Working in the Dark

I love weird stuff. And every so often, it’s so weird that I have to spend a morning on it here.

That’s how we’ve ended up with columns on the infamous “Boaty McBoatface.” Or on the man who solved nearly 7,000 Rubik’s Cubes in 24 hours. Or on the friend who loves to wrap a “hippity hop” ball in lights and lower it from a rope to celebrate the New Year. You know, the stuff that keeps the world interesting.

Well, we’re back in Rubik’s territory today. Not quantity this time, but quality. I’d say it’s a real eye-opener, but that would be singularly inappropriate in this case.

You see, today’s weird and wonderful accomplishment comes from an Australian teen who set a new Rubik’s Cube speed record … for solving it while blindfolded.

In 12.1 seconds to be exact.

Now I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t do a 12-second solve with my eyes open. Even if you let me “solve” it by peeling off all the colored stickers and putting them back on again so they matched.

To be fair, Charlie Eggins’ first reaction, according to Guinness, was also “I still can’t believe it!” And that’s after he’d done about 25,000 practice solves.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so startled. Maybe none of us should be.

After all, we try to do the same thing every day. Only we’re taking on something harder than Rubik’s Cubes.

We’re trying to solve people.

We like to think we know our family, our friends, the folks around us. Even with complete strangers, we’re usually pretty comfortable in our rules of thumb … after all, they can’t be that different from us, can they? Even one of our most fundamental rules – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – takes as its first assumption that others want what you want.

That’s not a bad starting point. It’s certainly better than seeing the “other” as a danger to be feared. But every so often – more than every so often – we run into the limits of it and have to reassess.

It could be minor, like discovering their indifference to a movie “everyone” knows. (“What do you mean, you’ve never seen Star Wars?”) It could be something more fundamental in their beliefs, their upbringing, the way they see the world.

Big or small, earthshaking or trivial, we suddenly find something that brings us up short and makes us think instead of react. In that moment, we get new eyes: toward the other person, the world, even ourselves.

Like a number of literature geeks, I’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of “The Iliad” lately. (I’d offer you my copy but, well, beware of geeks bearing gifts.) There’s a moment early on where the fierce warrior Diomedes is briefly given the ability to recognize the gods on the battlefield , even when they’re invisible or shape-shifted. Able to see who’s receiving special help, he fights more effectively than ever, even wounding Aphrodite when she tries to protect one of her favored warriors.

Clear vision can produce amazing results.

But like Eggins, we won’t solve anything if we’re not willing to come to grips with it.

We may be working in the dark. But if we’re at least trying to understand, we’ve taken the first step. (A step too few take, judging by the headlines.) We may get it wrong. We may fumble and stumble and misunderstand. But if we make the effort, and recognize the attempts of others to do the same with us, we’ll get there eventually … even if it isn’t in 12.1 seconds.

And that’s pretty weird and wonderful in itself.

Over the Line

When I first got glasses at age 16, I rediscovered the world. Trees actually had leaves. Lawns revealed their individual blades of grass. Details that had been fuzzy became laser-sharp.

“Wow,” I wondered. “How long have I been missing all this?”

When I last got glasses about two months ago, I discovered … a line. Floating at the lower edge of my vision. Fuzzy and sharp were now a matter of range, position and minor frustration.

“Wow,” I wondered. “How long will I be fumbling with all this?”

Yes, I’ve officially entered Bifocal Country. And in the process, I’ve decided that Ben Franklin’s greatest achievement wasn’t his stove or his electrical experiments – it was his ability to juggle two visual frames of reference at once without going insane.

“WE, THE PEOPLE OF … Hold on, Madison, I have to re-angle this … the blasted paper’s too large to see all at once …”

Teaching my eyes when to dance over and under the line has not exactly been a graceful tango. But somewhere along the line (pardon the phrase), the music clicked. Reflexes adjusted. And that border between far-lenses and near-lenses that had been so annoying became … well, not exactly invisible. But normal, even sometimes forgettable.

That shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose. People get used to anything if it goes on long enough. That’s helpful in a world of situations, from minor eye annoyances to surviving the London Blitz.

But often as not, it’s one of our major problems, too.

