Thursday, December 30, 2010

May the Best Man Win

I’ve never gotten married, but Abe did a few years ago in Bozeman, Montana, and on this occasion I was honored to serve as his best man.  I arrived a day earlier than Jens, Wolf and Craig, and met Abe's intended: a lovely woman I immediately saw as a terrific partner for Abe.  Why the other three hadn't been asked to fill the position became contentious in later years, but for now I was just pleased to avail myself for this happy event. 

That evening, Abe and his friend Al (a bluegrass musician from Kentucky) and I hit the Hoff Brau (spelling may vary), a likable bar I’d drank at in previous trips to Bozeman.  For the visually impaired, the Hoff is not easily navigable, dark and packed with chairs and pool tables nestled closely together.  Al and I began a polite discussion of religion.

“But Dave, the Bible says ‘God is our refuge and strength’”—

“Al, Dave’s an atheist.  There’s no point citing the Bible since he doesn’t believe in it.”

Abe had heard my rants before, and neither he nor I was feeling combative, so the conversation switched more festive topics: music, girls, booze, and the fact Abe would be forsaking all three to varying extents before long.

After knocking back a few, it was time to break the sea, so  I whipped out my stick and headed for the head through the smoky labyrinth of bar furniture.  Along the way, my stick jabbed something on the floor, what, I couldn’t tell.  It felt stuffed, squishy, like a beanbag or sack of pork bellies.  I jabbed it some more, and the it rustled lazily. I realized I was jabbing a dog.  The dog didn’t seem bothered, but I apologized to its master anyway, and might have apologized to the dog (also expecting an apology in return) but dogs can’t talk.  

Sidling behind its master’s barstool, I said “Sorry about that.  I’m blind and I just jabbed your dog.”  

“Fuck you you’re blind.”

“I beg your pardon?” pulse rising in its customary way.

“I said ‘fuck you you’re blind’.  What, are deaf, too?”  He dragged off his cigarette and set his drink down.

“The fuck I’m not.  What the fuck is this, then, asshole?”  I flung my stick at him.

He fumbled with it, and as he felt it in his hands he laughed.

“Holy shit, you are blind.  So am I.”  

His name was Todd.  He’d been shot in the face in a hunting accident and was completely sightless.  He had a guide dog, which explains why the animal was so unperturbed by the jabbing.  I slapped Todd on the back and we laughed like mad at the mix-up.  He was wearing a tasseled leather biker jacket, and had a Grizzly Adams beard.  He wore dark glasses.  

“What are the odds?”  We agreed they were slim, and celebrating our new friendship over Jager shots, swapped war stories and commiserated on the annoyance of sight loss in world of stupid people.  He told me strangers give him shit about being blind, and even (astonishingly) call his blindness into question.  

“Are you fucking serious?  It’s one thing for me, since I do have some sight and it's all kind of up in the air...but you...people give you shit, too?”

“Yep.  That’s what I thought you were about when you walked by.  It happens more than you’d expect, and I get a little pissy about it.”  He put his cigarette out and grunted.  “I don’t put up with much shit.”  

“Hell no.”   

Abe and Al did their own thing, and I reveled in the rare opportunity to exchange notes with someone in a similar situation.  As we sucked down Jager shots and cigarettes, we were inexplicably and periodically interrupted by an acquaintance of Todd’s who’d been lurking behind us, repeating the suggestion that I was in all actuality not blind, and that I was, in fact, an imposter.  I was being apprehended by Bozeman’s finest handicop.  He’d conjecture into our conversation, despite Todd’s persistent insistence to desist.  Obediently, the anopheline handicop would alight, only to buzz back after a spell to bite where’d he’d left off.  

“I’m onto you, you fucking fraud.  I know you’re not blind.”

“He’s legit, man, fuck.  Leave us alone,” Todd waving his hand dismissively.  Still the cycle continued, more annoyingly with each repetition.

“Dude, what’s this guy’s deal?” my shot glass smacking the bar. 

