Monday, December 23, 2013

Save the IBot Update: the FDA Gives Us Some Good News

You might call it an early Christmas present.
As I indicated in my previous iBot update, the FDA held a hearing on December 12 to consider DEKA’s petition to change the iBot medical classification. As I wrote in that post:
“…The iBot needs a new manufacturer. But first, the regulatory environment must be improved. DEKA initiated an application to have the FDA modify the status of the iBot from a Class III medical device to Class II medical device. This would significantly reduce the regulatory burden on the product…On December 12 a team from DEKA will meet with the FDA Medical Devices Advisory Committee (it would have been sooner but for the government shutdown)…If (the application) is eventually approved, DEKA will be in a stronger position to recruit new manufacturing partners.”
Now we have this news from the Department of Health and Human Services meeting notes
“…the panelists recommended a Class II designation for stair-climbing wheelchairs...”
There were two major regulatory impediments making it difficult for the iBot to be commercially viable. First, there was the Class III to Class II issue, which is apparently behind us. Second, there is the fact that Medicare will not reimburse patients for the iBot wheelchair. I don’t hold out much hope for changing the Medicare issue in the near future, but maybe I'm wrong. 
By changing the iBot from a Class III device to Class II Device, a potential manufacturing partner could relatively easily improve the iBot in a number of ways, and make it more marketable to more users. Perhaps these improvements could eventually make it so that Medicare would reimburse patients.
I know that DEKA, with an assist from Huey 091, is recruiting potential manufacturing partners, and what happened on December 12 in Washington can only make the iBot a more appealing venture. Hopefully, this will be enough to lure in somebody. Maybe there was a group waiting in the wings and they will come forward soon because of this decision. It's more likely that DEKA still has a lot of work to do, but they now have a better case to make with these companies.
How big of a deal is this decision? That remains to be seen. Perhaps it was too little too late, or perhaps it was just what the doctor ordered. Only time will tell which of these two clichés will apply.
Here’s a video of Alan Brown’s public testimony before the panel. Alan is an iBot user and a member of the Board of Directors for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He is a strong advocate for the iBot and for wheelchair users in general, and a gifted public speaker. Please watch and enjoy.

If you're reading this through email click here to watch the video at YouTube.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Memories: The Ghosts of Christmas Past

From time to time I will post Memories, where I describe some facet of my life before MS. I hope you enjoy these digressions.
Growing up, our Christmases were right out of Currier and Ives: cold and snowy weather, traditional holiday treats, family, gifts, mistletoe.  I remember those Decembers fondly and miss them terribly.
In grade school, on the last day before Christmas vacation, a local radio station would record each homeroom class singing a different Christmas carol, often of the religious variety – it was a nonissue in those days. On Christmas Eve, at the appointed time, we would huddle around the radio at home and listen for our song. It was played only once, so you had to be ready.
My parents hosted what they called an Open House on Christmas Eve. To me, it was just a big party that started in the afternoon and lasted until late at night. My mother, a quadriplegic, was universally loved in our town. She had been through so much pain, yet had endured it with uncommon grace and good spirit. I think a major reason we had such a strong turnout each year was because people just wanted to be around Vernice, especially at Christmastime.
The guests would enter our house amid great fanfare. Most would bring something delicious and homemade. But the favorite visitors were the ones who placed a fifth or half-gallon of Jack Daniels under the tree for Dad. My father was a social, happy drinker. I never considered that he had a drinking problem, and looking back I still don’t. In fact, I enjoyed being around Dad when he was into the Jack and water. He was a purist in this regard. If you insisted on soda or some other mixer, you were served Jim Beam, a lesser grade of bourbon.
When I was a young boy the adults would shuffle me off to bed at a decent hour, employing the old adage, “The sooner you get to bed and to sleep, the sooner Santa will come.” But, in fact, although I may have gone to bed I would often lay awake for hours listening to the loud, alcohol-fueled conversations drifting down the hallway from the kitchen and living room. I loved to eavesdrop on the stories that I was otherwise not allowed to hear. Christmas Eve was the most educational day of the year for me.
When I was in high school, and Kim was my girlfriend, there was another aspect of Christmas Eve that worked out very well for us. Danny and Darlene, neighbors from across the street, would come over to the party for a couple of hours. During that time Kim and I would babysit their two sleeping children. Danny and Darlene had a water bed. Enough said?
When I was in college, my brothers and other people my age became the late-night partiers, staying up long after my aging parents. I wonder if Mom and Dad eavesdropped on our loud conversations and became educated about things that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Then one year, out of the blue, my mother told me that there would be no more Christmas Eve open houses for the next seven years. I was incredulous. “Why?” 
My father was a shift foreman at the paper mill. He worked a rotating schedule called the southern swing. They knew that for the next seven Christmas Eves he would be working the 3 PM to 11 PM shift, and so there would be no parties. I was heartbroken. That tradition was my favorite part of Christmas. Sadly, everyone in town moved on and developed new Christmas Eve traditions, and my parents grew old. The Christmas Eve open houses never resumed.
And now having written this piece, I realize how very much I miss my parents, all of my friends and relatives who are no longer with us, and this simpler time in our lives. The ghosts of Christmas past do indeed haunt me. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wheelchair Winters

