Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 3 Sweat and two bounces

This is the next excerpt from chapter 2 of my book. Each chapter toggles between my life narrative before wheelchair tennis and the beginning of my journey in the sport. This post explains the game:

We descended into a beautiful, sunny day in Baton Rouge: upper 70s and low humidity. Perfect for tennis. It makes a lot of sense to hold that tournament in March. Holding it later in the spring and especially in the summer would be cruel and unusual punishment. Temperatures typically climb well into the 90s and stay there. But the killer is the high humidity. And playing on an asphalt outdoor tennis court makes things even worse. In the 2014 Australian Open, temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit before match play was suspended. Players were vomiting and fainting on the courts.

But the straight thermometer reading is not the most accurate way of measuring the danger zone. The Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), developed by the military in the 1950s, takes into account the temperature, humidity, wind speed, and exposure to sunlight. If your skin temperature, based on that measure, rises above 95 degrees, your body becomes increasingly unable to lose body heat through the skin. Eventually, your body organs shut down. You begin to melt. Not a pretty sight.

Quadriplegics know this risk well. Many can’t sweat because of a break in their spinal cords. This can happen in any number of ways. For example, a fellow athlete from Philly, Michael Sullivan, was enjoying a lovely warm day at a lake house with friends a number of years ago. A pier behind the house extended straight into the lake. Michael decided to cool himself by taking a dive into the water. Instead of diving from the end of the pier, he dove from its side. It seemed like a decent point to dive into; the lake was known for the quickness of its depth. What Michael didn’t know was that a portion of the pier running perpendicular to the main pier had been removed but not the supporting pylons, which couldn’t be seen from the pier. He dove in.


And in an instant, Michael was transformed into a quad. Now he can’t sweat because the line of communication between his brain and the sweat glands has been severed. When it gets hot, sweat helps us cool off, in part when the sweat evaporates. But, using the WBGT, when it gets humid, making it harder for the sweat to evaporate, and there’s no breeze to help evaporate the sweat, and it’s a sunny day, disaster looms for everyone, but especially for quads who can’t sweat–I can because I don’t have a spinal cord injury. That’s why you’ll be able to figure out who the non-sweating quads are on the courts by spotting their use of water sprays and wet cooling towels, among other things, to mimic sweat. If the tournament site has indoor courts, quads may be required to play there. This pretty much sucks for three reasons. First, because quads are segregated and removed from the rest of the tournament play. Fifth, because the indoor courts are stuffy. And B, because it’s harder to set up the ESPN crew indoors.

Getting back to the Cajun Classic, when I entered the complex, my eyes immediately were drawn to a tent where colorful flags from all over the world were flapping gently in the breeze. I hadn’t really appreciated until then the extent to which the tournament was truly international. There were athletes from countries all over the world: Australia (3), Belgium (2), Brazil (4), Canada (3), Chile (3), Colombia (1), Guatemala (1), France (7), Germany (2), Israel (2), Japan (2), Mexico (2), the Netherlands (4), Russia (1), South Africa (2), Sweden (1), and the United Kingdom (8). Pretty cool. I love just about anything international, especially IHOP. . .

The Cajun Classic is part of the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour, which as of this writing is comprised of 160 tournaments in over forty countries, with $1.5 million in prize money. Wow! Over one . . . (picture Dr. Evil) . . . MILLION dollars! Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah! Hah-hah . . .hah . . . But Dr. Evil, the world’s number 1 male player in 2015, Novak Djokovic, raked in $21,646,145. You would have to jump down to the world’s number 15 player in 2015, Feliciano Lopez, to just about equal what the Wheelchair Tour sprinkles around its tournaments. The Cajun Classic offered $25,000 in prize money. Is this fair? That world-class tennis players in wheelchairs get not even pennies on the dollar compared to their able-bodied counterparts? (I really, really don’t like the “people with disabilities/able-bodied” dichotomy.)

