Friday, August 8, 2014

Cobblestones & Canes & being Royal


    Traveling.  I love to travel.  I love to see new places.  See different cultures.  Try new foods.  Drink different beers.  I owe my love of traveling to my parents.  We were fortunate enough to go across country twice when I was in elementary school.  Those trips opened up so many new worlds to me and I think it's a big reason I now live in the Great Pacific Northwest.

    I made my first trip over the pond in late 2008.  My good friend Thor Petersen and I left Seattle on the Winter Solstice and landed in Copenhagen.  I had a bucket list item to skate the canals of Amsterdam and 
my dream almost came true.  The canals had not frozen over in 13 years but that drought ended!  Unfortunately I missed the frozen canals by 2 days.  I did end up skating on an outdoor Olympic rink and gave my skates to a big tall young man with large feet (mine are size 15).  It was a great memory and a great trip!  Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.  The cold snap lasted the entire trip and it was dark by 5pm every night.  I had a blast traveling with Thor and the memories from that trip are still very active in my mind.

My good friend Thor!

Skating in Amsterdam!

    When I traveled to Europe the 1st time, I was legally blind and I used a 42'' tall I.D. cane.  This cane is exactly what you think.  Its an identification cane so people know I have trouble seeing and they should get out of my way!  I had no cane skills so the cane provided no information of my surroundings.  Thor was a big help while we navigated around areas that were unfamiliar to me.  Thor prevented me from walking into bollards, drifting into bike paths and falling down basement stairs that jutted into sidewalks.  I was surprised by how many people paid no attention to my cane.  I couldn't figure out if it was tourists not paying attention or people in Europe not used to seeing people with canes.  Regardless, the trip was successful from the standpoint of being visually impaired.  No injuries.  No deaths.  No major embarrassing moments.

Me with my 42" I.D. Cane!
    6 years later I was ready for my 2nd trip to Europe.  This time with my wife Kiirsten, her son Ian (15) and my two daughters Acadia (14) and Sierra (11).  Same duration as my 1st trip (2 weeks) but we were going to land near the Summer Solstice.  4 days London, 4 days Paris, 4 days Berlin and 2 days Copenhagen.  3 train rides totaling 17 hours.  Travel through the Chunnel.  Time in the countryside near London and Paris.  Pearl Jam in Berlin at an outdoor amphitheater and a train ride that actually went on a ferry across the Baltic Sea!  We had everything booked and we were excited to go!  As the trip got closer I periodically wondered what Europe would be like this time with less vision.  I had cane skills and a longer cane now, so I was interested in comparing the 2 trips.   I wasn't nervous.  I can thank my Mobility Instructor Penny Armstrong for that!  I had confidence in my cane skills.  I knew I could get around by myself and if I couldn't, I would ask for help.

My Rock Star Teacher Penny!  She has given me so many tools for more independence!

   Boom!  Just like that, we were walking the streets of London!  Good Day!  Jolly Well!  Fair Enough!  Brilliant!  Listening to people talk in England was fantastic!  I was so jealous of there accent.  Everything sounded better with a British accent!  We navigated the tube (inner city trains).  We walked the streets.  We had no idea what side of the sidewalk to walk on.  You drive on the left in london, so do you walk on the left? Nope.  People walked where ever they wanted.  There was no pattern.  I never got used to car travel being opposite than the U.S.  Crossing streets was confusing.  London was nice enough to write on the pavement at intersections, 'look left' or 'look right'.  My cane was already proving its worth.  I didn't walk into bollards or signs.  People generally got out of my way.  I didn't fall off curbs.  I found crosswalks easily because of the plastic rumble strip located right before you crossed a street.  I would walk out in front of my family at times.  I would charge along at a good pace.

Headed to our Hotel!

Downtown London viewed from the Eye!

    Early into our trip I would meet my biggest challenge.  I didn't know it at the time and maybe that was good to not know what I was in for.  Cobblestones.  I love cobblestones.  They look amazing on narrow streets surrounded by 500 year old homes clad in stone and iron.  The different textures, sizes, shapes and colors make for great eye candy, but cobblestones and canes don't mix.  My cane tip would dig into the joint between stones and stop me in my tracks.  I would sometimes be lifted off the ground like a fledgling pole vaulter.  My graphite cane would bend like I had a 100lb fish on the other end as the golf grip cane handle dug into my lower abdomen.  It hurt.  It was startling.  I shook it off and continued on my way.  It reminded me of jacking my shins through the years on coffee tables, dishwasher doors open, and low fences.  I've had a constant array of bruises on my shins for years.  I willwhack my shins on something and keep walking like nothing happened.  Its like stubbing your toe.  You know the pain will subside in several minutes.  I have a strong urge to litter the room with profanity but I usually stay silent.  I'm not going to let that object win.  That's what I thought about cobblestones.  

