Blind Ambition


So, you wake up one morning and you realize that the reason you can’t see isn’t because you turned turned 50 a year and a half ago. It’s not because after 20 years your eyeglasses need a stronger prescription. But you go to the optometrist anyhow, and he sends you to a specialist who talks to your primary care physician who informs him that you were recently diagnosed with an auto immune disease and, although not the most prevalent of symptoms, it is not unheard of  for it to attack your eyes. In your case, the cornea and lenses are hardening. Things are getting cloudy and you can’t focus. Prognosis is not good and there just aren’t many treatments. He refers you to the local chapter of the American Federation of the Blind. “They can give you some educational material,” he tells you. “Let you know how to adjust to this.” Thanks doc….

The kind people at the AFB are, indeed, helpful. They give you pamphlets and books on how to cope, things to learn. They suggest you start learning Braille while you still have some vision. This will make it an easier transition. They suggest you start learning how to get around with a cane. The longer you practice with the cane, the sooner you can graduate to the longer canes. Learning the cane is kind of like…well, nothing else really, so forget I brought it up. It’s just that after you become more and more proficient with the cane, you graduate to a longer one so you can seek out obstacles to trip over further in front of you and  sooner. The longer the cane, the more experienced you are; the more veteran. They also give you a number to call for “care takers”. Volunteers that will come to your house and teach you how to navigate things like stairs, sunken living room floors, coffee tables, cat dishes, well you get the idea. The care takers will also drive you places like the bank, a restaurants (especially if you spring for dinner), help you conduct business as close to normall as possible. That’s when the notice comes that your drivers license has been medically revoked. Well, you had the good sense not to drive for the last few months anyhow, but somehow them taking your license feels like being emasculated. There went any semblance of independence.

But, you take it all in stride. Even “enjoy” the challenge of learning Braille, even though you have a tendency to cheat and get close and peek at what your finger tips are trying to learn. You have a care taker over a few times and he walks you through “rearranging” your life. This means your cupboards. Glasses in one place, tallest in the back otherwise if you reach in the back for a short one you’ll knock tall ones out, because you can’t see. Knives in drawers are particularly important. The chemicals and cleansers and other things you keep under the kitchen sink need to be labeled in Braille and arranged in an order, otherwise you’ll end up using furniture polish to clean your oven. Same with your pantry. Your hands can’t tell the difference between a can of tomato puree and a can of chicken broth. You draw the line at arranging your underwear drawer but the sock drawer is a bit more of a challenge, you soon discover. You can’t tell the difference between khaki socks and black socks and you don’t want to wander around looking like some absent minded professor with different colored socks.

You learn all this and much more. Extension cords are bad. Put things back in their arranged place or you won’t be able to find them the next time. You think it’s bad when you can’t find your car keys, wait til you loose a vacuum cleaner in your house. Pretty soon, you are so caught up in “adjusting” that you don’t give much thought to the loss. Except for that worsening persistent burning in your eyes. The docs try every kind of drops under the sun, but that is just one more thing to remember where you left it last. Inside a month you have misplaced 4 tiny bottles of the stuff.

You adapt to the odd sock danger by not going out of the house. Then you have the idea you’ll only buy one color of socks. Case solved! It’s safe to go back out for a meal. You go a little further and revamp your wardrobe by getting help to buy only shirts and slacks, and of course, Levis that you can’t possibly have to worry about wearing ridiculous combinations of colors.  You donate all the different shades of belts and shoes to the Goodwill so you don’t have to worry about choosing an oxblood belt with your black dress shoes. You buy everything in a nice safe shade of brown leather. You have your barber cut your hair short, so you don’t have to worry about parts or cowlicks. You adapt to a wash-and-wear life.