note: click on any of the photos to enlarge

Snowfall in this part of Maine begins in December and can linger through early April – a full third of the year. Before I was diagnosed with MS I had no sympathy for the snow haters. My mantra was, “If you don’t enjoy the winters in Maine, then you shouldn’t live here.”
Those of us from northern climates have fond childhood memories of the snow. If you want to witness joy in its purest form, take some children with lots of energy and imagination (which is almost every child), gently toss them into a fluffy, white snowbank, and watch what happens.
From grade school through college, winter was all about downhill skiing for me. There were no major ski areas near our house in Lincoln, but we were a short drive from a short mountain, called Mount Jefferson. There were maybe eight trails; one clunky, old T-bar; and one rope tow. We didn’t care. We had a lot of fun anyway. Unlike at the large ski areas that most people frequent, skiing here was a very intimate experience. We kept running into the same people all day long, and all winter long. Naturally, Mount Jefferson became the setting for much of my clumsy romantic maneuvering, almost always for naught.
In college, Kim and I purchased season’s passes to Sugarloaf Mountain, a major resort in Western Maine, about two hours away from the University of Maine. We paid $110 for the discounted student pass. During one winter I was completing an internship at a paper mill not far from Sugarloaf, so Kim hitched rides there with Cookie and Shostak, my fraternity brothers, and we would meet for the weekend.
After college, we moved to Ohio and Vermont for a few years and continued skiing sporadically. Soon after we moved back to Maine I took up snowmobiling, and my skis only gathered dust in the basement from that point forward.
Driving my snowmobile down a freshly-groomed trail on a cold, crisp morning was the closest experience I ever had to flying. I don’t mean flying like a plane. I mean flying like a bird.
When I was in that zone, crafting seamless turns at the maximum safe speed, or just slightly above, there was nothing like it. Puttering along at a slower pace and taking in the scenery was nice too, but that was not the experience I craved. My ideal ride was at once sublime and exhilarating: reading poetry while hanging on the edge of a cliff…eating crème brûlée in a hurricane.
I was hopelessly addicted to the endorphin rush of high-performance, cross-country snowmobiling. But it ended in 2008, when I could no longer operate a snowmobile because of my MS. This may have been for the best anyway. Being a husband and father, I didn’t need to wrap myself around a tree in the Maine wilderness at 100 mph. And so I became one of those people who I had pitied and scorned for most of my life. I no longer had any use for the snow, yet I continued to live in Maine.
I’m quite sure Kim and I won’t follow my own advice and live elsewhere. Reason #1 is that summers here are perfect for a person with MS – nice and cool because of ocean breezes. Reason #2 is that Kim’s career is here. Reasons #3 through #100 are the family and friends who we live among. We’re not going anywhere.
Two winters ago the weather was freakishly warm, and it rained when it should have snowed. I was free to cruise the neighborhood in my wheelchairs, with no ice patches or snow banks in my way. If this is global warming, I thought, then bring it on. Last winter turned out to be unusually cold and snowy, including one storm where we received 32 inches of snow. If this is global warming, I thought, then no thank you. The picture to the left is what poor Phoebe woke up to that morning. How was she supposed to go pee?
I understand that the implications from global warming are not straightforward. Climate change may have been more responsible for the cold and snowy winter than it was for the freakishly warm one. Who knows? However, if our trend is toward more winters like two years ago, and there are fewer fluffy, white snowbanks and frigid temperatures in my future, I’m not going to complain.
Don’t worry. I’ll still do my part to save the planet by voting for alternative energy projects, reduced carbon emissions, etc. But at the same time, I’ll be secretly hoping for rainy winter days.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Save the IBot Update and My Trip to DEKA

English: This picture shows Bill Clinton and D...
This picture shows Bill Clinton and Dean Kamen in the office of the president. Kamen is on his iBot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The story of the iBot is a potentially heartbreaking one. This exceptional wheelchair, which can climb stairs, navigate difficult terrain in four-wheel-drive mode, and elevate its user up to eye level with standing people, is no longer being manufactured or sold. In fact, if nothing changes, maintenance and parts for the iBot will only be available through March of 2014. After that date, I don't know if my iBot will run 10 minutes or 10 years before a fatal malfunction occurs. Yet, not all hope is lost. Some very talented and dedicated people are still trying to save the iBot.

Through my affiliation with Huey 091 and I was introduced to Joe, the Special Projects Officer at DEKA Research and Development. DEKA is the company founded by entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen. They are responsible for such innovative products as the Segway transporter, the iBot wheelchair, and countless other devices that help people lead better lives.

I asked Joe if he could give me a tour of the DEKA facility, and he agreed. One day in early November Kim and I made the hour and half drive from South Portland, Maine to Manchester, New Hampshire.

I’m an engineer, and DEKA is all about that. They have almost 500 technical people on staff in Manchester. Kim is a Middle School Guidance Counselor, and she had only a passing interest in this tour. In fact, she was participating only as a favor for me, which was nothing unusual. Kim is a very generous person.

Joe greeted us when we arrived at DEKA, and introduced our tour guide, Sarah, who is Dean Kamen’s Chief of Staff. Joe indicated that Dean had wanted to meet us, but unfortunately he was out of the office on this day. (Did I mention that a couple of years ago I was almost personally introduced to another great inventor, Steve Wozniak?)

I asked if we were allowed to take pictures, even though I was pretty sure of the answer. Indeed, DEKA works on many top secret projects, and they don’t allow photography inside their facility. I get that.

First, Sarah shared the background story about Dean Kamen and DEKA, showing off a few of the early products he developed. This included a drug delivery system that later became the first insulin pump for diabetics, and a portable dialysis machine.

Description: Photograph of Dean Kamen on Segwa...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We were then guided to the machine shop area of the facility, where they have a rare 3-D printer that works with metals. DEKA also operates a bank of more traditional 3-D printers that work with plastics (if any version of these machines can yet be considered traditional). A collection of products that come off of these devices was on display, and they were amazing. If you’re not familiar with 3-D printers, and why every home will have one in the coming years, read this article.

