A Lesson in Empathy

 “I used to pride myself on my independence, now I am afraid

to go on walks in the evening, to attend social events…

where I should be comfortable.  It is embarrassing

how feeble I feel, how timidly I move through life,

always guarded, ready to defend myself, ready to be angry.”


I am blind—a blind social worker working with people who are blind.  I read the above passage assuming a perspective of shared vulnerability, for I hear these words, or words like these, from people struggling with vision loss.  I empathize, not only as a social worker, but as one who lost connection and forfeited the belief that I was entitled to a full life. Blindness is trauma and its expression of anxious apartness is as universal as sight is individual.  But the above passage was spoken, not by a young blind woman, but by a college-aged victim of date rape.

I hear her and know I can draw parallels with blindness but I prefer to relate through our mutual loss of the inherent right to a future without fear of living through a lens that sees us as deficient. I am her when she says she’s afraid, angry, embarrassed, guarded.  And knowing the source of her trauma, my initial response joins with her outrage.   I am ashamed of my perpetrator gender.  I condemn the judicial system which endorses a double standard that blames victims and compounds their trauma by insinuating that they were “asking for it.”  I decry the moral judgment of retribution, wherein the victim becomes the accused, a concept that rivals the idiocy of the archaic belief that blindness is punishment for sin.  I shudder for this fragile stranger as friends guess at how to behave and what to make of this “poor girl,” this brave victim of a sexual predator.

The truth is, trauma is a universal experience. It arrives with a gentle tug on your sleeve or between the lines of a diagnosis.  Yet how often we lose our ability to speak of it, to deal with it openly.  “I didn’t want to be known as the girl who was raped,” says Claire Underwood in House of Cards, reinforcing the tragic tendency toward secrecy, suppression and shame.  There are days I wish blindness could be hidden, where I might get a breather from dealing with the glaring, visible  vulnerability.  I have to go on faith that, because physical injury, emotional trauma and social stigma are universally shared,  experiencing these multiple effects of trauma brings unity, empathy and understanding to the common struggle.  This thought gives me courage.


[The quotation leading this story was taken from an article in the Chicago Tribune, 6/9/2016, “What my sons will learn from Turner’s Stanford rape case” by Rex W. Huppke]

[Claire Underwood’s quote comes from House of Cards, season 2, episode 4 (Cumulative Episode 17)]


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I Am a Male Hausfrau

Today is laundry day. What’s this thing?  It feels like wool underwear.  Who’d want to wear scratchy underwear? Hmm, no leg holes, so how do you put them on?  And what’s with this tassel?  Aha, this isn’t wool underwear—it’s my stocking cap!

Tomorrow is cleaning day.  My vacuum is the “Animal Hair Turbo” model.  It could suck up a cat.  When I finish cleaning, in my mind all is bright and shiny.  But I know I miss things, and that somewhere, in plain sight for someone sighted, lies whatever the cat brought up.

My wife and I divide domestic duties: she shops for groceries, I clean house and do the laundry.  She is the hunter; I am the gatherer.  Gender roles be damned—the arrangement works for us.

I take my job seriously.  I clean and change my lint filters more often than some people change their socks.  When the rinse water goes down the drain before the spin cycle ends, that makes my day. If I tally an even number of socks in the dryer, I am affirmed; if I end up with an odd number, I question my methodology.

I’ve developed tricks for my trade.  Not seeing the clothes, I sort by texture and shape.  Not seeing my wife, I sense her size when I fold her clothes or when I hold her in my arms.  My color identifier distinguishes five shades of gray and confirms the efficacy of bleach when “very light gray” T shirts come out “white.”  My tactics level the playing field somewhat, but, sighted or blind, it’s pretty much impossible to fold a fitted sheet.

Being useful around the house does not bring drudgery.  I whistle while I work.  I enjoy music and books.  If I clean house in two hours listening to Pink Floyd, I can clean it in 45 minutes listening to the Pointer Sisters.  That gives me time to savor a leisurely lunch of delicacies my wife has found.  Avocados in winter?  Cherries in January?  She brings home the best stuff.  And if I spill, well, I clean it up or wash it out.  I call her Tarzan the hunter; she calls me her hausfrau.  It takes two in our little village.

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A. Burr under My Saddle

I have a wonderful wife.  For Christmas, she treated me to the hottest ticket in Chicago—Hamilton.  As we settled into our seats, a perky theatre rep said, “Sir, would you like to use the audio description headphones for today’s performance?  I’ll demonstrate how the system works.  This part is like a transistor radio, but you look much too young to remember transistor radios.”  I mumbled humble thanks to this innocent while my wife won a Tony for eye rolling.

