Legally Blind #10 – A Sea of Familiarity

I don’t recognize you.

I don’t know your face. I don’t know your clothes. I don’t know your vehicle. I don’t know the way you walk.

I’m sorry about that, I really am. And if you know me, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, Cam means someone else.” No. I’m sorry, but no. I’m not. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been best friends for decades. It doesn’t matter if you’re my parents. It doesn’t even matter if you’re my brother, the person I’m closest to in the universe.

I do not recognize you.

One of the questions I get asked frequently – and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this, but this blog can and will repeat itself as topics will frequently intersect, and because my memory is absolute shit – is just what is it I actually see. That’s not a question people want to know in numbers (which, as of this writing, is -27 and -30 diopters in each eye, and if you know what that means, send me the bill for cleaning your underwear). They want to know in a quantifiable, real-life situation what I could actually see.

Defining that is often difficult, but as I’m pondering this idea of not being able to recognize anyone, it makes for a good teachable moment. The best way to describe my vision is I don’t see details. I see vague ideas of things, sometimes a bit more solidly when I’m up close and personal, but often times even then it’s a crapshoot. I don’t really see fine print anymore. I don’t see what’s up and down grocery store aisles – nowadays, I usually rely on common sense and the items you’d find at the end of each particular aisle as my beacons, but someday I’ll lose that latter one too.

And in what might be the saddest way vision has affected me, I don’t see people. I see the idea of you – your rough shape, the color of the clothes you’re wearing (although even that’s an illusion to me – I’m partially color blind to boot), maybe a few generalities, especially if you’ve got big hair or a heavy beard or sit in a wheelchair. Sometimes, within context, that’s enough to say, “Oh, that’s enough visual information that I feel confident in saying that’s X.”

But when I don’t have that contextual information, like when I’m in an environment where a lot of people come through the door or say hello, I’m very much socially paralyzed by an inability to distinguish what makes you you. This is compounded by my aforementioned terrible memory, because this should be offset by a recognition of people’s voices. But unlike a few of my blind friends who have developed sharper memories for these things, my brain seems to leak like a sieve.

Sometimes, this is helped by the way someone will talk to me. “Hey boo!” my mom will shout across a store. In a sea of voices, I could probably pick hers out – but the way she says it, “hey boo,” it’s an audible signal that helps me out a ton.

And though the responsibility is most definitely not on you, if you see me out and about, one of the ways you can help me tremendously is to just say, “Hey, Cam, it’s X.” Not all my blind friends like or need this, so it’s definitely not universal. But my God, does it ever help me out. When people shout hello at me, I always feel terrible for giving a generic, “Hey!” and then ignoring them, but I really am rendered socially awkward because I don’t have any clue who they are, generally speaking.

So yeah. Usually when people say this, it’s placating, but for me, it’s one hundred percent the truth – it’s not you, it’s me.

Legally Blind #9 – Time

Besides the “where do you get your ideas?” question that every writer ever gets asked (to which I usually respond vaguely, “Russia”), the number one thing I hear is “I want to write/create something someday.” And you know what? It’s kinda pissing me off because absolutely no one who has said it to me has followed through.

Now I get it – people have lives, they have families, they have responsibilities. That all should take priority. Take care of your kids, pay your bills, get your house in order. But don’t tell me you can’t find ten minutes out of your day to write down a few words. Don’t tell me you can’t turn on the dictation function on your phone and hammer out some thoughts and scenes. You’d be shocked at how quickly all those little notes start clumping together to form a book. Find time. Make time. Do it or stop fooling yourself that you will, because you will always find excuses otherwise. You’ll hammer out five hundred words one day and tell yourself the next, “Oh, I’m just too tired.” Well, too damn bad. Pick your arm up, grab a pen, and go to town. Writing a book isn’t about being in the mood. It’s about cranking out pages. And if you’re not willing to follow through, stop pissing in my face and telling me it’s raining.

That all ties into probably my most personal irritation with being blind – time.

The curious part about being on disability is that it’s left me with nothing but time on my hands. The hilarious twist here is that I live in a town with no mass transit systems, no public transportation, no real way of getting out of town to do the things I love without either begging for a ride (which is a small mountain on my damn shoulders when I know it shouldn’t be) or waiting for it to coincide with a doctor’s appointment or shopping trip. Both of those take up so damn much time that the thought of seeing a movie or hitting up a bookstore is fanciful and irresponsible on my part.

It shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. I have an amazing amount of things here to occupy my time, between countless books on my Kindle, games, exercising, or the writing. But it gnaws at me to know there are bookstores I haven’t visited, restaurants I’d like to try, movies I want to see in a theater where I’m not straining to hear every word on uncomfortable seats, live theater on a semi-regular basis, and above all else, new people to be met. I’ve never even gone to a live concert because of the planning it involves – finding rides out of town and back, possibly getting a hotel room near the venue, getting a ride to and from said venue, trying to find my way around at that place… it’s exhausting just thinking about it, but it’s something I desperately want to do when I can, when I’m closer to a venue. And there are a thousand other things I want to see, either for the first time or because I haven’t gone in years.

When my time is limited like that, every time I go to the same three or four restaurants/shops/outdoorsy areas to have the same three or four experiences, it’s almost like I’m slowly sinking into this inescapable quagmire of boredom. And that’s not to say that those places and experiences aren’t pleasant – I’m grateful for the opportunity to break out of my day to day in just about any capacity – but I want more done with my time.

Not to keep harping on the restaurant thing – can you tell I’m hungry? – but it ties into another question that’s more metaphorical than literal. What does it hurt you to try new restaurants? New foods? You might get an upset stomach? The risk of something you don’t like is well worth the off-chance you find something you do.

I feel like, at times, I’m living my life waiting. Waiting to go out of town. To possibly meet that special someone. Waiting to try some new experience – any new experience. Waiting to see something beautiful, something new, something I haven’t seen a godawful number of times before. I suffer from a delirious case of unfulfilled wanderlust, the absolute driving force behind my writing, when everything is said and done.

I write so that I can be free to be me.

That frustration tends to bleed over into conversations with other people. People tell me constantly “I want to go to X place on a weekend trip one day!” or “I really want to take that road” or “I want to try this new place” or “I want to see X thing” and I just want to fucking scream sometimes for them to go, to do it, to stop wasting time before it’s thirty years down the line and it’s too late.

Go. Because some of us can’t. Because some of us have to live our lives – for the moment – waiting.

Time sucks.

Legally Blind #8 – Magooing It Up

When it comes to my eyes, it’s a strange thing to try to define the line between what’s okay to joke with me about and what isn’t. I don’t take well to mean-spirited joking of any sort – if you’re the sort of person who makes sexist jokes about women getting black eyes because they didn’t listen the first time, seriously, here’s a bag of dicks – please chew on them the next time you have a hunger pang. Same with racist jokes. Same with any jokes that would put anyone in any sort of discomfort.

I do not like your sense of humor. You can be funny without being a fucking asshole. Try it.

And let me get this absolutely clear right out of the gate – if you make fun of anyone for having a disability, pay very close attention to the next few seconds. See that thing looping towards your face? That’s my fist. Say hi. Give it a little kiss. With your teeth.

That being said, there’s a lot of periphery stuff about being blind that is hysterically funny, and it might seem weird and hypocritical, but that stuff is – at least when you’re talking to me – perfectly fine to laugh at… if it’s me or someone I’m very close to telling the story.

For example:

About five or six years back, I went down to the bank to cash a check or deposit money or beg on my hands and knees for them to quit charging people fines for having less than $200 in their bank accounts. Yep, that’s a thing. And it’s delightful, particularly when your income is marginal and you’re… you know… trying to save so it isn’t.

Anyways, our bank is a rustic, A-frame styled thing with log walls, high log-supported log-ceilings, log interiors, and logs on logs on logs. Why? It’s better than bad, it’s wood. And if you get that, give yourself a pat on the back, 90’s kid.

I settled into a leather chair, no doubt wincing and wishing I was about fifty pounds lighter so I didn’t feel like I was about to bust the sides off the chair. The very nice clerk asked me how my day was going and what I’d like to do. I caught something out of the corner of my eye and thought, “Oh, shit, I totally cut in line ahead of someone.” So I turned, me being me, and said very politely, “Oh hey, sorry, didn’t see you, I’ll be done in just a second.”