Sarah and Joe then introduced us to some of their more recent projects. Dean is concerned about the availability of potable water in Third World countries, so they developed a pair of products to address this issue. The Slingshot is a self-contained, highly efficient water purification unit that can be easily deployed anywhere in the world. DEKA is partnering with Coca-Cola to make these units available where they are most needed. The Stirling Engine is a self-contained generator appliance that can power a Slingshot and satisfy other local electricity needs using a variety of nonconventional fuels.

The Slingshot and the Stirling Engine are very cool, but the most impressive product we saw was DEKA’s prosthetic arm, called the Luke Arm. Development is being funded by the Department of Defense (DARPA). We met up with the Manager of Engineering, Stewart, who explained the project to us. It’s heartwarming to watch an amputee pick up grapes and place them in his mouth, or drink a bottle of water without crushing or spilling it. The goal is to make this technology available to war veterans with arm amputations, and eventually anyone who can benefit from this prosthetic device.

Our last stop on the tour was the iBot testing facility. Years ago DEKA created a series of indoor obstacles for the purpose of putting the iBot through its paces during development. There are ramps, curbs, stairs, and your worst nightmare of a bumpy walking path. But now it all sits idle, frozen in time while the fate of the iBot is determined. I’m glad we were shown this area, although I was slightly unnerved by its resemblance to a museum exhibit.   Yet, I find it telling that DEKA has not decommissioned this testing facility and reallocated the space to active projects. They obviously haven’t given up, and so neither should we.

After the tour was complete, we enjoyed a lunch with Joe and discussed the future of the iBot. Joe’s number one priority is to facilitate its rebirth. After DEKA developed the iBot in the early 2000’s they licensed the technology to Johnson & Johnson, who created a subsidiary called Independence Technology for the production, sales, and service of the iBot. Five years ago, about six months after I purchased my own iBot, Independence Technology announced that they were discontinuing production. This was due to low sales volume and, I can only assume, business unit losses.

where's the virtual upright wheel-chair?
(Photo credit: Esthr)
The primary reason for this product’s commercial failure was its onerous regulatory burden. For one thing, the iBot is categorized as a Class III medical device by the FDA, which means that extraordinary effort is required to obtain approval for any product modifications or enhancements. This places an undue burden on the development team and slows down or prevents improvements that consumers rightfully expect. For this and other reasons, the product underperformed in the marketplace, even though it has been a life-changing success for any individual lucky enough to own one, myself included.

The iBot needs a new manufacturer. But first, the regulatory environment must be improved. DEKA initiated an application to have the FDA modify the status of the iBot from a Class III medical device to Class II medical device. This would significantly reduce the regulatory burden on the product. The FDA received over 280 letters in support of this change, including one from me. On December 12 a team from DEKA will meet with the FDA Medical Devices Advisory Committee (it would have been sooner but for the government shutdown). After the meeting, we should have a much better idea of the viability of this petition. If it is eventually approved, DEKA will be in a stronger position to recruit new manufacturing partners.

I’ll let you know what I hear from the December 12 meeting.

The people at DEKA were extremely friendly and gracious. More than one of them commented about how much they enjoy seeing people like me benefiting from their invention – the iBot. I envy them in that sense. I never worked for a company where I felt I was making such a positive impact in the world (few people do). Also, their affection for Dean Kamen is palpable and infectious. He’s one of my personal heroes.

I can’t thank Joe, Sarah, and Stewart enough for taking the time to share their knowledge and their passion with us. In the end, Kim admitted to me that this trip was much more rewarding than she thought it was going to be. Although the tools employed at DEKA may be highly technical, the folks there are motivated by compassion for others, and it doesn’t take an engineer to appreciate that.

Note: for more information on the effort to save the iBot, please visit these sites:

America’s Huey 091 Foundation

Save the iBot (Facebook Page)

My iBot Videos

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Some Things That I Am Thankful For

In the run-up to the Thanksgiving holiday, which is celebrated this Thursday in the United States, everyone is compelled to share what it is they are thankful for. Of course my list includes family, friends, America, and ice cream. But I’d rather give recognition to some items which are less obvious.

This list is incomplete and in no particular order. I’m thankful for…

The Windows in My Living Room

Really? You bet.

I have two large windows- one which looks out on the street and the other which looks out on the ocean. After I stare into the abyss of my dual computer screens for a while, I pull back, rotate to my left, and gaze out these windows. This invigorates me, and I become reacquainted with reality. Until recently, however, there was a problem. Because I have an eastern and southern exposure on this side of the house, bright sunshine would often blast into the room, making me feel like an accused spy being interrogated under a hot lamp. Because I wasn’t able to operate the shades myself, I was left with either no view out of the windows or excessive sunlight, depending on how Kim had adjusted the shades before leaving for work. Therefore, a few months ago we made what turned out to be a wonderful purchase. I now have remote control blinds that I can adjust to any position, any time. And I do tweak those babies often throughout the day. I’m very thankful for my windows, and my window blinds.

The picture on the top-right is the sunrise as seen from my living room. It's not pristine, but it doesn't suck either.

The IBot Team

This includes: Gary Lawson, Charles Bogle, and everyone else at America’s Huey 091 Foundation; Max Burt, creator of; Dean Kamen, Joe Goodwin, and the rest of the team at DEKA Research and Development.

These folks and many others are focused on reviving the manufacture and sale of this incredible mobility device. For their effort and dedication, I am thankful. Wish us luck.

