My View from the Bleachers

Miller Park is named, not for a baseball legend, but for the Miller Brewing Company.  And on this glorious summer Saturday, 40,000 tailgaters toast their namesake with double-fisted gusto.  My wife and I, caught in the high tide of Happy Hour, wash up amid the human flotsam and jetsam outside Gate C. One reveler, eyeing my white cane, observes that I walk straighter than most.  “Got to,” I reply.  “I’m calling balls and strikes.”

We pop through the turnstile as the first inning ends and, rather than search for Fan Services—where they hand out real-time radios—we head for Section 227, Row 4, Seats 7&8, where we sit. Real-time radios are cool because they keep blind spectators like me in sync with the real-time game.  But I’m prepared with Plan B—my 1992 Day-Glo yellow Walkman whose radio feed is only delayed about three seconds—and that’s close enough to reality for me.

But the old Walkman remains mute as I twirl the dial.  “Should have checked this thing before we left the house,” I tell my wife.  “Got any double A batteries on you?”

She hands me a lipstick tube.  “Closest thing I’ve got.”

I advance to Plan C—my 21st Century streaming radio iPhone app.  I’m told streaming involves delay—how long the delay I calculate by asking my wife to tell me when she sees a pitch hit the catcher’s mitt on the field versus when I hear it hit the mitt on the radio.  Twenty-five seconds.  Heck, in twenty-five seconds, even the laziest baseball game can come alive with a screaming line drive hit right at my noggin but speared one-handed by my wife, saving my life and earning her a standing ovation and a cameo on the JumboTron.  And I’d have been oblivious to the drama.

“Shall I bring you into the here and now or leave you to your version of history?” asks my wife, sensing my time-delay dilemma,

“I want the best of both worlds,” I say.  I plug in one earbud and cock the other ear toward my wife.

“It’s a full count on Bryant,” she says.

“He’s not even up yet,” I reply.

I hear the crack of the bat.  Then my wife says, “Bet you five bucks Bryant’s going to single to right.”

“What do you take me for, a chump?” I say, knowing she could clean me out, five bucks at a time, and I’d let her.

In the seventh inning, we sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  We are melody and harmony.  I put my arm around my wife and we sway to the music.  I am grateful for what I have and whom I have.  I am grateful to be taken out to the ball game, taken out with the crowd, bought some peanuts and Cracker Jack.  I gaze ahead, searching for signs of life in the thick, gray green fog that is the playing field, the dark gray fog of the stands.  I turn to my wife but she’s not there.  I’m holding her hand but she’s not there.  She says my name but she’s not there.  Then in my ear, the ear away from her, I hear the radio sing, “and it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out…at the old ball game.”

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Smile for the Camera

I’m eager to show off my new iPhone app that describes peoples’ faces.  It does other things, too, like read print and bar codes, but recognizing people is too cool to keep secret.

“Don’t point that thing at me, please,” says my wife, looking up from her book.  “I don’t need artificial intelligence telling me I’m a ‘middle-aged woman with curly hair, looking crabby.’ I can figure that out myself.”

“But that’s not how I see you,” I tell her.  “To me, you’re still a ‘pretty teenage girl with curly hair, laughing’”

“Honey, what you don’t see won’t hurt you,” says my wife.  “Here, smile and I’ll take your picture—‘distinguished gentleman with moustache, looking smug.’”

“Is that what I am now?  It’s been so long since I’ve seen myself.  What about the rest of me?  I know I could stand to lose ten pounds around the middle.”

“Keep going,” says my wife.

“I can’t possibly look like those old codgers I saw, way back when, strutting around the locker room at the golf club—saggy this, hairy that.”

“Hmmm,” says my wife.  I want her to cry, “Oh, Hercules, you force of nature!”

“Lumpy here, wrinkly there.”

“My, my.”  That’s all she says, though I want her to say more.

“At least I haven’t gotten any tattoos or piercings.”

“Why would you?”  she says.  “You couldn’t see them anyway.”

“And I don’t wear tank tops or spandex like other guys my age.”

“Honey,” says my wife, taking my face in her hands, “you are my dream of delight.”

“And you are mine,” I reply.  “Beauty is in the heart of the beholder.”

“Now, take that camera away,” says my wife.  “Snap a shot of the dog.  ‘Black Lab with gray chin whiskers, looking hungry.’”

So I stroll away, still eager to show off my new app, calling, “Randy, if you let me take your picture, I’ll give you a biscuit!”

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The Fear of What Hasn’t Happened

When I was diagnosed with RP three decades ago and was told I would go blind, my first thought was that the world would end.  It hasn’t.

When I stopped driving, I figured I’d become house-bound, isolated and withdrawn, that I’d never go anywhere anymore.  That hasn’t happened.

