Political correctness, dismantling the English language or reclaiming basic decency

Donald Trump--with the help of a few like-minded fellows--has unleashed an on-going tidal wave of racist, able-ist and sexist muck by giving bigots a socially powerful role model. This may allow us to see who has been secretly resentful of modern realities, such as black people are no longer their slaves, disabled people appear outside cages and women can vote. But I'm not even sure that qualifies as a bright side.

At the same time, it feels like many of us are doing the equivalent of using Trump's famous paper towels to clean up Puerto Rico, dabbing up droplets that somehow splashed all the way to our homes in distant states. I'm going to get some flak for this from people I really do agree with on everything that matters, but there are times "political correctness" has become ineffective, has been hijacked by people with an oppressive agenda or has become a game piece for social jockeying. 

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The term "politically incorrect" implies that the use of a word or idiom is a problem only because it is incorrect from the standpoint of politics, i.e. it wouldn't be a good idea to say that if you want to be popular. This is the reservoir that stored up all the resentment which fuels the tidal wave of openly bigoted remarks both in public and in private.

The irony is that the people who are now claiming not to be politically correct actually were the only ones being politically correct in the first place. They were refraining from saying things they truly believed in order to be socially acceptable.

By contrast, many of us were never politically correct. We didn't use the N-word because we felt it is disgusting and demeaning both to Black people and to anyone who uses it. We didn't use the R-word because it is filthy, and much more than an F-bomb, it actually does real harm to children in schools all over the English-speaking world. 

It isn't political correctness that should keep a person from using insulting, disgusting, demeaning, hate-filled and violence-inciting terms and idioms. It's basic decency. 

So let's call it what it is. When the use of indecent and bullying terms is labeled "politically incorrect," an implication is made that this isn't actually ethically wrong, just politically unpopular.

When I realized as a young person that the verb "to gyp someone" is a slur against Romani people, it was not difficult for me to remember not to use it ever again. It immediately took on such a disturbing connotation that I simply stopped, even though it was common slang used in the rural area where I grew up.

I learned some years ago about the origins of the rhyme "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo"  in the slave trade and it only took reading about it once to make it very uncomfortable to me. It is not the disapproval of others that makes me cringe and redirect children in my ESL classes who start singing it, but rather my own understanding of the facts and my sense that it assaults the self-respect of anyone who knows its history. 

There is such a backlash against the concept of taking care not to harm those most often excluded with thoughtless words that it has become politically correct to insist that one is not politically correct. Put another way, political correctness is merely a term for what is believed to be widely supported.

This backlash comes, unsurprisingly, from some of the same sources as the current tidal wave of bigoted rhetoric. I recently ran across a list of mostly fake "politically correct" terms on the website of the far-right British National Party. The list was not presented as humor but rather as information to help readers avoid conflicts, and therefore implied that these terms were truly advocated in mainstream society. Mixed in with real examples of polite language, the list gave rise to many claims about how ridiculous the movement for inclusive language is. 

Among listings suggesting a person use "gay" instead of "homosexual", "sex worker" instead of "prostitute" or "homeless person" instead of "tramp," there are fictitious listings advising readers to use "ethically disoriented" instead of "dishonest" or "nasally disturbing" Instead of "smelly." The point is to manipulate far-right readers to believe an exaggerated and patently ridiculous version of inclusive language.

Unfortunately, this manipulation is made easier by some activists for social justice who don't differentiate between confusion, customary idiom and even honest ignorance on the one hand and blatantly harmful, hateful and bigoted terms on the other. If we equate a person not knowing whether another prefers the term "Black"  or "African American"  with intentionally racist slurs, we cheapen the experience of those who encounter the real deal. If we equate a deaf person being called "hearing impaired" when they prefer "deaf" with the R-word, we make it much less likely that disability activists will be taken seriously.

It is reasonable for a group to request that society refer to them by particular terms and refrain from others. Trying to comply is good manners, but not complying is the equivalent of neglecting please and thank you. It's rude if you know better, but it isn't the same as being a morally degenerate bigot.

Not everyone has equal access to information and social interaction. And groups are not homogeneous in their requests. Trying to politely use the terms a group requests is admirable and difficult. If a person uses a term we dislike but their intent is obviously not insulting or demeaning, that should be handled in a much different way than the use of intentional insults. 

To cane or not to cane.jpg

The case of "blind"

I was recently asked to personally weigh in on one of these terms on a public forum. That was, of course, about the word "blind." While most deaf people and their organizations today have been very clear that they prefer the world "deaf" and do not like the term "hearing impaired," many blind people swing the other way, saying they don't like the word "blind" and would prefer the term, "visually impaired." 

In my view, abled people can be forgiven for being confused about this. I appreciate those who try to politely use the preferred terms of whichever group they are talking to. And I beg everyone involved not to make this into either the privilege olympics or a verbal fight. I appreciate our need to define our own identities, but let's not forget the fact that thirty years ago, when I was growing up, we were all mostly just referred to with the R-word. 

I was born legally blind and I have been active in disability rights organizations and efforts since I first learned to read nearly forty years ago. I have been a vehement advocate for the integration of people with disabilities in schools and for non-discrimination in employment. 

