Friday, June 17, 2011

I Wanna Be Blind

When I was in my mid-twenties, a girlfriend named Dawn and I attended a Foundation Fighting Blindness conference in Orlando.  Mired stubbornly in the pre-cane phase and initially unwilling to attend, Dawn urged me to give the conference a chance. 

"C'mon, man, let's go to it.  It'd be good for both us, but especially you.  And it’ll be fun!  We can do Disney stuff while we're there."

"We can?"


"Alright, fine.  But if it's lame I'm spending the days at the pool."

At the conference, hundreds of white canes clicked and clacked along glossy linoleum as they led droves of blind people around the hotel.  Not everyone there, however, was immediately touched by visual impairment.  One person in particular stands out: a man in his 50's named Marvin.  Marvin's boss's daughter was blind, and Marvin, a curious and empathic sort, enrolled in the conference hoping to meet blind people and to learn more about blindness.  We liked Marvin, and we stayed up late in the hotel bar discussing a great many things, including, of course, the principal topic of the weekend.

"I had breakfast this morning with a woman with RP," he told us.  "I think her sight is worse than yours, Dave.  She still has some up front, a little peephole, you know?  Anyway, she said a really interesting thing.  We were talking about her being low-vision and her eyesight deteriorating, and all that it means in her life."

"What'd she say?"  Dawn had been highly energized by the event, having wearied of my struthious obduracy.

"She said RP is so confusing that life would actually be better if she saw nothing at all.  It's like, she just wants to get the 'going-blind' thing over with and move on."

I knew then—and now to a much great extent—precisely what she meant.

"What?" you ask.  "You'd rather have no vision than some?  You're stupid, Dave."  

True, but let me make my delicate point.  Would I regret scooping my eyes out of my head with a melon-baller like some brunch-making Oedipus?  Quite.  I'd look back, so to speak, thinking "I miss being able to kind of see."  

 Each time I discover something new I'm now unable to see (stars, the clues on the New York Times crossword, slow-pitched softballs at the batting cage), a mini-death occurs and a cause for mourning.  Why would I want these deaths strewn out across the years?  Why not just rend any and all visual acuity from me now so I can have it done with get down to the business of being blind?  Why not just have it done with? 

If I was full-blown blind these questions would vanish.

Blind people have earned a reputation for being highly organized, for knowing where their bodies and belongings are at all times.  Because they cannot rely on their eyesight, internal GPS develops and improves with use.  But so long as the person has some eyesight, the internal GPS is less likely to improve in the absence of a more pressing necessity.

Blind people’s sense of organization tends to border on the scientific.  Keys have their place.  The phone has its place.  Certain garments are to be hung in precise and consistent locations.  Boomerangs, tennis rackets, and guns have designated areas where they must be stowed for easy retrieval.  The need for strict organization is directly proportionate to one's ability to see well.  Only an idiot would eschew intensive organizational strategies once confronted with vision loss.

As an idiot, I am disorganized by any standard.  Assuming I live to be fifty, I’ll have spent eight years of my life groping about my apartment for keys, phones, shoes, jackets, bus fare, my beer, the remote, my cane, and on and on.  I tend to find lost items with my hands and often enough on my knees; however, on rare occasion I'll espy an item from across the room with my eyes.

"Holy shit, I found that with my eyes!  All is not lost!"

I love finding things with my eyes.  It's a rare joy, so rare and so joyous I crave it the way one craves any success upon tasting it.  Because I have it, even if it's deteriorated, I want to make use of my vision for its intended purpose, even as my rods and cones sputter and pop like blown fuses.

If I was blind I would never fall prey to the joys of finding things with my eyes.  I could simply perish the thought, the pleasure of visual functionality would be gone, and I would have no choice but to comply with conventional coping strategies.  As it is now, I sort of have a choice.

But I've yet to commit ocular suicide because the opposite desire, the desire to cling ot what I have, burns in me, as well.

I remember sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Buenos Aires, sipping mate, smoking cigarettes, and soaking in the music of the metropolis.  The city's tango rhythms seem to energize all who set foot upon the dance-floor that is the city streets.  In the cafe I was arrested from my reverie when across the street I noticed a nonagenarian woman creeping along the sidewalk at a larghissimo tempo.  With a fierce face, she bent forward at 100 degrees, a tiny, bony hand clutching a trembling cane as the vitality of the city swirled around her.   

"Why doesn't she just get a wheel chair?  Or someone to take her arond?  In fact, why isn't anyone helping this woman right now?"  I took a sip from my mate gourd.  

Her pace was glacial to the point of comical.  I hadn't known a human being could move so slowly.

I believe the reason she was walking at all is because she could.  As long as she had the strength to stand on her own two feet, she would walk the sidewalk on her own.

This is why the partially sighted are typically so reluctant to use a cane, and it's why people with partial handicaps often try to obfuscate them. It's a human trait.  Unless you're a hypochondriac, odds are you cling to your abilities for as long as possible.  But the partiality of the condition can be perplexing to the point of maddening.

"There will be plenty of time to be blind when I'm blind," I say to myself, in this vein.  "If I can possibly avoid using this cane, I will."  

My impairment becomes more convoluted when I'm with others.  Alone, all I need to worry about is my body's relationship to the rest of the world around me.  With others, I worry about that plus the relation of my body to those of my friends'.  Alone, I can move as I see fit through crowds and streets.  There is no "right way" to go, since I’m the only one affected by my whereabouts.  If I bump into a stranger, no one I know knows.  Therefore, alone and without my cane nor the assistance of friends, I'm endowed with a paradoxical confidence.  When navigating busy streets, indecision is serious pitfall.  For the partially sighted, sometimes it is best to pick a spot in front of you and go for it.  Walk with your chin up, your chest out and strut though the world like you know what you're doing.  People will get out of your way, or they should.  As your approach the point, you quick-as-you-can draw a bead on another and press on.  The added confidence of a couple of drinks also, paradoxically, facilitates a stroll through town.  

If I was totally blind, none of this would be an issue.  The complexity of paradox would be no more.  Life would not be dim, but black.  I'd be nice and stereotypical and easy to understand.  After straddling two camps, I'd have settled on one, abandoned the other, and all would be sweet simplicity.  How strange that that which I cling to (my usable vision) is also the source of such perplexity.

Finally (and most importantly) if I was blind I'd get to wear cool black shades, an enviable silver lining.  If I didn't make eye-contact with a girl in a dark bar (which only ever occurs owing to luck) she would understand right away.  As an embodied form of the trope of "The Blind Man" I would save hundreds of hours explaining myself, or wondering if someone else was going to have to explain me.

Chastisements like "Be careful what you wish for" and "The grass is always greener" and "You sound like a jackass" temper my lust for total blindness.  After all, I still get to enjoy the occasional glee of finding things with my eyes.  I don't want to lose the same grit I beheld in the ancient portena on the streets of Buenos Aires. 

The key is to be smart instead of stupid, and to organize my life as though I'm already blind.  I should enjoy my usable vision in the recognition of its mortality because the need to appreciate what I have, and the urgency to prepare for what I am losing, are one and the same.