Equipped and Prepared

By Mark E. Smith

When we face tragedy, trauma, or adversity, the question that many default to is, Why me?

While it’s an understandable initial response – after all, no one wants to experience life’s toughest times – there’s no way to answer that question.

Or, is there?

What I’ve witnessed time and time again in life is that the answer to Why me? is a straightforward one: Because you’re being equipped and prepared for the unforeseen to come.

At my birth, I wasn’t breathing, my body in life-threatening distress. I entered this life in a traumatic state and survived. That set into motion a life of cerebral palsy, which brought its own challenges. However, no one could have fathomed just what I was being equipped and prepared for.

See, some four decades later, I once again wasn’t breathing, once again fighting for my life. An intubation tube from which I was breathing during a surgery kinked in my airway, cutting off my air supply. An emergency tracheotomy was performed, allowing me to breathe – a harrowing eight-minute battle to save my life, I was later told.

I awoke in a different world – on a ventilator, unable to speak, my body far beyond my control, all in distress, just hanging on for life.

Over the following weeks, it took all I had to survive. Yet, there was an intrinsic familiarity to it all. There was a strength that I can now look back upon and contextualize. My body was in a place it had been before. I was long ago equipped and prepared to handle this.

Fortunately, most haven’t battled for life twice in such an uncanny way. But, we can all look back on any number of circumstances in our lives and connect the dots as to how they equipped and prepared us for future vying and victory. Maybe it was a job loss where it seemed like your world collapsed in an instant, but you went on to a better job, with a new understanding that you could come back from a seeming career setback even stronger. Perhaps it was an excruciatingly painful breakup from a relationship, from which you felt your heart would never recover, but you grew to understand what you truly wanted in a relationship and went on to find the love of your life. The list goes on. However, it all ties into the perspective that nothing happens to us, but for us. No, we usually don’t see the reasoning behind it in the midst of crisis, but it eventually reveals itself.

What have you struggled with or are struggling with? Could it be that you’re being equipped and prepared to be great when it matters most, that there is a reason behind it?

Indeed, there is. Let us shift from asking Why me? in times of adversity and take comfort in knowing that we are being equipped and prepared for whatever life has in store. Let us recognize that our seemingly weakest moments actually fortify us in ways that aren’t otherwise possible – we are stronger because of it. We are equipped and prepared!

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.”

Life as a Picasso

By Mark E. Smith

I recently spoke on a senate panel on aging. The panelists were heavy-hitters, including a U.S. senator and heads of government agencies. As speakers go, they were the best-of-the-best, both in presentation and knowledge. Then, there was me.

As a speaker, I prefer keynotes, not because I wish to be the star attraction, but because there’s a different dynamic on panels, especially when the other panelists are beyond great. It’s like sitting back stage as a musician and the band before you is phenomenal, and you’re thinking, Man, I can’t live up to what Iggy Pop just did!

What made the recent panel even more challenging was that I went last, so there I sat trembling in my boots – not emotionally, but literally, as I have uncontrollable body movements due to cerebral palsy – as I watched eloquent, brilliant speakers along our table command the room. So, how’d I move through it?

The same way that I always do. Public speaking can be tricky. Yet, if you know your subject, know your audience, and you’re skilled with rhetorical devices, public speaking is a bit of an illusion – it looks tougher than it is. For me, however, there’s a wild card added to the mix: cerebral palsy. My brain sends involuntary signals to my muscles and they do whatever they want, whenever they want. My central nervous system doesn’t care if I’m in bed watching TV or speaking in front of 250 statesmen. If it tells my legs to kick, they simply kick – formally known as a “spasm.” Speaking as a craft is easy for me; doing it with the physical unpredictability of cerebral palsy can be the harrowing part.

Given my situation, I view speaking in front of audiences like driving a race car. Driving a car at 150 mph around a race track takes skill, but even more so when the unexpected occurs. Race car drivers win races not based on simply going around a track, but in addressing peril when encountered. Did you see him keep his car from spinning off of the track!