“Miss,” floated the voice of the woman seated on my opposite side, “What shall I do if the noise from the headphones bothers me?  This has happened before and it’s very annoying.”

A pall descended on our party.  While I brainstormed an equitable solution, the theatre rep gamely offered, “Well, uh, if that happens, uh, just tell the usher and, well, we’ll do, uh, something.”  That ‘something,’ I surmised, would be improvised.  Meanwhile, I whispered to my wife, “I could always hold my hands over her ears.”  But I had whispered the wrong thing too loudly and the theatre rep gasped, “Oh, my God” and I then whispered that I was only kidding, that I had never, and would never, do such a thing.  The theatre rep expressed dubious belief then excused herself, doubtless to warn Security to “Keep an eye on that guy in Row P, Seat 4.”

I had heard of this theatrical phenomenon: the audio descriptive headphones inadvertently disrupting neighboring patrons because of the bleed out of sound.  As the orchestra tuned, I pondered a few ethical questions.  What if meeting the needs of one patron compromises the experience of others?  Who, if anyone, takes precedence?  Should the user lower the volume to compensate?  Should their neighbors be more tolerant? Then I heard the opening bars and ethical dilemmas gave way to the joy of sound and music.

In the end, I chose not to wear the headphones.  I preferred the sound of voices in space, the sense of place.  Plus, the headphones clamped my noggin like a nutcracker.  Besides, I had prepared: I had listened to the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton—all 38 hours and 22 minutes of it.  My wife and I had virtually memorized the Broadway Cast recording. So, without prompting, I knew who was talking to whom about what.  And, at intermission, my wife described what I couldn’t learn from my homework—the costumes, the choreography, the look.

But I learned nothing of the woman on my opposite side. I did not speak to her nor she to me.  I resented her for making my blindness an issue and I defaulted to expressing displeasure through silence.  I regret we did not connect, that she remained a shadow and I an object.  We might have better understood one another. Had we engaged, I would have provided my back story with only a hint of self-pity to attest to my imperfect humanness. I would have said, “The book gave me the context of it.  The recording gave me the emotion of it.  I am thrilled to witness it. Now, I just wish I could see it.”

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Jimmy Kimmel’s Only Interview with Randy the Dog

Jimmy Kimmel:  [Applause and theme music fade]  Our next guest comes to us from the pages of the Jalapenos in the Oatmeal blog.  Ladies and gentlemen, please greet the star of that hit series, Randy the Dog!  [wild applause and “Who Let the Dogs Out” theme music]  Welcome, Randy, you’re sure looking sharp tonight.

Randy the Dog:  You’re so kind, Jimmy. Basic black is a classic look, don’t you think?  And fur works well this time of year.

JK:  And having your own keeps you on the right side of the fur controversy.

RD:  Right you are, Jimmy.  So many people complimented me on Fifth Avenue and the looks I got on the subway ride over here were so sweet.

JK:  Speaking of subways, Randy, don’t the crowds get to you?  I mean, you’re down there and the rest is standing room only.

RD:  I just sit still and take it all in, Jimmy.  It’s a great sniffing opportunity.  One nice lady even said to me, My goodness,” she said,  “You know more about me than my husband does.”  [chuckles]  That got a good laugh.  Then when I told her my name, she said, “Well, you sure are randy, Randy.”  And that got another laugh.

JK:  Making friends everywhere you go, right, Randy?  But I know travel can get tiresome.  Don’t you get bored on long trips?

RD:  Not at all, Jimmy.  I’m not like people with their gizmos and gadgets and attention deficits.  I don’t need Rin Tin Tin reruns on the back seat DVD player.  No, I look out the window.  I look at clouds that look like clouds.  Then I take a nap and dream of food.

JK:  Speaking of food, Randy…

RD:  Yes, Jimmy?

JK:  …well, I’d just think you’d get tired of the same thing all the time.

RD:  Like I should paddle across a frozen lake to fetch a dead duck?  [laughs]  No way.  I like my three cups of dry chow served in my bowl with a water back.  That suits me fine.  No, it’s people who think I need variety, like the lady who slipped me a slice of bacon and ended up having to replace her carpeting.  Never seen such a mess in my life.

JK:  So, no BLT’s for you , eh?  [chuckles]  But, Randy, what’s life like for you, the famous Seeing Eye dog?

RD:  It’s a good gig, Jimmy.  Gets me into a lot of places—restaurants and hotels with room service.  Say, Jimmy, what’s on that plate next to your coffee cup?  You gonna eat that?  You gonna eat that?  I could eat that.  The biscuits in the Green Room were mighty tasty, but I could really eat what’s on that plate next to your coffee cup.

JK:  I was just saying, Randy, that, with you being such a star, I kinda feel like chopped liver.

