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Old May 31 2008, 11:15 PM   #1
Weyrlady
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Hi all! I wrote this piece for a creative writing workshop that I was taking. I've been told that I should have it published, but this is to see if anyone outside my area is actually interested in reading it! So, enjoy (maybe), and go for it with the comments! You can reploy to this thread if you want, I want to hear what people have to say. . .

On the Wings of a Condor



The midmorning sun rises higher in the sky and the air is so hot that one could easily fry an egg on either the pavement or the vermillion-colored sandstone. Fortunately, up here on the steel arch bridge a welcome cool breeze occasionally breaks the oven-like monotony and causes the Navajo jewelry sellers’ shade umbrellas to flap noisily. I stretch my arms overhead, worshipping the sun and at the same time letting the gentle wind reach my body. As I do, I think once again, “I don’t know how they do it down at the launch ramp.” Down there, in the ethereal beauty of the canyon, there is no moving air, and nearly no shade to relieve the ordeal, just the frigid Colorado River. The almost-unnatrally clear river, in the tail water flow of Glen Canyon Dam located 15 miles upstream, is so cold that it numbs swimmers’ extremities in minutes —yet the water offers a sweet escape.

“There’s one!”, I say, and there is a flurry behind me as visitors rush to dig out their cameras, binoculars, or spotting scopes. Condors are a truly prehistoric sight, and to see one roaming wild and free is certainly a special experience. Around since the age of the dinosaurs, but nearly disappeared forever not so long ago, to see one is to remember a half-forgotten story of how persistence pays off in the end.

Survival is the dark winged shadow passing over the red cliffs. The California Condor is nicknamed the “Comeback Kid” due to their story of standing on the brink of extinction. Through the miracles of animal biologists as well as a truly humbling will to survive, they returned to soar again before legions of adoring fans. Gymnogyps californianus are magnificent to watch in flight, riding the updrafts with a grace and beauty we will probably never know. Survival is in the sound of the air whooshing through their wing feathers, and in the peaceful, knowledgeable expressions on their orange bald heads. Condors have a great amount to teach about how to be resourceful in order to survive in any situation, and as land-bound humans, we have only to listen.

“You can’t miss ‘em. They’re like small airplanes,:” a smiling campground host on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon had told me a few weeks before. He was right. Books, along with biologists from The Peregrine Fund, an organization that works to conserve all raptors, had informed me the California Condor had a wingspan of 9.5 feet. They also pointed out that the condor, like it’s smaller cousin the Turkey Vulture, is a dedicated scavenger, preferring to let somebody else do the killing of their prey. None of the photos on the walls of the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center, nor the excited accounts of my co-workers, prepared me for my first sighting of the real animal. Black as the Ace of Spades, with a light gray stripe on the undersides of their wings, plus a bright white identification number, condors are breathlessly beautiful and so completely at-home in the clear air over the Colorado River that it leaves a lump in your throat. They are the ones, after all, that came back. They symbolize the ability to survive on a wing and a prayer. Every well-bottom-dark, long-winged shadow that passes swiftly overhead is a success story, one that gives me hope for the future.

I fly all day on the wings of a condor, in the form of gently tilted, or canted, wheelchair wheels. To me, condors aren’t the only thing that symbolizes survival. The international access symbol, that goofy little dude in the chair -that’s survival. It’s the exquisitely beautiful, visual art of fluently spoken sign language, and the white cane with the red tip Survival is in the sparkle of blue spokes as they move, and a dazzling silver mini van with a gray ramp. Survival is in the details.

These people, official members of the Other, are anything but “normal”. They have not only survived, but thrived, in a situation where many may fear to go. They have taken all the funny looks, the sometimes disrespectful treatment, stolen parking spaces, lost jobs, inaccessible sidewalks, thoughtless people, and frequent idiocy and turned it around to face toward a vision of a new life, and a good one. Like a wild condor in flight, they have much to teach about how persistence pays off in the end. We all have much to teach everyone else, and our only duty is to listen.

To survive is to live a life as close to “normal” as possible, to go on with the life you want to live, regardless of what people say, think, or expect. Just because I use a wheelchair to get around, does that mean that I’m supposed to bury my emotions, my physical abilities, my intellect, and my individuality? I guess the feelings get lost along with the motor skills, huh? Or at least that’s what many people seem to think. According to John Hockenberry in the autobiographical book Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence, “Each stereotype thrives in direct proportion to the distance from the class of persons it claims to describe. Get close to the real people and these pretend images begin to break up, but they don’t go easily.” When will the world lose it’s fear of those who are different, and start accepting people for who they are? We’ve come so far, but there is so, so far, yet to go. “Miles to go before I sleep,” as Robert Frost once wrote.