My Teacher in Patience.  Cobblestones.

Pretty Cobblestones. 

    We moved onto Paris with the help of a high speed Eurostar Train.  186 mph is insanely fast, especially without a seat belt!  I have a special place in my heart for Paris.  The people, the language, the architecture.  I can't find a more magnificent church than Notre Dame.  We had a blast roaming the streets of Paris over the next several days.  We tore up that city!  Paris was much the same as London in terms of mobility for me.  It was nice to have the cars driving on the 'right' side of the road.  We of course encountered lots of cobblestones.  Cobblestones would win.  A lot.  I would even stop using my cane sometimes to avoid being stabbed by my cane.  Not an optimum solution but I needed a break.  I tried a marshmallow roller tip on my cane that helped.  It was a much bigger tip which made it harder to get stuck in the 1/2" grooves, but it was heavier and my hand got tired more easily swinging it from side to side.  The cobblestones could also have a 1/2'' variant in height between stones so even the bigger tip would still get hung up.  I tried the marshmallow tip for a day but went back to the lighter tip.    
Notre Dame

My Ceramic Tip vs the Marshmallow Roller Tip

    Have you ever been treated like Royalty?  Maybe you rented a Limo one time.  Maybe your company scored an executive suite at a sporting event.  Or maybe you got upgraded to First Class on a plane for free. It can be awesome.  To be waited on.  To feel rich or royal even if it's just for a short time can make for a story worth repeating.  No one told me becoming legally blind included a celebrity card.  I generally get my whole family to the shortest line at airport security checkpoints.  We can board the plane first.  I get seats offered to me on packed buses and trains.  I get special (close to my seat) bathrooms at concerts.  People are constantly offering to help me get somewhere in a city.  I get offered elevators in lieu of stairs.  I get discounts on tickets.  I get a life time pass to national parks for free.  I get a lifetime handicap parking placard.  What's not to love about that?  I should be thrilled and sometimes I am.  I know my family likes not waiting in a 2 hour security line.  I'm fairly certain we would have missed our flight in Seattle if we had not received preferential treatment because of Ol' Blindy.  I try to graciously accept people helping me.  I know they are doing it because they care, but it can really grind on me.  It really feels like I have a Big Scarlet Letter on my chest.  Blind people are not necessarily lazy.  I don't need to take an elevator instead of stairs and I don't need your seat on the bus.  When people feel pity for you it can suck.  I don't want someone feeling sorry for me or treating me like I'm weak and helpless.  I know I can do that to other people with disabilities.  I can feel sorry for them.  I know its human nature.  I usually want to be left alone.  I want to go unnoticed.  Probably much like a celebrity feels.  There was a 2-3 hour line to get into Versailles.  A huge snaking line of people probably 300 feet long.  There was no way we were waiting in 85 degree heat to see Versailles.  Kiirsten checked in with an attendant and 3 minutes later all 5 of us were entering Versailles.  No charge.  No wait.  How do I reconcile that?  Heck ya I want to see Versailles with no wait but I also wan to be left alone most of the time.  People stare at you.  Constantly.  They bend their necks around so much I worry their necks may snap.  Our trip was filled with no line waiting, discounts, people staring, and people offering help.  I haven't mastered how to always accept help graciously or turn down help respectfully or even educate someone that NOT all people with a cane are totally blind.  Most of the world has two types of people in regards to eye balls.  People who can see and people who are blind. It is my understanding that 80% of the 'blind' community have some vision.   I work hard on trying to take all of the attention and offers as a form of love.  It's good for me.  It makes me a better person.  As we rolled into a new venue without paying or waiting my kids would lean in, hug me and say, "thanks for being blind Dad".  My pleasure.  

Please give me your seat! I'm Blind!!

Blind people this way!

    As the trip rolled onto Berlin I was able to evaluate how things were going for me.  My family was helpful and loving towards me and I know they struggled when they saw me struggle.  Discounts, no lines, people staring, and new obstacles in every city was wearing on me.  I have always thought of a trip as a mini life.  You tend to deal with all of the things that happen over a life time in a vacation.  You have joy, heartache, accidents, wonderful moments, and constant new situations.  It can be an emotional roller coaster.  It's not normal everyday life.  It's not routine.  I was really starting to notice I was gearing up for each day.  I had to mentally prepare for the day before we left the hotel.  Walking on different terrain, going to different places, dealing with different transit systems.  I wasn't upset but I could tell there was mental energy needed to stay focused so I would stay upright and in one piece. 

