Sudden Paralysis and 'The Best Seat in the House' It was a Tuesday like any other until, with no warning, Allen Rucker woke up paralyzed from the waist down. He was 51 at the time. Rucker talks about his new book, The Best Seat in the House, where he takes an unsentimental, and at times, hilarious view of his experience.
NPR logo

Sudden Paralysis and 'The Best Seat in the House'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sudden Paralysis and 'The Best Seat in the House'

Sudden Paralysis and 'The Best Seat in the House'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In 1996, Allen Rucker had no real complaints - married, two kids, a house in West Los Angeles. At the age of 51, his career as a television writer was looking up. He had a little knee trouble, but looked forward to a return to a running. Then one day, a Tuesday, out of the blue he started to feel a burning sensation around his waist. Inside an hour and a half, he was paralyzed from the waist down by a rare condition called transverse myelitis. It sounds like a nightmare, and he's had a few of those, but in his new memoir, Allen Rucker describes his new life with honesty, accessibility, and impudence. He titles one chapter "Cripple Do's and Don'ts."

A little bit later in the hour, Newberry Award winner Susan Patron joins us to talk about the one little word in her book, "The Higher Power of Lucky," that's caused a big fuss. But first, Allen Rucker. His memoir is called "The Best Seat in the House" or "How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life." And we want to hear from you, especially those of you who deal with the same challenges as Allen Rucker. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us:

Allen Rucker joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ALLEN RUCKER (Author, "The Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life"): Hey, Neal, good to be here.

CONAN: And speaking of that one little word, there will be at least a few upset with your use of that word cripple.

Mr. RUCKER: Yeah, or crip.

CONAN: Or crip...

Mr. RUCKER: Crip.

CONAN: ...which you also use.

Mr. RUCKER: Crip, that's what I learned very quickly, you know. When I became paralyzed, it happened so quickly that it was like starting your life over again, right? So I had to learn, you know, I had to learn how to behave, I had to learn how to talk. And what I heard among other people in rehab was that cripples call - or people crippled - cripple itself is an old term, isn't it?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: People who use wheelchairs - that's the correct way of saying it - you refer to each other as crips. Now you can't call me that, Neal. But, you know, someone else in a wheelchair can call me that. It's fine.

CONAN: Indeed...

Mr. RUCKER: Not to be confused with the gang, the Crips.

CONAN: I was going to say, does that make you a Blood? But I was going to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: No, no, no.

CONAN: ...being from Los — anyway...

Mr. RUCKER: No...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: In your chapter "Cripple Do's and Don'ts," there's a whole list of things you go through, words that those of us who are ambulatory, or still ambulatory, shouldn't really use.

Mr. RUCKER: Temporarily ambulatory, we like to say. Yeah, no, there are a lot of words that - I mean I used them myself, even in referring to myself, till I was corrected by people who'd been in this condition longer. It's not a tragedy. Don't use the word tragedy, please. I don't suffer from it any more than someone, you know, suffers from bushy eyebrows or thinning hair. And, you know, there are a whole series of words like that that make it seem much worse and more tragic, I guess is the word...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: ...than it really is, and that's what a lot of people - a lot of disabled people have to struggle with, which is that people think of them in ways that have nothing to do with their disability. It's just the associations people make with disabilities. Like that clip you use for "Murderball," that people assume that someone's who's disabled always needs help, is always, you know...


Mr. RUCKER: always out there just - you know, it's heroic that he goes - that that guy - in some people's minds, it's heroic that that guy actually goes to the grocery store, you know? Boy, how'd you get in and out of your car? Well, you know, you learn these things. You know, it's not that - it's not all that difficult.

CONAN: It's interesting, in your very first trip to - I think it was Starbucks...

Mr. RUCKER: Starbucks, yeah.

CONAN: a mall - you were still in the hospital, still very much dealing with the discovery of this condition - and you said in that very first trip, two people shoved you out of the way to get into an elevator...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...and you begin to realize - you learned later that this was hardly new.