What if we turned things upside down, or actually right-side up, and lived in a world where wheelchair tennis players enjoyed all the money and fame, and able-bodied players received hardly any recognition and struggled to finance their tournament play, let alone put food on the table? Wouldn’t happen because there’s no money in being an inspirational person with a disability. Besides, we do it for the love of the game! Wheelchair tread marks on a face are harder to remove than tattoos.

In its twenty-sixth year, the 2015 Cajun Classic is a “Category 1” tournament, one of six classifications sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), tennis’s world governing body. Among other things, the ITF sets the rules of the game, which are then put into play by national bodies, such as the United States Tennis Association (USTA). There are six categories of ITF-sanctioned tournaments, with the Grand Slams (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) at the top of the pyramid and the Futures at the bottom. In 2015, a number of the other wheelchair tournaments met the ITF classifications—e.g., Pensacola Open (Category1), Indian Wells Tennis Garden Wheelchair Championships (2), Fall Southern PTR Wheelchair Tennis Championships (2), and the U.S. Open Wheelchair Championships (Super Series).

The tournament’s ITF classifications depend on a slew of requirements, such as transportation, the provision of free meals and water/sports drinks for the athletes, first aid availability on site, at least three days of competition, facilities to store the sports wheelchairs overnight, adequate shade, a repair station with an air compressor (for the wheelchair tires), an onsite players’ lounge, types of officiating, and prize money. The higher the tournament in the pyramid, the more requirements the organizers have to meet.

The first logistical task—sorry? Oh, right, how the game got started and how it’s played. The birth of wheelchair tennis goes back to 1976 when Brad Parks, an 18-year-old gifted freestyle skier, suffered a bad fall on the slopes and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. During his time in rehabilitation, he met wheelchair athlete Jeff Minnebraker and they came up with idea of playing tennis in a wheelchair. From there, wheelchair tennis exploded—at about the same time the game itself became wildly popular in the United States. In 1992, wheelchair tennis became a full medal sport at the Paralympics in Barcelona. Today, the game is played in more than 100 countries. Very cool.

To play competitively, you have to have a medically diagnosed permanent mobility-related physical disability that results in substantial or total loss of function in one or more lower extremities. For example, if one or both of your legs are paralyzed or if one of your legs has been amputated. If one or both of your arms are also similarly impaired you can qualify to play in the quadriplegic division. In the big tournaments, you’ll have the Open and Quad divisions, populated by virtually all of the professional international and U.S. athletes. Below those divisions are USTA-designated A, B, and C divisions, with A being the most seasoned players and C being the so-so players. At one time there was a D division for novices but that category is virtually gone. Instead, some tournaments will have a free novice event to attract new players. Frankly, I wish the USTA had a “gutter” division, which is where at the time of the Cajun Classic I believed I belonged.

How is the game played? Just like the able-bodied game, only wheelchair tennis players get two bounces instead of one before they have to strike the ball. The second bounce can be either in or out of the court’s boundaries. Did you (not actually you—just a straw person) call that a wuss rule, huh, did ya? Try getting into a wheelchair and play the game. You’ll be like a deer in the headlights and pee in your pants when the ball comes over the net at you. Actually, the really good wheelchair tennis players take it on the first bounce—and from seemingly impossible angles. When I first tried to do that, I peed in my pants. . .

Getting back to the rules, the wheelchair is considered part of the athlete’s body. So just like able-bodied tennis, if the ball comes over the net and hits any part of your wheelchair, you lose the point. When you do that to your opponent, you’re supposed to say “sorry” but secretly you loved it. Booyah! In your mind you do a fist pump.

On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #2 Gender and Race

Gender and Race

There’s a method to my madness as a teacher, especially of 1Ls. Like I said, when I taught at Iowa I intentionally avoided meeting my Contracts students until the first day of class, and I didn’t want to know their  life narratives, their subtexts, on that day.

But that was the first day of class. Little by little, as the semester progressed, I would introduce aspects of gender, race, class, and other identities that informed the cases we studied.

This probably surprised and confused most, if not all, of the students, at least initially. They came to my course expecting they would learn how contracts are made and enforced, coming to know and understand the technical stuff such as “consideration,” “unconscionability,” or the “parol evidence” rule. I did teach them that stuff so they would be awesome technicians.

