Those aware of my lifelong interest in mystical spirituality – the years in ashrams, the meditation, etc – may well wonder where all this philosophy went during the above-mentioned time of tribulation, of which I have only mentioned the blindness aspect. I will get to such other tribulations as the arrest of my son on gun and drug charges, and the death of my erstwhile wife later, perhaps. But ubi sunt, those consoling virtues of Hindu or Buddhist scriptures just when they were most needed? The only consolation I found during those bad years was purchased at the state-owned drug monopoly we have in Canada, called in Ontario the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. In Quebec, amusingly, its name translates as the Alcohol Society of Quebec, which sounds like an enterprise started by lapsed A.A. members wishing to keep the companionship while losing the coffee and confessionals. I won’t get into the shameless greed and extravagant hypocrisy of a state presuming to legalize a drug more damaging than heroin, then granting itself exclusive rights to sling the stuff and own all the corners; yet suffice it to say, judging from recent tax revenue reports from Colorado and Washington State, it will not be too long before the drug cartel in Ottawa decides to branch out into the pot trade, after settling knotty issues like will it cut into the booze racket, and should the tax on a joint reflect current street prices, or will the addict tolerate a customary 900 percent revenue added, as they do with alcohol and nicotine? But I digress, which is, after all, the joy and privilege of the blog scribe; yet, since I don’t want to change my current title, I will try to continue with its apparent theme.
So where were Krishna and Gautama Buddha when I literally prayed for their help? They were not around, that I do know; or maybe I don’t, since I was so zonked on other consolations that I wouldn’t have noticed Armageddon most of the time. All I then did in Toronto was lie beached on the sofa drinking, smoking, and listening to whatever audio books my wife (the new one, Kara, not the dead one) managed to find in the local library. ‘Eclectic’ is not the right term for these literary ventures, implying, as it does to me, a broad but intellectually discerning range of reading. I read, or rather heard, such stuff as the autobiography of Ted Rogers (more boring than Mein Kampf), a memoir by Eric Clapton (hasn’t had a drink in 28 years – I should have benefited from his wisdom), an awful lot of, believe it or not, Agatha Christie (she wantonly misleads you about the villain), a version of The Brothers Karamazov which had been edited to fit on one CD, reducing it to a short story that made no sense whatsoever. Then I embarked on the unedited War and Peace, which came as around 100 tape cassettes (remember those?) in a dilapidated box, all out of order, and constantly interrupted at the most inappropriate moments by a stern voice ordering you to “Turn the cassette to side 56 B,”, or “Proceed now to cassette 78 and play side A first.” Since it must be mainly the blind that use audio books, I wondered how the creators of Tolstoy on cassette imagined their clientele would be able to locate their multitudinous installments, none of them positioned in an ordered sequence. These were the days before the transcendentally wondrous mp3 (Harlot’s Ghost on one disc! If you suspect this book concerns a spectral hooker, look up ‘Mailer, Norman’, once, a decade or two ago, in the United States of Amnesia, frequently cited as ‘greatest living writer’, an accolade vehemently contested mostly by Gore Vidal, who wanted it for himself. Neither can claim the ‘living’ part now, alas. But they are both still very great writers. The book I mentioned, by the way, is some 1300 pages long), thus most audio books came as sets of anything from five to thirty CDs – again, items hard to handle by the visually challenged, even harder to find in most libraries, and so outrageously overpriced that I was not surprised to discover the only store specialising in them was situated on Bay Street (our version of Wall Street, a thieves’ row of designer suits, gaily flamboyant suspenders, naked greed, and ceaseless yack about market forces, etc.). One must assume the store’s location indicated that many a commuting Porsche or BMW supplied the corporate scam artist with his sole allotment of book time. On an income by then reduced to precisely nothing, I was not about to fork out $100 for Pride and Prejudice, a title aptly summarizing my reaction to its price. Thus I was stuck with whatever my dear Kara could find in the kiosk of Davenport’s library. One problem the sighted alcoholic reader does not have to face is losing his place in the book when he lapses into unconsciousness. The blind drunk, however, is sorely afflicted by the fact that a CD does not stop reading when you fall asleep. These booze-sodden sleeps are erratic too, nothing like the healthy four-hour cycles, and really nothing at all like sleep. I was rarely aware of having slept, thus not aware that I had awoken, with the reader still reading, even if the plot was now somewhat baffling and many books appeared to be preposterously short. But I didn’t particularly care about most of them anyway. All I cared about was the thoroughfare of woe into which I had stumbled, or perhaps been flung as a punishment for my many sins. One of these, by the way, was an (unfair and ill-founded) accusation of plagiarism leveled at my book A War Against Truth, a first-hand account of the so-called war in Iraq. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a newspaper of which I had never even heard, let alone seen on or off-line, and whose cumbersome name I would certainly have remembered, claimed I had used parts of three sentences and a quotation from their pages without crediting their author. They had a point, although it hardly amounted to plagiarism, but my explanation seemed to satisfy their lawyers (I had been in Iraq at the time, and my notes were somewhat adversely affected by the daily bombing of my neighbourhood, although I must have copied down the errant words from some source, possibly a borrowed satellite computer’s internet site, and in illegible scrawl. In any case, it was an absurdly trifling gripe, and one that every hack has committed at least once). Yet our national newspaper felt the incident merited a half-page article, with photograph (while never mentioning anywhere one of its own hacks’ more serious act plagiarising a chunk of Israeli propaganda from a stridently right-wing source, not only failing to credit it, but also failing to verify the facts, which happened to be entirely false, a hate-mongering anti-Palestinian fabrication. I thought bias might be at work, especially since their hack hated me, openly, even using an editorial to express this loathing, though declining to debate our differences on live internet, as some of his own colleagues had even urged him to do. For his sin he was exiled to the China desk for a year, by which time the calamity, copiously reported in the local Arab press, would have faded from memory. My punishment had more severe consequences). I had not bothered to return the paper’s phone calls requesting a comment, however, being too drunk or tormented by demons, so my explanation was not featured in the page two article. I will pursue this topic later, but the newspaper’s malice caused the book to be withdrawn from circulation, and killed foreign sales. This was interesting because there was clearly something else in that book other than uncredited quotations that someone wanted suppressed, because U.S. sales that were at the contract stage were mysteriously cancelled without explanation – and this was before the so-called plagiarism issue even arose. There was unusual hostility from among the Neo-Con media stooges too (not to forget that the impetus for attacking Iraq originated out of what was then the Neo-Cons’ Bat Cave, grandiosely called something like the American Enterprise Institute, whose website, when last I looked at it, had not posted a single entry since its Iraq mission had been universally branded as the worst mismanaged, ill-conceived, and epically bungled catastrophe since the last one). Anyone opposing the idea or fact of invading Iraq was subjected to the usual repertoire of what passes for refutative debate among the noisy right-wing media courtiers: you’re a communist, a conspiracy nut, anti-American, unpatriotic, a drug fiend, and all your facts are lies etc. These accusations are generally shouted rather than spoken, and if you attempt a response some talk shows will even cut your mike. Only Andrew Coyne, of the National Post, agreed to a television debate with me on the subject, and his major argument consisted of telling me I was clearly a huge fan of the murderous tyrant, Saddam Hussein, from whose clutches the war was expressly designed to liberate the poor oppressed Iraqis. His point was pitifully easy to refute by mentioning my previous book on Iraq, The Demonic Comedy, which he had not read and thus was unaware that it damned Saddam’s regime and particularly its ruling family. I felt rather sorry for Coyne after this, since he knew little about the realities in Baghdad and still less about the Arab world in general. I liked him, in fact, but had eagerly expected a feisty exchange of views. I resent being identified as a knee-jerk liberal, since I am in fact more of a libertarian or anarcho-syndicalist, but such is the price you pay for opposing these new pseudo-conservatives on any big issue. And these issues invariably concern the desires of multinational corporations – entities whose power and wealth exceeds that of many entire nations, making them de facto, nations of their own, lacking only borders and democratic institutions – their desires, however, often seem at odds with the public good and general will. The government is therefore viewed by these mighty invisible empires merely as an instrument for distracting public attention, altering by various methods the general will, or legalizing an activity previously outlawed. But of all the real powers that be the military-industrial complex is king of kings, richer and more ruthless than the ancient empires of Greece, Rome, and Persia combined, especially since the privatization of war initiated by George Bush the First, and honed to perfection by his crony Dick Cheney, whose own wealth during his stint as Grey Eminence increased mysteriously by some 1000 percent. These are the kind of people who can kill a book as easily as they can kill a person, or a million people. You don’t fuck with these people, but I suspect that, unwittingly, I did fuck with them. One suggestion I have is that the book contains irrefutable and easily verifiable information showing that the Americans were dropping cluster bombs on Iraq whose bomblets, scattered over a wide area by the initial explosion, were disguised as children’s toys. I shall not bother to explain the reasoning behind this, since your imagination works just like mine. But I imagine the Pentagon hack assigned to put a good spin on this barbaric travesty. There is much more about the atrocities and violations of international law during the unwarranted and illegal attack on Iraq, but I will save it for later. You can still buy the book on Amazon, of course, but that doesn’t necessitate an American reviewer demanding answerability from the Pentagon, does it? The chaos that erupted because of the war goes on, and is intentional, created to distract a divided population from the fact that their one major asset, the largest deposits of high grade oil on earth, are now controlled by foreign corporations.