I have also been the target of just about every insult and slur against people with disabilities that exists in at least four languages. A stronger reaction to such insults, you won't find.

We don't need to stop pushing for respect just because we've rid ourselves of the worst insults. We can and should progress to defining positive identities for ourselves. However, what we are experiencing just now across the United States and around the world is a reminder that the bulwark against hate and bigotry is a barricade that must always be guarded.

There will never come a time when we can say, "The N-word and the R-word and their ilk are dead and buried. We can now turn to more subtle exclusionary terms and bury them the same way."

That is because they are a different species. "Retard" was used as a vicious insult. Several other terms were also used to put people with disabilities in institutions, sterilize us, deny us education and kill us. Those words, like the N-word and similarly vicious racial slurs are not even in the same dictionary as "blind" and "hearing impaired," which aren't and weren't widely used as insults and which have regular definitions.  

Sometimes "blind" is used as an idiom meaning stupid and ignorant. (Examples: “That politician is just a blind idiot.” "He was blind drunk.") There is no context here meaning something related to senses, just to intellect. This tends to equate blindness with intellectual deficits. If someone is stupid or ignorant or uneducated, call them one of those words, if you must. It isn’t cool or necessary to insult people with physical or developmental disabilities by comparing bigots, the willfully ignorant or bullies to us. Even if these idioms are often unconscious, they can be harmful over the long-term and it is reasonable to ask that they be avoided.

However, I can't personally support calls for the word "blind" to be discontinued in general in favor of "visually impaired." Some partially sighted people, especially those who have not been visually impaired their whole lives, really do object to the word "blind" and if I know that about them, I will try to refrain from using it around them out of personal courtesy and respect.

But it's a word with a definition that has not been profaned by common use as an insult. When it is used with technical accuracy, it has my support. And attempts to draw an equivalence between such a term and much more grievous abuses of language are unhelpful and potentially harmful. 

That's just the opinion of one visually impaired person. Due to my very poor sight--less than ten percent of the "norm"--I'm on that line where I could be called "visually impaired" or I could be called "blind." I often use the term "legally blind" if the point of the conversation has to do with official status as a person with a disability, rather than someone who wears corrective lenses but is not disabled. 

But if someone refers to me as "that blind lady who does herbs" or something of the like, I'm not offended and I don't see any reason to correct them any more than if they had said, "that blonde lady who does herbs." Both are technical descriptions and if someone in the conversation doesn't know my name, they are simply choosing the easiest way to identify me. 

The use of a term like "blind" all depends on the context, tone and intent both when using the word according to the dictionary definition and in idioms

I don't get on anyone’s case about using expressions like, “The blind decisions of the CEO drove the company into the ground.” It’s an idiom and the focus is more on the decision being "short-sighted" or lacking in long-range information, rather than on it just being stupid or unaware. Blind people are not stupid or unaware. We do, however, often lack visual information.

In a sentence like, “the blind obedience of the cult followers is creepy,” the idiom means that the followers don’t consider anything external and act ultra focused, as if they had blinders on like horse going through a tunnel. And yes, "blinders" is another thing that is just a word. I'm not going to stop saying "blackboard" or "whiteboard" if that is the actual color of the board. And I'm not going to stop saying "blinders," "blindfold" or "blinds" on a window. These are not demeaning and don't make people subconsciously think less of any group. 

If someone loses their glasses and laughs about being “blind as a bat” or gets new glasses and moans, “I’m going blind.” I’ll probably slap them on the back and chuckle, “Don’t worry. You’re in good company," even if their glasses are really nothing to moan about. The ability to laugh at one's self is a key survival skill.

But there are situations where the tone or context is hostile. I’ve had people say “I’m going blind,” as an excuse to deny me a seat close to the presenter at a workshop, when they just wear glasses that fully compensate for their minor vision impairment. I can’t count the times someone has lashed out with, “Are you blind or something?” when I failed to recognize their face or read an instructional sign.

I'm fine with the word "blind," in appropriate idioms, in factual description and even in good humor. I am also fine with "visually impaired." I am fine with the word "disabled." I prefer terms that demystify and inform without being insulting. 

I dislike euphemisms. I do not like the term "visually challenged," except in good humor. Vision isn't that much of a challenge. I just don't have that much of it. A challenge implies that if I just tried harder, I might be able to see more. Not gonna happen.

I also don't like the term "handicapped," which comes from a racing practice in which superior horses had to carry heavier weights. I know the term was used to denote people with disabilities as a way to imply that some higher power chose better people to deal with the difficulties of disability. I find the connotation unhelpful because it implies a justification or reasoning, rather than just the factual lack of a certain sense or attribute which is the fact.

I have always felt that actual disabilities are not the primary problem we face, but social stigma, reasoning and machinations around them. Let's keep terminology to the facts and keep society's interpretations out of it as much as possible. Those who argue that their issue with society is not a "dis-ability" because they don't lack any particular ability but rather have a different way of functioning are welcome to avoid the term "disability" and I'll still advocate for their rights to be respected as simply different. 

But not all visually impaired people agree with me. Some truly prefer the softer, euphemistic terms. To me they imply that visual impairment or blindness is something too horrible to say right out or conversely a challenge that I should just overcome on my own without society adapting at all. To me it is neither. It is a lack of a specific sense. It doesn't define the whole person, any more than some other single characteristic, but it is a piece of information that matters enough to be mentioned.