The person I’d snuck in front of in line? It was a log support beam.

I started roaring with laughter, and the poor clerk looked like she was either about to cry or join in, and couldn’t make up her mind. I use that as my favorite example of when it’s okay to laugh because in that situation, you’re laughing with me. It’s a silly thing to happen – and guess what? I do it practically every week. Not necessarily at the bank, but I couldn’t tell you the number of stop signs, fire hydrants, or lamp posts I thought were people and started to say hello to before I can finally see them.

Like I say, this is most definitely NOT universal, but here’s the best litmus test as to whether or not it’s okay to laugh with me about this crap – if you’re actually wondering in the back of your mind if it’s okay to laugh, you’re definitely the sort of person I want to laugh with me. If you’re the sort of person whose response is to immediately laugh and think that stuff’s hilarious… well, maybe stop for a second. Are we close? If yeah, then by all means, it’s fine. But if we’re acquaintances, maybe watch for my cue. In general, I’m going to show you it’s fine by laughing deliriously myself, and in that case, go for it.

It’s kind of like being in a group in a bar. If you the loudmouthed asshole laughing hardest at everything out of your own mouth and you can’t ever seem to recognize that, I’m not comfortable with you laughing at my Magoo moments. You do not understand your own boundaries or the stress you are putting on other people by making them emotionally uncomfortable.

But if you’re one of those magical people caught between doubt and wanting to laugh with me, congratulations. You’re my people and I love you and it’s okay to laugh with me when I look right past a clerk and tell a bubblegum machine hello.

Absolutely none of this makes sense. I understand that. I guess the point is… just try to be self-aware.

Legally Blind #7 – Fear and Loathing in Colorado, Part Four

Only family can make you want to give them a hug with one hand while you’re throttling the life out of them with the other. And in that regard, a lot of my CCB companions aren’t just friends – they’re family.

Now that we have the awkward business of the, erm, business of the Colorado Center for the Blind’s affiliation with the NFB out of the way, let’s cap things off with stories. We’ll finish everything off with a quiet moment, a strange little story that maybe will help you define who I am. Or maybe it’ll muddy the waters even more. I don’t know. But before we get there, let’s talk about New York.

I guarantee you, if you mention literally any food on planet Earth, my friend Tommy Needham will tell you it’s invariably better in New York. No matter how good the gelato, slice of pizza, sandwich, or drink in your hands, Tommy’s got a restaurant or a guy who can do it up better. If his stories in Braille about the culinary El Dorado of his hometown were to be believed, all one has to do to attain infinite orgasmic bliss is to have a slice of mozarel from the deli down the street.

I love Tommy to death. I also wanted to thump Tommy’s noggin about a dozen times a day. Both of those things are true.

Tommy is probably the first person I really recognized on a day to day basis, simply because of his strong “New Yawk” accent. His love of all things wrestling didn’t hurt either, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve met a more hardcore old school fan of the sport. His gregariousness in classes drew me out of my turtle shell, and he helped make me feel a lot more comfortable around the students.

As time went on, Tommy became my rock for entertainment. In the earliest weeks there, before I moved in with a different roommate, I didn’t have anything around to entertain myself but a few paperbacks bought from some secondhand store or another. I don’t even think I had a lamp in those days, so when the lights went out, I was either out exploring Denver or I went to bed as early as possible. I was of a mindset that I was there to learn as quickly as possible so I could get out of there and land a job.

But eventually I moved in with another roommate, and suddenly I had access to a TV again. With that came Tommy’s assurances that I’d love the Sopranos if I sat down and watched them. As weird as it sounds, having something so simple as someone loaning me DVDs isn’t a common thing for me, even now, and the simple human kindness of the gesture was something I needed, whether I knew it or not. I know that’s an odd thing to single out, but it meant a lot to me, and even more so when i left in December, as Tommy proudly gave me the first season as a parting gift.

Tommy also invariably knew a guy who knew a guy, and one of my fondest memories was when he called up a guy he assured me was a cab driver, just an unlicensed one. We took a trip to the ass end of nowhere to go to a Wal-Mart, me wondering the whole time if we aren’t going to get shanked. This sounds frightening, but in a funny way, that’s very much the definition of my life in Denver. I have enough similarly themed “holy shit, why did I do that?” stories to fill up a dozen of these blogs.