Back to God, I think, no? But all is supposed to be one, so all digressions must really be illusory. I was somewhat heartened not long ago to learn that in her diaries Mother Theresa expressed frequent doubts about the existence of God, whose work she imagined she was doing. Given the situation, these doubts are quite understandable. They amount to the old logical saw that one’s requirements of a god are that he be all-powerful and all-merciful; yet if he is all-powerful, why does evil exist? If he cannot defeat this evil he cannot be all-powerful, and if he can defeat it but chooses not to, he cannot be all-merciful. He can be one or the other, yet not both, which strips his qualifications to be your god, unless you don’t mind a divinity of reduced expectations. Such pseudo-philosophical claptrap, on the same lines as wondering about the quantity of angels able to dance on a pin’s head, not to mention the Inquisition, explain why organized Christianity has never appealed to me. It is worth noting that Mother Theresa, when I met her at least, was a big fan of St Francis Xavier (most of whose body is still in Goa), the man who summoned the Inquisition to India, with its many charming features, like slaughtering children in front of their parents as an incentive to conversion, or just burning the infidels to send a wider message out to any fence-sitters. With this kind of history beneath her sandals, it is a wonder Mother T. didn’t defect over to the nearby Kali temple. But her doubts were not analogous to mine, I decided, eventually. She expected some heavenly reward for her sinless life, and evidently did not get one, or not the one she wanted. I expected no divine reward, just an explanation and some guidance – such as what a blind writer is supposed to do with the rest of his life, other than curtail it prematurely by force. A future of self-pity, drinking to oblivion, and random audio books struck me as a reasonable facsimile of hell. I knew I had to deal with it somehow, but the actual how eluded me. I didn’t believe in God the way Mother T. did anyway, although I often wished for a more personal relationship, a saviour even.
A word, or another word, on blindness. It is clearly a different experience for those born blind than it is for those who lose their sight much later in life. I was astounded by the range of activities that suddenly became impossibly arduous or just plain impossible. When I contemplated alternative careers, for example, it dawned on me that even the most menial job – bag-boy, Big Mac vendor, garbage man etc – would be beyond my abilities. When you cannot read, virtually every form of work is ruled out. Being probably the most disorganized and untidy person I have ever encountered (possible exceptions: John Bailey and Iris Murdoch, whose house resembled a library bombed during the Second World War and left that way), I found myself forced into a form of order, unless I wanted to spend half my time looking for stuff. Notice that most disabilities develop powerful and effective lobby groups – there are, for instance, wheelchair ramps everywhere now – but not the blind, because organization requires sight. We could do with a number of things that would improve the quality of our lives – talking traffic lights, the right to touch sculpture, waiters obliged to read out menus, a Blue-Tooth GPS that reads out street names and identifies shops, a mobile phone entirely voice operated, a simpler computer interface also voice operated, with a version of Microsoft Word which just allows you to write on a theoretical sheet of paper without offering fifty fucking options for every button and all the thousand capabilities you don’t want or need. But we blind folk can’t even organize a lunch for the Laurentian Blind Society. People either forget the date or the location, because they can’t find the reminder or can’t read a note about it. Efforts are made on our behalf, it is true, but the well-meaning sighted who make them have no idea what being blind really requires. Even our white sticks are more symbolic than functional; they merely explain to people you have barged into that violence was not intended; and they get you free bus and subway rides. There is also the ‘explained’ movie, during which, and only in lulls in dialogue, a voice says things like, “Now Boris enters the room, his expression puzzled by the sight of his closed shutters. He sees the body of a circus clown lying in a pool of blood under his bean-bag chair. Now Laura enters the room, a gun in her hand and a hat of huge peacock feathers on her head…” Then you have to deduce what’s happening from the dialogue alone, for there will be no more explanations until the actors are either gone or alone. It completely trashes the film, and clearly has severe limitations. Where would you find space for explanation in, say, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, or even Wolf of Wall Street for that matter; whereas a masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman would be 90 percent explanation. It was a nice thought, but no thanks. What we need are valets, free chauffeurs and cars, personal assistants, professional organizers, and packaging that does not require an axe to open it. We need money too, lots of it. But what we get are devices to clip on a coffee mug and bleat when the water you pour reaches the brim. We also get a half price train fare, for your companion, not for yourself (the companion, as you no doubt realise, spares them staff and aggravation). This is cost-benefit analysis at work, not philanthropy. Even if the blind manage to meet in a group, there is, I find, very little interaction; for blindness isolates you; the world beyond your own head and fingers becomes ‘other’; when you cannot see someone’s face their voice loses all the instruments that accompany it, from expressions and tics to the extraordinary array of human thought and emotion the eyes are capable of conveying. It is as Proust observes when he first talks on the telephone to his grandmother: without her face and mouth operating in synch with it, her voice even sounds different, stripped down, made less somehow, as if it is not really his grandmother to whom he speaks. I have not seen my own face in five years, and this makes me not care much about hair or appearance. Clothes are a pain to find, so I wear pyjamas for days on end, or sweat pants that I continue on in until Kara tells me they need