Descriptive Football

It’s Opening Day and I’m up for the kickoff.  I pull on my#87 Bears jersey and warm up with a bucket of buffalo wings.  I belt out the Star Spangled Banner, win the coin toss and elect to receive.

It’s Opening Day and I’m wired.  I tune my TV remote to Fox Sports with the NFL Red Zone on the flip, zap a full charge into my iPhone and pop fresh batteries into my Walkman.

“Here’s the kickoff…And they’ll start at the 34,” is all the TV man says.  Then he says, “Let’s look at the Bears offense,” and each player mumbles or sneers his name and his school into the camera.  Back to the action.  I picture, but can’t see, the ribbon across the TV screen that shows the vital signs: score, possession arrow, game clock, down and distance.  These stats remain unspoken in TV land.  Rather, the play-by-play man, his sidekick and the sideline lady banter about this and that and Roger Goodell and Ray Rice. Meanwhile, the game streams past, unadorned save for the crowd noise which I interpret to mean either good news or bad news for the Bears.

Beer commercial.  I flip to the Red Zone.  One team has the ball at the other’s twenty and throws an incomplete pass and so the clock stops so they go to another game where another team has the ball at yet another team’s ten and they call a time out to think about things.

Back to the Bears.  Someone is running into the end zone with the ball. TD pass?  Interception?  The extra point is good and one team leads the other by seven.  No one says who leads whom.  They cut to a Chevy commercial.

I hit the mute on the remote, tune my Walkman to Bears radio, unlock my iPhone and pepper Siri with football questions.  Freed from my TV tether, I blitz, I fake, I run to daylight.  I race from one end of the radio dial to the other.  This Bears fan, like his team, is resourceful.  When the ground game falls short, try passing the ball.  Put old #87 into the game.  He’s flexible, he’s eager and he’s wired.

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I Don’t Want to Be Blind Today

I don’t want to be blind when it means being conspicuous.  I don’t want attention for what’s different about me.  I don’t want passers-by holding their breath as I cross the street.  Today, I want to blend in with the crowd, to be one of the guys.

I don’t want to be blind when it means being tended to.  If you insist on telling me I don’t look blind or act blind, then stop treating me like I’m helpless.  I don’t want Sunday dinner becoming a hot mess of what I can eat gracefully or who will read me the menu.  I don’t want the guilt of you taking on my anxiety and then not knowing how to handle it.

I don’t want to be blind when it means being patronized.  I don’t want to hear how tough it must be or how intelligent my dog must be.  I don’t want you to assume you know the best and only way for a blind person to pass through a doorway.  I want to appreciate your offer of assistance, not resent it.

I don’t want to be blind when it means being thought heroic.  I don’t want to be congratulated when I tie my shoe or Google Lady Gaga.  I want to be given responsibilities like any other person and I don’t want to be graded on the curve.

I don’t want to be blind when it means being pitied.  I get plenty from me; I don’t need any from you.  If I get doused by the summer shower because I can’t tell which of the six glass panels is the door to the greengrocer, then don’t conclude that I alone walk under a dark cloud, that no one else gets wet when it rains.

I don’t want to be blind when it means that today’s bottom line is who pissed me off and why.  I don’t want to blame it all on the other guy.  I want to tally my part in each transaction.  I don’t want my own shame and anger to rule the day.  I want to foster acceptance.  I know where serenity lies, in the place of knowing I am powerful, creative, loving, optimistic, inclusive, harmonious and deserving.  I am fully human and choose to see myself and all others in this way.

Knowing all this, having said all that, today proved too much for me.  Blindness is customary, but today the usual overwhelmed me.  So lead me to my bed.  I surrender not as victim but survivor.  Tomorrow I rise to the challenge, renewed, optimistic and energetic.  But for today, I don’t want to be blind.

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A Note of Gratitude

After twenty years of swimming against the tide of blindness, I washed up on the doorstep of the Guild for the Blind.  Their newsletter had announced, “Support Group Forming,” and, true to my penchant for denial, I had said, “I don’t need that.”  “But maybe, just maybe, I can help someone else, someone new to the struggle.”

Turning points are revealed with hindsight.  And joining that support group was a turning point, the point where I learned that helping others was the best way to help myself.  The Guild for the Blind has become Second Sense.  Its full name is Second Sense: Beyond Vision Loss.  Getting beyond vision loss is a hurdle.  I joined the race at Second Sense, when I got out of isolation and into the flow of recovery, learning to live with a life-altering trauma.