Tommy was – and is – a passionate, very outspoken friend, and for his easy acceptance, I thank him for making me feel sort of human there.

Now we move on to Matt Palumbo, Interestingly enough, just by observing Matt on a day to day basis taught me quite a bit more about myself than I ever expected to learn. Matt is a happy, intelligent guy with an enthusiasm for things that baffled me (and if I’m honest, they still kind of do). He adored the crap out of kid-like cartoon things like My Little Pony, but he wasn’t at all weird about these things. In fact, his attitude might have been the most “normal” of the bunch at the CCB. He’s just, in general, a pleasant guy to get to know, and once you get him talking about all his interests, you realize just how remarkably intelligent and genuinely good he is.

I have a very hard time opening up to people about my hobbies. I assume everyone thinks I’m weird (I am) and that they don’t actually want to hear about my love of books, Shakespeare, and video games. It’s my instinct to try to become someone else no matter who I’m around, a self-defense mechanism of mask-wearing that’s become so ingrained that I’m not even sure there’s a single person out there who knows who I really am, apart maybe from my brother. It’s still not easy for me to be who I am around individuals. Women can smell my insecurity a mile away, and when you combine that with my other less-than-pleasant attributes, I might as well be holding a sign that says “Don’t bang this guy.”

But watching – or rather listening – to Matt there at the CCB, I realized it doesn’t matter if other people are interested or not. If’s about my attitude towards things, about standing firm being the person I am. His attitude, his non-abrasiveness, his easy-going nature… these are remarkable things.

Matt also inspired me to start traveling a bit within the realm of what was possible in the greater Denver area. I don’t know if he invited me or I invited myself, but we took up travels to malls, random out of the way places, and in one memorable moment, a bookstore way the hell out in the middle of nowhere because it had games stuff there and both of us were basically ready to go anywhere “just because.” With him, I learned my favorite pastime in Denver, one I wish I could manage here, and that’s just to get out and see things.

Those were good times. Some of the very best of them. When Matt graduated from the CCB, I was losing my best friend. It hurt, but it was a good hurt. Matt’s the sort of friend who comes into your life like a damned tornado and I’m honest-to-God a better man for having known him.

If I’m being completely truthful here, and that’s the point of this thing, I have one more Matt story to tell you, and it’s not a pleasant one. Not because of anything he did, but because I’m a temperamental son of a bitch and this story deserves to be out there for any future person who think’s I’m a cool dude. Because I’m not. Oh man, I’m not.

Matt and I frequently hit up malls all across Denver, because both of us are basically dyed-in-the-wool mallrats and pbbbffffft, like we need reasons. We made plans to hit up one mall, I forget which one, because it had this day-glo mini-golf course in it, the sort of thing meant for acid-droppers and college kids. It looked like a blast and we were pretty enthusiastic about it.

This young woman – we’ll call her “Susan” – loved adventures too. Loved being right in the middle of things, loved experiencing everything she could. Looking back, I can’t blame her one bit and I even applaud her for it. At that time, though, I was irritated. “Susan” was completely blind and she’d never gone mini-golfing. But she wanted to go and we agreed to take her.

I went from irritated to ugly in about an hour. She chopped at the ball, whacked around the course with cheerful abandon, and kept trying to understand as best she could what we – or really Matt, by that point, because I’d had enough – was trying to teach her. Then, at one point, through no fault of “Susan’s,” she accidentally pushed me into a sharp edged object on the golf course, a neon mushroom or something. Though the cut on the back of my leg was minor and we’d paid damn good money to go there, I got pissed and declared it to be the end of our little foray that day. I don’t think I could have handled it like more of a spoiled dickhead and it left her in tears. I didn’t care. I was angry my day was spoiled, I was angry I couldn’t teach her. Most shamefully of all, I was angry because she was blind.

Do you understand that? The sheer assholishness of that statement? Because that’s me, ladies and gentlemen. That’s me to a motherfucking T. Once you scrape away all the joviality and the pleasant exterior, what you’re left with is a snobbish, angry dick who wants his perfect little world all to himself except when I can control it.

I don’t think I’ve talked about that story with anyone but Matt. So there it is. Me. Hi.

Moving on.

