Four Paws for Keeps: Guide Dog Training Part 2

Exactly one week after our first route in harness, York and I are walking the aisles at Super Target. Practicing the “follow” command, York guides me a few paces behind my trainer as she turns down aisles, stops abruptly, and veers left or right. On our outside walks, York encounters many distractions: cats, people, and the ever-alluring grass. In Target, however, he proves to be a focused shopping companion – undeterred by the food smells or the small children crying “Doggie doggie!” from their carts. He earns praise for executing precise turns and avoiding the pile of crumbled Cheez-its in the grocery section. Even on the dog food aisle, York doesn’t stop to sniff a single bag!

This day of shopping marks the midpoint in our second week of training – and the firs time we’ve taken our guide dogs on an indoor errand in public. So far, York and I have learned several routes on Southeastern’s main campus in Palmetto, FL, and we’ve traveled intersections at the Downtown Training Center in Bradenton. York has demonstrated his ability to find curbs, posts, chairs, gates, and doors. In addition to the basics of obedience, like “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “heel,” and “no,” he knows the “right-about” command, a 180-degree turn used to rework areas where we made a mistake. At doorways that open on the right, he knows to “switch,” moving from my left to my right so I can open the door. On walks, I’ve learned that too much “Good boy, good York” works like a gas pedal, so I use the “easy” command to slow his pace. If York doesn’t listen when I command him the first time, I give a low-pitched bark-like “No,” use a leash correction, and repeat the command.

We return from shopping to a lavish Cuban lunch, a selection of foods our chef calls the “Taste of Tampa.” We are each served a pressed Cuban sandwich, a bowl of blackbeans and yellow rice, and a 1905 salad of mixed greens, olives, ham, swiss, and olive oil dressing. To our surprise and delight, we have the afternoon off, so we can rest up for a late-night obedience class and a night walk.

If it’s not too hot, the classes take place on an outdoor patio called Obedience Alley. If the pavement is already too hot for our pups, we practice obedience in the Day Room. In obedience class, we normally practice the basics while our trainers add levels of distraction. Some trainers walk by with yo-yos, tennis balls, or small toys, and others pretend to be nosy or intrusive strangers. One trainer demonstrates her acting skills by using an especially high-pitched voice, the “puppy talk” our dogs love: “Ooh what a beautiful puppy! Can I pet him? I have a dog just like him at home! Hi puppy puppy!”

Tonight we all meet in the Day Room at 8PM, and our three trainers reveal that we’ll be doing something called a “long recall.” One trainer explains: “We’ll take you and your dog to the hallway off the dining room, you’ll remove your dog’s leash and leave him in a sit-stay with another trainer, and the third trainer will lead you down another hallway. While the rest of us wait in the Day Room, you will call your dog.” She pauses, then adds, “If you’re seated, please have a firm grip of your dog’s leash. The loose dog is going to come tearing through here.”

My hands clench around York’s leather leash, and I ask, “What if the dog doesn’t come?”

One trainer answers with his usual ambiguous optimism: “Wait and see. I promise you’re gonna like this.”

An older student offers to go first. He leads his dog to the designated hallway around the corner and leaves him there. Then he walks off with a trainer. We can no longer hear his footsteps, and his dog cannot see the turns he has made. We grip our leashes and give our dogs a hushed “Stay!”

The trainer reiterates that we need to be quiet so the dog can hear its call. The student calls his dog, his voice lengthening and echoing along the tiled hallways. Instantly the dog bounds down the hall, a black blur tearing past without any consideration for the other dogs and people in the Day Room. We hear the sounds of a happy reunion, and the team returns to the room.

Next up is a female student who, like me, is working with her first guide dog. She leaves him with an emphatic “Stay!” and disappears from view. When she calls her pup, her girlish voice sounds even more childlike – the little girl who has lost her puppy in every heartwarming family movie. As she repeats the call using cutesy nicknames, her boy tears off down the hallway, first checking the place where she sat and then finding her at the end of the corridor.

When they join the group, my trainer looks at me: “Emily, you’re next.”

I stand up, and York stands with me, eager to get moving. We walk to the hallway, and I unclip his leash. I tell him to sit and stay and take the other trainer’s arm. He leads me down the hall, around a sharp left, and toward the end of another hallway. When everyone in the Day Room is quiet, he says, “Alright, call your dog.”

Remembering how the hallway alters voices, I sing out “Yo-ork!” I wait, nervous that I’m not loud enough, that he won’t come to me. As I call again,I  hear a burst of sound – paws skidding and sliding on tile, quiet joyful noises from the Day Room, and the jingle of York’s training collar. I barely distinguish a black blur trailing down the hallway as York runs past our corridor to my bedroom. Realizing his mistake, he changes direction, and my trainer murmurs, “Here he comes.”

Barreling toward me, York transforms into a huge incongruous black shape. He is panting and running, and I can see a paw, an ear, a tail as he hurtles toward me. The trainer catches him before he leaps on top of me, and I tell him to sit so I can clip my leash to his collar. He dances in front of me, his tail wagging, his tongue licking my hands.

