Somethin’ From the Oven

In the autumn of 2012, the NFB community was shaken to learn that the national office was laying off 19 staff members at its headquarters in Baltimore. For those of you uninitiated readers, understand two things. The National Federation of the Blind was considered to be the largest and most influential voice of the organized blind in America. Also, employment is a much sought after, often elusive goal for blind people. As I have explained elsewhere in these pages, the NFB often served as the intersection between community and employment for many of its members.

So it was understandable why my friend Amy got roaring drunk on the eve of the convention of the Nebraska affiliate of the NFB in October, 2012. Amy was a loyal member of the Federation and had been an employee at the national office for about two years. Her job was safe, but some of her friends and coworkers were not. Amy wasn’t sure if her situation would continue to be secure going forward. So, she got shitfaced, then spent the next day nursing a hangover with crackers and water in her hotel room as the convention kicked off.

At the time, I was living in Colorado. I happened to be back in my home state standing as godfather to my new niece, if you can believe it. I attended her christening, then went to the NFBN convention the next day. It was a strange feeling being back amongst my fellow blind Nebraskans. I felt like an outsider looking in.

The sharpest memory that comes from that weekend was provided by Jim Gashel, fellow Coloradoan and national representative for the Baltimore headquarters. For those unwashed in the blood of the lamb, each state convention gets a national rep who comes with the proxy of the national president of the organization. It Is customary for each rep to deliver a report to the assembled convention body during the general session, as well as a keynote speech during the evening banquet. For me, it was often an excuse to go hit the head and grab some NABS snacks in the back of the room.

During Gashel’s remarks, he brought up the topic of the mass layoffs in Baltimore. This was 11 years ago, so I’m paraphrasing, but his remarks went something like, “Dr. Marc Maurer made the very difficult but necessary decision to lay off a portion of the staff.” At that point, a few people applauded, then quickly ceased when they realized that the applause was not going to swell.

What happened next was pretty stunning. Gashel said, with no sense of empathy or irony, “No, go ahead. That’s an applause line.” So, people applauded on mass. Amy and I were dumbstruck. Did the audience understand that they were applauding the loss of 19 jobs? Of course, they were really applauding Marc Maurer’s courageous sacrifices that had to be made for the greater good. Whatever the angle, it was tactless, heartless and cruel.

I remembered Gashel’s applause line later on that evening. Our state president pulled several students aside and gave them a stern talking-to. Apparently, they were laughing and chitty-chatting during Gashel’s banquet keynote speech. His wife Susan was offended by their irreverence and lack of respect, so she let the higher-ups know of her displeasure. And, the kids got a lecture. I don’t know if they got sent to their rooms without any of Nancy Oltman’s prize-winning cake.

Think about the dichotomy of those two situations for a moment. Gashel wanted everyone to applaud the termination of 19 jobs from the national office, but there was no sense of loss or regret in his words. Later, his wife gets pissed at a couple of college kids for a lack of respect. Absorb these disparities and you’ll have a decent snapshot of the culture within the NFB.

Sidebar: Nancy Oltman’s cakes were the stuff of legends around Nebraska NFB circles. They really did put Pillsbury to shame. Some people paid hundreds of dollars at fundraising auctions just to own one of her cakes.

I was thinking of that fateful convention and Jim Gashel’s applause lines two days ago when I learned that Blind Inc., one of the three NFB training centers in Minneapolis, would be closing at the end of this week. Their official statement on the matters reads as follows:

