The Scientific Method Applied to a Dog

I set out to test my theory that wherever in the backyard Randy peed, the grass died.  For my laboratory, I measured a five-foot square, enclosed it with treated four by fours and filled it with bark.  I based my model on the former dog relief area at work, a concrete and gravel box which, abruptly one weekend, was replaced by a decorative fountain.  “I wish I’d gotten my hands on that gravel,” I told my wife.  “Randy really took to it.  It had the scent.  But I bet bark will work for us.”

“I’ll call Animal Planet,” my wife replied.

Throughout the dog days of summer, I steered Randy to his pee pad and urged him to embrace toilet training. He climbed onto the bark and sniffed every square inch. I told him to pee, believing he understood English and was eager to please.  He sat and stared at me.  I felt our connection.  But Randy did not perform.  As I led him from the pee pad, he squatted and peed on the lawn.  I swear I heard the grass scream.

I examined my experimental variables.  “He’s not making the connection between the gravel and the bark,” I told my wife.  “Can you spare an old pie tin so I can collect some pee and sprinkle it on the bark?  That way, he’ll catch on.”  But this additional ingredient, too, failed to produce results.  I increased the probability factor by lobbing morsels from his copious backyard #2 deposits onto the pee pad.  Following protocol, Randy climbed onto the bark, sat in its only unblemished corner and stared at me.

Summer school has ended and, with it, my experiment.  These days, I water our new sod backyard and walk Randy around the block to pee.  The bark is spread among vegetable plants that produce manly zucchini and voluptuous tomatoes.  “I wish you could see the bountiful fruits of your experiment, Honey,” says my wife.  “Every zucchini and every tomato has Randy’s smiling face on it.  Animal Planet will be filming here next week.”

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I Don’t Think of You as Blind

When I define who I am, blindness is pretty far down the list.  First come husband, son, brother, writer, reader, music lover and social worker. In these roles, I try to be loving and kind, thoughtful and thorough, patient and tolerant.

But among significant life events, losing my eyesight has had the most profound impact. I lost, then, after retraining, regained my career.   I haven’t driven a car in twenty-five years. I live in a large city and depend on public transit.  I am less adventuresome, preferring familiar environs.  I feel the loss of visual things which used to give me pleasure, like taking photos and watching ball games.

At times, blindness becomes my most obvious and dramatic characteristic.  If I try without success to find someone to read me a handwritten letter or I begin to cross Ashland Avenue against the light, blindness becomes vexing or downright dangerous.  I can proceed no further nor reach safety until I find a workaround.  But even as blindness inserts obstacles, I identify and internalize how blindness has enhanced my patience, ingenuity and problem-solving.

My wife has had two episodes with cancer.  Yet I do not think of her primarily as a cancer victim or a cancer survivor as defined by a pink T-shirt manifesto.  Cancer is part of her just as curly hair and a soothing voice.  Blindness is part of me just as male-pattern baldness and a singing voice tending toward flats.  Cancer and blindness are but two brush strokes in our portrait; they are not our portrait.  They are one frame of reference through which we think, feel and make decisions.  Where a stranger says, “Funny, you don’t look blind,” a friend says, “I don’t think of you as blind.”  The closer we come, the more we see, in ourselves and in one another.

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Elvis Costello Meets St. Francis

My wife says I’m fixated at adolescence; I tell her that keeps me young.  Back in the Sixties, when my chronology matched my maturity, I sang “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a Top 40 hit by The Animals.  “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”  And no one was misunderstood like we adolescents.

In 1986, Elvis Costello covered the song and a new generation of misunderstoods took up the refrain.  I was thirty-six and, stuck at adolescence, echoed the chorus.  Later that year, RP kicked in and I began losing my eyesight.  As time and eyesight passed, I learned that being misunderstood applied not just to adolescents.  “You have no idea what it’s like!”  I cried to those who failed to understand me and my blindness.

