Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cane and Able

It was late-fall 2003 and I met up with my mom for lunch.  We turned down Taft Drive into a residential neighborhood and stopped at a building I didn’t recognize.

“What’s this?  Are we getting lunch here?”  

“No.  We're not getting lunch.  This is the Center for the Blind.”

As I’ve said before, it would take some act of chicanery to coax me through the doors of any such center. 

“I’m not going in.”     
“Yes you are.  You’re going in to have an assessment for a white cane.”

“Now?  I don’t want to.  I’m a grown man and I don’t have to do what you say.”

“Yes you do.  Come on.  I’ll go in with you, if you like.”

“I’d like for neither of us to go in.”

“That’s too bad.”  She unbuckled he seat belt.

“I don’t want to…at least not now.  If I ever get a cane, it’ll be on my own terms when I want to.”

“No, it’s going to be now.”

“This sucks!"  I stared straight ahead and didn't take of my seatbelt.  "Look, I don’t want a white cane, not now, anyway.  I’m totally unprepared for this...this humiliation.”

“David, it’s not a humiliation.  You and everyone who knows you knows you need to start this process.  You’ve even said so yourself.”  

I had.  From time to time following collisions with walls and what have you, I’d confess, but only after embarrassments.  All the same, I wasn’t about to let my mother determine the time frame.  I remained recalcitrant, though I knew I couldn’t for long.  This was above and beyond my usual obduracy, and my mother had extended her normal unflappability.   We were at an impasse.  The stakes were high and all bets were off and so forth.  

“Mom, I don’t know these people.  What if they’re all a bunch of blind dorks?  I don’t want to associate with these people.  They're probably weirdos.”

“I’ve met them and they’re not dorks.”  She grinned, adding “And the Orientation and Mobility instructor is drop-dead gorgeous.”   

So in we went.

My mother hadn’t lied.  I met Brandie Young that afternoon, and we’ve remained friends ever since.  She's a knockout and fun to be with.  I’ve read horror stories from other RPers about their O & M instructors, and I'm reminded how lucky I was to have Brandie.  I would have said to hell with the whole thing as soon as my mom was gone, but I kept coming back and making a conscious effort, mostly to hang out with Brandie.  She was the first professional I'd spoken to since Dr. Harrison and his trusty penlight.  As Harrison had, Brandie set a positive tone right off the bat, and like it or not, for a second time now, I’d finally be crawling from a cocoon of denial and ignorance.  After Harrison, I had eight years to bullshit the world and try to play the whole thing off.  Now I was going public.  Fucking sucked. 

For our first session, Brandie came to the my apartment on Lake Otis Parkway.  It was October and cold so we decided to go across the street to the YMCA and walk around so Brandie could get a better feeling for what I could and couldn’t see.  The Y was directly across the street, but the stop lights are several hundred yards in either direction.  I never gave this much thought since I can see if cars are coming, so I started across the street.  


I leapt back and yelled as loudly “What?!”  The street was deserted.

“We need to walk down to the stop light.”

“But the Y’s right there,” I pointed, “and no one’s coming, so we’re good to go.”

“That’s jaywalking, Dave!"  She seemed utterly astonished, like this was the first time she'd witnessed such audacity.  "Besides, what if a car is coming and you don’t see it?”

“But there aren’t any cars coming.  Do we really need to walk all the way to the light?”


I mumbled something as we started our journey, ten minutes longer than it needed to be.

Upon entering the Y, Brandie asked me to look at a spot on the wall, but not to move my head or eyes.  She'd walk, starting behind me, and keep walking toward the spot on the wall until she entered my visual field.  This would give her a rudimentary approximation for what I was seeing peripherally.  

"Sounds like a lot of fun."  I'd taken visual field tests before.  They're excruciating.  

We started the fun game.  Nothing happend for a long time until Brandie magically appeared, nearly touching the spot on the wall.

“Dave,” shaking her head, “you need to be using a cane at all times of the day, no matter where you are or what you are doing.  Your visually fields are very tiny.”

“Oh they’re not that bad.”

“They are that bad, Dave!  I was almost in front of you before you could see me!”

“True, but normally I’m allowed to move my eyeballs back and forth, and up and down.  Also, I have a neck which allows me to obtain even more field by swiveling it and titling it.”

“What are you going to do when something unexpected jumps out or you miss something?”  A valid point, considering it'd happened countless times before.  

“Brandie, I’m not using it unless I really need to.”

