, require us to face them, and then let them go, all of which is scary. However, when we do so, we create a pathway to loving and being loved that’s deeper and safer than we’ve ever known. Love is always uncharted territory, and allowing ourselves to follow it to greater and greater depths is life’s most miraculous journey.

The Bold New World of Televisions

By Mark E. Smith

I’m lying in bed. The TV won’t work, something about it cannot connect to the network. I’m old enough to remember when simply pulling a knob turned on a TV – and it worked every time. Now, I just stare at the spinning ceiling fan.

I think about my conversation with my best friend, Drew, today. He’s the wisest soul I know, and he inexplicably knows more about any subject than he should. We talked about what it’s like being in the throes of life crises. So many people tout the growth that comes from it. However, those are people speaking from the other side. As Drew noted, when you’re in the middle of it – an ended relationship, a health crisis, a job loss – you struggle just to breathe, where five minutes feels like an hour, a night feels like an eternity. There’s a tunnel vision in those times, the loss of everything joyful. No one stops to smell the flowers when it feels like life, itself, has stopped.

And, it’s OK, it’s all OK. Adjusting to a new normal is… well… normal. When we have the wind knocked out of us, we need time to get back up, we need time to rediscover ourselves in this new space. Anyone who tells you to snap out of it has never been there, or worse, has forgotten what it’s like to be there. There’s a time to be in such a space, to just be.

My wife comes in and wonders why I’m not watching TV? I explain the technical issue, and she lies next to me, staring at the ceiling fan, also lamenting the loss of televisions with antennas that simply turned on.

It’s Not a Scorecard

By Mark E. Smith

Someone asked me if struggling ever ends? After all, it seems like for many of us, no matter how far we get in life, adversity still finds us.

It’s a fair question, especially when we’ve spent decades striving to get ahead in life, yet struggles still arise. Maybe you’ve been there. You seemingly have all in order, then adversity strikes – again. Why is that?

Firstly, life is not purely positive or negative, but an ebb and flow of both. Just as all is better, all will get worse. Just as all is worse, all will get better. The key is to find blessings in life not just when we’re on a winning streak, but also when on a losing streak. The blessings are always there; we just need to see them, even during the bleakest of times. In this way, we then maintain gratitude no matter the phase of our life.

Secondly, struggles are intrinsic to life pursuits. If we are to thrive, we are going to likewise experience adversity. You can’t face challenges in a career without having a career. You can’t feel heartache without being in love. You can’t know how difficult it can be to raise children without having children. You can’t know health adversities without a semblance of health. In these ways, the more we live, the more we will intrinsically know struggle.

I, too, once wondered when the struggles would end? Then I realized that life is a process, not a scorecard.

Laughing At It All

By Mark E. Smith

Many couples face adversity. Some come together, while others fall apart. What foremost trait keeps couples together while facing among life’s toughest of times?

I recently worked an Abilities Expo, a consumer trade show for all products related to disability. During the expo, I met countless couples where one partner had experienced a life-changing illness or accident. It was the perfect opportunity to ask, What’s been the single biggest relationship key that’s helped you move through this as a couple?

The answer that most gave surprised me when it probably shouldn’t have: humor. Over and over again, couples told me that shared humor made the toughest situations bearable. And, they nailed it, knowing what all of us should know.

In fact, there are scientific reasons why humor and laughter enhance our relationships. Humor is an intrinsic “mood lifter.” When we smile or laugh, it releases endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in our brain. In a way, we get a little high when we smile or laugh, so it dramatically points our perception toward the positive, even in the bleakest situations. Therefore, when in a relationship, humor makes uncomfortable situations comfortable and breaks us out of daunting thoughts. If there’s a surefire way to direct a moment or mood as a couple, humor is it.

There is a caveat, however. It’s vital that both people share the humor. There’s no room for jaded or cynical humor. If one person finds humor in a situation and the other doesn’t, it will only make a situation worse. Two people laughing is a shared connection; one person laughing is angering to the other. We must laugh together, not apart.

I met a couple at the show, where the husband is living with ALS. The wife told me, “We can laugh together and cry together. If you can laugh together, you can cry together. But, it’s a lot more fun to laugh together….”

Life and relationships aren’t easy – especially when adversity comes our way. However, among the best tools we can have is humor. If we can laugh amidst a situation, we can address and cope with it. After all, the couple who laughs together stays together.

Getting Better With Words

By Mark E. Smith

In March of 1862, we first saw the phrase, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me, in the Christian Recorder, presented as an old adage. Of course, to most of us, it is a rhyme from our childhood that we sang as a self-affirmation.

However, is it true? I mean, it sounds logical, and we’d like to think we can rise to such self-confidence, but is the saying scientifically true? Can we, as a species, self-evolve to a point where the words of others don’t impact us?

I’ve faced this subject my entire life and have seen merit to both sides of the paradox: We’re innately social creatures, but don’t want to be affected by social scrutiny. As one with a disability, I’ve experienced negative dialogue from others my whole life. What’s more, as a public figure and in working with the public in my career, I’ve experienced the dark sides of dealing with the public. I’ve faced terrible adjectives slung at me. So, how have I coped with all of it?

I’ve believed in dismissing strangers as just that, strangers. If you don’t know me, how can you have a valid opinion about me? Also, two wrongs don’t make a right, so I try to be kind to others even when their words sting. These approaches have worked fairly well, but not flawlessly – for good reason.

Firstly, you and I, as humans, are hardwired as social creatures. It’s ingrained in us to care what others think as a matter of our survival mode. In modern society, the risk factors aren’t as obvious as they were in previous evolutionary periods; we don’t face getting eaten by wild animals when banished from a tribe as we once did. Yet, susceptibility to wanting social approval remains a natural instinct.

Secondly, scientists now know that our physiological connection to others is so strong that words can break us. Researchers discovered that emotional pain and physical pain both trigger the same area of the brain. They performed brain scans of those suffering a romantic breakup, and then subjected them to physical discomfort, finding identical responses in the brain based on emotional and physical pain. Further, research proves that verbal abuse can alter a child’s brain structure, that those who experienced verbal abuse experience the same degree of later-in-life impacts as those who suffered physical abuse.

When we put it all together, words really can hurt us. We can intellectualize all we wish, but to be human is to feel the literal pain of words.

With advancements in technology, it’s vital that we realize the adverse impact words can have. We, as individuals, are in more contact with others than ever in the history of mankind. You can call, email, text, direct message, or video chat loved ones at any time. You can jump on the Internet or social media platforms and say anything to almost anyone. And, it’s dangerous territory. We all know that words can hurt – because we’ve been hurt by them! – but some are still so quick to say the worst to others through the keyboard of a computer or smartphone. It doesn’t matter if it’s family, a friend, a public figure, or a complete stranger – sock it to ‘em with your words online! I’m all too familiar with this troubling mentality of others and guard myself against as much of it as I can. However, what about teens who are at a point where they’re seeking peer approval, but lack the emotional development to cope with the levels of negativity and rejection that come in deluges on social media? Words can devastate lives.

The point is, given the world we live in, we need to get better with words. We can care less what others think, despite our nature, and live rooted in reality, not worrying about what some try to project upon us. Few truly know us and it’s ridiculous to invest in what strangers say about us, good or bad. Similarly, we need to use our own words more carefully. Just because some people fill social media with garbage doesn’t mean we should add trash to the pile. In this age of such prolific communication, let us use our words as a crane that uplifts, not a sledgehammer that crushes.

After all, Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words can also break me.