“He’s not usually this much of an asshole.  He’s just drunk.”

“Well, he’s about to get his nose broken.”  

“Wouldn’t blame you.”

Todd and I ordered up more rounds, trying to ignore this human housefly.  The next and last time he dropped by, he crept beind me and snarled into my ear: “This guy’s blind,” indicating Todd, “but you’re not.  You’re faking it.  You think you can just walk in here, pretending you’re blind?”

I‘d had enough. 

“Look dude, you need to fuck off or I’m gonna kick your ass.”  

“Let’s go!  Right now, outside,” like he was in a movie.  It was difficult to take this man seriously, but he needed to learn a lesson about being polite to the visually impaired.  Beyond that, this seemed the only recourse to terminating his incessant harassment. 

I got up, calmly unfolded my stick, and caned for the door.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” scoffing for all the bar to hear.

He shouldn’t have said that.

Todd didn’t bother stopping me.

I crossed the threshold first, when Abe and Al—who’d been observing from afar—bolted for the door.  With the cane in my left hand, I pushed open the door, took three steps, the pestilential drunk directly behind me.  As he stepped out of the bar, I threw my right arm around his neck and flipped him over my hip onto his back.  I flung the cane and wailed on him, his head bouncing off the asphalt.  I could feel blood splatter under my knuckles as I cracked him over and over with my left fist.  Al hovered over the melee squealing encouragements in Kentuckian.  

“Kick his ass Dave!  Kick his fucking ass!” dancing wildly around the fray.  Abe had seen this side of me before, and begged me to let the man go.

“Dave, he’s had enough!  Think about what you’re doing!  You’re gonna kill him!” 

I might have.  All fists and spit: years of frustration violently made manifest.  This was an unfair fight: the handicop had fucked with the wrong visually impaired drunk.  My consciousness left my body to some degree, and as the pounding continued, the handicop’s legs kicked and flailed, helplessly trapped, his neck locked in right arm.  Abe knew the score, and before olong Al changed his tune and agreed the punishment had been amply meted out.  Despite my possessed protestations, the two pried me off by the armpits as the handicop sprang to his feet and fled.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” all three agreed, and I grabbed my stick—now broken—and bolted into the night. 

I never saw Todd again.  Poor guy must have gotten stuck with the whole bill.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts

Hello, dear friends and gentle hearts
My mind can’t be free
Please say a prayer for me
All I know is someday there will be no pain
And you stood your ground
But how long can you be beaten down?

But that’s one more broken hand
From punching at the wall
I’ll stare into the sun
Until I can’t see at all

“Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” by American Steel

I’m proud to be a Green Beret in the Red Army’s War on Christmas.  No, I don’t like “Happy Holidays” any more than the average Fox News commentator, but not for the reasons they and the Christian Right don't (that the greeting is Satanic) but because I flatly don’t see the point.  “Happy Hanukkah” seems insincere if you’re not Jewish, and “Happy Quanza” seems offensive if you’re not black.  As for “Merry Christmas,” I’m not a Christian so the holiday—the “Holy Day”—holds no meaning for me. 

I hate how the dominant Christian culture sees any attempt toward inclusivity as a terrorist attack on our American way of life. 

I hate the divisiveness of the holidays. 

I hate that we prepare our children for lives of religious credulity by warming them up with the omniscience of Santa Claus.

I hate the shrieking din of the holidays: the malls, the post offices, the supermarkets teeming with spoilt American children.  

I hate the holidays as capitalist phenomena.  Like you, I’m not the slightest bit commercialistic, and I bristle at the blitz and barrage of Yuletide propaganda hurled at us through our televisions, radios and computing machines.  Holiday Lexus ads?  You have got to be shitting me.  Who the hell gets a Lexus for Christmas?  If you got a Lexus for Christmas, speak now that I may rebuke you.   
I hate It’s A Wonderful Life.

