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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My View from the Balcony

If you think blind life is invisible, think again. Though I lack a view from my balcony, I think visually.  In my photography days, I created my world view by my choice of film. Kodachrome shouted red; Ektachrome whispered blue and green.  Kodachrome for pizzazz, Ektachrome for serenity.  Paul Simon loved his Kodachrome but was inspired by his sweet imagination.  These days, imagination is my film of choice.  

My balcony fronts the eastern sky and western shoreline.  Morning has barely broken when I hear the motorboat idling, fifty yards out, at ten o’clock.  The man in the boat calls, “Ready?” and the girl at nine o’clock replies,”Yup!”  The throttle powers full ahead.  He shouts, “Up…Up…There you go…Good…Good!”  The motor roars toward eleven o’clock.  “Hey!  Hey!” he hollers, gleeful as Jack Brickhouse calling a Cubs homer.”  Twelve o’clock.  “Oh…Oh…Uh-oh…Oh, my!”  The motor throttles down and circles back.  He calls, “What happened?  Did you let go?”  The motor idles.  Voices, his and hers, “Honey, you OK?  Wow, Daddy, that was fun but that was hard.  Honey, grab the rope handle.  Daddy, that was fun and I want to do it again.  I want to do it again, Daddy!”

Rewind a minute.  I see a ten-year old girl bobbing in the water.  Brave-faced girl with grimace.  Mouse brown hair in a pony tail.  Ski tips like shark fins pierce the surface.  Now the towrope is taut and her hands rise and now her arms are up and now she’s shedding the water.  And she leans forward and now she straightens and now she leans back just enough.  And now she’s water skiing for the first time in her life.  For the very first time, she’s moving across the water, she’s really moving now.  Day-Glo life vest over older brother’s T shirt over jet black tank suit.  Bent double like a jackknife, all knobby knees and bony elbows, skinny legs and broomstick arms. Each ski long as she is tall and wider than she is front to back.  Now one tip dips into a wave and, BAM! she wipes out and it’s a spill she’ll remember all day and all her life.  Now she’s bobbing again and waving to her Daddy and looking like she’s just had the biggest thrill in her life, which she has.

And she glances around at the wall-eyed fishermen hunched over thin poles and fat bobbers and she knows they neither notice nor care what all the fuss is about.  And then she spots me standing on the balcony, a balding guy older even than her Daddy.  She sees me and thinks she is seen by me.  She feels me focus in and knows I share this moment.  So she raises one tired, excited arm and she waves to me.  And I see that mouse brown hair dipped in blue-reflecting and green eternal water.  And I see that bright red smile adorn her sweet face.  So I raise one tired old arm and I wave right back to her. 

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In my strobe light, Stones concert days, I wore a Day-Glo T shirt that proclaimed, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.”  While this blinded rocker still cranks up the tunes, I find street noise as disorienting as a spotlight shone into sighted eyes.  A Siren, a diesel roar, a full-throated Harley stop me in my tracks, rudderless in sensory bankruptcy.  Noise pollution petrifies and terrorizes 

Sound is an instrument of torture.  Historically, good guys barrage enemies of the state with maddening silence or a discordant cacophony aimed at bringing miscreants to their knees.  The impact of Chinese Water Torture is, I suspect, amplified by its multisensory interface, its drip, drip, drip, monotone ad nauseum.  At Waco, back in ’93, ATF agents probably assaulted the fundamentalist Branch Davidians with high decibel “Highway to Hell” Before they accidentally-on-purpose rained fire and brimstone, transforming the Davidians’ mortal bodies into immortal souls.  And I have it on good authority that Dick Cheney serenaded Guantanamo Bay waterboarding victims with endless ultrasonic loops of “Surfin’ USA.” 

I rely on my ambient soundtrack the same way sighted folks use their rhythmic, ever-changing backdrop. Sound informs, calms and connects inside with outside.  Walking residential streets, I constantly monitor and adjust to footsteps, bicycles, children at play, mail carriers’ pushcarts, front yard dogs, occasional car engines. Inevitably, I encounter the Unholy Trinity: lawn mower, leaf blower, weed whacker.  Noise jams my sonar.  Will the grounds crew see me, hear me, mow me or whack me?  I run the gauntlet on high alert. Danger passed, I savor the silence as I step from the curb into the path of a hybrid.

Gunshots are too loud and scary; quiet is too quiet and ominous.  I seek moderation.  This goal is, I believe reasonable.  Or am I just being hard to please?

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Can you sing the song by Roy Orbison?  It goes:
A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night,
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper,
“Go to sleep, everything is all right.”

Unlike my wife, I am untroubled by insomnia.  Bedtime for me is sweet release.  No tossing and turning.  I could be marooned on the wreckage of my past and still sleep it off.  I might be frozen by fear of the future but sleep through it.  I attribute this ability to my highly developed defenses of denial and suppression. 