When Matt graduated, whether I knew it or not, i was about to meet another new best friend there at the CCB. Shortly after, couldn’t have been a week or two at most, I was asked by one of the teachers there to show a new arrival the ropes. She had sight, sort of like me, so they wanted to get her acquainted with someone going through the same things. It was a nice gesture, I thought, but who the hell was I to be showing someone around?

Well… enter Rebecca Burke.

To this day, I don’t know what drove her to get as close to me as she did, but it’s a feat no woman’s managed to stomach so well before or since. Rebecca is a joy. She’s deeply religious, has the cutest damn southern drawl I’ve ever heard (get her to say situation and try not to fall a little bit in love with her, I dare you), and she’s a meteor of attitude and warmth and passion.

To tell you how weird my friendship was with Rebecca, let’s start with the end of it – when she found out I was leaving the CCB, she didn’t speak to me except monosyllabically for… two weeks? Something like that. Two. Weeks. And while we weren’t exactly crammed together like sardines, there wasn’t a lot of places I could go within the school where she wasn’t.

Time hop back to that first day. I didn’t physically see Rebecca until that evening. Our first day was spent mostly talking, and in a funny way, that maybe was the clincher. I think if  I were to meet any woman with her class and grace – and let’s face it, downright beauty – and I wasn’t blinded by sleepshades, I’d have been a bumbling wreck. Surprisingly, I wasn’t, though I did like her immensely right off the bat. It was clear she was a bit nervous about the school, but she was a lot more even-keeled about it than I was my first day, and approached everything and everybody with an easy-going southern charm.

I invited her to dinner that night downtown at the Hard Rock. I don’t remember if I’d seen her face by that point or not, but I was very glad she said yes. Tommy, good old Tommy, threw himself in there too, and the three of us had a fun time downtown (though I’ll admit, the Hard Rock was a terrible choice for me financially – I think I had ten bucks to my name and wound up having their mac and cheese. Hah!).

Rebecca and I didn’t have a relationship, not the way you think we did, but… yeah, we kinda did. I don’t mean physically, but in a very real sense, I consider her to be one of my great loves. We started to spend a lot more time together, not because she really needed the help – she was pretty much nailing it from the get-go – but because… frankly, I don’t know why on her end, but on mine, she was good. Aggravating at times – oh my God, she can be stubborn as a mule, and grumpy – but like my friend of a very different nature in Matt, Rebecca was – is – a fundamentally beautiful person, not just on the outside, but inside too.

She started traveling with me on my little journeys. Those were good times. I showed her some of my favorite malls, different hangouts, that sort of thing. She cooked for me more than once, including an amazing Thanksgiving dinner and a farewell lasagna sendoff that’s gonna bring me to tears if I think about it too much.

When I mentioned having to be separated from a friend during Braille a blog or two ago, it was from Rebecca. We goofed off a bit and class, and I still get little goosebumps when I think about her dotting my shoulders with her Braille pen – B-A-T, for a little Halloween inside joke.

Our friend, Bertha, once found out I was only twenty-four or so, and blurted that she thought I was closer to seventy or eighty. Combine that with another inside joke that Rebecca, when fully decked out in her big coat, looked like a starfish, the group of our friends, spearheaded by Rebecca, started calling me “Grampy Star.” To this day, it’s the only nickname of mine, apart from my grandmother’s “Stinky Butt” (yes, she really calls me that, and in public) and my immediate family’s “Cambo”, that I like.

Rebecca could scare me, too. Her passing out on one of our ventures is still something I have nightmares about, and there was a time near the end of my stay at the CCB when I genuinely thought our friendship was going to be left with her bitter at me leaving. That would have been a cruel cut, by me or by her, I’m not sure. But she was dating someone, a banker, and I thought, as I always tend to do, that there could be some measure of relief for me in knowing that she’d be with someone… secure. I was twenty three or twenty four, I had no major job prospects, I was earning maybe three hundred bucks a month from SSI. She fell in with a banker. How am I going to say, “Hey. Take a chance on me?” That’d be selfish and kind of cruel.

Wouldn’t it?

I’ll leave off Rebecca’s section in this with one last story of her and the group we traveled with. This is THE Rebecca story, apart maybe from the gift she gave me when I left (a notebook filled with pictures and mementos of our time together).