It is my hope that those asking for inclusive language changes can be kind, tolerant and inclusive when asking for them and not assume those who don't know mean harm. I also hope that time will change our language to be more inclusive and technically correct, rather than euphemistic.

We don't need to soften facts. We need to open-minds to the reality that those facts are not a curse.

How sure are you of right and wrong?

Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill. 

The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives. 

 Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning. 

This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders. 

Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.

And now tell me this. Who should own that house?

Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction. 

Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it. 

Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered. 

Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.

The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis. 

That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.

But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.

I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.

If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by. 

We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces. 

I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.

The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent. 

 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.

But so many similar stories are not. 

The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim. 

It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water? 

That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.

My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?

Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.

Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong. 

But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.

If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please  step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.

Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad. 

But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line? 

We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves. 

Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.

Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.

When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest. 

Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers 

The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent. 

I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics. 

There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.

No comparison: Privilege is a big deal

It's one of the first warm days of spring. The kids are playing together for once, instead of tormenting each other, and I'm taking full advantage of the moment, turning the soil in garden beds and planting peas and carrots as fast as I can.

Then I hear a horrible screeching from the empty lot next door. There are words in it, though barely.. "Get out... like rats... this is ours." 

There's more but that's enough. It's an adult voice yelling but it is followed by the shrieking laughter and pounding feet of children, fleeing from the sounds of it.

I put down the shovel and strip off my work gloves. But I don't have to search far to find the kids. They are breathless and covered with fresh black dirt. I pry the story out of them. The neighbor lady from down the hill, someone who wants nothing to do with us, yelled at them for playing in the empty lot. 

"She said it's hers but it's not!" my nine-year-old daughter fumes.

 Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

Creative Commons image courtesy of Stefan Lins

She's right in that the lot belongs to an absentee landlord and local law supports  recreational use of unfenced land. I pry further though and learn that the children discovered a nice tall dirt pile in the empty lot and they were "sledding"  down it.

Thus the condition of their clothes... and no doubt the reaction of the neighbor.

I explain that the dirt pile probably does belong to the neighbor, even if it's in the empty lot. The kids are unrepentant. They don't understand about the need to keep a load of dirt in it's pile, not spread all around and packed into the sand and weeds. My daughter refers to the neighbor lady in distinctly disrespectful terms. I reprimand her but part of me is also livid inside.

Rats? That's what I heard the lady shriek at them and my stomach is roiling--not with anger so much as with fear.

The kids also don't understand the potential consequences of getting into trouble with the neighbors in this little town, which is already not particularly friendly to children with olive skin and dark-lashed, "striking" eyes. The kids from our street--otherwise all particularly pale white--roam around freely and I've never heard the them scolded by a neighbor,. But my kids seem to run up against hostility on a regular basis. I don't think my kids are exactly angels, but this was the first time I'd heard of them doing something harmful off of our property..

Having a mixed family has enlightened me about many realities I did not used to understand, such as the heightened risk of trouble kids of color run and the fears of their parents.

Most white people don't grok "white privilege" because it is a term that encompasses things that we not only take for granted but feel are merely the way life is. If you go to a coffee shop in clean clothes with money in your pocket and wait for a friend, nothing negative will happen. You go golfing and you just golf. You walk down the street, shop, get in your car and talk to your kid's teacher and it's all placid and uneventful. If you're a kid and you slide down a dirt pile, you might get told off but that will be the end of it. 

To white people this seems like life as usual, simply enjoying the experience of a peaceful and prosperous society. The hitch is that this experience of peace should be for everyone.

After nine years, I know that it isn't.

There was the time my son pushed another kid and nearly got expelled from preschool, even though the teachers agreed that sort of thing happens every day among the boys and my son is no worse than any of the others. He did get banned from school once over ant bites on his knee and the resulting concerns over contagion from "dirty people." My daughter came home at four years old crying because people called her "black" and she was terrified that meant she was going to turn the color black. How was she to know that olive-skinned Roma are sometimes called "black" in lily-white Central Europe?

So I give the kids a lecture I never got from my parents, my voice low and deadly serious. "You treat adults with respect! Period! Do you hear me? You listen and speak respectfully to adults. I don't care if you think the lady is wrong. You apologize and walk away. That's it."

I never needed that lecture, even though I was a wild kid who chased the neighbors cows. I was white. Now I feel like I'm channeling the father in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 

On the weekend my Nigerian friend from the city comes over and confides in me the struggles of dealing with white teachers in the Czech schools. Her youngest son is under constant attack because a teacher insists he is "dirty"  and doesn't have "basic hygiene habits." 

She's honestly confused. Sure, he sometimes has to be reminded to wash his hands. He's only five. But he willingly goes to wash if told and he's quiet and respectful to a fault, which I envy. 

But I know the Central European short-hand. Whenever they want to question the presence of a child of color in the classroom they default to concerns over "basic hygiene habits." It's like a code phrase. 

 Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

Creative Commons image courtesy of C. Thomas Anderson

This year we are more and more aware of the entitlement and privilege that fuels injustice. It is good to see awareness growing. More and more people are seeing privilege and entitlement for what it is--the driving force of deeper injustice. 