We have an ability to edit that would make Hollywood jealous. And boy, do we. Sometimes it’s just a failure to see the everyday with fresh eyes, mentally blurring out a house or tree we’ve walked past a thousand times before. More often, though, we remove the uncomfortable. Not consciously, but by letting it become “normal.”
It might be someone holding a cardboard sign on the side of the road. Or a school shooting headline. Or one more story about those still vulnerable to the virus and its latest mutations. Things that once might have been a punch to the heart – and now, for many, become a moment’s attention and a shake of the head if they’re acknowledged at all.

I know. We’ve all got to survive and find a way to keep going in an often broken world. But we also have to do it without becoming numb. Pain ignored is only pain deferred – it’s not a solution.

Anyone who’s done home repair knows this. It’s easy to ignore a minor drip, a bit of wear, one of the hundred small warning signs around the house that say “fix me.” It becomes background noise … until the day that all that missed maintenance adds up to big problems and bigger repair bills.

Or take our own bodies. The repeated ache that’s “probably no big deal,” the odd lump that “I should get checked out sometime.” We’re busy and everything basically works, right? Until one day it doesn’t, and something that could have been caught early has life-changing consequences.

A person. A home. A society. All need attention. Not obsession or frantic worry, but awareness. An ability to feel and notice pain and then address the cause.

It isn’t easy, Worthwhile things often aren’t. But if we can look beyond our own moment, we can see what needs doing. Maybe even see our way forward to something better.

It’s a matter of focus.

Because unlike bifocals, some lines shouldn’t be overlooked.

Blitzed

Only a game.

We invoke the words easily. In resignation after a hard loss. In disbelief when a player signs for millions. Even in frustration when uprooting a partner from the couch, AKA Fantasy Football Central. “Good grief, it’s only a game!”

But we’re not used to whispering them in shock. Not until last Monday, anyway, when reality hit harder than any linebacker. A player fell. A nation watched. And the bright lights of the NFL faded into the background. When the league said the game would stay canceled, no one was really surprised.

After all, it’s only a game.

And at a moment like that, so many things loom larger than the score.

**

You didn’t have to be a Buffalo Bills fan to feel it. I’ve never been within 100 miles of Buffalo. My wife barely follows football at all. Both of us were stunned when Damar Hamlin collapsed from an on-field cardiac arrest. We had a lot of company.

After all, sports has a way of insulating us from reality. It’s entertainment, and like any good movie, play or TV show, it plunges us into another world for a couple of hours. Life’s frustrations fall away for a little while, subsumed in the action.

But once in a while, the walls don’t hold.

Maybe it’s an earthquake. Or an attack. Or a young man abruptly going down like his strings were cut. Whatever the cause, reality breaks the film, stops the play, shakes us out of the dream. We get reminded that we’re not watching a video game. That the helmets and numbers are people, as vulnerable in some ways as any of us.

We’ve spent hours, months, years watching these people. But sometimes it’s only in these shattering moments that we really see them.

And that’s in a world of cameras and spotlights. When we walk back into our world, surrounded with everyday people instead of superstars … how much more do we still not see?

**

We all do it. Not maliciously, but we do. Faces in our life become like cars on the highway, a blur only noticed when one of them veers near our lane. We go through the routine, used to everyone playing their part, not really looking closely.

And then something happens to make us pay attention and … we look. We see the struggles below the surface, maybe for the first time. And we wonder how we could miss it for so long.

It shouldn’t take a crisis. But attention takes work. And it’s a work we often put off until we have to.

So this year, if you do nothing else, take a moment to see. Friends. Neighbors. Family. The stranger on the street. Look up from your own world and into someone else’s. Find the connection that makes us human.

It doesn’t have to be somber or grim. It may even lead to great joy or comfort. But it won’t start by itself. We have to be the ones to do it and to go where it calls.

That’s how we build a neighborhood. A community. A nation.

A family.

**

As I write this, Hamlin seems to be on the mend. It’s a relief, to be sure. And long after most of us have forgotten his name, I hope we remember the care and connection that the moment sparked in so many of us.

After all, it’s only a game.

And when we break out from our own sidelines, there’s a lot that’s worth seeing.

The Next Chapter

These days, Labor Day weekend feels a little novel. If the novel were written by George R.R. Martin, anyway.

Maybe I should explain.

