Lemonade

The hottest ice in town is under the skates of the Chicago Blackhawks.  And the hottest ticket on ice is for the Hawks’ Stanley Cup series against Anaheim. So, when I bump into Billy, he greets me with, “Long time no see.  I’m going to the Hawks’ game tonight!”

Had he said, “I’m eloping with Jennifer Lopez tonight,” he couldn’t sound more excited.  ”That’s great,” I say.

“More than great, it’s awesome!” says Billy.  “I got the ticket from my dad.”

“That’s awesome, too,” I say.

“Not really,” says Billy.  “He died last week.”

Billy’s version of “turning lemons into lemonade” inspires me to look for new ways to adapt to blindness.  Since my recent slip in eyesight, I’ve been feeling sorry for myself.   This self-pity breeds inertia when what I need is action.  Rather than my customary approach of trying to think my way into action, I’ll try to act my way into right thinking.

I’m getting busy — not just busy using manic activity as avoidance (I’ve already cleaned the house three times), but goal-directed busy.  By having my cataracts inspected, I make informed decisions. By brushing up on orientation and mobility skills, I am safer.  By investing time and effort, I master new ways to do old things.  By learning technology, I find a world at my fingertips.  By listening, I connect.  By talking and writing about this overwhelming life change, I’m more positive.  By learning about grief and loss, I’m coping better.

The key is self-knowledge.  When I know what I bring into transactions, including diminishing eyesight, I better understand the outcome. Knowing I tend toward perfectionism, I understand my frustration.  Knowing I like things done right and done right now, I understand my impatience.  Now, imagine if I bring into these interactions that I am adaptable, that I have adapted to many drops in eyesight.  The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and, if I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

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Blinder

“April is the cruelest month,” writes the poet Eliot, and April hit me with another round of vision loss.  “RP is blindness at its cruelest; it is the slow death of vision,” writes my friend Beth Finke who, with eyesight taken by diabetic retinopathy, has felt her share of cruelty.

That this little death comes with spring compounds its irony.  Spring — rebirth, rejuvenation, renaissance.  At first, I sought to pass it off as sunlight glare but it’s everywhere, inside and out.  It’s that thick silver fog, that layer of gossamer, glistening and reflecting but not permitting me to penetrate the scene, to distinguish figure from ground, to discern the right path from a dead end.

Orienting to sidewalks and buildings, stairs and furnishings is now more by touch than by visual contrast. And, as orientation precedes mobility, getting underway involves an educated guess.  Once moving, where I had perceived my landscape of big, gray blobs from a distance, I now find people and things nose-to-nose or, as with our Nissan Rogue, nose-to-hatchback.

The ability to adapt is vast but now I sense its limits.  The prospect of losing light perception has me rethinking my aversion to the minimally restorative sci-fi goggles, hard-wired to a belt-clipped battery pack, hard-wired through a hole in my skull to a point mid-brain.  If that’s the best thing going today, I’ll wear it proudly until a syringe full of fully DNA-encoded, microscopic stem cells can be implanted during a fifteen-minute out-patient procedure from which I drive home.

Today, my RP prayer is, “Please leave me with what sight I have.” Leave me with shadows and light: a dark wood rocking chair against a white wall, my black Lab standing on a snowbank, the opened door down the long hallway.   These clues solve the mystery for me now.  Please, leave me with what I have today, while I again absorb the truths I have learned from life with RP: what the body loses, the spirit restores; what the body denies, the spirit accepts; what the body withdraws, the spirit expands.

Footnote: T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,”

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Senioritis

I turned 65 yesterday.  That makes me a senior citizen.  If you don’t believe me, I can prove it to you.

It’s midday of a weekday and the doorbell rings.  I’m expecting a delivery, so I grab my house keys.  I grab my keys because yesterday, in the midst of a delivery, I locked myself out of the house.

I hurry down the stairs.  I don’t run because I’m afraid I’ll fall and break my hip.  A broken hip, for senior citizens, triggers a precipitous process known as “The Dwindles.”

Inside the front door, I gather the mail from the floor so I don’t slip on a glossy circular.  I place the stack on the first step and try to remember not to slip on it and break my hip on my way back upstairs.

