Guest Post by Patrick Davis
Culture: a property of society and bacteria. Both have rules and laws, much of them the same, dictated by environment, principles more brutal and draconian than we care to contemplate. Its subjects are born into a setting cultivated for the growth of a select few organisms which benefit its current goal. Let this culture grow, let it run, feed it the right things so it breeds the strongest, most viable living pieces. And, if anything unpredicted, unusual, and unexpected happens to grow up here and there in the golden colony, by all means study it, take interest, it will teach you a lot if you care to learn, but keep it at a very, very safe distance, because otherwise it might just ruin everything.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
It is the third grade and I’ve heard this question numerous times already. I grab his hand—right in front of my face (where else would it be?) No eyesight needed.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to feel,” says the kid, aghast and offended that I would dare violate this unspoken social code. I’m supposed to blindly guess the number of fingers for his entertainment. Clearly, his personal boundaries have been egregiously violated.
He follows me around, wondering if I can sense him with some type of Daredevil-esque blind radar. Had I possessed such a thing it would be unnecessary—he is as quiet as a train crash. I point back at him, wanting him to understand that I can and will find him out. I imagine he will think, oh, no, he knows I’m here, he can hear me, use his blind super-hearing to come find me and destroy me. I should turn around and run like hell and go find something else to do! Of course, this only encourages him. I am a new, cool creature, and he must figure out what I can do.
I am now ten years old. My mom and I are at a conference about blindness. In the future, I will find events like this interesting (sort of), but for now I zone out during most of it, because it’s a bunch of boring adults talking and I’m a kid, get me out of here, (snore), I hope we’re eating soon.
A video plays, people who have lost their sight are talking, crying, crying, and crying some more. Later I will realize how fortunate I am to have every sense I was born with, to not have something snatched away from me and be forced to reshape my entire existence. And yet I will still find myself shocked and horrified by what I hear today. The video is a solid litany of: nobody taught me Braille, nobody came and found me and made things easier, nobody did X for me, nobody did Y… It showed one guy—one guy!—who went out and obtained Braille classes, who had actively pursued his goal of reading to his kid, who didn’t sit on his ass and hope that a bunch of Braille lessons would fly through his window and land in his lap. This guy, a beacon of self-reliance and grit, was almost washed away in a sea of tears and victimhood.
“So, what did you think?” My mom asks me as we leave the conference, the video still fresh in my mind. I know I am not the most sensitive person on the planet even at the age of ten, and I feel like what I’m about to say is going to bring my battering ram of a personality into stark relief. Those poor people were afraid and in agony and I was going to shit all over them.
“I didn’t like the video,” I say. “They sounded like a bunch of whiners, they kept wanting everyone to do everything for them.”
I am floored and relieved when my mom says, “I thought so too.” I am surprised because my ten years in the petri dish has told me that disabled people are to be pitied—those poor, hurting people shouldn’t be criticized or asked to do anything for themselves, they’re bliiiiiind, you heartless asshole! And look at me, a blind kid trying to figure out how to treat blind people. With this dichotomy fresh in my fragile, McDonald’s-craving brain, I wonder if I’m even viable in the blind culture.
I hate absolutely everything and everyone and I am ready at any moment to kill something. I am sixteen years old, and this is par for the course, but I don’t know this yet. But for now I believe from the bottom of my soul that everything is all bullshit, people are dicks, life sucks ass, and I’m the only one on Planet Earth who understands this 100%. Yes, this is how I navigate most of high school—a teenager who thinks Limp Bizkit is the shit and still manages to believe he’s better than everybody. Ha!
Add to that the complexity of being blind in a sighted high school, trying to prove myself, failing miserably, and watching my friends come into some serious freedom and autonomy that I will never get. My friends who I bitched to about adults, the Authority, curtailing our freedoms while they ran the place, are now getting cars. They can go wherever they want, do whatever they want as long as they get away with it, they now have supreme power over their destinies. Through the clever, tactical use of aging and eyesight, they have made themselves gods.
Quickly, somebody go back in time and tell this moody, vengeful teen to stop the Godflesh track he’s blaring and hating life too, and tell him about gas prices, flat tires, oil changes, brake pad replacements, AC compressors going out, not to mention having to buy a four-wheeled money and time-sucker from a sleazy, conniving alien creature commonly referred to as a car sales person. Hell, you might just give your retinas to him so that you don’t have to deal with that bullshit yourself. But I digress.