RD:  Hmm… [leans toward Jimmy]

JK:  [leaning back]  Randy, why are you looking at me like that?  [fade to black]

Posted in Guide Dogs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Bus Is Coming! The Bus Is Coming!

With the arrival of each season—baseball, football, hockey and Christmas—I mosey over to my neighborhood barber shop for a haircut.  It’s a short walk and, with Randy the dog guiding the way, my mind is free to wander like a free range chicken.  But I tune in the traffic pattern as we near the corner of Ashland and Foster.  As I calculate the red light/green light sequence, I feel a tug on my sleeve.

“You get on the bus here,” says the little old lady, pulling me like a truant child toward what must be the bus stop.

“Not today, ma’am,” I reply.  “Today I’m just crossing the street to the barber shop.”

“No, this is where you get on the bus,” she says, raspy and urgent.

“No I don’t,” I say.  “You get on the bus.  I cross the street.”  I fake left and run right.  But she grabs my sleeve again and swings me around.

“I know you want to be helpful and I appreciate that,” I say.  “But I’m really not interested in getting on the bus.  I’m interested in crossing Foster.”  I take one step and then realize that, in the sleeve-tugging and swinging around, I’ve lost my bearings.  She senses my confusion and leads me toward the bus stop again, all the while shouting,   “The bus is coming!  The bus is coming!”

I hear the bus stop and the door open—whoosh! —and the old lady yelling, ”That man needs help!”  to the bus driver, who now stands next to me asking, “You need help?”

“Yes, get me away from her for starters,” I tell him.  ”then point me due south so I can cross Foster.”  He does this without question or comment.

Thus, having regained my sense of place in the universe, I progress toward my goal, wondering where I’d be if not for the kindness of strangers.

Posted in Blindness, independent travel, Safety, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

I Don’t Ride with Animals

People who accompany a guide dog, or most any dog for that matter, learn that the dog gets the limelight.  I have learned this lesson in humility. I accept my role being Timmie to Lassie, Vanna White to Pat Sajak, Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes.

“What a beautiful dog,” is how Hector the paratransit driver greets Randy and me.  I introduce us and Hector and I shake hands.  “I think the middle seat will be best for you two,” he says.  “We have two pick-ups and a drop-off and then you and Randy will be home.”

As we bounce down the road, Hector and I talk sports while the GPS gives directions and Randy sniffs for crumbs.  When we hear we have reached our destination, Hector stops the van and consults his clipboard.

“Uh-oh,” he says.  “The note here is that this rider refuses to ride with animals.”

“I’ll move to the back seat,” I offer, on behalf of Randy.  “We’ll be out of the way back there.”

“No,” replies Hector.  “You stay where you are.  I will counsel her.”

Hector exits the van and says, “I made a mistake ma’am.”

“You bet you did,” comes the woman’s voice.  “You didn’t back into the driveway like you’re supposed to.”

I’ll help you, ma’am” says Hector.  “There now.  My mistake, ma’am, is that there is a service animal on board.”

“I don’t ride with animals!” she shrieks.  “I don’t ride with animals!”

“Now, ma’am, you sit up front with me,” says Hector.  “The dog will be behind you.  You’ll be up front.”  The two stand outside the van.  I hear it all.  The woman rips Hector up one side and down the other.  Hector mumbles apologies

The front passenger door opens and the woman plops into the seat.  “No, I don’t need help with my seat belt,” she says.  “And I’m going to lodge a complaint against you.  I’m going to sit right here in this seat next to you and I’m going to call paratransit and lodge a complaint while you have to sit and listen.”  Hector remains silent.

I am curious about the woman’s aversion to dogs.  Perhaps she’s allergic.  Perhaps she was attacked as a child.  There are many logical, rational reasons for fear of dogs.  But I say nothing.  I don’t want her to rip me up one side and down the other like she did Hector.  The woman pays no attention to Randy and me, at least she doesn’t say anything.  Still, she might be giving us the stink eye for all I can see. Or be reaching for the Mace in her purse.  I summon Randy to the footwell in front of me, instruct him to sit, insist he lie down and demand that he stay.

We ride in silence broken only by the melodious voice of the GPS.  I keep one foot on Randy’s leash and one hand on his back.  “You have arrived at your destination,” says the GPS voice called Stephanie or Allison or Jennifer.  Hector exits the van but is back in seconds, alone.

We drive a little farther.  “You have arrived at your destination.”  Hector exits the van but, again, returns, alone.  We drive a little farther, turn left, then right, then back up—beep! beep! beep!—until, once again, we have arrived at our destination.