I don’t remember the name of the mall – Colorado Mills or Cherry Creek spring to mind – but Rebecca and I made plans to do some Christmas shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend. I was still feeling a bit of guilt over the trip with “Susan” months before and when some of our fully-blind friends wanted to tag along for the shopping, I agreed. Well, mostly because Rebecca would probably be taking on the lion’s share of leading them around because they really liked her. But also, you know, because I was trying to be a better person and crap.

I don’t know when we woke up to leave, but let’s assume it might’ve been twenty hours before the butt crack of dawn. Our crew assembled on a bitterly cold day in Denver (Montana friends, if you haven’t been there, Denver is basically a populated version of Montana, complete with its “I want to kill you now” winters), and we hopped on our bus, Rebecca already giving me askew smiles and glances when the younger kids wanted to know where all we’d be going and doing.

The two words I’m about to tell you are going to sound disingenuous, made-up, a blatant bald-faced lie. But absolutely nothing in this blog has been fictionalized or made up in any way to entertain, and this isn’t either.

Sixteen. Hours.

Guys, if that makes your testicles want to jump right on back up into your crotch, you’re not alone. Mother of God, sixteen hours of shopping sounds like hell to me even right now and I’ve endured it. And keep in mind, this is with entirely blind friends, though these were much more experienced and easy to deal with in comparison to the earlier story. Also… well, because Rebecca really did wind up helping them out way more than I did.

It was a huge mall, from what I remember, and of course Thanksgiving weekend made it even busier. We hit a huge number of shops, though not as many as you might think because of frequent stops to explain things and verbalize what was available. The staff was invariably great and patient, or really great at acting. I don’t remember stopping for a full-blown meal, but I do remember trying cinnamon-dusted freshly-roasted nuts and I still can’t get them out of my mind over a decade and change later.

That trip was, on paper, my version of pure hell, and yet it’s in memory one of my all-time favorite memories of the CCB as a whole. Rebecca had the patience of a saint, the kids we traveled with were experienced travelers and kept up well, and by the end of it, all of us, saddled down with bags and bags of purchases, had one hell of a memory.

My friends from the CCB taught me what I needed to know about my future. Oh, sure, I learned Braille and how to use a computer without a monitor and how to make a surprisingly okay shelf completely blind. But one of the things I needed to know most was that my world wasn’t going to end if I went blind. That I could still do meaningful things, that I could still have a remarkable life. And as funny as it sounds, even now, those six months I lived more than I ever have with any degree of sight. Every day left me exhausted, happy, angry, confused, joyous. Every weekend, I tried to find something to actually do. I was amazing and terrible and so damned electric.

I have one last story I wanted to tell you. I was going to title this particular blog “end of the Line,” but that sounds much more depressing than I wanted to leave things off on, especially since this is a good story, and one I’ve not told many people.

The first weekend I spent at the CCB, I knew I either had to shit or get off the pot. I was fooling myself, I thought. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be alone in an apartment with a crazy roommate who thought six inches was outside my personal bubble. i didn’t want to be walking into traffic. I didn’t want to be burning my hand on a BBQ grill. I wanted to be home. I wanted to be working. I wanted to be miserable.

At that point, I still had nothing but my suitcase full of clothes. I needed essentials, even if I was going home soon. I was gonna go stir crazy if I didn’t get a book or something to entertain myself, and I was tired of living on bread and lunch meat sandwiches.

I knew the basics of bus travel in theory. All I had to do was go two stops to the south, and I’d be at a Kroger, or I could jump the light rail, head up two or three stops, and walk half a mile to a Wal-Mart. Easy (well, it was at the time).

For whatever reason, with no one in the world knowing where I was going or what I was doing, I decided to keep going. Just to go somewhere, do something. I had no idea why at the time. I stuck it out near the front, my cane held tightly between my knees, taking in what I could of the suburbs. I had no idea if I was in a good part of town, a bad one, or even the foggiest where this bus was going.

I rode that bus to the end of the line. The driver, a little irritated, told me that was it, that I needed to get off now. I asked him the way back to my cross street, and he showed me the little map brochures they had. I plucked out a few, sat on a bench outside, and read through them, trying to understand the routes and times I’d need to get back to that grocery store.

