Love and Other Challenges

Love and Other Challenges

Michael: You seem to lead a pretty solitary life these days. I mean, you're no hermit, but you don't get out and about as much, and have a smaller circle of friends than you used to. Some of this might have to do with getting older, but I'm guessing it's partly related to your vision loss.

Joel: You know I've always been a borderline introvert, spending considerable time in solitude or with just a small circle of close friends. But the solitary time has expanded, and the circle of friends contracted, both radically. Before, when I felt the need to be among strangers, I would do typical urban things like loiter at a coffeehouse with a good book, visit an art museum, or attend events--a play, a music recital or jazz gig, a literary program--where I could expect to see and maybe mix with reasonably like-minded people. In the first couple of years after my divorce, I even volunteered on the pledge drives of KCRW, my NPR station, whence came my next three love relationships. But then, sight loss either completely terminated such options, as in the case of the pledge drives and art museums, or effectively neutralized them as social opportunities.
Michael: Can you say more about how sight loss limits social opportunities? Is it the mechanics of trying to catch the eye of someone you can hardly see, or are there other, more psychological barriers?

Joel: The whole idea of catching someone's eye disappears when you can't see faces. For me, heads are featureless shadows or completely invisible, depending on my angle of view and the light. I can catch a glimpse of hair and facial flesh tone by looking to one side. But neither view reveals a mouth, nose, ears or, yes, eyes. It's surreal, radically alienating, like being the only living thing in a tableau of decapitated George Segal sculptures. A totally blind person might think he was alone, if people made no sound. Myself, I "see" them but can' t, in the customary sense, make out who they may be, and have no idea if they even are aware of me. To be in a crowd is to be alone. So I need introductions, context, conversation, and some description and interpretation from a trusted companion, just to negotiate a cocktail party.

Michael: I imagine that, even with proper introductions in comfortable surroundings, the absense of facial expressions and body language (not to mention simple eye contact) would seriously hamper getting to know someone.
Joel: It certainly does. I've managed to make a few good friendships in recent years, but "few" is the operative word. For me to feel engaged, attracted (generally speaking, not just romantically), and appreciated for myself, now requires really clicking with someone at a high level of verbal agility and congeniality. I've always relied on words more than some people would think enlightened, been the Wally Shawn side of My Dinner With Andre, and been able to live with it. But now I've completely lost the leavening, enriching counterpoint of seeing the subtleties of response flicker in a person's eyes, in the shift of facial expression. I may meet and chat with someone at a party, quite pleasantly, and yet be left feeling as if I hadn't really met them any more than if we'd talked on the phone. I still wonder, as it were, who they are.
Michael: I want to step into more intimate territory, if that's okay. In my memory, you were until fairly recently always married, or in a relationship, or dating pretty actively. For the last several years you've lived alone and, while I know you still have close women friends, there doesn't seem to be a lot of romance in your life these days. Your observations about the difficulties of communicating and connecting with people you can barely see must apply in spades when it comes to meeting a prospective sweetheart.
Joel: It wreaks havoc. As I said in my story on "blind" dating, every romance in my life has begun with vision. Seeing someone generally, then the face particularly, then the eyes even more particularly, then the response of her eyes to mine. For example, I met S. at the laundromat on a foggy night on Irving Street, with a glance over the clothes we were folding, and five years of our futures were decided, before much conversation, before a single touch. I hooked up with V. at C.'s birthday party because her eyes flashed with intelligence, general life passion and a particular, personal interest in me that I chose, without choosing, to reciprocate, and there was another lap of this journey, shared. And though I first encountered L. on the telephone, it was her face that won my heart. Now, the streets seem changed, the signals all shut off.
Michael: It's very hard for me to imagine falling in love without that visual connection you describe so poignantly. I feel stupid asking this, but do you think you can fall in love with someone without really seeing her face?
Joel: That's hardly a stupid question. For the moment, I can't imagine how. I know that the blind do get together romantically, with the sighted and with the sightless. I even read stories of deaf-blind couples who have never seen or heard each other, though that sounds more to me like some kind of cellular binding than what I think of as love. I'm not insensible to what's left for me to perceive for inspiration aside from faces and eyes. I can still hear a tender, intelligent voice, make out the contours of a feminine figure and the drape of the clothes, and appreciate the scent of a woman, to risk conjuring up the image of a cantankerous, suicidal Al Pacino. But all these things, together, comprise a kind of erotic abstraction, the idea of love as a house in the rain with no address and no door.
Michael: You used to flirt a lot. In fact, I found it annoying sometimes trying to carry on a conversation with you if you spotted an attractive woman across the room. I imagine you still flirt sometimes--what's it like now?
Joel: I don't remember flirting in public, ever. I've always been too shy. I do recall your annoyance with me during intermission at a Sam Shepard play. I was only gazing around the lobby with hopeful longing, except that night blindness and proliferating retinal blind spots must have made my scanning look blatantly, embarrassingly intense. These days, I don't flirt, either. If I were regularly in the company of someone nice and developed a slowly accumulating attraction, and imagined it might be mutual, I would find a way to show my interest. But presently, no such opportunity exists. When I go alone to things, like literary events and live music, I don't "see" anyone, so no contact is made. At parties, I'm congenial with women, but can't get a useful impression quickly enough, and wind up talking to men, where all we're both looking for is substantive conversation.

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