Not that I’m pathological.  Far from it.  I view bedtime as a break from blindness, a respite from clenched teeth and hypervigilance.  Eyes open or eyes closed, it’s all mellow.  I float in cushioned cotton, without fear of going bump in the night.  As long as I disturb no one by snoring, I feel my pleasure is harmless, my crimes are victimless.

I read in bed.  The best invention of the millennium is the sleep timer.  I have it on my NLS digital book player and my Victor Reader Stream.  I hit the fifteen-minute snooze button and, if I’m still awake when it runs out, I hit it again.  Back in the days of cassette books, just try to find your place the next morning.

However pleasant I find sleep, I find true joy in dreams.  Dreams are my primary source of visual entertainment.  Every night, a Technicolor triple feature!  Cruising in my ’69 red Camaro.  Trotting around an emerald green baseball diamond.   

I’ve read the first half of a book called The Psychology of Blindness.  It’s very interesting.  The second half is all about dreams.  I’m choosing to skip that part.  Too much information takes the fun out of things. 

Some experts say we dream all the time, except when we’re awake, we put a stop to it before it gets ridiculous.  Sometimes, when I’m sleepy, I’ll start thinking about one thing and finish the thought thinking about something else.  Like just now, I started thinking about dreams and ended up thinking about soup.  It was silly, just like a dream.  OK, time for bed.  

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Paying with Nickels

I have been given the opportunity to live two lives—one sighted, the other blind. Each holds the potential to be sublimely enriching and maddeningly soul-sucking. Neither contains a free pass to serenity. Each comes with some assembly required. Both have everything and nothing in common.

How, then, do I describe the space between? Which adjectives and adverbs lend distinction? I’ve heard blindness described as an inconvenience. Inconvenience is having your car in the shop. Inconvenience is running out of Buffalo wings on Super Bowl Sunday. I believe blindness cuts deeper.

In my blind life, I elevate frustration to an art form. How tiresome, how tedious when simple tasks become two times, five times, ten times longer to accomplish, if they can be done at all. If dawn brings opportunities to find new ways to do old things, by sunset, reinventing the wheel has turned exhausting. And in the darkest hour, I yearn for the simpler life.

But next morning, I’m out to prove that a job done well is its own reward, even when done well becomes just plain done. I remain solvent by paying myself by the job, not by the hour. I work within my limits and compete with no one. I value my effort as much as its result, not as measured by an efficiency expert.

My makeshift tool kit overflows with affirmations. I think I can. But not all clichés hit the mark. Slow but sure wins the race? That mantra tries my patience. I want to attain effortlessly, to window shop for this and that, to run errands. In life’s supermarket, I falter in the express lane. Where others whip out their Gold Master Card or peel a twenty from a thick roll, I pay with nickels.

[Jeff’s Note: The phrase “paying with nickels” is not my creation. It reached my ears via a third party. Whoever its author, I am grateful.]

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I Can’t Go On (I’ll Go On)

Whatever skills help me cope with blindness, I learned by being a baseball fan.  A White Sox fan, to be precise.  White Sox fans become strong, according to humorist Jean Shepherd, “because they have known death every day of their lives and it holds no terror for them.”

Back in ‘59, I listened to the White Sox lose the World Series. The voice on my transistor radio belonged to Bob Elson, nicknamed “Professor.” “Errors,” he said, “like runs and hits, are all part of the game.”  That reality, and my first reading of Casey at the Bat, molded my nine year-old soul.

Seasons pass.  The ’83 Sox almost won it all.  The 2005 Sox really did.  Between the two seasons, I lost my eyesight.  The 2013 Sox lost 99 games.  Worse, they gave up.  Losing is understandable; quitting is inexcusable.  As the 2014 White Sox take the field, Sox fans take leave of the lessons of history.  Last year’s failures are forgotten; resilience is renewed. 

Tonight, I listen to Ken Harrelson, nicknamed “Hawk,” on White Sox TV.  He expounds on perfecting the hit and run play, on avoiding that dreaded leadoff walk.   Hawk is spare with description; I fill in what I don’t see and what Hawk doesn’t say.  The Sox are two runs down in the bottom of the ninth.  I’m skeptical, but Hawk says we can come back, one batter at a time.

Hawk chronicles one pop out, one base hit, one walk, another hit, another walk or two, one ground out.  Bases loaded, two outs.  I’m still skeptical.  Then the crack of the bat and Hawk calls the grand slam.  Sox win!  Sox win!  Hawk is shouting, “These kids just won’t quit!”  And I listen and relearn my life lesson.  “These kids,” says Hawk, “just won’t quit!”  

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