When we return to the Day Room, everyone informs me that York began to whine the moment I was out of sight. I reclaim my seat, and York flops on top of my feet. I reach down to stroke his soft black head and feathery ears.

At the end of our first week, my trainer asked me, “How do you feel about working with York? Do you want to keep him?” After that week of firsts – our first meeting, our first walk in harness, our first street crossing – I knew I wanted to keep working with this boy. Now, as I write and he lies beside me, singing his hungry song, I remember him turning the corner of the long hallway and galloping toward me. I can’t believe how this week has changed us.

Sweet Response

May is turning out to be a literary month for me. I’ve created an account on Goodreads to keep numerical track of how many books I’m currently reading. So far, Goodreads says I’m reading 13. As I’ve listed several collections of poetry in this category – collections I read a few poems at a time – my sense of accomplishment hasn’t plummeted too dramatically. Also according to Goodreads, the number of books I want to read exceeds the number of books I’ve read. Seeing a larger pile of books in my future than the pile in my past seems like a sign that I am living a full and promising life.

Books from the past never really stay in the past. I remember many vivid books from earlier years. When I was in elementary school, I favored American Girl and Sweet Valley Twins books. Around fourth grade, an elderly aunt introduced me to Jane Austen. Then came the memorable and gloomy books of adolescent summer reading lists: A Bridge to Terabithia, Shiloh, Jacob Have I Loved, The Outsiders.

Perhaps to combat the melancholia of the assigned middle school texts, I discovered a love for fantasy and witty retellings of fairy tales. I adored Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (which is superior to the movie in every way) and Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, the sassy diary of a thirteenth-century teenager. I graduated to Harry Potter, and while I was waiting for the next magical installment, I traveled slowly and carefully through The Lord of the Rings. In high school, I was in love with two men: Tolkien and Thoreau. I am still in love with them now.

This month, I’ve just finished two books, and I found them delightful. The first was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, read on Audible by the author. The second was Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I listened to the audiobook, not read by the author, and followed along in the print text – I underlined meaningful and relevant passages on nearly every page. This audio-visual approach is my favorite way to read a text, but I don’t always have time for it. I made time for LaMott, and she was worth it!

So now I’m at the bookstore with Katie, looking for something new. Yes, Goodreads says I’m currently reading in the double digits, but the numbers really don’t matter. I’ve finished two books; I need to start at least one more. This is what bibliophilia really means: constant dedication to the reading life.

Katie and I begin with a brief stroll around the classics table, where stacks of gorgeous hardcover books teeter and nestle against each other. The rows of overhead lights glint off their gold-edged pages. I have several of these beautiful books on a special shelf at home. But I never curl up with them, annotate them. They’re trophy books.

Next we travel to our favorite section, Poetry.  Here, we willingly take all the abuse this section has to offer: three tall rows of shelves with the same slightly battered editions. With each visit, the No Fear Shakespeare volumes edge a little closer to our favorite poets, or the copies of Dante and Homer proliferate, crowding the more obscure (and doubtlessly more wonderful) authors.

I shudder as my fingers brush against thin volumes of Mary Oliver and T.S. Elliot; somehow The Wasteland and Other Poems is always hanging out beside A Poetry Handbook. But most of the books on these shelves make me happy, even when I already own them. Katie and I both sigh over the various books by Rainer Maria Rilke – “We have all these,” she says. We greet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rumi, and the French poets with the same quiet enthusiasm: it’s encouraging to see old friends.

On a shelf with an unnecessary number of books by Billy Collins, I find a new arrival: Selected Poems of Robert Creeley. Though I haven’t read much Creeley, I met him in college through a jazz-major-turned-English-major friend. The same friend introduced me to this poem, by Ron Padgett –

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

Katie and I pour over the Creeley, admiring the straightforward free verse, the clear font, the new smell, the bendiness of the pages. She flips it over:

“Thirty dollars.”

Depressed, we trudge away from the poetry section, ask a few questions at the service desk, and begin perusing the magazines. A writer friend has advised me to pick up a few poetry magazines so that I can see what kind of poetry they publish. Katie hands me a copy of The New Yorker and another of Poets & Writers Magazine. The Poets & Writers logo is large, difficult to miss. An elderly man walking past asks, “Oh, are you writers? Are either of you ladies writing books?”

I answer as Katie hands me two more magazines: “I write poetry and creative nonfiction.”

“Oh Lord!” he exclaims. He continues to walk away.

Feeling snubbed, I stare at Katie, who smiles encouragingly. I know she would stop to talk with a poet.

We end our shopping with coffee. I slide my writing magazines across the counter and ask the barrista if she has any seasonal flavors. She rattles off a list of options – espresso-flavored whipped cream, crumbled cookies, mocha-something – all available in icy blended drinks. Nothing sounds good to me. When poetry is slighted, hot coffee alone will soothe the sting.

So I invent a drink – a French vanilla latte with a hint of caramel. It’s warm and foamy, no whipped cream. I will call it the Rejected Poet.

Novel Interactions

I am lucky to be surrounded by dedicated and diverse friends. Some accompany me to the symphony. Others sing near me on the risers. A few teach in the office beside mine. And most read a lot of books. Like all relationships, my friendships intensify when my friends and I share novel experiences. We discover an unknown author, an exotic restaurant, a place for nature walks and reading aloud, and we lose ourselves in conversation.