What I’ve found and learned at Second Sense has bolstered my self-respect, my self-esteem, my self-knowledge and every other positive self-whatever I carry around.  Second Sense met me where I was—a guy with problems—and helped me feel normal, helped me feel that problems are part and parcel of vision loss.  I found support, understanding and acceptance and I find these qualities to this day.

Second Sense, by any name, has been led for thirteen years by David Tabak.  Now, David is moving on to other challenges.  To me, David set the tone of Second Sense – quirky, energetic, funny and ever-hopeful.  David understands what helps people with low vision; in common parlance, he gets it.  Wherever his new ventures take him and whomever is touched by his spirit will be the better for it.

It’s coming up on four years since David invited me to contribute to the cause by writing the blog that is “Jalapenos in the Oatmeal: Digesting Vision Loss.”  Thank you, David, for the chance to tell my story and to feel how vision transcends eyesight.


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The Sound of Silence

The first time I listened to Beethoven’s Fifth, my father said, “Listen for the silence.  It says as much as the sound.”  It was thus, as a ten-year-old, I listened to our young President say, “Let the word go forth, from this time and place, that the torch has been passed, to a new generation of Americans, born in this century…”  I heard short musical and lyrical phrases, each followed by a profound pause, to emphasize the message, to let the meaning sink in.

Silence speaks volumes.  It tells me when it’s safe to cross a busy street.  It tells me the rain has stopped.  It means safety or signals peril.  “It’s quiet,” said Butch Cassidy.  “Maybe too quiet,” replied the Sundance Kid.  Then there was the curious case of the dog in the night time whom, simply by doing nothing and remaining silent, Sherlock Holmes found most curious.

Blindness has subtracted my primary source of information.  Yet, only without it have I come to realize how the visual kaleidoscope distracted from the essence of the scene.  Bright, shiny objects prevented clarity.  I find that voices reveal as much as faces, as fidgeting fingers or averted eyes.  Clarity for me is now found in the interplay of silence and speech, the rate, the tone, the tenor of the voice that confirms or betrays the happy face, the sunny conversation, the spotless presentation.  Eyesight may be gone, but my ear for congruence and dissonance is fine-tuned.

The validity of auditory learning is borne out in the example of the trial lawyer who derails expert witnesses by listening for the nuances of speech and voice, for unintended but revealing pauses indicating uncertainty and doubt.  This true-life trial lawyer is sighted, yet he relies on sound and silence as hard evidence.  Similarly, my therapist friend chooses telephone counseling sessions over Skype for distant clients because she finds the visual novelty of Skype distracts from the process. .

Through necessity, I have become an auditory learner.  At first, I felt very disadvantaged.  Learning was more challenging, more difficult.  But I am comfortable in both process and results.  Sure, I’d like to see, in a millisecond glance, if that loose dog looks friendly or menacing.  But I haven’t been bit (pregnant pause) yet.  I’m playing the hand I was dealt.  This hand isn’t a winner all the time, but at least I’m staying in the game.

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The Payoff

This story has a back story.  In the last Jalapenos blog, called “Learning the Hard Way,” I cited Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell says that compensation learning, that is, learning despite a difficulty, is more powerful than learning which comes easily.  Compensation learning requires people to use more resources, process more deeply and think more carefully to solve a problem.  “The Payoff” is my attempt to connect practical benefits of compensation learning with intrinsic qualities like acceptance and purpose.

To illustrate learning difficulties, Gladwell chose people with dyslexia. Contrary to assumption, dyslexics do not perceive the word cat as being spelled t a c. Rather, for dyslexics, somewhere along the process of see it, recognize it, attach a name to it and  say it, the links  between the four steps break down. For people with vision loss, the breakdown in the process occurs at step one.  People with dyslexia or low vision utilize compensation learning to attempt to bring clarity out of confusion.

Compensation learning is really hard.  It is not fun, but it has a huge payoff.  First, I have to make the choice to interact with the world, to engage and risk, rather than withdraw and isolate.  The process requires me to confront my limitations.  It requires that I overcome my insecurities.  It requires that I focus hard enough to memorize and then have the panache to take my act to center stage. If I can pull all this off, I gain release from the tyranny of an ego that says anything short of perfection is shameful.  I feel less burdened, self-conscious, self-pitying and hyper-vigilant.  Gladwell quotes one dyslexic: “My upbringing allowed me to become comfortable with failure…[I] look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside because I’m accustomed to the downside.  It doesn’t faze me.”

