The Lightning Bug and The Lightning

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” -Mark Twain

A while back, I came across the ad at right via the Vintage Ads community on LiveJournal. (I’m a major fan of the vintage – especially clothes, cookbooks, and ephemera. That community is one of the places I get my ephemera fix.)

The ad, for the Zenith Radio Nurse, appeared in Child Life, a children’s magazine, in 1938. The device advertised has some very interesting history behind it. It was developed by Zenith in the years after the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping as the world’s first baby monitor. (Note the bit of copy “if an intruder enters.”) It sold for $29.95, which, when adjusted for inflation, is about $450. “Very moderate price” my ass. But what price parental peace of mind, right?

The case for the speaker unit is a famous piece of industrial design by the Japanese-American designer Isamu Noguchi. Even if that name doesn’t ring a bell, if you’re even a passing fan of mid-century design, it’s pretty likely that you recognize this table he designed for Herman Miller.

This is part of why I love ephemera – you never know what other topics something might lead you to. Anyway, the reason I share this ad is not because of its historical significance at all – it’s because of its language. Hence Mr. Twain’s words above.

When this was posted in the Vintage Ads community, several people took offense at the word “invalid” in the headline. One person said, “They could just have well have said ‘cripple.'” And that’s where I come in.

As a real live actual capital-I invalid, I don’t take offense to the headline at all. In fact, this word is what I choose to call myself. There are a lot of words used to describe people that we’ve let fall by the wayside – including some that were seen as the sensitive choice of the day that have come later to be seen as insulting or demeaning. Some of the people in the Vintage Ads group clearly thought “invalid” was one of those words. I don’t think it belongs with that group. Here’s why.

To call me or someone like me “disabled” is insufficient. Disability is a such a big tent, and not only does that word really not tell you much about a particular person’s functioning, but most people with disabilities are far more physically able than are people with severe ME/CFS. Most people with disabilities can be present in the outside world with some accommodation. I’m not able to except in the most minor of ways with a great deal of physical assistance. And I can’t perform the tasks I’d need to be able to in order to live on my own. So I’m truly an invalid: a person who is too sick or weak to care for himself or herself.

I don’t say this to seem to feel sorry for myself, or to attempt to cause others to feel that way. Invalidism is just the way things are for me at this point, and since there is a word that fits me well, I’d rather use that more descriptive term that truly fits my situation than something non-specific that someone with no experience of what my life is like might assume is kinder or more politically correct to call me.

The best way to address someone, anyone, with a disability, is to find out how they prefer to be described, and not to assume that the word you think applies is the one they would choose.

And getting back to the Radio Nurse for a moment here: The way we handle the problem of potential kidnappers trying to spirit me away at our house is with one of those wireless doorbells, with the button next to me and the receivers plugged in other places in the house. I have a cell phone handy, too. Both are decidedly cheaper than the Radio Nurse, thanks to our good friends in China.

But I would take one of those fetching lace caps Granny up there has on to wear while I lie around the house.

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19 Responses to The Lightning Bug and The Lightning

  1. Janet says:

    I noticed the fetching lace cap too. And I’ve always appreciated that quote of Twain’s, even if it did sometimes contribute to writer’s block. Love to you and Michael and all the kitties. Janet
    PS Did cousin Stuart Austin send you the clip of Take Five? If not, visit my facebook page.

  2. Cathrine says:

    Well… I think you are quite valid 🙂

  3. Karen says:

    Hmm, the early version of a baby monitor. That’s pretty interesting! The price when taking inflation into account is pretty crazy, too. You can get baby monitors for $30 in today’s market, and $450 would get you a top-of-the-line video monitor. Because spying on your children really should start from birth. 😉

    Thanks for your perspective on the word/language choice as well. A well-written blog post, as always!

    • Jocelyn says:

      What you really need is a monitor that grows with the child, as some beds and furniture do. When they’re a baby, it lets you watch them throwing toys out of the crib, but by the time they’re a teenager, it lets you rifle through their diaries and see what they’re doing at any unchaperoned party they attend.