But if that’s all I taught, the course would be exceedingly narrow and dry. Students could easily skip all of the classes and pick up on the technical content through commercial outlines. I would die out of sheer boredom. I would even use PowerPoint. God no! Somebody kill me now!

To stay alive, I began engaging the students in uncovering the life narratives of the parties to the contract, and how those narratives collided with each other in litigation. I started pointing out how the life narratives developed within broader social narratives that prevailed at the time. I also threw into the mix the life narratives of the judges in the cases.

What made the classes even more complex and compelling was how the students’ life narratives informed how they interpreted the cases, and how, given their narratives, they interacted with each other as we discussed the cases.

Here I begin a series of excerpts from Kristymarie’s article as they relate to the life narrative she brought to the classroom. This post deals with the complexity of race and gender.

“In Spanish, gendered adjectives are obligatory; the descriptor and the object’s gender are inseparable. My gender and my racial identity are similarly intertwined and cannot be separated for dissection or analysis without one taking a chunk off of the other on its way out. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw was the first to formally introduce the theory of intersectionality to address this juxtaposition. Intersectionality is “the predicament of women of color and others who sit at the intersection of two or more categories.” This theory exposes how analyzing a woman of color’s experience, either through the gender looking glass or the race looking glass without joint consideration, invariably leads to an incomplete analysis, leaving women of color unprotected when legally determining whether there has been discrimination.

For individuals at the intersection, like myself, a discussion of race will automatically be gendered, and any discussion of gender will automatically be racialized. There is no such thing as a “monolithic ‘women’s experience’ that can be described independently of other facets of experience like race, class, and sexual orientation.” Essentialism, or assuming there is a uniform racialized or gendered experience, strips members of that group from the expression of other facets of their identity.

More specifically, as Berta Esperanza Hernández-Truyol explains, the intersectionality of Latinas’ ethnicity and sex may lead to a sense of otherness within and outside the majority community. For example, when a Latina fails to conform to an ethnic stereotype within the majority community, she may face the same isolation she would face if she were to fail to adhere to the gender stereotype within her own Latino community.

Because of these intertwined identities, many racialized and gendered law candidates may struggle to identify which facet of their identity is creating the sense of otherness in any given interaction. It may also further complicate decisions as to how to portray, downplay, or exploit these different facets to achieve the law candidate’s ultimate goal: employment.”


Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 2 Hope. What is that, exactly?

Chapter Two

Baton Rouge’s “Cajun Classic”

Hope. What is that, exactly? There’s the everyday kind of hope that we use to get through the day. I hope I can still get to work on time despite this horrible traffic. I hope Kip doesn’t show for the meeting because he’s a jerk. I hope they’re not cleaning the bathroom because I have to pee really badly! Except for maybe the last example, this type of hope, we can call it “micro hope,” doesn’t determine whether or not we’ll achieve our life’s goals. If most or all of our micro hopes are dashed, we might be having a bad day, well, maybe a really bad day, but in most cases we shrug it off and hope things will be better tomorrow.

Then there’s the kind of hope, we can call it “macro hope,” that helps us get through life and achieve our goals, the kind of hope that helps us weave the narratives of our lives. There’s lots of literature in the field of psychology that explores the concept of hope. A commonly cited definition is that developed by Charles Snyder and his colleagues: “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).”   In my case, if (a) I put my mind to it and stuck with it—agency, (b) I could get into law school, do really well, work for a judge a year or two, or practice in a large law firm for a few years—pathways, and then reach my goal of becoming a law professor who one day would make a difference in the lives of students, and, if I could avoid peeing in my pants every day, become a respected intellectual figure in my field.

My hope, my macro hope, would begin by moving in the summer of 1980 to Washington, D.C. to attend Georgetown University Law Center. But then Guillain-Barré Syndrome came along and began robbing me of a fundamental prerequisite to hope: control over my body. The paralysis started in my hands and feet. On the day I was admitted to the Bloomington Hospital, April 11, 1980, the paralysis continued its steady march up my legs and arms. At that point my only hope was that this evil, heartless, terrifying, creeping thing would relent, if only out of pity. It didn’t. I was having a very bad day.

