That Man – Spoken Word Video

Transcript:

That man. That man. No Sam I am, but I am a minority, rolling with authority, living life proudly as who I am – because, man, I am that man.

No, I’m not a misfit, but a paradigm shift, where when the world says I can’t, and I say screw you, Captain Sulu – because I can. Man, I am that man.

Like a two-dollar bill oddity disband, I can thrive and jive – on the dance floor, had a boombox back in ’84 – and the band plays on and on and on like the wheels rolling on my chair, wind blowing in hair. Because, man, I am that man.

There’s no price of admission – disability isn’t a curse or condition – it’s just the way it is, say it like it is, live it as it is – screw those with ignorance, where what some call a hairdo is really just friz. Because, man, I’m that man.

Bold and determined, bulldozing like a tank named Sherman, I am a minority, and I’ll use my authority to make the world stand on end – screw you, I refuse to pretend who I am, because I’m proud to be me, all that you see – shout it, cerebral palsy – because, man, I am that man.

The Je Ne Sais Quoi to it All

By Mark E. Smith

There’s an ultimate je ne sais quoi to it all. It’s the tipping point where your skin fits – perfectly. It’s that inexplicable eloquence as you glide through life defying any preconceived notions of who you should be, all because you just are who you are, not a facade or a mirage, but true from the inside, out. Your core, anchored stronger than concrete, even an 8.0 on the Richter scale can’t shake you. As Nina Simone put it, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me – no fear.” And, I’ll add that in everything you do, you don’t need to worry about any of it. Man, Woman, brothers and sisters – the je ne sais quoi of us all – just be. You.

Video:

Foul Mouth Kids

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By Mark E. Smith

In my neighborhood, none of us kids took anything from anyone. It was where the two sides of the tracks intersected – upper- and lower-class kids intertwined. Neither had much parental guidance. You just never knew where anyone’s parents were. Some were drinking in dark bars in the afternoon, others working in the city in high-rises till all hours, and some straddling both lives. Because of this, in my neighborhood, most kids had free reign from parents, and when out wondering our suburban streets, you didn’t take gruff from anyone.

Being the kid who used a wheelchair didn’t make me exempt from any of it – the dysfunctional home, taking jabs from the other kids or dishing it back. Mostly, though, I kept to myself after school. At 14, I had a lot going on teaching myself to be independent with cerebral palsy. I was three or four years into my mission of being as independent as possible and I saw a lot of progress. My main self-therapy was pushing my manual wheelchair for two hours or so after school every day. The repetitive motion of pushing my manual wheelchair was a sound exercise in strength and coordination. But, I was dismal at it. I’d started a few years earlier barely able to propel across our living room, and by this point, I could make it around our neighborhood. Yet, there was no grace in it.

I pushed painfully slowly. Really, it wasn’t even pushing – pushing implies consistent movement. For me, it was push, roll feet or inches, regather my flailing, spastic limbs and then push again. All that mattered, though, was that I was seeing progress.

As I went out each day, I purposely stayed on quiet streets. I needed to do what I had to do and didn’t want to be bothered. Besides, I never knew if anyone would understand why I was doing what I was doing, and I didn’t want to have to answer any questions. When I was eight, I was in a grocery store trying to buy a pack of gum and an elderly woman made a huge scene that crippled people like me shouldn’t be out alone in public. That experience shook me a bit, and I suppose it made me want to avoid such a scene while out pushing my manual wheelchair, self-aware of how awkward I looked. So, the side streets were my sanctuary, where I could push and progress at my own pace, in solitude.

There was a hill leading to our driveway. It wasn’t the steepest of hill, but long – maybe two blocks – lined by vacant land on each side. It took me a good year to get to where I could push up that hill myself, but I got to where I could do it, although it was forever a challenge, inch by inch.

One afternoon while halfway up the hill, a group of neighborhood kids came up from behind me.

“Need help?” one of them asked as they all surrounded me.

“Do I look like it?” I asked with an attitude, pushing toward a boy standing in my path.

“Yeah,” they all replied at once, laughing.

“Screw you!” I shouted, giving my chair another push, wanting to be left alone.

“Screw you!” they shouted back as they walked in front of me.