As we share interests, we experience moments when my vision changes the circumstances of a social interaction. Some friends have never been close to a disabled person before—they don’t have disabled relatives or classmates, they never volunteered with disabled kids, they’ve never even seen a blind person. New friends learn to verbalize important information, become adept sighted guides, and begin to join me in the lifelong process of laughing at those who are still baffled by my disability. To be clear, people who can’t bring themselves to utter, “See you later!” don’t make it past the acquaintance level. I make no apologies for this prerequisite to my friendship. I’m confident that I can offer a warm and accepting friendship to someone, so I expect the same in return.

Old and new friends witness the many servers who won’t hand me a menu, the symphony ushers who don’t ask if I’d like a program, and the strangers who offer – usually without tact – to pray for my healing. Sometimes, I’ll turn to a new friend and say, “Let’s see if the waitress gives me the braille menu.” My companion will hiss, “I wonder if she expects me to order for you. Joke’s on her, you’re ordering for me!”

In the unofficial tally of new and awkward situations, Crystal and I are in the lead. On any given day of errand-running, we experience a volley of unsolicited, misplaced, or inept assistance from strangers who fail to – in Crystal’s words – “treat you like a person.”

Amused by these encounters, we spend our travel time plotting ways to get revenge. One of my mentors, a good friend and devoted disability educator, often uses the mantra, “Educate, don’t retaliate.” In our fantasies, Crystal and I educate so precisely that the offending parties see the error of their ways and we all have a good story to tell. In real time, however, we can rarely enact these far-reaching civic maneuvers. It’s all we can do to hold in our laughter until we’re out of the shop and in the car.

Let’s begin at the bank.

Crystal and I have stopped at the bank so I can deposit some birthday money. We emerge from the car, and she makes one of her many “summoning noises”: bird calls, tongue clicks, and shouts of “Closer! Closer!” that tell me where she is and where to go. I take her elbow and we enter the bank, threading our way through the unsophisticated mess of ribbon that creates the lines. I mutter something about accessibility and irritation. I can’t imagine that anyone using a wheelchair or scooter digs these cramped rope lines with their abrupt corners. When we reach the counter, I present my debit card and my ID, striking up a conversation with the cheerful bank teller. She instructs me to swipe my card and enter my pin. I do so, enjoying the large, distinctive buttons on the pin pad.

“Wow, that’s impressive! You entered your pin.” There is a lot of smile in her voice as she watches my competent movements.

“You think that’s good? Wait till you see me buy something!”

As the teller turns away, Crystal hands me a lollipop from the small bucket on the counter. “For you, superstar.” She grins.

When I take Crystal’s arm to leave the bank, the teller calls a bit of encouragement: “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time, too!”

A few hours later, we find ourselves at the nail salon, where I am having my eyebrows waxed. Real friends don’t let their blind friends pluck their own eyebrows. When the waxing is complete, I take Crystal’s arm and we stop at the counter to pay. The young Asian man prints my receipt and addresses Crystal:

“What happen?”

Crystal’s silence tells me that she is confused. “What?”

The man repeats his question, and Crystal replies, “What happened to what?”

In a hushed voice, he elaborates, “Her eye.”

“Oh um…”

Crystal’s voice fades, and I jump in. “I have low vision,” I explain. “I’ve had it since I was born.” I sign my receipt and return my card to my wallet.

“Ohhhhh.” The man takes his copy of my receipt and files it away. “My friend like that. My best friend.”

Later, when we pay for our groceries, we encounter the bank teller’s spiritual cousin, a surly cashier whose only comment comes when I successfully pay for my food and get cash back. After the brief series of beeps that signals the machine’s reception of my pin, she shouts, “GIRL THATS SO GOOD SHE CAN PUT IN HER OWN PIN!” This is her first, but not her final, comment to us. She places my receipt and the cash I’ve requested into my outstretched hand. Energized by my heroic act—the indomitable barrier I’ve overcome—she wishes us a good day.

Though most cashiers are more friendly than this notable example, few actually place the receipt and cash in my hand. Some never look at me, so they don’t see the cane and dark glasses. This means that my outstretched hand will remain empty as the cashier offers my receipt to a nonspecific place in the air. Other times, the cashier will hand my receipt and cash to the person I’m with, though I completed the entire transaction. Here, Crystal and I entertain devious fantasies: “One day, Em, when they hand me your cash, I’m just going to run away and leave you. ”

“I’ll stand here and look forlorn.”

Instead of implementing this particular fantasy, we’ve devised two strategies for dealing with unpleasant cashiers. In the first, Crystal simply steps away or feigns deafness and blindness when a cashier tries to hand her my things. Eventually the cashier gets the message and places the items in my outstretched hand. In the other scenario—when the cashier wordlessly offers my receipt to the empty air—Crystal announces in a very loud, serious monotone, “SHE’S HANDING YOU YOUR CARD.” This utterance helps the cashier to realize the miraculous effects of a verbal cue. After a sheepish apology, the employee places the stuff in my hand, and we can leave the store, knowing that we’ve helped carry one more grain of sand away from Ignorance Mountain.