to be washed or incinerated. I rely entirely upon her for almost my whole existence, and I am not used to relying on people, not accustomed to feeling helpless, afraid of fire, of water leaks, of power failures, and even of unexpected visitors who will require my signature on a form I cannot see. Yet by far the worst torment, for someone whose idea of a good time was to curl up with a book, constituted adjusting to a voice reading me words I would have read differently myself, in pronunciation, or emphasis, and always in conjunction with my own imagination. It took a long time before I began to become accustomed to acoustic reading. There were, though, eventually, readers I came to regard as marvelously gifted, able to produce utterly different voices for dozens of different characters; there were ones capable of expressing the most delicate nuance and catching by instinct the subtle poetry at quiet play in a work of prose (Laurie Anderson springs to mind). But there were also readers I found unendurable. A woman whose shrill, reproving tone reminded me of the kind of teacher responsible for killing any potential love of literature forever in thirty or forty young minds – and, from out of hundreds of fine speakers presumably available, she had been assigned, by some semi-literate sadist, or possibly malicious ironist, the task of reading Dante’s Inferno, of which I managed to tolerate barely ten minutes before flinging the disc back to hell. Then there was a version of Tristram Shandy in which, for unfathomable reasons, each chapter was read by a different person, one of whom had a near-impenetrable Scottish accent, and another was a woman afflicted with a pretty devastating speech impediment. One appreciated her wanting to try, to do her bit, but not the person who let her actually do it. No one would let me fly a plane, I hope. Sterne’s novel is, beyond all doubt, the most eccentric text ever published before 1967 – 200 years before too – yet nothing about it suggests the montage-like cacophony summoned up for its audio version. Only someone who never listens to audio books would think this a tenable approach to any book (okay, maybe it would work for The Canterbury Tales). This kind of travesty did not, unsurprisingly, do much to help my convalescence. I wanted to write savage letters of complaint, but I could no longer write so much as my name at this stage. I could not even use a telephone without hitting a dozen wrong numbers before getting the one intended, or, often, giving up the whole idea of communication with the outside world altogether. What did we now have in common? This was also my first experience of pity from the receiving end, and I did not like it. But I sensed a kind of emotional paralysis in friends; they had no idea how to respond to my situation, besides imagining how appalling they would themselves find it. One even said that if it happened to him he’d top himself, leap from the Bloor Viaduct – if, I thought, he could find it. I still wonder if he considered that this information might be helpful for me. Another old acquaintance suggested I should work in radio. I said to her that just because the blind listen to radio it does not mean that radio production is run by blind people, that it has no need of anyone who can read since scripts are only required for visual media. Radio hosts ad-lib every show, and producers do not rely for their program topics any help from newspapers or magazines; they just overhear them on the bus, or simply pluck them out of the ethers. I asked her if this was the way she imagined radio’s world ran itself, and could see she understood what a dumb suggestion she had made, and was now embarrassed by her own lack of logical thought. When I asked what other bright ideas she had for the working blind, it was obvious that reality had finally dawned. She could think of nothing at all that paid blind people for work, because she could think of no work they could do. I couldn’t either, because there isn’t any. You can’t even stand on the corner selling pencils and holding out your tin cup these days without people assuming it’s a tasteless con. Basket-weaving does not strike me as a boom business either. What on earth do the blind do for money? Then it occurred to me that music was the one area where blind people often toiled and frequently prospered. Stevie Wonder. Ray Charles. Apart from a great guitarist whose name eluded me, my list ended here, however. An hour later I came up with Blind Lemon Jefferson (who was not the great guitarist whose name eluded me, and his blindness was only my assumption not my knowledge), seriously wondering if I could reinvent myself as an old Delta blues man, perhaps Blind Drunk Roberts. I even worked up some songs for my act, finding that I had suddenly acquired a deeper appreciation for the blues after accumulating so much experiential content for these songs. I will spare you an example, but a typical opening line was something like, In a mirror the blind man ain’t black or white,/ To him every bitch is outta sight, /He’d like to makes moves but he don’t have the right,\ All he’s got is the blues from mornin’ to night,\ Oh yeah, blind man’s blues…etc. I figured that, with enough bourbon and cigarettes, my voice would easily evolve into swamp shack growling redolent with memories of slave ships and cotton bales. I’d wear wrap-around shades, a chewed up straw hat, with denim coveralls; and I’d hunch over the mike on a stool. The fantasy lasted several days, until I discovered that I couldn’t play my guitar without seeing the frets, and couldn’t tune it either. I also recorded one song with my Sony mini-corder and a conga drum, finding that I sounded more like an old English asshole than an old Delta blues man. I also toyed briefly with the idea of a stand-up comedy act, complete with white stick and shades, but, besides the inability to think up a routine that was remotely funny, the thought of an audience laughing awkwardly out of sheer pity ended my comedic ambitions in a stroke. I began to wonder if I was going mad, or possibly had already achieved madness but, being mad, was unaware of it. Then I listened to an audio memoir by a guy with Asperger’s Syndrome who, after years of tragic struggle and poor interpersonal skills, ended up creating light shows for the Pink Floyd. It gave me hope and the fortitude to try actually dealing with my own woes, rather than using them as a mud bath.