The weekend is over and the kids are back in school. On Monday afternoon I get on my electric scooter, which helps me get around since I can neither drive nor walk long distances due to disability. This is how I pick up my kids from school and do the shopping The scooter can move at a walking pace and stop instantly. It works well, even on the narrow sidewalks in our small town. 

The kids walk downtown next to me, except when we have to go single file in the narrowest spots. My daughter has a dance class on the town square. My son and I go into the delicatessen next door to get him a sandwich. The nice man behind the counter greets us in English. We chat back and forth. His English is really quite good.

Then another man--fifty-ish--walks in and stands at the counter. Before our acquaintance can ask what he wants, the newcomer says loudly to the cashier, "Why don't you tell that lady there to get off the sidewalks?"  

My heart starts pounding. Again I am not offended, so much as terrified. This is what I have feared, since a few angry people started yelling at me on the street. I have been so careful, making sure to yield to anyone on foot. The sidewalks are narrow here after all and I'm not certain about the legalities of my situation, since my mobility device isn't actually a wheelchair.

The man behind the counter looks stunned, his eyes wide.

"Please, sir,"  I say to the belligerent customer in as conciliatory a voice as I can muster. "Please let me explain. I'm legally blind. I can't go in traffic. And I can't drive a car." 

The man turns toward me a bit. "I know," he grunts.

"We live on the edge of town. It's two kilometers to get to the pediatrician or the post office," I stammer.

"I know where you live." His voice is gruff and unforgiving.

"I have problems with the bones in my legs and I can't walk all that way. That's why I ride that scooter," I explain.

"I know."  

"I'm very careful. It doesn't hurt anyone." 

His tone has become a bit less confrontational at least. "I know all that. I just think you shouldn't take up the sidewalk." 

"I'm very careful. I always let other people go first if the sidewalk is narrow." 

"Whatever."  He has managed to make a purchase during our discussion and he walks out. 

But the fear is still there. I know my situation is precarious. The local police could forbid me to use the scooter on the sidewalk, since it isn't officially a wheelchair and I can technically walk. I just can't walk two kilometers without significant pain. If these grouchy people complain to the police or if I make a tiny mistake, the consequences could be severe. 

I understand now that it is the same for my kids, even without a disability. Where white kids would get away with a scolding, they could be reported to the police or expelled from school. The stakes are higher and the stress is chronic. 

What does the "all bodies are beautiful" message actually tell our daughters?

"Everyone says you're ugly anyway." 

It's just been that kind of week and this was my nine-year-old daughter's response to the standard mother-daughter talk about how all body types are beautiful and true beauty is in our hearts and actions--you know, those modern truisms that we pass around to try to feel good and keep the horrible self-loathing at bay. 

She has mentioned this before. The first time she came home with tales about what other--kids and some adults--say about me. she was six and there was hurt in her eyes. But she's over it now. Now she has internalized the social norms.

Arie teaching 4.jpg

"What if I get fat?" she asks and there is terror in her voice that runs deep... so deep.

I grind my teeth. I don't know which part to react to first. Her terror infuriates me more than anything. This is what scares you? Not failing a test at school, not monsters, not climate change... she's terrified of getting fat?

I want to tell her first off that if she gets fat, she'll be fat. So what?

She'll have lap-room for more than one kid, she'll have glorious curves and she'll look like an ancient goddess figurine. She'll also be more likely to have knee problems, heart problems and other health issues, if she gets fat. It's not all a goddess picnic. But I also want to scream at her and tell her to get worried about something worth worrying about.

And at the same time, when I see that terror in her eyes, I want to snuggle her close and tell her that she is very unlikely to get fat. I'm her mother, but she doesn't have my genes and she's physically active, loves salad, already wants to be a vegetarian and shows absolutely no signs of gaining any extra. You can't help but want to sooth terror, even if you know that the very soothing is insidious psychological poison.

My body is thick and heavy. I walk a couple of miles a day on average. I can't drive a car because of my vision impairment, so that's just what happens. Recently I've started using an electric scooter because of problems with the bones in my legs. So to get exercise I run on an elliptical machine. I also garden heavily and run herd on hyperactive kids. My Apple Watch at least thinks I have a pretty active lifestyle. 

My genes couldn't care less. A physical therapist recently shook her head over my legs, saying, "Looking at the muscles in your legs, you look like an athlete." My legs are mostly hard muscle, except high on my thighs where the muscle is covered with a layer of fat. And higher still, I carry a round Buddha-belly worthy of a goddess figurine. 

But that isn't the only reason my daughter hears people--both kids and adults--make negative remarks about her mother's body. My eyes have a permanent and severe squint, because I've been legally blind since birth. My pupils move erratically and I'm told it is disconcerting--to say the least--to fully sighted people. 

Given all that, it isn't very inspiring to try to be a fashion queen. I've been lucky to find good, professional clothes that fit me in the last few years. It probably isn't all the latest fashion and features a lot of slimming blacks and dark blues, but I just get dressed, make sure everything is clean and wrinkle-free and go. 

