Blog Post

An Interesting Day

It is a beautiful early winter day today and I plan to go for a longwalk. Yesterday was rich and full, including a remarkable interviewwith Curt, an economist and marathoner who happens to be blind, andJeff, a runner and dad who happens to be Curt's running partner andguide. Patrick, a brilliant doctoral student working on networks andwho happens to be my RA, was there too and he and I mulled theconversation over a bit afterward. Today feels like one giant cumuluscloud (photograph mine) forming on the horizon, full of insight andbrimming. Now that I have a name for what Ido (I learned at the Twitter session that I'm at the cutting edge, aSlow Blogger), let me mull Slowly. . .


I've written many times about my miraculous leave where I left behind the decade of public work as an administrator and consultant on behalf of interdisciplinary thinking and participatory learning, and took the time, the good slow time, to think through all the fields on which I had been privileged to eavesdrop for a decade, in order to propose a new, interactive model of mind for our times. I've written a lot about those delicious walks with Priscilla around the up-and-down forest trail around the WaDu golf course where we would talk science, mostly. And I've written about the times as we traversed clockwise, in our "forest seminars," when we would pass the two men running towards us at a good clip, always with matched footfalls, synchronized as they passed around stalling groups of chatting dog walkers, puddles, gates, bridges. The last time I saw them run was on a stunning late autumn day that felt like springtime and they sailed by in running shorts, looking joyous and shirtless. Who wouldn't stare? These are handsome, fit men.


But what took my breath away was (1) the astonishing choreography of their free-flying run and (2) the fact that I grinned broadly when I saw them and they both grinned back at me. Both. To my eyes, it seemed as if they smiled at the same time. How? That's when I knew I had to meet them. Of course it was Priscilla who knew David who knew Curt . . .


. . . And yesterday I interviewed Curt and Jeff.


It was in Curt's office in the Social Sciences building. The office is on the third floor of an old building with narrow, stone steps. The building smells like an office. Xerox machine smells. Paper. A studious smell.


Curt's office is under eaves, rather dangerous eaves for anyone, especially tricky to navigate blind. You have to bend away to get into the desk and bend again to get out. I would hit my head every other day, I know, even sighted. There are photos on the walls of Curt's three lovely kids. There are bookshelves overflowing with cassette tapes, books on tape, read by various readers over the years. A few chairs. It's a professor's office, no doubt.


After Patrick and I arrive, Curt greets us warmly. This is the first time I've seen him still, un-running, and I'm not sure I would have recognized him if I'd passed him on the street. Still, he is just as fit as he seemed blazing past me, more so in fact. He's a weightlifter, it turns out, as well as a runner, slim and straight of posture, and more muscular than I'd seen before. He does not wear dark glasses. He is careful to look at Patrick and me when we speak, turning his head to the speaker, a skill, we hear later, that he learned early was necessary to socialize with sighted people. He's good at it.


I know he is blind so I notice the clouded pale irises of his eyes. He is so confident in his gestures and so fit that I imagine he could be standing in a room and someone would not notice he was visually impaired. He is sure of himself physically. I've taken more than my share of dance lessons and, because of an accident some years ago, no longer have anything like a good sense of balance, but from both things--a certain expertise and then a subsequent loss of a skill--I often find myself measuring up how well people plant their feet upon the earth. Curt, I can see instantly, ranks way up there. Far more than most people I meet. And later, in our interview, Jeff confirms that this is right. He says when he and Curt run on the very rock-strewn trail off Whitfield Road, Curt has an amazing ability to run over the tops of rocks and not fall. "I've only fallen five or six times that I can remember," Curt says later and I know this is absolutely true. He is a man who seems stable and rooted.


(Since this is a Slow Blog on a cumulus day, I'm going to allow myself to free associate here. I saw the brilliant modern dancer Merce Cunningham on one of his many farewell dance tours. His crippled, arthritic feet barely allow walking but, placed between two parallel bars by his dancers, he performed as exquisitely as any dancer I have ever seen. Modern dance is all about pulling downward into the center of the earth and pulling up its force again through you and outwards, to the audience. Merce does that even ancient, with those arthritic feet. I suspect Curt's remarkable balance is what I find so beautiful in his running, so steady and even and beautifully paced, and I wonder if, as a visually impaired person, he would be able to run marathons without that sense of balance or if balance is one of those physiological and cognitive assets that come to the fore when one does not have one of the other senses. The word missing in that sentence is "compensation" because, more and more, as I study neural plasticity, I believe less in one sense compensating for the lack of another than in all the senses and abilities one has, altogether and at all times, weighing in, sometimes with abundance, sometimes less so. "Compensation" is a patronizing term usually used for people deemed to have one "impairment" as if every ability were always half full or half empty, rather than all the various systems being sympathetic all the time, including between people interacting together, not just neurologically or cognitively within an individual.)