“Fine,” and she let it go for the time being.  Brandie was tough and demanding, though she possessed a great sense of when to allow me to work through it all without too much interjection.  A rare skill.  She knew this process would be piecemeal and painful, and she possessed the patience to let me wrap my own head around the new approach to getting from A to B, and all the perceived stigma this cane would carry with it.  

Brandie was few years younger than me when we met, and still is, I suppose.  She bounded with energy and made the whole process bearable.  She was a right-wing, Conservative Presbyterian from Pennsylvania who had studied biology at a Christian college.  She believed in Calvin’s doctrine which followed from the "Problem of Divine Foreknowledge": the theological problem which elucidates that concern that since god has always known since before time began who will and will not go to heaven or hell, our perceived will power to change it is an illusion.  Indeed, the whole notion of free will is called into question.  This problem is funny to me because it illuminates one of the myriad contradictions of religious, monotheistic eschatology.  Free will is a crucial facet of western religious ethics, and Calvin's recognition of the problem certainly was cause for alarm.  Philosophers and theologians have toiled endlessly to reconcile this problem because many will never let go their notions of the hereafter and the afterlife, let alone their beliefs in god and the gods.  But not all afterlife principles are equal, and Calvin’s seems utterly unappealing for no other reason than that it obliterates even the slimmest and most dubious of silver linings one hears from religious sympathizers: that the fear of heaven and hell motivates the otherwise pernicious to rectify their behaviors in the hope of reward and the fear of reprisal.  Of course, we know this is not the way the world works.  Instead, religions tend more often to encourage the wicked to act even more wickedly by cloaking vice in the garb or virtue.  Nevertheless, Calvin makes the whole point moot since, for him, our actions posses no connectivity to our final destination. 

Theological problems such as this one amuse me because they belie belief in a benevolent god.  They bring to bear the gods' conceit and caprice.  Why was the god of the Old Testament pleased with Abel's blood sacrifice, but totally pissed off about Cain's grain sacrifice?  Now we know how Elohim feels about vegetarians.  I've never seen an even remotely interesting explanation on the tale, only that Cain's attitude towards the whole thing was too competitive.  Must have been some really nice grain.  Anyway, this is clearly the lesson to be learnt, and by no means  should anyone gleen anyting from the fact this god demands we slaughter and burn animals in his name for some reason.  

"Hm, I've been sinning.  That can't be good.  Better slaughter and burn this animal to make up for it.  That should do the trick."  To believe in such a god is to hate him.  So why believe?  The world is far better off without such a tyrrant.   

Breaking for coffee with Brandie on one of our first O & M outings, we discussed this issue of god's foreknowledge and the idea of divine predestination.  

“Are you going to heaven when you die, Brandie?”

“Yes!”  Ebullient, and utterly convinced.

“Do you know for sure?”

“One hundred percent!”  

“How can this be?  Doesn’t god preordain the elect?  How can you be so sure you’re numbered among them?”

“I just know it.”

“But how?  How can you claim to know something as mysterious as a plan which is infinite in origin and destination?  These are more like mysteries, I would think.”

“Yes, but I have no doubt whatsoever about God’s existence, God’s love for the world, God’s sacrifice for our sins.  And I have no doubts I'm going to Heaven.”
“No doubts?  Wow.  What about me?  Am I in the elect?”

“Well, no, I suppose not, since you don’t believe in God.  You haven’t accepted Jesus as your savior.”  

“Well, why should I?  It’s all said and done anyway, isn‘t it?  Why not eat, drink, smoke crack, be merry, and get laid all time?”

“Because someone who knows he’s counted among the Elect would never do those things because the Bible tells us they are harmful to us.”

“Physically harmful?  Okay, maybe smoking crack.  But the rest of it?  And you can’t mean spiritually harmful, either, since it’s irrelevant what we do on Earth because the potter has already thrown and fired the clay all all of that, and we’re just waiting it out until we croak.  It won't matter what you've done.”

“Dave, we aren’t supposed to question God’s commandments.  He ordered them and we have to obey them.  He ordered them because they are good for us.  It wouldn't make any sense not to be good since God obviously knows more than we do.”

“But it’s all decided anyway!  I can't get past that.  And those that do obey god’s laws, and do all the right things, but didn’t win the heavenly lottery, they'll burn in hell for eternity with no hope of redemption.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“So god created eternal souls he foreknew would not be elected for eternal paradise and would thus end up in the only other possible place to burn in a lake of fire for not just a trillion years, not just a trillion to the trillionth power years, but for eternity—a concept our brains can’t even comprehend—with no hope for redemption or escape or just the rest of eternal nothingness?  Really?  He would do that?”