For me, the best part of these interactions comes during the ride home, when we’re rehashing the day’s experiences. Though I do my best to be plucky and self-reliant, the sheer frequency of these situations can leave me feeling undervalued and ignored. These strangers who believe that I can’t complete the simplest tasks, who insist that my life is some kind of modern tragedy, who refuse to speak to me directly—they don’t know about my degrees, my publications, my performances. By their calculations, I’m not much of anything.

Here, Crystal enacts a vital role of friendship: she reminds me of my own worth, and the proper way to measure it. When I remember to calculate my value from her loyalty and understanding, we can turn these unfortunate encounters into good stories.

Intimate with Print

When venturing in search of new (or used) books, the Serious Bibliophile requires a few essentials: canvas bags for carrying the books home, a bottle of water, a dedicated and equally bibliophilic companion, a list, and a lot of time. The canvas bags are necessary for two reasons: 1) they won’t tear when you cram them full of books of different shapes, and 2) they represent environmental consciousness. Using the cloth bags will help you resolve your eco-guilt from bringing home a dozen print books. The bottle of water will keep you hydrated as you make use of the ample time you’ve allotted for this session. When you want to go dashing down every aisle, whisking books off shelves with the irrepressible glee of a 5-year-old on a sugar rush, the list of titles to look for will help you to exert some self-control. The companion will also help you make use of your time; her enthusiasm for finding and reading the books you desire will the hours disappear quickly.

My most frequent book-buying companion is Katie, and she is meticulous about observing the rules above. We regularly schedule trips to one of Jacksonville’s largest used bookstores, our canvas bags, shopping lists, and protein bars in hand. If the trip to the bookshop occurs somewhere in a long day of errands, we have learned to eat before we step across the sloping threshold. Book-buying on an empty stomach is a dangerous business. Combine our crankiness from hunger with our desire to buy four times the amount of books our budgets allow, and we represent a serious threat to ourselves and all other customers.

Because I am a lover of literature – poetry and prose, drama and nonfiction – you might assume that a book’s content is the only thing that matters. However, accessing literature is a multi-sensory experience, an indulgence for the hands, eyes, and nose – as well as the mind.  The books I purchase are stories I want to read, in formats I can easily access. So, aside from interesting content, what am I looking for in a good book?

While shopping with Katie, we wandered into the Classics section in search of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I had read the book eight years ago, for my AP Language & Composition class, but I’d somehow lost track of my beloved copy. Katie found the card with “WOOLF” printed in large, blocky lettering, and began to scour the stacks for the book I wanted. She found several editions, published by different companies – their fonts, pages, and binding wildly varied.

Our process is a simple one: Katie pulls an edition off the shelf and hands it to me, I open it to check whether the print is easy to read, and Katie uses my observations to filter the books she passes to me. I rarely require books in standard large print (size 18), because I apply a collection of magnifiers, reading glasses, and bifocals to texts I read. For me, ideal print is dark against the page, not a spidery or blocky font. Fonts like Courier New that echo the look of a typewriter are a recipe for disaster, while seriffed fonts like Times or Garamond are easy on my eyes. (WordPress tells me that the font I’m using now is Times.)

The quality of the page is also important. Often, I prefer to shop for used books because the yellowing pages are easier for me to read. Bright white pages can be glary, making the letters difficult to distinguish. Yellowed pages, on the other hand, soften the glare of overhead lights and contrast well with most fonts. If the book has any markings in it, it becomes exponentially more difficult to read. Occasionally, I can read a text that has underlining throughout, but, if someone has highlighted in the text, forget it!

The book’s spine is worth considering as well; if the book does not open easily, it will be difficult for me to get close enough to the pages to read them. When I was younger, I used a dome-shaped glass magnifier to read print. Now, I prefer reading glasses with 10x bifocals; I don’t have to worry about wedging a heavy glass dome in between the pages, but I do need to get about two inches away from the printed text to read it. Since I regularly underline in books, I must be able to get close to the text.

Because of my necessary textual intimacy, I have to give all my books the sniff test. Unless a book smells appealing – musty, old, and well-loved or crisp, new, and papery – I am reluctant to read it. I once avoided a textbook for my Mark Twain course, because, when I got deep into the pages, I could only smell the acrid glue of the binding.

The olfactory pleasure of books prevents me from switching to an all-digital experience of literature. Arguably, many more books are available online as e-books and free texts, but I know how desperately I would miss that Good Book Smell. Plus, my tactile relationship to texts helps me to navigate them with ease. I often remember where a passage is located because I remember reading it halfway down the page, on the left side, in the second column. My spatial awareness of text on a paper page disappears when I switch to texts on my computer. Audiobooks, however, are a welcome addition to my library, and I enjoy listening to a book while following along in the print edition.