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” shouts the woman.  “You’re driving around in circles and picking up nobody.  You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”  Hector remains silent.  He exits the van and, this time, his door closes with a little more force.  The woman mutters an oath under her breath which I won’t repeat except to say it’s a body part that all of us have.  Then she tells her phone to call a “seafood restaurant on Lincoln.”  I wonder if she’s afraid she’ll be late for her Saturday luncheon with her girlfriends or whether she’ll be late for work shucking oysters and slicing pieces of three fingers while doing what amounts to the worst job in the world for minimum wage but which she needs to keep to pay the rent on her crappy apartment.

I hear Hector’s voice approaching.  He’s saying, “You’ll be fine, ma’am.  You’ll sit in the back and the dog is in the middle, out of your way and he’s well behaved and he won’t bother you.”  While I’m wondering what accounts for this animal phobic population, the door slides open and Hector guides this new woman to her seat and asks her if she’d like the footrest and she says yes and he asks her if she’d like him to put on her seat belt and she says yes.  Then he resumes his place behind the wheel and off we go.

“How old is your dog?” the new woman asks.  I tell her that Randy is eight and that we’ve been together for six and a half years.  She says that’s nice and that she’s only going three blocks to her book group at the public library and the book they’re discussing is called The Woman in Gold and she listens to talking books because she’s legally blind but she never got white cane training though she’d like to and then she could walk the three blocks but now she uses a support cane and she’s afraid she’d trip over a crack in the sidewalk if she tried to walk to her book group with it and we learn all this in three blocks and then we reach our destination and Hector exits the van and the door slides open and he undoes her seat belt and the footrest pops up and she’s gone.

We continue in silence.  I hear paper rustling in the front passenger seat and the smell of French fries wafts into the middle seat.  Randy’s head pops up and I push it down.  I sense, I can’t really say how, that we’re getting close to home and then Hector says there’s a moving van blocking the street and he’ll park and walk me the half block to my house.  So I wait for him to exit the van and slide the door open before I release Randy and we bolt out the door and I take Hector’s arm and he walks me home.  I thank him and tell him I think he handled a difficult situation professionally.  “It’s all in a day’s work,” he says.  “Some folks complain, others take it in stride.”  We shake hands and he walks back to the van, to continue his long and silent ride with the woman who doesn’t ride with animals—until today.

Inside the house, I take off my jacket and Randy’s harness, toss him a biscuit and fish my phone from my pocket.  I call the paratransit customer relations department and listen as the voice—sounding more like Gravel Gertie than GPS Stephanie—recites the automated mailbox selections.  When she says, “To File a Commendation, press 2,” that’s the number I press.

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Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Empowered by White Cane Day, I’m giving the dog the afternoon off and taking my cane for a walk to the grocery store.  The weather is clear, the track is fast and, in seven minutes flat, I’m bearing down on the corner of Clark and Summerdale.

From Starbucks bounces a fellow who, while shouting into his phone, hurdles my cane.  I kid you not—he doesn’t even break stride.  When I reach the grocery store, a man kicks my cane out of the way so he can get to the automatic door before I do.  I mean, he kicks my cane out of his way.

What’s going on?  Is my white cane invisible?  I’ll say it straight—my cane keeps you safe from me and keeps me safe from you.  This partnership fails when the cane means everything to me and nothing to you.  While anger is not the currency to negotiate this social contract, I nevertheless demand an accounting.  Is it ignorance? Indifference?  Sometimes I think you just don’t care and I despair that conclusion.  It robs me of hope—and that hurts.

Inside the store, an octogenarian screeches “What ya carryin’ that stick for?” and scurries off before I can reply.  In the candy aisle, a kid says, “Mommy, why’s that man swinging that stick?”  Mommy hushes the kid and they hurry on.

OK, chalk it up to the innocence of youth, politically correct parenting or memory loss among seniors.  But the message is that I am an object of curiosity rather than a subject of interest.  I’m willing, eager even, to explain the white cane to the kid, the mom and the old lady, to humanize the experience, but no one seems inclined to listen.  The corollary is the server who asks my wife, “And what will he have?” What’s striking is the irony of the blind being overlooked by the sighted.  The implication is that blind people don’t measure up compared to the “able bodied”—and that hurts.

Nearing home, I ponder my part in today’s drama.  Are my antennae tuned only to slights?  Do I tally wrongs to prove I’m a victim?  I feel the wake of a bicycle whizzing past.  Mine is a quiet street; bikes needn’t be on the sidewalk. I could get hit and that would hurt.  My cane tip could get caught in the spokes.  The cyclist could go flying over the handlebars and smash onto the pavement.  What would my part be in that pain? I tap home, pondering the meaning of White Cane Day and whether it has meaning at all— and that hurts.

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