One day you get a call from your “blind” doctor who has been talking to the AFB who told on you. You aren’t going to any of the classes that council you in your adjustment. You haven’t called a care giver, how are you getting groceries? “Well, doc, I order on line from Safeway, they deliver.” How do you pay for things, you can’t tell a five from a fifty? “ “I pay on line with a credit card.” How do you get to the bank? The post office?” “Direct deposit. Who Needs the post office?” He says, “You need to get out more often, lead as normal a life as possible. You don’t want to hide, become a shut-in” “Okay, send the damn care giver back over, if it means you’ll leave me the hell alone.”

So, the care giver is coming over, taking you shopping, banking, walks through the neighborhood so you can “learn the terrain”. At least they sent a girl this time and she is pleasant. And young. She talks to you about adjusting, she talks to you about Cold Play, you have long talks about "loosing your sight doesn’t have to mean you loose your independence". “The hell it doesn’t! I used to be a pretty successful electronics engineer. A big part of that success was reliant on being able to see. I used to be pretty active athletically,  ran, played softball, basketball. No one is looking for a blind second baseman in the over 40 league!” “Well, she answers,” find something else you like to do and CAN do. What were your other hobbies?” “I played bass in a band sometimes. I liked to write. I liked to read.” Today, young people are so smug. They have all the answers. “So write! Just cause you are almost blind doesn’t mean you can’t write.” Then she adds, “And read, use your Braille, it’s the only thing you have bothered to  learned in two years. And play your guitar.Even if it is Cream…ugh!”

Fucking hard to argue logic, except the Cream part. But I do buy one of those speech to text/text to speak programs since it is not easy to proof read your own stuff in a new language, which, lets face it Braille is to me. I also play along with Terry, my young, female care giver, and go on adventures. She takes me to the mall and turns me loose. No letting me tag along on her arm. No being lead to a particular store, or guiding me around masses of teenagers or booths selling Ginsu knives and cell phones. I start to become more aware of what’s going on around me, my ears and sense of smell, and somehow, even my sense of “feeling” start to guide me.

Pretty soon, it is time for even bigger adventures. Crossing streets at cross walks. I learn the cane is also a sign to let others be aware that a blind guy is on the loose. I feel guilty about this at first, especially when someone offers to help me cross a street. But my sight isn’t totally gone yet and that helps. I can see definition out to about ten inches, shapes to about ten feet. I start to recognize things; dogs, people, cars, doors in away that isn’t totally “sight” but more "blur recognition". I almost have a sense of accomplishment over this until I realize that I am just adapting to a handicap. I’m like a guy who has lost an arm learning to play shitty golf. 

I get real ambitious, and insightful. Having spent most of the past 30 years in the computer world, I have an inordinate amount of software. This stuff used to be just stacked and stored everywhere. I start cataloging it by type, OS discs here, labeled in Braille,  Applications, by type; Office Apps on the left, creative stuff in the middle, design software to the right of that, and games to the far right. Of course, the versioning of all of this gets sorted too, new versions on the left, older on the right. I train myself to use a disc, then put it away. I have always just left it out and put it all away a couple times a year. I am sure my desk is cleaner and more orderly than ever before. I do the same thing with my music and everything else in my house. Rock gets sorted and labeled by era, jazz on the next shelf and classical on the bottom. Everything alphabetized. 

Finally, I feel ready. Terry suggests I do something to celebrate. “Cool, do liquor stores still deliver?” “That’s not what I meant. What did you use to do to reward yourself when you deserved it?” “I’d take off for the coast, spend a week in a hotel, walk on the beach, wine, women and song. I was a wild child” “Where,” she asks.” Well, nowhere exotic. I was kind of fond of Depoe Bay.” “Okay, she says,” lets make you some reservations.” “What? Your going to spend a week in Depoe Bay with me?” I’m nearly 55, Terry is 24. “No, I’m going to take you to your hotel and let you spend a week. My boyfriend is coming home from college this weekend and I don’t want to deal with your blind old ass.” “How will I get around?” “You figure it out. After all, you said it yourself. You’re ready.” Damn kids now a days…