My Medical Team

This includes: Dr. Muscat, my awesome neurologist; Dr. Freedman, my very caring primary care physician, and her team at Martin’s Point Health Care; Dr. Aronson, my oncologist, and his folks who inject me intrathecally with methotrexate every eight weeks or so; my physical therapists Gabe Redmond and Jodi Mitchell and my occupational therapist Maren Nagem.

I know that these people are well compensated for what they do, but I feel that their compassion is authentic nonetheless. Because of my various medical challenges, this team has their collective fingers plugging countless holes in the dike, and for that I am most thankful.

All the Stuff in My Immediate Neighborhood

Two major grocery stores, City Hall, the post office, my bank, my eye doctor and my primary care physician, outstanding cafés and lunch counters, a variety of medium and higher-end restaurants, a useful and not yet dilapidated strip mall, several city parks, Bug Light Park in particular, the bridge to Portland, the butcher shop and market I can see from my kitchen window, and the cozy bar down the street. But most of all I’m thankful for my cool neighbors and the many friends that I have made here in the last two years.

The Internet

If I had MS prior to the existence of the internet, and stayed home most days, I think my situation might not be so tenable. I don’t know what I would do all day if not for the enrichment I receive from the internet. On the other hand, disabled people in the future will have some other, yet to be invented item on their list, which they won’t be able to conceive of having lived without. Still, I’m extremely thankful for my internet access.

The Health Problems That I Don’t Have

Yes, by any measure I’m in pretty rough shape medically. But things could be worse. First, I could be in pain all day, every day, but I’m not. Second, I could have any number of conditions that are worse than MS. I probably will someday, like almost everyone eventually does, but I’m thankful that said day has not yet arrived.

My Mind

Is it conceited to say that I love my mind? I can’t help it. I’m glad I have a brain that is open to and curious about new ideas. I’m glad that I am contemplative and think for myself, rather than adhere blindly to political or religious dogma. Perhaps most importantly I’m glad that I have a mind which tends toward contentment rather than gloominess. Sure, I wish I was more intelligent and witty, and that I had a better memory. I wish my brain function hadn’t been damaged by MS. But all in all I’m very thankful for the squishy blob of neurons and synapses which occupies the space between my ears.

Canvas Wrapped Artwork

This is our latest thing, and I wanted to share it with you. If you’re not familiar with the concept, click here. We have two beautiful pictures hanging on our wall, which were made from photographs I took, and then wrapped on canvas. Here they are, below, first the source photo and then the finished product.

We also have two professional photographs that are canvas wrapped. We purchased these at separate “Art in the Park” shows nearby. Some may consider this to be less than fine art, but I don’t care. I really love this medium. It’s relatively affordable, generally appealing to look at, and something that I can actually create myself (through a vendor).

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Piece I Wrote is Published

2010 06 15 I’m an engineer, not an author. I know great writing, and this is not that. I do feel that I have a compelling story to share, however, and I've been told that my writing helps some people work through their own challenges. My goal is to get this message out in a form that is as entertaining and readable as I can make it. The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation is helping that cause this month in their periodical called MSFocus. To read my article click here, and work your way to page 60. This magazine also enjoys a wide circulation in the printed form.

A couple of months ago I received an unsolicited email from the editorial coordinator at MSFocus. She had been reading my blog posts and liked one in particular. She asked if I would agree to have it published in their Men and MS column. I asked how much the gig would pay. She responded, "Nothing." I said, "Deal."

Over the years I have considered submitting pieces to various magazines for publication. But that might require some initiative on my part, so it just hasn’t happened. Or perhaps the problem is that making such an effort might either necessitate or compel an emotional investment in the quality of my writing. If I was to be emotionally invested in the quality of my writing, and it was to be rejected, then I would be sad. I don’t want to be sad. I’ll probably just sit back and let them find me again, like they did this time.

If this is your first visit to Enjoying the Ride, having read my piece in MSFocus, I welcome you. You’ll find this blog to be a roughly equal mixture of thoughtful contemplation and utter drivel. Some days I dabble in the profound, and other days I wallow in the profane. It’s a crapshoot.

If you’d like to get a flavor for this blog by reading just a few choice articles, instead of the roughly 300 that I have posted here, check some of these out:
To meet my incredible mother, who was a quadriplegic, click here.
If you need reality checks on your hopes and dreams, click here and here (hint: you probably do).

For instructions on how to select the ideal life partner, based on my personal experience, click here.

Being disabled can be wrought with indignities. For a few examples that all occurred in one weekend, click here.

Sometimes I write about earlier memories, before MS, like here.

Other times I wax philosophical, like I did here and here.

I’m not above offering unsolicited advice, like here, here, here, and here.

Once in a while I post about how I have maintained the pursuit of certain passions, like here.

I came up with lists of the 10 worst aspects of having MS, and the 10 best.

I made one attempt at poetry. I promise I won’t do it again (yet I’m obviously proud of myself since I included it here).
I have also thrown together a few YouTube videos. Most of them feature my amazing iBot wheelchair, but some videos address other subjects. My YouTube channel can be found here.

If you enjoy this content, feel free to share the link with others. I hope to see you here again soon.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Three Recommendations

Everybody is so busy today that they barely have time to deal with their ever-expanding responsibilities, let alone pause to watch something interesting or informative. And even if you do find a moment to sharpen the saw (we miss you Stephen Covey), who has time to sift through all the crap out there to find the stuff that’s worthwhile? Well, I do! Because I no longer work, and spend most days sitting in my wheelchair in front of my computer, I’ll be glad to take care of this for you.

#1: A Movie Called The Intouchables

Based in Paris, this is the true story about the interactions between a wealthy quadriplegic and his unconventional caregiver. If you’re in a wheelchair, stop what you’re doing and watch this movie right now. If you’re not in a wheelchair, you can go ahead and finish eating your dinner or cutting your toenails, or whatever else you may be doing, and then sit down and watch this movie!

