MacGyver the Storm Drain

The storm drain in my alley needs regular help to keep up with its job. I noticed this during my first winter living here. The alley became a lake during a thaw and it took an auger truck half a day to get it draining. It was a huge operation. I felt a little sad about the money and waste that went into fixing a problem I might have been able to prevent. I set a personal goal to prevent our block from needing that service again.

When my city started an Adopt-a-Storm-Drain program, I immediately adopted that drain. The program let me name the drain, so I called it MacGyver, in honor of my recently deceased pet rat. I think MacGyver is a higher maintenance drain than some of the others, which makes my job extra important.

When MacGyver has a crisis, the alley floods, and then I run around giggling in my rain boots until I fix it. Unclogging that drain is one of the funnest things I do in life. MacGyver gets clogged with two main things: pine needles and ice. Pine needles aren’t the type of leaf one rakes, so sometimes it takes a heavy rainfall to get them all in one place.

Several months ago, there was a rainstorm so fierce that it clogged MacGyver with pine needles and then flooded the alley to the point that people’s trash carts started floating away. I threw on my rain boots, grabbed my tiny rake, and got to work. The water was so deep at the storm drain that it spilled over the top of my rain boots, which are a foot tall. It was tough to pull the clumps of pine needles away from the drain because of the extreme suction. I squealed with glee when a vortex formed in the draining water. And just like that, I likely saved one or two neighbors from catastrophic basement flooding. I may have even prevented flood damage to a neighbor’s car engine, because it was too deep to drive through.

This morning, Elysa brought it to my attention that MacGyver required my assistance. I could hardly wait to get to work. I grabbed my ice chipper, put on my rain boots and hurried out to the alley. This was a special opportunity. Breaking apart ice that’s under a puddle is a unique experience. I can’t really see the chunk of ice I’m working on, so I have to go by feel. Poking around with my ice chipper gives me a general idea of the shape of the ice.

my feet in rain boots, standing in ice water that's almost eight inches deep
Before: here are my feet standing in ice water that is almost 8” deep.

Finding a storm drain under four inches of ice is tricky. The first thing I do is get down to the pavement somewhere nearby. As a hard-of-hearing person, I get a lot of important information from the vibrations I feel through my feet. I’ve spent enough time with MacGyver to know how the ground vibrates nearby. Once I get my boot on the pavement and tap around it with my ice chipper, I have a pretty good idea where MacGyver is. I had to clear a few slots on the drain cover before the water started to flow. The initial trickle helped erode the ice and improve the drainage.

my feet in rain boots, standing next to my ice chipper on the storm drain I just cleared
After: here I am standing in the same place, on the newly visible storm drain.

I watched and listened to the draining water for almost 45 minutes before going back inside. Today has made me enjoy being hard-of-hearing. My deaf ways helped me find the storm drain, and I still got to enjoy the the amplified sound of the flowing water when I’d achieved my goal.

Queer Disabled Activism

I am genderqueer and disabled. I don’t consider these to be my main traits or even my most interesting ones. But when I interact with groups of people, they often feel like my only traits. I’m so busy trying to make space for my gender and my disability that I have a hard time finding room for my values, interests, and ideas.

My conspicuous gender nonconformity is one of the first things most people notice about me. Many people stare, point and laugh, throw things at me, or ask me misguided and intrusive questions. Sometimes random strangers come up to me and tell me they are totally fine with me being the way I am. Sometimes people make a big show of calling me a woman to demonstrate that they are OK with my beard.

There are some groups of people that are totally unfazed by my nonbinary gender. This is always nice, but it only helps so much. Transportation is a huge challenge for me. I’ve been treated badly because of my gender presentation while walking, biking, driving, taking the bus, and taking the train.

Bathrooms are also frustrating for me. When there are gendered bathrooms, I don’t look like I belong in either one. And I still feel awkward in lots of places that have a gender inclusive bathroom. Some gender inclusive bathrooms are labeled “family bathroom.” I’ve gotten dirty looks from people with children when I’ve used those. I used to frequent a building that had gender inclusive toilets at the end of a dark hallway in the basement. A few years ago, I attended a climate change preparedness training in a building that had gender inclusive bathrooms, but going the training didn’t give me access to the part of the building where these bathrooms were.

When I manage to safely get to an event that is attended by people who are respectful about my gender and that is held in a place with a toilet I can access safely, my next concern is disability access. I am invisibly disabled so I have to be very vocal if I want to be accommodated. I am hard of hearing and neurodivergent, and I have an assortment of ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder problems.

My hearing impairment is typically the hardest thing to get accommodated. I get nervous when I have to give my phone number to register for an event because I hate trying to talk on the phone. In most environments, I have a difficult time following what people are saying. Background noise is very hard for me to tune out. I rely heavily on visual cues, so I do best when I can clearly see whoever is talking. I can’t usually follow anything when multiple conversations are happening near me, so breaking into small groups to discuss things doesn’t work well for me. I am not fluent in ASL, so an interpreter would not fix things.