But I do figure it out. I know people over there. Casual friends, a potter and a glass blower couple. Old hippies that have a place in the woods and do a nice business on the word of mouth tourist trade. And Sue makes home made wine out of everything from wild black berries to goose berries, cooks like a French Chef. Jim has a taste for single malt scotch and his brother in law somehow or another sends him a couple cases every Christmas from Scotland. I know the bartender at the hotel I usually stay at, and we have had dinner and taken in the night life, such as it is on the mid Oregon coast. Terry drops me off at the hotel on a Friday night and gets me to my room and gives me the last lesson for a week, “There are two flights of 12 stairs up to your room, which is the last room on the left. Don’t get so drunk you remember that. There is a biker couple next door to you, and somehow I don’t think you want to be trying to get your keycard to work in their door after dark.” Smart girl, that Terry.

So, I settle in, arrange my cloths in the manner I have been taught and have taught myself. I find the coffee pot, I measure the steps to the bathroom from the bed. I learn that it is a tight squeeze between the foot of the bed and an arm chair. Don’t want to trip over that when you are half asleep at three a.m.. I make my way down the stairs, down the parking lot, through the lobby and into the bar. Chuck, my bartender friend isn’t working Fridays anymore, but the bar maid will be more than glad to call him. he drives in from New Port and has dinner with me. We share a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir and he offers condolences for my eyes, and offers to chauffeur me around some. I take him up on the offer.

Around ten, he heads home and between the wine and the two scotches I feel brave and take the endless slick wooden stairs down one hundred and twelve feet of cliff side to the beach below the hotel. I’m extra alert, despite the alcohol, and mentally take notes as to how many steps and in which direction I am walking so that I can find my way back to the stairs. I also have taken the precaution of asking the tide times. You don’t want to get stuck on this beach at high tide unless you want to go swimming in 50 degree water with the seals and whales. The ocean wind feels nice, the smell of the salt water and the crash of the waves on the volcanic rocks and little mountains laying just off shore. I learn that the cane is practically useless in deep sand. After forty-five minutes or so I make it back to the stairs, and climb the 112 feet and endless steps back up. I make it back to my room before midnight. Sit in the hot tub and have a night cap, then sleep like a baby.

The next day I have breakfast at the hotel and listen to the gulls over the pacific. I listen to the other tourists at tables close by talking about whales and eagles, and an Orca chasing a couple of sea lions out beyond the surf. I can’t see these things anymore, and that makes me a bit melancholy. But then Chuck shows up and we are off to tour a couple of light houses. I have always had a thing for light houses. Maybe its the idea of how the keepers lived, isolated, alone, away from civilization. Sometimes marooned by the weather for months at a time, on a rock with in sight of the mainland, but unreachable by boat until spring. As much as I have always loved light houses, they aren’t the same when you can’t see. I play along, and am just glad for the company.

Over lunch, at Gracie’s Sea Hag we talk, and I give him the Readers Digest version of my affliction and my adjustments. he says all the right things and nods in all the right places but somehow we develop a deeper friendship than a bartender and the smart assed guy that comes to stay at the hotel where he works a few times a year. We linger over a couple of black, Oregon craft brewed ales until he needs to get home and get ready for work. He drops me off at the hotel, where I take a nap before happy hour in the lounge. It’s busy that night, and I am still a bit buzzed from the ales at Gracie’s but I have a light dinner in the lounge and listen to more tourists talk about the whale watching cruises, and the Oregon Coast Aquarium and other things I can no longer see. I ask Chuck if there is such a thing as a taxi service to Newport. It’s Saturday night and I want to hear some live music. I catch a ride with a gypsy cab driver who is really just an out of work accountant at a logging company. He want $20.00 for the trip to Newport but we soon negotiate $50.00 for the trip there and back and he waits for me to get the live music bug out of my soul. I even manage to flirt and dance with a couple of ladies.The music sucks, but the feeling of having made this trip to somewhere I had never been without my sight, somehow empowered me, made me feel independent. No one in the place seemed to notice I was blind.Not even my dance partners. Just another guy wearing sunglasses at night.

