Hot Potato

The bad news is I’m undergoing dental excavation.  The good news is I’m immersed in three gallons of ice cream: vanilla (smoothies), Extreme Moose Tracks (chocolate fix) and lime sherbet (palate cleansing).  I’ve also laid in dentist-endorsed popsicles, yogurt, pudding, cottage cheese, mac & cheese, PB&J, bananas, soup, refried beans for protein and potatoes to bake and mash.  Three piping hot russet spuds line the countertop, ready for rendering.

Mulligan the Maine Coon cat sits in the right half of the kitchen sink, the half without the disposal.  His huge mitts could wash many a dish but he simply loves to play in the water.  Guide dog Tundra patrols the kitchen, hoping to examine for edibility any food items I drop onto the floor or Mulligan shoves off the counter

Behind my back, Mulligan sweeps one potato onto the floor.  I know this because I hear the thud.  I step toward the sound.  Tundra hears the same thud.  I know this because I hear her toenails tap toward the sound.

“Don’t you dare!” I growl.  “Don’t think you’re Spuds MacKenzie!”  I reach here (right) and there (left).  Tundra advances.  If I grasp her nose, she’ll guide me to the potato.  I drop to all fours, unarmed but dangerous.  Then I think, “What harm can a potato do a dog?  What does one potato matter?  For that matter, does anything matter?  Do potatoes have eyes?  Do chickens have fingers?  Do fish have balls?  Do crabs bake cakes?”  My new, chewless main courses are bringing out the animal in us all and it’s not a pretty sight, even if I could see it.

I tell Tundra to sit and stay.  So there we sit…and there we stay…face to face, eye to eye, nose to nose.  I think Tundra’s thinking about that potato.  I know I’m thinking about all that ice cream.  And that’s when I hear a thud as the second potato hits the floor.

Playlist:

Come on in My Kitchen” by Steve Miller (written by Robert Johnson), recorded live at the Tower Theatre, Philadelphia (1973)

Sweet Potato” by Cracker, from the album Kerosene Hat (1994)

Apeman” by The Kinks, from the album Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround (1970)

Soul Kitchen” by The Doors, from the album The Doors (1967)

Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp (1962)

Popsicles and Icicles” by The Murmaids (written by David Gates) (1963)

A Knife and a Fork” by Rockpile, from the album Seconds of Pleasure (1980)

Skin and Bone” by The Kinks, from the album Muswell Hillbillies (1971)

Bringing Home the Bacon” by Procol Harum, from the album Grand Hotel (1973)

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The Only Thing We Have To Fear

“The boys spent the first hours of moonlight scaring themselves silly by running as far into the woods as they could muster and then tearing into the open field again, breathless.

‘The scary thing about the woods at night,’ Fish said, panting, ‘is that you just can’t see.’”

-Andrew J. Graff, from Raft of Stars

And if being blind in the woods weren’t scary enough, I awoke to an iPhone that wouldn’t talk, ding or ring no matter how many times with how many fingers I tapped it.  Somebody speak to me!  I turned on NPR.  I am a sustaining member of NPR.  Yet I can listen to only twenty minutes before reports of a world going mad make me shiver.  I sustain NPR for what it does but I’m scared silly of what it says.

***

“The boy’s grandfather told him that he had two wolves fighting inside him.  One was gray and the other black.  The gray one wanted his grandfather to be courageous, patient and kind.  The black wolf wanted his grandfather to be fearful and cruel.  The boy was upset at this and asked his grandfather which of the wolves would win.

‘The one I feed,’ replied his grandfather.”

-Louise Penny, from The Beautiful Mystery

Polls show that what Americans fear most are blindness and deathblindness or death for ourselves or being left behind by the death of someone dear.  “Death is something many of us are uncomfortable thinking about,” says Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  “But to die is to be human.  And anything human is mentionable.  Anything mentionable is manageable.”  That’s why I’m mentioning blindness—because blindness is part of me being human.  And fear is part of we being human.  Don’t think so?  “Fear was the quality the song most required,” said Elvis Costello, of “Green Shirt,” from the album originally titled, Emotional Fascism.

