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 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of 

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. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

How to have a badass image

For those who were depressed by my last post, this one has a partial solution (even though it wouldn't really work in a rainstorm).

I'm told that my family thought I was a whiner when I was a child. My feet always hurt and I always cried about it. I grew up being told I had low pain tolerance. As it turned out, I don't. I have problems with the bones in my legs and they hurt... a lot when I walk more than a mile or two.

But believing that I had low pain tolerance I was sometimes confused. When I was in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador writing an article for The Christian Science Monitor on the construction of oil pipeline and the environmental fallout, I ran my foot into a metal grate and sliced a three inch gash across my big toe. The thing bled like you wouldn't believe but it didn't hurt that much. A storekeeper ran out and poured dry, instant coffee mix on my wound, which did make it stop bleeding. 

My interpreter was in shock and panicking. He got a taxi and we drove to a local clinic. When I looked out the window, I saw a rundown, dirty, Third World clinic and by then my brain was starting to kick in. This was the rain forest, an area with super bacteria. I had been told by other gringos that I had better not get hurt while I was down in the jungle or I'd be in deep trouble. And this was only the second day of my two-week stay in the humid, bacteria-rich rain forest. I could not afford an infected foot. 

I refused to go to the clinic and instead went back the little sweaty room where I had stashed my pack, including a very good first-aid kit. I cleaned and disinfected the wound with iodine and then bandaged it while my interpreter watched, wide eyed. Finally at the end he said, "You're badass." I blinked at him in surprise.

I am? What was I supposed to do? Cry? It wasn't that bad, just a little blood. Seriously.

I poured iodine on it and changed the bandage three times a day. I didn't get an infection and never felt like the cut was too painful. But the bones in my feet ached from all the walking I did on the rain forest paths. I still thought I was just sort of a wimp about that. 

Later I was told by a doctor that all that hiking I had done with backpacks had caused micro-fractures in the bones of my feet because they were positioned just a tad wrong and thus couldn't absorb the repetitive impacts of walking very well. As I've gotten older the pain has gotten worse and it's compounded by the fact that I'm visually impaired, so I can't drive and I have to walk a lot more than most. It isn't a good combination. 

Creative Commons image by Brent of

Creative Commons image by Brent of

So, I was delighted to discover the idea of an electric scooter. I need something that can go as slow as a brisk walk (so it doesn't go faster than I can see and cause me to run off the edges of curbs) and which is small enough to go on the sidewalk. This week my first electric scooter came and I took my kids to preschool for the first time without pain. The scooter is tiny, a two wheeled contraption that hardly enlarges the area I take up on the sidewalk. It requires a bit of balance to ride but fortunately balance is one thing I can do. It doesn't really get me places faster because I have to ride on sidewalks and go really slow but it will mean that I can go many more places than I could before. I may have to push it up the particularly steep hills around here but it is going down the hills that bothers my feet, not going up. 

Euphoric from my first school run with the scooter, I sat down to work and started sorting emails. Then I got a message from the users of a forum I frequent with a question of uncanny relevance: "Are disabled people giving electric scooters a bad image?" The author of the question explained that he likes the look of these little scooters, which are actually widely viewed as a bit nerdy. He wanted to ride one but was afraid that people might think he was disabled if he did because so many people with disabilities are now riding these little gems.

My reaction went from joy that I could tell someone about my awesome scooter, to irritation that this clod thought that someone assuming he might have trouble with his legs was such a terrible thing and finally to dawning realization.

Oh, I get it.

So, here's what I wrote in reply: "I’m sure you meant to ask “Are disabled people giving mobility scooters a badass image?” Because disabled people aren’t bad and can’t give anything a bad image. Using a mobility vehicle that doesn't contribute to climate change and not letting a little health problem keep you out of the fast lane is badass, no? I mean when you see that disabled person riding down the sidewalk, carefully avoiding toddlers and pets, you think 'Dude, that lady is badass and hot too. I hope I’m that cool when I get to be old and not so mobile. Now I even want to get one of those scooters so I can be kinda like her and maybe she’ll even ask me out.'"

I'm in far too good a mood at the moment to let some unthinking comment get me down. Electric scooters look geeky but they get the job done. I don't really know or care if anyone except the preschool set thinks I'm badass anymore (at forty), but I do often look at people and think, "That's badass!" when they are pushing their limits and finding hacks to get around troubles. There is plenty to be cynical about in the world and I often am, but it's nice when a mix of technology and creative problem-solving takes away a burden.