I should have been nervous, and I was, I guess. But here’s the thing. You ask me why I write, why I love trying to go to new places to eat, to read new writers, to explore so much music. The answer, without any real definition, is that kid – and let’s face it, even if I was approaching my mid-twenties, I was a kid – riding that bus to the end of the line, not because he was depressed, not because he was stupid.

But so I could see.

Legally Blind #6 – Fear and Loathing in Colorado, Part Three

Let’s get this up front – the NFB has done amazing things for the blind. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the policies they’ve helped push through that genuinely make it possible for the blind to not let their disability define them (that’s actually sort of their mission statement, come to think of it, and it’s a good one). When I was in Denver, one of the big things they were helping push were those little pop-up dots you see on street corners, which help give definition to corners for those who need it, and now in 2017, my hometown finally has those, along with clearly defined pedestrian crossing lines that will – hopefully – stay painted on a more regular basis.

That’s one tiny example of the things they’ve done that has affected my life, but there are many, many more. They are, in general, a terrific bunch of individuals and I want you to understand up front that what I’m about to say should in no way deter you from supporting their efforts. Cool? Cool.

That all said, just like every other ideology out there, the NFB can sometimes put themselves first above the whole, and just like every other ideology, it can be self-righteously abrasive.

Yes, I probably just insulted your particular -ism. In fact, I’m sure I did. There’s a point to be made here that’s not going to please a single one of you, and I want you to understand I’m including myself and my particular beliefs in this as much as I am yours, okay? So just gimme a second and oil up your torches, because it’s gonna get a little worse before you (hopefully) see what I’m driving at.

Every ideology, be it religious, political, spiritual, or even rational, breeds a certain subset of thinking that tends towards an “us versus them” mindset. This tends not to come from the “normal” individuals within a group, but those who latch onto its ideals as a parasitic means to affirm their own self-worth. That’s pretty obvious, right? Except you get enough people of that mindset together in a room and isolate them from the whole and suddenly you’re breeding jingoism, xenophobia, and a destructive sense of self-importance.

That’s when things get uncomfortable for outsiders – and ironically, why it breeds even more xenophobiastic (is that a word? I’m making it a word) belief systems, until you’ve wound up with two or more groups shouting at each other because they’ve stopped looking at things as a whole and can only peep out from within their own metpahorical fortress.

That self-fulfilling prophecy of separating one’s self (or group) for the sake of believing you’re “right” about how to think, behave, and act are why I’m loath to identify myself in any particular ideology. I’m wary of anyone who identifies themselves as a whole because that will invariably lead to mud-slinging and radical behavior as a group when they feel threatened or needy and I don’t agree with that. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a judgmental asshole of the nth degree, but I do it on my terms, without associating with a group or mindset of anyone else.

Am I Christian? Sure, in the sense that I like Jesus’s teachings and the basics of the Ten Commandments, and I like to believe in both heaven and a greater kinder force than what we are capable of as people. I do not adhere to one particular subset of that belief because to do so is to willingly blind myself to the harm my group can cause, regardless of if we believe we’re in the right or not. It… hmmm. It narrows myself to a degree that I don’t like. Faith, I think for myself anyways, should be somewhat flexible so long as what is good is being stood for. Does that make any sort of sense whatsoever?

It all kind of goes back to something a history teacher of mine, Pat Morris, used to say about being the one person in a room full of “yes men” having the guts to say “no,” even if you sort of believe in saying yes – all because critical self-examination is a necessity. Those are my words, not his, but you get the gist of it.

In any case, I don’t much like -isms or factions or whatever people choose to identify as because the minute you start identifying as a sole group, you are cutting yourself off from the world as a whole. Protecting your own when it’s necessary is an absolute must, but the definition of what is necessity should always be weighed and measured against the world as a whole at that moment. Or to probably misquote Star Trek, the needs of the few should not outweigh the needs of the many. I probably butchered that. I’m not a fan of the show – wait, come back! I like that Picard guy!