From the emergency room, they took me to the pediatric unit since that was the only bed left in the general part of the hospital. As my breathing became more labored that day, they rolled my bed into the ICU. The room was small and narrow, not too far from the nurse’s station. It was, fittingly, a drab room, painted an industrial dull yellow, with a worn curtain for a door. There was a window that allowed in natural light but because it was at my feet, it seemingly had no function for me. It wasn’t a room with a view, so to speak. I should’ve complained. I could’ve gotten a free night out of it I suppose. . .

As soon as they had locked the bed in place, a nurse came into the room with a welcoming face that at first put me at ease, as if her smile was telling me that everything would be okay and that I would be strolling around Bloomington in no time.

Then she put the heart monitor on. With every lead pad she stuck on me I began to wonder whether I was reading her smile right. Maybe it was saying “welcome to hell.”

Say goodbye to hope, Enrique.

On Being A Female Law student–and Puerto Rican #1 “¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’ que tú lo sepas!”

I taught Contracts to first-year students, 1Ls, virtually every year during my tenure at the University of Iowa College of Law.  Every year I intentionally avoided orientation activities , such as ice cream socials, intended to have 1Ls mix with their professors before the first day of classes. The idea of serving ice cream to adult law students repulsed me, frankly.

The temptation to plant a scoop of ice cream atop a clueless student’s head wasn’t the real reason I avoided those kind of things. The real reason was that I wanted our first meeting to be in the classroom. I wanted them to realize that at least for that first class I didn’t care about their backgrounds, their narratives, their subtexts. I didn’t care that one of them might have graduated first in her class while raising a two-year old on her own, or that another initiated a fundraiser for combating AIDS in Africa by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

No one was more special or more accomplished than the other. They were all 1Ls. They were all clueless. They were all frozen in their seats, their hearts pounding like sledgehammers on concrete, beads of cold sweat forming on their foreheads, all wanting to make a beeline for the bathroom and never come out, all about to throw up the ice cream they thought they enjoyed during orientation when professors seemed nice and human.

But they all did have compelling life narratives, subtexts that would inform how they would interpret the cases they would read for class, how they would participate in class discussion, how they would interact with me and their fellow students.

With this post, I begin a series of excerpts from a compelling article a former student of mine, Kristymarie Shipley, recently published in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice. Titled “Should I Be ‘Shipley’ or ‘Flores Collazo’ Today? The Racialization of the Law Student and Legal Workplace Candidate,” the article uses Critical Race Theory (CRT) to explore how Kristymarie’s life narrative, her subtext, informed her experience as a law student. I’m not going to get into the intricacies of CRT here. In a nutshell, CRT arose because prior to its advent in the late 1980s the legal academy failed to take into account how race informs everything from scholarship to faculty hiring decisions, to class discussions.

To make the excerpts more accessible to all of my readers, I have stripped out all of the footnotes and avoided much of the discussion of CRT theory without taking anything away from Kristymarie’s recounting of her life narrative.

Here’s the beginning of her subtext.

“Leaving my hometown Caguas, Puerto Rico for the University of Florida was an eye-opening experience. I was not only new to college, but also to the English-speaking United States. Because the college orientation did not include a tour of the dining hall and I was not yet able to string together the necessary words to ask someone in English, my second language, I had no idea how to figure out the cafeteria system. So I sneakily followed a girl from my residence hall into the dining hall. Once there, I swiped my card as she did. I grabbed the same foods that she grabbed because I did not want to lose sight of her. I then followed her out when she finished her meal.

I followed this basic pattern as an undergraduate: find someone who seems to know what she is doing, observe, mimic and adjust efforts as needed. With time, I also learned to ask a lot of questions—lots of questions. At the University of Florida, I was able to simply walk into La Casita, the Institute of Hispanic and Latino Culture, and immediately find individuals willing to help with transitioning into life away from home and gain access to resources that would make the transition smoother.  It provided a forum where many students like myself could feel comfortable asking “silly” questions that may seem second nature to others.