I feel very powerless this whole year. My friends are presumably dating the shit out of their peers, playing the coolest videogames, and having all the fun because all the fun requires eyesight. I myself am walking the halls of school between classes and getting shouts of, “Oh, shit, he’s gonna hit me with his stick!” And “Dude, out the way, the blind guy is behind you,” “Go to your left, I mean your right, I mean your left…” Someone threatens to beat my ass because I tripped him. I tell him to bring it. He is a coward and walks away.
As a result I lash out at practically everyone. I almost lose a friend from saying some amazingly shitty things about sighted people. I’m much worse to students in the hall, I view them all as the enemy. A gesture of help on their part is a judgment on my viability, “Do you need help” is translated as, “you need all the help you can get, you are weak and have nothing to offer yourself or anyone else.”
Let me say this: the concept of walking up, not out, only works if the person who is walking up to a raging blowtorch teenager has an extremely solid sense of boundaries, and the ability to calmly leave if they’re being treated badly. This is not a fun thing for me to reflect on, but we are in a time where this needs to be said. If someone thinks the world is out to get them, and this is somehow you’re fault and you owe them everything, there is very little you can do. From my unfortunate personal experience being a hate-filled high schooler, it was damn near losing friends over my words and actions which got me out of the red zone and motivated me to fix my outlook.
But in all this, there is music. I play the tenor sax in the high school jazz band. Music is probably the only thing keeping me on the rails. From listening to it—mostly metal, the more screaming and hateful the better, to playing in front of people, it is a crucial grounding force.
I sit at the end of the first row of chairs on stage in the auditorium. I am full of adrenaline as we begin to play our first chart for the assembled students. I have a solo coming up and I am ready to destroy. I stand, move up to the mic…and what happens next is always a mystery to me. I barely remember it, bits and pieces, I am too far in the zone and, like a dream, I can’t bring it back with me when I wake up.
Suddenly I find myself back in my seat and am bombarded with a roar of applause. I did it! For this moment I am not the blind guy. I’m that dude who played a wicked sax solo. People shake my hand in the hall—“Dude, you kicked ass!” “Hey, great solo!” “Great job up there, man!” Tomorrow it’ll revert back to normal: people will jump out of my way like I’ve got the plague, or someone will try to trip me or fuck with me in some fashion, but right now, for the rest of this day, in the eyes of the school, I am viable.
I am nineteen, and music has brought me to the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho. I am making more friends, interacting with people who actually want to be where they are in life. I am still socially awkward but I’ve loosened waaaaay the hell up. I learned that the showy solos won’t work here, that I’ve got to use music theory and structure and push myself, that music is a creative, strategic and mathematical art and not a tool for scraping the bottom of the barrel for acceptance.
I am twenty-two, and the jazz combo I’m in has just finished a tune. Jeff Hamilton—THE Jeff Hamilton—is shaking my shoulder and saying, “You played your butt off on that solo. Trust me.” I perform with Jazz Band 1 at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, and I am sad because it’s my last year in college. I play my full recital as required by performance majors, and I am a ball of nerves because I sense that I’m about to be—
—out on my ass. I am twenty-four and I am in Austin, TX. I am looking for a job, have been for eleven months. I’ve spent almost a year trying to convince prospective employers that I am smart and capable, not a lazy-ass who isn’t worth the training period. Depending on what statistic you look at, between 60 and 70% of blind people are unemployed. I am broke and going broker, but I finally managed to land a warehousing job.
I am twenty-six, and holy shit I’m freaked out. I have just become a father. I’m over my head and sleep-deprived, but I noticed something: the nurses in the hospital didn’t bat an eye at holding my daughter, changing her diaper feeding her. I have heard horror stories like this one, but none of them are happening to me. I walk with her in the sling, being super careful and using my cane to make sure she wont run into anything. I, on the other hand, clock myself on plenty of shit, but better me than her. I’m glad people don’t react badly, that they don’t threaten to call CPS for a blind guy with a baby, but honestly I’ve gotten like four hours of sleep a night since forever and I’m honestly too tired to give a damn if people think I’m viable (snore…)
“Cross-collar choke sit-ups! One! two! three! four! five!”