During long spells in the downside, I have tried many tactics at coping with vision loss.  Most have been  tainted by the nagging suspicion that all I was doing was trying to think my way into feeling OK.  Thinking I’m OK doesn’t make me feel OK.  Trying to convince myself rings as hollow as a rationalization.  Inventing reasons to accept the unacceptable is like putting lipstick on a pig.

What appeals to me about Gladwell’s model is that I can name and claim benefits I was unaware I was accruing.  I can operationalize that, because vision loss has led to compensation learning, I have increased my skills in listening, memory and conceptualizing.  I feel less fear of failure.  I feel I am getting the hang of living life on life’s terms, that I may even be sneaking toward humility, gratitude and happiness.

[Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,  2013 (Hachette Audio through NLS, DB 77646, read by the author), especially Chapter 4]

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Learning the Hard Way

Blindness made everything harder except hitting my thumb with  a hammer.  Nothing came easy.  Tasks I used to skate through were now frustrating and burdensome.  This steepening learning curve seemed inevitable and unredeemable.  In every way, blindness took on the mantle of disadvantage.  Then I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Theory on Desirable Difficulties and  had a 100-watt epiphany.

Start with the day a researcher posed three story problems to Princeton University undergraduates. The problems were tough and the students scored 1.9 out of a possible 3.0 correct.  The researcher then submitted to another group the same three questions written in a very difficult to read font.  One might expect the scores to decrease because the task was more difficult.  In fact, the scores increased significantly, to 2.5 correct out of three.  The researcher concluded that a difficult presentation “causes people to think more deeply about whatever they come across.  They’ll use more resources on it.  They’ll process more deeply or think more carefully about what’s going on.”

Can you see how huge this concept is for blind people?  With blindness making life harder, I have had to learn to compensate for something that was taken away from me.  Whether in spite of (as if by sheer will) or because of my disability, I have learned things in this struggle which prove to be of enormous advantage.

I have become a good listener.  Listening requires that I sit still and attend to the present moment.  Listening is the primary way I learn.

I have practiced to develop a better memory.  I focus on what people say, the words they use.  I concentrate.  I commit things to memory.  Memorization and recall are learnable skills.

I learn from my remaining senses how to construct a model of my environment richer in detail than the impressions of a casual observer.  I benefit whether what I’ve learned serves me by knowing how to cross a busy intersection or reconstruct a scene in a story.

This method of learning, what Gladwell calls “compensation learning” I find exhausting.  More time, more effort, more frustration.  But I am better off for making the effort, taking the risks.  Gladwell concludes that, “What is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than learning that comes easily.”  And easy it is not.  But, what choice is there, really?

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Duck Pond

Randy leads me along the shoreline, stealing glances at the poodle in the surf. “I’d rather be swimming with Coco,” he says in that voice only I can hear.

And I say to him, “I know you do, my big black Lab with webbed feet. To swim is to be Randy.”

We stroll the gravel path, me telling him how I can’t let him swim in the lake because I can’t see him and couldn’t help him if he got into trouble. And Randy replies that he understands all the special responsibilities he has as a Seeing eye dog.

That’s when George and his English bulldog, Louie, pass us on the path. George and I exchange a quick dog story while Louie and Randy exchange a quick sniff. George says he’s taking Louie to the duck pond, where Louie loves to romp leashless and swim in the pond.

Not five steps farther down the path, I start kicking myself for not asking George if Randy and I could come along to the duck pond. It’s not that I get tongue-tied or can’t think on my feet. It’s that, when given the opportunity to connect, to engage with another person, my default is, “No, thanks anyway.” By doing this, I turn blindness into an even more isolating experience. I tell Randy how miserable and guilty I feel.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, says Randy. “You know, blindness isn’t the toughest part of this life. Sometimes, it’s harder to know what you need and to ask for a hand.”

We stop and gaze out over the water. “Say, Randy,” I begin, “How’d you get so wise?”

“I learn something new every day,” he replies. “A few years back, I didn’t know much. There’s hope for you yet. So, what’s our next move here?”

“How about we turn around and catch up with George and Louie?” I say.

“Attaboy,” says Randy, and off we go.

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