What’s Happening When It Isn’t

Here comes that blind guy with his guide dog and already I’m getting uptight.  I mean, I don’t know how to act around these special needs people.  Some put signs on their dogs—“I’m working.  Don’t feed me.  Don’t pet me. Don’t distract me.”  Jeez, can’t I even look?  Hey, I’m curious about blind people, how they do the stuff they do.  And that goes double for their dogs.

I’ll just sidle off the sidewalk and see how these two handle things.  I’ll be quiet and stand still so the blind guy won’t notice me.  Of course he won’t notice me—he’s blind.  But what about his dog?  And what about my dog, my dog Fido?  Fido’s friendly—he only chases squirrels.  But he’s got a mouth on him.

Here they come.  The blind guy’s big black dog is leaning toward Fido, strutting his stuff a little. And Fido doesn’t say a word but the blind guy says to his dog, “Randy, do you see a friend?”  So the blind guy must know about Fido just from Randy’s what, body language?  That’s pretty impressive teamwork, if you ask me.  Now the blind guy says, “Randy, leave it” like that’s the code word for the dog to forget about Fido.  But Randy’s still curious, though he tries not to be obvious.  He’s walking forward but he’s looking sideways.

Now the blind guy’s staring right at me and I think, “What do I do about this?”  Do I say something, let him know I’m here and that I’ve got Fido and that Fido’s friendly and we’ll let him and Randy pass?  But I think he knows all that already.  And while I’m thinking, the blind guy says, “Good morning,” right to me.  He looks down and says, “Nice dog you’ve got there.”

And all this freaks me out because I figure he’s blind, he’s not going to know I’m here or my dog’s here and nobody’ll be the wiser.  But Randy blows my cover and he tells the blind guy. And the blind guy talks like he knows all about what’s out there that he can’t see, like that I’m carrying my cup of coffee and that I take cream and two sugars.

So the two of them go on down the street as Fido and I stare after them, speechless.  Next time, I’ll introduce myself and Fido.  I won’t pet or feed or distract Randy.  I’ll ask if I can ask a question or two because now I’m even more curious about him and Randy.  One thing’s for sure—they sure seem to know a lot about Fido and me.

Posted in Blindness, Guide Dogs | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

…And I’m Blind

When the weed patch next door reached knee-high, I rapped on my neighbor’s front door. “You’ve got to do something,” I told him.  He mumbled lame excuses about his lawn mower, his work hours, his wife and kids.  I quoted city codes and cited civic duty.  I appealed to his sense of pride.  I finished with, “I keep up my yard,” and then, after a pause, “…and I’m blind.”

Had I really said that?  Yes, and I was mortified.  I had played blindness as my trump card—out of spite, with intent to injure.  I felt mortified, yes, but justified as well because, damn it, things are harder blind than sighted.  I’ve been both and I know.  With blindness, I’ve had to learn new ways to do old things.  New ways require more time, effort and planning—if they’re doable at all.

But don’t call me superman because I water the flowers and cut the grass.  I no more want to use blindness as a boast when I do one thing than use it as an excuse not to do something else.  I neither wish to hear my neighbors say, “He keeps things tidy—for a blind man” nor, “No wonder things have gone to pot —the poor man’s blind.”  I simply choose to put forth the time and effort.  To me, it’s just the right thing to do.

I hope my “gotcha” didn’t cause my neighbor lasting harm.  I suspect it was a product of anger, self-pity and my need to feel superior.  This I own. But I like to think I was also stating a fact: I am blind and blindness takes extra.  And it’s OK to give myself a little credit.   This may be a rationalization and maybe I owe him an apology.  Maybe I don’t.  I’ll mull that over.  Meanwhile, I just want him to cut his weeds.

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Batter Up!

Pennant fever has hit Chicago but it’s snowballs that fly high and hard. April Fools Day and, no joke, I’m shoveling the basepaths. I sweep snow from my front porch—the umpire dusting off home plate.  I chip ice from my front steps—the slugger knocking mud from my cleats. I pull my stocking cap over my ears—the better to hear, through noise-canceling earbuds, the book, Baseball: A Literary Anthology.”