If you’re thinking that my preferences sound like a load of cumbersome specifications, you’re very close to the truth. It is certainly easier on my eyes when I have an audiobook doing the reading and I can simply skim the pages with a pen, underlining as I listen. Yet I continue to gravitate to the printed page, even in the absence of audio recordings. Something in the experience of curling up with a good book – my nose, without exaggeration, deep in the pages – conveys a coziness, a tranquil absorption. As my body performs the posture of reading, the book is a reassuring weight in my hands. Getting my fingers around the edge of a page, sliding my bookmark into place, drawing a thin bracket around a particularly moving passage – these gestures comprise the sensory pleasures of a revitalizing experience.

The rain, a cane, and a hint of Spain

Tonight, around 6:00pm, Ozzie begins to bark, sounding the signal of an approaching car. I sling my large pink floral purse over my left shoulder, check for my cane, sunglasses, wallet, keys, and cell phone, and head toward the front of the house. I open the door and try to keep Ozzie, the curious cairn terrier, from running out onto the landing to greet Javier, who has arrived to pick me up. My efforts fail as Ozzie slips past my legs and through the narrow opening – he is relentless when there are new people to greet!

After he has paid his respects to our pup, Javier offers me his arm and we descend the front steps. It’s sprinkling and we tromp through the wet grass to get to Javier’s car. Javi opens the door for me and I slide in. We begin our trek in search of Thai food, driving through an intensifying downpour. Luckily, Javi has a snazzy umbrella that will accommodate both of us.

We arrive at the Thai restaurant and hurry inside. Our waitress greets us and says, “Nice to see you again!” I do not recognize her voice, and I wonder how she recognizes me. Though I enjoy their food, I haven’t been to this particular Thai restaurant in a while.

This evening, Javi and I are of one culinary mind; we agree on vegetable spring rolls as an appetizer and end up ordering the same entree – Phad Se-yew with chicken,  mushrooms, and carrots. The spring rolls arrive already cut into 2-bite pieces. They are arranged in an asymmetrical design on a square plate. A round cup of dipping sauce with peanuts sits in one corner of the plate, while a colorful garnish occupies another. After we have each eaten one piece of spring roll, I stare hard at the plate and reach for what I hope is another piece. I am relieved as my fingers brush the crispy surface of the roll. As I dip it into the peanut sauce, I remark, “Oh I’m glad those are more spring rolls on that edge. I thought that was another pile of garnish.”

“Oh yes,” Javier replies devilishly. “It’s all garnish. Don’t eat it!”

When the entrees arrive, I take a few bites before remembering to search for the garnish, a bunch of shredded raw carrots twisted into a decorative design, that lingers somewhere on my plate. I know this from past experiences. I cannot count the number of times I’ve lifted a forkful of phad thai to my mouth and gotten a messy clump of raw carrot caught up with the rice noodles and scallions! We finish our meal, and Javier helps me spoon my leftovers into a small white takeout box. We pay at the register, where the cashier puts my debit card onto the counter in front of me (instead of placing it into my outstretched hand).

Full of excellent food, we decide to run some errands at the Town Center. While we search for a parking spot, Javier reads the names of passing stores – Apple, Pottery Barn, Artsy Abode…Switching from his pleasing Madrid accent to a low, exaggerated French impression, he intones, “L’Occitane en Provence.”

“What! They have a store here?” (I am excited. Because I cannot read store signs and don’t regularly check maps of the Town Center, I lose track of the stores on offer.)

“Yes, it’s right there.”

“Can we go in?”

“Sure…”

We enter the shop, and the first thing I notice is the size. The store is not very deep and the ceilings are not very high. I am not sure how I know this – it must have something to do with how the air feels and how the sound of the radio, playing “La Vie en Rose,” behaves in the space. As I step through the door, the sales assistant calls from behind the counter, “Bonjour!” I barely notice her greeting. I am overpowered by the heavenly smell of warm, soothing Provence lavender.

For lavender enthusiasts like me, Provence lavender has a very distinct scent – entirely different from the pointy, medicinal smell of the typical jar of lavender bath salts. Lavender grown in Provence has a relaxing, full, floral aroma that calms my mind and makes me think of sun-drenched meadows of lush green grass and soft, inviting blossoms.

This whole shop smells like lavender, probably because, as Javier informs me later, there are bunches of lavender for sale by the entrance. As we wander around, the woman comes from behind the counter to offer her assistance. I ask her how long the store has been here and she says, “Just over a year.” We chat a little about the products I’ve tried – the shea butter lip balm and the lavender hand cream. I tell her I am there to explore the whole store.

Suddenly, she comes closer and says, “Oh! All our products have – I don’t know what they’re called – those dots that spell things!”

“Braille?” I ask in a small, hopeful voice. There’s no way it’s braille, I think to myself. Nobody has braille on all their products.

“Yes, braille!” She sounds excited. She snatches a box off a shelf and offers it to me, placing it in my outstretched hand. “Here you go!”

My fingers travel over the smooth surface of the box. I feel an upraised print logo, and, as I turn the box over in my hand, my fingers come across the beloved, familiar dots! It is braille! Worn down and not terribly easy to read, the braille quietly proclaims, “peony eau de toilette” (No caps).

“That is too cool! Well now I have to buy something from your store,” I tell her.

After a bit more exploring, I leave L’Occitane with a new perfume – the peony one. Blame it on the braille. How could I refuse something so temptingly embossed?