“You’ll never make it up the hill, retard,” one kid yelled.

I pushed even harder.

“And I’m going to kick your ass in school tomorrow!” I yelled.

Of course I made it up the hill, and I didn’t kick the kid’s ass in school the next day. I guess achieving one of my two goals wasn’t bad considering the circumstances.

The Iris Effect

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By Mark E. Smith

Ninety-four year old fashion icon, Iris Apfel, once said, “I’m not going to be a rebel and offend anybody, but I’m not going to live in somebody else’s image.”

Being somewhat of a public figure, I recently was engaged in a several-day online banter with an individual being very critical of me, to the point of irrational. Still, I felt the need to respond to his criticisms. For one, I didn’t want false statements about me left unaddressed in a public forum, and secondly, I was trying to be respectful and not ignore the individual. I didn’t take it too personally, but I also didn’t just let it emotionally go – and logistically it consumed a lot of time. However, I finally realized I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, and I didn’t care what else was said of me – and I simply ceased the unhealthy dialogue. I know who I am, I know what I do, and I’m proud of it all, so there’s no need to waste time with concern over others’ opinion of me – good or bad.

Most of us have been in this type of predicament, sometimes more serious than others, right down to abusive. I mean, maybe you know what it’s like to be inappropriately criticized, judged or condemned by others. And, it’s most painful when it’s by those who claim to love us. Something as small as a comment like, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” after we’ve gotten dressed up can sting. Of course, situations like when parents stop talking to a child because he or she came out as gay can crush. From tiny comments to huge judgments, it all just hurts, doesn’t it?

But, there’s a way to stop it all, to take away the pain – and, more importantly, remove the power of others from effecting us. We need to realize that, if we’re good people, living good lives, no one has the right to criticize, condemn or judge us, period.

As I grew up with a severe disability, it was always in the back of my head whether others would accept me? This insecurity extended well into my adulthood. Granted, I was really good at concealing it, where self-confidence was a mask I wore. However, in my 30s – and it’s unfortunate that it took me that long to come to such a simple truth – I realized that I was to be accepted as I was, and I didn’t need anyone’s approval toward my having a disability. It’s really a brilliantly childish life strategy: I don’t need anyone to accept me because I don’t accept anyone who doesn’t accept me. It’s my ball, and if you don’t like the way I play, then I’m taking my ball and going home!

See, the prize is in you and me, not those who criticize, condemn or judge. I’ve run into several circumstances where friends have come out as gay to their parents, only to be shunned. Again, imagine how painful it is to have your parents shun you. However, who should shun who in such a circumstance? It’s painful and hard, but a child needs to say to his or her parents, I’m your child and I deserve to be loved as-is, and guess what, folks, until you love me as I deserve, you’re going to have an empty chair at the dining room table.

Life and relationships are full of compromises, but our intrinsic value isn’t. We shouldn’t live to others’ criticism, condemnation and judgment. I know, it can be hard to break free of investing in what others think of us, especially when it’s gotten to a toxic level in family dynamics and relationships. Yet, we owe it to ourselves to be our own cheerleaders, champions of the self, where the only opinion that counts is our own, based strictly on the positive, meaningful lives we lead.

Larger Than Our Pasts

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By Mark E. Smith

A friend and I were eating at a fast-food joint when a couple sat at the table beside us.

The woman nicely said, “I forgot napkins.”

The guy burst out in anger, calling her filthy names, noting over and over how “stupid” she was.

Yet, she was unfazed by the verbal abuse.

My friend and I were mortified, noting if he does that in public, can you fathom the abuse at home?

“That’s learned behavior,” my friend said. “I guarantee you they both were raised in abusive homes.”

My friend was undoubtedly right. When you come from a realm of dysfunction – albeit, addiction, abuse, divorce, and so on – as a child, you’re four times as likely to live these as an adult, according to the National Institute on Health.

It’s the nature of the beast that psychologists call classical conditioning – learned ways become innate behaviors that go unquestioned by us. Put simply, if you’re raised by a verbally abusive parent, you’re likely to verbally abuse others or accept being verbally abused.