But more than anything, I hate Paul McCartney’s “We’ll be Having a Wonderful Christmas Time.”  So long as that song is playing I am most assuredly not having a wonderful time.  How was that man ever a Beatle?  Imagine if John Lennon was alive.  All you need is love, sure, but damn I hate that song.  And now it’s in my head.  Thanks a lot, Paul.      

On the flipside, I actually like a fair bit about this time of year and would like to see certain customs and themes extended year round.  “Peace on Earth, good will toward Man”?  Loving-kindness and human charity?  All very good, so why are they merely seasonal ideals?  Are we expected to crave war on Earth and harbor bad will toward man the other eleven months?  

Family and friends laughing and drinking around a bountiful table?  I’m all for prandial merriment and quaffs of the ol’ “holiday spirits,” and who can deny a fondness for parties and presents?  I’m as festive as they come, so let’s have parties every weekend, if not every day.  Rummy eggnog and mulled wine would be just as fine in September or March.  Rum and eggnog: it just makes sense.  I mean, I know I’m not the only one who likes Bacardi omelets, so c’mon Darigold!  Keep the eggnog a-flowin’ 7/365.    

But the silver bells’ most silvery lining is that the holidays provide a nice excuse for exiled friends to return home to visit.  Who could oppose that?  This year’s batch is pretty thin, though I have had the joy of seeing a few long-lost loved ones of late.  No Craig, Wolf or Abe this year, sadly, but as long as late-December carries with it the prospect of friendly reunions, I can’t bah humbugger it too much.

I rely on my friends perhaps more than many of you, and I rely upon them more than they do me.  For years, dear friends and gentle hearts, you have endured my belligerent intransigence with respect to my orientation and mobility (or lack thereof).  I adore my lady friends for taking my arm in crowds, as if I was their protector and not the other way around.  I love my bros who don’t seem to mind me grabbing the backs of their jackets as we weave between pool tables and bar stools.  I love you all with your auditory cues and various other nonchalant tricks and tactics for keeping me on track.  Jingling keys, making small talk, whistling a tune, tapping tables, shuffling your feet.  And I love your for keeping my feet to fire, like chestnuts. 

“Dave, you’re forgetting your stick,”

“Yeah, yeah, okay you’re right.  I’ll get it.”

“It’s right here.  No, here.  Here!”

Each of you is more than I deserve, and I promise to continue to work toward a more heightened sense of independence throughout the New Year.  Thank you for your endless loving-kindness: it has never been seasonal.  I love you, and I thank you for loving me.    

So what the hell: Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Of Vanity and Utility

I didn’t want a cane.  

“Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery,” say the twelve-steppers.

I didn’t want to take “steps.”  I didn’t want to “recover.”  I didn’t want to admit I had a “problem.”  And I sure as hell didn’t want a blind man’s cane.  Who would?  Who wants a bright white and red arrow pointing at you, screaming “Hey everyone!  Look at the blind dude!  It’s okay to stare because he can’t see you!”?  I’m sure everyone’s problems are so insignificant they can stop to gawk while I pass by.  Maybe they don’t, but maybe they do, for a second or two.  

I wanted to be noticed, sure, but not like this.  At the bars I was already being noticed as a stumbling drunk, and while I was a stumbling drunk much of the time, my RP thought it hilarious to take it up a notch.  It turns out alcohol plus RP minus cane equals bad.  All the same, I didn’t have to be drunk, and clubbing was a notable challenge at one establishment in particular: Anchorage’s most renowned meat market and watering hole, the World Famous Chilkoot Charlie’s.  Upon arriving at Koot’s, I’d walk into—rather than through—the front door, then into bar stools and cocktail waitresses.  Invariably, I’d be accosted by some meathead E3 at his bouncer night job.  Odds are he’d been taking crap all day from his superiors, but here he held all the cards.  He’d grab me by the nape, barking I’d had enough.

“Dude, I just got here.  I haven’t even ordered anything yet.”

“Yeah, well I think you’ve had enough, and it’s time to leave.  Now.”