    Kiirsten found a free walking tour in Berlin.  It looked fun.  Berlin was full of history and we were all excited to learn more about this great city.  We had a wonderful lunch near the holocaust monument (incredibly powerful monument) and headed over to the Starbucks next to the Brandenburg Gate to meet our tour guide.  Rob McCracken from England was our spunky guide for the afternoon.  There was probably 25 people in our group and we were off.  I stayed near the back because it was hard to walk in a pack.  The group walked briskly and Rob liked to jay walk.  We found plenty of cobblestones and metal grates.  I had had enough.  I wanted to be in a bar with a tall glass of German beer.  I wanted to sit down.  I wanted to be in a kayak on the Spree river.  I was done.  Kiirsten was worried about me.  I'm sure the kids could tell something was wrong.  And there was the rub.  I love my family.  I want them to have a great time, even if I can't do something because of my vision.  All of them having a great time makes me happy.  That is hard to achieve because my family cares about me.  If I struggle, they struggle.  That reality was right up in my grill.  I wanted to struggle by myself.  I wanted to struggle unnoticed.  When you are surrounded by people who love you that is not an option.  It sucked. I felt claustrophobic.  I felt trapped.  It was my perception and my fault for feeling this way.  My family would have gladly left the tour to help me out but I was not ok with that option.  I would have felt like I ruined the afternoon.  I wanted to break my cane into a million pieces.  I envisioned myself smashing my cane on the cobblestones until only tiny shards of graphite remained.  I wanted to yell.  I wanted to explode with f-bombs.  None of that happened.  My face and body language told the story but my lips stayed closed.  I felt bad that I cracked.  I'm sorry my family had to witness my struggles.  I know I should give myself more space to feel what I felt but that didn't happen. 

Berlin was gorgeous!!!!!

And of course it provided many obstacles for my cane!

Another great example of something that is beautiful and a nightmare for a person with a cane! My cane tip would fit perfect in the manhole cover holes! 
Taking a break from the Cobblestones with Cadie's help!
    The next morning over coffee at our favorite little bakery down the street from our hotel I opened the gates.  I broke down.  I cried.  My voice trembled.  I was pissed and crying.  Kiirsten just listened.  She has always been so supportive of me in these moments.  She usually encourages me to be more angry.  She knows I'm going to have hard moments with my vision loss.  I'm an extrovert so I can only carry my feelings around for so long until it has to come out.  I let out all my feelings over coffee.  Nothing was fixed or solved.  You can't fix it and that's ok.  I was empty in my head and ready to carry on. 

    I went back to the heavier bigger marshmallow roller tip for the rest of the trip and it really helped.  I dealt with the bigger load on my wrists and it was worth it.  I still got hung up on cobblestones but it happened much less.  A fun highlight was finding blind trails.  As the trip rolled on I would find more trails.  Train stations in France, Germany and Demark had blind trails and I even found trails in the streets of Copenhagen.  The trails were awesome!  Just feeling the trail under my feet made me smile wide! While we waited for trains I would wander around the station on the trails like a 4 yr old would investigate new places.  The blind trails were a raised pattern of bumps about 18'' wide.  In  Train stations the trails would lead you to bathrooms, elevators or ticket counters.  On the street they would help you navigate through a city.  Blind Trails (my name for them) for Visually Impaired or Blind People were like Bike Corridors for cyclists.  I also relied on my family more for help at times.  Kiirsten was taught how to be a human guide from my mobility instructor Penny and we taught the girls how to do it.  Sierra, Cadie and Kiirsten led me all through Versailles and all of them took turns through out the rest of the trip.  It was really helpful and gave me a break.  I think they all enjoyed helping me too.   If I let my guard down and accept help there are little nuggets of goodness waiting for me.  It's always a balancing act.  I want to be independent but I also need to accept love and help from people.  I know I want to do the same for others. 

Blind Trails Rocked!  This was in a train station.

My favorite Blind Trail in Copenhagen!  It was beautiful and really fun/effective to walk on!
Ol' Blindy walking next to the Blind Trail!

Gard de L'est Train Station, Paris!