Interestingly, circus elephants are a perfect (but sad) example of this. Elephants are gigantic creatures led around by tiny tethers. They could break free in an instant, but they don’t? Why?

As babies, circus elephants are restrained, where, as hard as they try, they can’t escape. Although they grow to enormous strength, that early conditioning makes them innately believe that they’re forever restrained, even by a shoe-lace-thick line.

The fact is, we’re not much different than elephants, where extremely unhealthy treatment becomes innate behaviors. Family legacies can be wonderful; yet they can also destroy us when unhealthy. However, we truly don’t have to live unhealthy legacies – we can break free of their torturous tethers. No, we don’t see a lot of people do it because it takes so much, literally being so self-aware and courageously strong that you’re willing to question that which is all you know.

I grew up under extremely unhealthy circumstances, and while I was fortunate enough to question them – and that’s the only way to break free of a toxic legacy – I wasn’t totally successful at breaking free of them. I married an addict in my 20s. By my 30s, I knew my daughter was in deep trouble having a parent along the lines of my own, and I had to do two steps to hopefully pull her as far away as I could from that destructive legacy. Firstly, I had to get my ex-wife out of the home. But, secondly – and more importantly – I had to somehow help my daughter dispose of what she innately knew of addiction and cut that as her legacy. She had to do what many people never want to do – namely because it’s so painful – and question why her mom did what she did.

My daughter is now in college, and beyond all of her amazing accomplishments, the one I’m most inspired by is the courage she’s investing in breaking free of a dysfunctional legacy and creating another of self-awareness and emotional health. As a psychology major, she’s investing not just in her coursework and community, but in herself. The candor and awareness – sometimes the struggle – that I see in her papers is breathtaking:

I hid behind the white bedroom door at around 9 p.m. on that weeknight. I had school the next morning. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling as I stared into Dad’s dark brown eyes, both waiting for the police and my aunt to arrive. Yet, I’d never seen my father’s heart more heavy than in that moment. It was clearly a breaking point of fear and guilt and decision.

On the other side of this – the emotions, the door – was my mother. She was on the other side of that door, kitchen knife in hand, trying to get in, to get us. At that point, I realized that I had lost my mother for good to addiction.

The realities of addiction were imprinted on me – forever. They started when I was three, escalated in my adolescence, and remain chilling today when I have the strength to think about them.

…As for my mother, she’s no longer battling addiction, but in hospice dying from it – a mind and body destroyed. As for me, I’m still battling her addiction as part of my past, but with a better understanding not to make it part of my own future, but to help those where there’s still hope to break the cycle. That’s the best I can do with my legacy of addiction.

See, that’s the key to untethering ourselves from potentially life-destroying legacies: If we question them, it’s impossible to relive them. What happens if a 6,000lb grown elephant questions its tether? It breaks free. There’s a moment where we, too, can break free in realizing we don’t have to live that way – we can be larger than our pasts.

Who Really has the Power

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By Mark E. Smith

I thrive on possessing power. But, not in the way you might think. In my business and family, I, in fact, practice the opposite, seeing my roles as humbly serving others. And, yet, when it comes to me, power is synonymous with personal accountability. I learned at an early age that in order to have power, you must be personally accountable; and, if you’re not personally accountable, you have no power. You can control life or life can control you. It’s initially circumstance, but ultimately choice.

It all started with my failing biology. I was in high school and flunking badly, namely because I wasn’t doing my homework. I wanted to do my homework, but my home life was a mess. My mother and stepfather made our home Hell. I came home from each day to my mother in the most horrendous conditions – always drunk, but sometimes high, overdosed, manic, or suicidal – and then my stepfather came home drunk, where they fought and smashed up the house. My mother loved to break things and my stepfather loved to scream, and it made for long nights. On top of that, I was struggling to develop my independent living skills due to my cerebral palsy. How was I to somehow do homework with so much volatility in my life?

I lay in bed looking at my report card one night feeling ashamed because it was dotted with Fs and Ds. I’d worked really hard to be mainstreamed in an era when it wasn’t common practice, and I was watching it all slip away. I tossed the report card on the floor and decided my parents and cerebral palsy weren’t going to dictate my grades. I had the power, not them.