#2: An Inspirational TED Talk about Using Technology to Help the Disabled

The presenter, Henry Evans, is a mute quadriplegic who is able to tap into cutting-edge technology to become re-engaged in the world around him. Very inspirational! Don’t be afraid to watch this – it won't make you uncomfortable.

#3: An Online Course Called The Big History Project

This one has nothing to do with disabilities.

Each of us endured our share of history courses in school, be it American, European, or ancient history. Also, we all managed to survive science courses where we were taught  facts about the universe, galaxies, and the solar system (except those of you who grew up in Louisiana). We all had at least one class focused on the Earth’s geology, environment, and/or biosphere. I recall that my freshman year Earth Science teacher had a speech impediment such that he pronounced the name of his course as Erf Science. Although many of my classmates were cruel, I felt bad for the guy. Couldn’t they have had him teach chemistry instead? Anyway…

I’m betting that none of you, however, was offered a single, all-encompassing course that tied everything together. There was no class that surveyed the history of our universe from the Big Bang to present day, broadly examining the series of events that led us to where we are today. Now there is such a course, and it’s awesome, and I just finished it.

The Big History Project is offered online, and free, because of a private group headed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and historian David Christian. And the beauty of this course format is that you can take your sweet time. There are nine sections, and each one will take you approximately 30 to 45 minutes to complete. Maybe you could tackle just one section per week? If you do take the course, please let me know what you think. Here’s the link.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Don’t Make This Mistake

There will be no images used in the production of this blog post.

I received a letter in the mail recently from a law firm in another state. It was peppered with phrases such as:
… Unauthorized Use of Copyrighted Image… your website has, knowingly without a valid license or permission… unauthorized usage on your website… pursuant to… you are liable for… statutory damages between $750 and $30,000… not more than $150,000 per infringement… our client’s legal fees… immediately cease and desist…arrange a monetary settlement… we have been authorized to commence litigation… maximum statutory damages… etc.
I was accused of displaying someone else’s copyrighted image in a blog post in 2010. That person hired a lawyer to not only compel me take the picture down, but to negotiate a monetary settlement for the period of time that I used the picture. I thought that it must have been a mistake. I hurried to the subject blog post, and sure enough, there was a beautiful photographic image that belonged to this law firm’s client. Yes, I had put it on my blog (somewhere in the middle of the post) without permission or attribution. I could not have deleted that picture more quickly than I did.

The next decision I had to make was whether I needed to hire a lawyer for this, or whether I could try to resolve the issue myself. I chose the latter. I wrote a letter to the law firm, and asked them to pass it along to their client. My letter was peppered with phrases such as:
… I am in receipt of your letter… alleged copyright violations… I offer the following points for consideration… personal blog website, which sells no advertising and generates no income… no use of my legs… unable to work… Dragon NaturallySpeaking… inspired many people… pains me greatly that I might have caused anyone harm… never occurred to me that I might be committing any sort of copyright infringement… I apologize for my misuse of the image… need to continue producing compassionate blog posts for the disabled community… lesson learned on my part… etc.
Over the next few days I scoured my almost 300 blog posts to see if there were any other violations similar to this one. I now have a high degree of confidence that none of my posts will cause me this type of legal trouble in the future, and I will be oh so careful going forward.

A couple of weeks later I received a call from the law firm indicating that “It would be counterproductive to pursue this further. Since you’ve taken down the image we’ll consider this matter closed.”

I was quite relieved.

My point here is not to complain about what some may consider a disproportionate response by the photographer or his law firm. He was completely within his legal rights to pursue this matter the way he did. Who knows what he’s been through regarding copyright issues. My relatively benign infraction may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, or I may have been part of a broader roundup of offenders. I know that I certainly wouldn’t like it if someone plagiarized my writing, for example. The important thing is that I learned from my mistake, and I was able to mitigate any financial ramifications.

Perhaps some of you can learn from my mistake as well. Just because something pops up in a Google image search doesn't mean it's free for the taking. There are many options for public domain images. A few of these are listed in this article. Also, if you are a blogger, there’s a program called Zemanta, which works hand-in-hand with WordPress or Blogger, and offers up suitable images that match the text in your post.

Whew, that was close…
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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Turning 50

My 50th birthday was Friday, and Kim threw a huge party. I’ve been to a few of these, and also some retirement parties, and found them eerily similar to memorial services, except for the relative health of the guest of honor and the less frequent crying by the attendees.

At my party the food and drink was irresistible and endless. There were tributes to my life, such as the creative one my daughter put together, pictured above. Amy also produced a slide show that ran on a continuous loop throughout the evening on our television. Several guests remarked about the disproportionate number of photos, especially from my younger days, that featured dead animals. What can I say? Whenever we killed something Dad pulled out the camera.

At this party there were several people meeting one another for the first time, as might occur at a funeral, their friendship with me being the common thread. I liked the party very much. I didn’t feel dead at all. Well done, Kim.

My birthday just happened to fall on a full moon. We took a few shots of the moon as it rose over the cove across the street from my house, just as the party was kicking off.

After I graduated from college we lived in Cleveland for a couple of years, and made lifelong friends there. Six of these friends drove all the way to Maine for this party. Wow! We didn’t have enough room for everyone in our house, but our neighbor across the street was away on vacation, so she lent us her house for three nights. Wow again!

Jessica, who is an occupational therapist by day and a badass cake chef by night, made this incredible Red Sox cake and escorted it all the way from Cleveland without damage.