True survival is the everyday act of throwing stereotypical images away like a professional pitcher throws a baseball. The opposing team’s batter steps away from a ball moving too fast to even see, much less get in front of, and then there is the immediate deep and satisfying thud of the pitch contacting the catcher’s mitt. The batter’s eyebrows raise in surprise, and so do the eyebrows of much of the uninitiated, the temporarily able-bodied, the non-disabled population. Start acting like a real person, and that’s when the heads turn, the stares (or in some cases even glares!) start, and the eyebrows go up into the stratosphere. I’ve gotten to almost enjoy surprising people, liking the astonished looks I get from others. One example of this is how I regularly visit the gym to keep myself in shape for my various activities. I don’t go to just sit there, or lift baby weights while jabbering on my cell phone. I go to “get rec’d”, get ripped, keep my shoulders strong for kayaking—whatever you want to call it! Regardless, every time I go, there is someone, and usually several someones, who delivers amazed looks and questioning glances.

Like almost all people my age, I’m free to build a life as I see fit. I have the ability to have an opinion, speak out, drive a car, boat, plane, train, etc., participate in any physical sport I desire to, and yes, that includes the freedom to break the law. The only thing I can’t do is walk unassisted. Instead I have a better way to get around. People have no idea how much you use your head to get around on wheels. It’s a graceful way to move, much like the free flight of a wild condor.

You see, the focus is wrong. What if people, instead of only seeing other’s differences, recognized each other’s similarities? What if the signs on the parking spaces near the store said, “Reserved for those who think differently”? What if doctors and nurses concentrated on, and helped others to realize the many abilities of those with so-called disabilities, instead of trying to “fix” them to fit a preconceived idea of “normal”? What if teachers, instead of referring to “special needs kids” to mean the children with disabilities, proudly called them “my special possibilities kids”? What would the world be like then?

Most of contemporary society seems to have no problem doing this our four-legged (or, in this case, winged) animal brethren. In 1982, when California Condors had dwindled down to 22 birds, a wildlife biologist looked at then-captive animals and saw the potential for a breeding program to restore the condor’s wild population. Several wildlife conservation groups in the Intermountain West built condor flight facilities, and weren’t afraid to start first breeding them, and then releasing them into the wild once the young condors were stable enough. Sometimes the biologists working with the captive condors even use “condor-mama” puppets to simulate the experience of having real condor parents, as well as to minimize the contact with humans and “keep them wild”. Today, condor reproduction in the wild is in full swing, and with a little help from caring humans plus a fiercely determined spirit of it’s own, the California Condor is well on it’s way towards independence. The “Comeback Kid” is now a success story, and it’s because, so long ago, a forward-thinking biologist saw the possibilities. Why not the same with people?

One frequent sight around town is the international symbol for access; the little guy (girl? dog? cat? toddler? handsome young man? ravishing beauty? There’s no way to tell.) in the wheelchair. This image is embarrassingly common, and is instantly recognizable as symbolizing a barrier-free environment for those with disabilities. The stereotypical wheelchair rolls across signs for parking spaces, trails, ramps, hotel rooms, public restrooms, and license plates. I even have a decal featuring the access symbol on the passenger side door of my van, to bring attention to the fact that I need to have ample room to the side to extend the ramp that allows easy entering and exiting of the vehicle. In a way, the cold, multi-gender, zero-personality symbol is useful; it is so ingrained in people’s brains that they comprehend it in almost no time, making it invaluable for route-finding around an unfamiliar setting. Usually on a background of bright blue, though I’ve also seen brown or reflective silver, it stands out even if it’s not standing up, and that’s a good thing.

However, even common symbols have their dark side; it has come to represent a specific group in many people’s minds; the ones with no personality, no gender, a limited capacity for emotion, and soul-crushing dependency. The symbol represents access, which is a difference, and to many in society, that means something to avoid and fear. Instead of recognizing possibilities, potential, and abilities, many in society just see scary variations. Sometimes people cop out of interacting with those with “disabilities” because they feel vulnerable, like whatever happened to the person will soon happen to them if they’re not careful.