“The Board of Directors of Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions, Inc. (BLIND, Inc.) regrets to announce that we will temporarily suspend all of our programs and services as of January 1, 2024.
We take this action with heavy hearts. After extensive deliberation over our current financial and organizational obligations, we believe suspending operations at this time in order to make future plans is the best and most responsible available course of action. This decision comes after a review of compounded circumstances that have developed over a period of years, leaving our organization with inadequate resources to advance our mission at this time. One factor of this evaluation is that our current building, the Pillsbury Mansion, which is on the national historic registry, needs millions of dollars in renovations that must be done in a manner that preserves its historic character. Unfortunately, we have determined that we are not in a position to undertake the necessary building renovations while still providing quality adjustment-to-blindness training.
We recognize that this decision will be painful to our students, our dedicated staff, and to all of our supporters in the community. We acknowledge that it comes at a particularly difficult time, with the holiday season and new year upon us. We were not able to find a viable way to alter the timing of this decision. Our leadership is working with the National Federation of the Blind, Louisiana Center for the Blind, and Colorado Center for the Blind to help during this transition.
We deeply appreciate all of the work everyone affiliated with BLIND, Inc. has done over the past three decades to help blind people build the skills and confidence to live the lives they want. Our high-quality training has impacted thousands of people, not only the many students that have walked with us, but also the blind community who connect with the positive philosophy and high expectations demonstrated from our alumni and friends. With the continued support of our board, partners, and community, our goal in the coming months is to re-imagine what adjustment to blindness training can be, and to reopen our doors with fresh approaches and insights and on a sound financial footing.
BLIND, Inc, established in 1986, is a training center and community of blind and low-vision people, proudly affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind. We believe blind people can do anything. Every day, we encourage and challenge each student. When you believe in yourself and experience a thriving community of positive blind people, nothing can hold you back from pursuing your dreams. Our mission and values will continue to guide us to dream without limits, be bold, and work with love. Thank you for your support.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Blind Inc. staff. Nothin’ says lovin’ like being fired for the holidays. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” “Frosty the snowman, was a jolly happy soul.” “Riccobono took an axe, and gave the center 40 whacks.” Hope you can find work in 2024, cuz we may or may not be back.

I have to say that this statement is a slight step up from Gashel’s callous “applause line” comment. At least they acknowledged the shitty timing of the decision. Still, you can hear the martyrdom dripping from each word, even amidst the boiler plate sloganeering. “Live the life you want,” indeed.

The underlying sentiment is pervasive within the NFB, but as I’ve learned after talking to others in the nonprofit sector over the years, it is not unique to them. The critical importance of the mission is often weaponized against anyone who wants to openly question the maltreatment of employees, or to suppress employees who wish to economically advance within the organization. “If you truly appreciated the lord’s work that we’re doing here, you’d understand that we have to sacrifice you to save others, Hell, if you really love us, you’ll applaud your sacrifice on the altar of the greater good.” I have no doubt that this message is being implicitly or explicitly transmitted to the soon-to-be former employees at Blind Inc. during this yuletide season.

I could parse and deconstruct the statement, but it would be futile at this juncture. There’s just too much I don’t know. I do seriously wonder why it wasn’t possible to relocate the program to more modern and affordable surroundings, but I’m sure a certain segment of the blind elite would find questions like this pedestrian and sophomoric, so I’ll just leave it lay. It’s also quite evident that there is a hell of a lot more going on here than just issues involving an outdated building. Many hard questions will need to be asked and answered over the coming months. Every dues-paying member of the NFB should be outraged by this sad development. I wish the general membership had the intestinal fortitude to press the leadership for the answers, but I am skeptical of any such outcome. I am also highly skeptical that there will ever be a Blind Inc. 2.0.

But back to 2012 for a moment. Lest Amy be embarrassed by my portrayal of her, I have to admit that she wasn’t the only person who got shitfaced that fateful October weekend. After the banquet, I began consuming alternate quantities of Fat Tire and something called a, Cattle Prod. My memories are really sketchy, but I think a Cattle Prod involved the fusion of Royal Crown Cola and Jack Daniels Whisky. I can’t be sure. By 1AM, I have a very fuzzy memory of being wheeled back to my room on a hotel dolly. Apparently, I sang karaoke versions of “Love, Me,” and “Mamas, Don’t Let your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” If you’re curious how it sounded, you can probably find a recording of it somewhere on the internet. It’s every bit as embarrassing as you might guess. I also vaguely remember drunk dialing my girlfriend in Denver and hugging a lot of people. I’m a big lovie bear when I drink.

At 4AM, I woke up on my hotel room floor, my pants around my ankles and a cold puddle underneath my stomach. I won’t mention my roommate’s name because he’s respectable now.

At 8AM, my dad called and said they’d be over to pick me up in an hour. So I showered quick, said goodbye to my fellow blind, all of whom seemed reserved in their expressions of affection toward me, and I went to our family cabin, where I tried to shake off my monstrous hangover and put on a good face in front of my new goddaughter. To this day, that convention drinking bout was the worst black-out episode I’ve ever had.

Two weeks later to the day, at the banquet of the NFB of Colorado state convention in Boulder, Julie Deden won an award for her exemplary service to the organization. I got so angry, I started banging my empty coffee cup on its saucer until someone in leadership told me to quit it or get out. I think I was on Fat Tire number six or seven at that point.