With no cane, how were they to believe I couldn’t see?  Were they handicops?  Certainly, but in their defense, don’t blind people carry white canes?    

“Dude, I’m not drunk, it’s just really dark in here and I can’t see a thing.”  

“Get him outta here!” squeals the irate cocktail waitress, wiping up the drinks I’d toppled.

At times like these, I typically opted just to turn tail and comply.  What was the use, otherwise?  But the drunker I was the more likely I was to pull the blind card.  And if I was with a crew and didn’t want to leave, I’d do whatever it took to defend my right to be in the bar.  Koot’s bouncers are themselves world famous for being ultra-militant wannabe cops—and to such an extent that they asphyxiated a man to death some years ago, on his birthday.  By the time a Koot’s bouncer has your number, you’re done and there’s no turning him back, blind card or no.

A baseball manager is more likely to convince an umpire to reinstate him into the gave after an ejection for arguing balls and strikes. 

There was, however, one time--the only time--I’ve ever heard of a male successfully persuading Koot’s security to reverse a decision.  It was the night of the Murder City Devils’ last show in Anchorage, ever, and we packed Koot’s to booze it up and boogie to the Devils’ groovy organ-driven Goth punk.  They’d been to Anchorage before, and always delivered one killer show after another.  This was their last, and I’d be damned if I was going to miss it.  Bounding through the bar, I could scarely contain my excitement.  In my excitement, I failed to notice the bouncer until I’d bounded into him point blank.  In his defense, I was at three sheets, and shamelessly I pulled the blind card.  At once a cadre of support rushed to my side.  

“He can’t see!  He’s blind!  Don’t be an asshole!” until, with all my drunken cunning, I'd nearly managed to convince the bouncer to let me stay.  This was uncharted territory, and I was not going to miss this show.

“Look man, I have really bad eyes, and I’m supposed to be using a cane.  I swear.  It’s dark and I just can’t see anything in here,” concentrating on holding still and speaking clearly.  The bouncer grumbled nervously to himself, and then angrily to me.

“Don’t move.”  He slipped off to confer with his colleagues.

I’m gonna miss their last show in Anchorage.  I can’t believe this.  Jesus, if I had a stick—   

“Alright, you can stay, but I’ve got my eye on you.”

It was a rhetorical triumph I may never equal.  

I nearly had to miss the Murder City Devils, which caused me to reconsider the cane question.  Had I a cane, I wouldn’t need to convince anymore bouncers.  Hell, I could get away with murder!  This was sheer pragmatism speaking, but, as usual, Utility ran smack dab into Vanity.  They were at loggerheads, two extremes of a mind-numbing dialectic.    

Utility:  You really should get a stick so you don’t get hassled like this.  And maybe you’ll run into walls less often.  And street signs.   And bouncers.  And post offices.  

Vanity:  But I can still see, kind of.  If I get a white cane I’m going public, like I’m coming out of the blind guy closet.  It’s like leaving my sighted side behind and taking on the blind side as my identity.  Instead of relying on the vision I have, I’m giving up, taking up this crutch.  

Utility:  What the hell’s the matter with you?  And what’s so great about running into people and tripping over benches and barstools all night long?  Why not make life easier for yourself?  Why you gotta reinvent the wheel?

Vanity:  Yeah, but I can kinda see, and I have a million tricks for getting around.  Having really good hearing is a huge bonus, and my friends can help me out—  

Utility:  Yes, relying on your friends: how is that independence?  You’re asking too much from them, and they can’t always be there to hold your hand, which, by the way, makes you guys look gay. 

Vanity:  But I love that I can still see some, even if only a little.  I don‘t want to give that up.  So long as I’m not using a cane, I’m not a blind guy.  I’m not really visually impaired until I start acting like it.  You think I look gay, eh?  Well, I am like a gay guy who doesn’t want to admit to it and stays in the closet.  

