Smelling my way through the store.

There is a myth that when you lose your vision, your other senses get heightened. It’s bullshit.

However.

I’ve become keenly aware of the things that I already knew but never thought about before, like smells. From scents to odors we have an incredible olfactory vocabulary and memory. This isn’t really news. There have been tons of studies showing how certain smells can trigger memories and emotions. Casino owners and real estate agents have known this for years.

But it works in little ways, too.

Recently I traveled around North Texas. At one point in my trip my plans changed twice in one day. Short version: I was 100 miles from my luggage and alone at the intersection of a highway I’d heard of and one I haven’t. Luckily, at this intersection was a Target. (Thank you, iPhone!)

I wandered inside and my pupils slammed shut. The circle I view the world through shrank and got blurry. Great timing. At least I wasn’t crossing the highway again.

I needed deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and a change of clothes.

I walked around, and then I smelled it. The feminine hygiene isle. That isle has a distinctive scent. Similar to (but not the same as) the Baby Needs isle. Then there’s shampoos! I was getting closer! Then, boom, deodorant. I felt like Toucan Sam.

Just follow your nose! It always knows!

Toothpaste and toothbrushes were right around the corner. I didn’t have as good of luck smelling my way through the men’s department, but I figured three out of four ain’t bad and my ride will be here soon.

I paid for my bounty, made my way outside and found a bench. When my friend arrived he BUSTED out laughing because – apparently – the bench I found was right in front of an eye clinic and the people working inside looked unthrilled. (Oops! HA!!)

Since then, I’ve been smelling my way through the grocery store. Pet food, auto parts, school/office supplies, even canned goods have a smell. And the weird part is: I already knew that.

I’ve even gotten my wife to stop in the middle of the sidewalk to catch a scent on the wind. It’s a fun way to find new restaurants and I highly recommend it to everyone – including the sighted.

Screw Yelp! Just follow your nose.

I’ve always been bad with names, now I’m bad with faces too.

I never felt bad in the past about forgetting people’s names because NO ONE ever remembered mine. As a person I’m memorable enough, but my name just doesn’t stick. I get called every name but my own. I’ve gotten “Chris” and “Steve”, “Charles” and “Darryl”, and (sigh) “Jose” and “Carlos”.

When I started writing and working in stage/film, I started using pseudonyms. You know what? They stuck. I was never attempting to fool anyone – they often knew my real name as well – but when word gets out that you want to be credited as “Dirk Stairfighter” people take notice.

But even then, my real name got forgotten. I considered it Karma because I have never been able to hold a person’s name in my head before meeting them three times.

If a name is important, I write it down or I say it in my head a zillion times.

Hi James. Nice to meet you James. Would you like a drink, James? Perhaps in a James glass as you sit on your James stool. You, James – yes you, James, will have James’ drink because James is you. You’re James.

If I just meet you like a normal human and have a normal human conversation, by the time we say goodbye I’ve half-forgotten your name. …but at least I’m good with faces!! …or at least I was. Blindness has thrown a monkey wrench in my cover plan. Now, second and third meetings have gone from

Oh, geez! What was this guy’s name again?

to

I know this voice. Where do I know this voice from? …Dad? …God? …Darth Vader?

It’s led to some awkward conversations, especially if they have no idea that since out last meeting I’ve lost a ton of vision. It doesn’t help that I do all I can to appear sighted. (Yes, I know. I’m vain. We’ve covered this topic.)

A couple of weeks ago I went to a table reading and afterwards one of the actresses came up to me and said “Aren’t you going to say ‘Hi’?”. The first thing that popped into my head was

I knew I knew that voice!

I’d been listening to her act for 90 minutes and even heard her name, but until she spoke directly to me (as herself and not her character) I wasn’t sure if I knew her or not.

I quickly explained that I couldn’t really see her, but recognized her voice. Then I cracked a couple of blind jokes to let her know it’s cool that life sometimes throws you curveballs and that there are upsides to everything – even crappy things like going blind. I am learning so much about the world, about industrial design, about human nature, and that the rule The Only Real Limits Are The Ones You Put On Yourself still applies.

Then we caught up like any other colleagues. It was nice to “see” her again.

As we parted, I gave her my card. I did it partially because I’d hoped she’s keep in contact and partially because she never actually called me by name.

Details, Details, Details, Part One.

The other day I had a Great Idea.

This idea was inspired in equal parts by Red Bull’s Flugtag events and by Burt Reynold’s The Cannonball Run.

I imagine an event that is fun for those involved and for those watching.

I hope to inspire engineering students, psychology students, smartphone programmers, sports gear makers, and possibly even a beverage vendor to be excited to be a part of this event.