I don't wear make-up. No amount of make-up is going to make my eyes appealing and I'd rather not emphasize the issues. My face has an unfortunate habit of turning red when I'm excited or exerting myself. But I'm not crazy about the chemicals in most affordable make-up and hair dye, so my hair is going gray, which I actually find rather pretty in my own non-standard assessment. I personally don't like the look of make-up either. So some small part of my appearance is personal choice. 

 Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

But I'll be blunt. I have never gone out in public dirty, smelly or with uncombed hair or even with rumpled clothes. And yet there are enough people saying negative things about my appearance that my terrified little girl says, "Everyone says you're ugly." And this is when she is in a somber mood, not when she's mad at me.

This isn't just a two-way relationship between me and my daughter. This is a three-way conversation and one of the three sides is the commonly expressed social norms of our society.

But society likes to pretend that it has no part at all. Every day or two, some version of a feel-good, "every person's body is beautiful" meme comes across my social media feed. There is never any discussion around these, just a lot of hearts and thumbs up and smiles. No one ever mentions the reality of having a body that is widely seen as distinctly unbeautiful--a physical disability or illness or a shape or a face that doesn't conform to current--or any--beauty standards. 

Those memes make me as sick as the rest of it. I know the people who send them, generally mean well, but mostly they do not open their professional or social circles to people who are considered less attractive no matter what their memes say. We like to say it doesn't matter, but it does matter--to what kind of job you can get, to what kind of community involvement you can have and to how you are treated on a daily basis in simple things like the grocery check-out line. 

This past week one such meme was specifically about communicating this universal beauty myth to our daughters. I have said it to my daughter many times, the same sentiments as in the poem. I tell her how grateful I am for my body, for the health and energy that come from healthy living.

We are almost never sick in this family, even though we are four people and none of us is actually genetically related to any other. It astounds the pediatrician that my children and I stay so healthy through the winter while their classrooms are only half full due to illness. We probably do have some genetic luck, but it is also the result of good nutrition, activity and careful use of medicinal herbs. 

I am thankful that my hands are nimble and strong, that I can sew and build a rock wall and do a great many other things. I am thankful for what vision I have, even if it's supposedly less than ten percent of "the norm." 

I tell my daughter that each of us is beautiful. She hears how beautiful she is every day from strangers. Her big magnetic eyes, completely unblemished skin, thick curly hair and slim, muscled frame are all exactly what society applauds. But I tell her I am beautiful too, because that is what we have been taught in my generations that we should say. 

But if it is true, it is only because I personally choose to see beauty in myself. While some specific feature of my body, may be considered favorable to someone else, it would be disingenuous to say that my body fits any other idea of beauty. 

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And I would not care much, if we lived in a world where appearance wasn't so crucial, where physical beauty wasn't a hiring requirement, a social gatekeeper and something strangers comment on  to small children. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We don't pretend that everyone has a great singing voice or amazing math ability or spectacular writing skills or huge sports talent.

But we like to pretend that everyone is physically beautiful. 

Why? I'm not sure. Possibly because we actually believe deep down that physical unattractiveness is the last truly shameful flaw--that while it isn't a person's fault if they are tone deaf or bad at math, that it would be a person's fault if they were ugly or fat. And so we must never admit that such a thing is possible or we would be blaming that person.

Finally, last week I broke down and said as much on one of these memes--with not one word of profanity, caps or insult to anyone except the generalized norms of society. And the response rocked me back on my heels and sent my head spinning.

I was met with one of those social media hate storms, in which I was told that I need my head examined and several less flattering things. A group of friends ridiculed me and joked at my expense. Then the person who posted the feel-good meme threatened to use their position to have me banned from a spiritual group I belonged to. 

These were the words that sparked that storm of hate: "I’m thankful that my body doesn’t get sick a lot, thankful that my hands can do a lot of things, thankful for energy to do the things I want to do. And I acknowledge that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  If someone came along and asked me if I would trade my writing ability, my mental ability and my inner world of curiosity and fun and fantasy for a body that people would honestly say was beautiful, a body that could get around freely or ski or drive or sing or dance or just not make my children ashamed, I would still turn them down. I don't want to hear platitudes about how everyone is beautiful unless people are actually friends with those whose bodies are far from perfect, friends enough to meet at a place where they can get to and in the door, friends enough to spend time, and share the enjoyment of life with people who don't fit common beauty standards."

I wanted to open up a discussion, but somewhere I touched a nerve, something that must have struck home enough that it could not be allowed. And the result was a stream of hateful messages at me and ridiculing messages about me to others. It's the way social media is and one has to be prepared, if one wants to engage in conversations there. But let's not kid ourselves, social media is only more brutal because people are more likely to speak their minds and dispense with politeness. The opinions expressed on social media are what people really think.

While we often--on and off social media--claim that all bodies are beautiful, the messages we and our children absorb from this enforced cheeriness is much less supportive. Children, who are more attuned to actions than words, hear something like this: 

  1. Physical attractiveness is the most important measure of worth.
  2. Don't question the social norm, if you don't want to become a pariah.
  3. And always smile and put on a good face, even if you feel desperately sad and terrified inside.

That I think is a terrible thing to tell ourselves or our daughters and sons. Here is the message I would like to replace it with, one that does not tell half truths or require suspension of one's knowledge for a moment of fuzzy inspiration: 

Friends, children, old people, people all over the world, homeless people, refugees, bankers and presidents, gay people, straight people, black, brown and white people, wheeled people, stick people and running-all-around people, I mean all of you.