But before this exciting adventure is related, a word about doctors. I don’t like them much, but I actually hate surgeons with a venomous passion. I will get to the saga of the stages involved in my blindness later, possibly, but now I just want to mention a few facts that will put you off acquiring eye problems for the rest of your life. I had been passed from hospital to hospital, from doctor to doctor too, for some time before ending up at St Michael’s Health Centre, where the eye clinic is located. Do not confuse this place with St Michael’s Hospital, which is found on the opposite side of the same street and possesses waiting rooms resembling lounges in expensive country clubs, with magazines that are still selling on news stands. To reach the Health Centre you have to phone the Hospital, proving their affiliation. Yet unlike the grand and reassuringly efficient Hospital’s entrance, the Health Centre is approached through grimy doors opening onto a space reminiscent of both an east European consulate and the Beograd railway station. Seemingly homeless people looked as if they were living on one part of a filthy concrete floor, across from the entrance to a run-down pharmacy looking as if it specialized in handling methadone addicts. Built into the far wall was an elevator which would have been more at home in a ghetto high-rise. The eye clinic was on the sixth floor, I think, and my expectations of emerging into an environment of hi-tech medical science and St Mike Hospital-style cool, attentive, reassuring efficiency, along with state-of-the-art design and general consideration for the needs and comfort of eye calamity victims, were immediately stomped into extinction by my very first glimpse. The space looked like an office for sanitary engineers or low-end accountants that had been continually meddled with since the 1940’s, creating a proliferation of ever-smaller windowless rooms, possibly sublet to book keepers and penny-stock scammers to help make ends meet. Locating the office dealing with my new doctor, which was about six feet square, I was greeted with a blend of scorn, suspicion, and outright hostility, ordered to produce documents, cards, IDs, and proof of my residence. Once a file was pried from a Victorian stack of manila, I was told to wait outside in the waiting area. This was in fact the same chair-lined corridor leading back to the elevator. It boasted perhaps twenty chairs, none of which was vacant, since some thirty patients, in linen eye bandages, or Ray Charles shades, were waiting. I hate waiting, which, when you cannot even read, is all the more hateful. At this stage, however, I still had one reasonably working eye, so I seized a copy of Newsweek from under a battered table, taking a few minutes before noticing it was nearly four years old. The international news within it, however, seemed scarcely different from that which I’d heard earlier on the radio. Tired of leaning against the wall, I took a stroll down the labyrinth of makeshift corridors extending off past my new doctor’s bitchy secretary’s lair, seeing on the wall as I proceeded a sign reading AVERAGE WAITING TIME: SIX HOURS. This sign was not visible in the waiting area itself, though, and perhaps for sound psychological reasons. Passing many closed doors of obviously tiny rooms, I came to an open glass door belonging to the office of another doctor, presumably a colleague of my new doctor. On a wall inside was a poster promoting the annual gathering of something called The Retinal Fellowship. Most of this poster was devoted to the image of a man wearing a toga and laurel crown, with an ambiguous smirk on his face, and a background of noble classical ruins that were not so ruinous they could not be rented out for gala events. The image hinted of riotous behaviour, of Bacchanalian excess, of Maenads, nymphs and satyrs gamboling just out of sight behind the pillars, in which direction the smirking man and his toga were heading. The rest of this office wall was completely covered in framed certificates vouching for this doctor’s education, numerous other qualifications, and stalwart standing in the community, one of which affirmed his membership in The Retinal Fellowship. He was clearly proud of these certificates, all of which, except the poster, had been professionally framed. An attractive Oriental secretary or assistant was looking at me without hostility, so I said to her, “Boy, those retinal fellows look like they have a wild old time when they party, don’t they?” She did not reply, still observing me with what I interpreted as benign detachment. Then she said, “Go away, please.” The ‘please’ lacked any sincerity. I went away, and after three hours snagged myself a seat in the waiting hall. Seven and a half hours after my scheduled appointment I saw a doctor. And so three more scalpel operations were added to the two I had already received at another hospital. Again, no anesthetic, the knife visible as it descends on your eyeball. Again, the bandages; again the expectation of full repair. Instead, I would sit in that Third World waiting room for an average of six hours (in truth it ranged from five to eight) to be examined, then told I needed laser surgery, a process I found excruciating, like having you eyes prodded with a toothpick while being dazzled with a coloured light brighter than flashbulbs. “Do not blink,” I was constantly told by an irritated technician. But the instinct to blink was not controllable. By the time it was considered that all possible treatments had been effected and I need only return for a three-monthly check-up, not one doctor had told me I would now remain blind forever. There was never even an indication that the treatments and operations had failed. No one advised me to seek assistance from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, nor