This is the time of year when I usually spend a lot of time looking forward and looking back. The looking forward is one that I share with millions of Americans as I try to stare into a crystal ball and put together two viable fantasy football teams. It’s an exercise in trying to predict greatness, injury, and whether you can scramble to the fridge for another Dr Pepper before the next Draft Day round pops up on your computer screen.

The looking back? That involves Missy. As I’ve sometimes mentioned here, September is when my wife Heather and I have to put together our annual guardian’s report on Missy, combing through receipts, bank statements and memories by the score. It’s time-consuming but oddly rewarding as well as we reaffirm another wonderful year together.

It’s a well-worn routine. In any other year, it’d be utter reflex.

Any other year isn’t 2020.

This is the year when football prognostication means guessing whether there’ll be a full season at all – not exactly a guarantee when the team stats may include points against, yards allowed and positivity rate.

It’s the year when most of Missy’s usual activities and expectations were turned upside down. No bowling. No softball. No hugs with her favorite band (Face) after a great show – kind of hard when you’re crowding the monitor for a livestream performance.

In many ways, life has become month-to-month, if not week-to-week. Grand plans for the future? These days, if we can figure out what’s available at the grocery store, we’re probably doing well.

It’s a little like living in a Paul Simon song: “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Even more, it’s like living in a novel.

Not reading one. Writing one.

Readers, after all, have the benefit of knowing how much of the book is left before major plot points have to be resolved. (Assuming the absence of a sequel, anyway.) They can cheat, skip ahead, look up a review on Amazon.

Writers don’t necessarily have that luxury. Oh, some laboriously outline everything – and still get surprised. Others go in with a starting point, a destination, and a loose idea of how to get there, discovering the path as they go. The reader is almost guaranteed to be surprised by the next chapter because … well, so was the writer.

As E.L. Doctorow put it (and many others have quoted), it’s like driving at night. All you can see is what’s in front of your headlights. But you can make the entire trip that way.

That’s our life at the best of times. 2020 just made it obvious.

The good news is, some truly epic journeys have been made that way.

It’s how J.R.R. Tolkien picked his way across the landscape of the Lord of the Rings, discovering each new bend as he came to it.

It’s how Stephen King walked every step of “The Green Mile,” staying just barely ahead of his readers as he wrote each new installment.

And it’s how we’ve survived crisis after crisis, both as individuals and as a nation.

That’s not saying foresight and planning are useless. When you hit a crisis, your preparation shows, as anyone knows who’s ever plunged the depths of a blizzard-bound grocery store in search of milk and bread. But however well we’ve trained our reflexes, we’re still living life at one second per second. We can only see so far ahead. And we may be wrong about that.

But as long as we’re staying aware – of ourselves, of the moment, of each other – we have a chance of building a story worth remembering.

Maybe we’ll even get a decent quarterback out of it.

A Failure of Imagination

Once in a while, Missy and I will decide it’s time to roll. Literally.

We don’t break out the wheelchair too often. But when we’re headed for somewhere where the distances are too great or the durations too long to be easily handled by Missy’s uncertain balance, we’ll load her up. Most of the time, it’s great fun for us, especially when I put on bursts of speed or sudden swerves to get her laughing and cheering.

And then, there are the other times.

Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk rises, just a bit. Not enough to be noticed by a pedestrian. But enough to temporarily turn a small wheelchair into a stuck grocery cart, until I lean and lift to pop it over the seam in the pavement.

Sometimes we find a place where the sidewalk runs high and the nearest slope to get on or off is far away.

Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk ends. Not the beginning of a Shel Silverstein land of whimsy and enchantment, but where the sudden appearance of dirt, grass, or broken landscape in mid-block says “Oh, you wanted the other side of the street.”

When it happens, Missy growls. And I fume or sigh and look around.

For a moment, we’re not just anybody else. We’re living in someone else’s world. A someone who didn’t see us coming.

***

Of course, you don’t have to be disabled to have a walk made challenging. Sometimes you just have to be the wrong kind of astronaut.

Most of the country heard about a planned spacewalk a few days ago. It was supposed to be historic, the first NASA walk into the Great Beyond made by two female astronauts.

One of the women had to stay aboard the station instead. Why? Because there was only one medium-sized spacesuit ready for use. And both of them needed it.

Yes, getting to orbit was actually easier than getting out the door.

