Braille Monitor                         February 2021

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All I Don't Know and Still Have to Learn

by Gary Wunder

My grandmother was a good one for sayings, and she repeated them often enough that one did not forget them. One of her favorites was, “Live and learn.” She often said this when she was surprised, but as I got older, I came to understand that it was not just an acknowledgement of the unanticipated but a fact about an opportunity given to us each day. I came to realize what she was stating was a two-pronged philosophy: one is never too old to learn, and each day offers a wonderful opportunity to go to bed better informed than when he or she woke earlier in the day.

Often much is made of what is gained through sight, and far too often the implication is that one must have sight in order to learn. All of us are living examples that sight is not required to learn, so we take exception to the statement. But the part we should and do acknowledge is that vision does provide opportunities for sighted people to learn passively without any awareness they are learning. For a person who is blind, the learning must be active, and knowing what one does not know can be difficult.

In the last few years, I have been surprised to learn that there are a number of physical things I don’t know. For example, one of my daughters told me that I got into a car differently from the way most people do. My method was to walk to the car, open the door, turn 180°, back up until my legs touch the frame of the car, and then sit down. For at least sixty years this is the way I’ve done it, but I understand the more common way is to walk to the car door, open it, step into the car with one foot, pivot, sit, and then bring the second foot into the car. I used to wonder why people got mad at me when we lived in the country, and I got mud on the back of my pant legs. I never thought to ask how that was avoidable.

One day we were sitting around the table and someone said something that I considered a little snarky. I decided to make a similarly inappropriate remark, but instead I used a gesture. I proceeded to give them the finger. The reaction was not what I anticipated. It turns out I did that wrong as well. My method was to hold my right hand palm down, use my thumb to hold all of my fingers, and then extend the middle one. Not so. Now giving the finger is not a normal part of my regular social interaction, but at least I thought I knew how to do it. It turns out that the hand is turned palm up facing you, the finger is extended vertically, and it is then waved in the direction of the person who has done something you consider worthy of the gesture. Learning to flip the bird is not something I would encourage in polite company, but at least in my family not everything is polite, and not everything considered impolite is so regarded.

My mother-in-law Shirley owned a carnival. She and her husband Joe lived in De Soto, Missouri, and this was their home base for the business. Each week during the season the carnival would move from one location to another. Sometimes this meant separating from people one really cared about and not knowing when she would again meet them. She told her grandchildren she did not like saying goodbye, so she told them that they should part by using what she coined the “De Soto wave.” You guessed it: the De Soto wave was using the middle finger. Her grandchildren were surprised when their schoolmates did not understand the De Soto wave, and Grandma Shirley was reprimanded by her children. But one did not change the behavior of Grandma Shirley with a reprimand, and the tradition continued.

On the day of her funeral, as a last goodbye, her family all gave her the De Soto wave. Several days later my brother called me in confusion. He said, “Gary, I saw your mother-in-law’s funeral pictures on Facebook. I know you all loved her, so why did everyone give her the finger?” I told him the story, and he liked it.

Now I am curious how I can travel through six decades of life and not have someone observe that I was doing some very basic things wrong? Was it respect? Was it a desire to avoid confrontation, the assumption being that I would be defensive? I don’t know. I guess that not knowing the small things didn’t determine my career, success, or my likability as a human being, but I certainly wish I had learned at age ten or twenty that I was doing these things differently from others. There is nothing wrong with an alternative technique if it is better or as good as the one being replaced. Neither of these cases required an alternative technique, and in the case of getting into the car, my technique was not an alternative but was clearly inferior.

If I have had these situations in my life, my assumption is that others have as well. What might we share that will be helpful? Can we spare one of our colleagues a little public embarrassment by sharing? Can we remove even the smallest obstacle that stands between us and people who can see? Lots of callers tell me that they don’t wish to use the alternative techniques of blindness because they are made to look different, and I understand the burden of being and feeling different. Many times I think that the techniques we use far outweigh any difference that is observed, but I am a strong advocate for minimizing things that I do if I don’t get something in the bargain. It turns out the saying “Live and learn” offers a wonderful opportunity. Are there others who wish to share?

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