Slept well that night, after another soak in the hot tub.  Woke up around three and closed the window, which was not only letting in the sea birds cries, but a fairly stiff wind. Storm coming in from the Pacific. The blue-green blur had developed spots of white. I opened the laptop and started to write. It was gibberish, but somewhere in the last couple of days, I had been tumbling the idea of writing around in my head. I used to get complements on the few things I ever showed anyone. I’d published some pieces on music, mostly jazz and up and coming rock n roll bands. I’d sold a couple of short stories that were vaguely drawn from my life and disguised as fiction. I’d published a couple dozen poems that were so varied in subject and style as to have never been put together in a “book”. I could still earn my own salt writing….maybe? Just a thought. I “scribbled” until the sun was up, the showered and dressed in my safe wardrobe-hard to go wrong with Levis a bomber jacket, and any old shirt-and decided to walk away from the hotel for breakfast.

The hotel sits right on 101. Four lanes and what serves as a highway going from north to south up the Oregon coast, all the way up California and into Washington.  Nary a cross walk to be had. Trucks blowing by at sixty and seventy, they were past me before I even recognized the blur or heard them coming. Crossing that four lane was perhaps the scariest thing I have had to do since I was a child and turned off the bedroom light, knowing there was a monster under the bed. No matter how I approached the problem in my head, I could not come up with a safe way to cross. Finally, I just stepped off of the shoulder, like stepping off a cliff,  with my cane leading the way, and didn’t stop until I felt the dirt of the opposite shoulder on the other side.  I was a bit giddy at breakfast, and the strong coffee made it worse. So I sat there and mulled over writing. I knew that my three a.m. scribbling was trash, but there were bits and pieces in there that were redeeming. Maybe I could do this. Lord knows, I had read enough other peoples stuff to know I could do at least half as good as at least fifty percent of the guys and gals out there making a living at it. But what would I write?

I left breakfast around eleven with that thought on my mind. Around one, Jim drops by the hotel. We have a beer in the deserted bar, then he drags me out to their place in the woods. WE wander around the woods behind their house and studio, talking about my physical problems, how I’m coping, we startle a deer, I can tell from the blur. We hear a crane lift off from the near by river. Finally we make it back to the studio just as Sue is finishing up a demonstration of her glass blowing skills for some tourists, and selling a couple of nice pieces, a lamp done in a red glass, and some dishes and the requisite floats. Sue closes up the studio and we walk through their veggie garden to the house. Jim breaks out a bottle of Highland Park and Sue makes some sandwiches for lunch. She put on some Hendrix after we eat then Sue rolls a dooby and we sit around talking and just enjoying the day the music, the weed and the music from our youth. I share with them how I have decided to write. "Not much call for blind engineers, might as well give it a try," says I. “Might as well give it a try, who knows?” says Sue. Jim squeaked agreement as he lit the second spliff. “After all, even if it doesn’t work out, you have money saved up.” “That’s true.” I lied. “Give me something to keep my mind occupied. I’m not used to just doing nothing.” I poured us all another generous helping of the Highland Park as the joint went around the circle, which was really a triangle. After that I broke out the clichés, ‘Give it the old college try.” “Never know until you try.” and we all took a nap.

