Part of the Story: Lego, Neil Gaiman, and the Importance of Inclusion

wheelchair guy

The new wheelchair-using Lego MiniFigure (Photo by Daniel Karmann/AFP/Getty Images)

My friend Alex just sent me a truly wonderful write-up from the Guardian about the newest member of the Lego MiniFigure family, who happens to use a wheelchair. He will be a part of their Fun in the Park set, which you will be able to buy for me as a half-birthday gift this June.

Even though you can build your own Lego-Person-in-a-Wheelchair, people are rightfully stoked over this new arrival. Even Lego was taken aback by the enthusiasm. Why all the hubbub? Because making something widely available that represents a person with a disability as a typical member of the community is the type of classy move that should become normalized. Like opening the door for someone else, or wearing a monocle.

For many people with disabilities, it is still remarkable to see examples of our experience in popular culture that are not somehow tinged with pity, otherness, or negativity. Think of the movies, television, commercials, books, art, modeling, and photography you’ve seen recently.

When did you last see

Someone using a wheelchair, walker, cane, or crutches?

A deaf or hard-of-hearing person?

A blind or visually-impaired person?

An autistic person?

Someone with an intellectual disability?

Someone with an “invisible” disability?

A person with mental illness?

And what was their story like? How well and fully did you get to know them: their flaws, their quirks, their sense of humor?

It doesn’t work to have a person with a disability in every story, playing every role, etc. And I don’t consider myself someone easily offended or looking to pick a fight in that arena. But disability is a big part of our human story. So, I’d appreciate an acknowledgement of that fact that more than a handful of times a decade.

And the way a story is told is important, too. 2108198

To be honest, I’m still surprised every time I see someone with a disability represented in media, art or pop culture in anything other than a stereotypical manner. If the disabled character isn’t a token, a poster child, a weakling, a burden, an utter inspiration, or a saint, it’s safe to say I’m sufficiently shocked.

Playing a part in the pop cultural/social/artistic narrative- and the complexity/significance of that role- has far-reaching importance. When I see someone I identify with, I am reminded of my own role in the world. It is a welcome affirmation of my own significance my community, and in the lives of those around me. But when my experience is wholly absent from the most popular media, the most widely read stories, it is difficult to believe that society expects me to play an important part.

Of course, I know there examples and exceptions beyond our Lego friend. One of the more notable ones is Odd & the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. I won’t give anything away except the part that made me cry snotty tears (thanks, Neil). When Odd is offered a chance to have his “bum” leg exchanged for a “better” one, he refuses. It’s a pain sometimes, but overall, Odd likes himself and his life the way they are, weakness and all.

Odd shows us that the adventure of life should be inclusive; and that life is more about goodness than perfection. And Lego Guy reminds us that people with disabilities are pretty chill for the most part, and spend a lot of our time doing non-inspiring things.

But perhaps the most important thing Odd and the Lego Guy are teaching me is this: one sure way to fill the gaps of cultural invisibility is with creativity, with art, and with the truth of my own story.

From the Desk of Kid President: a Personal Pep Talk

Yesterday, I wrote this blog, telling you about Robby, a third-grader with a giant, vibrant heart for humanity. He and his brother-in-law, Brad, make a series of Pep Talk videos for the Whole World. Robby [Kid President] is fond of calling people to be their awesome-est. And dancing like a crazy man.

Following my blog post, I wrote KP an email.

This afternoon, I received a reply from Brad, the brother-in-law of Kid President.  Brad makes the remarkable video series. Here’s an excerpt from the message he wrote:

Hey, Beth! Thank you so much for your message. Looked at your blog. Love what you are up to. Beautiful story you have . . .[and thanks] for sending KP and I some encouragement. I’ll share it with him! . . . The fact that you took time to write us tells me that you are a kind, compassionate and creative person. These are the exact qualities of every person who has ever made a positive dent on the world. You were made to be awesome. I’m excited to hear about what you’ll create and do to make the world dance. . . It means so much to both of us that you believe in what we’re doing. Keep dancing. Lots of love to you [from us]! – Brad [the guy who makes the videos]

Wow! My very own Pep Talk. Thanks, Brad and KP [And what do you know? We’re all Tennesseans! Rock n’ Roll, dance champs!]