    Our European Family Vacation was Epic.  It was life changing.  We had highlights.  We had lowlights.  We all became closer to each other as a blended family.  We are labeled a blended family by society but to me Kiirsten, Ian, Cadie and Sierra are just my family.  Our trip could be explained with 7 words.  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  We experienced it all.  It was mostly awesome with some rough spots.  Its how I hope my whole life goes.  We all get served rough spots.  What do we learn from the storms in life and how do we handle ourselves during those tough moments is what I care about.  Its what I focus on.  I'm gonna break down again.  I may even smash my cane some day, but I'm gonna keep getting back up.  Life is an incredible ride and I couldn't be happier with how my life has turned out so far.  

   I will end this story with pictures that I think capture the essence of our trip.  Love.  Compassion.  Laughter.  Empathy.  Joy.  Family.  Forever.  
My Family! If you told me 8 years ago this would be my life, I wouldn't have believed you!
My girls.  They don't always get along but I hope deep down inside they love each other. 
Kiirsten and Cadie bonding!

Cadie and Ian bonding!  Or should I say Cadie is harassing Ian!  

Dinner with the fam bam!
I feel so much love from my daughters!  They do a wonderful job of looking out for me!

Family Selfie! I guess we should practice some more!
Family Selfie! We got it right this time!

So proud of my 14 year old daughter Cadie!
KK and Ian in Copenhagen!
Sierra, KK and Ian headed out to a palace in Berlin for the afternoon while Cadie and I check out more of downtown Berlin!

Ian is growing up into a wonderful young man and I feel so blessed to have him as a step son.
Sierra giving her Dad some love!

Thanks SO much for taking time to read this!  I hope you enjoyed it and maybe even learned something about the diverse world of visually impaired people!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Top 10 Musings from our Family Trip to Europe

I thought I would take some time and jot down a few observations we made during our 2 week trip in Europe (England, France, Germany, Denmark).  I can't help but think of John Travolta's line in Pulp Fiction when describing his time over the pond to Samuel L. Jackson...."it's the little things".  I will also write a blog on what it's like to travel through Europe as a visually impaired fellow but that will come later. 

1.  All of the French Fries we had in all four countries were ALL better than anything we had in the states.  

2.  All of the prices in Denmark are whole numbers.  You feel rich when dealing with Denmark currency because 100 Krone's = 1 dollar.  Nothing is 25.90.

3.  Normally people walk on sidewalks the way they drive.  If you drive on the right, you walk on the right.  I thought people would walk on the left in London but I was wrong.  They walk on the right, left and right down the middle.  

4.  Apparently there is no code that requires a drinking fountain to be located near bathrooms in public spaces.  I couldn't find one.  ever.  

5.  I have a very special place in my heart for Paris.  The architecture, the people and the language itself create this warm, elegant and romantic vibe.  But my memory of Paris (in the summer) will always conjure a dual reaction.  One of love and mild gagging.  I have read that smell is the #1 memory activator and I believe that to be true.  Paris in the summer generally smells like PISS.  Serious PISS.  PISS everywhere.  The smell of piss was so strong at Sacre Coeur (one of the highest spots in the city) that it was all I could do to not puke.  Wafting Piss smell all over the city.  People pissing all over the city.  People pissing in the subways.  People pissing on buildings.  People pissing in the bushes.  It was remarkable.  

6.  I was not aware of this accepted way of doing business but apparently you have to ask for your check in Europe.  We never had our check brought to us, even after a huge dinner, multiple drinks and dessert.  It wasn't a big deal but it made no sense to me.  Maybe people just keep drinking and eating all night in Europe.  

7.  Drinking of alcohol everywhere.  I mean everywhere.  I learned that it was not legal to drink with an open container in the countries we visited but it was not enforced.  People drank walking down the street.  They drank on the trains and buses.  They drank while they waited for trains.  These were professionals,  young and old, male and female.  didn't matter.  It was pretty cool. : )

8.  I'm not sure what the policy is at sporting events but I was blown away at what happened at the Pearl Jam show.  All of the vendors were still serving food and beer near the end of the 3 hour concert.  In fact it looked like all of the vendors had no intention of closing down anytime soon after the show.  The venue was still fairly packed after the concert with the beer flowing.  It was bizarre.  Loud, drunk people whooping it up everywhere as we made our way to the train.  Maybe it's fine because hardly anyone drives but you would never see that in America.  