The next morning, I shamefully slinked out of the hotel without saying goodbye to anyone. I went home to my apartment, tried to sleep, and wound up with the dry heaves on the bathroom floor at about 11:30 AM. There, retching and grunting with bile in my throat, I looked in the metaphoric mirror and decided that I might…might have a drinking problem.

That part was easy. The part where I had to admit that I might…might have an NFB problem didn’t come for many years. But that, gentle readers, is a story for another blog entry.

As for Amy, she worked at NFB headquarters for a few more years. She eventually left the national office and moved to San Francisco, where she happily now shares her crackers and water with the homeless.

Does anyone remember Jim Gashel’s letter of, “caring concerns,” that he published two years ago in the wake of the NFB’s internal investigation of the sexual misconduct scandal? One can’t help but read it (particularly Section II) and get the sense that Gashel was being relegated to the storage closet of history. I read it and gave it the applause it deserved. I have no idea where Gashel is now or what he’s doing, but I doubt he’s in the unemployment line.

Before I depart, let me say that I’ve been pretty flippant in this entry. It’s what I do. But I genuinely feel bad for the men and women who got laid off from Blind Inc. Most paid NFB underlings are decent, hard-working people who honestly want to make a positive difference in the lives of the blind. Whatever incompetence transpired behind the scenes, the workers at Blind Inc. didn’t deserve the holiday shit sandwich they just got. As I’ve stated before, blind people can’t just lose their jobs and pick up and work for Uber or Chipotle to carry on through from paycheck to paycheck until a better job comes along. I really, really hope they’ll be all right.

Merry Christmas.

Silence is Complicity

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only reason I maintain this blog is so that there will be a record of my thoughts, feelings and actions if I should die unexpectedly. Who was Ryan O? What did he believe? Did he measure up to the standards that he set for himself? This blog will not persuade anyone of anything. It will not move the needle. I’m just another American nobody with a series of opinions. Let the record reflect that, after a certain point in my life, I tried to do the right thing when it mattered most. Or maybe I’m just writing down my thoughts so as to keep my own reality solidified in a world that seems to be tilting ever more toward the psychotic zone.

I think I’ve been pretty consistent in these pages in condemning sexual assault and misconduct. For those of you that are so inclined, check out my entries throughout 2016, particularly in Mid-October. Check out my very lengthy, very emotional entries in early 2021. Weigh those entries against what I’m about to write here.

Last Sunday, a clip of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal went viral on social media. Dana Bash was interviewing her and asked why politicians and women’s groups who claimed to stand against sexual violence were not more forceful in their condemnations of Hamas terrorists on October 7. Jayapal hemmed and hawed in typical politician fashion. The noteworthy part was when Bash pushed back on her, refusing to let her get away with the typical progressive stratagem of deflecting all criticism of Hamas back on Israel.

A day later, Jayapal came out with a statement, but it was too little, too late. Any reasonable person can and should read Jayapal’s tepid and tardy statement as a reaction to being publicly shamed. This was not a statement born of principle and conviction. It was a move born of embarrassment and damage control.

On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood came out with a generic statement condemning Hamas. The United Nations for Women organization also recently came out with a statement condemning the actions of Hamas against Israeli women on October 7. All of these bodies, who claim to speak for women, did so only after mounting criticism that they were too slow to acknowledge that Israeli women had been systematically raped, tortured, kidnapped and murdered during the attack. It is also not a coincidence that the statements began to drop after female hostages were released from Hamas captivity.

Today is December 7. Two months ago, Israeli endured the worst attack and loss of life in one stroke since the Holocaust. The simple fact is that female politicians and activists, as well as groups purporting to speak for women, have been shamefully silent on this issue. This despite the fact that, unlike many claims of sexual violence which ultimately boil down to ‘he said/she said’ there is ample evidence that mass rape did in deed occur. In fact, the perpetrators bragged, laughed and celebrated their brutality against Israeli women. They took live videos of their assaults, posted them to various social media accounts and shared them with sympathetic parties. The only doubt fostered as to the depth of depravity of these crimes come from conspiracy nuts, leftist extremists and useful idiots for the cause of Hamas who want to water down the events of that bloody day.

Here is the bitter pill with no chaser. The brutal truth is that the left has now experienced it’s Hollywood Access tape moment. It faced the same test confronting Republicans in October of 2017. And, just like the bastions of “conservative” politicians, activists and common voters six years ago, the left has now failed the test.