The pie-in-the-sky version of this plan includes not asking for permission from the city.

When I say this to people, the reaction I most often get is: “But there are safety issues!” to which I reply: Exactly. If it’s not adequate for the blindfolded, it’s not adequate for the blind. Why not make a political statement while doing real-world research and raising awareness?

However, on a nuts-and-blots level, this is about: 1. making improvements to our city, and 2. pushing the state of the art of assistive technology and gear forward. Everything should support these goals, so if I have to ask for permission, so be it.

What needs to be done:

1. A Name

Also a tagline, a logo, and other design sundry. This will be most people’s first impression of this, so it has to send the right message and have the right feel. Done well, we can raise awareness and have a great turnout.

Done poorly, you can get mocked on YourLogoMakesMeBarf.

In other words, we need good branding. Oh, yeah! We’re going to need web space and a domain…

2. We need to decide on a maximum size.

I know, I know. I should be so lucky that I’m having to turn people away. Unfortunately, in order to plan a lot of the logistics we need to be able to tell people that we won’t go above X number of people. This isn’t just the participants, this also includes their helpers, our crew, and press too.

3. We need to decide on the Start/End locations.

It has to big enough for everybody, it has to be easy to find, and ideally it should have nearby parking and should allow us to hang banners and post fliers. Also: the end location should be roughly 10K from the start location, duh.

4. I need to get someone else so this “we” business doesn’t sound so pretentious.

Consider this my official call for help and input. So far, I have two artists on board. It’s a start. I’ll be talking with a reporter this week. Also, I wrote to the group in Utah that held a similar event this weekend.

5. We need to write the liability waiver.

If you step off a curb in front of a bus because there is no bell to announce WALK/DON’T WALK I’d prefer it become a matter of the city’s insurance than with mine.

6. We need to write the Post-Walk Questionnaire.

What’s the point if we don’t learn from this? I need to find people who know what we should ask. Also contact statisticians, behavioral psychologists, biology students, traffic analysts, and anyone else who may want to learn from our focus group.

7. We need a tax attorney.

I don’t want to bother with the hell of becoming a 501(c)3 in time and I don’t want to be at the mercy of someone who is. We are officially a “not for excessive profit” group. We’re not in it for the money, but we need to pay the bills and our taxes.

8. We need an accountant.

Someone with experience in something that resembles this project.

9. We need to draw up a budget.

You can’t just “wing it” on something this big.

10. We need to work out the crew plan at both ends.

I repeat: You can’t just “wing it” on something this big.

11. We need to officially invite the authors of all turn-by-tun navigation apps to submit an app for step-by-step gps/gyro navigation system for the blind.

Is there an app for that? Why not?

12. We need contact makers of sports equipment, medical equipment, and accessibility gear for sponsorships.

Stress medical equipment profitability and government paybacks.

13. Find friends in the tech press to publicize the fact that we will not be getting permits and to make first call for participants.

Stress how non-visual navigation can be used underwater, in caves, while climbing mountains, and in wartime situations. Get the geeks excited about the techhy possibilities.

14. Contact lighthouse for the blind, ask for “loaner white canes”.

It is unreasonable to ask participants to purchase a cane. Also contact white cane day people, the “blind press” (whatever that is), local press, etc.

15. Get a beverage sponsor.

Also see if we can get freebies from the sports/health gear people to give as prizes.

….and this is just the “before we get started” to do list.

The key to this plan’s success, like any project this size, is to get certain groups of people excited about the project for completely different reasons, and at completely different times.

Now is the time for “Blue Skying it”. Put your thoughts in the comments. Watch these videos for inspiration.

(Ignore the first 35 seconds of the second video. Please.)

Great Minds Think Alike: Blind Walk This Saturday

The Utah Foundation For The Blind is doing an experiment this Saturday called “Walk With The Blind“. It is similar to the idea I posed about last week.

Check it out.

Thanks to Becky for the links.

Edit: Another one, this one in Boston! The Vision 5K.

A Walk In Our Shoes – A Blindfolded 10K Adventure

DISCLAIMER:
This idea is still in it’s VERY EARLY stages. All names/dates/times/locations/details are simply placeholders and are subject to change.

Title:
The 1st Annual “In Our Shoes” 10K Walk

Tagline:
Raising awareness of our city’s accessibility level and the state of assistive technology for the blind.

Description:
A real-world-situation walk with no set path to the finish line… blindfolded. Also, the finish line is a secret until the walk begins. The idea is for the participants to be mixed in the crowds on the street, and experience the world without vision. Participate solo or in pairs.