I went from a failing student to the honor roll the next report card period by literally locking my bedroom door in the evenings and letting my parents trash the house and there lives as I focused on my homework. I remember typing my homework while trembling and crying as my mom pounded on my door, screaming. Still, I wasn’t giving her power over my life. My grades were my responsibility – and I had the power to succeed over all.

Those years of finishing high school with A’s didn’t make me smarter, but they did make me wiser. I learned that our lives, in the long term, aren’t dictated by anyone or anything, but us. Circumstances may set us up as victims, but we can choose to be victors.

Ultimate Rebellion

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By Mark E. Smith

In preparation of my daughter leaving for college, we cleaned out closets. To my daughter’s delight, we found a stash of 20-year-old newspaper stories on me. One was titled, “Limbaugh of cripple guys.” No, it wasn’t because I was a right-wing conservative – far from it – but because I had a pretty popular voice in mainstream columns and articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and alike that intertwined disability culture with all sorts of topics. When Ghirardelli Square was being pressured by those around the newly-enacted ADA to spend $2 million dollars to build a ramp right around the corner from an existing up-to-code ramp, I was the only one with a disability to write that such money should go toward more rational causes like addressing the city’s homeless problem. Those with disabilities were outraged at me; the general readership applauded me. I, however, didn’t care what anyone thought. I was simply a writer who had my own sense of social justice, and wasn’t afraid to voice it – with a little youthful rebellion mixed in.

I recently took my daughter to see “Straight Outta Compton,,” the bio-pic about N.W.A, the pioneering rap group that was truly misunderstood – and took both a page from the Civil Rights movement decades before and foreshadowed 21st-century race relations. I remember hearing N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” album in 1988 – and have listened to it ever since – thinking, This is a brilliant, brave, rebellious protest album above all else.

F@ckin with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics

Those lyrics placed in context of what we’re seeing today – the incredibly painful, strained relations between the police and, namely but not exclusively, the black community – prove historically accurate and eerily prophetic.

The next eve, I was with my fiancée at a jazz festival, where so many were of my generation and older, some having lived during the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and everyone sat neatly in rows of folding chairs, the bands cordially playing. And, I thought, Where’s the rebellion, where’s the social commentary from the diverse stage that black lives matter, especially given the events of recent, not to mention history? Even my daughter’s pep band at George Mason University has taken to playing a very political Rage Against the Machine song. Come on, Spyro Gyra, pound out an instrumental of N.W.A.

Then, as I sat there pondering all this, it happened. I saw a breathtaking example of the truest form of rebellion, about not being constrained by the social conformity of sitting in perfectly-formed chairs, listening to politically-correct musicians, following the other sheep, but about being true to what you stand for, who you are, what compels your soul.

In the row in front of us, a young lady with a progeriod syndrome – bald, aged facial features, frail stature – walked out to the aisle with who I presume was her father, and they began getting down, dancing. I bet many at the event would love the self-freedom, the rebellion to just follow their soul and dance in front of hundreds of composed strangers in perfectly-aligned folding chairs. But, she was the only one who did.

I understood at that moment that the spirit of true rebellion comes from one simple truth: no matter if you’re N.W.A or that dancing young lady, true rebellion is when you have the courage and the confidence to just be yourself.

Jumping Out of Airplanes

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By Mark E. Smith

Have you noticed that when it comes to making big life decisions, there’s rarely a “right time,” and that those who wait for the right time, rarely end up making such life changes? Why is that?

Typically because there’s never a right time when it comes to making big life changes. Yet, so many of us create right-time rules that seem responsible, but really prevent us from ever making big moves – because the fabricated right time never comes. People set the most unrealistic prerequisites that they ultimately sabotage what’s truly important, never making big life moves. I’ve had kids – there’s never a right time, but it always remarkably works.

My fiancée and I, as responsible 40-somethings with kids – one off to college, the other, second grade – have had the “right time” all figured out. Being bicoastal, we went between the two coasts for almost two years, ultimately planning every “right time” detail for her move to the East Coast. Details surrounding houses and dogs and kids and finances went on and on, and every time we tried to figure out the “right time,” something logistical wasn’t the right time. We began in May working on the move with August being the “right time.” However, based on our right-time ideals, certain logistical aspects simply hadn’t worked out. What we’re we to do? Put off the move, put off the wedding, ration our love until the intangible “right time” somehow appeared, maybe next spring?

