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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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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