9.  Europe has adopted the same No Smoking Policy as the US has with one major exception.  If you are outside in a public space (restaurant, train station platform, or concert) all bets are off.  It was insane.  Cigarette smoke attacking your face while you are eating dinner can be a real turn off.  It felt like there were more smokers in Europe but it may have just been smokers were allowed to smoke around us in more areas.  The Pearl Jam show was the pinnacle of smoke.  I felt like I was surrounded by chain smokers for the entire show.  We had great seats and I was extremely close to moving to terrible seats (no one was sitting there) just so I could get a break from the smoke.  It literally felt like someone was constantly blowing smoke directly up my nostrils.  I don't remember being in an outside venue and having all of my clothing smell like an ashtray afterwards.  It was really awful.  My beautiful wife (who has asthma) insisted we muscle through it and not let it ruin the Pearl Jam show.  She was right and we did.  

10.  The energy consciousness of Europe was so enjoyable.  It's just a way of life there.  You ride the bus or train.  You ride a bike.  You walk.  Occupancy Sensors everywhere.  The lights in hallways turn off if no one is there.  The escalator turns off when no one is using it.  The lights in your hotel room will not turn on until you put your room key in a slot near the door.  All of the toilets are dual flush (a button for #1 and #2).  Windmills everywhere.  Solar Panels on rooftops.  Heck, our Ferry was a hybrid ferry (diesel and electric).  No air conditioning in the rooms (this could be painful during a heatwave).  Smart cars were like mosquito's.  Carbon Neutral advertising could be found on packaging and buses.  What Europe proves is that you can reduce your ecological footprint and still have a high quality of life. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Being a Freak


    We have all been that person at some point of our lives.  The kid who is not normal.  The kid who stands out.  Even the young or middle aged adult who doesn't fit in.  Maybe it's only for an afternoon.  Maybe you decided to try a new sport at age 40.  Maybe you are just being yourself.  Comfortable in your own skin and yet kids tended to pick on you.  Single you out.  It hurts.  It can be humiliating.  It can be confusing.

   I was that kid.  I remember distinctly going to kindergarten and being picked on for how I acted, for what I was wearing or for the music I listened too.  It was shocking at first.   Me? Why don't you like me?  I thought I was cool.  I was into sports.  I was friendly.  I liked to have fun.   Of course it wasn't everyone at school, but the kids who singled me out made a lasting impression on me.   I have been fortunate enough to have an incredible network of friends and family in my life now that loves me just the way I am.  It is a wonderful feeling to be loved for all of your imperfections along with the more likable traits we all have. I was 21 years old when I found my first Best Friend in life.  There were several people along the way that I trusted with that status but got burned badly.  Trusting someone and then having them break that trust is a very painful way to learn a lesson.  It changes you.  I became more closed off to people through my adolescent years.  More protective.  I'm an extrovert, so I was still out there in the world, but I thought of most people as acquaintances, not friends.  I would hang out with them but I would keep personal thoughts or to myself.  I always had my guard up.   Only my parents would knew the real me.  They knew my fears and worries.  I could always count on them.  They were my rock.  I have thanked my parents many a times for their help in getting me through Junior High and High School.  It sucked at times.  Being physically bullied.  Being verbally abused.  It was always only a few people but they made their point.   My parents would explain these people’s actions as jealousy or insecurities.  Their explanations made sense, but this knowledge had no immediate impact on my life.  Someday these people would not be in my life anymore.  I got that, but I wanted it to go away now.  I wanted to be accepted and liked now.  I wanted the focus on me not being 'cool' to go away.
Glenn and me going across country. 1977.

     There were lessons to be learned from all this.  Adversity always provides enlightenment if you look for it.  It can be hard as hell to make it through tough times. Knowing you will grow as a person from adversity doesn't make it any easy to get through.  Understanding how it felt to be picked on made me have more compassion for others.  I was an older brother.  I was not always a good older brother.  I used my size and strength to dominate my younger brother.  I was a controller.  My mom would often say, “You are the only voice I can hear on the street" while we were playing outside.  I dictated how sports were played.  I lawyered my way through discussions with the kids in our neighborhood and with my parents.  I could be a bully.  The very same guy who I despised growing up.  As I grew older and went through more situations of being picked on I matured as a person.  Hopefully I was seen as a more caring person.  I definitely had to apologize to my brother Glenn.  I'm not proud of how I sometimes treated Glenn.  I think he has accepted my apologies.  I know those moments for him will never totally go away and that is what I'm most sorry about.  Glenn was a great brother to grow up with.  He was funny.  He loved sports liked I did.  He wasn't mean.  He didn't play the little brother card with our parents to unfairly get me in trouble.  I'm very close to my brother now and I have some of life's hard lessons to thank for that.
Glenn and I playing football in the backyard.  Yup, I was a bully.