The peony perfume is a warm, fresh floral scent that smells incredible! It carries hints of damp earth; it smells like the depths of a garden.

The braille and the perfume are not the only catalysts of my future shopping experiences at this store. As the saleswoman rings up my purchase, she wraps each item in tissue paper that she has misted with perfume. When I hand her my card, she swipes it and places it in my hand. She slides the receipt across the counter to me, verbalizing each move she makes.

Maybe the presence of the lavender makes her more empathic and open-minded. Maybe she is a kind and considerate person by nature. Or maybe it’s the braille, the small rows and columns of unobtrusive, resilient dots marking each sweet-smelling box that calls her attention to the needs of her customers.

Counterparts

When Christina and I first became good friends 10 years ago, she confided to me that she had always wanted a little sister. (Since I am a little sister and I know how annoying they can be, I remember asking, “Why???”) Minutes later, she decided that I would fill this role and make her dreams of being a big sister come true. When she affectionately told sales assistants and cashiers that I was her sister, they would glance with skepticism at our differing hair color and complexions, at my cane and her scooter, and say, “Really?” We would then explain that we had always felt and acted like sisters, even if there was no biological basis for the relationship.

She and I were among the few disabled students at our high school – and we were certainly the most visible. With her bright red scooter and my white cane, we were easy to spot and often spotted together, though she was a year ahead of me. Several times, we spoke at conferences or appeared at award ceremonies, often winning the same honors for our respective years. We were both named Women of Vision in 2006 and we walked up to accept the award together, my hand resting on the arm of her scooter.

I became very familiar with this method of sighted guide, my hand riding on the arm of the scooter or sliding to the back of the seat when Christina ordered firmly, “OK go behind me.” The movements felt fluid and natural. The scooter’s armrest was at the perfect height for my hand, and, once we established a good pace, Christina and I cruised along together. When we started college, we glided to and from class, made trips to the on-campus Starbucks, and spent whole days wandering around the Town Center.  Employees at our regular stops – Sephora, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Target – recognized us and usually gave us top-notch service…although we both remember a cold, rainy January Saturday that we later called “National Be Rude to Disabled Customers Day” where every clerk we encountered either spoke too loudly, snatched items out of our hands, or ignored us.

Christina and I have mastered the art of the marathon shopping day, complementing each other’s abilities with finesse. We establish a route, make a list, and begin the day with coffee. In most places, the cash register and card-swiping machine are beyond her reach, so she hands her card to me and tells me where to swipe it. We apply the same principles when looking for items in a store; she tells me where to reach and I do the reaching. When we break for lunch or cocktails in the afternoon, I move items across the table so she can easily access them, but first, she tells me where they are.

The first time I remember realizing just how well we worked together was when she taught me how to use makeup, specifically how to apply eyeshadow. I had just gotten a new set of makeup brushes and Christina patiently explained what each brush was for. She took me through the application of one color, then two, and showed me how to blend them. We even tried eyeliner, but I ended up with a more “dramatic” look than I desired so I tossed away the thin pencil and picked up the soft brushes again.

Her studio lessons went like this: I would sit before her in a low chair and hold the makeup and brushes in my lap, handing her one at a time. She would use one product on my face, touching areas where it should be applied, and always doing me the courtesy of bracing my face with one hand before she came at me with a makeup brush. (When you can’t see someone coming toward you with the applicator, suddenly feeling it on your face will make you jump.) She would take my hand and mimic the appropriate motion and then have me try to apply the product by myself. She would use a finger to blend my eyeshadow or show me how to tap excess powder off my brush. She explained different “looks” to me – casual, dressy, smoky, classic, dramatic, soft – and describe what colors suited my face. She explained what it meant when someone said, “Oh that shade makes your eyes pop!” Experimenting with shades of olive green or plum, she would make up one of my eyes and hand me a mirror so I could see the difference. I was blown away by how certain colors on the eyelid could change the size and shape of my eye.

After we finished my face, we would move on to Christina’s hair, where it was my turn to be the expert. Though she didn’t have as much to learn about hair styling as I did about cosmetics, she would tell me what style she wanted, and I would create it. Just as I couldn’t observe another person’s makeup well enough to replicate the colors on my own face, Christina couldn’t reach far enough behind her to pull her hair into a ponytail or twist it up into a bun.

Our collaborations spilled over into the kitchen, where Christina would hold pots while I stirred and added spices. She would tell me when our baked ziti was brown and bubbly, and I would make her smell all the different herbs and decide which to add. She washed dishes and I dried them and put them away, making sure that the plates and bowls she preferred went on the lower shelves where she could access them.

During the two years we lived together, we conquered every area of the apartment, each completing the chores we preferred and cooking the dishes we had practiced to perfection.  She insisted that the coffee tasted better if I brewed it and fixed her cup. I insisted that lunch was far superior when she made it.

Before people learned to recognize us as a traveling duo, they were skeptical of the arrangement. I imagine that they thought that two disabled women traveling together made even more disability, that the presence of disability multiplies exponentially in the presence of another disability. I think these ideas only hold truth if we cling to the idea that disability represents deficit. If you put two deficits together, then naturally, you get a greater deficit. How can a disabled person help another disabled person? How can two disabled women manage to get anything done?