Your worth is not defined by your appearance, by your brain, your body or even by your abilities, by your wealth or sophistication or even your manners, by your country, your house, your car, your ancestry, your social media rating, your popularity or your job. Your worth is defined by how hard you strive for something beyond those trappings, by your passion for something beyond yourself and by the depth of your relationships, rather than by their number.

You have strengths, no matter how close to rock bottom you've hit. You may not be beautiful, healthy, popular, smart and wealthy all at once. But there is something in you, that the world needs. You also have your weak spots. You probably are not beautiful, healthy, popular, smart AND wealthy, and if you are, you almost certainly have some other large problem. And that problem does not define you or make you unworthy.

You will in the end choose your own worth because worth can only be measured by things that a person can choose, not by those things that life hands to you. And another thing, that kind of worth cannot be quantified or compared. It just is.

That line between guts and a bad decision

I stood at the top of the red slope just where the relatively flat ledge drops off on the steep face of the mountain, forcing myself to take slow trembling breaths.

"Come on! You can do it!" the guide hollered up from thirty feet below.

My brain kept imagining the impact, the feeling of hitting the snow fast. My legs and back cringed from imagined crashes and the thought of an unwary skier slamming into me from behind.

"It isn't that much different from the blue, You're ready for this!" the guide tried to reassure me. But his hazy, darker shape on the glaring snow was rocking back and forth in a way I recognized meant he was climbing slowly back up toward me. His movement and the touch of uncertainty in his tone both belied his confident words. 

Arie snow ski mountains trees - Arie Farnam.jpg

There was no one who could possibly say if I was ready for this. I was twelve and usually up for dare-devil stuff. But I was also legally blind and I had crooked legs and missing ligaments in my ankles. That guide had known me for all of an hour and a half. 

"I'm ready!" I called down to him. I was very far from sure that was true. But the one thing I was more afraid of than the red slope was being a failure.

He stopped rocking back and forth. I inched the tips of my skis over the lip of the ledge. I knew that wasn't the way to do it. I needed speed or I really would fall. 

I jumped a bit in the boots and dug in with my poles. Not much. You shouldn't be picturing anything very dramatic here. But I had just enough momentum to topple over the edge and into a hard snowplow and then a painfully slow curve. 

My knees and ankles screamed with pain, but I gritted my teeth. The guide lurched into motion and made the turn below me, calling out in that singsong that follows the contours of the land so a blind skier can guess the terrain ahead, "TuuUURN right! TUuurn leeeeft! Turn right! Turn LEeeft!"

The singsong grew a bit faster. The pain in my legs had spread so that there was no point that stood out anymore. It was all just a blazing ache. But they held. My legs held the V and the slope, turn after turn.

I could barely see my guide, a wavering gray shape in the undistinguished whiteness all around.  But despite my slowness, he stayed just far enough ahead and not too far, clearly having to plow himself to stay with me. 

Just as I sensed more than saw the looming darkness of trees on my left, a black shape flashed across my path, scraping the tips of my skis. I jolted and nearly fell but managed to stay up. 

"StoooOOP!" the shout was not abrupt like you might expect. It swooped just so that I knew how big a turn to make to stop and how the ground would rise a bit under my skis as I did. 

 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I made the turn and stopped but my guide was gone. I caught the flicker of his gray shape below me, chasing another shape, then turning, forcing the other shape to the side. They were too far away for me to hear more than the low, angry tone as my guide chewed out the stunt skier who thought it would be fun to zip between me and my guide on our first run down the red slope. 

A moment later, he let the skier go and called up to me, directing me with tone over the humps and valleys of the slope and around an adult and child skiing together.

I made it down the red slope that day and several other times, though I never learned to like the red more than the blue. I loved to fly over the smooth white snow of the blue runs, where there are not so many moguls and almost no stunt skiers. 

That was one of five guides I worked with in three years of skiing in a blind skiers program as a kid. Some of those guides were spectacular in both skill and patience. Others struggled to ski so precisely and master the voice methods used to guide blind skiers at the same time. Either way. they were the difference between skiing and not skiing--i.e. the difference between a kid's long-awaited day of exhilaration and a kid's resignation to yet another "can't." 

I wanted to ski. It's hard to describe how badly I wanted to. I couldn't ride a bike fast or skateboard or roller skate, except in a small defined rink--and even then slowly. I knew I'd never drive. To me the only speed, the only feel of control and competence in the physical realm was skiing. And the guides that made it possible were among my childhood heroes. 

Most people who have never seen a blind skier and guide work together are skeptical or even disbelieving. "How could you ski? Even with a guide? Just how?" They'll admit that maybe I could, because I can see some. But I've known totally blind skiers who could do it much better than I can. 

It took three years of hard work for me to get to the point where I could tip over the lip and make it down the red slope reasonably well. It took patience and encouragement and not thinking about the dangers or how my dad broke both his legs skiing when he was a kid. 

But because of that training, I can ski after a fashion. It isn't pretty. It isn't nimble, but today I even ski without a guide on easy, well-known slopes. In the brief years of the blind skiers program I learned enough to last decades.