I have a really hard time asking for disability accommodations, because it makes me feel disruptive which makes me feel panicky. I have an easier time advocating for others’ access than my own. I usually miss a lot of what is said and keep my frustrations about it to myself, but I want to get better at asking for what I need. Whether or not I work to be accommodated, my disability plays a big role in my attempts to get involved in my local community.

Much of my activism is driven by my desire to reduce my community’s negative environmental impact. But I’m learning, after addressing my queerness and disability, I don’t have much energy left to express my values. Any activism I do is queer disabled activism before it’s anything else.

Laura Gail Landmeyer

Today is Laura’s birthday. She would have turned 35 this year, but she died when she was 18. I knew her for less than a year, but she had a huge impact on my life. We were in foster care together. She was nine months younger than me and she was like a little sister to me. We loved each other even though we didn’t always get along.

We bonded a lot over our shared appreciation of the little bits of freedom that many teenagers take for granted. We had both been institutionalized for mental illness, so we got excited about things like being allowed to wear shoes, listen to the radio, and have private conversations. When Laura and I first met, I said something profane, and her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Wow! We’re allowed to swear here?!”

Being allowed to go outside by ourselves felt like the ultimate freedom. I have fond memories of warm autumn nights when we’d walk to the public boat launch on the lake. We’d sit on the dock with our toes in the water and look up at the stars. I’m glad we got to do that together. When you’re in an institution and you get to go outside at all, you don’t get to see the stars.

Laura idolized me. I liked it at first because it made me feel important. But after a while I got sick of her always smoking my cigarettes and wanting to go everywhere with me. I needed breaks from her sometimes. We had been fighting when she died. I had wanted space from her, but then she was gone. I was absolutely devastated. I fell into a deep depression. I went over a month without changing my clothes or bathing.

One important thing I learned from Laura’s death was that losing a loved one unexpectedly is extremely painful, even if you haven’t really enjoyed their company lately. That is to say, even if everyone is sick of me, a lot of people would probably be really devastated if I died. When I have felt suicidal, I have not been able to convince myself that it wouldn’t hurt anyone if I died.

Laura suffered a lot in her short life. Her mental illness made her life scary. The illness itself frightened her. “Getting help” always felt like a punishment. People were mean to her because she was strange. My memories of Laura have shaped my activism. I like to imagine a world where she could have felt safe.

I think about her when I try to encourage others to be respectful with how they talk about people with mental illnesses. I think about her when I try to raise awareness of the punishment camps we call mental health care facilities. I think about her when I try to make my neighborhood more walkable.

Accessibility Fairy

I wrote this post last week. I don’t feel so positive about things right now, but I’m willing to acknowledge that I felt this way last week and many other times. See my last post for a more current report on how I feel right now.

From last week:

My favorite wintertime activity is smashing ice that obstructs the curb ramps of sidewalks near my home. I like to think of myself as an accessibility fairy. In a perfect world, there would be no use for an accessibility fairy. All the sidewalks and curb ramps would be cleared for maximum accessibility. But that’s just never going to happen.

I can report properties where snow has not been cleared, but that doesn’t feel like enough. I want more than a dispersal of cautionary form letters. I want as many people as possible to be able to safely navigate my neighborhood. I want people to be able to get their wheelchairs from one bus stop to another. I want people to be able to push a stroller around without having to lift it all the time.

I can’t fix everything, so I focus on removing the obstructions that remain when people think they’ve cleared it well enough. The places where the sidewalk meets the street are a definite legal gray area. One side of the curb line is the responsibility of the property owner, one side is the responsibility of the city. But it’s hard to say which side the ice mound is on until you smash through it. In reality, though, the ice mound is usually on the street side since the plow drivers try not to destroy the curbs. The city isn’t going to do anything about the icy snow banks at the bottom of all the curb ramps. The plowing has a lot of room for improvement, and I’ve learned that pedestrian improvements are usually at the end of the public wish list.

Crossing the street as a pedestrian can be very scary sometimes. Most motorists don’t know the crosswalk law, and many motorists in my neighborhood show a wanton disregard for the safety of pedestrians. I like to clean up the curb ramp areas so pedestrians can have an easier time getting in and out of the street while aggressive, entitled motorists are careening about.

I wish all the sidewalks were fully accessible all the time. If more people cared, we could get a lot closer to that. I just do my best to make my little corner of the world a little better for some people.

I’m Tired

I’m tired of being an activist. I want to make the world a better place, but a lot of people are heavily invested in the opposite. I’m tired of entitlement. I’m tired of violent motorists. I’m tired of ableism. I’m tired of sexism and transphobia. I’m tired of living in a culture that calls me disposable. I’m tired of waking up every day. Sometimes I just want to go to sleep forever.