Life Lesson #705

With grim determination, my wife pursues a master’s degree.  “I am totally intimidated by the Statistics course syllabus,” she tells me.  “I don’t know any of that stuff.”

“How could you know?” I reply.  “You haven’t taken the course yet.”

“But I can’t even understand what they’re telling me I’ll learn,” she says.  “I should have some inkling, some clue, based on my education in life.”

“Education in the life of statistics?” I say.  “I thought that was reserved for statisticians.”

“You’ve got something there,” she says.  “Thank you for reminding me about all the shame I carry.”

”Shame?” I say.  “My intent was not to dredge up shame.”

“Shame, the acronym for ‘Should Have Already Mastered Everything.’”

“Wait a minute!” I say.  “Tell that to me one more time, and slowly, please.”

“Shame.  The belief that I Should.  Have.  Already.  Mastered.  Everything.”

“You may not know it,” I say, “but you just summed up my entire approach to life.  This is huge.  Epic.  You know, I get down on myself for not doing this blindness thing better.  How could I know?  I had no experience with blindness until blindness became my experience.  But I figure I should know.  Innately.  Instinctually.  Somehow.  The hell with trial and error.  I want to know it all beforehand.”

“You’re learning,” says my wife.  “I see you struggle.  You know, Honey, blindness is not the most troublesome issue.  It’s the pride, the perfection, the pressure.  The shame, if you will.  I know this only because I know it in myself.”

“You are so right,” I say.  “That syllabus for the Blindness course just about sent me around the bend.  Thank you for the dose of perspective.  I can see clearly now, so to speak.”

“No charge,” says my wife.

“Heck,” I say, “even Randy had to learn how to be a guide dog, right?  And I’m a lot smarter than he is.”

Keep talking and maybe I’ll believe you,” says my wife.  “There’s wisdom in silence and, Honey, I’ve never heard Randy bark.”

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Point of View

I approach my Jalapeños in the Oatmeal blog from three points of view.  First, I am blind.  Second, I am a writer.  Third, I am a social worker.  These three points of view combine to form the “I” of my life and of my narrative.

I believe that writing is a therapeutic form of self-expression.  The process is cathartic and the product is concrete.  Transforming thoughts and feelings into words produces a sense of accomplishment, be it a private journal entry or a story for publication.  “I wrote this, in my own words, by my own hand, from my own heart.”

Sharing my message with others is the best way I help myself deal with vision loss. This narrator continues to evolve from victim to survivor, from being out of control to regaining the power of choice in life decisions. I find meaningful the words of a Holocaust survivor: “The survivors do not only need to survive so that they can tell their story, they need to tell their story in order to survive.”

Losing my eyesight has made me humble, it makes me right-sized.  Intellectual arrogance suggesting this social worker would simply slide through grief and loss was swept away by the emotional whirlpool of the blindness experience.  Learning denial firsthand was and remains a powerful and valuable life lesson.  Recognizing anger and depression, bargaining and acceptance as normal and necessary humanizes what was once only abstract.

I am asked, “Doesn’t writing about all this only make it hurt more?”  Not for me, but perhaps for you, the reader.  If you feel pain, write about it.  Writing helps me sort things out.  It’s calming and meditative.  It helps me collect my scattered thoughts and focus.  It’s often the first step to talking about things.  It’s how I connect with myself, with the people in my life and with you.  When you feel the crashing weight of blindness, when you feel unbearably alone and fearful, what else will do but to reach out and connect?

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They walk side by side, connected and separate. With one hand, he holds her elbow, with the other, his white cane.  She is a person he would trust with his soul.  She says, “Why do you pull back on my arm?  Don’t you trust me?”

He says, “Oh, I’m sorry.   I wasn’t aware.  I do trust you.  It’s just that, well, fear comes first, then trust.  Fear is an instinct; trust is learned.”

“But it feels like you don’t trust me.”

“Oh, I trust you all right,” he says.  It’s blindness I don’t trust.  Give me a white cane, give me a guide dog, I’ll get by.  But I still have fear.  I have fear because I can’t trust my eyesight anymore.  Call it a crisis of faith.”

“Trust is the triumph of faith over fear,” she says.

They walk on.  He pulls even with her, to show trust.

“I don’t like to say this, but I see you, when you’re alone, walking with your cane, you’ve got your head bowed and your shoulders hunched and your face all scrunched up. You look like a gnarly old man.”  When he doesn’t respond, she says, “Oh, Honey, it’s not your fault.  I just wonder why.”

She looks at him closely; he looks far away.  Then he says, “I don’t like to say this, but you just don’t know, you may never know.  And I don’t blame you for not knowing. I didn’t know until I knew.  Now I can’t forget.”

They melt into shadows; they shine under street lamps.  She draws her elbow, the one with his hand, closer to her body.  He feels her warmth, her fear, her faith.  “Let’s consider this a practice run,” she says.

“And work on style points next time?” he says, glancing at her.

They turn the corner.  “More than style,” she says, “it’s faith and trust.”  She guides them toward that one bright light he cannot see but which, for both of them, means home.

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Show and Tell

To celebrate International White Cane Day, I am taking my big black dog to school.  I carry a headful of sage stories and a lunch box full of adaptive gizmos.  And while fourth-graders listen politely to my considered wisdom, they drool over Randy and clamor for techno Show and Tell.

The color identifier gets oohs and aahs and sure beats last year’s disappointment at a school with a student dress code of white tops with black slacks.  Today’s bunch wears the spectrum.  One girl asks, “How many colors can it tell?”  I pause, then say, “Eleven,” hoping the teacher won’t say, “Prove it.”