***

“How hard was it for you to put your faith in your guide dog?”

-query from a third-grade boy, circa 2006

Having established what is mentionable, is whatever it is manageable?  When I traded my white cane for a Seeing Eye dog, I traded fear that my cane would miss a parking meter for fear that my dog would walk me into a lamppost.  Neither fear became concrete and, gradually, fear has subsided to a more or less manageable level.  But progress has been a leap of faith because the gospel of eyesight is virtually intractable—so much so that, as it yields, second-guessing becomes second nature.  (Is it safe to cross this street?  Are you sure?)

***

“You better listen everybody ‘cuz I’m gonna make it clear—

That my life is unimportant; what I’ve done I did through fear.”

-“Crucifiction Lane” by Procol Harum (words by Keith Reid)

Fear is instinctual, a survival mechanism to defend life and limb.  (Will that growling dog bite me?)  Fear is a powerful motivator.  (Get away from that growling dog!)  Character defects augment instincts.  Perfectionism is the fear of making a mistake—a cruel mistress indeed.  Self-centered fear, that we’ll lose what we have or won’t get what we want, runs silent and deep.  If we mobilize for a fight, we find that behind rage, judgment and intolerance lies fear.  Not to mention worry, which I just did.  So, before we reach the point of crying, “If we could see the future, we’d never get out of bed” (Meryl Streep as Violet in August, Osage County), let’s get this ship back on course.

***

“Hoarding your joys and despairs

as if they were clothes you bought but never wore.

Look at this bright shirt:

A possibility you glimpsed

but feared to seize.

The beloved is waiting.

You have a date.

Put on that shirt before it fades.”

-“Hoarding Your Joys and Despairs” by Gregory Orr, from How Beautiful the Beloved

“I may be dead tomorrow, but I’m alive now.  And I can live deliberately.  I’ve paid the price, I’ve done the work and I have nothing to be ashamed of.  And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight, isn’t that a strange thing?  That absolutely nothing changes, except that you see things differently and you’re less fearful and less anxious, and generally stronger as a result.  Isn’t it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you’ve experienced before?  You see things more clearly, and you know that you’re seeing them more clearly.  And it comes to you that this is what it means to love life.  This is all that anybody who talks seriously about God is ever talking about.  Moments like this.”

-Jonathan Franzen, from The Corrections

The debate rages whether you act your way into right thinking or think your way into right actions.  Put on that bright shirt or receive insight?  Either way, it’s your choice which wolf you feed.  And whether it takes a burning bush, random acts of kindness, being scared silly, running for City Council, getting out of yourself, hiking a trail, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” whistling “High Hopes,” getting up and dancing, falling in love or adopting a pet, something’s gotta give.  Hope makes the difference between fear and despair.  And, if you need a road map to detour around fear, here’s your GPS.

She Let Go – a poem by Ernest Holmes

“She let go.

Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of fear.

She let go of the judgments.

She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.

She let go of the committee of indecision within her.

She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons.

Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice.

She didn’t read a book on how to let go.

She didn’t search the scriptures.

She just let go.

She let go of all of the memories that held her back.

She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.

She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go.

She didn’t journal about it.

She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer.

She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper.

She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope.

She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go.

She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter.

She didn’t do a Five-Step Spiritual Mind Treatment.

She didn’t call the Prayer Line.

She didn’t utter one word.

She just let go.

No one was around when it happened.

There was no applause or congratulations.

No one thanked her or praised her.

No one noticed a thing.

Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort.

There was no struggle.

It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad.

It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be.

A small smile came over her face.

A light breeze blew through her.

And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.”