Mr. RUCKER: Yeah, it was hardly new. That was a very strange trip. It was my first time to actually go across the street, which even though I had help, I had an occupational therapist with me, it felt like I was a small dog crossing a big boulevard, you know, you felt so vulnerable. You feel very, very vulnerable when you first become paralyzed. And I go to the mall, and the first thing that happens is two people literally push me out of the way to get into an elevator. I guess they didn't see me or something. And - but the worst thing, which happens to a lot of people, is that little kids like to stare at you, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: They wonder why is that man, you know, riding around on wheels. And inevitably their mother will grab their arm and jerk them like it's - and I never quite know what the message is: watch it, he may be contagious; you never know, a guy like that could be weird; he may start babbling; or it's rude to stare.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: It's not that - it's not rude for - it's rude for, you know, a 40-year-old to stare, but it's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: ...stare at your legs and go, oh, there for the grace of God go I. But it's not rude for a five year old kid. You know, they just want to know what's going on. Anyway...

CONAN: Hmm, it took you 10 years to write this book, and it should be said much of it is very funny.

Mr. RUCKER: Thank you.

CONAN: Were you able to see it that way at first?

Mr. RUCKER: I started popping jokes to myself very early on as just as a defense mechanism, which is what humor often is, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: Laying in the - on a gurney I remember thinking to myself is this God's way of telling me I've told too many Christopher Reeve jokes? But I think the humor came - someone asked me what was harder to write, the humor - did you write the book about your life and then add the humor? And I said, no, I'm a comedy writer. I wrote the humor and then added the stuff about my life, you know? That was the hardest thing, the more serious parts of the book that were telling, I guess you said, parts of the book were the hardest things to write for sure.

CONAN: And those are - you describe going through phases: That first phase in the hospital where you say it's equivalent to infancy. Then you get home and you have to relearn things that you learned first when you were three years old, a toddler stage.

Mr. RUCKER: Right.

CONAN: And then after a few years, you get into the adolescent stage, and it reminded us all why none of us want to relive our adolescence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: Well, you feel as self-conscious and as defensive as an adolescent when you kind of wander out into the world. And you always feel that people are condescending to you, and they often are, but it's usually out of kindness, not out of - you know, the guy - the person who asks that kid can I help you into your car, after he obviously had gotten out of his car to go shopping, is not doing that to, you know, to put you down. They're doing that out of kindness, and it's the kindness that kills, you know, because it makes you feel less, it makes you feel, you know, like you're more - it always make you feel like you're more disabled than you actually are, and...


Mr. RUCKER: ...that's a - you know, that wears on you after a while, but you learn to deal with it, you know. I mean it's not the end of the world when someone asks you 20,000 times a day, can I help you in your car? It's just, you know, it's just what happens, and you learn to deal with it, you know. It's not that weird. You actually outgrow the adolescence, I guess is what I'm saying.

CONAN: Our guest is Allen Rucker. He's been in a wheelchair these past 10 years and wrote about it. He describes it as "The Best Seat in the House." If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And let's talk with Maggie. Maggie's with us from Rochester, New York.

MAGGIE (Caller): Hi.


MAGGIE: About six years ago, I lost my eyesight, and I wasn't that old. I'm still not that old, but people tend to treat me as if I'm an old lady now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: That's right.

MAGGIE: I went to a doctor's office yesterday, and they honeyed and sweetied(ph) me to death. You know, I just want to tell them, don't patronize me and call me honey and sweetie. But then I think, well, they'll think I'm some, you know, nasty old blind person, so I just don't say anything. I just swallow it. But I wish people would stop. And the other thing is people say things to me like, you can cook?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAGGIE: Oh, my goodness, you do so many things. I just can't believe what you do. Well, you know, I had help from the Association for the Blind. And those people who are telling me this, they'd be able to do things, too, if they had to. You know, you have to learn to do things.

Mr. RUCKER: Right, that's absolutely right.

MAGGIE: (unintelligible)

Mr. RUCKER: Absolutely right.

MAGGIE: I just wish they'd stop patronizing me.

Mr. RUCKER: Yeah, they treat you as - I like to say that this experience has given me a kind of head start on growing old.


Mr. RUCKER: I'm not that old, but since people treat you like you're old, you kind of have a sense about how old people are treated. And you're right. You don't want to be the disagreeable - I call him the disagreeable cripple - the disagreeable disabled. You don't want to be - to say, no, get away from me, leave me alone, I can handle this because, you know, that just puts people off, and you really do just have to swallow it and just go on.


Mr. RUCKER: But it's - maybe it'll chance. I don't know. It's just - it's really just habit, it's just a habit. You can imagine that a hundred years ago, you know, people thought the disabled were - if you were in a wheelchair, you were also mentally disabled and, you know, you were kind of shunned aside, and that doesn't happen any more. But there's still this kind of self-consciousness that people have around people in wheelchairs...