No one likes to be the villain of the piece. No one likes to think that their actions, or inactions, result in a villain achieving power. This is why people are so emotionally malleable. They can lie to themselves, to others and to their god of choice, all in the name of justice, righteousness and principle. But it’s bullshit.

It’s all well and good to speak supposed truth to power when you’re in a friendly crowd. It’s all fine to pick a fight and throw bombs when you think you’re going to gain a lot of “likes” and “shares” from it. But it’s quite another when you run the risk of speaking your truly held beliefs, only to be ridiculed, threatened, taunted, mocked and maybe even assaulted because of those valid views. That is the honest to God meaning of conviction, and once again, we learn that those who scream about justice in public come up well short when it really matters.

Do you think I’m waggling my finger here? If you do, then you haven’t been paying attention over the past eight years. I’ve been largely alone since Trump came to power. Six years ago today, I walked away from a community from which I derived a good deal of my self-worth. Four years later, I walked away from the other major community from which my identity sprang. IN both cases, it was because of the issue of sexual predation. So, with all due respect, fuck you if you think that I’m enjoying myself here. Being a man without a country really sucks.

I honestly don’t understand why progressives have to make it an either/or scenario. Why can’t they say, “Sure, we support the Palestinian right to statehood and we want them to be free of Israeli oppression, but wanton rape and murder are a bridge too far.” By not taking this position right out of the gate, they’ve destroyed any credibility they had in the realm of sexual justice for women. All the counter forces have to do is stand up and parrot New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. “Silence is violence, but not when it comes to Israeli rape victims.”

So, if progressives love call-out culture, let me employ it here. Shame on all of you who rightfully spat fire over Donald Trump’s callous admission of his assaults on women, only to hold your tongue when video evidence was set before you of a woman begging for her attackers to kill her after being gang-raped. Shame on all of you who stridently attacked Brett Kavanaugh based on hearsay testimony, while ignoring video images of a woman crawling on the ground with her pants full of blood. Shame on those of you who screamed about the systematic cover-ups of sexual abuse in the National Federation of the Blind who now downplay the forensic evidence of female corpses that had their pelvic bones crushed from violent and repeated rape. Shame on those of you who proudly posted #MeToo on your social media feeds, but who now turn a deaf ear to the testimonies of the hostages who are now home, and refuse to call for the release of the remaining hostages who are very likely still enduring repeated rape and maybe worse. Shame on those of you who are reading this right now, who know I’m right in all that I say, but who refuse to speak up because…you don’t want to ruffle feathers, or make people uncomfortable, or maybe show your true colors.

Donald Trump knows he can, “grab ‘em by the pussy,” whenever he wants because scores of people from politicians to law enforcement to church ministers will defend him, regardless of the evidence. Now, the Hamas terrorists who raped, murdered and pillaged, and who have sworn to do it again and again and again, hold the same comfort. They know that a collection of western idiots will give them either passive or active permission to act on their blood hatred and brutalize women as they see fit. If silence really is complicity, than all of you are guilty. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

The reason that the left remained silent for so long isn’t particularly complicated, even if they claim otherwise. Just as they believe in, “good trouble,” or, “good violence,” maybe they actually believe in, “good rape.” Rape as a form of resistance to the so-called occupation of Palestinian land. Stop for a moment and examine this rabbit hole from a slight remove. See where it takes you? It does go to a very dark place, indeed.

My ultimate message today is the same as its been all along. Sexual assault is not a partisan issue. It affects everyone, no matter what their gender, race, political stripe, sexual orientation or ideology. If you want to sit on the sidelines and ignore it, that is your choice. If you want to pass yourself off as a courageous defender of justice, then be consistent in your message. Otherwise, you’re nothing but a hypocrite and a fraud and your contradictions will follow you.

I stand with Israel. I stand with survivors of sexual assault, no matter what the circumstances may be. If I haven’t done enough to combat it in my past, I’m trying to do my bit now. Can those of you who invoke the cause of justice make the same claim?

One last point. KFAB radio personality Jim Rose recently delivered one of his morning monologues on this very topic. It was one of his best. He forcefully condemned the silence on the part of women’s groups toward the brutality against Israeli women. It was a moment worthy of applause…until you realize that Jim Rose will gladly pull the lever for Donald Trump if he is the Republican nominee for president next year. What a shame. Hypocrisy seems to be the order of the day.