-“She Let Go,” a poem by Ernest Holmes

Playlist:

I’ll Never Give It Up” by Richard Thompson, from the album Sweet Warrior (2007)

Keep It Down” by Jack Bruce, from the album Out of the Storm (1974)

Twilight” by U2, from the album Boy (1980)

I’m Getting Better (And I’m Feeling It Right Now)” by The Record Company, from the album All of This Life (2018)

Just Smoke” by Mumford & Sons, from the album Wilder Mind (2015)

Fires (Which Burn Brightly)” by Procol Harum, from the album Grand Hotel (1973)

Beware of Darkness” by George Harrison, then Leon Russell, with both singing on The Concert for Bangladesh album version (1971)

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from the Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs (1933); covered by LL Cool J (1991)

No More Fear of Flying” by Gary Brooker, from the album No More Fear of Flying (1979)

Fearless” by Pink Floyd, from the album Meddle (1970)

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Under Pressure

Every fourth Friday at ten, I indulge in a massage.  A ninety-minute massage.  You may think this a luxury; I consider it a necessityto relieve tension I carry in my neck and shoulders, tension that turns muscles into coiled steel cables.

I am convinced that 90% of my tension arises from my reaction to blindness.  Anxiety and fear walk with me, feeding the sense I am at risk of trips, stumbles and falls.  But stress arises from sources beyond fear of physical pain.  I am pressured by perfectionism.  I am a perfectionist losing his eyesight.  I am dogged by the sensation that my every move is measured by an overseer holding clipboard and stopwatch, that I’m fated to never get it perfect, let alone get it right.

I catch myself walking like a stick figure—Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane, Tin Man creaking along Yellow Brick Road.  My wife, Mary, would gently press my hunched shoulders, saying, “Relax, relax” in such a soothing tone that I complied.  Without Mary, I’m left to my own sporadic mindfulness of posture and the negative feedback from my tense and stressed body.  I need to remind myself to be fluid, keep a low center of gravity, move like a cat, prowl like a tiger.

I’m seeking a solution.  Meditation?  Medication?  The Serenity Prayer, for all its wisdom, is essentially an intellectual exercise.  Muscle relaxants treat the symptom rather than the cause.  Contemplation?  Relaxation?  Meditation might get to the root of this evil.  Carrying five-pound dumbells in each hand or hanging from my thumbs might unravel tight spots. Adaptive?  Proactive?  Canes, guide dogs, sighted guides mediate stress.  Treadmill sessions and Pilates might move me toward muscular compliance.

Here’s my strategy.  Becoming aware is the first step.  Recognizing cause and effect forms the mind/body connection.  Believing change is possible is the motivator.  Accepting myself as imperfect is the key.  I have a game plan, at least in my head—the head sitting atop these tight muscles.  Let’s get started—before I seize up so tightly that my masseuse has to come at me with a chisel.

Playlist:

Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie (1981)

Unsatisfied” by The Replacements, from the album “Let It Be” (1984)

Over My Head” by Ray Davies, from the album “Other Peoples’ Lives” (2006)

Nowhere to Run” by Pete Townsend & Ronnie Lane, from the album “Rough Mix” (1977)

Nothing Is Easy” by Jethro Tull, from the album “Stand Up” (1969)

I Want Everything” by Cracker, from the album “Kerosene Hat” (1994)

A Satisfied Mind” by Porter Waggoner (1955), Ella Fitzgerald, The Byrds, Jeff Buckley  and others

Give Me Strength” by Eric Clapton, from the album “461 Ocean Boulevard” (1974)

Strange Boat” by The Waterboys, from the album “Fisherman’s Blues” (1988)

New Lamps for Old” by Procol Harum, from the album “Exotic Birds and Fruit” (1974)

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Candy Cane

Today, I am practicing walking a straight line.  From the kitchen to my bedroom, from the living room to my front door, I am tapping and sliding around the house with grace and ease, thanks to my new, little white cane.  It stands a foot shorter than my official O&M white cane, weighs less than a cup of cat food and is skinny as a candy caneso that’s what I call it.

Today, I am practicing walking the straight and narrow.  Each trip safely made is a moral victory—a victory for acceptance over denial.  If acceptance is, “I need to use it and I use it” and denial is, “I don’t need it and don’t use it” and my default is, “I need it but don’t use it,” then I’m making progress.

I like my Candy Cane.  It’s real name is Identification Cane and it’s real purpose is to let people know I have low vision.  Not many people will see my Candy Cane—only folks who visit me at home.  My friends like Sadie won’t need to be my sighted guide around the house.  They’ll see and I’ll hear me tapping doorways and dining chairs and thumping cats who loiter outside their litter box.