Utility:  What are you, stupid?  The gay guy might be in the closet, but he’s still gay.  He ought to just come out and be himself.  You should just admit to the world that you’ve got eye trouble.  Are you afraid people will love you less? Of course, they won‘t.  Are you afraid people will look at you differently?  

Vanity:  Of course I am!  And that’s what sucks the most.  I don‘t want to be special, at least not like this.  I want to be respected for what I can do, not what I can’t do.  

Utility:  You’ll be respected as a blind man who can get around on his own.  And what the hell is that?  You really think everyone’s gonna just think of you as a blind guy and that’s it?  

Vanity:  Yeah, when I first meet them, they will.  No matter what.  You see a dude with a white cane and you think “holy shit he’s blind.”  I know this because that’s what I do when I see a blind dude.  And when I meet a girl, I know—I fucking KNOW—her first thought will be “that dude has a white cane.  He must be blind,” and every other thought she ever has—no matter how laudatory—will have been preceded by that original reaction.  I want her to notice my eyes, not my eyesight.  

Utility:  Pull ease! As it is now her first reaction is “look at the dumbass drunk!  He just walked into a guy shooting pool.  Oh, look!  Now he’s getting smacked with a pool cue.  Serves him right.” 

Vanity:  Look, I just need to be more careful and stop running into dudes shooting pool.  I won’t walk around as much.  I’ll just go to the same bar and memorize everything.  Stay closer to home.  Be a bit more cautious and conservative.  

Utility:  You should listen to yourself.  You sound like a total pussy.  You can’t let this thing beat you up.  You gotta live your life.  I can’t believe what I’m hearing from you.   

Vanity:  Look, I also hate being seen as weak, as different, as…as crippled.  

Utility:  “Crippled”?  What century are you from?  Look, Cowboy, you need to grab the reins and deal with it.  Because you know what?  You are crippled.

And scene.  

Every day hit me in the face with the fact that Vanity must eventually yield to Utility, especially during the long, dark Alaskan winters when it’s usually night and night blindness is all the more cumbersome.  Darkness presented countless opportunities for reconsidering the cane question.  Reality gave me pause in view of each new mishap, like one evening whilst sprinting across Minnesota Drive at rush hour.  It’d be close, but I reckoned I could dash across the six-lane street just in time to miss the oncoming traffic, but as I bolted across black ice I failed to notice the center median, tripped over it, and slid face-first, hands outstretched  across two lanes ala Pete Rose.  I scrambled to my feet and safely to the other side in front of honking traffic.  As had so often been the case, things could have gone badly.  With all this drinking, with all this darkness, with all this vanity, I was going to hurt myself.  I didn’t need to be behind the wheel of a car to pose a nuisance; the world was sketchy enough on foot.  But Vanity continued to dominate Utility, and I wasn’t going to do a damn thing.  Someone was going to have to make me.

Friday, December 17, 2010


People ask me, “So, Dave, how much can you see, exactly?”


An imposing, impossible question. 

“Well, I really don’t know what I can't see, so it’s pretty much impossible to explain what I can.”  I suppose I could rattle off a litany of objects I'm able to identify.  But what I can’t see?

“I can see that tree.  I can see that building.  I can see that plaid codfish juggling ukuleles.  But I cannot see that newsstand nor that flag pole nor that flying avocado.”

“Don’t be a smartass, Dave.”

“Don’t be a dumbass.”

“Screw you, Dave.  I ask because I’m concerned and I care about you.  You don’t have to be a dick about it.”

Fine, sorry.  But hell, I don’t know what I can see half the time, myself.  RP is a flirtatious little bitch.  It leads you on, teases you, makes you think you can see passably well.  You’ll occaisionally spot the keys you’re looking for, or catch the beer your drunk friend absent-mindedly tosses you, and you're as surprised as anyone.

I can’t believe I was able to spot those keys with my eyes!  I’m not so bad off, after all!  I can see— as you’re interrupted by the wall against your nose. 

Okay, never mind.  Back to groping around.  