Just as naturally, when I work, travel, shop, cook, or hang out with Christina, the idea of deficit does not seem relevant. I won’t say that our disabilities disappear, because the very ways we’ve learned to help each other are based on our weaknesses and strengths. For me, our collaborations, fed by creativity, determination, and humor, offer a very simple message.

Rather than speculating about the abilities someone possesses and what limits your thinking will impose, stand back and observe. Watch as Christina tells me the exact location of the perfume I want to sample. Listen as I place my hand on her armrest and the hum of her electric wheelchair (a recent upgrade!) matches the gravelly scraping of my cane on the cement. I’m sure we’ll come to a store that doesn’t have automatic doors — she’ll tell me where the handle is and I’ll open the door and hold it for her. Does it look difficult?

I don’t mean to suggest that we never encounter obstacles. Sometimes there isn’t enough room for me to get ahead of her and open a door. Sometimes a door doesn’t open the right way and we have to back up and turn around. Often, a person steps forward and offers us assistance.

I suppose what I’m wondering is this: When I’m with Christina, I don’t sense a deficit. Do you?

Blind Customer

My friend Katie arrives at my house promptly at 10:00a.m., receiving an enthusiastic greeting from my parents and Ozzie, our cairn terrier. I walk to the front door, laden with preparations: my purse, a huge bag of books to turn in for credit at the used bookstore, and a handful of extra canvas bags for carrying our purchases. Obligingly, Katie offers to carry my bags, which I greatly appreciate. As yet, I have not developed a good system for carrying things in my arms and using my cane.

We begin our day at the Starbucks in Five Points. Eagerly, I order an iced vanilla latte and hand the cashier my Starbucks gift card – the one I refuse to discard because it has “Starbucks” on it in braille. The card was released back in October for Disability Awareness Month and it depicts autumn leaves beneath the braille. Every time I hand it to a cashier, he or she lets out a little “Oh!” of surprise; it starts a lot of great conversations.

Katie and I settle in with our coffee and a stack of my poetry, which she has agreed to edit for a chapbook I’m assembling. Coffee and editing is a heavenly combination! We spend about an hour going through poems, nodding in appreciation, crossing out letters, and reformatting lines. We finalize our itinerary for the day and toss out our empty coffee cups.

The first shop on our list is a store called Midnight Sun. A long-time favorite of ours, Midnight Sun offers an eclectic collection of merchandise – books on yoga and meditation, candles and incense, purses, wallets, and clothing, hair accessories, and lots of jewelry. The staff is friendly and helpful. They let me touch everything.

Often when I’m out shopping with a friend, she has to tell the sales assistant things like, “You can hand it [the object I’m considering for purchase] to her.” If I need her to get the assistant’s attention, she’ll say something like, “Excuse me, we have a question for you.” She will take a step back and let me do the talking. Other times, the assistant will continue to direct questions to my companion, so I clearly and deliberately answer each inquiry. In one extreme case, I asked an assistant for help finding a pretty common product – a box of pore strips – and, failing to understand me after my third repetition, she shouted to my friend (standing at the other end of the aisle), “Ma’am! Ma’am! What does she want? WHAT DOES SHE WANT?”

Cases like these are usually followed by a checkout experience where I am commended for being able to swipe my own debit card and correctly enter the pin. Most cashiers are dazzled by my ability to perform these tasks. Even cashiers who have been resolutely taciturn change their tune when they see me use my debit card with ease. My favorite instance of this? A surly cashier saw me swipe my card and burst out, loud enough for the rest of the store to hear, “Girl, that’s so good she can put in her own PIN!” This was the only thing she said to us.

My day of shopping with Katie stands in direct opposition to these unpleasant experiences. At Midnight Sun, the woman helping us places the objects that catch my interest in my hand. Without being prompted, she gives a brief verbal description of each, engaging me in conversation. When it’s time to check out, she offers me the PIN pad without excessive ceremony. She hands back my card and says, “Here’s your card back” – the verbal cue alerts me to the location of her hand. She does the same with the bag containing my purchases. I hear her say, “And here’s your bag.” Her voice and the crinkling of the bag make it easy for me to extend my hand and take the bag from her.

Throughout the day, I encounter employees that display a startling level of finesse with me – speaking to me directly, placing objects in my hand, telling me when they change the position of something I’m using, and giving me specific directions when I’m looking for something. At Moon River, the server places my refilled water cup on the table and says, “Here you go – here’s your water!” At Chamblin Bookmine, the woman behind the counter directs us to our favorite authors by using the words “right” and “left” and referencing aisle numbers – rather than the conventional, “It’s right there” that so many seem to prefer when directing me. At Grassroots, the cashier engages me in conversation and hands me my receipt and debit card with a helpful verbal cue. In each place, the employees engage both Katie and me in conversation

Perhaps these conversations facilitate the excellent treatment I receive. I wonder if it’s easier for a clerk to understand my capabilities – like entering my own PIN – if we’re already talking. Maybe it’s not a matter of understanding my needs and more an instance of doing what feels natural. The verbal cues and considerate descriptions that define good customer service for me have an uncomplicated, intuitive feel about them. I can’t imagine helpful clerks sitting behind the counter with a pad and pencil, nibbling on the eraser and thinking, “I wonder how I could help potential customers with low vision…”

Heightened Senses: Smells (Part 1)

There’s a popular theory that when one of your senses is diminished, the other four (let’s call them four for now, but we can debate this later) are heightened, accentuated, incalculably brightened in some way. So I’ll be devoting a series of entries to exploring this phenomenon in completely un-medical terms, as it relates to me. I can’t really say how my low vision makes these sensory enhancements work – so I’ll focus instead on a qualitative delivery of the experience of living with the senses I have.