No, we decided the only right time was now. I mean, really, with houses, dogs, kids, finances and on and on, there’s no right time! We just had to do it. We didn’t have it all figured out, but got creative and focused on what was most important, what was at our core desire: to bring our family together. So, on a Sunday night, we booked one way plane tickets, and declared three weeks from then was the “right time” to move. Of course, it wasn’t logistically the right time – but it never would be! – but it was emotionally the right time.

And, that’s what the right time comes down to – that is, are you emotionally ready to make a life changing decision? I don’t care how responsible you think you are, if you play the waiting-for-the-right-time game, you will almost never accomplish your goals. Accomplishment comes from doing, not waiting. You have to have the courage and the confidence to go for it.

See, there’s only one way to skydive – you jump out of an airplane. If you wait, you just end up back on the ground, sitting in an airplane seat. However, if you want to experience the awesome thrill of skydiving, you just have to jump.

Life is like skydiving, if you wait too long, opportunity passes you by. However, if you know what you want, and you take a healthy leap of faith, you’ll be astounded at the rewards that you experience.

Graduations

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By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, my daughter graduates high school this eve. She’s the second to do so in our family’s history. I was the first. Great grandparents, grandparents, my parents, aunts, uncles, no one on any limb of my family tree graduated high school.

However, it’s not like everyone doesn’t try. You start out with all of the hope in the world as a child , but in a realm where we know that cycles of dysfunction are so complex – right down to aspects like addiction having a genetic component – it just gets a grip on you, tough to escape as you hit your teens, your adulthood. I know – I’ve been there.

My daughter’s mother came from a family history of addiction, as well, and not with bitterness or anger or resentment, but with sadness, I watched her fall into the grips of addiction. They say that if you come from a family of dysfunction, you’ll either become it or marry it. Ironically, as 27-year-olds, with our daughter born, my ex-wife and I thought that we’d broken the cycle – we didn’t drink, both went to college, and life was on track.

However, as my daughter hit her toddler years, life went off of the tracks, and my ex feel into a life of mental illness and addiction compelled by her troubled upbringing – while I don’t believe in excuses, I do have empathy for reasons. Again, you can’t fault trying.

As the vortex swirled in our family, I consciously chose to swoop my daughter out. We all were in the generational cycle of dysfunction – my ex-wife became it, I was married to it, and, most disturbing of all, my daughter was growing up in it.

Soon enough, my daughter and I were on our own, my sister a major source of support. And, as my daughter grew, thriving year after year, I was both inspired and scared to death. After all, I was the only person I knew in my family tree to stay on the track during high school, and my worst fear was that my past, her mother’s past would become my daughter’s. Yet, as she grew into a young lady, like watching a thoroughbred round the bend, she never skipped a beat. I can’t count how many of her plays, band concerts, honors clubs, and so many other functions I went to. By 2013, she was named among the top 250 youth scholars in the country, and simultaneously was awarded a scholarship to a summer performing arts program for the top youth musicians in the world – literally. And, all the while, I watched not just with a father’s pride, but awe-inspired by what a person can accomplish with dedication, ambition and passion.

Tonight, my daughter will be among the most honored graduates in her class, her gown decorated with more honors – a stole, multiple awarded cords, so many award pins that my sister had to strategically align them – than I ever knew existed. And, as she walks across the stage, she won’t be the second to change our family tree, after all. No, she will be the first.

See, what I’ve witnessed through my own plight, and now my daughter’s, is that it’s irrelevant where we come from. From a lineage of addiction, poverty, incarceration, illiteracy, and mental illness, none of that crosses the stage with my daughter tonight. My daughter, it proves, will cross that stage as each of us can, where the only legacy her life carries is that of her own – and it’s amazing.

Three Words

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By Mark E. Smith

The ultimate liberation of the spirit comes when you look into the mirror, realizing that you can’t change who you are – based on any number of factors totally beyond your control – and you just say to the world with pride and contentment: Here I am….