the counselling of an expert in handling post-trauma stress. No one so much as suggested my life, as I had known it, was now fucked, finished, over. It was like having both legs amputated and no one suggesting a wheelchair or physiotherapy, but instead acting as if the legs were ostensibly fine, merely not functioning. I would like to gate crash that Retinal Fellowship shindig in Delphi, or wherever they hold it, and drop LSD in the punch, then do a CIA job on every fellow until they swore to take courses in compassion, manners, and professional responsibility. And, the reader asks, what has this got to do with God? Well, surgeons do not think they are gods; they know they are. They heal, they cure, they restore, with no help from cosmic forces. If their efforts fail, of course, it is entirely the fault of cosmic forces. Not one of them even suggested that an optician might be able to construct me spectacles which would make the seven percent of my visible world slightly less blurred. We cut, we laser, we don’t get into your personal problems or offer advice. This is not in our professional field. Do not mistake us for human beings like yourself. To be honest, however, they did say that the gas bubble implanted in my eyeballs to create a pressure helping to hold the ragged retinas in place now made flying impossible. The air pressure in a plane might burst the eyeball apart as the bubble in it expanded. Even high elevations on earth were inadvisable. I imagine that an exploding eyeball on an airplane, these days, would get you arrested for terrorism: the eyeball bomber.
And so we arrive at the CNIB, sole resource for the blind here, yet, of course, largely run by the sighted, for purely pragmatic reasons. In Toronto their offices are situated in an area very hard to reach by public transport, and consisting of a structure designed, at a doubtlessly fabulous cost, by some architectural genius – possibly the same one who divined that what the Toronto Public Library needed was not space for bookshelves and seating, but instead a vast fountain dripping down over hanks of wool – who, after much research and deep thought, realized that what the blind really needed from a building in which they would be the principal visitors were round walls, not straight walls with hazardously sharp corners, but curved ones that never led to 90 degree turns or, God forbid, 180 degree dead ends. The gentle, intelligent service dogs leading people around CNIB Central seemed unimpressed or unconcerned with the curvature. They had navigated the Eaton Centre and the University campuses, so no architectural catastrophe of right angles or irrational walkways was going to faze them. Their owners relied on the dog not the architect, and their main problem was getting to the CNIB, not traversing its interior. Thanks to a friend’s kindness, I was driven there, and even by car the place was not so easily found. After a brief wait, someone examined my eyes by various methods, then diagnosed that I was legally blind, thus entitled to a free transport pass and all the CNIB services, which were outlined upon the CD I would soon receive by mail. I was also entitled to a free white stick – though cautioned that subsequent white sticks would have to be paid for. This complimentary stick would even be brought to my residence by an instructor, who would help me learn how to use it. I wondered how hard a device this device would be to master; was it, perhaps, like golf, nothing like as easy as it looked. In the CNIB lobby was a shop specialising in gadgets and useful appliances for the blind, or really the nearly blind, for whom a day-glo pink golf ball might be of some use, as would the deck of giant playing cards. My friend described these wares to me and I decided that a very powerful magnifying glass would conceivably be helpful, so we requested the item from a salesman-like figure, who promptly took offence, saying this was a showroom, not a common shop. If we wanted this item we should purchase it from a nearby shop, whose business card he happened to have in his pocket. The shop was ten minutes by car, yet probably would have taken two hours to reach by dog. It did not have the very powerful magnifying glass, but it did have something I would find equally useful: a talking wristwatch, on special offer this week too. I bought it, since I need to know the time around four times an hour. I enjoyed its little voice and precise information. Then it died, without warning, and no one – not even the vendor – could fix it.
Days after my CNIB initiation a deluge of mailed information began, starting with the CD outlining all the services to which I was now entitled, and the activities in which I could participate. Some of these activities seemed somewhat inadvisable for a blind person – I cite archery and sailing as examples, but there were many others. Nowhere did I find an offer of music lessons, though, nor one of employment advice. The Art Gallery of Ontario, however, upon presentation of my CNIB membership photo-ID card, would admit me free of charge, since the blind are renowned for their love of great painting. Philanthropy is not what it used to be in the good old days of Mayhew and Dickens, when people actually gave away their own money with no benefit to themselves from the act whatsoever (except, perhaps, up where moth and rust corrupt not, or the heart is weighed against a feather, or by a Judge). The AGO was not exactly sacrificing a fortune in entrance fees, was it? Or, I wondered, with cost of great art these days and the massive expenses of world-class renovation, was its charity toward the blind really more like the woman who gave her mite? I doubt if the passage where Jesus advises the rich man to give all he owns away to the poor is ever read in the church on Wall Street, if indeed there is one.