Anyways, I give you that lengthy preamble because the National Federation for the Blind is just as capable as any other group of producing a mob mentality of self-righteousness. Weekly cheerleading sessions for the NFB – who backed the Colorado Center for the Blind – were kind of informative at first. These were group bullshit sessions where questions would be poised tot he students as a whole and we’d answer them, always with a slight nudge towards a sense of “go us!” Which is AWESOME, don’t get me wrong – those sessions helped me become less nervous about my own blindness, but often times, those questions were pushed in such a way as to give it a slight “us versus them” mentality.

We were given presentations too, speakers from the NFB’s mass collective (and holy shit, if you want to look at some impressive numbers, do some research on how big of a lobbyist group they really are, and how many strong the NFB is). These were far more obvious in their hoorahing. I, ah, didn’t do very well sitting on my hands in these ones, and I’m sorry to say that as the months wore on, I grew less and less patient with these presenters. I wanted to be there to learn Braille and function on a day to day basis, not have a belief system crammed down my throat, but considering how many days of school I skipped out of exhaustion and frustration, that’s hypocritical.

Perhaps, though, the greatest example of why I don’t count myself among the NFB’s legion came from a state conference in Denver that fall. We were told we’d be staying in a pretty damn nice hotel for… either a night or a weekend, I don’t remember. Regardless, the conference would take place over a couple of days, and we were told this was mandatory. Fine, right? I mean, hey, it offered up a new experience and got us a view of how the NFB worked to push city, state, and national policies for the blind which could have been a really cool experience.

By the end of that conference, I was done. Utterly done. The clock wasn’t ticking yet on my decision to head home, but that was definitely the beginning of the end for me.

By that point, I was already grumpy about NFB pushiness within the school. A lot of the individuals who went to the CCB were my age or older, and who were perfectly capable of making up their own minds about how to think and what to take with them ideologically, but a great many of the students there were fresh out of high school, with this being their first real experience on their own. I’d experienced the harm of being innocent and shoved into sudden acceptance in a group setting  (I was deep into a Christian group my freshman year of college just because I’d never fit in anywhere and I was grateful to have people around me), so I became very paternal about these kids and tried to make sure they recognized that there were other ways to think than the NFB’s.

That didn’t win me a lot of favors, but maybe for the first time, I was well and truly satisfied that I was being that one guy in a room full of yes men to say no for a damn good reason. Come the conference, and the realization that I was trying to plug up a river with my pinky finger.

Much of the conference was just figures and presentations being made about stuff that was of interest to the blind at large. Not exactly thrilling stuff, but hey, seeing the inner cogs turning is necessary. But then there came a larger meeting wherein policies were being discussed about things the NFB wanted to push for the city and state to do for them, and that’s when the klaxon sirens went off.

Let me give you the firmest example I distinctly remember. When we traveled by bus from point A to point B, it was commonplace for us to ask the bus driver to call out the two stops ahead of ours. That’s a pretty simple thing to ask a bus driver to do, and I never remember any problems with it.

At that conference in Denver, the NFB wanted to make it a policy for bus drivers to call out ALL stops regardless of their necessity to us. All of them. Because… reasons. We would be creating more work for bus drivers without justification, who would then be regulated by whatever watchdog group tracks that stuff, and it would become a mandatory pain in the ass for them. A very minor one, but here’s the gist of what I’m getting at – this was the way it was with a staggering mountain of stuff the NFB pushed back then.

And therein lies my inherent beef with the NFB as a whole. Among the many great things they do for the blind, there are a dozen unnecessary actions considered that disregard the potential effect on the whole for very negligible benefits that can be obtained just by asking. Whether that bill passed or not, I have no idea. I don’t follow the legislation of Colorado or Denver and by the end of that conference, my mind was whirling with the sheer ego of the group as a whole.

The whole thing left a greasy taste in my mouth, one I still can’t shake. Progress for those in need is a great thing, something that should be fought for. But when it comes at a cost of blinding the self to the whole… I don’t know. Believe what you believe. But always remember there are others out there believing what they believe too. A whole world of them. And if you purposefully blind yourself to hurting or discomfiting them for a greater sense of self of self-value, you do yourself or your ideology any good.

And unfortunately, that was how I felt about the NFB – so much potential to do good, but so much potential to put themselves first too.

In the next blog entry, we’ll return one last time to the Colorado Center for the Blind to talk about what ended up really mattering to me there, and why I went home feeling like I’d learned what I needed to. Thanks for reading.