Really though, I’m touched by your concern, and I wish I could field your question.  What do I see?  I could explain RP from a medical definition or use the standard analogy of seeing the world through a paper towel tube.  That usually works alright, but once someone suggested it must be more like seeing through two tubes, since I have two eyes.  It is not; in much the way our brains fill in the information that should be blocked by our noses, so too do the brains of RP people. That said, the tube is unreliable, inconsistent, amorphous, and, for lack of a better shape, ovate.

I'm not sure that answered your question.     

You mean well, I know.  And hell you've got it bad, too.  You have to try to gauge what I can see somehow, because you don't want to overbear lest I bight your head off; on the other hand, you don't want me to fall down stairs or bump a diner's elbow so hard his fork pierces his cheek and gets the wrong kind of blood all over his steak.  But you annoy me when you say, as we’re ascending stairs or moving through a crowded restaurant, “Be careful, Dave.”

Oh thanks!  Cuz I was gonna be careless!  I was just gonna hurl myself down these stairs, or run blindly through this dark restaurant!  But since you’ve reminded me to be careful, I’ll have to change my plans!  You’ve saved the day!  You deserve a medal!

“You deserve a kick the nuts.  Why do I even hang out with you, Dave?”

There seem to be two dominant opinions concerning my eyesight, since people feel compelled to formulate opinions upon it.  My friends (who, unlike strangers, are entitled to opine) say I ought to accept my visual impairment more openly, that in point of fact, I see less than I let on, not more, and my vain stubbornness serves only as a stumbling block to independence and self-sufficiency. 

       Those who don’t know me, and feel obliged to opine anyway, seem often enough to think the opposite: that I am a some peculiar hypochondriac seeking attention and special rights and privileges not afforded folks unfortunate enough to possess keen eyes.  Worse than that, I'm just a fraud, a phony.  

I can’t please anyone. 

“Dave, you don’t see well.  You need to use your cane.”

“Hey buddy, you’re not blind.  Why are you using a cane?”

Life with a cane confuses me and everyone else.  It seems like when I’m using it I feel like I don’t need it, and when I leave it behind, I wish I had it.  As I click my way through life, especially at night, and often wearing glasses, I’ve discovered a new breed of the citizenry which I call “handicops.”  These are the self-appointed, self-annointed vigilantes whose sole duty is to seek out frauds and impostors posing as the disabled.  

“An epidemic is sweeping this land,” cries the handicop, “where people are too apt to fall back on a disabitly even if it‘s not a disability at all.   Behind this pathetic wave of weak-willed whiners, lacking the fighting spirit that made America great, creep the fraudulent copycats hoping to garner all the perks available to the disabled by our all-to-sympathetic society.  And they must be stopped!  It’s up to me to sniff out the impostors, and to expose them as the lazy, no-count, leeches they are upon the rest of us hard working folk!  After all, people only claim a disability to get on welfare!”  

I suppose the reason people so often give me grief for caning into a bar and sitting down to watch a ballgame is that there really isn't much more morally reprehensible than a phony cripple (although I've never actually met one).  The person faking a disability is, however, a common device in sitcoms.  People get pretty pissed if they think someone is faking a disability, but people can be such idiots.  Once a guy stopped me at the bar and said, “Hey you’re faking it!  No blind man wears glasses!” Like he’d solved the "What’s Wrong" puzzle in a Highlights for Children magazine in the dentist's office waiting room.  

“Nice going, Sherlock Dipshit.  You got me.  What was I thinking?  I wanted everyone to think I’m blind, and yet I wore eyeglasses?  Stupid me.”  I’m sure he’d pull the same witty observation on a guy in a wheelchair and tennis shoes.

"Wait a minute!  You can't play tennis!"

So why do we have handicops?  I think people watch too many sitcoms.

 And why do I care?

“Dave, I thought you were all punk rock.  Why would you care about what a random stranger or some dumb drunk in a bar says?” you ask, fully aware of the contradiction inherent in my “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude.  Well, that’s very observant of you, and thanks for noticing.  Why does any of us care what some random says?  Why on earth could that possibly matter to us? 