I promise not to drag Candy Cane outdoors, into the realm of my heavy-duty mobility cane which civilians demean as “that blind stick.”  Rather, with Candy Cane, I’ll glide across the laminate flooring, more Fred Astaire than Frankenstein.  While I’ve used it only one week, I feel vulnerable without it—like riding without a seat belt.  It’s becoming second nature, good practice for street work—like practicing putting indoors so I’ll sink that thirty-foot putt on the 18th green to win the British Open.

I’m taking good care of my Candy Cane.  I don’t want to break it or lose it.  I’ve designated one special spot in each room to store the Candy Cane when I’m not using it.  And I try to remember to carry it with me when I move from room to room performing my household projects.  So far, I haven’t lost it.  But I know that’s a risk—so buying a spare might be a good idea.  And I’m all for good ideas—which is why I got the Candy Cane in the first place.

Playlist:

“I Get Around” by The Beach Boys (1964)

Walk, Don’t Run” by Johnny Smith (1954); Chet Atkins (1957); The Ventures (1960)

White Line Fever” by Merle Haggard and The Strangers (1969); The Flying Burrito Brothers (1970),

“Walking the Floor Over You” by Ernest Tubb (1941)

Walk Like an Egyptian” by The Bangles, from the album “Different Light” (1986)

Walk Like a Man” by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons (1966)

Someday” by Cracker, from the album “Cracker” (1992)

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Disorientation and Mobility

“I wish I could fly to Spain,” says my friend, Sadie.  “to the place called Land’s End.  Where the land meets the sea.  It’s vast and open and…forever.  You can’t tell where the land ends and the sea begins.  You stare long enough, you get disoriented.  I want to experience that.  It sounds beautiful and…inspirational.”

“Send me a postcard, Sadie.  I’ll stay put.  I can get disoriented in my garage.  Think I’m kidding?  Once, I got disoriented in a Porta-Jon.”

“I don’t want to hear about that.”

“It was during a hockey game in Phoenix…but I’ll spare you the details.”

“You remember everything, don’t you, Mister Mister?”

“Sadie, I remember things I’d rather forget.”

“Well, then, you don’t have to go to Spain if you don’t want to.  I’m not sure I invited you anyway.  No offense, mind you.”

“None taken.  I figure it this way: With my eyesight, I’ve got Land’s End all around me.  When I can’t tell figure from ground, when I lose points of reference, when everything melds together, then I’m disoriented.  I’m hearing Twilight Zone music, my stomach’s dropping to my feet and my head’s swimming like jellyfish.”

“Well, then, you wouldn’t have much fun at Land’s End.  Besides, if you were with me and I was your sighted guide and I got disoriented, then we’re both up a creek, so to speak.”

“Swimming like jellyfish.”

“Say, Mister Mister, do you think I’ll get disoriented?  I mean, I’m all in for beauty and inspiration but I’m not all in for the Twilight Zone.”

“Sadie, you’ll be fine.  If you start feeling weird, turn your head and stare at the tour bus or a windmill and, voila, there’s your figure and ground.  You’re reoriented.  If you don’t believe me, take a Dramamine beforehand.”

“OK, it’s settled.  I’ll fly to Spain; you’ll stay here.  I’ll see Land’s End; you’ll stay away from Porta-Jons.  I’ll look to get disoriented; you’ll look to avoid it.” 

“It’s a deal.  You go and I’ll stay.  You tell me all about it and I’ll listen.  OK, then, that takes care of this week.  What’ll we do next week?”

Playlist:

(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” by The Kinks, from the album “Low Budget” (1979)

Spanish Caravan” by The Doors, from the album “Waiting for the Sun” (1968)

Spanish Bombs” by The Clash, from the album “London Calling” (1979)

Holiday” by Weezer, from the album “Weezer (Blue Album” (1994)

Holiday” by The Kinks, from the album “Muswell Hillbillies” (1971)

Castles of Spain” album by Andres Segovia (1970)

Sketches of Spain” album by Miles Davis (1959-1960)

The Rain in Spain” by Lerner and Lowe, from “My Fair Lady” (Broadway-1956; Film-1964)

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Watch Your Step

“Say, Sadie!”

