Category Archives: Dwarfism

Talking about the future of local news at TEDxLowell

I’ll be speaking at TEDxLowell this Sunday, April 27, on “Telling the Local Story: The Fate of Community Journalism in a Time of Cultural Upheaval.” Essentially I’ll be talking about what led me to write “The Wired City” as well as what’s next for local news. You can check out the slides for my presentation above.

It looks like a great slate of presenters. I’m especially looking forward to hearing from Becky Curran, a motivational speaker with dwarfism, who’ll talk about “The Media’s Perception of Little People and the Disability Community.” Way back in 2003 or ’04, I spoke about my first book, “Little People,” at Providence College. Becky was a student at PC and took part in the discussion.

Becky and I will be part of Session 1 at TEDxLowell, which will be held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The event will take place at the United Teen Equality Center, located in downtown Lowell at 34 Hurd St. There is an admission fee; I hope that won’t dissuade you from dropping by.

Two runners with dwarfism to compete in marathon

Click on image to watch video

Click on image to watch video

Two people with dwarfism are running the Boston Marathon tomorrow, and today’s Boston Globe profiles them in a front-page feature. Globe reporter David Abel interviews Juli Windsor, who lives in the South End, and John Young, a teacher from Salem. His story is accompanied by a terrific video of Windsor produced by Thea Breite.

I don’t know Windsor, but I do know Young. He and his wife, Sue, and their son, Owen, are fixtures at Little People of America events, and we ran into them at a district conference in North Conway just a few weeks ago. Here is his blog. Young tells Abel:

The people who support and encourage me are the ones that get me to the starting line, while the ones who doubt or ridicule me are the ones that carry me to the finish line. Whenever I really start to hurt, I think of someone laughing, pointing, and saying, “You can’t do that!” and it seems to give me the strength to carry on.

Best of luck to Juli and John!

A new look at the dwarfs of Auschwitz

The seven dwarf siblings of the Ovitz family

The Daily Mail has published a lengthy excerpt from a new book about the Ovitz family, a troupe of seven dwarf entertainers from Hungary who were shipped off to Auschwitz and subjected to horrendous torture at the hands of Josef Mengele after it was discovered that they were Jewish.

The book, “Giants: The Dwarfs Of Auschwitz,” was written by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. It appears to be an extension of an earlier book by the two called “In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe.” (Thanks to Fred Short for pointing me to this.)

I wrote about the Ovitzes in my book about dwarfism, “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes.” There’s a longish section about them toward the end of Chapter 4. I had seen a documentary about the Ovitzes at the Little People of America national conference in 2002, which prompted me to do some additional research.

One of my findings was that Nazis, contrary to what many people within the dwarf community believed, had not targeted people with dwarfism for elimination — unless they were Jews. Indeed, what happened to the Ovitzes underscored the uniquely Jewish nature of the Holocaust.

In the documentary, “Liebe Perla” (“Dear Perla”), Perla Ovtiz recalls that she and her family had continued to tour Europe and perform even after the outbreak of World War II. She remembers a time before their Jewish identity was discovered when “the Nazis gave us a hand, lifted us onto the packed train and helped us find some space.”

Though being Jews landed them in Auschwitz, being dwarfs kept them alive, as Mengele wanted to keep them around for his sick experiments. Another Jewish dwarf, Alexander Katan, was not so lucky. At the Mauthausen concentration camp, he was killed, and his flesh was stripped off his skeleton so that it could be displayed. Koren and Negev write that the Ovitzes feared a similar fate.

Incredibly, well into her later years of life Perla Ovitz remained on some level grateful that Mengele had saved her and her siblings. In “Liebe Perle,” she tells the filmmaker that she cried when she learned Mengele had died in Uruguay. “I can’t say anything bad about him,” she says. Truly a horrible and complicated tale.

Andrew Solomon, dwarfism and my daughter

One day in the summer of 2003 I found myself in a hotel lobby, engaged in an intense conversation with Andrew Solomon. His book on depression, “The Noonday Demon,” had won the National Book Award. Now he was working on a new project — about families with children who were so different from their parents that they called into question the very meaning of identity.

