Sunday, August 30, 2015

Live and learn

For quite some time, I often reminded myself and I told others that my level of maturity had little impact on the way people treated me. Whether I was 20 years old, 30 years old or 40 years old, many small children will gape at me because of my appearance, and many adults will take my picture without asking. It doesn't matter how old I get, the behavior of others toward me won't change. When I am 50 years old and when I am 60 years old, some children will still be curious and some adults will still be rude.

I think I regularly told myself this because I was frustrated that my maturity as an adult had little bearing on whether I was treated as an adult.  Though I spoke of it just last week during a presentation to a group of junior high school teachers, I don't dwell on this concept as much anymore.  But just last Friday, I was reminded that no matter how much time passes, and no matter how much we learn, difference and the awareness of difference -- whether that be good or bad -- never lies too far below the surface.

I was working as the bartender at the Chicago ADAPT Fundraiser.  Chicago ADAPT is a local disability advocacy group.  Each year around August or September, they host a fundraiser. Often times, the fundraiser is a roast.  This was my third time working as the bartender at an ADAPT fundraiser.  It's a good way for me to participate because I can be part of the event and, for the most part, all the talking I need to do is structured around serving drinks.

I like talking to people. In most situations, I just find it difficult.  I also find roasts difficult. In order to roast someone, people try to be mean and they pepper in a lot of profanity. Sometimes the roasting can be funny but I find it strange to watch someone I know go up on stage, say the word "fuck" a lot, and say mean things about someone with whom they are friends.  A couple of years ago, at an ADAPT event, I donated some money in order to have a few minutes to roast someone. I tried to do so without saying the word fuck and by being clever instead of mean. I failed.

On Friday night, just as the doors to the event opened and I was prepping behind the bar, one of the roasters came up to me.  He told me that as a warm up, he was going to say something about me.  He said the joke he had prepared was related to my stature. He wanted to warm me and check if I was okay with that.

"Sure," I said. Within the ADAPT circles, it's an honor to be roasted. This was a small step toward a full on roasting. Also, the roaster who approached me is pretty smart.  I thought he had probably come up with something perceptive and enlightening.   But roasting must be a pretty difficult thing to do.  When his turn came, and when he got around to saying something about me, he said something to affect of, "...everyone says Gary is this great PR guy. But when I see him, I just see a munchkin. No, I just see an Ewok."

I was a little disappointed.  I was hoping for something about my height serving as a metaphor for thick skin, or something about my height as an accurate reflection of genitalia.  Again, jokes are not easy. Roasting is not easy. But munchkins and ewoks?

I also asked myself, do people really become different from who they are when they roast, because they try to be mean? Or, deep down, do we all just harbor mean, superficial, insensitive thoughts?  Who knows, but if I go back to a roast, I will study up ahead of time on Dean Martin and Don Rickles.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

From midget to little person and beyond

Who knows how old I was when I first heard the story about Eddie Gaedel, a little person hired by Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns Baseball Team. In 1951, according to what I have read, the Browns were one of the worst teams in the history of baseball.  As a publicity stunt, Veeck signed Gaedel to a contract with the St. Louis Browns. First, Veeck had Gaedel jump out of a birthday cake that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the American League. Then, Gaedel led off the second game of a double header. He immediately drew four balls from the pitcher, walked to first base, and was replaced with a pinch runner. That was the end of Gaedel's baseball career.

I've heard the story many, many times. At first, and probably for many years during my time, the story focused on Veeck and Gaedel was always referred to as a "midget."  Several years ago, someone from ESPN sent me an email, asking me about appropriate language to identify people with dwarfism. It's possible, the ESPN inquiry was part of a broader shift in language and a broader awareness about dwarfism. Today, an internet search of Eddie Gaedel yields plenty of references to the mword but the term little person is also used a good deal of the time.

Then last week, I can across an article on the ESPN Website about Gaedel's Grand Nephew, who plays professional baseball, Kyle Gaedele, proud relative of Eddie Gaedel, has full sized baseball goals.  I am not an Eddie Gaedel scholar, and have never done a search for stories that show the humanity behind the Bill Veeck gimmick. They probably were out there before this ESPN piece was published.  But for me, and probably thousands of others, Eddie was the vehicle for what is remembered as the biggest gag in baseball history.  I was happy to find the story about Kyle Gaedele, which portrayed Eddie as a beloved family member, much more than he had been before in my mind and probably the mind of millions of others.