Argentine Tango Dancer

The last leg of my trip is on the #92 CTA bus.  Across the aisle sits a young lady who converses in a clear, friendly, sober voice.  She flew in from Brooklyn to spend the holiday with her family.  We talk about my Seeing Eye dog and her cats and my cats.  We talk of the vibrancy of city life, about what is similar and different between New York and Chicago.

We talk about places we have been.  I tell her I’ve been away for a week and that I’m eager to be home with my wife to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.  She tells me that last winter, she took a vacation to Buenos Aires and met an itinerant Argentine tango dancer.

I’m about to say, “How romantic!” but I’m unsure what she means by the word, “met.”  So, I say, “When I was young, I met a Milanese girl on the Italian Riviera and I remember her to this day.”  And she says she knows exactly what I mean, and from the lilt of her voice, I know she loved her Argentine tango dancer.  But she lives in Brooklyn and he lives like a gypsy in Argentina.  And I live in Chicago and the Milanese girl lives God knows where, it’s been thirty years.

“You meet the most interesting people when you travel,” she says.

And I say, I’ve never been to Buenos Aires but I’ll bet it’s beautiful,”

She sighs but doesn’t say a word.  And the bus rolls on and people whom I see as shadows get on and off the bus and pretty soon will be my stop.  And I just know the young lady would not have got off the bus without saying good-bye to me and my dog.  And then I hear a little sniffle and I know she’s still here and she’s far away, sitting quietly, remembering her Argentine tango dancer.

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Talking to Myself

Simple lessons last longest.  This one I learned from a childhood storybook.  The Little Engine That Could pulls the train up the steep mountain, all the while repeating, “I think I can.”  The lesson is that telling myself I am capable and making an honest effort are the best I can bring to a challenge.

What the Little Engine told itself is, in modern parlance, “self-talk.”  Self-talk is what I tell myself about myself.  The raw material for self-talk is my experience interacting with the environment.  Where self-talk veers toward the danger zone is when, “I made a mistake” becomes “I am an idiot.”  I constantly make assumptions and draw conclusions about myself.  And the tendency is that negative self-talk is my default, whereas positive self-talk requires the extra effort to name it, own it and change it.

It’s a long time since I met the Little Engine.  I am not a kid anymore and blindness has taught me this:  I cannot do what I used to, and to deny that is folly.  Sometimes, I feel this whole blindness thing isn’t going particularly well.  But the less I tell myself that I am a mess, the less I feel so.  And the more I continue to think myself   capable, the more capable I may become.  When I tell myself that I can adjust to continuing vision loss because I have successfully adjusted to losses in the past, it takes me out of the helpless victim mode.

In the stories I tell myself about who I am, small edits can lead to lasting change and significantly impact outcomes in life. This is the premise of University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson’s book, Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By.  I’m on the trail of Redirect as an audio book. I’ll let you know when I find it.  Who knows, it may turn out to be this year’s version of The Little Engine That Could.

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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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“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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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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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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