Friends came from all around Maine as well. There were about 50 people in attendance. I’ve been to parties with 50 people before. Being an introvert, I usually seek out the 3 to 5 friends I am most comfortable with and hang close to them for the evening. When you’re the guest of honor, however, you need and want to spend significant time with everyone at your party. But of course that’s impossible unless the party is 12 hours long, which this one wasn’t. I bounced around as much as I could. I spoke at least briefly with everyone, but failed to spend quality time with every guest. I’m sure they understand.

Even though I promised Lynn I would stop doing this at parties, I recited my version of The Unfortunate Popcorn Incident to a largely sympathetic audience.

Because of the unusually warm October evening, we made it an indoor/outdoor affair. This was the first big party that showcased Kim’s new patio in conjunction with our deck. It was a huge hit. We had a wood fire in the outdoor fireplace, and we also lit up our propane patio heater. Those babies retail for about $200 but Kim found a perfectly good one on craigslist for $30.

In the invitation Kim specified "no gifts necessary", but you know how that goes. So, what do you get the wheelchair guy who has everything? You get him a few bottles of wine and a boatload of gift certificates to his favorite restaurants. I won’t need my wallet at Snow Squall for quite some time.

Throughout the weekend Louie, the world’s greatest Cleveland sports fan, and I argued about sports, politics, religion, music, technology, education, and a few other things. We never get angry with one another, and we never change one another's minds either. Nevertheless, there’s nobody's deaf ears I'd rather have my opinions fall on than my good friend Louie's.

On Saturday, we took the Clevelanders to our favorite establishment on the pier, Portland Lobster Company, for one last afternoon of eating and drinking in the sun. It was unusually warm, and the band played classic tunes from our era. Somebody put them up to singing Happy Birthday to me. I filed an official protest, as this was not officially my birthday anymore. I was ignored.

If you're reading this blog post in an email, you'll have to go to the original post to watch the short video above. Below are a couple of still shots from Portland Lobster Company.

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We topped it all off with a lobster bake at our house Saturday night, and everyone was gone early on Sunday morning. There – I think we’re done with summer now.

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This extended birthday weekend reminded me of a few things:
1. 50 is old, especially when it feels like 80
2. I have more great friends than anyone deserves
3. My daughter is remarkable (my son was at college, but he is remarkable too)
4. My wife is crazy awesome (I bet you didn’t know that)
5. I have to somehow top this party next year when Kim turns 50. Email me ideas at

Friday, October 18, 2013

The View from My Wheelchair: Gillette Stadium (part 3 of 3)

This is part three of my three part series about our trip to Gillette Stadium. Click here for part one or here for part two.

Still riding our high from the unbelievable Patriots victory, the four of us made our way out of the stadium and back down to the van. The next step was for me to transfer from the iBot to the Invacare chair for the ride home. This is a more difficult transfer for me than the one from the Invacare to the iBot, because the Invacare chair sits higher. Transferring uphill is difficult. Usually I can manage this transfer, but maybe 20% of the time I can’t. This was one of those times.

I had Kim grab my pants on one side and Andy grab on the other side, and on the count of three they lifted. It wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done. We then settled into the van, and they packed all sorts of tailgating equipment in and around me. Andy had volunteered to be the designated driver, and we started the slow trek home.

The Red Sox were playing game 2 of the American League Championship Series that evening against the Detroit Tigers in Boston. The winner of this best-of-seven will advance to the World Series. Game 1 had been ugly for the Red Sox. They managed only a single hit in the bottom of the ninth inning, and ended up losing the game by a score of 1-0. On our drive home from Gillette Stadium we turned on the radio to listen to game 2.

It was more of the same. Through five innings the Red Sox again had no hits. In the top of the sixth inning the Tigers scored four more runs to take a 5-0 lead. This was too much for us to bear. Silence would be preferable, so we turned the radio off. We should have learned a lesson from the never-say-die Patriots, right? I dozed for half an hour or 45 minutes. As I was waking up out of my stupor Andy turned the radio back on. The score was 5 – 1, Detroit. It was the bottom of the eighth inning and the Red Sox were showing a little life. That got our attention, and we resumed listening to the game.

If you’re a baseball fan then you know what happened next. With the bases loaded, the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox postseason history, David Ortiz, came to bat. In Boston he is known by the affectionate nickname of Big Papi. The Tigers countered by bringing in their best relief pitcher, called their “closer”, because he is supposed to close out a pending victory. On the very first pitch Big Papi drove the ball deep. It cleared the outfielder’s glove by inches and went over the fence for a grand slam home run. Detroit’s right fielder, Torii Hunter, had jumped so high that he flipped over the fence, literally upside down, and landed on his head in the Red Sox bullpen. He was shaken up, but stayed in the game, which was now tied 5 - 5.

Here is an iconic photo of a police officer cheering for the home run at the same time that Torii Hunter’s legs were upside down.

Although we were ecstatic about the grand slam, we wanted to see the rest of the game, not listen to it. We were still a couple of miles from our house on the drive home, so we urged Andy to step on it, so to speak.

By the time we pulled in our driveway it was the bottom of the ninth inning, the score was still tied, and the Red Sox had one base runner on. We opened the van doors and Kim and Karen scurried out, dragging equipment with them so that I would be able to get out of the van as well. Kim rushed into the house and turned on the TV. Andy helped me navigate my wheelchair out of the tight quarters of the van, and we hurried into the house.