“Over here.”

“Do you remember our first adventure in sighted guiding?”

“When dinosaurs roamed the earth?”

“Yes…Before Facebook, even.”

“Imagine that!  Tell me more, Mr. Memory.”

“Picture this.  New Orleans.  Twelve revelers, twenty years ago.  Harry and Dave lead me along the avenue, slaloming parking meters.  Skeeter tells them they aren’t handling me safely.  She takes my left arm and you my right and off we march.  And when we get to Bourbon Street, Skeeter turns left and you turn right.”

“We didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“And I didn’t, thanks to you.”

“Right…after Skeeter and I nearly tear you in two.”

“Skeeter on the left, Sadie on the rightwild horses couldn’t drag me away!”

“We all had to learn.  We weren’t born knowing.  Sighted guiding?  What’s that?  Thing was, you didn’t want someone meant to help you end up hurting you.”

“Nor did I want to end up hurting someone helping me.”

In my mind’s eye, New Orleans morphs into Colorado mountains.  It’s last winter.  Sadie and I hiking.  Sadie guiding.  Snow.  Rocks.  Roots.  Downslope.  I trip.  I’m lurching forward.  I pull Sadie off her feet.  She’s falling to the ground.  She’s in pain.  She’s sprained her ankle.  I tend to her.  She wants to stand.  I help her to her feet.  She takes a few steps.  We walk on.  I feel awful.

Sadie’s voice joins the scene.  “Don’t blame yourself.  You know, I’ve taken a tumble or two all by myself out there, before and since.  And I’ve recovered from them all.”

“Thank God.  And thank you for absolution of guilt.  But it was scary!”

“For you and me both, Mister Mister.”

“Why didn’t I let go of your arm?  Why did I hold on like Grim Death?  There’s so much at stake.  Work hard.  Build core muscles.  Stay strong and stable.  You do all this and then your friend comes along and yanks you off your feet.  We talk about bone density and osteoporosis and osteopenia and that kiss of death hip fracture and—BOOM!—down you go through no fault of your own.  That’s traumatic.”

“And so is losing your eyesight, my friend.  But you get up and do your best.  And there’ll always be snow and rocks and maybe even trips and falls.  We’re not always going to get every step like Fred and Ginger.  But we keep on keeping on.”

“Right on!”  I jump to my feet.  “We’ve lived to tell the tale.  We’ve lived to stand tall and keep walking.  Walking  and talking and, well, chewing gum…just not at the same time!  At least, in my case, that is.”

Playlist:

Walking to New Orleans” by Fats Domino (1960)

Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison (1964)

Fall on Me” by REM, from the album “Life’s Rich Pageant” (1986)

“It’s So Easy to Trip” by Mason Proffit (help me find this one, Ted)

One Step Forward” by The Desert Rose Band, from the album “The Desert Rose Band” (1987)

“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, from the album “Transformer” (1972)

Watch Your Step” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions, from the album “Trust” (1981)

I Can’t Believe It” by Eric Burdon & The Animals (1965)

Struggle” by Keith Richards, from the album “Talk Is Cheap” (1988)

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It’s So Nice to Have a Cane Around the House

“Hey, Mister Mister, whatcha doing with that stick?  Poking a hole in the sky?  Writing your name on a cloud?  Skewering a goose?  Is that what you’re doing, Mister Mister?”  Exuberance carries my friend, Sadielike wings.

“What I’m doing is more practical than celestial,” I tell Sadie.  “I’m discovering new uses for my white cane.  Observe how I tap it into the patio roof—BONK!  Or into thin air—WHOOSH!  I’m learning where to place the patio furniture so my guests and I won’t be sitting in the rain.”

“Don’t ask me to sit in the rain.  It reminds me of being a kid sitting in my wet bathing suit or, worse, that I’d wet my pants.”

“God forbid.  Nor do we want the chairs in the hot sun.”

“Don’t ask me to sit in the hot sun.  When I sit in the hot sun, I get short.”