The iPhone draws yawns (I mean, who hasn’t seen an iPhone by now?) until I snap a photo of Randy using the TapTapSee app and the phone says, “Black Lab service dog.”  I swear three kids fall out of their chairs when they hear that.  The Victor Reader Stream dazzles the crowd with its versatility. The Pen Friend appeals to the students’ practical side.

I describe white canes, paratransit and braille.  I talk about coping with blindness, about feeling different, about sadness and loss and acceptance.  Then a girl asks if I have a vision in my mind of what things look like.  So I envision sailboats on Lake Michigan and I describe the whole scene to her.

I tell them all about Randy and show how he works as a Seeing Eye dog.  Then I take off Randy’s harness and invite the kids to pet him. One by one, they say howdy, while Randy wags his tail and gets in a lick or two.  And the last kid in line is a little shy, so the teacher says “OK, Conrad, pat his head,” and Conrad says, “OK,” then pats my head.

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Provocative Phrases

Recent difficulties with iOS 8 heighten my suspicion of the term “accessible.”  Ditto for anything claiming to be “user friendly.”  When this user requires sighted assistance, the object is neither accessible nor friendly.

The phrases “accessible” and “user friendly” are provocative.  They provoke a reaction beyond their brevity.  I eat my “100% Natural” granola believing I am in harmony with the Universal Life Force. But “Some Assembly Required” conjures visions of bloodied knuckles and sadistic screwdrivers.

Provocative phrases are welcoming.  “All Aboard!” promises adventure.  And when Shania Twain warbles, “Come on over,” I eagerly hop the fence.

Provocative phrases can keep us apart.  “No Vacancy” means no rest for the weary.  “This seat’s taken,” kept young Forrest Gump alone and lonely on his school bus.

Provocative phrases imply deeper meaning.  While “I have a headache” can kill a buzz, “We need to talk” can stop a heartbeat.

Provocative phrases serve as early warning signals.  The jittery client who opens with, “I’ve stopped taking my meds,” sends my social work antennae to vibrating.  Same goes for the recovering alcoholic who announces, “I’ve quit going to meetings.”  Danger, danger.

Provocative phrases mobilize defenses.  “Please step away from the vehicle,” means keep your mouth shut and call a lawyer.    “You what?” and “what were you thinking?” prove that your goose is cooked and any defense is futile.

Provocative phrases suggest a course of action.  If your boss says she is “cautiously optimistic,” update your resume.

Provocative phrases are an evasive tactic.  When your teenager sums up his movements with “Here and there, out and about, this and that,” do not reply with, “When I was your age…”  Rather, say “Been there, done that,” and search his room for contraband.

Provocative phrases condense verbosity.  “Needless to say” and “To make a long story short” intend to conserve time and salvage brevity.  Usually they accomplish neither.

Time for me to hold my breath until I’m blue in the face for that new and improved update of iOS 8, the “accessible” and “user friendly” one.  Provocative phrases, against all odds, keep the faith in suckers like me.

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They call each other Al and Bert, these old men I know.  Al sold cars, Bert sold insurance.  On Wednesday nights, they went bowling; on Saturday mornings, they went fishing.  They bonded, as men will—doing for, not doing with.

Al and Bert were family men before the kids scattered, before Harriet got the cancer and Dottie just dwindled away. Now, Al and Bert live next door at Independence Village.

They prowl the aisles at the Kroger store, resolute and clueless.  Al, bent by “Arthur itis,” steers the grocery cart.  Bert, lost in the blind spots of “macular,” pushes and follows.

“You’re pushing too hard, Bert.”

“I didn’t think I was pushing at all, Al.”

“Reach up there, Bert, and grab a box of Cheerios.  No, not there.  Over there.”

“”Al, you gotta not say ‘over there.’  I got no clue where ‘over there’ is anymore.  You gotta say ‘up, down, left, right.’”

“Left then,” says Al.  “No, I mean your other left.  A little more.  Little more.  Up now.  There you go.”

“Got it,” says Bert.  “Big yellow box.  I remember the big yellow box.”

“What’s next on your list there, Bert?”

“Here, you read it.  I left my glasses at the home.”

“It’s not the glasses you’re needing, Bert.  You’re blind as a bat.”

“Am not.”

“Are too,” says Al.  “And this list.  You got us back and forth all over the store.”

“I thought a list would help, Al.  I was only trying to help.”

“But it’s got to be organized.  Like an assembly line.  I’m only trying to help here too, Bert.”

“Well, Al, you’re helping too much!”

“And you, Bert, you’re helping too little!”

They shuffle down the breakfast aisle, childish and childlike.  “Jeez, Bert, I’ve never seen so damn many cereal boxes.  Used to be Grape Nuts was all you needed to get started in the morning.”

“Times change, Al, so I guess we oughta change too.  Seeing as how it’s gonna take two of us, you be the hunter Al, ‘cuz you can see things, and I’ll be the gatherer ‘cuz I can reach them.”

“You’re on, Bert.  What’s next on your list here?  Eggs.  I’ll find them and you gather them.  Cheese and milk are over with the eggs.”

“And chicken fingers, Al.  Over with the eggs.”

“Chickens got no fingers, Bert.  And you’re getting us off track again.  We got to follow the system here.”

“I got the system, Al.  Ice cream’s gotta be alongside milk.”

“Jeez, Bert, you’re a big help.  Now reach over there and gather that carton of eggs.  No, not that one, the one over there.”

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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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