The idea of one sense compensating for another seems like the wrong model, and my time with Curt makes me feel that again richly. If he had vision, would he have this exceptional balance? No way to know. There never is--in either direction, yes or no. Let's just say he does not have vision and he does have extraordinary physical presence, rhythm, timing, balance, and acuity. Or so it seems on first meeting. I think of that old study of hockey players, trying to determine what made one great and another simply average and the surprise of the testers when the Great Gretsky turned out not to be any faster, any more accurate, any one thing better than anyone else. But where he was off the charts was his astonishing ability to anticipate where the puck would be and then respond to it almost before it landed there and then to anticipate where it would go. I loved reading that analysis, especially impressed at the researcher who was smart enough to realize abilities were not singular but all entwined and intermixed in complex ways. Rarely are testers that wise about how to measure our real gifts.


Curt shows us how his voice software works. This is the software that instaneously translates my emails to him into speech. The mechanical voice is so uninflected and so rapid that to my ear it sounds like a blur of sound, barely discernable. Curt slows it down a bit and then I can make out words, some of them. I'm not very good at it but he assures me that, with practice, I would learn. (Afterwards, outside when we talk, Patrick tells me that, as a kid, he competed in something called Policy Debate, a form of rapid-fire debate where high schools competitors fire facts and policy statements at one another at 400 words per minute. He had no problem understanding Curt's voice software. NB: here's the url for an HBO special, "Resolved," about this form of debating. Yes, I'm already finding it interesting that such a debate form would evolve and wondering what else you hear and don't hear when you learn to speak and process information at such speeds, but that is a topic for another day. To return to "compensation": Patrick's ears aren't "compensating" because he had to hear that way from Policy Debate; his constant interaction with this form of interpretation and delivery, his practiced learning, helped him develop this skill. I am arguing that all learning--rewiring, I call it--works that way, with everything on every level. We use whatever capacities we have to filter and understand what comes at us and the coming-at-us changes what we "have." Here's that url:


When Jeff arrives, I note that the room becomes liquid. Jeff is one of those singularly gracious people who puts people at ease with an astonishing self-effacing affability. I notice Curt's posture change when Jeff is there too and think again about how comfortable the two of them are running together. Most straight guys don't like to hear they are "beautiful" when they run together, but they indulge me when I say this (about ten times) and I suspect they must know they look impressive running in tandem over tree roots and around gates. They don't answer the question directly when I put it to them but compare the way their strides align so well with other guides that Curt has had, where the strides are often too long, too short, out of sync. ("Make sure to say something bad about C," Jeff jokes, about a mutual friend and one of Curt's guides who seemed like the classic absent-minded professor, always leaving Curt in some predicament that he had to find his way out of.)


So many things happen in the course of the next hour that I barely know where to begin. But that cumulus cloud on the horizon is growing dark and I'm afraid it might rain (yet again!) and I really want to get out walking before this day turns into grey winter again. That is part of learning too: anticipating, taking advantage of a moment, being aware the moment won't last.


So let me just report two things.


Curt tells us how, when he tries to visualize what Jeff looks like, he does so as if he is seeing him through the one eye that still had sight until he was five or so, and that briefly had sight after a cornea implant when he was twenty. That fascinates me. I have many things to say about it but I need a forest walk to really take it in, turn it around in my mind with all of the other things I've learned over the last decade, and make sense of it. He also tells us how excited he was to have the cornea implant. It seemed as if he would finally be able to see, all those operations through the years to prepare for that implant. In the movies, this is where the bandages come off and suddenly the formerly visually impaired person goes crazy with the joy of the beautiful world. Instead, the light was so bright it hurt and he could process nothing. Over the next several months, there was so much information, so much to process, nothing at all like the rapturous clear movie-vision of fantasy.


Vision doesn't work like that. It's not about corneas only. It is about the complex processing of data, from infancy on, the sorting of background and foreground, of learning what is important, in order that one reflexively notices what to notice and notices what to not notice--all unconsciously sorting and sorting some more. Without the sort, with vision as with all the senses, there is chaos.


Kurson's CRASHING THROUGH, the biography of the blind speed skier Mike May who regained sight through a daring, difficult, complex, and rare stem cell surgery, is all about the overwhelming chaos of exhausting, overpowering sight that comes with the surgery, with "vision." I've read a lot about this in the scientific literature. As with so many studies of the senses, of cognition, and memory, much of what we know comes from these rare cases of sensory-interruption and restoration. The result is rarely as those of us who think we have all of our senses (there is little way to know what "all" means in that phrase) would predict. The epigraph to Kurson's book is from Kierkegaard, one of my favorite philosophers. "To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself."


I am going for a walk now. If I am lucky, I will see Curt and Jeff running towards me. If I do, I'll smile and I know they will, as they fly by.


Why? I asked them. Why do you run together? For the exercise and the camradarie, they both say.


I understand. It's like my walks with Priscilla. It's never just one thing or another. It is the interaction. The complex intertwined experience of the terrain, the body, the mind, the friendship, the passing of others on the trail, the challenge, finding the right balance even when momentarily losing one's footing, staying balanced while running bold, and then that cumulus cloud greying on the horizon.


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