Today, an adolescent on Social Security, I sing a different verse.  I try to practice the St. Francis Prayer and “understand rather than be understood.”  This is a radical shift—to get out of myself and empathize with another’s experience.  I see how deeply I’ve invested in being the victim while reaping huge payoffs in self-pity and martyrdom.  I see how myopic my vision has become, not from RP but from self-centeredness.

Redirecting energy from passive to active does not come instinctively for me, Me, ME.  So I’m starting with becoming more aware how my blindness creates confusion in others who do not, cannot, share my experience.  As I ask for tolerance and acceptance, I must tolerate and accept those with different struggles, even those whose ignorance or judgment have offended me, for I understand the fear of what or who is different.  Doing this, I help others understand.  In turn, I feel understood.

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

Funny, You Don’t Look Blind


“What’s so funny,” I ask Adam, the I. T. guru, as he strides into my work cubicle. Our guide dogs exchange greetings: Hello.  Ola.  “Just this,” says Adam.  “I’m standing on the corner, waiting for the light to change, when this guy tells me he’s been watching me walk up the block and, funny, I don’t look blind.”

“And neither does your dog, right?” says I.

“Now, that’s funny,” says Adam.

“Did you take it as a compliment?” I ask.  “Or an accusation that you’re faking it?  You know, to get sympathy and reduced bus fare.”

Adam chuckles.  “All I can figure is that I don’t fit his stereotype of what a blind person looks like.  He said that I walked confidently—head up, eyes forward. Hell, I know how to get around.  I’ve been blind since I was seven.”

He must figure blind people flail around like Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker,” I say.

“Or drive a Maserati like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.”

“Right,” I say.  “The extremes—helpless or superhero.”

“I’m not often speechless—just ask my wife,” says Adam.  “But what am I supposed to say to this guy?  “Thank you?”

“It’s mighty hard, but God knows I try?”

“Give me a minute and I’ll walk into a door?”

“What does a blind person look like?”

“That’s a stupid thing to say?”

“All valid responses,” I say.

“Anyway,” says Adam, “I thought I’d tell you so maybe you’d write some kind of story about it.  Or figure some kind of social work angle to explain it.  Me, I’m going back to my I T stuff.  I can understand that.  It’s people that confuse me.”

He stands and I stand and we perform the awkward choreography of blind men shaking hands.

“Now, that’s funny,” Adam says as we chuckle, clasp hands and part.

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Food Fight

I work in the 5500 block of Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.  During seasons when snow and ice recede, I stroll to and from work with my Seeing Eye dog, Randy.

In the 5400 block of Lincoln Avenue is a bakery whose aroma excites Randy and me equally.  This afternoon, as we pass, Randy dips his head and, I assume, scarfs a blueberry muffin, jelly donut or chocolate éclair.  I stop.  Randy stops.  I pry his jaws apart.  He offers no resistance.  I insert two fingers into his mouth.  He complies.  I remove a huge dough ball.  He sheds tears, I’m sure of it.  I say to Randy, “No!” and, pivoting like a shortstop, I fling the sodden wad toward the street.

That’s when I glimpse the hulking mass of the SUV parked at the curb.  I hide behind Randy, frozen by fear.  Did I score a direct hit?  I hadn’t heard a telltale splat or a shrieking driver.  But the SUV is so huge, no way I missed it.  Where did that dough ball go?  What if the window is open?  Oh, Lord, what if the window is open?  Is that dough ball plastered against the inside of the windshield?  Dripping down the leather interior?  Keeping Randy between me and the SUV, I edge across the parkway.  The SUV whoops and growls.  I jump back onto the sidewalk.  What if both front windows are open and the dough ball sailed all the way through?  I sure can’t tell where it ended up and the SUV won’t let me get near it.  Only Randy can find the dough ball, and that’s how the whole mess got started in the first place.

In the 5200 block of Lincoln Avenue stands a police station.  Randy and I slink past, expecting sirens and footfalls and nightsticks.  The interrogation room.  An extracted confession.  Malicious mischief on my hitherto clean rap sheet.  I’ll take my punishment.  I just hope they go easy on Randy.

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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.

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…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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