Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dining in the Dark

Pam and I had a most amazing experience on Thursday night last week. We were invited to join the American Council for the Blind in their annual fundraising event, Dining in the Dark. It was held at a local Denver restaurant, Dazzle, in two sittings. We arrived shortly before 7 p.m. for our sitting and were led behind heavy curtains, designed to keep light from pouring into the main dining room. With only the glare of the Exit signs and the intermittent shaft of light from wait staff going in and out the swinging kitchen doors, we sat and experienced dining in the dark.

We joined Richard Faubion, Director of Development for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and his wife at a table for four. Richard, who has retinitis pigmentosa, and generally has a very small field of vision, exclaimed that he had none in this darkness. He did give us tips, though, on how to locate the usual things on a dining table, using analog clock directions, such as “bread is at 12 o’clock,” “butter at 2.” Despite our attempts to carry on a regular conversation, we kept coming back to how disorienting was this experience for us. In his typical “glass half full” way, Richard simply said, “You figure it out,” and he proceeded to give us more tips. “Use bread to help gather the food on your fork.” Oh, and don’t be afraid to use your fingers! I thought of a new use for the food guard. It’s a simple half-ring of plastic that clips onto the plate to form a barrier so food will not spill out as someone pushes utensils across the plate. It is useful for those with limited mobility due to arthritis, paralysis, aging hands, or who have the use of only one hand. We sell a lot to parents for use with kids, especially those with some developmental and physical challenges. And now, for dining in the dark!!

I did find eating in darkness to be quite different. I had some trouble distinguishing tastes. We all spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what kind of sauce was on the salmon. Richard guessed cherry. It turned out to be close, lindenberry. It was texture I relied on more, I found. Potatoes did not have a distinctive flavor, but they were softer than the mélange of vegetables on the plate. Broccoli stood out in flavor. The sauce helped me find the salmon, but overall I found the meal a lot less satisfying. I recently read that as sighted people age and as their sight diminishes, they almost always eat less. Or gravitate towards foods that have higher levels of sugar or salt as a means to actually taste something. I know this was so as my mother aged. Once a hearty eater, she barely nibbled in her 90s.

We asked our waiter if he had ever had this experience of serving in the dark. He shook his head. We said we needed an answer since we could not see him. We all laughed at how much we take for granted. He and his colleagues did very well making their way around the dining room, orienting everyone to the positioning of their plates and the food on those plates.

Henry Butler entertained the crowd with his virtuoso piano performance. Henry is blind from infancy. (More on him below.) This guy was hot! For most of the performance spotlights shone on him. I closed my eyes, though, to listen without seeing his hands slide along the keyboard. I felt the vibrations of the music on the floor and in the room more powerfully than when I opened my eyes. I definitely heard the music differently. Towards the end of his nearly two hour performance, management turned off all the spotlights and we all sat in total darkness listening to Henry. I found myself curiously attentive to what was happening inside of me, realizing how much I depend on vision to take in a whole experience, to synthesize it, to be fully a part of it. Henry is truly a genius. The room was electric.

What an evening! I felt so grateful when the lights came on. The American Council for the Blind (and many other organizations for the blind that have organized similar experiences) is genius, too. It is so important that we find ways to stretch beyond our own experiences of the day-to-day. While those few hours cannot be compared to a lifetime of blindness or to the demands of adjusting to diminished vision because of disease or injury, they certainly gave me the opportunity to “see” beyond my own frame of reference, to witness my own limits, to learn for a night how to dine in the dark.

If you have not previously supported organizations for the blind, please consider participating in the Foundation Fighting Blindness Vision Walk on September 29, 2007 here in Denver. If you are not from the Metro Denver area, you can check here for vision walks in your location. FFB focuses on research for fighting blindness that changes people’s lives everyday.

Please be sure to visit Capabilities, too, for a wide selection of low vision products. We are still building our low vision selection on our website, so please call us if you outside the Denver region or are unable to visit our location. We can work with you on the phone and help you find the products you need wherever you are.

Henry Butler was born in New Orleans and has been blind since infancy. At age seven he joined the glee club at the Louisiana School for the Blind, where he was already studying piano. He was performing professionally by the time he was 14, and studied voice in high school. His career continued, leading him through college and Michigan State University where he received a master’s degree. By 1980, he had earned a national reputation as one of the jazz’s most gifted and versatile soloists. He continues to impress critics, fans and fellow musicians with his prodigious talents. He has been saluted as, "the pride of New Orleans and visionistical down-home cat and hellified piano plunker to boot." Butler's house and everything in it was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He has just bought a home in Denver.

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