“You shrink?”

“No.  I get crabby.  People don’t want to be around me.”

“God forbid.  The whole time I lived in the stinkin’ desert, I was cranky,” I tell Sadie.  “Well, maybe half the time—the hot half.”

“Ditto,” says Sadie.  “I served my time in the hot seat.”

“Ow!  Hot Pants!” I sing and, stiff as my white cane, jerk into a James Brown dance move.

Sadie rewards my pathetic effort with a high-five.  “Ow!  Hot Pants, wet pants! Keep me cool and dry!”

“And looka here,” I tell Sadie.  “The cane makes it so I don’t trip over the petunia pots.  I can walk right up to them with my watering can, not sidle up to them like I’m sneaky.  Plants don’t trust sneaky people.”

“You want to make friends with petunias so they’ll bloom all pink and purple.”

“Picture this.  I’m sitting in a shady spot on the patio, in the swivel rocker, listening to a book or ball game.  Tundra’s lying at my feet.  I get a hankering for a root beer float or a bowl of white cheddar popcorn.  I stand and, thinking the dog’s still there, take this giant step over her, like Hannibal crossing the Alps.  Thing is, Tundra’s moved on.  So, you see, not only will the cane keep me from tripping over Tundra when she’s there, it’ll keep my neighbors from thinking I’m weird when I step over the dog that isn’t there.”

“Well, that’ll partially explain it.”

“And that’s not all!  My white cane reduces the incidence of those unsightly abrasions and contusions, bumps and bruises that decorate my bony parts like shins and head.”

“You think that will keep your neighbors from calling you Mr. Bone Head?”

“I can see it now—shady spots, petunia pots, baseball, summer showers.”

“When it rains at a baseball game,” says Sadie, “I go inside for a hot dog and a beer.”

“I can taste it now, Sadie.  And when it’s a hundred degrees in the sun—or in the shade—I go indoors for a cool drink.  Let us adjourn to the refreshment stand.”

I tap my way to the front door, open it and stand aside as Sadie passes.  From kindness and habit, she offers her arm as sighted guide.

“Thanks, but not this trip,” I say.  “It’s my turn to lead.”  As we walk toward the kitchen, I call, “Two tall, cool ones, coming right up!”

Playlist:

It’s So Nice to Have a Man Around the House” by Dinah Shore (1960), Della Reese, Peggy Lee, etc.

Mean Mr. Mustard” by The Beatles, from the album “Abbey Road” (1969)

Sexy Sadie” by The Beatles, from the album “The Beatles (White Album)” (1968)

“’Round Here” by Counting Crows, from the album “August and Everything After” (1993)

Dead End Street” by The Kinks (1966)

Rain on the Roof” by Lovin’ Spoonful (1966)

Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks (1966)

Rain” by The Beatles(1966)

Paper Sun” by Traffic, from the album “Mr. Fantasy” (1968)

Sitting in the Midday Sun” by The Kinks, from the album “Preservation: Act One” (1973)

I’ll Go Crazy” by James Brown, from the album “Live at the Apollo”  (1963)

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Sighted Guidelines

That Saturday morning was not all cartoons and Sugar-Frosted Flakes.  At ten sharp, my wife and I walked into a waiting room where six couples sat silent, feet shuffling, fingers drumming.  One in each pair ruffled Sports pages while the other cracked their knuckles.  Had my wife taken a wrong turn into the Green Room of “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and, if so, where were Oprah and Dr. Phil?

A single man strode into that waiting room.  “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the sighted guide workshop.”  Seven couples murmured a reply.  “Today, we will become safer and more effective.  Being a sighted guide is an awesome duty.  You are responsible for the safety of your partner.”  My wife took my handa gentle gesture.  Then I felt her fingernails dig into my palm.

Our sighted guide teams took turns navigating obstacles common to that downtown Chicago building.  We walked through doorways—“Hinged right and coming at you” and stairways—“Eight steps up, handrail right.”  We steered narrow hallways—“Single file now” and crowds—“Shorten up that cane.”  We found which door led into the Men’s Room—“I can handle it from here, Honey.” 