     All of these memories have been brought up for me lately as I navigate through life as a legally blind adult.  So much of my acceptance of my eyes has been extremely positive.  In many ways a gift.  My eyes have clearly made me a much better person.  Anyone who knows me would agree.   My life is not ruined with diminished eye sight.  I still get to do everything I've always done except drive a car.  I'm not less happy now.  I'm not more depressed with each passing day, but I do get tired of being a Freak.

   Learning to use a cane has mostly been wonderful.  It has given me great confidence to get around in any condition.  My cane has been especially helpful in new areas and at night anywhere.  I'm still a relative newbie at navigating with a cane, but I'm really getting use to it.  So use to it, in some ways it bothers me.  I feel a bit naked without my cane now.  I didn't feel that way 6 months ago.  Am I relying on my cane so much that I have given permission to my retinas to die faster?  That thought scares me.  I feel like I am in a constant battle of accepting my declining vision and holding onto the vision I have left.  It's a battle that can really weigh on me.  I have actually thought recently of wearing my blind glasses (fully occluded) while getting around because in some ways it’s less stressful to not see.   If I can 'see' it’s harder to gather all the information from my surroundings through my other senses.  My eyes just aren't as trustworthy as they use to be.  I'm learning to decipher the information from my eyes, cane, and my ears all at the same time, but there is a tendency to only interpret what my eyes see.  That sure sounds a lot like giving up.  Hell, it sounds insane, doesn't it?  A guy with vision is purposely occluding his vision to help him get around?  My new hero is Charlotte Brown and as you can see in the video below, not only is she a legally blind pole vaulter, but she walks around with much less vision than me and she doesn't even use a cane!  What I am I thinking?  Welcome to the exciting and sometimes not rational world inside my head.

Check out my new Hero, Charlotte Brown:

    However I decide to get around in this world or come to grips with the loss of my vision, it won't exonerate me from being seen as different.  Not normal.  A Freak.  Someone to feel sorry for.  Someone to stare at.  I'm guessing 90% of people who see me in public stare at me.  I'm sure they stare at me for all kinds of reasons.  I too stare at people who are different.  I can feel sorry for people who have a physical or mental handicap.  I stare at someone who looks different.  Wears different clothes, hair colors, haircuts, piercings, tattoos, and shoes.  I'm not discriminatory.  I will stare at anyone who stands out.  Don't get me wrong.  I’m all for it.  I am an artist at heart.  I love people being expressing themselves.  I tell my girls all the time that hair is a renewable resource, so cut it however you want.  I wear ear rings.  I love glitter.  Burning Man looks like a hoot.  Let your freak flag fly! But it's nice deciding when that happens.  I don't dress like that at work.  I don't always wear glitter.  Sometimes I don't want to stick out.  That is why I can struggle with using a cane.

   When I use my cane I am basically wearing a huge scarlet letter.  People do everything they can to get out of my way.  They jump off the sidewalk.  They yell at their kids to get out of the way.  They freeze behind light poles hoping I will miss them.  They verbally let me know they are behind me.  What is that?  Why would someone tell a blind person they are behind them?  Are blind people more apt to suddenly back up while walking down a street?  Do sighted humans have eyes in the back of head and therefore don't need a warning that people are coming up from behind?  I thought teachers were the only humans that had eyes in the back of their head.  It can be hilarious if I choose to laugh at the situation but sometimes it can be draining.  Yes I'm an extrovert but that doesn't mean I always want to be the center of attention.  I think this is why my childhood memories have been in the front of my mind lately.  What I am describing in many ways is totally different then being picked on as a kid.  The kids who singled me out wanted to hurt me.  The people I meet in public most of the time don't want to hurt me.  It's the complete opposite.  They want to help me.  I am sincerely thankful for those people.   There are so many loving and caring people out there who want to help others.  I usually just want to be left alone.  I like being lost in the crowd.  Not noticed.  Competent to get around myself.  Independent.  I sometimes squirm when someone takes the time to tell me everything on the buffet line or who offers to walk me to my bus.  How do I handle that?  Tell them I can partially see?  I sometimes do and of course that makes them scratch their head.  I'm sure there all kinds of ways to deal with these issues but sometimes I don't want to. I realize that many of the same feelings I had as kid while being picked on has come up while using my cane.  It can be humiliating to be helped.  I can feel insecure when people are staring at me or treating me like I'm contagious with some deadly virus.  I just want to fit in.  Not be a walking car wreck.  Not a one man freak show. 