Mr. RUCKER: ...that leads to people calling her honey...

CONAN: Mm-hmm, I suspect the same...

Mr. RUCKER: ...or yelling in your ear because they think you're deaf. How's the weather down there, you know?


MAGGIE: You know what else they do? They ask my companion what I would like. Would I like to sit there? Would I like this or that? And sometimes I say to them, I'm blind, but I can still hear. You can talk to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: That's exactly right. Where would he like to sit?

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: I don't know. Why don't you ask me? No, it's true, it's true. It's just that, you know - I don't know. I think it's just habit, and I think that as baby boomers are turning 50 every seven seconds, there's going to be a lot more people who are blind, who are in wheelchairs, who are disabled in one or another, and it's going to become simply a more common experience for people. That's my hope. I really do think that.

CONAN: Maggie...

Mr. RUCKER: I think - go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to say - thank Maggie very much for her call, because I wanted to ask you before we run out of time for the break, there was an encounter with one woman, sort of a battle over a handicapped parking spot, which was really not a problem with somebody trying to be too nice.

Mr. RUCKER: No, that was a strange encounter. That was a woman who for reasons I can't explain decided that she was going to park in a handicapped spot, and she wasn't, you know, handicapped, and she wasn't going to leave. And she was so threatening to me that I tried to avoid her. When I finally found a handicap spot, I tried to get way down in my wheelchair, you know, and try to sneak between cars because this woman was pretty ferocious. And until she said - what'd she call me? Hey, cripple boy or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah, she said I hope you got that way because somebody beat the tar out of you.

Mr. RUCKER: Yeah, beat the tar out of you. And I was - I could consider that crossing the line. I mean, you know, you can yell at me, you can park in my handicapped spot, but don't make fun and, you know - don't have a have a good time with my disability. And she - finally the police had to haul her away. She wasn't going to leave. She figured that, you know, she was a special person, too. A lot of people think that, you know, handicapped parking spots are kind of a, you know, a special favor to people, and that's what they are. They are - it is favoritism, but they don't like it.

CONAN: Our guest is Allen Rucker. His memoir: "Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking with Allen Rucker about his book "Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life." If you'd like to read an excerpt of the book about learning to live with paralysis, you can find it on our Web site And of course you're welcome to join the conversation. If you have questions for Allen Rucker or if you deal with some of the same challenges he does, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And let's turn to Jim. Jim's calling us from New York. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JIM (Caller): Oh, sorry.

CONAN: That's OK.

JIM: Coming back from the break, you surprised me. I was going to comment on why sometimes people in chairs can be disagreeable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: I was at a Metro North station, the suburban railroad here, where the elevator was broken. So I was rolling down the stairs, an advanced cripple feat, something I was able to do in a controlled fashion, when I heard footsteps running down the stairs behind me, and I knew what was going to happen. And sure enough somebody tried to help, knocked me down the rest of the flight of stairs, broke my chair, and the guy says to me, thank God I was here to help.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: I couldn't believe it.

Mr. RUCKER: Well, first of all, that's an...

JIM: I've managed not to do anything worse. And one thing about kids, I tend to keep a couple tennis balls in my wheels, and that fascinates them and...

Mr. RUCKER: Right.

JIM: ...keeps them from being scared and makes me a little more approachable.


Mr. RUCKER: Right, that's cool.

CONAN: That's a good...

Mr. RUCKER: But the ability - Neal, excuse me - the ability to go downstairs in a wheelchair is a very advanced skill. I couldn't possibly do that.


Mr. RUCKER: That's really a...

JIM: That took a long time.

Mr. RUCKER: You're a, you know, you're like a - you're a super cripple. You make me nervous, you know, guys who can do that stuff.

JIM: I think it has something to do with when one becomes disabled. I was 18 at the time.

Mr. RUCKER: Oh, yeah, yeah.

JIM: And so, you know, I was full of spite and vinegar (unintelligible).

CONAN: I wonder, when you guys get together, is there - are there Ferraris of wheelchairs? Are there Buicks? You know, do you compare equipment?

JIM: I - whenever I see a chair, I always check it out. There are. There are, you know, some better, but I have to say the advances have slowed down a lot.

JIM: They're lighter now.