I open the front door and, as it’s taken me so long to get there, whoever rang the bell has left.  I move into my Saturday Night Fever posture, extend one foot and slide it left and right across the porch, sweeping for packages.

Then I hear the diesel engine idling and the man shouting, “Hey, mister!  It’s behind you, leaning against the railing.”  The delivery man knows I’m blind; I told him yesterday when he helped me find the hidden set of keys we keep in case somebody locks themselves out of the house.

“You OK to get back inside?” he asks.

I give him the thumbs up, then hold my package aloft—1000 dog poop bags in teal color.  Teal is one of those modern shades that came along after I lost my eyesight.  I wouldn’t know it from mauve or taupe, but I’m sure I will be ultra-stylish as I bend over to pick up after Randy.  A stylish senior, yes, but will I be able to straighten up again?

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Difficulties

Some people view losing their eyesight as the end of the world.  Others claim low vision is a mere inconvenience. The authors of the National Low Vision Awareness website write, “People with low vision have difficulty seeing…which makes everyday tasks difficult to do.”

This elegantly simple, emotionally neutral description distills what stinks about low vision into one word: difficult.  But difficult means more than difficult.  From my perspective as a blind person, “difficult” is a euphemism for “pain in the ass.”  Difficult is lipstick on a pig.  Ask a woman about her “difficult” marriage and she’ll say it’s a living hell.  Tell me that the “difficult” neighbor kid is coming to visit and I bar the door.

I propose three synonyms for “difficult.”   The first is “annoying.”  I get annoyed by blindness. Here’s an example, a dialogue with me as blind handyman:

Me:  “To fix that faucet will take me four…”
My wife:  “…eight…”
Me:  “…hours.  And cost fifty…”
My wife:  “…one hundred…”
Me:  “dollars.”

And the most annoying thing is, my wife is always right.

The second synonym for “difficult” is “distressing.”  I find the consequences of blindness distressing.  I figure I have lost over $1 million in earnings because of blindness.  Yup, a million bucks, plus all the quarters I dropped and couldn’t find.

The third synonym for “difficult” is “frustrating.”  Nowhere is my threshold for frustration lower than technology.  My part in this is that I consider myself logical and linear when I am not.  Therefore, I get frustrated when technology fails to translate my tangential and circuitous intentions into a straight-line, binary code it can understand.

But I am not going to whine.  Difficulties bring rewards.  By necessity, I have become a more resourceful problem-solver. I believe I am also more patient and tolerant.  A very wise guy, Malcolm Gladwell, asserts that difficult tasks result in deeper, more lasting learning because they require more energy and focus.  This belief keeps me plodding through the annoying, distressing and frustrating process.  To use a food metaphor, these multiple rewards are the big bowl of ice cream you get after the interminable, insufferably difficult plate of force-fed vegetables.

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Speaking of Dogs

As I walk this earth, meditatively, with my Seeing Eye Dog, this is what I hear:

“Your dog must be super intelligent” – Well, Randy is not brilliant but he’s not stupid either.    He does not use his front paws to hold his dog bones or yogurt containers.  Hell, even a raccoon knows to use his front paws to hold onto his food.  But then, how many raccoons know left from right?

“He must know a lot of words” – Randy’s vocabulary includes about a dozen useful commands (“Speak” and “Play dead” are not useful commands).  Plus he knows an equal number of important words, like outside, chow, bone and biscuit.  Notice the preponderance of food-related nouns?

“He puts your safety above all else” – Except where food is involved.  Be it restaurant or sidewalk, Randy leads a zig-zag route, with frequent head dips and full-body lunges.  I understand that an instinct is at work here, so I cut him some slack.  As long as we maintain forward progress, I am satisfied.

“He’s so well trained” – Yes the Seeing Eye trained him well.  I take responsibility for untraining him.

“Since you put your life in your dog’s hands, you must have a super strong bond” – Since you put it that way, yes, and sometimes it scares me half to death.

“That dog must be a real chick magnet” – Perhaps, but I prefer to think that I attain that honor on my own merits.