Solomon wanted to interview me because our daughter, Becky, has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. She had survived a rather harrowing infancy during which her too-small airways left her struggling for survival. She needed a tracheotomy, oxygen tanks and home nursing until she was nearly 3 years old …

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Andrew Solomon and “Little People”

Becky and me, back in the day

I’m pretty excited about this. Nine years ago Andrew Solomon, winner of the National Book Award, blurbed my book on dwarfism, “Little People.” He also interviewed me at the 2003 Little People of America conference for his next project — a book about families whose children were different from their parents, whether they be disabled, gay or suffering from mental illness, to name just a few examples.

That project — “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity” — has just been published, and has been the object of rapturous reviews. The New York Times alone has published two raves (here and here) as well as a feature on Solomon and his own family. And it turns out that I made the cut, as he both quotes from our conversation and cites “Little People” in several spots.

Naturally, I’m trying to figure out how this might benefit “Little People.” Although it’s officially out of print, I sell a high-quality self-published paperback. (You can read about how that came about in a piece I wrote for Nieman Reports.) So far I’ve taken a few small steps: I’ve removed the free online edition (except for the Introduction and Chapter One) and made it easier to buy a copy. As you can see in the right-hand column, I’ve pumped up its presence on Media Nation. And I’m going to try Google ads again, at least through Christmas.

Anyone have any other ideas? Are there any independent bookstores in the area that would be interested in carrying it?

E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.

Speaking out against dwarf-tossing

Angela Van Etten, an old friend from Little People of America, has written an excellent commentary for the Huffington Post on what’s wrong with dwarf-tossing. (And good grief, Arianna. “Weird News”? Really?) As you may have heard, a state legislator in Florida wants to repeal that state’s law against dwarf-tossing on the grounds that letting drunks hurl little people across barrooms would somehow help the economy.

Van Etten does a good job of explaining the difference between people with dwarfism who exploit their short stature for profit, like Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer, and people who allow themselves to be exploited — that is, the tossees. Among other things, dwarf-tossing is dangerous, because people with dwarfism have unstable spines.

In 2002, Van Etten and her husband, Robert, were interviewed by John Stossel, then of ABC News’ “20/20,” who mocked their opposition to a campaign led by a dwarf to overturn the Florida law. Fortunately, the law held.

I had the privilege of interviewing the Van Ettens during the 2002 LPA national conference in Salt Lake City, and they pop up several times in my book “Little People.”

Graham points finger and apologizes

Well, now. A little after 3 p.m., Michael Graham addressed the matter of the dwarfism segment on last Friday’s show on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) and apologized — not for anything he said, but for Karl Zahn’s so-called joke. The full transcript of Graham’s remarks:

If you listen to the show, you know that when I screw up, if I get a fact here wrong or whatever, I like to correct myself personally, and I like to do it right up front in the show. During Friday’s we had a conversation about Starbucks and a decision to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit. We were discussing the legitimate topic of a dwarf who had a job at Starbucks for which I feel she was clearly unqualified.

Well, during a roundtable some comments went too far. They weren’t funny. They were hurtful. Doesn’t matter who said them. It doesn’t matter that it was a wide-open conversation. This is my show, and I’m responsible. So I’d like to apologize for those comments. I’m sorry it happened. I wish that I could say nothing stupid will ever be said on this show again, but that is obviously impossible. People make mistakes. What I can promise is that I will take responsibility for mine.

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Karl.

Meanwhile, Heidi Raphael, a spokeswoman for Greater Media, which owns WTKK, told me in an emailed statement that the station will not be posting the audio. She added:

Please know we have spoken with Michael about his remarks, and made it clear this is not the type of commentary we expect on our airwaves. Michael’s comments do not, in any way, represent the views, opinions or company culture of Greater Media.

Please note the phrase his remarks in Raphael’s statement, which clearly refers to Graham, not Zahn.

Pending any new developments, I’ll be wrapping this up tomorrow. If you’ve been hanging in there to this point, please stay tuned.