When I’m publicly speaking, it’s the same phenomenon. I have my emotional and mental composure, but I never know what my body will throw my way. The ability to address spasms and uncontrolled body movements without missing a beat while speaking is my real craft. The way I do it is I let go of the mental and emotional constraints others often feel in such situations. When I sat on the senate panel, there was no way I could be as physically composed as the other speakers, so I threw that standard out the window and focused on being the only person I could be: me. I have cerebral palsy and a microphone – hold on to your seats, folks! In these ways, cerebral palsy becomes an asset of originality.

It doesn’t matter if we’re public speaking or living our everyday lives, the minute we let go of social pressures or preconceived notions of who we should be and just be ourselves, as-is, there’s no freer realm to be in. I understand that this is difficult for many. We live in a culture that presents ideals on how we should be. Yet, for many of us, it’s impossible for us to meet those ideals – there’s no product to resolve cerebral palsy – and in the larger scope, nor should anyone feel he or she has to live to such scripted ideals.

See, I view the world as the most spectacular art gallery. Each of our beauty isn’t blended on a single cultural canvas, in a single form, but seen within the borders of our unique frames. Photoshopped images are great; an original Picasso is amazing.

When Chili and Rice is all You Need

CHILI

By Mark E. Smith

When I was growing up, we were poor in every way. Yet, no matter my mother’s troubles – from poverty to substance abuse – she always had dinner on the table. No, it was never much. Pancakes or french toast were the norm, with chili-rice a treat, but we never went without. She had no money, but she sure could turn a can of chili and a bag of rice into several nights’ meals. Those dinners may not mean much to most, but till this day I’m grateful for what we had.

What my mother understood – and a life-long value she instilled in me – was the “power of poor.” That single life lesson of making the most out of how little you have has been an invaluable tool toward my successes in life, from addressing challenges of my disability to accomplishments in my career.

During the best of times, life is easy, and struggles are easily overcome. You’ve probably heard the idiom, Just throw money at it! to solve a problem. However, life is rarely that easy. For most of us, we only have what we have – and we either figure out ways to make the most of it.

Yes, there’s enormous power in making the most of it, for that’s all we have. When we live with adversity, it isn’t about what we have, but how creative, innovative and indomitable our spirit is. I may have cerebral palsy, but be darn clear that I’m making the most of it, for that’s all there is. The adversities in my life have inspired me to reach deep and find capacities that I wouldn’t need to strive for if I had limbs that functioned as they should. This reality applies to so many aspects of life. The power of poor brings out our best.

I remember years ago sitting in a product development meeting, and a manager started listing all of the people and money we’d need to put into the project. The colleague next to me whispered in my ear, “No, we need three days and a white board.” …Mr. Money Bags soon left the company. Mr. White Board is on a host of industry leading patents.

In our lives, if we wait for the right amount of money or the right conditions to pursue a goal, it’s likely to never come to fruition, and if it’s all handed to us, it likely won’t bring out the best. Yes, sometimes utilizing the power of poor is a necessity – I suspect that my mother would have relished a ham if she could afford one. However, harnessing the power of poor doesn’t have to stem from literal poverty. Sometimes, with all the resources in the world in front of us, the wise move is to reject the easy route, and simply embrace the creativity, innovation and indomitable spirit within. That’s when we turn a can of chili and a bag of rice into a phenomenal meal.

Unspoken Alone

tunnel

By Mark E. Smith

Alone. We’ve all felt it. And that, in itself, is why we’re truly not.

Based on my career in working among a population where trauma is common, I often hear how alone others feel in their challenges and struggles. However, as an ordinary person, I also hear how alone many feel in challenges of all types in everyday life. Yet, I’ve never encountered a situation where someone’s struggles transcended common humanity, where others hadn’t experienced a similar situation, of similar emotions.

In this way, the uniqueness of feeling alone in our struggles isn’t unique at all. In fact, it’s among the most common emotions we all share. It is intriguing, though, that such a commonly shared emotion can be… well… generally unshared.

See, unlike other cultures in the world, we in North America are prone to keeping our struggles to ourselves. The result is, we feel alone. And, so we live in a culture that exacerbates feeling alone in times of struggle, when we’re actually not alone at all in our experiences.