We do and it does. 

We say we don’t care about what people think, especially strangers, but we do.  Imagine you’re standing on a street corner, when suddenly someone yells from across the street: “Hey, I know you!  You’re a pedophile!”  True, pedophiles are worse than hypochondriacs, but my point is that someone has associated your good name with a terrible crime, and that's difficult for most of us to ignore.  Anti-defamation, anti-slander, anti-libel laws abound to protect citizens from those who would sully their good names.  Perhaps some are capable of shrugging that off, but I’m not. 

Was I ever?  I think about when I was a young punk rocker, how often I’d snarl, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks about me!  I don’t care how I look, or if I fit into some bullshit version of what society wants me to be!  I’m an individual!” as I’d carefully shaved my mohawk or meticulously fit studs and spikes onto my leather jacket.  Of course I cared what people thought.  In the gaze of the cultural mainstream, the GAP or Abercrombie & Fitch-clad drones, I liked looking as counter-cultural as could be--the embodiment of rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism.  I hoped I pissed them off as much as they pissed me off.  My look was a public notification that I was punk-fucking-rock and 100% pure cool.  Band shirts, manic panic hair, spiked bracelets, leather jacket, jeans tucked neatly into my combat boots…my uniform.  I dressed this way not because I didn’t care about what anyone thought, but because I desparately cared what people thought.  I still do. 

I’m comforted by the fact that I'm not alone, that most of us are concerned with our body images.  I walk down the streets and I still wonder what people think when they see eyeglasses on a man waving a white cane.  But more than that, I wonder why I give a crap.  It’s time to be more punk rock, and not just poser-punk.  It’s time to reject what strangers say as inconsequential.  It is time to honestly and unflinchingly stop giving a rat's ass. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Penlight