Funny. For a moment, I thought I heard a Missy growl.

***

In many ways, we’re an amazingly imaginative species. We’ve sent people to the moon, sent data around the world in an instant, brought superheroes and fantastic adventurers to life on the movie screen (even if we can’t always give them decent dialogue). From biology to fashion, we constantly push back the borders on every side.

But in other ways, we can be just as amazingly limited.

Ask a left-hander who’s ever had to use an old-style school desk or a random pair of scissors.

Ask someone who’s 6’4” walking through a building made when the average male height was 5’6”.

Ask the 9-year-old girl last year who found that the basketball shoes she was excited about had labeled all the smaller sizes as “boys.”

I’m sure many of us could add to the list of examples, from the seemingly trivial to the potentially life-threatening. Usually not from active malice, but because “we never thought of that.”

It’s so easy to do. We get used to a type, so much so that we stop seeing it.

And then the assumption gets challenged. And everyone gets to do a double take.

It affects the things we make and the stories we tell (and who gets to be the hero in them). It  affects how we interact with the world, and with each other. It affects whether we even see that there’s an “other” at all.

It’s where imagination meets empathy. And in that place, we not only remember that other people matter, but try to envision what “mattering” means. Beyond our own race, gender, level of ability, or anything else.

We’ll screw up. It’s inevitable. We’re human. But if we’re making the effort to see, to learn, to understand, to put ourselves in the place of another – just maybe our vision wont be so nearsighted, so often.

The more we can do that, the more easily we can all roll along.

Right, Missy?

Seeing Outside the ‘Box’

Apparently, this year is for the birds.

If you don’t quite see where this is going … well, that’s kind of appropriate. Neither did a Utah teenager who decided to blindfold herself while going for a drive a few days ago. The short sightless trip ended up just about as you’d expect, though thankfully the resulting two-car crash produced no fatalities or injuries.

Why the blindfold? If you’ve been watching Netflix, you probably already know the answer. Yes, this was the latest turn in the Bird Box Challenge, an attempt to imitate a thriller where failing to cover your eyes leads to horrific visions and death.

In this case, of course, the horrific visions are the ones posted on YouTube as non-actors attempt to accomplish everyday tasks with their eyes covered. Sometimes with collision or injury resulting.

“Can’t believe I have to say this, but PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE,” Netflix tweeted in response to the fad. “We don’t know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes.”

I have to admit that calling this out feels a little hypocritical. When I was in junior high school, my sisters and I invented the highly original game known as “Blackout Tag.” To play, you simply descended into the basement, turned out every light source until the surroundings were pitch black, and then played tag while crawling on your hands and knees. (Why crawling? Safety, of course!)

We only played once. Charging headfirst into a table leg in the course of the game will do that. It remains the stupidest black eye I have ever received, and probably the one least believed by my friends at the time. “Oh, you ‘ran into a table leg.’ Yeah, sure. Right. How big was the table and what grade was he in?”

Anyone could have seen it coming. Except us. We didn’t just turn out the lights – we turned out any thought of possible consequences.

Sound familiar?

As a species, we’re good at not seeing what’s right in front of our faces. Sometimes it’s just because we live life by reflex. Most of us, I think, have driven home without any real awareness of the road or the buildings on either side – not because of a blindfold, but because we’ve seen the route so many times that we don’t see it any more.

Other times – well, other times, it’s a little more willful. We encounter facts that are inconvenient. Or pain that we don’t want to think about. Or rumors that are so nice to just believe. And so, we cover our eyes, not wanting to challenge our view of the way the world works, looking away from anything that might shake up the way we’ve always lived our life.

That has consequences. Not always as dramatic as a two-car crash on a Utah parkway, but potentially, just as harmful.

It means a lack of empathy, because we fail to see others as meaningful and worthy of care.

It means a lack of cooperation, because we fail to see anyone’s view but our own.

It means a lack of foresight, because we fail to see dangers we could plan for – or worse, blindfold ourselves by fixating on dangers that don’t exist.

“Bird Box” isn’t entirely wrong. Choosing to see can be painful. It can change your life, and not always in comfortable ways. But while voluntary blindness may make tense, entertaining fiction, sight is the real survival skill.

Open the box. You might just appreciate the bird’s-eye view.

Certainly the drivers around you will.