“I Know I Should Ignore him, but he’s so cute” – For people who express interest in Randy, without mauling or feeding him, I’m happy to satisfy their curiosity, maybe clear up some misconceptions.  I like talking about Randy, can’t you tell?

“He’s a beautiful dog” – Yes, on many levels.  Randy might not be everything people say he is, but for being himself he is loved.

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Meditation

I’ve never been much at meditation.  Back in 2004, I was invited to drop out of a beginners’ class.  My ineptness offended the master.  Or perhaps she objected to my guide dog sharing my mat, but I doubt that.  The dog was more meditative than I.

Calming this mind becomes a test of will.  I get too hung up on superficial details — soft lighting, mood music, comfy cushions.  I am too controlling to allow connection to any power other than selfism.

So, when my friend described her habit of “walking meditation,” I listened.  And it came to me that walking with my Seeing Eye dog is meditative.  When I grasp his harness handle, we become a team.  We trust one another.  He guides.  I direct and correct.  Our roles compliment.  He does what comes naturally.  I relax and go with his flow.  We get rhythm.  I feel tension dissolve.  I let my mind wander to sounds and smells and textures.  I am aware but receptive.  I absorb more and transmit less.  This is the serenity of surrender and acceptance, of allowing a power to do for me what I cannot do for myself.

Years ago, hypervigilance was my default state of mind as a blind person.  I stalked the streets with furrowed brow, hunched shoulders, rigid joints and stilted gait.  Even coupled with my white cane, I remained the white-knuckled student driver, fraught with fears I would crash, run off the road or knock myself silly on a tree limb. With my dog, I throttle down and become more the Sunday driver, calm yet attentive.  My stick-figure strut softens into a loose-limbed mosey.

Dogs aren’t for everyone.  They shed, drool, steal food and sniff people impolitely.  For twelve years, half my blind life, I have chosen the responsibility of guide dog ownership.  I have been richly rewarded with physical safety, emotional companionship and spiritual connection.  Spiritual connection you ask?  Yes, any guide, whether human, canine or cosmic, who leads this wandering soul to peace is a gift and a blessing.

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Root Beer Float

I dress for the agency Open House in a stylish and, so says my Color Identifier, matching sweater and slacks set.  I brush Randy in the vain hope he won’t shed big black hair balls onto co-workers, distinguished guests and community bigwigs.  We station ourselves just inside the entrance, with no purpose save being present and presentable.

A chirpy hostess offers me the event’s signature treat, a root beer float.  And boy, do I love root beer floats.  As a kid, I called them Black Cows.  But these days, my tendency toward spillage gives me pause.  Dare I risk defacing my pristine outfit?  Yes, I do.  I’ll just be extra careful, that’s all.

My root beer float comes with a wide-body plastic straw.  No muss, no fuss, hands-free delivery system.  I draw hard on the straw but find no purchase.  Must be clogged with ice cream.  I draw harder.  I taste air and make bubbles.  I slide my fingers the length of the straw.  At the midpoint is a slit, courtesy of a stock boy and his utility knife.  The slit is aimed at  my heather gray cashmere sweater.  The sweater is sodden with root beer float.

“Jeff,” says the Boss, “I’d like you to meet my wife, Helen Gregory.”

“Pleased to meet you, Helen,” I say.  I extend a sticky hand and we shake.

“What a handsome guide dog you have,” says Helen Gregory.  “What’s his name?”

“Randy,” I say.  “We’ve been partners five years.  At first, I thought Randy was a stupid name.  Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie stupid.  But it fits.  Randy’s a name for a ten year-old boy.  He’s a big lug.  He has no guile.  All ears and feet and eagerness. He’s a goof, a doufous.  Simple as a ten year-old boy. When he shakes his head, it sounds like a box of rocks.”

“He is quite well-behaved,” says Helen Gregory.

“Jeff,” says the Boss, returning from the periphery.  “I’d like you to meet my son Zachary.  He’s ten years old.”

I stick out a sticky hand and Zachary takes it.

“Oh, Jeff knows all about ten year-olds, don’t you, Jeff?” says Helen Gregory.

Zachary unsticks his hand from mine.  Randy shakes his head.  His ears go slap-slap-slap against the sides of his huge noggin.

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