In my living room we watched the Red Sox baserunner advance to third base. With no outs in the inning, things were looking good. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who we call Salty for obvious reasons, singled to left field. The runner scored easily from third base, and the game was over. The Red Sox had completed an incredible comeback to tie the championship series one game to one. Once again, Andy, Karen, and Kim were a 10 on a happy scale of 1 to 10. Because the view from my wheelchair was perfect this time, I was a 10 as well.

Allow me to summarize. We were upgraded to luxury accommodations at the football game and had recovered much of our original investment in tickets. We witnessed an incredible, rare comeback by the Patriots. On the way home we listened to a heroic grand slam that tied the game for the Red Sox in the playoffs, and we were able to watch the winning run score on our television. Oh, and we had outstanding food, drink, and company the entire time.

It was a good day, a very good day.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The View from My Wheelchair: Gillette Stadium (part 2 of 3)

This is part two of my three part series about our trip to Gillette Stadium. Click here for part one.

We decided to compress our planned tailgating activities from four hours to two hours, so that we could spend some of the pregame in the luxury box. We ate our food until it hurt, and then we ate a little more. At around 2:30 we packed our tailgating paraphernalia into the van and began walking toward the stadium. We flashed our special passes to the stadium employees, and they funneled us toward the VIP intake system. The closer we came to the luxury box the more affluent and well-heeled I began to feel. We were leaving the riffraff behind and becoming part of the football watching elite, or something like that. I swear, when we opened the door to the suite a soft, white light emanated from within, and I think I heard harp music. This was going to be good.

Once inside, we thanked our kind hosts and ordered some complementary drinks from the waiter (I had already moved on to Diet Coke by this point). Our priority when we enter an unfamiliar space like this is to evaluate its wheelchair accessibility. The bathroom was perfect. It was roomy and accessible and private so that Kim could come in and assist me. The suite itself was spacious, but there was no place where I could have a clear view of the field without interference from people in front of me, even though the iBot can stand tall.

Eventually we identified the best possible viewing spot. I could see most of the field most the time, and there was a television right in front of me that showed live-action. I could use that as a backup.

More and more people poured into the luxury box. The guests came in all shapes and sizes, so to speak. The all-star lineup included a private college CEO (or whatever they are called), several business owners and executives, a well-known Maine sportscaster, and a handsome dude in an iBot wheelchair. These people were no more or less friendly and interesting than the people in the parking lot. But they were either more fortunate or more hard-working, depending on your philosophy on such matters.

Many of the guests approached me to talk about the iBot. As I’ve indicated before, explaining the iBot and demonstrating its features are two of my favorite activities. It makes for great conversation. Plus, it elevates me, at least to some extent, from the realm of the pitiable to the realm of the enviable.

Did I mention there was complementary food, beer, and wine in the luxury suite? We also enjoyed shrimp, scallops, beef wrapped in bacon, noodles, cookies, chocolates, and ice cream. Although our bellies were already full, it would have been rude not to partake of this complementary feast, and we’re not rude people. We feasted again until it hurt, and then we feasted a little more.

Eventually I asked Kim to assist me in the bathroom. Even with her help, I take considerably more time than the average guy to get into the bathroom, empty my bladder, and get out. As often occurs in these situations, people waiting to use the bathroom after me became impatient. They hadn’t seen me go in, and wondered what was taking so long. They rattled the locked door more than once, and although they never shouted, “What’s taking so long?” I was able to overhear them wonder as much amongst themselves.

When we were done and I wheeled out of the bathroom, I could see the expressions on the faces of those people who were waiting so impatiently. They always look humbled, and this time was no different. It’s all good, though. When you’re a disabled person in an able-bodied world, you grow a thick skin.

The first half of the game went well. At intermission the Patriots were ahead of the undefeated Saints 17 - 7. Things didn’t go so well in the second half. The Patriots kept making mistakes and the Saints didn’t. With New Orleans leading by a score of 27 - 23, and only two minutes and 24 seconds left on the clock, the Patriots took possession of the ball for what would certainly be the last time. A field-goal would be of no use to the Patriots. They would need to score a touchdown. Tom Brady, our future Hall of Fame quarterback, had accomplished comebacks like this many times before. We weren’t confident, but we were hopeful.

On the very next play, Brady threw a deep pass that was intercepted by the Saints at the New England 20 yard line. Game over.

I moved away from the luxury box window and mingled at the back of the suite. At least half of the suite guests were leaving. Many of the 70,000+ patrons in the stadium were filing out too. I thanked our hosts for their hospitality. They graciously apologized that the team didn’t win today, and I graciously pointed out that it wasn’t their fault. I’ve joked a bit here about the extravagance of the situation, but these business owners were down to earth and kind folks, and I very much appreciated their generosity. Watching a Patriots game from a luxury box was an incredible experience. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back out in the cold next year!

I texted a friend, Susan, who was stuck at an airport and unable to watch the game. I let her know that the Patriots had lost by four points. Andy, Karen, and Kim remained at the front of the luxury box to bear witness to the Patriots death throes, although I couldn’t understand why they were putting themselves through that pain.

After a few minutes, however, Kim called to me, “Mitch, it’s third down for the Saints. You may want to come watch this.”

I had assumed that there simply wasn’t enough time left in the game for the Patriots to get their hands on the ball again. I’m usually pretty good about these things, but in this instance I had been wrong. New Orleans failed to get a first down and had to punt to the Patriots. Tom Brady and his offense would get one more chance.

The Patriots moved the ball well, and with 10 seconds left in the game they were on the New Orleans 17 yard line. On the next play, Brady dropped back and let the ball fly to the back left-hand corner of the end zone. Kenbrell Thompkins, an undrafted rookie, leapt up and caught the ball. Both of his feet landed inbounds – touchdown.