We had a dinner, around six thirty, of poached salmon  and greens from their garden, and decided to head into Depoe Bay and catch the blind piano player at Gracie’s. We swung by the hotel, and I grabbed my Hofner Beatle bass. I’d sat in with the guy a few times when I could still see to read music, but figured, what the hell, it wasn’t Carnegie Hall, and I was still high enough and lit enough to have fun. It was a small crowd for a Saturday, but it was only March. There was one party of six Japanese tourists, a few local fisherman and assorted locals, and we entertained them with old pop tunes from the 70’s and some bad renditions of jazz standards. It was fun, and around ten thirty when the locals had all gone home, and the tourists wandered back to the golf resorts and time share condos, Jim, Sue, the piano player, Gracie herself and the bartender sat around and talked. A pleasant evening, and I expounded more and more on my ambition to become a writer. Maybe some serious fiction. Maybe a thriller. I laid out for my attentive audience an idea for a series of Thrillers that would use technology in unique, but believable ways. I was usually disappointed in the mistakes when even otherwise good authors wrote technology into there work. Course, I didn’t have a plot, or characters or even a real story line, but I was already winning Edgars in my mind.

Jim and Sue dropped me off around midnight, and Jim gave me a bottle of the Highland Park as a gift. Sue handed me a couple more joints. I cracked open the peaty beverage and sat on the second floor deck and listened to the ocean, sipped the scotch and hit the joint a couple times and plotted out my second career as a novelist. I think I dozed off for a minute or two, but I crawled under the covers freezing around two.

Had a big, late breakfast at the hotel on Sunday, and Chuck surprised me by showing up and joining me. We went for a drive down the coast, towards Florence. Wandered through the woods on a side road, past a logging camp. Found a little park, that was more lay by than park, but we ate some cold chicken and had a bottle of Dead Guy ale that Chuck had brought along. We didn’t talk much, just kind of enjoyed the day. Later in the afternoon, I invited Chuck to dinner. We went to an Italian place not far from the hotel. Still didn’t talk much, but he did tell me his mother wasn’t doing well. I had never met her, and I am not sure he’d ever mentioned her before but I somehow knew he had pretty much lived with her his entire life, outside of two years he was married. It crossed my mind that maybe he was gay, but then it crossed my mind that I didn’t care one way or another. He was a friend, he didn’t want anything from me, and was going out of his way to help me on this adventure. Chuck was my age roughly so I found this interesting. It didn’t fit the pattern of most peoples lives.

The rest of the week I just wandered the coast, Nye Beach, Beverly Beach, whereever the day took me. No agenda. I got around with the “gypsy taxi driver” and with Chuck a couple times, and I stayed close to the hotel and even ventured into the state park on the other side of 101 from the hotel. I made sure I stayed on trails, and I was able to find rangers and tourist to put me back on the trail home the few times I managed to get myself semi lost. It was an enjoyable week, and I thought more and more about resurrecting myself as a writer and liked the idea. Terry picked me up Friday, after lunch and tried to make conversation on the two hour trip back to Portland, but I was in a quiet mood. We stopped for a late lunch at the Indian Casino across the highway where they keep Howard Hughes Spruce Goose, and I listened to Terry waste a few bucks on the slots. Got home around four and thanked Terry for making me take this trip. She wanted to know all the details of my wandering through the woods, crossing the highway, navigating the slippery steps to the beach, but I told her I was tired and would fill her in Monday, when she came to take me to the bank.

I spent the rest of Friday night catching up on e-mail, voice messages, snail mail, etc…and it was good to spend the night in my own bed with my cat sleeping by my side. I spent the rest of the weekend quietly but furiously plotting out ways to fulfill my new ambition.



© 2010 Robert Carraher All rights reserved


Fun at the beach

We were sitting side by side on the blanket, the beach stretching away to both sides of us as beaches are apt to do. It was half empty being late in the afternoon and a Tuesday. Business at the board rental places and the bike rental places and the little bars and cafes had dropped off heavily after Labor Day. We’d gone into the water right away upon arrival, to cool off after the drive out from the valley. Now we were resting on the blanket.

I reached out and touched her shoulder. “You’re cool, “ I said moving closer to her.

“Yeah,” she said shifting away from me, “And you stay cool, too.”

“Relax,” I said. “The lifeguard will save you if I attack.”

