Since Willow’s arrival I’ve developed a soft spot for squirrels. This little lady follows people leaving the UofO cafeteria, begging for treats. I said hello, and she followed me back to my dorm room.

“I know what YOU’RE looking for,” said the nice kid with the beard, “I’ll bet you want some silverware, huh?”

“Yup,” I responded, smiling, and he handed me a compostable fork for my pasta salad. “We can’t just give these out because of the new law in Eugene that prohibits single-use items. We’re supposed to wait for you to ask, but people don’t KNOW that.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up Eugene, Oregon, which I’m beginning to refer to as “the place where old hippies go to die.” I’m here for an 8-day Enamelist Society conference, having a ball, and surprising myself.

First surprise: In the world of real enamelistas, I’m the rankest of amateurs and more than a little intimidated. I’m surrounded by the folks who wrote the books, filmed the videos, and invented the products I’m using to teach myself enameling.

Maybe it’s for the best; maybe I’ve gotten entirely too comfortable with glassworking. After 25 or so years, I’ve paid for my expertise in blood, sweat, money, and explosions. I’ve learned the hard way about compatibility, thermal shock, color reactions, etc., etc., etc. Glasspeople aren’t strangers, they’re my friends.

In my first conference workshop, we’re learning to electroform copper for later enameling. More on that later.

I am the new kid in EnamelTown, though; I know no one and my wealth of enameling knowledge runs out in about five minutes. It’s an odd sensation I’m not entirely sure I like, so I’m asking a lot of dumb questions.

“Oh, you know, it’s like what happens when you don’t use P3, and you know you don’t want THAT!” someone helpfully told me this morning.

OK, what the hell is P3 and what happens if I don’t use it? My piece will explode? I’ll keel over and die?

Fortunately, enamelists recruit new enamelists with a near-missionary zeal, so happily answer dumb questions. Still, I’m realizing that I’ve only scratched the surface (heh-heh) of this enameling stuff, and I’m eager to learn more.

Appropriately, I’m being schooled at a school and that’s the second surprise. This conference is being held at the University of Oregon, a beautiful old tree-lined campus that’s full of friendly, healthy, non-disabled Normals, determined to make everyone else healthy and Normal, too. Like many Normals, they can’t quite imagine why someone with, say, a semi-functional Leg can’t just shake it off and go for a run across campus.

“This,” my housing coordinator (the guy who checked me into my dorm room) said, “is one of the most bike-friendly, walkable campuses in the United States.” And it is; the roads near the building have been turned into walking/biking paths and cars are strictly forbidden. The closest parking spot for Chiquitita is about a mile away unless the construction crews move in; then it’s about a mile and a quarter.

After three years of physical therapy, I’ve made great strides: I can walk about 3/4 of a block without intense pain. A mile-long walk? Forget it.

Then there was the fourth-floor, no elevators dorm room: I can do six or seven stairs, given time, careful positioning, and a lot of grab bars. “Uhm…could you switch me to a dorm with elevators, please?”

Surprise 3: There aren’t any dorm elevators at the University of Oregon. I explained my issue with Leg and stairs, and the housing dude made a call to his supervisor.

“Just FYI,” he said to his boss, sotto voce, “Everyone at this conference is AT LEAST fifty years old, and they all have bad backs.” I nearly gave him The Look for the “AT LEAST,” but relented when he generously put me into a private, ground-floor room.

My room for the next 6 days at the University of Oregon, Eugene. The bed was about 4 feet off the ground, until they lowered it. Note the giant fan, aimed right at my pillow–there’s a heat wave in Eugene and this place doesn’t believe in air conditioning.

Naturally, the bed was about four feet off the ground, without a ladder.

For the record, I’m five foot 3.

Uhm….if anyone’s placed hidden cameras in this dorm room, the sight of me scaling up the side of that bed (and then discovering that the only way to turn off the light was ACROSS the room) probably caused death by laughter. I spent the rest of the night nursing my bruises and muttering ADA imprecations to the skies (since the Housing Authority had gone to bed).

Know what? Eventually, it all works out. One of my mentors, a fellow named Mad Martini, once said that the world won’t adapt to your disabilities; you adapt your disabilities to the world.

He’s right; since The Leg happened, I’ve become a helluva problem solver. I figured out the bed* that night, and the next day the Housing Authority gave me a rolling stepstool until a facilities crew could arrive to drop the bloody bed down by a couple of feet.

Then I doubled up on pain meds, found a nearby source of ice for my screaming muscles, and hoofed it to the car, past the pain. Hunted around until I found a handicap parking space (thank you, State of Oregon, for my handicap sticker), and avoided the two-mile walk.

No air conditioning in the airless 90-plus dorm room? The campus loaned me a giant fan and a bowl. Added ice, pointed the fan at my pillow and turned it on full blast. Voila: A jury-rigged AC unit that worked nearly as well as the real thing.

Fourth surprise: On the first day, I limped the mile and a quarter to Chiquitita the Porsche in pain and tears. Sat in her fits-like-a-glove driver’s seat, panting and wondering how I’d ever get through this week. Drove to my first workshop and could barely get out of the car and into the classroom. Took maybe 40 minutes.

Three days later (today), I hurried to Chiquitita, slipped inside, and was in class in ten minutes. I won’t say it didn’t twinge, but I’ve definitely gotten stronger.

Yay, me.

So, I dunno. Maybe the Normals have a point. Maybe I haven’t been pushing past my comfort zone enough lately.

Time to get cracking. More about the conference (and actual enamel discussion) later.

*It was easy-ish: Move chest of drawers over to the bed. Move the desk chair next to the drawers. Then climb into chair, clamber onto the drawers, and desperately grab the far bed rail in one hand while you push off the mattress with the other. Once elevated over the bed, twist hips in a great leap forward, and (hopefully) land bottom-first halfway down the mattress.