Today it’s smells, especially smells I love. I’ll give you a few examples. When a smell reaches my nose that I absolutely love, I feel the urge to tilt my head back and imbibe the air. I find myself compulsively smelling the item, if it’s close enough to hold, or wanting to compulsively smell it, if it’s not close enough. Here are some places where the smells make me weak at the knees.

The glorious thing about having low vision is that most smells surprise you; you can’t see the smelliferous object approaching, so its aroma greets you sometimes gently and sometimes with terrifying vigor – but always surprisingly. Even if I’m walking past a place whose smell I love and I know perfectly where I am, there’s no guarantee that the wind will bring me that glorious aroma!

At the grocery store, there are two areas in particular that get to me – one is seasonal (a fleeting pleasure!) and the other, thankfully, mercifully, is not. The first is the cinnamon broom display at Publix. The most delightful thing about this particular sensation is that I inevitably forget that I will experience it. I enter the store, get distracted by the metallic rustlings of the shopping carts, and start rummaging for my grocery list. Then the cart glides forward — I prefer to push the card while my shopping companion steers by leading it from the front – and I begin to be accosted by smells. Flowers, bakery items, and generic clean building smells are the first, and they’re totally unremarkable. Then we’ll round a corner and somehow, some fortuitous puff of air will send the cinnamon broom smell sailing in my direction. And I want to grip the cart and tilt my head back and smell it, forever. The scent is punchy and potent; it zips through the air with a terrible ferocity. It slices through all the other smells and makes me stop and tune out the rest of my environment. I want to ignore everyone, turn off my ears, close my eyes, and experience SMELL all by itself. Cinnamon broom. Exquisite.

I have one hanging in my apartment now and the smell has worn off. This makes my chance encounters with the c-broom display at Publix so wonderful. No cinnamon broom in the home could ever smell like one in the store. I expect it at home.

The other sense-stopping aroma at Publix can be found in the produce section. So much of grocery store produce is lackluster, deficient in smell and color compared with the fruits and veggies from a farmers’ market or organic store. But the apples! the apples! I entice my shopping companion to read me all the varieties, asking mildly which are on sale, all the while thinking, Please say fujis! Please say honeycrisps! Oh lord, galas! And if these favored varieties aren’t $3.29/lb, I start to examine them.

I pick up an apple, turning it over and over in my hands and feeling for blemishes. I don’t want to fall in love with an apple’s particular perfume only to discover that it’s dented, squishy, or discolored. Then I smell it! And that floral, crisp, inviting aroma lifts me off my feet. I can’t fight down the sighs here. Especially when it comes to the honeycrisps, I can’t refuse. My desire to smell apples is insatiable, and I think it has something to do with the timbre of the smell – if I can apply that musical word here. Predominantly, the apple smell is a light one, light, riding on the air, not heavy or weighty like some of the more showy, succulent fruit smells. Apples don’t smell like peaches – when you smell a peach, you smell the whole tree – flowers, roots and all. A peach smells like all of its components – its aroma is thick with juice and sunshine. But apples smell light and crisp, like themselves – they lack the earthy dampness of peaches. The apple smell is an easy intoxicant because it doesn’t weigh you down. I could smell apples for hours.

The third contender in my particular scent rundown is the smell of woodsmoke and campfires. I love the afternoons when I walk outside and I can smell someone heating up a grill. I’m not talking about the delicious barbecue smell here – I’m talking about the pre-barbecue smell. And in winter, the smell of a fireplace has extra special allure. I once sat around a campfire with some friends on a winter evening, wearing a turquoise hoodie (since we Floridians are so ill-equipped to handle the cold) and the campfire smell seeped into my clothes. I remember smelling the sleeve of my hoodie all the way home. I don’t think I washed it for a month. I didn’t even continue to wear it – I would just pick it up from time to time.  And of course, smell it!

Campfires and warm, smoky aromas draw me in. I find them infinitely inviting. This does not include the acrid smells of cigarettes or the sickly sweet funk of hookahs. I restrict my smoky preferences to the woodsy, green scents. However, I will grant special admittance to smoked paprika and lapsang souchong tea (a black tea whose leaves are dried and smoked). The tea especially smells like campfire heaven.

I could go on for pages, but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that there are way more interesting and fantastic smells out there to stop and enjoy. Forget the roses!

(Don’t really forget them. Just save them for later. I’ll do an entry on flower smells I love in the future.)