Encounter the user of the “sporty titanium number”, blue spokes, dog, tie-dyed head scarf and all, in a grocery store, decide that she doesn’t fit the image (she doesn’t), and then stare nonstop. “Well,” I thinik to myself, “at least I turn heads!” OK, so it took me awhile to respond to the constant staring with that kind of confident indifference, and sometimes I still find it quite bothersome. But today at least, I know where it’s coming from. In large part due to the outdated and over-prevelent access symbol, many people stereotype other people (especially those who see, hear, move, or think differently than they themselves do) as folks who are older, dumber, meaner, uglier and very dependent on others. When they come face-to-face with a younger, nicer, independent, educated individual who happens to be in possession of a different ability, the preconceived access-symbol image goes out the window. Insert the sound of breaking glass here! Just another stereotype to throw at the wall.

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop that was put on by a group that uses art, and other forms of visual communication to expose and correct discrimination. They started focusing on feminism and the inequality of the status of women that they saw daily, but have also branched out to include other issues as well. Together with the four other members of my group, we created a large poster that featured a rendering of the access symbol, that we clearly made a young woman with a dyed orange and green mohawk, a low-cut sparkly halter top, a short skirt, fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels. We also created a list of the young woman’s abilities and disabilities to point out how the much of society tends to focus on the “wrong” thing, or disabilities instead of possibilities. Reaching the end of the workshop session, all the groups took turns presenting the posters they had created to the rest of the workshop participants. Afterward, one of the professors hugged me and thanked me for changing her image of people with disabilities—and I felt the satisfaction of knowing that I had a part in modifying someone’s attitude! As a member of the Flagstaff Photography Club, this experience helped to form an idea that I might make into reality using photography. The entire concept of actually forming and displaying a poster like this excites me! I plan on using the frequent Photo Club shows and displays to publish my ideas to a larger audience, hoping to educate and inform others. In the words of the song “If Everyone Cared” by the band Nickelback, “Show the world that they were wrong/teach them all to sing along” I want to figuratively teach the world to sing along, and help people change their attitudes.

The wheels of my lightweight, sporty wheelchair come out from near my hips like wings. They are wings—the wings of freedom, independence, and hope for the future. Much the glossy black wings of a condor, they offer a little help on my quest for self-determination. There is glimpse of blue spokes disappearing around a corner as a the whoosh of large wings fills the air, and the oppressive feel of the heat weighs on you like a wet, wool blanket.

California condors are like people with disabilities, perhaps pausing on the brink but returning to find a magnificent liberty. The two of them have gotten a second chance at life. Together, they are the dream, prayer, and strong push the world needs. They are survival.

Last edited by Weyrlady; Jun 2 2008 at 10:32 PM. Reason: formatting change
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Old Jun 1 2008, 03:39 AM   #2
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This is beautiful, Weyrlady! I admit that my eyes teared up in spots. I love your use of metaphor in comparing the endangered California Condor to people with disabilities. Not only did you present an enlightening expose on the attitudes our society sometimes has towards people who are perceived as "different" but I feel that it is also something that many people can relate to on some level, myself included.

My only nitpick is the formatting: it would be easier to read if there were spaces between the paragraphs. But, other than that, this was very inspiring!

This is an interesting coincidence but, earlier today, my husband and I visited the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. One of the critters we saw was a California Condor!
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Old Jun 1 2008, 09:29 PM   #3
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Weyrlady, this is very, very well written. As Greenrider said, the use of the Condor as a metaphor was excellent. Your opening evoked a real sense of being there. The whole thing was woven together beautifully.
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Old Jun 2 2008, 10:41 PM   #4
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My only nitpick is the formatting: it would be easier to read if there were spaces between the paragraphs. But, other than that, this was very inspiring!

This is an interesting coincidence but, earlier today, my husband and I visited the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. One of the critters we saw was a California Condor![/QUOTE]


We can fix that. . . I fixed the formatting! Thanks for the advice, Greenrider and Keiva! The orikginal file for that does have space between the paragraphs, but I wasn't sure how it would ;post here.

I'm glad you enjoyed the condors! They are beautiful and I tend to 'wax poetic' about them. . . that free-flight aviary is really something, isn't it?
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Old Jun 4 2008, 12:45 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Weyrlady View Post

We can fix that. . . I fixed the formatting!
That's much better!
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