I will keep you guys in the loop, and I promise I will work all the harder to be a party and make the world awesome!

Want to know more about KP? Keep up here on his website.

People v. Muppets

It’s gloomy out today. I can admit that-on days like this-I need a little good news. So, naturally, I was excited to see the Muppets in the headlines again.

I assumed it was another great review of their hilarious new movie. After all, it has gotten a stellar reception, and has had myself and many of my peers laughing till we cried.

But then, I have always been stupidly optimistic.

Of course, this article wasn’t about how Kermit and friends have, yet again, made a new generation of people fall in love with their goofy humor, sense of friendship to everyone,  and zany songs.

Why would it be about something like that? Who would read such illogical spouting? Who could support such fallacies?

It was about something much more grave. Much more serious. Much more pressing.

Yep, you guessed it: the Muppets are Communists.

Wait a second. Sharing. Swedish Chef. You sure they're not Socialists?

Fox News commentators were up in arms about the Muppets last week, because they’re picking on Oil. That’s right, the claim was that-since the villain in the movie is an oil baron whose name happens to be Tex Richman [snicker, snicker]- the Muppets are sending kids the wrong messages. The kind that are “anti-corporate”, or worse, “attacking the oil industry”.

I’m sorry. I had no idea kids wanted or needed pro-oil, pro-corporate messages. Since they’re children, I thought they would be begging to go to the new Muppet movie so they can see Kermit sing and dance and play and have fun with his friends. But they’re kids. So they obviously don’t know what they’re missing.

And if the writers of this movie threw in a few little jokes, that is to be expected. This movie is, after all, a comedy. It is not an instructional video, a newscast, or-as the Fox crowd seems to think- a license to suspend  basic common sense and reasoning skills.

I think  it’s clear that Eric Bolling and Dan Gainor just need a giant, corporate-sized, oil-filled hug.

I mean, let’s face it: when watching the Muppets’ new movie, the average kid is going to say “Fart shoes! Awesome!” not “Sorry, Mom and Dad. I just figured out you’re the 1%. I’m pitching a tent in the yard from here on out.”

Like any well-written family comedy, the jokes in The Muppets that are written to entertain the adults will be there until the kids in the audience get old enough to appreciate them [or, as the case may be, freak out about them in completely irrational ways on a national news broadcast].

Although you could agree that the Muppets’ insistence on sharing the spotlight, celebrating differences, and being full of joy and exuberance might be decidedly anti-corporate, no one declares any such sentiment in this film. In fact, Kermit lives in a huge house in Hollywood, and Miss Piggy works for Vogue in Paris. Gonzo also runs his own very successful plumbing business.

As far as I can see, the Muppets have spent their time apart taking as much advantage as they can of social and economic opportunities, just like every other hard-working American.

And no one in the movie bashes oil. Get a grip, Fox News. Besides, everybody knows the Muppets have driven cars since 1979, when Kermit ditched his bike for Fozzie’s Studebaker for their cross-country jaunt in the Muppet Movie. Add in the Electric Mayhem’s bus, and the huge car they share in their current film, and it’s clear the gang is doing their part to show that massive, faceless oil conglomerates are people, too.

The folks at Fox are right about one thing, though. Kermit and the Muppets have been successfully sending messages to children for years. Messages like “Keep believing, keep pretending” and “It’s not easy being green. . . [but] I’m green, it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful and I think it’s what I want to be”.

Use your imagination, be faithful and hopeful, and be happy with you as you are. You read that right. These are the kinds of subversive messages I heard from the Kermit and the Muppets throughout my entire childhood. And as recent as  a couple of weeks ago, when I strolled out of the theatre humming along with a giant grin on my face, gladder to be alive than I had been in weeks, I knew it. Those adorable, loving Muppets had gotten me again.

They had sent me another message!

Life’s a happy song?! I don’t believe this.

What’s wrong with you people-er-creatures?

I can’t believe you actually expect me to take that with me through life. But let’s leave me and my desperate need for basic reassurance out of this.