JIM: They're lighter but, you know, but they were lighter - I'm in a chair 18 years, and they haven't advanced - you know, in the first couple of years of my experience, there were a number of quick advances. I don't think there's been any major advance in the past 10 years.


Mr. RUCKER: But, Neal, when two guys in wheelchairs get together, they probably talk about what they're together for and not talk about their disability, you know?


Mr. RUCKER: It's not like the subject. I just don't want to be known as Allen, disabled, or Allen, the guy in the wheelchair, Rucker, you know? I don't want it to be the first topic of conversation or especially not the only topic of conversation. And that's often a problem because, you know, people are just not used to seeing people in wheelchairs, or they're not used to, I guess, interacting with them. Maybe they're used to seeing them.

CONAN: Well, we - we're so uncomfortable. Do you talk about it or do you not talk about it?

Mr. RUCKER: Usually I laugh about it, yeah.

CONAN: No, I mean we as the - you know, do you mention it? Do you not mention it? It's kind of the elephant in the room. Say how do you think - what do you think about the Cubs' chances this year, you know, and by the way, you're there in a wheelchair.

Mr. RUCKER: Yeah, well, that's why when you go to a mall, people come up and announce to you that you're in a wheelchair, as if you've forgotten it, you know?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. RUCKER: Hey, you're in a wheelchair. Hey, how's the weather down there? Hey, how'd it happen, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: And I guess that's the - a way of breaking through their discomfort. You don't really have to see the chair first, you know.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: The thing is what I find is if I'm out in public where the chair's very visible, right, people will often feel self-conscious. But the minute I pull in under a table, like at a dinner party or something, I'm just like anyone else, and they tend to forget about it. But I don't know, I just don't get the discomfort. Maybe I had the discomfort myself before I became paralyzed, but I don't, you know, I don't get - it's really - you can, you know, make a joke about it or say something about it and leave it at that.

CONAN: Hmm. Jim...

Mr. RUCKER: Can I...

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. RUCKER: There are 56 million disabled people in America. Stop and think about that figure. That's like one out of, what, six or seven or something like that? But you never see them. I mean they've done studies - the Screen Actors Guild did a study a couple of years ago where they found that .05 of all talking - speaking parts in film and television was a disabled actor, or a disabled character. Not just an actor, a disabled character.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: So they're kind of invisible to us, and I think that's a two-way street. Part of it is that people are uncomfortable around the disabled, and part of it is the disabled feel that people are uncomfortable around them so they tend to be shy, they tend to stay at home, you know? And that's, you know, that's criminal on both counts. So it's just - but I think it really is breaking down - you know, my analogy is that when I first became disabled and I went to social events, I felt like the only black guy at an all-white Kiwanis Club meeting. I was invited. Everybody wants to make me feel normal, but they're just nervous and they just want to talk about, you know, Mike Tyson or real Southern barbeque, as opposed to what I might want to talk about, you know?

CONAN: Hmm. Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. There are a number of things that normally might be awkward to ask you about, but I have license because you've written about them in your book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And one of them is dreams. Do you dream that you're in a wheelchair?

Mr. RUCKER: Never have seen a wheelchair in a dream. And I think this is a pretty common experience. Christopher Reeve said that, too. He said he never dreamed that he was, you know, paralyzed or in a wheelchair. Sometimes I walk funny in dreams, and I've even had dreams where I said, you know, I'm, you know, I'm running around this track with you, but this isn't really real, I'm actually paralyzed. So I've had conversations, but I have never seen a - I mean if you're going to dream - you make up your dreams, right? Why make up a dream where you're in a wheelchair, you know. You probably - it's not as fun as being ambulatory.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, sex?

Mr. RUCKER: Yeah, what about it?

CONAN: Having any?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: No. No, well, in my condition - I mean there a lot of disabled people whose - what do we call them - who function perfectly sexually, or function well. In my case, you know, I had to put that equipment on the shelf. But that doesn't mean that, you know, that I've lost any ardor for my wife or that we don't have our ways of being intimate, you know. I won't go into any more detail than that. I don't want to...

CONAN: And we thank you for that. The...

Mr. RUCKER: Nor do I want to use the word scrotum. It gets people in a lot of trouble.

CONAN: It does, yeah, especially on the radio.

Mr. RUCKER: Right.

CONAN: But I did want to ask, the way you write about it, your marriage was in some trouble before you got paralyzed, and in some ways, through all the anger and pain and frustration and the laughs, too, you came out stronger.