Raging deep within my retinas, and fueled by cheerful compliance by my genetic code, rages a war on the backs of my eyes.  My genes seem to be under the strange impression they're supposed to annihilate my photo-receptors--those "rods and cones" comprising my retinas, receiving and transmitting signals into my optic nerve and to my brain.   This siege destroys the rods and cones from the outside-in, leaving me with tunnel vision, slow adaptability to light changes, color blindness, depth perception problems, night blindness, and (oddly enough) light oversensitivity.   This makes it difficult to see.  
I was distantly aquainted with RP because my cousin, Paul, has it.  Paul is two or three years older than me and two or three times smarter.  He teaches computer science at Augusta College in Georgia.  He’s lost his mother and his sister, and he’s been losing his sight for years.  Paul is a hell of a good guy, and an accomplished academic.  His late mom, Frissy (my mother’s older sister) was also very bright.  Frissy had researched her son's disease extensively, filling my mom in on the discoveries she'd made on the internet (a device with which my mother and I were only vaguely familiar).  My mom would relay to me what Aunt Frissy told her.
"Man that sucks about Paul," I'd respond.  "What are the odds we'd both have bad eyesight?"    
Among what Frissy relayed to my mother was that Paul's retinas were deteriorating because of something called RP, that the thing’s genetic, and that my great-uncles (both brothers, both blind) probably had the disease, though it wasn't commonly diagnosed in their day.  Now, with Paul’s diagnosis, and with this newfound information, the scales began to fall quickly from our eyes.  We didn’t need a Mendel Square to jump to the conclusion that most likely I had the damn thing, too.    
At each stumble along RP's stony path, my parents and friends have had to prod, push, and pester me to do what's needed to confront it and compensate for it.  Upon every step, I've whined and dragged my feet like at dog at the vet's welcome mat.  I set the tone on this, the first step.
"We need to find out if you have RP," ever more increasingly.  
"What's the point?  I don't need to.  I'm really not interested."
I held out for awhile.  My parents respected my wishes, but with the wanton destruction of all things in my path, their patience eroded, as it must have always done.  
Anchorage was fortunate to be the home of a top retina specialist: Dr. Thomas Harrison.  Whether in spite or because of my darkening fears that my near-sightedness was more than simple myopia, and that apparently it worsens over time, I adamantly stood against visiting the specialist.  Anyone awaiting a disappointment he already expects understands.  No news was fantastic news, so why seek out its barer?  
But it’s also hard to see with one’s head in the sand, so I caved in and accompanied my folks to Harrison’s office.  I felt like I was awaiting the jury foreman and his pronouncement of my indubitable guilt.  
We walked into his office and I sat in a normal chair.  My mother said hello to Dr. Harrison when he strode in.  He seemed like a good guy, and he must have hated this part of his job.   
“OK, let’s take a look-see,” warmly, his little penlight in hand.
I opened wide my eyes and he shinned the light in for a peek.
“Holy cow do you have RP!”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh, yeah.  The scarring on your photo-receptors is textbook.  I've seen a lot of these and yours is clear as day.  No pun intended.”
“Am I going to go completely blind?”
“Yes, probably.”
“No telling.  RP moves at different speeds for different people.  Some people lose it very quickly, like in months; some very slowly over the course of their lives.  It tends to degenerate at a relatively constant speed, though.  I suspect you’ve had the condition undiagnosed for many years, and the RP is progressing fairly slowly in your case.  That’s my suspicion.”
Oh good, slowly.  Silver lining, there.
He put down his penlight.  The exam had taken a matter of seconds.  Quicker than Lasik.    
“Do you drive?”
“Yes, but my license is suspended.”
“Great!  Now you don’t have to worry about taking the test again and getting it reinstated.  And you won't need to turn in your license to DMV.  You can just stop thinking about it now.”
This guy is full of silver linings.
 “So I don’t get to drive anymore?”
“Nope.  Never again.  You should never have been driving in the first place.”
Can’t argue with you there.  
Harrison’s bluntness was just what the doctor ordered.  He could have taken my hand, cooing, “David, you poor little soul.  I have some tragic news for you: your life is fucked.”  That'd have been the opposite of what I needed to hear.  I needed to have the confidence the world was going to demand--and that I was going to have to muster in myself--instilled in me right then and there in his office.  He understood this, probably more than anyone else in town.  He must have made enough of these diagnoses, and seen enough patients over the years to know the newly diagnosed needed a kick in the butt more than a pat on the ass.    
Your life just got a lot harder.  You better sack up and do something about it.  If you wallow in this pity, if you concentrate on what you cannot do, if you rely on others to do these things for you, you will die inside.                  
Why was something so unsurprising such a shock?
“That’s it?  Isn't there a cure?”
I knew from Aunt Frissy there wasn't.  
“Some doctors recommend  high dosages of Vitamin A to retard the progression, but I don’t really recommend it because of the increased risk of liver damage.  You can if you want, though, your call.”  
My liver was already suffering, and I was retarded enough as it was.
I wanted to vomit.  I felt like I had been dumped by the only girl I'd ever loved.
“So I can't drive, I'm going blind, and I can‘t slow this down much less stop it?  What am I supposed to do with myself?”
“Drink beer and have sex with girls.”
I could feel Mom blushing, but she didn't speak.  
Sounds like a plan to me, a good start at any rate.
So that was it.  It was official.  I could deny it no more.  An expert in his field knew beyond a doubt after looking in my eyes with a penlight for two seconds that I'd be stuck with this condition forever.  The whole “this is the first day of the rest of your life” bit had never meant anything before now.  In a way, I was relieved.  Now I knew.  It was over.  Guilty.  Sentenced.  The gavel banged and I could get started on my life sentence and the work of grieving, dealing, coping, adapting, surviving, reacting, adjusting, admitting, overcoming, outsmarting, preparing, pro-acting, anticipating, struggling, fighting, resisting, compensating.   
And living.
"To life!” we cheer, clanking our pints together.