You’re telling me that you want to wave that kind of message around in the faces of children? You want them to hear over and over that everything will be okay, you can do it, and you’re not alone?!

Be my guest.

just a bunch of kooks

You have probably seen these people before, and are aware of the significance of this photo in the world[s] of music and pop culture.

See the guy over there on the sidewalk, just behind that chap in the white? That’s Paul Cole. He is now 92-years-old, is still living in England, and has never listened to Abbey Road. When asked about the day this picture was taken, Cole said he thought the pack of guys repeatedly crossing the road was “just a bunch of  kooks”. As the article below explains,  he does know about the Beatles, and has heard a few of their songs. He “simply prefers classical music”.

I have to state the obvious: I just love this story. Not only do I find Paul Cole and his simplicity endearing, the whole thing makes me think about things [and not just things like how you could go your entire life without listening to musical genius the likes of Abbey Road].

It reminds me to pay attention. Because I never know who might cross my path, where I might be able to go, or what I might be able to do when I get there.

It reminds me to be present. I might not have to do some big, incredible thing to be remembered. I may just be able to sit where I am and be who I am. In fact, most of the time, I think that’s the whole idea.

And it reminds me I need perspective.  It’s all in how you look at it. Whether it’s others, my experience, or my self, how I choose to see things really does color my experience.

I may be a kook, or I may be rock n’ roll.

Mellowdies (10 low key records I think you should own.)

If you live in Nashville,  you may have noticed  a bit of pressure hanging in the air. And I’m not speaking barometrically. Music is – in a literal sense- a way of life for many of us. As such, What Type of Music One is Into (or Not Into)  is common fodder for almost any conversation.

Whether sharing a cafe table with a stranger during the lunch rush, trying not to look ambiguous when lurking by What-You’re-Pretty-Sure-is-a-Tour-Bus, or on a first date, musical tastes are never far down the list of topics up for discussion. [The date scenario is partly in jest. But I can admit I have “ruled out” a candidate or two based on his questionable musical choices; or on his dismissal of a favorite band or record of my own.]

So, if music is such a vast galaxy of shimmery, swirly, white-hot possibilities, why the pressure?

Because I have realized (in spite of the after-school-special type things I tell myself to the contrary) that I will always want other people to think I’m cool. At least a little bit. Even if it is in a “that girl is odd, but at least she is confidently odd and I can dig that” kind of way. I want people to know that I am well-versed. That I have diversified, eclectic tastes. That I listen to a variety of genres and regularly use terms like “fusion”, “chamber”, and “Afrobeat” with aloof indifference.

But, when faced with the whole of Music, I have to- well- face the music. There are lots of bands I don’t know, lots of producers whose credentials I couldn’t care less about, and lots of genres of which I have barely scratched the surface. The frustrating part of that is I want to listen to it all, weighing the merits of each and every note with delicacy and precision. But this is impossible. So I turn to the liberating part of the realization. I am free to enjoy what I enjoy at my own pace, and to delve into the minutia of whatever genre, artist, or label on which I choose to become an expert. It’s a labor of love. And today you guys get the fruit: a tiny little bushel though it may be in the scheme of things.

I do not pretend to deny that “low key”, “laid back”, “quiet”, and “stuff that puts you to sleep in a good way” cannot be applied to the majority of my music catalog. I have spent a long time exploring the Melloverse. And it has some beautiful things to offer. So I bring you my Ten Favorite Mellow Albums (with an audio/video track from each; insert usual disclaimer about how I don’t own any of it here.) It’s a sampler platter, piled high with morsels of musical deliciousness! Oh boy, oh boy!

