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.

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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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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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