  4. Your post makes me remember the “disability dropoff” spot at the side of the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indy. When your grandmother was alive, whenever I walked by that spot on the way to or from lunch, I would smile and think of how lovely it would be to drop off her disability there and pick her up without the need for a wheelchair. I trust there is an invalid dropoff in our future where I am able to pull up and you leave anything that limits you there. And I will pick up my able-bodied, brilliant, compassionate daughter.

  5. kathy d. says:

    I am having problems with good friends not understanding this disease, even though I have had it for 25 years. Interesting that the least understanding comes from a retired health care professional. It wasn’t in her textbooks nor did she ever see anyone with it in the hospital where she worked. If I have to talk to her somewhere with other people around, she’ll start to walk far away, and I’ll say, “No. Let’s talk over there,” pointing to two feet away. She looks at me like I have two heads.
    I’m thinking that I should give her a book about CFIDS or maybe print out something, for instance, your explanation of your day. But I am not as housebound as you are and I can do more within my apartment, like read, be at the computer, although I often can’t go out. And if I overdo it on the computer, I can’t use my arms for a few days due to muscle pain. And if I don’t get enough quality sleep and am on the computer late, I can barely get to the bathroom the next day.
    Does anyone have any suggestions on what to give this person to enlighten her?

    • Jocelyn says:

      I think the thing that’s come to be the standard help-the-well-understand-it is the spoon theory. You can read it here. I find most of the “spoonie” stuff pretty schmaltzy, but this works pretty well as an explanation. Sorry for taking so long to get to this comment – I forgot I needed to reply. Thanks, brain fog.

  6. kathy d. says:

    There are reports on grant funding at the CFIDS Assn. website: Hutchins Family Fund gave $10 million to a CFI (Chronic Fatigue Initiative) for research. Top researchers and doctors are in this CFI.
    And NIH gave $1 million to the U. of Utah Lights who found changes in genetic expression in CFIDS people after exercise; it’s for further research to find a biomarker for the disease. And gave $380,000 to the Natelson project in N.J., which found 700 proteins in CFIDS people’s spinal fluid, different from those in Lyme or healthy people.

  7. kathy d. says:

    Yes, agreed. See CFIDS Association website, section on Research 1st, which has this information.

  8. Margaret says:

    Joc,
    Just catching up on your blog and LOVING this post. It just scratches all of my itches: writing and word choice, vintage advertising, wacky US history connections, and the history and aesthetics of objects (or as I have learned to call it in my life as a museum person, material culture). I love how your mind works.
    I hope that the IRIS is letting up. (I’ll find out when I read Part II of your IRIS post next.)
    Love to you, “Chimp,” and the kitties. I think of you often and I’m sorry that I’m not closer to help.
    Mgt.

  9. kathy d. says:

    An fyi: Saw on a blog last night (ME/CFS) somewhere that Judy Mikovits was able to continue her grant and take her cell lines, and that she has gotten a job in Canada where she can continue her work. The grant and cell lines must have been an NIH decision.
    I would warrant that WPI is quite angry about this, as they wanted that NIH grant and her research notes and cell lines; that was part of how they raised income, on the basis of Dr. Mikovits’ work.
    I’m just hoping that with all this over (hopefully), that Ian Lipkin can do virology research, and that everyone can keep on doing their research and that researchers will find the cause and biomarkers for this darned disease.
    Meanwhile, the blog discussion, fur flying in all directions has aggravated my CFIDS symptoms like mad. One would think that for our sake, those of us who are ill, that the researchers and medical people would keep the tension level down. After all, we are the ones whose symptoms get worse when this madness ensues; they don’t.
    Anyway, I have hope.

    • Jocelyn says:

      Hi again, Kathy! I saw the note here that Judy wrote saying the samples were hers to take. I haven’t seen the Canada news, but I bet if I cast around I can find it.

      Do be kind to yourself – and I hope there will be less excitement in the weeks to come.

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