Unfortunately for me, but understandable in the context of such an exciting finish, everyone had stood up in front of me as soon as the ball left Brady’s hand, and I didn’t see the catch. I was aware of the completion because of the reaction of the rest of the fans. I shifted my gaze from the field to the television just in time to see Thompkins celebrating in the end zone.

In this instance, the view from my wheelchair sucked.

On a scale of 1 to 10, if I had watched that play from my couch, or if I had been afforded a clear view of the field, I would have felt like a 10. But, given that I had actually missed the climactic event of the day, I was probably a solid 8 instead. I wish I wasn’t that way. I shouldn’t have let it affect me, but these are just the facts. Still, I was very happy about the outcome of the game.

Sheepishly, I admitted to my group, who were all solid 10’s as they should have been, that I had sent a faulty text to our friend Susan. We laughed about it, and I quickly sent her a correction!

Although my end-of-the-game was slightly subdued from what it otherwise could have been, I can’t imagine the regret and disappointment of the significant number of fans who, after having spent hundreds of dollars and many hours at the stadium, left early and completely missed this dramatic comeback victory. And how do you suppose most of those fans learned of their premature evacuation? As they were walking towards their vehicles or as they were cracking open one last beer for the post game tailgating, they heard such a roar emanating from the stadium that it could only have meant one thing. Ouch.

Part three (conclusion) tomorrow...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The View from My Wheelchair: Gillette Stadium (part 1 of 3)

It’s always great fun, and one of the highlights of our year, to make our annual trek to watch the Patriots play football at Gillette Stadium. But our experience this time was unusually memorable, for a couple of reasons.

I’ve mentioned many times before how fortunate I am to have Kim as my wife, best friend, and primary caregiver. But I’m also blessed to have two very supportive brothers and their awesome wives. I wrote about Tom and Diane after our trip to Jamaica in February of this year. This post is about spending the day with Andy and Karen in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Planning for a day at Gillette Stadium is all about food and drink. Diets and any counting of calories, carbohydrates, or even cookies are suspended for the day. This year we brought several flavors of ribs, buffalo chicken macaroni and cheese (yes, you heard me correctly), chips, a bacon and cheese dip, whoopie pies, roasted almonds that I couldn’t stop eating once I started, and several varieties of beer and soft drinks. We brought a small grill for cooking, a folding table, a cooler, and three folding cloth chairs. Thank goodness for my packing spreadsheet.

Of course I brought my iBot wheelchair, as I always do for these big outings. But at the last minute I decided I would also bring my Invacare chair, if only for the ride down and back. The Invacare chair has the added feature of the easy-lock system, so that I can safely and effortlessly secure the wheelchair to the floor of the van.

We’ve gone to a Patriots game every year for a while now. One of the benefits for disabled people at Gillette Stadium is (or was) the handicapped parking lot, situated directly in front of the main entrance to the stadium. All parking lots open four hours before game time, so we arrived promptly at 12:25 for this late afternoon start.

As we approached our special parking lot, I became confused by what I saw. The lot was closed, and nobody was parking there. We were quickly redirected to the adjacent lot and found a suitable handicapped parking spot with room for my ramp to open on the right side of the van. No problem.

We asked someone why the other parking lot was closed. They indicated that since the Boston Marathon bombing the parking lot nearest the stadium was being used as a security buffer between the stadium and the mass of humanity outside of it. Thanks, terrorists. Now the available number of handicapped parking spots at Gillette Stadium has been cut roughly in half. This will make it even more critical that we arrive early in the future. There’s nothing like forcing the cripples to compete for parking.

In concert with thousands of other people around Gillette Stadium, we quickly emptied our vehicle, and within five minutes we had our grill, table, chairs, cooler, etc. all set up. Each of us had a fresh, cold beer opened, and we were ready to go. I transferred from my Invacare chair to my iBot and elevated myself to balance mode. In no time at all, people were walking up to me and asking questions about the iBot. I love it when that happens.

One of Andy’s many fine attributes is that he knows everybody. He and Karen live in Bangor, the third-largest city in Maine. Andy has been active in countless civic organizations and more than a few business ventures. All three of their kids went through the Bangor Public school system. He’s like the unofficial mayor of Bangor.

It turns out that a company which works closely with the New England Patriots is headquartered in Bangor. Of course Andy knows the owners quite well. When they learned that we were attending the game, one of them stopped by where we were tailgating and gave us four complementary passes to their corporate luxury box.

The tickets we had purchased months ago for this game cost us $147 each. They weren’t bad tickets, but they weren’t great either. It was a no-brainer for us to accept this generous offer. Then we started toying with the idea of doing something with the tickets that we had already purchased. Ideally we would’ve invited friends to join us, but it was already too close to game time. We certainly didn’t want to walk around the parking area like a sleazy scalper, shouting, “Anybody want to buy some tickets?” Yet, the thought of recovering at least some of the $588 was enticing.

Soon we noticed a commotion off to our left. The Patriots were hosting the New Orleans Saints that day, and a group of about a dozen Saints fans were making their rounds in the tailgating area. They were dressed flamboyantly, as residents of New Orleans are prone to do. They were very friendly, and Patriots fans were friendly back. Kim and Karen joined them for a photo.

Several folks in that group were former New Orleans residents now living in the Northeast. It was a long shot, but Karen asked one of the ladies if she would be interested in purchasing any tickets. Much to our surprise and delight, she said she might like one more ticket, but needed to make a phone call to confirm. When she got off the phone she said, “Actually, we could use three tickets.”

We negotiated a $100 price for each of three $147 tickets. It was a classic win – win situation.

This day was starting out really well. But there was so much more to come.

Part 2 tomorrow…