Mr. RUCKER: We were under a lot of stress. I mean I was a writer in Hollywood, kind of toward the end of the, you know, fourth quarter of my career. And I'd scratched and clawed my way to the middle of show business and hadn't made it much further and was overextended financially, and it was just a lot of pressure. I mean I'm a freelance writer. In this - it's probably the same as freelancer in any business. It's a really precarious kind of life. And we had probably come pretty close to the edge when I became paralyzed.

And you're right. A lot of anger and confusion came out of that, and it took us a couple of years to work through it. And as I'd like to say, if my wife and I hadn't already been married for 30 years, we might not have made it. But we had, you know, a kind of reservoir of feeling there that helped us get through this terribly difficult time, the first two years. And the marriage - it's funny. Among people in wheelchairs, or spinal cord injuries, the divorce rate is not very high because the majority of them are single men, you know, when they become paralyzed, when they get, by accident by and large, or sometimes by war...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: ...but the level of alcohol and drug use is way up and, you know, it's just...

CONAN: And that was my next awkward question. Did self-medication come into your can at any point?

Mr. RUCKER: Not really, not really. I knew that was an option. Even, you know - it's all - Dick Cheney say, it's all on the table, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUCKER: Heroin was an option, right? Anything. You can use, you know, paralysis for an excuse for anything. But I found that if I had more than two glasses of wine I started to lose my balance, and it's no fun to be at a dinner table, you know, a dinner party, and all of a sudden be underneath the table because you fell over because you had two and a half glasses of wine. So there's a built-in governor as far as I'm concerned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: Maybe not with younger guys, but with me who has poor balance, right?

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Rick. Rick's calling us Louisville, Kentucky.

RICK (Caller): Yes, I became disabled at 47 with a muscle disease, and I'm not in a wheelchair, but I have a great difficulty walking, and I have trouble standing up and, you know, I don't walk normal. And one of the things that I notice is that people don't make eye contact with me...

Mr. RUCKER: Right.

RICK: ...and I have real good story about that. I was taking my daughter swimming. She was on a swim team. And when we walked into the pool area, when I would look up, all the parents in the stands would immediately look to the side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICK: So I made a little game out of it. Every time I would walk in I would be looking at the ground and look up all of a sudden and it was like being in a tennis match where everybody's heads would turn to the left.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREG: And…

CONAN: That great scene in "Strangers on a Train" where everybody's watching the ball in the crowd except for one guy, Robert Wagner, who's watching his partner in crime. Anyway, I don't know why I brought that up. Anyway, go ahead.

Mr. RUCKER: No, it's a great reference.

GREG: One more quick story. My daughter also plays tennis and I used to play back before I, you know, became ill. And even though she's a good tennis player I always have other parents start explaining the rules of tennis to me. As if I'm an idiot and have never, you know, played and don't understand it. They just automatically assume that I know nothing about sports or how to play the games. And so it's really humorous. You know, I don't take it offensively, but it's pretty humorous.

CONAN: All right, Greg. Thanks very much.

GREG: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. And before you e-mail - I know, Robert Walker. It was Robert Walker not Wagner. Anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Leslie in Rochester, New York.

I was stricken with transverse myelitis on November 14, 2005. At 3:00 AM I fell down and have yet to stand up again. I was 52 and female and African American, which in our society seems to be a pile of challenges.

I'm still learning how to manage in a wheelchair. I live alone, lost my job because of my disability and hope to find some support in rehabbing my house. Meanwhile, I live far from home in another city in an accessible space.

This year has been hell. And I pray each day to walk again, that a fix is found.

You found yourself - there was a possibility in your initial diagnosis that you might be able to walk again and you really sort of assumed for a while that you would.

Mr. RUCKER: Oh, I absolutely assumed. Transverse myelitis is a very rare and often difficult to diagnosis ailment or disorder. But in many cases people after the initial - it's an inflammation of the spine caused either by a virus in your spine or at least your immune system thinking that there's a foreign element in your spine - buy many people recover after the initial inflammation dies off. Nerves have a way of, you know, reconnecting, etc.

In fact, two-thirds of the time people have some kind of recovery. So I figured, well, that's good. I'm healthy. You know, I was a runner. I'm in good shape. I'm sure to recover. And that first year of hope really was really what kept me - I think really what kept me going. And it wasn't until a year in that another doctor, not even my own neurologist, said, hey bud, you'll never walk again.