Ballplayers and spectators from my book become my neighborhood home team.  The female fan with the voice of a pig caller is Martha shouting for her boy to scrape ice from her windshield.  The awkward and earnest batboy is Chuck’s kid fetching the snow shovel for his dad.  The Cubs fan bent under a century of hardship is all of us contending with this unforgiving climate.

My neighborhood players are caricatures drawn by the book’s writers: witty James Thurber, gritty Nelson Algren and prosaic John Updike, Poets Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore translate lyricism from the game to the spoken word to my team.  Even cigar-puffing sportswriters exhale eloquence.

While some assert that sports is a waste of time and baseball is the dullest sport of all, I find that whatever evokes beautiful writing possesses inherent drama and value.  The beauty I hear is writers describing the view, the scene, the blue, the green. For me, the visual game faded decades ago.  Now, I see when I hear how marshmallow bases dot the milk chocolate infield, how cumulus clouds race eastward over sailboats on Lake Michigan.

With winter’s snowy reprise, baseball seems a season away.  But under today’s white carpet lies tomorrow’s green field.   I’ll be ready with my low tech transistor radio tuned to WLS and WSCR. Until that day, I’ll learn from my anthology how baseball proves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” as John Updike recounts the nine inning finale between the prideful Ted Williams’s and the Fenway fans who loved and hated their Hall of Famer.


[Baseball: A Literary Anthology, edited by Nicholas Dawidoff, is an audio book available from NLS, catalog number DB 55681]

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I Need To Learn Braille Better

We get on the elevator, Sherlock and me.  Sherlock is my guide dog.  We’re at the third floor of five.  We want to go down to the first floor.  The door slides shut.  Nothing happens.  I press the bottom button.  The door slides open.

“I need to learn Braille better,” I tell Sherlock.

I run my fingertips along the wall.  I think I find the Braille for number 1.  I press the button next to it.  The elevator goes up.

“I need to learn Braille better,” I tell Sherlock.

I stand tall and the buttons sit low.  It’s hard to read Braille with my finger upside down, so I drop to all fours.  Sherlock thinks it’s playtime.  He puts his elbows on my back and stands on his hind legs.  Then, God bless him, he begins to hump me.  He has assumed the Southwestern Sidewinder position.  While I’m thinking how I need to learn Braille better, I say to Sherlock, “Get off my back.”

The elevator stops and the door opens.  A woman gasps.  I crawl forward.  She steps backward.  I ask, “Can you help me?”  I hear her heels run away from me, down the hallway.  The door closes.  Sherlock dismounts

I press another button.  The alarm sounds.  I press the button above that one.  The elevator goes down.  “This is security,” booms a big voice from a small speaker.    “What is your problem?” I scramble to my feet, stand tall, remain mute and pat Sherlock’s head.

The door opens.  We’re at the first floor.  I command, “Sherlock, forward!”  The crowd parts.  We stride across the marble floor.  We project nonchalance.  I can tell what the people are thinking.  They’re thinking, “Look at that self-assured blind man and his well-trained guide dog.”

“This is security.”  That voice again.  We keep walking.  The voice gets far away.  “What is your problem?”

“Problem?” I ask Sherlock.  “What problem?  I just need to learn Braille better, that’s all.”


[NOTE:  Sherlock was Jeff’s Seeing Eye dog from 2003 to 2010.  A version of this story was published in Kaleidoscope magazine in 2012.  Used with permission.]



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The Blind Poet Speaks

“Poetry is indispensable — if I only knew what for.” – Jean Cocteau

Poetry intimidates me.  I simply don’t get it.  This makes me feel stupid.  I don’t need poetry to make me feel stupid.  I can do that on my own.

Maybe I’m jealous of poets for being able to pack a wallop in twenty-five words or less.  I try to write blogs like that—lean and strong.  Novelist Nicholson Baker said he “learned to write prose by reading poetry.”  I can learn from that.

I’ll start by writing a haiku.  Even a third-grader can write a haiku, so I’m in good company:

Waterfowl gather
Snowy Egret, roseate spoonbill

This is fun.  Here’s another one about birds and being blind:

Scarlet tanager
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Which is which?

On to something more complex in poetic form—the limerick.  After 37 drafts, I finally wrote one without using Nantucket as the rhyming word:

There once was a model from Boulder
Whose eyes failed as she grew older.
She used a color ID
To tell blue skirts from green.
“You look swell,” is what everyone told her.