In due course a portly Caribbean lady arrived at my door with my first free white stick. What she first wanted to know was, “Can you see me at all, dear?” I told her she was visible as a shadowy silhouette, which she found to be excellent news, then offered to give me on-street instruction in using the stick, including adventures by bus and subway. I declined the offer, feeling I had a good handle on the basic principles involved, and would never contemplate tackling the subway with or without her. I had never enjoyed subterranean travel when I could see, so had no desire to navigate escalators, get jostled on narrow platforms, or hurtle through dark tunnels in a jam-packed metal tube without the advantage of vision. Somewhat disgruntled by my ingratitude, she demanded to observe me deploying the stick to walk ten feet from kitchen to sitting room, remarking that I did well and had a good grasp of this technology, which essentially enables you to sweep the ground ahead for unexpected obstacles. In reality it does not perform this function very well, and is never used by people who are totally blind (who also have no need of big sunglasses). Its real job is to warn others that they should step aside as you approach; and it also gets you on a bus free, generally without having to produce the ID card entitling you to free travel. Contrary to popular belief, however, no one gets up to offer their seat to the blind man in order to let him sit close to the entrance. No one even offers to help him locate a vacant seat. But the white stick does allow you to swipe at legs with impunity, and even attempt to sit upon laps. Another popular misconception is that most people are eager to help the blind in any way they can, and would never dream of cheating them out of money because they cannot easily tell a five dollar bill from a fifty. On three occasions cab drivers tried to bilk me out of change, handing back fives instead of tens, for example; and variety store proprietors were shameless in their attempts to charge me for items I had not purchased. Such incidents made me wish I carried a powerful handgun or a huge hunting knife. The white stick instructress had not warned me of the perils it might cause alongside its benefits. To some it might be a symbol, but to others it signifies opportunity, profit potential.
Soon after acquiring my stick, I next found a Chinese man arriving at the door, declaring that he had come on orders of the CNIB to install my new free computer and its colossal HD screen, as well as instruct me in the use of such a device. But, alas, as large as this new screen was, I could still not see its icons, nor read its endless popping orders and options. Then he clicked open a program called Zoom Text, which made an internet page grow to the size of a billboard. I could certainly read some of the words on such pages in this manner – usually, I admit, just the now-100-point font titles – but navigating the entire page made me feel like an ant trying to read the New York Times by forming words one letter at a time. It would take an hour just to read one photo caption. No thanks, I thought, while thanking him profusely, and hoping he would soon solve the technical issues my poor wiring had created and then go. Computer geeks truly believe that computers are the solution to all problems: Blind? No worries, just blow up the page by a million percent, and if that doesn’t work, activate the voice robot and have everything read for you by something that can pronounce any word but not understand a single one, thus treating them all equally. Try, for an example of its downside, listening to this thing read you an essay in Harper’s. It might be good with the Dow Jones Index, or even basic news stories, but I don’t ever read these. I find the GPS voice on Kara’s treasured iPhone very helpful in getting her through the collapsing maze that Montreal likes to believe is a highway system, but I wouldn’t want it reading me Infinite Jest, or even John Le Carre (by the way, GPS voice, your pronunciation of French street names is shamefully embarrassing; you need to take a brief course in it or something, before the Language Police fine and ban you).
My ex-mother-in-law firmly believed I had been the cause of my ex-wife’s death during this period too, and, as if I did not have quite enough to bother me already, began phoning ten times a day, generally from 4 p.m. on, when she began to get into the Sambuca. We had never liked one another, mainly because I had spotted her as a tyrannical bully and would not take her shit, which had always before then been the family custom, out of fear for some, and for others simply to keep the peace. Not once did I ever hear her say a good word about anyone. She even dissed family members – except for her son, from whose ass the sun perpetually shone – behind their backs, criticizing everything from her daughter-in-law’s weight and laziness, to her brother’s stupidity. I liked her husband a lot, but, until he died, she didn’t, and resented any attempt he made to interrupt her dinner monologues or diatribes by conversing with him. She had no understanding at all of the conversation as a concept; in her mind communication meant that she talked and you listened. If she gave advice it was unquestionably right, and whatever you believed was patently wrong. I imagined that she must have greatly admired Mussolini, until he’d reduced the country to rubble and lost the war – which, possibly, was a result of his not taking her advice. Her mother, the previous family despot, had certainly voted for Il Duce (which must have been like voting for not having the right to vote), so the bull-headed ego-monster must have been popular at home during some part of her youth. Knowing how she spoke about those she ostensibly liked, I could only imagine what she said about me, who she had good reason to hate going back to the moment when I told her to shut up and listen for once in her life. The moment happened to be when her sister was also present, so the shame factor put gasoline on this already blazing fire. Yet her hate had generally been, for her daughter’s sake, bottled up like a genie.