When I started using a white cane, I was afraid I’d flail around and get lost more than found.  I haven’t.

When I replaced my white cane with my first Seeing Eye dog, I just knew I’d trip and fall on my face every third or fourth step.  I haven’t.

When I renewed a relationship after many years, I feared that she wouldn’t want to be with a man who had lost his eyesight.  That didn’t happen.

When I interviewed for a job I knew I could be really good at, I figured they’d find a way to reject me because I was blind.  They didn’t.

When I walk down the street and need to step on a manhole, I just know the cover is off and I’ll fall all the way to China.  That hasn’t happened—yet.

Each day with blindness brings the tide of anxiety—constant, shifting, relentless.  It rises less from visual misperception than from my character defects—worry, inadequacy and perfectionism for starters.  I lack many qualities, faith not the least among them.  If history is the best teacher, I’d learn from abundant evidence that events are predictable, the world is benign.  No, I repeal these laws of nature and probability, subjugate experience to superstition.   I create the fear I feel.  I fear not only the dog that bit me, I fear the dog that might.  Flight is the obvious reaction, the logical choice. Shed the fear and retreat.  But to retreat is to risk every self-fulfilling prophecy, every outcome that could have happened but didn’t.  There’s a choice but there is no choice.  This is a matter, not of heroism, but of survival, of self-respect.  If I can’t embrace fear, at least I can acknowledge it as my companion. So on we go, whistling through the graveyard, fearing most what will happen, not around the corner, but what will happen if we don’t take that next step.

Posted in Adapting, Blindness, Coping | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Bob’s Electronic Birthday Party

I am of the generation that mailed birthday invitations with red, yellow and blue balloons on them; with block printing about who, what, where, when and why; and with a postscript message like, “Bring lots of nice presents!”

Last Monday, I got an e-vite for my friend Bob’s surprise birthday party.  I down-arrowed line by line, hearing things like, “Join the e-vite team” and “Be the first to…” but nothing about the date, time or place of Bob’s birthday party.  I decided not to respond “YES” or “NO” without knowing when or where, so I just closed the e-vite and figured I’d figure things out later.

Last Tuesday, I got an e-vite reminding me that an e-vite to Bob’s birthday party had been emailed to me.  I checked this one out line by line, too, hoping for somebody’s name and phone number to RSVP to, but found only a “MAYBE” button, so I pressed Enter on that.  I figured I could buy some time while I figured things out.

Last Wednesday, I got an email from e-vite welcoming me to the e-vite team. Maybe pressing the “MAYBE” button had enrolled me in the inner circle.  I read this one, too, line by line until, way at the bottom, I found a “NOT NOW” button and clicked on it.  I figured stalling them was my best tactic.

Last Thursday and Saturday, I got e-vites reminding me about the other e-vites.  I don’t know why they gave me Friday off, but they did.  I read these two, too, and heard a more strident, demanding tone.  But still no when or where.  I clicked every link in the e-vite, figuring they’re smarter than I am and they’ll figure it out.

Sunday, I called my friend Bob so I could ask him when and where his birthday party would be.  I figured somebody had probably already spoiled the surprise part of it, so why not ask him directly.  Bob told me his birthday party had been the night before and where the hell was I, everybody was wondering.  I wished Bob a happy birthday and kept my technologically-challenged excuses to myself.

I haven’t gotten any more e-vites to Bob’s birthday party.  I figure they figure if you don’t tell them what they want to know, they cut you off.  Still, I’m on the lookout for the e-vite that says, “Take a Minute to Rate Bob’s Birthday Party.”  I think it’s important to provide feedback when solicited and, boy, will I give them an earful.

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Which Way is Left?

I know this guy whose T-shirt says, “Don’t follow me — I can’t see where I’m going.”  Well, I can’t see where I’m going either but I’m asked for directions all the time.  And I’m good at giving them.  You see, as a blind person, I have to  know where I am and where I’m going.  True, I might not know where other people are going but if I do, I give them precise, turn-by-turn instructions — none of this “it’s over there” stuff.

I consider it a testament to faith that a sighted person asks a blind person for directions.  Perhaps I project confidence.  Perhaps Randy, my Seeing Eye dog,  projects competence.  More likely, they hope I’ll just pull out my ubiquitous iPhone and ask Siri to tell them how to get to the closest Greek restaurant.

I prove how keen is my sense of location and direction by telling the taxi driver, “We’re going to the Sulzer Public Library branch at Sunnyside and Lincoln.  First, take Damen south to Montrose even though that’s farther south than Sunnyside, then turn west on Montrose, then north on Lincoln so we’ll be on the library side of Lincoln and I won’t have to cross the street.”  And the driver replies, “Yes, sir,” resisting the urge to inquire how the blind man knows how to get around.