I think I’m hitting my poetry writing target—somewhere between seventeen syllables and John Milton.

Perhaps you find my poetry concrete and shallow.  I know I do.  But Ezra Pound wrote that poetry is first of all obliged to make sense—because if it doesn’t, no one  will read it.  And, if no one reads it, it might as well not be written.  So there.

Still, I want to decorate my poems with images and metaphors and simultaneous resonance and dissonance.  Haiku and limerick mastered, I turn to melding Zen Kōan with Shakespeare sonnets:

How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways
On the fingers of
One hand clapping.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Calling Mary (A Valentine Story)

November, 2004

“Come on, man, call her,” Sloan says.  “She’s single, slender, no kids, good job, condo on the lake.”  He ticks off her attributes like options on a Mercedes.  Compared to her features, I feel like a used Plymouth.  “You know she’d love to hear from you.  My boyfriend’s back and all that.”  Sloan regards me.  It’s your move, man.”

Two weeks later, I still haven’t moved.  Oh, I’ve written my script, highlighted my talking points. Even so, I’m hoping for voice mail because improv terrifies me. The dial tone drones on. Stay cool, No big deal.  Like it’s every day I call my high school sweetheart after thirty years.  Keep the conversation light, accentuate the positive, then just slip in that her prom date is now blind.  What’s the worst she could say—“I don’t date blind guys?”  Nah, she’ll be open-minded, curious in a scientific way.  She majored in biology, after all.  She won’t get all dramatic like if she’d become a poet.  Or ask a lot of feeling questions like a social worker.

I punch the buttons.  Four rings, then a click.  New age music, like at the dentist’s.  Beep.  What, no greeting?

“Uh, um.  This call is for Mary.  Mary, this is Jeff.  Yes, junior prom Jeff.”  My throat is closing.  “I know it’s been a long time.  I’ve recently moved back to Rockford and I hear you’ve been back for reunions.  Next time you’re in town, I’m wondering if, if we could get together, well, for lunch or something?”  Where’s my script?  “I know this may be a surprise.  So, when you pick yourself up off the floor, I hope you’ll give me a call.”  Good ad lib.  Now, wrap it up.  “My number is 815…”

“Hello, Jeff.”  That voice—warm, subtle and so familiar.  That voice leaves me speechless.  “When I heard it was you, I started chuckling.  Not sure why.”

“Chuckling’s better than cursing,” I say.

“When the phone rang, I was playing with my dog,” says Mary.  “My dog’s name is Keeper.  I’ve heard about your dog, Sherlock.  Sloan told me about him a year ago, when you trained with him.”

“Oh, so you know,” I say.  “About my eyes, I mean, because you know about Sherlock.”

“Yes,” says Mary, “and I think it’s wonderful.”

“You think what’s wonderful?”

“You’ll see, Jeff.  Keeper is a special dog, too.  He fills my heart with love.”

“That is, well, wonderful,” I say.

“Yes, it is.  I adopted Keeper from Boxer rescue the same time you got Sherlock.  Keeper and I go for walks.  By walking with him, I have regained my strength.  I had breast cancer and I had a lumpectomy and chemo and radiation last year.  I got pretty weak.  But I’m stronger now.”

“Jeez,” I say.  This part about Mary having cancer isn’t in my script



“You OK?”

“I guess so.  I can’t believe you had cancer.”

“Neither could I,” she says, and chuckles.  “At least for a while.  It wasn’t the end of the world, though at first, I thought it was.  Still, it was a rough stretch.  A year before the cancer, my dad died.  I loved my dad.  He took me sailing every Sunday.  I miss him.”

And I thought bad stuff only happened to me.  “I remember your dad,” I say.  “He looked like Dennis Mitchell’s father.  You know, Dennis the Menace.”  What am I saying?  “I’m sorry about your dad, Mary.  I recall him as a kind man.”

“He was that.  And he looked like Dennis Mitchell’s father.  You have a good memory.”

“I remember all sorts of things.  I remember your Standard Poodle named Coco.  He liked to play in the water with us.”

“You’re amazing.”

“I remember riding with you in my first car, the red Camaro. I remember the party you had senior year when your parents were out of town.  I remember you were Junior Class treasurer. I remember what I wrote in your sophomore yearbook.  I remember your integrity.  I remember everything.”