Objective:
To have fun, raise awareness, and foster changes that allow the blind and visually impaired to independently move around our city more easily. It’s also a way to bring attention to new assistive tech gear, test its usability in real-world situations, and push the state of the art forward.

Overview:
Each participant will approach the starting line one at a time. After you affix your blindfold, your left hand will be placed on a time clock and a time card will be placed in your right hand. As soon as you clock in, you will be told the address of the finish line. You and a non-blindfolded spotter will leave the area and the next participant will queue up.

There will be winners in 4 categories, based on shortest travel time:
1. Sighted, Solo
2. Sighted, Pair
3. Blind/Visually Impaired, Solo
4. Blind/Visually Impaired, Pair

Everyone who makes it to the finish line will get a certificate of participation.

The finish line will be between 8K and 10K away. No matter which path you take, you will travel roughly the same distance north-to-south as you will east-to-west.

Details:
Your spotter will be recording your trek on video. You cannot ask your spotter for help or to remind you of the address of the finish line. He/she will only speak to (or grab) you if you are in immediate physical danger.

You are allowed (encouraged even) to use any and all assistive technology available. You are not allowed to have a guide dog, or guide monkey, or guide human, or any other guide creature, This walk is to promote accessibility/mobility independent of other living beings. There is one exception: You are free to talk to people on the street and if you are participating as a pair you can talk to one another.

Pre- and Post-
Before the walk there is a giant disclaimer, and after the walk is a questionnaire. If you are among those who may be winners, you will be asked to submit your video for verification. Peeking will not disqualify you, but there will be severe time penalties.

OK, so that’s the idea (minus a lot of the small print).
Questions?

Advice?

In Seattle and want to help make it a reality?

Not in Seattle and still want to help?

I’ll need help designing posters, T-Shirts, web sites, and banners. I need to be connected with organizations that could stand to mutually benefit from our awareness campaign. I need to be made aware of the legal land-mines ahead. etc. etc.

Anyone know a local celebrity or sports figure that could participate and bring in national coverage?

E-mail me: neuroticnomad@gmail.com.

EDIT: Continued in “Details, Details, Details, Part One —->

A Quick Thank You.

Sorry for the lack of posts. As many of you know, I lost my mother this summer.

A relatively young woman of 64, her illness and passing came quite suddenly. I was fortunate enough to spend her final two weeks with her, including her birthday. It’s time I will treasure always.

The crying still comes suddenly, but it happens less often. Thanks to everyone who sent tweets and e-mails of support. It means more than I can express on this blog.

And to Mom, if you can hear me: I love you. I miss you. I’m so glad your pain is over.

How’s “Seeing Things” Treating You?

The following is an e-mail response I sent to a friend who asked:

hey how are you doing these days? how’s the ‘seeing things’ treating you?

I’m flying high – enjoying a condition that isn’t destined to last. After our last talk, my doctor told me that my pressure is still too high and I’m still killing my optic nerve. These last two surgeries bought me more time, but they weren’t quite enough. I’m scheduled for surgery number nine on the 24th. (28th? On these drugs I’m terrible with numbers.)

Of course, you know me. I’m not going to just sit on the sofa and rot. I’ve been given a temporary gift and I’m enjoying it to the fullest. I’m going to movies and reading – but I’m also doing silly things like coloring with crayons and putting decals on my walls. Oh, and I’ve decided to drive one last time while I have the chance.

Don’t worry, the sidewalks of Seattle are safe. C has taken three weeks off work and we’re taking one last road trip. We drove along the PCH (63 miles of the most beautiful coastline you will ever see) and toured Hearst Castle. On the tour, they pulled me aside and told me of a secret policy for blind visitors. I was allowed beyond the velvet ropes and plastic pathways. I stood mere inches from the most breathtaking art collection ever assembled – and was permitted to touch whatever I wanted. My hands fell upon first century Greek sculpture and seven century old tapestries. In the billiard room was an arch carved by the man who hired Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel and a wall hanging whose replica is hanging in the Louvre – and I got to touch the original. It’s a memory I will cherish forever.

I’m currently on a small horse ranch in Texas – playing with 1300 pound beasts and trying to get a cell phone signal.

I’ve put over 1000 miles with me at the wheel so far – and my wife trusted me enough to crawl in the back and go to sleep while I drove. TBTL has been the soundtrack of my last drive, and is permanently etched in my mind as part of the experience. My return trip begins in nine days and I will drive as much of it as I can. As soon as I get home I go under the knife and will be stuck on the sofa for a month an a half – but I will have the memories of a wonderful trip to keep me from growing restless.

Thanks for checking on me. Oh, and check me out in the New York Times : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/11/garden/11tv.html

- Gerald

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