10. Come Away With Me (Norah Jones) “The Nearness of You” (originally by Cole Porter)

9.  Lou Rhodes (One Good Thing) “One Good Thing”

8.  Sondre Lerche (Sondre Lerche) “Two Way Monologues”

7.  Songs for Christmas (Sufjan Stevens) “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

6. Up to Now (Snow Patrol) “Run”

5. Brett Dennen (Brett Dennen) “The One Who Loves You the Most”

4.  The Shepherd’s Dog (Iron and Wine) “Boy with a Coin”

3.  O (Damien Rice) “Cannonball”

2.  We Were Here- (Joshua Radin) “Sky” (feat. Ingrid Michaelson)

1. Poetry and Aeroplanes (Teitur) “I Was Just Thinking”

Mellow may not be your thing. I suppose I can (begrudgingly appear to) appreciate that. But with any luck, these selections will spark your interest enough to send you tumbling head first  into the placid sea of all that is lyrical and laid back. (Sort of like Augustus Gloop into the chocolate river: except you won’t almost drown, or be serenaded by creepy little orange men. At least I highly doubt that will happen.)

There are many more great records that didn’t make the list. Not because they were without beauty or merit, but because I wanted to give you a gender-diverse list, that mixed the familiar with the lesser known.  I hope you are able to sit back, relax, and appreciate  this little cluster of sweet delights. Perhaps you will even add your own selections to the list, or try something new.

No pressure, though.

Duskish: a Biting Parody

Once upon a time, there were two teenagers.

They lived in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll call them Eddie and Izzie. Eddie and Izzie were madly in love, and knew they were meant to be together. They knew this because they found one another attractive and liked to kiss each other a lot. They would kiss each other at parties,  in front of family and friends , while camping, and in huge fields of pretty flowers. When they weren’t kissing each other, they would read one another poetry and talk about all the things they loved about one  another. They never talked about “liking” each other. Who needs to like someone when you’re so in love, anyway?  Everything was looking great for the teenagers. Those crazy kids.

Now, every relationship has its problems. And theirs was no exception. See, Izzie was a little young for Eddie. A few centuries her senior, Eddie ran into a spot of bother somewhere back in Victorian times. His blood was forcibly removed; leaving him a bit cold natured, nutrient deprived, and perpetually adolescent. Ever since then, he has had to roam the earth, replacing his blood supply every night by depriving other living things of theirs. It’s only fair.

Eddie had always been fashionable, and he kept with the times. So in Izzie’s  era, he looked like some kind of Nouveau Hipster. With bushy eyebrows and what can only be characterized as a severe Vitamin D deficiency. Sometimes he sparkled. We’ll attribute that to his charm, his compulsion to be honorable, and his love for Izzie, all of which also refused to die.

Izzie was an average high school girl: brooding, impulsive, and never without heavy makeup and  a closet full of American Apparel outfits. She was about to graduate high school, and had an endless number of possibilities before her after she received her diploma. So of course she planned to choose the most logical and liberating option: voluntarily becoming undead and having to separate herself from all her friends and family, and any semblance of  a normal life. She just loved that Eddie so much. Which she always told him. All the time. Like, seriously, she never talked about anything else but Eddie.

Her Concerned Over-Protective (COP) father was worried that Izzie’s obsession with Eddie was borderline clinical. So he suggested she spend time with other people. Enter Jake, Izzie’s best friend.  COP father was happy when Jake came around more often, since he was unaware that Jake had the power to turn into a freakishly large, flesh-eating wolf, an ability Jake happened to share with all his relatives. You know what they say: the family that morphs into gigantic nocturnal beasts together stays together. Coincidentally, so does the family that steals the lives of anything with a heartbeat; all of Eddie’s family happened to share his taste for plasma and platelets.

Jake never wore shirts, which was not at all hygienic; but it seemed to work fine for him, and it complimented his inexhaustible supply of jorts. He was not only incredibly jealous of Eddie and prone to uppity fights with him; he was also in love with Izzie. (I know, who saw that coming?) He spent half of his time bitter and whiny, and the other half hitting on Izzie and trying to convince her that Eddie was all wrong for her. But what do best friends know? Izzie wasn’t buying it.

It’s a good thing all these kids had their looks to console them, because love triangles are never any fun otherwise. For a while, Izzie decided to spend some time indulging her inner monologue, with each of the guys who fancied her competing for her attention with trinkets, shouting, and talking about how weird the other guy’s family was. Eddie had a little bit of an edge, not only because Izzie liked- I’m sorry, loved-  him best, but because he was good at mind games. Really good. He and his whole family had a way of reading people that you could only call visionary.

