The Braille Monitor                                                                                                     February 2005

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Ask Miss Whozit

by Barbara Pierce

The graphic accompanying this column shows an elegant place setting with a rose lying on the plate and a place card above it.   On the place card are a Whozit graphic and the words "Miss Whozit."
The graphic accompanying this column shows an elegant place setting with a rose lying on the plate and a place card above it. On the place card are a Whozit graphic and the words "Miss Whozit."

From time to time readers have come to me with the insistent request that I create a periodic Monitor column devoted to the consideration of the sorts of topics that Miss Manners discusses in her widely syndicated columns and best-selling books. Actually the demand has been for a monthly column, but I have rigidly resisted tying myself or anyone else down to the discipline of such a schedule. But the request has been so broad and constant that I have been persuaded to stick a journalistic toe into the waters of good manners, etiquette, and the social graces. But whether or not this experiment develops into a frequent feature will depend entirely on audience response.

I have assembled a small panel of experts whom I intend to consult about the subjects raised. They have agreed to assist me in producing this column as long as I am willing to protect their anonymity. So, if you have a question or an issue that you would like to have us address, please contact me. Miss Whozit will take all such requests under advisement. In the same way, if you wish to take issue with something said in this column or if you have found another solution to the blindness-related topics raised in this space, scribble down your thoughts and send them to me as well. It would help if you indicate that the matter is one for Miss Whozit's attention.

To give you an idea of the sort of issues that have come up in discussions on this subject, let me choose almost at random several topics that I have addressed with NFB members at their request. I recently received a note from someone asking how I manage to eat spaghetti neatly. In public it almost always appears in very long strands, cloaked in bright red sauce just yearning to decorate one's blouse or necktie. I answered this plea for help by agreeing that, if it did not taste so good (or maybe because it does), spaghetti would clearly be recognized as an invention of the devil.

I know that sighted lovers of droopy pasta of all kinds have mastered the art of using a spoon in the nondominant hand to wind the pasta around a fork in the dominant hand, which has scooped up a bite. I see no reason why a blind person cannot master this skill. To do so, I would practice in private, wearing an old T-shirt or maybe even a rain poncho. If I faced pasta often in public, I would do exactly this.

But pasta of all kinds is pretty calorie-laden, so I do not indulge very often. Usually when I do, I have been the one to cook it, and I freely admit that, even though I am married to an expert pasta twirler, I break the raw spaghetti several times so that I will not be embarrassed at my own table. I may pretend that this will prevent my young grandchildren from making a mess, but....

You will not be astonished to learn that,when I was in Rome two years ago for a committee meeting of the World Blind Union,  I faced pasta in public on several occasions. I could have pretended that I was not interested in that course, but the Italians really do know how to prepare delicious sauces for pasta, so I was not about to miss the experience. I simply used my fork to cut across the plate of pasta several times. Then I rotated the plate about an eighth turn and cut across the mass of pasta again multiple times. I repeated this process till I trusted that I had managed to cut every strand at least a couple of times, thereby rendering it incapable of embarrassing me. Of course I inevitably missed some strands, but at least I did manage to keep my suit clean.

I will say in passing that broccoli and asparagus spears can also be cut into much shorter lengths in order to get them to your mouth in manageable pieces. The problem with asparagus, of course, is that often the first time you know you are facing it is when you taste it. Chefs love to sneak skinny little asparagus spears onto your plate as a garnish when you have no reason to expect them. I always listen carefully to the menu item in the hope of being tipped off that asparagus is going to appear. I am lucky to have a personal early-warning system for asparagus since my husband does not care for it and is always ready to offer me his when we face it at a banquet.

Quietly asking a dinner companion for information about hazards such as giant lettuce leaves, very long green beans, lemon or orange wedges with peel, and the like can alert the blind diner sufficiently to avoid unpleasant surprises. The easiest solution in these situations is usually cutting them into small pieces or removing them to the butter plate. Developing the skills to manage raw onion rings, hot peppers, olive seeds, etc., in private is always a useful investment of time.

Let me now turn to a subject that used to be classified as etiquette but which I would now call social graces. I refer to opening doors. When my brother and I were growing up, my father laid down the law that a gentleman always opened a door for any lady. Feminists have jostled that precept out of its place as a law of nature among the mannerly, but many women secretly continue to appreciate such gestures of civility. In fact today lots of women who consider themselves completely liberated freely admit to enjoying having doors opened for them.

The additional layer of confusion surrounding this point of social interaction is that almost any generally courteous person of either sex will hurry to open a door for a disabled person, a mother struggling with a baby and its paraphernalia, or an elderly person who may not have strength enough to hold the door open while passing through it. Anyone using a white cane or dog guide automatically falls into the first of these categories, even when we actually have a hand free to do the job for ourselves or someone else.

Being a woman, I can comfort or delude myself with the notion that the door has been opened for me because I am a lady, but I suspect that most blind men who think about the matter feel marginalized by having anyone and everyone in the area gallop forward to "get the door for you." It's rather the same feeling one has when elderly people offer their seats to us on buses and light-rail trains. I find myself steadfastly refusing these gestures of courtesy because I know that I am perfectly capable of standing and better able to do so. When the time comes that I am unsteady on my feet, I trust that I will have both the grace and gumption to take the proffered seat with a smile of thanks and a feeling of genuine gratitude.

But the problem with doors is that blind people cannot take a single and unvarying stand about opening them for ourselves. What we can do--all of us--is not to make the assumption that someone else will always scurry forward to open the door for us. We should all assume that in fact we can get the door for others. If we are quick to move forward and search for the knob, we will be the first to get there some of the time, and we can have the fun of noting others' surprise at having a blind person actually doing something for them. The experience will be good for their souls and will remind them and us as well that blind people are an integral part of the social order and not just a good deed waiting to happen.

I will close this discussion with a word about personal space, which I consider a matter of etiquette. Different cultures expect adults to preserve differing amounts of personal space. I would say that in the United States it is at least eighteen inches. With exceptions such as very small children or mutually agreed intimacy, no one should make a habit of intruding on that distance. Exceptions occur--elevators at convention, crowded commuter trains, massed observers at public events are several that come to mind.

But blind people, and often it is blind men, sometimes seem to think that they constitute an exception that no one will object to. I am here to announce that people may not say anything because they assume that the poor, unconscious blind guy doesn't realize what he is doing, but people do mind and will thereafter try to keep their distance from all blind people, an outcome that causes us all grief. So I will simply say that we can all help each other by maintaining a proper distance and reserving our tactile exploration and observation for inanimate objects.

If you would like to join this conversation in the months ahead, contact me at <bpierce@nfb.org> or by writing to Miss Whozit c/o Barbara Pierce, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

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