  I'm curious how I land in this post.  Is this subject best left for my counselor to hear?  Do you come away with Keith playing the 'poor me' card?  I hope not.  My hope is for my blog entries to help people see the world a little differently.  Maybe the only thing people get out of my blog is there are many levels of vision out there and just because a person uses a cane, they are not completely blind.  That would be a fabulous outcome of my blog.

  This is just another snippet of my life as a visually impaired man.  I spend many days walking around not thinking about anything I wrote above.  Then there are days where I would love to fit in.  Life is a roller coaster.  I'm learning this day by day.  I get frustrated.  I get inspired.  I get angry.  I get happy.  I get tired. I get sad.  And no matter what knocks me down I will always do my best to get up.  Life is way too wonderful to not keep trying.  


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Blind Independence- Part 2

          The 1st training day quickly arrived.  She picked me up and we headed to a neighborhood close to her work and she explained what the day's lesson would be.  She even showed me where we were going to walk so I could study the ‘course’.  I’m a very visual person.  I have a good memory.  I’m an Architect.  I’m have a good sense of direction.  All of these things should be assets for this training but not being able to see could reduce all of those strengths.  The 1st day ended up being fine.  Penny made sure I would not be killed by cars.  I walked like a man who was very intoxicated weaving my way down the sidewalk.  Do you know how hard it is to walk straight when you can’t see?  She took me to a low traffic intersection and had me try and figure out if it had a light and how many ways I could travel.  During my session some Landscapers were near by using leaf blowers and I learned the valuable lesson of Sound Masking.  The loudest sound will always drown out all other sounds.  That can be a serious problem for blind people navigating around.  The leaf blowers in this case basically made it impossible to really tell how much traffic was near me and which direction they were going.  We ended the day with Penny explaining to me the basics of crossing an intersection.  It was overwhelming.  So much information thrown at me.  How would I remember all this?  We didn’t cross an intersection and I was happy about that. 

Penny giving me the low down.

      The sessions continued and Penny continued to challenge me.  I was crossing intersections in neighborhoods and she was taking me to areas I didn’t know very well.  Cars would be blocking the sidewalks.  Sidewalks would suddenly end and then 2 houses down, start up again.  I would hit the bumper of cars with my cane as they were pulling out of driveways.  I would hit people with my cane and not always know it.  People would jump out of the way to avoid me and I wouldn't know that either.  Penny and I would chuckle when some people treated me like I had some contagious disease.  My hearing was proving to be a great asset to my training.  I could hear and place where objects were pretty well.  I learned that hearing depth perception was not as accurate as visual depth perception.  Simply not as reliable.  I could hear when walls or overhead objects were around me (called sound shadows).  I was getting better at detecting changes in surfaces (textures and elevation changes) with my cane but I was a long ways away from not getting myself killed by a car.  Cars were loud.  Penny would assure me the cars were a safe distance from me while waiting to cross when I felt like they were going to run me over.  Small trucks with no mufflers sounded like logging trucks.  Trying to decipher the sounds I was hearing sometimes was crazy making.  I would cross streets crooked.  I would have trouble lining myself up straight at crosswalks.  Heck, I would even have trouble finding the crosswalk from where the crossing signal button was located.  Of course every intersection was different.  All of these tasks are simple if you are sighted but not having standardization at crosswalks always made it interesting.  Penny was patient with me.  She praised me when I did well and gave me helpful insights on how to correct my errors.  I hated making mistakes.  I don’t like not being good at something.  Especially as I grow older.  I knew I was improving but still had so much to learn before I could navigate in an urban environment by myself. 