Back on the street, I showed my wife my sore palm, chuckled and asked, “Is this your comment on our host’s opening statement…that you are responsible for my safety?” 

My wife smiled sheepishly, then kissed my palm.  “You know I love you.  I will help with anything you can’t see.  That’s my part.  Your part is to do your best, keep up your skills.  If you get lazy or play the self-pitying victim, then that’s unsafe for you and unfair to me and I’ll lose respect and I’ll resent you for it.  We’ve learned we can face any part of blindness…or anything else…as long as we work together.”

That Saturday morning is long passed.  But its message remains clear to me.  Some folks find my wife’s words harsh; others laud their wisdom.  Then and now, I feel she got it right.  That Saturday, my response was to whisper, “You and me, kid,” then take her arm and walk along Wabash—across streets, up and down curbs, around newsstands and window shoppers—as the L train rumbled overhead.

Playlist:

Two of Us” by The Beatles, from the album “Let It Be” (1970)

This Is Us” by Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris, from the album “All This Roadrunning” (2006)

We Walk” by REM, from the album “Murmur” (1983)

One Step Forward” by The Desert Rose Band, from the album “The Desert Rose Band” (1987)

Walk Right Back” by The Everly Brothers (1961)

You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Rodgers & Hammerstein, from their musical “Carousel” (1945” and covered by singers ranging from Gerry & The Pacemakers (1963) to Andrea Bocelli

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Getting There Is Half the Fun

My friend, Sadie, is a skilled and intuitive sighted guide.  Together, we navigate city streets and Rocky Mountain trails.  We climb hills and descend stairs.  We zigzag between tall trees and Costco shoppers.  Last fall, Sadie guided me through City Hall corridors so I could register to vote.  Yesterday, she offered me her arm to walk from the living room to the front doorin my own home.

I am blessed with friends like Sadie.  They balance my needs for safety and self-reliance.  They know they can say, “You might want to…” without me replying, “Mind your own business.”  At other times, when other civilians admonish me to be careful, I want to snap, “Hey!  You have no idea how careful I am, how careful I have to be every single minute of every single day!”

Why, then, do I keep walking into walls?  Why do I furniture-walk, use area rugs as guard rails and light ten table lamps as beacons?  Why, when flying solo, do I sidle rather than stride, assume the Frankenstein shuffle or mimic the untrained and flailing Helen Keller of The Miracle Worker?

The honest answer is that my eyesight is getting worse.  And one obvious solution is to use my white cane within my home.  Last year, as a stranger to these four walls, I used my cane to navigate around sharp angles and square corners.  But as I grew accustomed to the place, the cane became one more thing not to lose track of, leave behind or trip over.

Rather than the white cane assuring safe haven at home, it leads me across that psychological frontier into dependence.  I vacillate between accepting the reality of deeper darkness and demanding retribution from this soul-sucking disease.  I alternately exert self-will to mold truth to fit my needs or face facts and find peace in surrender.

Blindness is hazardous to bodily integrity.  I wear black and blue and red badges of conflicts with counter tops and cupboard doors.  Cause and effect is an equation simple to learn and practice yet I remain incorrigibly myself and my self rationalizes, cuts corners and does what it wants.  Look around—I’ve no yawning staircases to tumble down, no rearranged furniture to trip over.  White cane?  Maybe my yardstick will do for starters—‘til I’m really sure I really need to use my white cane inside my own home.

I am seventy-one years old and I’ve been fighting RP half my life.  Ten years in, I surrendered to white cane training.  It helped me get around and told people what I didn’t want to have to say out loud.  Still, I fought, I bargained, I chose when and where to use the cane—dark places, strange places.  Then, strolling to work at the hospital, along the avenue I’d walked full-time for years, I didn’t see the freshly-dug trench and I stepped in and broke my ankle.  I rose, removed my white cane from my back pocket and, using it as a crutch, hobbled across the street and into the Emergency Room.  For weeks thereafter, I displayed my white cane—taped to my crutches.

Nowadays, I have my white cane, guide dog Tundra and friends like Sadie to protect me from the pitfalls of blindness.  But who will protect me from my own foolish pride and ruinous ego?  When will I ever learn?