But all of their happy, drama-free, totally relatable lives came to a halt when a lady with interests similar to Eddie and his family decided she wanted to kill Izzie. She had some serious emotional baggage, and she figured that the best way to cope with the fact that Eddie happened to have killed her one true love was to go after his–with an army of ruthless, ravenous blood-sucking minions at her disposal.

What to do, what to do?

Eddie realized a time of uncertainty, fear, and emotional turmoil was the perfect time for a marriage proposal. Ever the clear head and rational thinker, Izzie accepted. Smart girl. No complication there.

In addition to relying on the strength of the Bonds of True Love, the boys decided to ally themselves with one another against the crazies, to save Izzie. And they graciously invited their families to join the fun. Jake, his impeccable abs, and the rest of his family were a little reluctant to participate. But in the end, they were all united by their love for Izzie, and their desire to rip apart some folks. They did some play fighting in the woods to get ready for the big day. And they come up with a totally original plan: form a trap using decoys, and lead the people they’re fighting against into it. It was mind-blowing. Everyone was immediately on board.

After everyone stood around in formations and gazed at one another for a while, the day of the showdown finally arrived. Eddie and Izzie stayed behind, hiding in their tent. Eddie probably would have been useful fighting for Izzie in a literal sense, but he decided it made much more practical sense to lurk around and dote on her. This was totally out of character for Eddie, but stories need to be a little unpredictable. After Jake stole a kiss from Izzie- which she gave him partly because she loved him, and partly as an alternative to his suicide- he charged into the fray on all fours.

The battle began. There was lots of leaping, lots of super fast running, and limbs and bodies were flying everywhere. Eddie and Izzie were having a lovely time at the campsite keeping the heck out of dodge. But wait, the leader of the enemy army figured out that Eddie and Izzie would probably be in the same place! She was just that intuitive. Her crony came with her. It was about to get real. Luckily, one of the wolves conveniently appeared out of nowhere and chomped down the crony. This made it much easier for Eddie to use his craft and cunning to exploit the deepest pain of Army Leader Lady and provoke her into fighting him to avenge her true love. They were neck and neck for a while, just long enough to give the irony of that phrase time to set in. Then Eddie, with the class and restraint he was so known for, broke the lady’s head clean off her body.

Some more of Eddie’s fold showed up: these cats were large and in charge, except for their leader, who was not large at all. She was a petite little blonde with a voice far too young for her regal airs, but that seemed intimidating enough for everyone. Besides,  she and everyone with her had cloaks and creepy red eyes, hallmarks of authority in circles like Eddie’s. They made foreboding remarks about some things, were generally mean and unhelpful, and left everyone in the clearing looking pensive and solemn.

The trap was successful. For whatever reason, the psycho-villains  hadn’t been expecting gargantuan mutant attack wolves to crush their brittle bodies. Go figure. But Eddie and Izzie weren’t out of the woods yet. In fact they were still in that very locale when they discovered Jake had sustained some bumps and bruises- and shattered bones- as a result of his valiant effort. Luckily, one of Eddie’s relatives had medical training, and agreed to help Jake on his way to recovery with an excruciating procedure. Problem solved.

With the battle over, Izzie  left Jake’s house bearing the knowledge of his denial-driven, clingy devotion. With Jake’s sweaty awkwardness out of the way, Izzie was already feeling much better.

As we all know, nothing cheers one up  after a terrifying face-off in the forest like a hokey graduation speech. Which was lucky, because- as soon as everyone changed out of battle gear and into robes and hats- it was time for Eddie and Izzie to finish high school and prepare for the time-honored rite of passage into adulthood: marriage and raising a family, in utter isolation and devoid of true life for all eternity. A little time smooching in their favorite field served to put things into proper perspective. Hearts bursting with love and all doubts assuaged, they strolled , full of romantic bliss, into the sunset.

Eddie and Izzie had but one more happy task between them and picking out floral arrangements. They had to tell Izzie’s hereto oblivious  COP father  the good news: his only daughter would be marrying that guy he had reservations about and going to live with him, never to see her dad- or anyone else she loved- ever again.  All seemed right, functional and relationally healthy.

And they Not-Quite-Lived happily ever after.