Wednesday, January 11, 2006


I have certain personal interests of a physical … I suppose athletic nature. Certain strength or running goals that I periodically work toward. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time at my local Y. Once a week a group of fellas gets together to use the basketball gym, half-court. These guys are just ferocious, all sweaty and shiny, pounding around the court like they wanted to break through the floor. Some of them drive for over an hour, one way, to meet up with their buddies. That really brought it home to me, when I heard it. Because they are all, you see, every one of them, well under five feet tall -- mostly under four. Dwarfs. Midgets. Little people.

Ha ha. Isn’t that funny? Midgets, playing basketball. For real. Like, they’re serious.

But of course, it’s about isolation.

Everybody has their dignity. To live in a body that says point-and-laugh-at-me cannot be such an easy thing. Actually, it's sort of a hard thing. Some people refuse to laugh at all, because, say, one of their teeth is misaligned. At least they’re not laughing at midgets. But they might do well to count their blessings, and smile a smile that bursts irrepressibly from their hearts because gratitude is just a twist away from joy. After all, they don’t have to drive for an hour one way to be around their fellow one-misaligned-tooth peers, where they can feel the same, where they can just fit in.

People have the right to be called by the name they wished to be called by. Mostly. The castrated male who wants to be called "she" is just outa luck. Sorry, dude. But Negro, colored, Afro-American, African-American, black, person-of-color – just let me know what you’re comfortable with, and I’ll try to remember. These terms have changed rather frequently, because the underlying issue isn’t about the label, it’s about the perception of disrespect. The older terms become condescending – the people to whom they applied had fewer rights, and were easier to dismiss. So, time for a new label.

It’s the same with the term midget. What is a midge, that the diminutive suffix needs to be added? A midge is not inconsequential enough? So, the term little person. Hardly satisfactory, for all the descriptive accuracy. The point of course is that it’s never really about labels. It’s about respect and disrespect.

So when I saw the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Alito, the image that came to mind was of a circus clown car, where a dozen painted fools tumble over themselves, a tottering crab-legged tag-along dwarf trotting behind (ha ha), all trying to achieve some purpose comprehensible only to themselves.

There's the dignity of office, that these bloviating incoherent windbags have manipulated themselves into. It’s the way a well-made suit makes a flabby man look strong. If these emperors had no clothes, it’d look like a heat-wave in the waxworks – semi-melted mannequins losing all similitude of human shape while somehow gaining mass. Did you see the empty seat up there, that Kennedy was sitting in? Teddy-the-Hutt. I'm sure he sold his soul, but he didn’t get Dorian Gray’s deal – he wears his character in his face, every Boodles gimlet rising like a carbuncle on that enormous blotchy pumpkin he uses for a head. Some people have dignity because their tailor gave it to them.

Then there’s the dignity of character. The cliché that suffering engenders strength has its truth – although not in my case. But even the semblance of self-control is honorable. It has to do with choices. The effeminate boy who is teased and thinks to himself, I’ll be even more feminine, or who thinks, it’s their problem. The black man who had to deal with institutional racism and became embittered, or who discovered the wisdom to work for justice. The guy who has athletic goals but who’s born into a body that cannot perform at even an average level.

We cannot see hearts, to judge them. We use the phenomenon of behavior to inform our opinions. Having some hardship is in itself morally neutral. We cannot know how we will react to tragedy. Cowardice comes as a surprise even to those who have been tested already. But whatever lessons we might learn in the training ground of this world, to remember that we are being watched, by eyes friendly or inimical, should remind us all to act, as best we can, with dignity. Who knows, we might provide an inspiring example to someone in despair.


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