But now I'm over forty. My legs aren't just crooked. They're creaky. My calves are balls of muscle to compensate for the missing ligaments. And my eyes are funkier than ever with slowly failing retinas. And I still want to ski.

I don't much anymore though. It's too hard and too expensive. But I've skied enough to make sure my own two kids are better at it than me. This year I thought I'd miss out on skiing entirely, until I was called in to be a substitute teacher at an ESL skiing camp for Czech homeschoolers in the Krkonos Mountains. 

On Saturday, after classes were over, my husband and kids wanted to ski down from our lodge to a major ski area near the town of Rakovnik nad Jezirkou. This required entering the slope near the top and on a red run. Then I could ski to the bottom and ride the lift up to ski the blue slope thereafter.

My husband isn't quite like the intrepid blind-skier guides. He has all he can handle just to ski without having to turn his head back on every swerve to yodel the way the land rolls. So I just followed his fuzzy shape silently through the snow. To do this I have to fix my eyes on him and never look away. If I glance away, I'll never be able to tell which fuzzy shape is my husband again and other skiers don't do what I need them to. 

We came out on the red run and started down the crowded, ice-packed slope, weaving in and out among other skiers, while making my painfully slow curves. Then the run narrowed and suddenly dropped. There was no lip this time, just a hump and we were onto a sheer steep slope on a sheet of ice. And there was no more plowing or slow curves. I made one, lost my bead on my makeshift guide and went down on my back.

I tried not to think about the skis of people behind me cutting into me as I blocked the way. Instead I struggled to get up on the steep ice. But I quickly realized that probably wasn't worth the fight. 

"Good snowsuits are the better part of valor," I grumbled under my breath, lifted my skis in the air and coasted the rest of the way down the hill on my backside. My husband and kids were a bit embarrassed to be with me that day, but that was my call.

I've been told by eye doctors, that I'd better not fall hard anymore or get hit in the head or any such thing. If I do, I might well wake up not seeing anything. And crappy as my vision may seem to most people, it comes in rather handy to me. So I've finally become cautious in my middle age. 

All in all, I've never been particularly comfortable with that line, "You can do it!" Who knows what another person can or can't do. Mostly we don't even really understand what takes courage for another individual and we certainly don't know where the line between courage and foolishness might be for them. 

I'm the lady skiing along with less than ten percent of everyone else's eyesight. I skim over the snow on the blue slope that everyone else says is boring. And I'm flying. My heart is singing with my own version of freedom, while I avoid the red runs and never even want to go near the black.

So for whatever it's worth, here's my take.  Push your own limits, just enough to feel fully alive. There are things that really are dangerous and not worth the risk. The better part of valor is using your a brain... and good protective gear.  

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.

Give a damn about something... anything

Last year was a doozy and our prayers for next year are uncommonly humble. Never before has that sentiment ricocheted around the on-line and offline worlds as it does now.

I have never been much for New Year's resolutions, partly because the New Year isn't a great  breaking point for me, but also because my self discipline is strong when it's there and nonexistent when it's not. Trying to manufacture it with a calendar marker isn't much help. 

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Cutting out sweets when I just received my favorite goodies over the holidays--and have been virtuously not devouring them all at once--is decidedly unappealing. The weather makes anything more than my indoor workout unrealistic. And everything else I should be doing, I am already working on. 

But this year there is one thing I have to make a resolution on. I must resolve to care.

I am known for my passionate opinions and passionate work. And having been born under the sun sign of Aries, my passions are near the surface. But there is a downside to that too.. Too hot a fire burns out quickly. 

This past year, my personal life as well as global political and publishing trends have conspired to strip me of much of what I thought made life worth living. The things I cared passionately about have been trampled into the mud by stampeding events. Family crises resulting in escalating stress with no hopeful end in sight derailed my writing career, which was hobbled by the miserable publishing climate as it was, and I'm not even going to start on politics, since you've heard it all before. 

Mostly the things that I still have from last year are the humblest things--a home, some chickens, a duck, two cats, a garden, some members of my family. I am immensely grateful for them. But the thing that has been most dramatically taken away has been my passion. 

I know from watching other people sink into dullness that passion is the key element in life force. The passion of hopes and dreams is lovely. The passion of love and commitment in a relationship is precious. But even the passion of anger or revenge has it's virtues. I don't care much anymore what passions you may have, but I know that having some passion is essential.

All year we heard that this is NOT the time to talk about climate change--after a natural disaster that cost many lives--or about guns in America--after a tragic mass shooting--or it isn't the time to silently kneel for lives lost in your community--during a public and symbolic moment. The core message is that we must curb our passion, stifle the fire because cool heads will make better decisions.

But do they?

I see a first grader playing with trash right outside school and all the adults walking by, picking up kids, going about their business. And the older kids too. I stop and pick up the trash, making a stern note to myself to wash my hands. The older kids stare at me. Why do I care? It isn't my trash--or is it?--they must be thinking. 

I care. In the past I have really and truly cared about picking up the trash in my community. This year I have to choose to care, but I still care.

I disagree with people about a lot of passionate issues. Someone wants to agitate for a political candidate that isn't my cup of tea, though I don't think the candidate is evil. Or they simply care more about gun violence than climate change and I think the priorities should be reversed, if we had to ultimately choose. Or they insist that STAR voting is superior to any other type of voting reform. Others are vehemently trying to build a voice for their marginalized nation or refugee group. 

