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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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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