“Matthew says that many are called but few are chosen—”

“Yeah I know…and the guy from the highways and hedges or whatever answers the king's invitation, but he shows up without wedding clothes on and gets sent straight to hell!  No wonder so many people skipped the king's party.  He sounds like a dick.”           

            “Just because you’re aware of God’s existence isn’t enough.  You must be chosen by Him.  The schriptures are very clear on this.  Just because you have the ears to hear him doesn’t mean you’re listening, Dave.”

            “And it’s off to hell with us when we die?  And no second chance after that?”

            “Dave, do you know the story in the New Testament about a man who dies and goes to hell?  He wants to come back to Earth to warn his family about Hell and that they better turn to God." 

"Yeah, and the guy asks Abraham, who I guess was visiting hell for the afternoon, and tells the guy his family has Moses and the prophets to tell them that and that's good enough."    

"Um, sort of.  The point is we have been given a great first chance and don't deserve a second chance.  We can only get their through the grace of God.  True, only God knows, but if you aren’t chosen, yes, you're soul will go to Hell.”  

“Well, fuck that god.”  

Nevertheless, we remained friends and I learnt all about swinging this collapsible, 5-foot, graphite, white-shafted, red-tipped stick in front of me.  How to hold the handle in my right hand with my index finger on the flat surface of the rubber handle, its nylon chord wrapped around my wrist.   Brandie taught me how to navigate stairs and escalators, and how to figure out where I was and how to get where i needed to go.  She taught me how to stand at intersections and listen for when traffic is crossing in front of me or running alongside and to determine by listening when it’d be safe to cross.  I'd be sent on missions from one store to another on a different street, and I did it with my eyes closed, since I can see well enough to cheat otherwise; besides, the day may come when I run out of eyesight and need to know how to get around.  My last session included crossing Spenard Road (four lanes) and Minnesota Drive (six lanes) with my eyes closed and at rush hour with no help from Brandie.  Try it sometime.  It’s as hard as it sounds. 
When it comes to coping with my bad eyesight, Brandie was as influential upon me as anyone.  She was the opposite of a handicop, convincing me I was better off with the stick than without it, that my heal-dragging was doing more harm than good.  Brandie has since moved to a different blind center in a different state, but we remain friends.  In fact, she reads this blog and doubtless she remembers our early exchanges differently than I do.  It's weird writing dialogue from seven years ago that will be read by the other participant.  Fuck you, fourth wall.
 The people at the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired turned out not to be dorks.  I joined their Board of Directors and served as the Board president for a year.  Check them out at:  Then give them money.

The cane era had begun.  As typical, it took the cunning of women, and I was now armed with a passport to run into shit without people thinking I was drunk.  To be drunk, and to run into shit with impunity.  This could end up being a pretty useful device.  I could travel without my accoustomed anxiety.  I would finally be free.
But a white cane?  A blind man's white cane?

"Fuck, I hate this thing.  I’m not using it unless I really need to" and that would be that.


  1. too funny! i don't remember the coffee break conversation going EXACTLY like that.... but pretty close! :) you will be happy to know that i'm not a pain in the ass about calvinism anymore-- i still whole heartedly believe in it but am actually.... get ready for it.... dating a baptist! "gasp!" :) you always did encourage me to move beyond the reformed presbyterians and i am happy i did! more than that, i am happy you are using a cane and writing about your experience. trust me when i say, your experiences will encourage and benefit others-- put it in a book!!!

  2. Whew I'm relieved! I thought you were mad at me. I have certainly taken liberties with our coffee chat, but in my head that's sorta-kinda how it went down. (That's the trouble with memoirs.) I mean, Calvin does make some powerful points, but still, I'm glad you're not TOO offended by it all. And I'm very impressed you've branched out to the Baptists! But you know, Baptists are a gateway denomination: they can lead to Methodists, Lutherans and eventually Catholics, Democrats and god knows what else!

  3. The us really needs a system like they have in Argentina and presumably elsewhere -- the red/white cane and the green/white cane. Why are we so backward?

  4. I totally agree, False. I think it'd be a useful distinction. Brandie, do have a professional opinion on it?

  5. i don't even know what a green and white can is?! what is it for?

  6. Not can, cane! Silly goose. But yeah, in Argentina partially blind people use a green or green-tipped cane and totally blind people use a red or red-tipped cane. This helps the public distinguish who can see a little from who can't see at all. In the US, of course, they're always red. Personally, I like the green/red distinction. Has this issue ever come up in your work?