And that was a shock, but it was shock that came after a year of adjustment so it was very - you know, it was easier to - it was not easy to take, but I think it was easier to take.

Remember the book "Black Like Me" in the early '60s?

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. RUCKER: About a reporter who somehow, you know, added pigment to his skin so he could be like an African American and kind of see how they saw the world. I thought my title of my book was going to be "Paralyzed Like Me." Because I thought I was going to recover and then I could look back and see what it was like to, you know, be disabled from an ambulatory point of view. And I just never recovered. But that gave me kind of a perspective on it, though.

CONAN: You had a couple of other suggested titles for the book.

Mr. RUCKER: Well, my favorite, which the editors summarily dismissed, was "Farewell to Legs," "A Farewell to Legs." I thought that was perfect, you know. Had that little Hemmingway twist, but they didn't like that. And "Spinal Destination" was also…

CONAN: I like that one.

Mr. RUCKER: My kid came up with that one, "Spinal Destination." They said, nah, you never want to use the word spine in a book title. That's not good. People don't pick up books that have the word spine in them or death. Best is good. Having the word best is a good word.

CONAN: Free is probably good, too.

We're talking…

Mr. RUCKER: Free? Free is good.

CONAN: …with Allen Rucker. His book is actually titled "Best Seat in the House." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Sarah on the line. Sarah's calling us from Louisville, Kentucky.

SARAH (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SARAH: Mr. Rucker, I have a disabled sister. She was born with spina bifida. So I grew up in a household that was sensitive to disability, yet we strove to triumph over the limitations as often as possible.

And I've worked the last 14 years for an airline. And I often find myself in a position of not offering enough assistance, because I grew up in a home where most of the time my parents said, well, try to do it yourself first, before anyone else pitched in. So there is a little bit of disparity about when to give enough help.

I know most people that I know, growing up, that were disabled, would have preferred less help. But actually out there I think people - at least when they travel by air - wish that we had more to offer. And I just wondered what you thought of that. And I'll take my comments off the air, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Ok, Sarah. Thanks.

Mr. RUCKER: It is, you know, I guess it's hard for people sometimes to know whether to help. You can always ask, you know. And if you ask and, you know, usually people just say yes or no. yeah, I could use some help. Or, you know, the disabled will just say, you know, I'll need an aisle chair to get on an airplane.

It is amazing, though, in air travel how the people that are always helping you on the plane - because, Neal, you usually have to go from your chair to a little narrow chair called an aisle chair to get to the seat, right?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. RUCKER: They - every time it seems like this is the first time they've ever done it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: It really does. And I don't know. Maybe they cycle those people through or maybe they're not that many people in wheelchairs that travel. I don't know, but they always - it always seems like the first time.

But it is tricky, you know. But the best thing is just to ask. It's not going to - you know, can I help you. Again, you know, it may even be a little condescending or irritating to the disabled person, but it's, you know, it's an honest reaction.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Richard in Placerville, California.

My wife is quadriplegic as a result of 23 years of MS. We are not old, 47 and 50, and go to a lot of places and do just about anything that we can get her chair into. If people want to help us, open a door once in a while and stay the hell out of the handicapped bathroom stalls. You have a choice, we don't. And thanks for mentioning sex. My wife is still a knock out and I catch men eyeing her in public. Imagine how lucky I am to be going home with her.

Mr. RUCKER: That's a great attitude.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. RUCKER: Yeah. Open the door. Doors are good. That's good. Open the door. Please.

CONAN: And stay out of the handicapped stall.

Mr. RUCKER: And stay out of the handicapped stalls. "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the HBO show, had just a hysterical episode where Larry David, the character, kept arguing with the guy - I mean, a guy dressed him down about being in the handicapped stall. And then later on when the handicapped stall was full, he found this guy in a regular stall and, of course, he dressed him down. But it's a pretty common thing. It's all these little social cues. Basically the whole idea is that, you know, this is not my identity, Neal. Although we've spent, you know, a good time today talking about it, being disabled is not my identity. It's just something that happened to me. Anymore than a lot of other, you know, features in my life are my identity.

CONAN: Well, next time you come on, we'll ask you to tell Anthony Edward stories.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUCKER: Ok. Great.

CONAN: Allen Rucker was our guest. His new book is "The Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life." He joined us from NPR West.

When we come back from a short break, the debate over where to draw the line when it comes to language in children's books. 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.