If you’re like most of us, you’ve unquestionably known unfortunate experiences like relationship issues, career issues, financial issues, health issues, and on and on. And, if you’re like most of us, you’ve felt alone during these struggles, as if you’re the only one who’s ever experienced them – especially in the moment. However, most of us have experienced them, too, so why are we all feeling so alone in the process?

The answer is simple: we don’t reach out when we should. As those struggling, we don’t reach out, and when we have a hint that someone else is struggling, we don’t reach out. Why do we behave this way? Well, self-doubt and fear on both sides, that’s why.

When we’re feeling alone in our struggles, we default to these internal scripts, don’t we?

No one understands what I’m going through.

They’ll judge or ridicule me.

I don’t want to be seen as weak.

I’m just ashamed of this mess I’m in.

I don’t want to rock the boat.

Or, for that which prevents us from reaching out to those we see struggling:

It’s none of my business.

I don’t want to embarrass them.

I won’t know what to say.

Based on our culture, these are totally valid feelings. But, there’s one problem with following them – they leave us feeling alone in our struggles, isolated. And, it simply makes any struggle worse and last longer. The antidote, however, is brilliantly simple: share.

Now, sharing can be scary and tough, requiring a lot of courage and vulnerability. But, the rewards of not being alone in our struggles outweigh all of those seeming risks. If you’re struggling alone – and we all do at times in our lives – share it with someone you trust. Interestingly, trust, in itself, can be a far more liberal definition than most might think in times of struggle. Some of the most healing, profound conversations I’ve ever had have been with virtual strangers, those recently met. What’s important is that we reach out, and it’s astounding how the sharing or inquiring of just a hint of ourselves exposes the common humanity of us all, realizing we’re not alone.

I don’t know what you’re struggling with our will be struggling with. But, I know that none of us are exempt from struggles, and none of us need to be alone in our struggles. In your tough times, I encourage you to reach out, where the hand that you grasp will feel comfortingly a lot like your own.

Straight, No Chaser

thelonious-monk

By Mark E. Smith

I’m sure as a younger child I questioned it all. But, by adolescence, I was just me, and there was no room for me or anyone to question it. I mean, it was questioned – who I was because I was different, my disability seemingly made me different – and it would occasionally sting in the moment. However, I ultimately understood I was who I was, I am who I am, let’s get on with this.

The jazz great, Thelonious Monk, was of that spirit, too, long before I was born. During the 1940s through the 1960s, when you had the greats like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday evolving Jazz in a linear form, Monk was innovating on the piano in ways no one had ever seen.

Monk was first and foremost a composer, with musical eccentricities that few could follow. Improvising was a staple of jazz in that era, but his obsession with improvised composition on stage made him a lone wolf, where he didn’t care what the band played or what the audience wished. Monk simply followed his passion key by key, note by note, reveling in what he discovered in the moment, oblivious to all around him. Often, the only queue to what he was playing was his right foot keeping time. He just played as him, and whether the world followed didn’t matter. John Coltrane said, “Working with Monk is like falling down a dark elevator shaft,” and Miles Davis for a time refused to play with Monk due to Monk’s defiance toward staying in line with the rest of the band. In the refined world of jazz performance, Monk was also known for stopping playing mid song, getting up to dance alone as the rest of the band played on. Indeed, Monk was Monk, and he wouldn’t meet arbitrary norms.

In the process of being him, Monk ultimately lived an obscure but free life, where beyond his immediate circle, he was generally unknown during his career, never getting the fame of his contemporaries. Yet, in the process, he composed an astounding body of recorded work, only second to Duke Ellington. Monk largely disappeared from 1971 till his death in 1982, struggling with mental health issues along the way. Posthumously, he was granted a Pulitzer Prize for his body of work, and is subsequently now known as among the greatest jazz composers and musicians of all time.

How many among us just want to be themselves, follow their hearts and passions regardless of what anyone else thinks? Yet, many don’t out of fear of rejection or not fitting in. For all of us, Thelonious Monk left us with striking words of wisdom: “I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing – even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.”