It ain't easy walking straight sometimes. : )

These sessions tended to run me through the whole gamut of emotions.  I was always excited for our next session but I was equally as nervous.  It was hard for me to really relax during the sessions, which I know didn’t help me.  I was intensely focused on the task at hand.  I enjoyed the successes like crossing a 4 lane road straight as an arrow but my jaw seemed to be clinched the whole time.  My body was tense.  My heart raced.  My blood pumped so hard i could feel my heart beat push against my skin.  My hands sweat.  It was draining to feel all these emotions over the 2 hour sessions.  I realized why I was excited to do the sessions.  I was getting what I wanted.  I was getting independence.  Even if you take away all of my vision, I was starting to see (ha!) that I could still be independent.  That was a euphoric feeling.  I could feel the fear I carried for years being lifted from me.  The fear that my life would suck and be terrible if I was totally blind.   I also got reassurance that my life would be ok if I was totally blind while I was doing the training.  I realized I was still creating memories that were distinct and enjoyable without vision.  I wasn’t creating the same visual memory I was used too but I was making up what things looked like and I had more emphasis on sounds, textures and smells.  Penny would always take me back through the area she trained me on and I was blown away at what I thought things looked like in my head versus what I saw afterwards.  I couldn’t say my experience of these places were worse without vision.  They were different.  That was very soothing to have this realization.   

Here is an example of crossing the street crooked. 
Even the Bus had to yield for me.

Another mishap.  I actually walked off the sidewalk and now I’m
correcting it.  Penny did a great job of letting me figure stuff out but kept me safe.

You cross a street and then there is a parking lot directly to your left.  Not walking straight led me into the parking lot and to this wall.  Better to stray left when traffic is to my right.  Once I hit the wall with my cane, I corrected my error and got back on course!

I still have more to learn before I can be trusted to get around by myself completely blind but I’ve come a long way.  Our last session involved Penny picking me up and me putting on my blind glasses right away.  She drove me somewhere and I had to figure out where we were.  I guessed correctly, but Penny would not verify if I was correct or not.  It was the toughest, biggest and busiest intersection I had been too.  This intersection is considered the congested intersection in our county and one that is close to my work.  I jump off the bus at this location all the time in the winter.  After Penny didn't tell me where we were, I never imagined I was at this particular intersection.  In a way I think that was good.  I had no preconceived notion of what this spot.  I treated this area like I had never been there because that is what I really thought.  It was crazy loud.  At times it felt like I was standing in the 1st row at at the Daytona 500.  It was crazy scary.  I got to a point where I couldn’t line myself up correctly to cross the street.  I felt helpless.  I was pissed.  I through out a couple of F-bombs.  That hadn't happened before with our training.  I wanted to break my cane into tiny pieces.  I wanted to yell at the loud pick-up trucks.  I wanted to chew out the City Planner who designed this nasty intersection.  They obviously didn't spend one second thinking about a visually impaired person crossing the street.  The cross walk signal button was so far away from the actual cross walk that I could barely hear it signal it was ok to cross (the traffic noise didn't help).  Penny just listened and suggested we not try and cross the street today, but I would not leave without trying.  With help from her to line up (she gave me some hints on what information I was misinterpreting) correctly I crossed the 1st 4 lane intersection like I was tied to a taut rope.  Yes! Penny even gave me a fist bump!  Damn, that felt good.  Adrenaline was effortlessly coursing through my body at this point.  I was jacked up.  By no means was I relaxed or confident.  1 intersection down, 3 to go!  I then drifted a bit on the next 2 crossings but finished with another straight crossing.  It was so nerve racking but I did it and I soaked in the accomplishment.  I walked the 300 yards back to the car with more confidence than when I started the session.  I have more sessions like this to come and Penny is constantly trying to challenge me.  Having confidence that my cane will keep me safe in my everyday life has been wonderful.  I walked home in the dark from a friend's house recently and I can’t remember feeling that confident in the dark.  As you now know, I have never had good night vision.  I have stumbled in the dark.  Fallen in the dark.  Cracked my shins.  Cut myself on objects.  Walked into huge puddles.  Walked into things and cracked my head open.  I have often thought safety glasses and a helmet would be smart to wear when getting around.  How attractive is that? If I use my cane I can avoid all of that (Well, everything except overhead objects like unpruned bushes sticking out over sidewalks).  What a wonderful gift.  

‘Shorelining’ means I used the ‘edge’ of the sidewalk to guide me or find an entrance or new sidewalk to walk down.  It also keeps me away from traffic.

If you know me, I try my best to go towards the things that scare me.  It’s hard as hell to do but each time I do it I get the reinforcement that it’s never as scary as I made it out to be.  I truly believe that going to the scary places inside and outside of us allows us to live a more relaxed happy life.  The line in the song 'Don't' that I wrote says, “I won’t be held hostage by myself from what I wanna do”.  I keep trying to live those words. It's a process.  It can be a grind.  It can be hard.  It can also be wonderful and amazing and fulfilling.  There ain't no finish line.  I just keep getting up when knocked down and appreciate all the greatness that has come my way. 
A ‘straight’ crossing.  : )