Playlist:

My friend, Sadie, has given me a nickname.  She calls me Mister Mister.

Please, Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes (1961)

Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes (1954)

Mr. Spaceman” by The Byrds, from the album “5D (Fifth Dimension)” (1966)

Mr. Soul” by Buffalo Springfield, from the album “Buffalo Springfield Again”    (1967)

Mr. Wonderful” by Peggy Lee (1956)

Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton (1962)

Mr. Dieingly Sad” by The Critters (1966), later covered by Lou Christie

Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan (1965), The Byrds (1965)

Mr. Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker (1970)

Mr. Skin” by Spirit, from the album “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” (1970)

Mr. Blues” by Moby Grape, from the album, “Moby Grape” (1967)

Mr. Blue” by The Fleetwoods (1959)

Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows, from the album “August and Everything After” (1993)

Mr. Bubbles” by The Ruminators (2016)

Mr. Wrong” by Cracker, from the album “Cracker” (1992)

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Animal Magnetism

When I was ten years old, I read a book called The Incredible Journey.  The journey was made by two dogs and a cat who traversed hundreds of miles of Canadian wilderness to reunite with their beloved human masters.  Their camaraderie and courage bore testament to love and loyalty.  It was the best book I’d ever read.

In today’s slice of life, my two cats tussle over a catnip-laced cardboard box the perfect size for one cat.  My off-duty guide dog whimpers at the back door, pleading to be let in so she can snooze on my bed.  Compared to traversing the Canadian wilderness, feuding for a box and angling for a nap might be considered mundane.

But I resist fictional heroes making the rest of us feel inadequate.  I laud my blended family’s bonds of kinship.  Tundra the dog and Hopalong the cat engage in mutual grooming and spirited romping.  And when Mulligan the cat howled pitiably as I forced hair-ball medicine into him, Tundra and Hopalong gathered ‘round, howling pitiably and vicariously.

I applaud Tundra and her predecessor, Randy, for camaraderie and courage.  Each has rerouted wayward felines seeking the great wide open by blocking their path and then, with head bumps, shoveling them through the doorway by which they’d escaped.  Those dogs corral cats better than Colorado cowboys.

Heroism is, at times, subtle and still.  Two years ago, as my wife Mary’s health declined, Randy lived bedside, spooning Mary’s body with his.  Our family shared, all in our own way, our transition.

Now, I awaken each morning with a big black dog and a counterpane of cats.  And on mornings I’m feeling low, missing Mary, Tundra places her front paws on my shoulders and her face next to mine.  “No licking,” I tell her, so she nuzzles my face and we lie, silent and still.

This family has made our own incredible journey.  Through love and loss, across the distance from Windy City to Mile-High, for months of Covid, we’ve remained grateful for companionship.  My three animal heroes need do nothing beyond showing up and acting naturally.  They are incorrigibly themselves—and are loved for who they are.

Playlist

Fido” by The Byrds, from the album “Ballad of Easy Rider” (1969)

Ruff and Reddy” theme from the NBC cartoon series (1957-1960): “They sometimes have their little spats/Even fight like dogs and cats/But when they need each other/That’s when they’re Ruff and Reddy”

The Andy Griffith Show” theme: “Take down your fishin’ pole and meet me at the fishin’ hole/We’ll have you, me and ol’ dog Trey to pass the time away”

Muzzle of Bees” by Wilco, from the album “A Ghost Is Born” (2004)

Powderfinger” by Neil Young with Crazy Horse, from the album “Rust Never Sleeps” (1979)

Meant to Be” by Spanic Boys, from the album “Strange World” (1991).  This Wisconsin father and son look like the guys who run the hardware store and harmonize like the Everly Brothers.

Some Change” by Boz Scaggs, from the album “Some Change (1994)

Mona (I Need You Baby)” by Ellis McDaniel (Bo Diddley), (1957)

My Life is Totally Boring without You” by Cracker, from the album “Gentleman’s Blues” (1998)

See My Friends” by The Kinks (studio, 1965) and Ray Davies (live album “The Storyteller,” 1998)

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