And you know what? I want to hug every one of those people and say, "You go, human! More power to ya. Have courage and strength. Don't give up."

Because when you get right down to it, these people give a damn and that is far more important than what precisely they give a damn about. 

I invite you to make this resolution with me, if you're struggling. Don't force yourself into a virtuous change of routine that will fizzle out in a couple of weeks. Just resolve to care about something specific. Choose something local and concrete, like your family or your place or your local school. Or choose an issue. But choose something beyond your own person to care about. 

Yes, it's risky. You may well lose that thing or your cause may be lost. That hurts and you may have to choose again.

But what you gain is purpose. If not exactly hope, then at least you gain a temporary antidote to despair. Despair and it's close cousin indifference are the worst destroyers of our world. 

Therefore, I invite you, even if your passion is something I may disagree with. Give a damn this year. Choose and follow your passion. This is how we ensure that we will have a future. 

Adopting a sighted guide on the train... or the ethics of helping strangers avoid corporate traps

What you pay for today is often a service rather than an item. But we are not always informed about what exactly the service we are purchasing is. Often as not, that lack of information is intentional.

As a small example, in the Czech Republic an new rail system was recently implemented that allows private companies to run trains on the Czech railways. These trains usually run at the most lucrative times of day and on the most frequented routes, leaving the less profitable village routes to the national rail company and causing some bitterness. 

 Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

For passengers, the problem is that for most of our lives we have been buying tickets at the ticket office and using them for any and all trains on the purchased route.

The only possible exception used to be express trains requiring an upgrade payment, but even those trains still utilized the base ticket you bought. It wasn't worthless. You just had to pay for an upgrade if you wanted to use the express train.

But now these private trains pull in to the same stations and travel the same routes and once you get on board you are told that your ticket isn't valid and you are required to buy another one from another company.

I have more or less mastered this system after a couple of confusing encounters. But many people, especially those who only travel at special times of the year, such as the recent holidays, are not yet aware. Recently I met an elderly woman on a train platform with frosty mist rising all around us. I wouldn't have noticed her at all, except that she helped me read a sign that was a bit too far for my shortsighted eyes.

It was a brief, polite encounter and would have ended there, except that later I noticed her colorful hat in front of me boarding one of the private trains. She sat down in the set of seats I wanted to sit in, so we sat together. I also noticed her pull out a Czech National Railways ticket. I was half expecting it and even with my eyesight the blue logo was clear when she laid it on the tiny fold-out table right between us.

"Excuse me," I said, my words rushed with urgency. "That ticket won't work on this train. Another train will be here in just five minutes. You've got to--" 

But the train jolted into motion before I could even finish my sentence.

The older woman started to rise from her place, her eyes going wide with anxiety. "How was I supposed to know?" her voice teetered on the edge of panic. "And what do I do now?"

I'd seen it plenty of times. She would be humiliated. The conductor would come and scold her for boarding the train with the wrong ticket. Then he would attempt to get her to buy a new ticket for the same price she had already paid. And if she couldn't or had the gumption to simply refuse, she would be put off the train at the next station.

That was the most reasonable response. I happened to know that another train where her ticket would be good was following just behind us.

But being legally blind, I am well accustomed to missing inconspicuous notice boards and being publicly shamed for it. It might not bother a lot of people. My husband sneers over such things and calls me "thin-skinned." But I just do not like being scolded. It's very unpleasant and I could tell that the older woman across from me felt the same way.

I heard the snap of the conductor's stamp on tickets just a few rows behind me and there was no time to explain.

"Sit down," I hissed at the older woman. "You helped me on the platform, remember? I'm legally blind and my pass says a guide can travel with me for free. You're my guide."

It's the law here. Even private companies have to honor it. I don't generally need a guide to get around, even though I only see about ten percent of "normal." But that primarily comes from a lifetime of adaptation and a lot of good mobility instructors. I know people with similar eye conditions who are very disoriented and do often need a guide. So the doctors and bureaucrats who certify such passes have little choice but to assign them based on technical measurements rather than subjective abilities.

I couldn't explain any of this though, not with the conductor suddenly right behind me. The older woman sat back down, her eyes wide and her jaw trembling just a bit. At the last minute I nudged her incorrect ticket under the map on the table.

The conductor turned toward us and I produced my disability card and paid for the private train ticket, giving a nod toward the woman to indicate that she was included. She never had to say a word. And the conductor moved off. 

I explained it all afterwards and sure enough, she was one of those people who rarely rides the train. She had been doing some rare holiday visiting and was confused by the dizzying new variety in trains. She didn't appear to have the energy for one of those spontaneous autobiographies that strangers exchange on trains or airplanes, so we sat mostly in silence for an hour and a half, until she got off at the stop just before mine. 

I had to wonder whether my action was ethically correct by current standards. She did help me but only in a very minor way. But to me the greater issue was that she had paid for a ticket and the companies should be responsible for providing adequate information for passengers. More than my right to adopt her as a guide, I felt she had a right to a transparent and fair system of payment that would not result in either extra charges or humiliation for understandable mistakes.