Now, though, thanks to death and divorce, along with Sambuca, the bottled demon had been set free. With her first call I attempted a reasoned, sympathetic, eminently understanding conversation, trying to sound like a Buddhist psychoanalyst. But I had forgotten her idea of conversation, which was now honed down to a Niagara Falls of abuse, character-assassination, thinly-veiled threats, sheer paranoid fantasy, blatant anti-Semitism, and much else that her heavy jangling Italian accent made incomprehensible (after all, in her defense, she had only been living in Canada for sixty years). My attempts at consolation and, yes, loving kindness were not merely ignored, they were drowned beneath the roaring torrent of her personal Nuremberg Rally key-note harangue, which, from sheer habit, I had tape-recorded. So I can still listen to myself eschewing Buddhist detachment after fifteen minutes and telling her to fuck off before hanging up. She called back immediately, but I let the answering machine put up with her this time. This latest torment now occurred at least four times a day, with the answering machine getting through four cassettes, recording for posterity such gems as, “I will have you wearing concrete boots beneath a bridge,” (a form of mixed Mafia metaphor, I believe), and, “Someone will come to your door soon and make you sorry.” When I found I could simply have her number blocked from calling mine, I did so, feeling certain that Sambuca would prevent her driving to a telephone booth. Instead, however, she began calling everyone I knew, since she had come across her daughter’s old address book, which had also been my old address book. My ninety-year-old mother in London, and equally aged aunt in Sussex, could barely understand a word she said, deafness being as big a factor as accent, so they simply apologised for this deficiency in themselves and hung up. My brother, in St. Topez (the jammy bastard), listened for some thirty minutes before coming to the conclusion that he was listening to a mad woman, and thus punched the off button on his fancy mobile. Friends in North America tried the sympathetic approach too, before eventually feeling forced to block her number as well. I actually felt sorry for her losses and loneliness, but have never encountered another person who repelled sympathy as if wearing a Haz-Mat suit impervious to it. When she phoned my divorce lawyer’s answering machine (perhaps unaware that anyone was likely to be in the office at 10 pm), where she called her ‘ugly’ before making unsubtle death threats, she found her call returned by the police, who advised her to make no more calls of this nature, unless she wanted to appear in court on serious charges. She even called editors of publications I had worked for, who, if they even knew what she was going on about, told her that slander was a serious business, and she should provide verifiable evidence before making outlandish accusations to the media against me or indeed against anyone else. After all, this was not Fox News or the National Enquirer.
The calls to England still continue, if now only sporadically, but my oldies over there can’t figure out the complexities of blocking a transatlantic phone number, believing it to be impossible. But these days they just say sorry and hang up the moment they hear that venomous echoing rasp.
I will admit that the concrete boots and man coming to my door threats did have a rattling effect upon whatever remained of my nervous system, since I definitely knew she was a mad malicious bitch, possibly capable of any monstrosity, but they were not the reason I decided my time in Toronto had come to an end. The ex-family, I recalled, actually did have a figure they referred to as their ‘Godfather’, yet I could not picture some aged retired Mafioso, if indeed he had ever been mobbed up, agreeing to whack some crazy old hag’s son-in-law for no discernable reason. They have a code, don’t they? Some bikers might have done the job for five grand, but I felt sure she knew no bikers. I was rattled but not really worried. No, I left town because I needed a new life, a new start with a woman for whom I felt awesomely deep love for the first time in all my many years. True, she is half my age, but this is something you cease to notice after a while; for what we really love in the beloved is the deathless and ageless divinity in her heart, not the mortal flesh and bones, nor even that ever-shifting entity we call a ‘self’. Besides, if my mother and aunt are anything to go by, my death will not be that long before Kara’s own. Not that lives come with any warranty, and all that we know for certain about the future is that things will change, perhaps beyond all recognition, perhaps by subtle increments of nuance. Yet there is another certainty which only a soulmate invokes: that our love, like our souls, will not ever die, even when the mountains sink and the stars fall from an eternally silent and empty sky. It is the very fabric of new universes and endless other worlds. John Lennon had it right: “Love is the answer, and you know that for sure…” It is a pity we keep forgetting what we know for sure, making our world the same old nightmare over and over again, always questioning the one thing, recreating the sole problem for which we truly know an eternal answer. We know it for sure.
Before you can begin a new life, however, you must heal the wounds inflicted during the old one. I have now added a ‘Towards’ to the title of this entry, since my real troubles with God and the dark night of my soul only began in their most terrifying and potent form once I was settled in the deep peace and unequalled beauty of the Laurentian mountains. If the reader has managed to get this far, he or she may presumably be willing to hang in for my next entry, which ought to relate the nature of our new life in Quebec. For now, though, I suggest we’ve all had quite enough of me, and should get outside for some air (ours being minus 20 degrees Celsius at present, a temperature it is customary to term ‘invigorating’ rather than ‘very, very cold’).
As always, I remain sincerely,
Paul William Roberts.