But during my experience at law school and the search for legal employment, I was not able to adhere to the familiar pattern that had worked so well during my undergraduate experience. Everyone else also seemed to be navigating through the complexities of law school and legal employment. As a Puerto Rican female student married to an African American man, it was also difficult for me to find anyone, student or otherwise, who fully understood the transition I was experiencing.

When someone asks me what I am, I always respond, “I am from Puerto Rico.” My goal is to clarify that I am from the actual island of Puerto Rico, as opposed to being from the United States with Puerto Rican ancestry, and to let the person determine what that means. Whether the person wants to consider me Puerto Rican, Latina, Hispanic, American, or an alien is up to them. Peeling back all the layers of those labels is too time consuming to be worthwhile.

One of the most drastic cultural or racial identity recognitions I experienced moving from Puerto Rico to the United States, or “the mainland” as we “Islanders” call it, was realizing that I was now part of a minority. I grew up in Puerto Rico, where a spectral view of race goes well beyond the U.S. black-white binary of racial construction.

I grew up with the “Puerto Rican first, American second” mentality and the “¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’ que tú lo sepas!” on my lips. And so did the majority of the people around me. Thus, the distinguishing factor became my skin tone. Although my husband, who is African American, often teases me that I am pale and white, back home I was trigueña: an identifier based on my “wheat-like” colored skin. My sister, who has fair skin, was the white one. In contrast, my father, who was darker than me and whose Taíno features were more prominent, would have been referred to as “indio” or Native American.

When I left Puerto Rico for college, however, my racialization changed. My skin tone was no longer the relevant identifier. Although my answer to “what are you?” remained “Puerto Rican,” I was constantly reminded that in the mainland my racial identity was broader, and I was repeatedly labeled as Hispanic, a panethnic group. And so began my panethnic racialization, which I felt failed to completely encompass the national identity that defined my individuality, resulting in a consistent desire to over-explain that I am Puerto Rican… but yes, also Latina, or Hispanic… or whatever.”



The World of Document Review #1 A windowless room packed with lawyers

Over the past year I’ve lived in the world of “doc review” or document review in Washington, D.C.  With this post I begin an exploration of the life narratives I’ve discovered thus far in this world, of stories in this “community” of human beings.

Picture this: A windowless room packed with lawyers. (I could make a joke of this but I won’t.) They sit erectly or in various degrees of “slump” only two feet from each other staring at computer screens plopped on long folding tables, their hands draped over a mouse, their index fingers clicking away for eight or more hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.

Each lawyer’s station has any number and assortment of personal belongings, ranging from their smartphones—if they’re permitted to have them out—to hand cream and pain relief pills, to cups of coffee or tea, to a can of, say, smoked almonds. For lunch and/or dinner they eat at their stations, some of the food prepared at home, but much of it bought from food trucks parked outside the building.

A good number of them have earbuds plugged in and listen to music or podcasts. And lots of them leave the buds in even when walking around the floor, say to the kitchen or bathroom. The dress code is business casual with a range of adherence to the code, from crisp tops and bottoms to what appear to be yesterday’s pajamas. About half of the reviewers are women, and the group is pretty racially diverse. Maybe a quarter of them are African, many of them Nigerian. They range in age from their mid-twenties to a smattering of sixty- and seventy-year olds.

What documents are they reviewing? In big corporate mergers or litigation, thousands upon thousands of documents, many of them emails, have to be produced to the government, say, the Department of Justice and/or the Federal Trade Commission, or in litigation to the opposing party. The reviewers are using coding software to register whether, among other things, the document is responsive to the matter, and, if so, whether attorney-client privilege applies, in which case the document may not have to be produced. When the reviewers click on the mouse, they’re putting checks into tiny radio buttons with a bunch of coding options. In virtually all projects, the reviewers are expected to go through a certain number of documents per hour, perhaps seventy or more.

That’s what we see on the surface.

But what’s the subtext?

What lies beneath?

Stay tuned.