“I won’t need any lifeguard,” she said over the top of her shades.

“Then he’ll save me. Any way you look at it, he’s got to save somebody. He gets paid by the life.”

She frowned at me for a second, her eye brows rising. She looked over at the lifeguard, and then the absurdity set in and reality rushed back to save her. “He is not,” she said , challenging me.

“Had you going for a second,” I said smiling.

“You did not! Who’d believe a thing like that?” Then she peered intently at me again, pulling the shades down her nose. “Who’d even think up a thing like that? What kind of mind have you got, Timothy Burke?”

“Discontinuous,” I said still grinning ear to ear. “I think of something and then I think of something else, and there’s never a connection between them.”

She nodded, studying me, and then she said, “That’s it. That’s what’s been bothering me.”

“Me too.”

She ignored me as she had every right to, and said, “You ‘re not a scientist. I knew there was something wrong from the first minute I saw you, and that’s what it is. You aren’t really a scientist. You don’t think like a scientist.”

“Neither do you,” I said defensively.

“Oh, yes I do. I’m all straight lines. I have an ordered thought process. I go from A to B, step by step by-“

“Oh, come on,” I said

“You know what I mean. Stop playing games and listen.”

“Yes, ma’am!” I sat up straight and saluted.

“I go directly at a problem,” she said. “I keep trying to put things in order. I straighten things all the time. I’m tidying up right now.”

“I guess you are at that,” I said.

“And you are not at all like that,” she said.

People were running into the waves and the waves were throwing them back on to the sand. Then they’d get up and run into another wave, and that wave would throw them back on the sand. Fun at the beach.

“What do you really want to be, Tim?” she asked.

“How about a poet,” I blurted out, not thinking. I felt myself blushing and turning my eyes away, looking out at the ocean to cover my confusion.

“You,” she said, and I could feel her gloating besides me, pointing a finger at me. “I’ve found you out!” she said.

I suddenly felt very nervous. A part of me that had always been tucked away on a closet shelf in the seedy summer cottage I use for a mind had just been dragged out onto the lawn for the very first time and shown to a girl I didn’t really know. Back in school I used to write poetry  when I should have been studying calculus. I’d read it aloud to myself at night in my room.

“A poet?” she said, astonished.

I looked at her. Now that the secret was out, I was prepared to defend it to the death. Maybe the lifeguard would make a buck today. “Why not?” I said. “Timothy Patrick Burke, Nobel laureate. What’s wrong with that? I think it sounds like someone who would read poems at Presidential inaugurations or coffee houses in Greenwich Village. Moving the masses to tears and revolution. Huh? What’s wrong with that?”

She was grinning at me in surprise and pleasure. “Well, I’ll be damned.” she said.

“The Irish make great poets, you know.” I said, the whole thing spilling out now, hidden away for nearly a decade and now bursting into the light. “I’ll grow a beard and stop getting hair cuts and start using a brogue.”

“Man, you’re a wonder,” she said. She kept grinning at me and shaking her head.

Who was this girl, Beth Rogers? We’d just met yesterday, we were complete strangers to each other, and here I was telling her about wanting to be a poet, something I only joked about to myself. I was sorry I’d done it and felt somehow diminished in her eyes. I wished I could call all the words back in and put them back in the trunk and make it a non-event. But I couldn’t.

“Listen, I said, we’re both going to burn if we don’t go back in the water for awhile. Feel like it?”

She stared at me for a minute more, then said, “Why not.” She held her hand out and I helped her to her feet. I was about to let go and run for the cool anonymity of the waves but she held tight to my hand until I met her eyes. Then she said, “You’re a nice guy, scientist or poet. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said and grinned back at her though I still felt nervous about it. Though not as much.

We ran side by side into the ocean and the ocean threw us back. We ran in again and it threw us back again. We ran in again. Fun at the beach.

RC (not the cola)

© 1987 Robert Carraher All rights reserved

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