“Six! seven! eight! nine! ten!” we call back to the coach. We are on our backs, arms and legs up, wrists and ankles crossed, crunching them toward each other.
I’ve been taking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for about ten months now and…what can I say, I’m home. I am in a thick gi in almost 100-degree heat and someone is trying to throw me around and choke the shit out of me and I couldn’t be happier. They don’t take it easy on the blind guy, and I’m being truly pushed to be my best.
I have never felt more confident in my life. I have no illusions of invulnerability, because they’ve been smashed out of me by BJJ players who know that I’m viable. Beyond that, I am around people who have their own things to overcome, a desire to grow, and belief that they are working towards something bigger than themselves. We are all disabled in that we have a limitation we are fighting against. There is always someone with an advantage over us all, and yet we keep coming back and getting destroyed so we can get better. We accept that we can and always be beaten by someone or something, and we constantly learn that it’s not the end of the world. We don’t win or lose, we win or learn.
My buddy Leo and I are at Juiceland after practice. It’s a great smoothie place, but it smells so strongly of fresh plant matter that I feel sorry for any employee with the guts to show up hungover. We order our smoothies and wait on chairs so high up that, unless you’re a pro basketball player, you feel like a kindergartener dangling their feet.
Our drinks come and we make our way out of the chairs. I bump into someone standing in the way. I apologize as we head away.
“They were just staring at you,” Leo said about the person I bumped into and her friend.
“Why?” I asked, “because of the blind thing?”
“Yeah. They were staring at you but they wouldn’t bother to get out of the way.”
I’m slightly bothered—I just can’t get away from the “Oh no, shit, it’s a blind guy! what do I do?” crowd. No matter what I do or how I conduct myself, there will always be so many people who are unsure, sad, scared, and downright disgusted that I exist in their lives. And for once in my life, I don’t care!
I’m blown away by this sudden, unexpected change within myself. I truly do not care! I am not pissed off, depressed, hopeless, any of the negative feelings I usually get when someone freaks out when I go anywhere near them. I am okay. I’m okay with myself because, after two hours in combat with people who are bigger, stronger and have eyesight, I am confident that I’ve done something that neither of those scared disasters could do, too comforted by their perceived status to challenge themselves in this fashion. I am okay with their reactions to me because I just got done sparring with friends who want to see me succeed and become tougher for the world to break, so yeah, their lack of approval can’t touch that.
I am overwhelmed as I sip my cold brew-powered smoothie and reflect on how weird and awesome this feels. I am free in a way I’ve never been in thirty-four years of life. I am so glad to learn that I can accept myself, that I don’t feel like someone’s barbaric idea of a science experiment, that I actually belong—no, thrive—in this culture. Nobody could have talked me into this realization, I had to find it through challenges and experience. I feel physically confident which as a disabled person is extremely hard to come by, but my confidence is much more mental and spiritual. Finding a tribe of people who are trying to better themselves, coupled with physical and cerebral challenges, broke through my cynicism, anger and hopelessness and taught me so much about conquering adversity. I am much more patient with music, less stressed in fatherhood, and I have personal experience, not hyperbole from a motivational speaker or victim video, that while there’s a brain in my head I cannot fail so hard that I am incapable of getting up and trying again.
Nobody could have talked me into this realization, I had to find it through challenges and experience.
When you challenge yourself around positive people who will let you learn in a controlled environment, you will have a full toolbox and skill set when life comes knocking. Many times we don’t have people in our immediate vicinity who can or will help us, and when this happened to me I got disheartened and retreated from humanity because I just didn’t know what else to do. If I have any advice to give, it would be to find some challenging activity that interests you enough to keep doing it, preferably one where you will meet complete strangers. For a lot of people, socializing is a challenge in itself, but you’ll be busy most of the time with the activity which will probably push your concerns to the back of your brain for awhile. If you have an engaging challenge and a tribe of people who are serious about it, the pressures of a stress culture will seem much more manageable. And as for the curious and scared scientists peering into your life, wearing HAZMAT suits and petrified expressions, well, they have zero power to tell you that you are not viable, and you will have no need to prove to them that you are.