I’m thorough with trip planning because I’m my most reliable navigator.  If I tell Randy, “Take me to Navy Pier,” he won’t know what I’m talking about.  Nor does the statue to whom I ask directions to Daley Plaza.  I’m unsure if foreign language speakers are locals or tourists, but if I could see whether they’re holding a map, I’d know—though that still wouldn’t help me understand what they’re saying.  English speakers tend to be directionally challenged, amending their instructions with, “Oh, I meant your other left.”  I thank them, knowing no good will come from voicing my thought balloon of, “Mister, my dog knows right from left better than you do.”

Now you see that things work best when I know my coordinates and share my knowledge with those in need.  The logistical “how” and “where” begin a positive connection that leads to more substantive sharing, such as, “Oh, you’re going to the Swedish restaurant?  May I recommend the Swedish pancakes?  The lingonberry sauce is most tasty.  And have the limpa toast on the side.”  In this manner, the practical becomes pleasurable, even companionable and I might be inclined to say, “Why, I’m headed there myself, so just follow me.”

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The More I Write about Blindness the Less I Write about Blindness

Over the years, I’ve walked almost 2000 miles to and from work.  Most trips are serene, a few stressful.  My first step on every walk is to pause and take stock.  I check the weather and traffic.  I test that Randy’s harness is snug but not too tight. I pat my pockets for keys, iPhone, billfold and dog bags.  Then I measure the most important factor I bring to my journey: my attitude.

My attitude determines whether I view the world as full of compassionate helpers or inconsiderate creeps.  The constant in this equation is who’s out there; the variable is how I view them.  On days I feel at ease with myself, I embrace the stranger.  I walk with grace, like I just got out of church.  But on days I’m immersed in self-pity, I assume all motives are sadistic.  I take every real or imagined slight personally.  I look for a fight and, by God, I find one.  Attitude, action and reaction—the choice is mine whether I wear my blindness like a loose garment or a straightjacket.

On days I am at ease, I possess the humility to be right-sized in this world.  I am a part of, rather than apart from, my fellows.  On days of conflict, I carry the delusion of self-importance.  I’m sure the driver who crowded me in the crosswalk waited all day and traveled a long way just to stick it to me.  I’m certain the kid left his bicycle on the sidewalk so he could watch the blind man trip and fall.  I just know the city worker dug up the sidewalk to confuse my guide dog.  Oh, I get payback being the victim.  Me, me, me becomes even more compelling when the me is wronged.

The riddle goes, “What have you got when you sober up a horse thief?” and the answer is, “A sober horse thief.”  Self-pity, anger and grandiosity make me the horse thief, not blindness.  For sure, blindness doesn’t help—it exacerbates the flaws I bring into play.  I can’t change the blindness but I’m working on changing the flaws.  My goal is progress, not perfection.  So, I keep walking, keep practicing patience, tolerance and self-restraint.  Today, I can greet my wife with, “I had a pretty good walk home from work today, Honey.  I only yelled at one driver.”  And that’s what I call progress!

Posted in Blindness, Coping, independent travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

I Say a Little Prayer for Me

Tap, step.  Tap, step.  Tap, stop.  Where am I?  I take a guess and take a left onto Fear Street.  Cars honk, drivers curse, rap music wraps me in a shroud of angry oaths.  Darkness weighs on me, trees lean on me, buildings frown on me.  The sidewalk swells and plunges. Turn left?  Turn right?  Turn back!  I keep walking and start praying.  God in Heaven, I swear I am not lost—I’ve found the screaming hell of going blind.

This was supposed to be fun, this housewarming party.  Celebrate life!  Toast a new start!  Now I hate the host for not offering a ride and I hate myself for not asking.  Tap, step.  Tap, step.  North or south? A swirling wind sweeps away the guiding voice of my GPS.  East or west?  The Unholy Trinity of lawn mower, weed whacker and leaf blower assaults my ears and snaps at my heels.  I hate this mayhem.  I hate this fright.  And I hate that I hate so much tonight.

I should have planned better, made a practice run, installed that Uber app.  Next time, I’ll do better; I’ll be better than this.  But past and future deny my place in this moment and this moment is all that’s real. Tap, step. Tap, step.  Nearer or farther?  Try to breathe deep and relax into the fear.  Try harder, because everything tells me to clench and will it away.   Slow down.  I sense the shift, sense that “Where am I” is less a right or wrong place and more a question of Who and Why am I. And I become aware that I won’t find all the answers tonight, that there may not be answers.  It’s OK to live in the questions and the discomfort.  It’s OK when life is messy.  That’s what life is like sometimes.  And now is one of those times.  Tonight I do not overcome.  Tonight I do not go beyond.  In this struggle, I just go on.

Posted in Blindness, independent travel | Tagged , , | 4 Comments