“We’ve missed you at the reunions,” says Mary.  “They’ve been fun.”

“Well, I moved pretty far away, then I got self-conscious about losing my hair, then I got self-conscious about losing my eyesight.  It’s all silly, I know.  I’ve got a lot of growing up to do.”

After a pause, Mary says, “I’d like to see you next time I come to Rockford.  We can go for coffee.”

Coffee?  I hate the taste and caffeine makes my skin crawl.  ” Sounds great,” I tell Mary.

We set a date and say goodbye.  I hang up the phone and shake my head.  Mary sounds serene, like she’s absorbed the ultimate lesson in life.  I sound woeful and self-pitying.  Mary must think I’m an idiot—and she’s right

That night, I dream I am driving my red Camaro with Mary beside me.  I see the highway for miles ahead.  Mary wears a white summer sweater.  She does not have breast cancer.  We are driving to the lake.  Mary’s dad gave us gas money.  Coco the dog rides in the back seat.  He holds his favorite beach toy in his mouth.  He’s drooling.

Two weeks later, at the appointed hour, I step outside to await Mary.  I am thinking about how she has bounced back from cancer and her father’s death.  I want to be out front when she arrives, standing tall.

Through the dark, I make out her headlights drawing even with me.  Then her car door opens and I hear her dog skitter toward me and I hear my dog spring toward her and I shout, “Keeper!” and Mary shouts, “Sherlock!”

“Mary, you look like you’re sixteen years old,” I call to her, for that’s how I remember her, even though now she just blends into the dark night.

And Mary calls, “You’ve got hair,” and it’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.  And then Mary yells, “And so do I,” and I celebrate being a survivor right along with her.

We laugh and I love the sound of it.  We hug and I love the feel of it.  And Mary tells me the dogs are leaping and dancing in the moonlight.  And I hear them panting and blowing like new old friends and it’s the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.

Mary kisses my cheek and her frosted breath carries the scent of coffee.  And all this is happening so fast and I kiss her cheek and I smell the scent of coffee again on her breath and it’s the sweetest scent ever to come my way.


Postscript: Mary and I married in 2010.  She has brought joy where all I hoped for was relief.  We continue to work together toward acceptance and progress.  Mary’s cancer remained in remission until November, 2015.  I have written of her subsequent surgery and on-going recovery in recent blogs, “Homecoming” and “Common Denominator.”  Happy Valentines to all.

[A version of this story appeared in The Rockford Review, copyright 2011.  Used with permission.]

Posted in Moving beyond vision loss, Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Who is Donna Tripley and Why Is She Sending Me Emails?

I have listened to JAWS the screen-reader for sixteen years, way back to version 3.0.  With each upgrade (they’re up to #17 now) I immediately import Dictionary Manager.  Dictionary Manager gives me power to change how words are pronounced.  I can make sure that retinitis pigmentosa sounds like ret in I tus pig men toe suh, so I don’t get confused about which disease is messing with my eyesight.

Nowhere is pronunciation control more crucial than with my last name.  For six decades, from grade school classrooms to two-star restaurants, I’ve been called Mr. Flodden.  Flodden is not my last name.  It sounds undefined, like a name written in water.  With JAWS Dictionary Manager, I become who I really am, Mr. Flow dean.  With Dictionary Manager, I have a greater sense of who I am.

People deserve to have their names pronounced correctly.  I think of my friend and fellow blogger, Beth Finke,  from whose last name JAWS omits the long e sound. With Dictionary Manager, Beth’s character is restored.  Then there’s our Canadian friend, blogging under the moniker, blindbeader.  For months, I misheard this to mean someone who is beating blindness, like the Edmonton Oilers beat the Calgary Flames.

Which leads me to the mysterious Donna Tripley, from whom I receive emails.  I am not acquainted with Donna Tripley and hearing her name in my inbox reinforces my concern that my personal information is being sold to mass marketers.  But Donna’s not trying to sell me anything, so what’s her game? JAWS helps me find out.  When I press the Insert key and the #5 key twice, JAWS  reads her name one letter at a time: D O N O T R E P L Y. DO NOT REPLY.  Oh, Donna, you’re breaking my heart.


Posted in Adaptive Technology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments