The Epic Road trip of Awesome Day 2: “Is that a Watermelon, or a Tomato?”

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Sunday, August 27, 2017
Jenny shuffles around on the floor and lets out a whimper. I bury myself under the blankets, nice and warm, eager for another hour (or three) of sleep.
But Jenny will not be silenced. I check the time on my phone. It’s 5:30 in Richmond, BC, which means it’s 6:30 in Edmonton. My dog… the Labrador alarm clock.
I quickly throw on yesterday’s clothes, swipe a baggie from the roll by the front door, and take Jenny outside to answer nature’s call.
Happy now, Jenny permits me to curl up under those blankets beside my husband, but sleep eludes me. I listen to my audiobook for an hour or so, then hear movement in the kitchen.
My dad is awake, getting breakfast started. He’s amused by Ayce, who has curled up with Dwight on the sofa bed. Both seem pleased as punch, so we try and stay as quiet as possible to let them sleep.
One by one, we all wake up and help with breakfast. Whether it’s grabbing food items from the fridge or freezer, cubing cheese, prepping coffee, or using the stove, most hands are on deck. While breakfast is cooking, Ben, Sarah, Dwight and I sit on Dad’s back porch, watching Jenny demolish two sticks in the span of fifteen minutes and then decide that one of Dad’s bushes needs “pruning.”
We gather around the dining table, realize there’s not enough coffee, then someone goes to make more. We eat our fill of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink breakfast and make plans for the day.
Dad and Karen head off to church, and the four of us have the house to ourselves. It’s nice to have some unstructured time. We read some, chat some, and head down to Steveston for a walk along the boardwalk, some shopping and some coffee.

We pull up to a parking meter that won’t take our cash. Sarah buys three hours worth of parking, and Dwight and I stand by the car, our faces toward the sun. One of us makes a comment that, unlike up north in Edmonton, we can look toward the sun without it hurting our eyes, allowing us to leave our sunglasses behind.

We stop in a souvenir store where Ben buys a magnet that has a joke about financial responsibility being unimaginative. There’s a consignment clothing store down the block, so Sarah and I step inside, generally dragging the guys along for the ride. A unique dress catches my fancy, and I end up spending far too much time (according to Ben… okay, me, too) trying on clothes. Unfortunately, nothing fits quite right, so I leave empty-handed.

We’re all a little hungry, so we make our way to Blenz, a coffee shop my dad visits frequently. After purchasing our drinks, Dad and Karen meet us and we sit outside where we chat and enjoy the beautiful day.

Our stomachs are rumbling, so we walk down to the Buck & Ear. It’s a sports bar that doesn’t feel like a sports bar. We crowd around a table and devour our sandwiches, salads and (in my case) fish tacos. Dad and Karen generously treat us, and we head back to our cars.

When we pull in to Dad and Karen’s carport, Sarah exclaims, “Is that a watermelon… or a tomato?” Karen’s been growing tomatoes this year, and this one is massive!

Jenny and I make our way inside, where Jenny promptly empties Ayce’s toybox of all the toys we’ve put away and settles on the loudest toy in there – the squeaker ball. Ayce decides that barking at her doesn’t phase her, so he toodles out the doggie door and ignores her instead.

Dad and Karen have recently returned from a trip to England and Sweden. They have brought souvenirs home with them (like tea from a teashop, Swedish dark chocolate, prints of trains for Ben). In addition to my no-tattoo-allowed generous birthday gift from Dad and Karen, I open a wooden box to store my newly-acquired tea, and a bracelet my father made that jangles every time I move my arm. For reasons both spacial and practical, we leave the tea and the box behind because we’re not sure about space in the car, and we’re equally not sure if we can take them (the tea in particular) across the border. We thank them profusely, then settle in for a post-lunch nap.

It’s hard to describe how things go south. Ben and Sarah had made plans to meet their family friend – their “uncle” – in the afternoon, and my mom was going to host us for dinner in Abbotsford at 5:30. I start to get anxious when Ben and Sarah haven’t left and it’s 3:30; I hope they have a great visit with their uncle, and there’s someone coming to dinner at Mom’s that I haven’t seen in years. There’s no reason we couldn’t do both, right? They take off, and I load up the roof bag for a quick load-and-go.

I don’t handle this well. I send texts, I pace, I get angry. I make watermelons out of tomatoes. Dad offers to drive me over to Mom’s and I tell him that’s not his responsibility. When Ben and Sarah arrive back at 5:45, I am fuming, and so is Ben. Ben, Sarah and I meet on the back patio. We make our feelings and expectations clear, and nothing really gets resolved. We load the roof bag on to Hoshi, put Jenny in the back seat, and hug Dad and Karen goodbye.

 

Richmond, BC – Abbotsford, BC

Distance: 67 km

Travel Time: 1 hour

 

For me, it’s a tense drive to Mom’s place. We make it there by 7:00 PM, and we climb out of the car. Mom greets us, smiling. It’s quiet and peaceful here; you’d never know that you’re not too far off of a major roadway.

I expect Jenny and Max – mom’s Bouvier – to pick up their intense doggie love affair where it left off last year. Jenny has other ideas; there’s SO much to explore!

We get a tour of the property, Jenny and Max generally leading the way. Jenny is fascinated by the chickens, though she makes no move to do anything about them. When we walk past the barn, Jenny discovers the blackberry bushes, eating only the ripe berries and wagging her tail merrily. Mom tells us they’ve had coyotes in the area, so after dark I plan on keeping Jenny close.

The makings for pulled pork sandwiches and potato salad sit on a folding table behind the house. A cooler is well-stocked with beverages both alcoholic and carbonated, and we sit outside and eat and drink and chat with Mom and her partner (who, among many other things, was a chef in a past life).

Mom has a tent that she offers to set up for us so we don’t have to set up the one we’re borrowing. we take the roof bag off of Hoshi to get our backpacks and sleeping bags and start blowing up air mattresses…

And they won’t all fit in the tent.

Ben and I have a double air mattress, we bought Dwight a single, and Sarah has a mat. They will not all fit in the tent, no matter what we try.

A team meeting is called. The only viable option is for one of us to sleep in the car. With Ben and Sarah driving, we all agree that they need the flat horizontal surface in the tent. It’s down to Dwight and me. Dwight says this is a great adventure, and besides, he can sleep anywhere. I feel a pang of guilt, ask him if he’s sure.

I toss him a pillow.

While the guys are getting ready for bed, I get a chance to take Sarah aside. We rationally air out our feelings from earlier and bury the hatchet. The awkwardness for me is gone, and I’m glad of it; I can sleep better tonight.

I crawl into the tent with Jenny, Ben and Sarah. We can hear distant calls of coyotes and far-off road traffic. I hope Dwight is sleeping well in the car as I drift off to my own peaceful sleep.

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The Epic Road Trip of Awesome Day 1: Hitting the Road

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

I wake up at 5:30 this morning with a strange combination of intense anticipation and a splitting headache. Anticipation for the road trip that seems to have snuck up on me all of a sudden despite months of preparation; the headache from a little too much alcohol at last night’s party.

My backpack has been packed for two days and is ready to go – along with those of my fellow travelers, a tent, sleeping bags, and air mattresses – into the roof bag that will clip to the top of our car. Ben arranged camping chairs, a cooler, a flat of water, and other necessities into the trunk three days ago. Dwight and Sarah are bringing down backpacks, sleeping bags and pillows. We’re almost ready to hit the road.

I’m emptying out the dishwasher when my cell phone chimes with a text message. Our friends – who are returning from a road trip of their own with a box of food for us – were waylaid near Medicine hat last night. They’re on their way to us with a box of pre-packaged lunches from GoPicnic, and we have their emergency house keys.

ben reloads the now-empty dishwasher and runs it so we have clean dishes when we get back. Sarah ties up the kitchen garbage bag and puts it out for collection next week. Then Ben and Sarah fill the roof bag, rearrange it, zip it up and situate it on the roof of the car. Ben is frustrated because some of the trim has come loose from the car, and his efforts at gluing it back have not been a resounding success. The roof bag is up, its straps as tight as they can be. Jenny is sitting perfectly at my side, waiting for her next instructions.

We’d planned to leave between 6:00 and 6:30, but the clock is inching past 7:00 and our friends are almost here. They arrive with a 1-foot-square box of food for us, greet Jenny, wish us well, and head home to sleep themselves.

It’s 7:30… and we’re off!

 

Edmonton, Alberta – Richmond, BC

Distance: 1200 )plus ????) km

Travel Time: 13.5 hours (including stops and Detours)

 

Ben is driving this leg, with Sarah in the passenger seat (with Ben’s camera bag by her feet). Jenny permits Dwight and I to take over the back seat while she takes the middle. The box of food fits nicely by my feet, a backpack containing a picnic set and miscellaneous food sits on the flor (where Jenny’s feet would be if she were human), and Dwight has taken custody of the “communal jacket” (a leather jacket that Dwight got second-hand, left at my house two years ago so I borrowed it and gave it back to him, and now it seemingly belongs to all of us).

We barely make it to the highway when we hear a very loud hum coming from the roof bag. A subsequent check at a Canadian Tire store (where Ben buys adhesive for the trim), reveals the bag is holding its position nicely, but the ends of the straps are flowing in the wind, causing very loud vibrations.

We all laugh giddily, sing along with songs from Ben’s MP3 player (drowned out by the roof bag’s hum), and take our first selfie in the car near Edson. Snacks are procured in Edson, we stop for fuel in Jasper, then settle in for the long haul to Kamloops. Dwight, Sarah and I catch naps, and I can’t decide whether or not that makes the ride shorter or longer, because I’ve taken that trip before and it’s never ever felt this long.

In Kamloops, we fuel up again and take a break to stretch our legs. It’s hot today and there’s some smoke (though not much) from wildfires burning across the province, so our exposure to outside is minimal. We stop in to a McDonald’s for food, where a woman loudly proclaims that NOW she understands that my dog is a “SERVICE DOG” and then “sssssshhhhhhhhh”es anyone (no one?) who dares to call further attention to us.

Sarah takes over the driving from Kamloops. We’ve been planning to take the Fraser Canyon, since we’ve never taken that route, but due to timing we decide to take the Coquihalla instead (it’s shorter).

Just outside of Hope, Ben looks at Google maps and notices there’s a collision blocking Highway 1 between Chilliwack and Abbotsford. It will delay our trip almost 45 minutes. We make a collective decision to detour around it, driving from Hope to Mission and taking the Mission-Abbotsford Bridge to the highway.

We arrive (exhausted) at my Dad and Stepmother Karen’s house. Their dog, Ayce, greets us noisily, while Jenny runs outside to run and sniff and steal all of Ayce’s toys and taunt him with this fact. Ayce doesn’t care that she has his toys; he DOES care that she’s showing off.

Dad and Karen have set up a Chinese hot pot for us. The food has just started to cook, but it doesn’t take long for six hungry people to crowd around the table, filling their bowls with spicy or savory meat or vegetables or noodles. As soon as the hot pot is empty and we are all eating and laughing, more food is added to the pot. This goes on for over an hour, the tension of the long travel day retreating into the background. We are almost stuffed to bursting, but we can’t say no to little cups of chocolate mousse for dessert.

Ben and Sarah had planned to visit a family friend tonight, but they are all so exhausted that making their way there at 10:00 at night sounds like an unwise decision. They’ve made arrangements to get together with him tomorrow, which is probably better for everyone.

The roof bag is removed from the top of the car and our backpacks are dispersed. We shower, set up beds, and fall into an exhausted happy sleep.

The Epic Road Trip of Awesome: Preparation

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I can’t remember who thought up the idea of traveling the northwestern part of North America, encompassing Alberta, BC, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and a teeny bit of Wyoming. I think it started innocently enough, much like the conversation that brought our New York vacation into existence.
We started talking about it in the early spring, about the time I started a new job. It was like a reward, for toughing out the hardest year of our lives. How the itinerary took shape? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s like we theorized that it would be cool to take a whirlwind trip to see my parents, threw metaphorical darts at some cool places we’d always wanted to visit which were sorta kinda close by (only hundreds of kilometers away) and compressed them into one epic road trip… that would be awesome.
It’s amazing all the things you need to think about when it’s you, your family or friends, your car, and the open highway. We started booking our hotel and campsites in April, asked the other two members of our intrepid crew to join us in May, got a lead on a tent in June, and bought a roof bag in July so that we could carry more stuff. We got maps from our local registry office, drew cool pencil lines on those maps, read more campsite reviews online, gave the car a tune-up…
And then August 26 just suddenly… appeared! Like magic, like a day you never thought would come but finally did.
We threw a party before we left. A bon voyage party, if you will. No fewer than 15 of our newest and oldest friends and family came and went, enjoyed terrific food (prepared by Ben and/or brought by guests), tossed back a drink with some laughs and occasional candid conversation on our patio.
We kicked everyone out by 9:30 so we could get up early and hit the road as early as possible; we had a lot of ground to cover.

 

Proposed trip

(Time is for driving only, not including stops)
Saturday, Aug 26: Edmonton, AB to Richmond, BC ( 1,164 km; 11 hours, 45 minutes)
Sunday, Aug 27: Richmond, BC to Abbotsford, BC (approx. 80 km, 1 hour)
Monday, Aug 28: Abbotsford, BC to Cascade Peaks Campground – with stops at Pike Place Market and Mt. St. Helen (approx. 600 km, 7 hours)
Tuesday, August 29: Cascade Peaks Campground to Memmaloose State Park – with stop in Portland (358 km, 4 hours)
Wednesday, August 30: Memmalloose State Park to Rigby, Idaho (1018 km, 9 hours, 35 minutes)
Thursday, August 31: Rigby, Idaho to Grandview Campground – with stop at Old Faithful (700 km, 7 hours, 35 minutes)
Friday, September 1: Grandview Campground to Garnet, Montana – with stops at Little Bighorn National Monument, and Billings (600 km, 6 hours)
Saturday, September 2: Garnet, Montana to Izaak Walton Inn (280 km, 3 hours 15 minutes)
Sunday, September 3: Izaak Walton Inn to Edmonton, AB – with stop at Radium Hot Springs, BC (960 km, 10 hours)
Total: approx. 5750 km, 60 hours

Hoshi, Our 2006 Nissan Altima, was as tuned up and ready as “she” would ever be. Jenny, my guide dog, had her up-to-date Rabies vaccination and would put her “curling-up” skills to the test. Ben and his sister Sarah would split driving duties. I would handle food, snacks, and other random things that require both hands. Our friend Dwight would provide deep thoughts, lots of laughs, and the only British accent in that Nissan.
No one said we had bit off more than we could chew.
No one knew what magic would take place on that trip.
We knew it would be a road trip of epic proportion.
We were just waiting for the Awesome.

Life on the Open Road: The Epic Road trip of Awesome

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Two hours ago, five weary travelers (four human and one canine) entered the city limits of Edmonton, Alberta, after a nine-day road trip. Nine days of laughter, of music, of occasional friction, of teamwork… of lots and lots of driving.

After nine days – over 5,000 kilometers and 60 hours – of travel through two provinces and five states, dispersed amongst sight-seeing and shopping and eating and picture-taking, I can honestly say that relationships were formed and strengthened over this trip. Dreams were born, there were some disappointments, but overall we all still wanted to be in each other’s company when it was all over.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, and if I could I might have changed some things. And yet, it’s in those moments that I realize that any changes would’ve made it a diferent trip entirely – with different frictions, problems and priorities. I loved this trip the way it was; it provided me a much-needed perspective I doubt I could’ve had any other way.

So many people made this trip possible. A friend lent us a tent for the journey, others watched our home while we were away. Friends and family offered traveling tips and advice (none of whom said the words “Are you NUTS!?” – for which I am grateful), while others gave me practical birthday gifts that I could use on the road (even down to marking shampoo bottles). Employers provided time off of work, friends and strangers on the road opened their facilities, their guidance, and their hospitality to us.

And I can’t say enough about my traveling companions. I couldn’t have done this trip without you. and – as Ben said earlier tonight – I can’t imagine doing this trip with anyone but you.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be posting my own experiences on this Epic Road Trip of Awesome. Come along with me; it’s gonna be a wild ride.

Book Review: No barriers

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Several months ago I reviewed Erik Weihenmayer’s first book, “Touch the Top of the World.” When I learned his second book (and continuation of his autobiography), “No Barriers“, was coming out earlier this year, I snapped it up quickly, and read it just as fast.

No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon
By: Erik Weihenmayer

Erik Weihenmayer is the first and only blind person to summit Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. Descending carefully, he and his team picked their way across deep crevasses and through the deadly Khumbu Icefall; when the mountain was finally behind him, Erik knew he was going to live. His expedition leader slapped him on the back and said something that would affect the course of Erik’s life: “Don’t make Everest the greatest thing you ever do.”
No Barriers is Erik’s response to that challenge. It is the moving story of his journey since descending Mount Everest – from leading expeditions around the world with blind Tibetan teenagers to helping injured soldiers climb their way home from war, from adopting a son from Nepal to facing the most terrifying reach of his life: to solo kayak the thunderous whitewater of the Grand Canyon.
Along the course of Erik’s journey, he meets other trailblazers – adventurers, scientists, artists, and activists – who, despite trauma, hardship, and loss, have broken through barriers of their own. These pioneers show Erik surprising ways forward that surpass logic and defy traditional thinking.
Like the rapids of the Grand Canyon, created by inexorable forces far beneath the surface, No Barriers is a dive into the heart and mind at the core of the turbulent human experience. It is an exploration of the light that burns in all of us, the obstacles that threaten to extinguish that light, and the treacherous ascent toward growth and rebirth.

Continuing the Journey, with New Friends along the Trail

This book re-introduces us to key people in Erik’s life – his father, his siblings, his wife and daughter. We get to know and see some of their dynamics play out, discover their demons some kept at bay (and later taking over), grow and change with everyone. One thing that the author has done well – in both books – is balance interpersonal dynamics without verging far into sappy emotional supposition or stale dialogue re-creation.
In addition to getting re-acquainted with Erik’s family, we meet new key people in his life. We meet his son, who is sweet and precocious and is too young to express his grief at being taken far away from the only life, country and culture he’s ever known. The challenges of culture shock when adopting a child from a foreign country (and the bureaucracy that goes with it can almost be felt by the reader; I can only imagine what it felt like going through it at the time. And so many people were instrumental in building this relationship – on both sides of the world.
We also meet other disabled people – from sheltered blind children who learn they were capable of doing more than they thought possible, to veterans who struggled through their own mental and physical barriers to climb mountains, to doctors and adventurers and entrepreneurs and bureaucrats and kayaking guides… Erik’s books are always about people; I never once came away with the idea that Erik was this big hot shot who’s done all these cool things, but he had others with him every step of the way.

A Few Too Many Rabbit Trails

Unlike “Touch the Top of the World”, “No barriers” is a long book with many components to it. We travel up a Tibetan mountain with blind teenagers, learn about the BrainPort (a nifty piece of technology that produces visual information on the wearer’s tongue, laugh and cry at the journey of creating a new family, experience the merger between two nonprofits and the pitfalls along the way… it’s all useful and important, but at times I just wanted to get back to Erik’s journeys as an adventurer – climbing mountains, kayaking rivers – or reading more about his family. “Touch the Top” was a much tighter and more cohesive read, but I do understand why all these components were included, to describe a journey of peaks and valleys, of falling down and getting back up again.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

One of the most profound experiences in the book is not when Erik kayaks the Grand Canyon (though that experience is well-described and riveting), but when he trains and takes a small group of blind Tibetan teenagers and their guides to Tibet’s tallest mountain. Erik is put in touch with Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German social worker who founded Braille Without Borders, a school and training center for the blind of Tibet. Eventually they decide that, both as an educational experience for the teenagers and as a way to break down barriers placed on them by Tibetan society, a mountain climbing trip is in order. Erik is a goal setter – he has a plan, and he is going to achieve it, making adjustments along the route but with the understanding that achieving the goal (in this case, climbing the mountain) is the most desirable end result. But when threatening weather adds further danger to this trek, Erik and Sabriye have vastly different opinions on whether or not to proceed.

Sabriye, affter thoughtful consideration, tells Erik that she has taken what he’s told her to heart, that she needs to respect the mountains and their beauty. She tells him bluntly but kindly that she’s noticed the sound of the wind in the trees, the feel of the glaciers, the stillness of the air. She has done what he’s asked, to appreciate the mountains for all that they offer, but it’s his turn to do what she’s asked and respect their people enough to acknowledge that they’ve already done more than they could’ve ever imagined, and now it’s time to keep them safe.

I read this book months ago, and Sabriye’s idea (though paraphrased here) has never left me. Goals are important, but sometimes we focus so much on the end result that we miss the little things along the way.

Conclusion

This book is well worth your time – at a sprawling 480 print pages and more than 19 recorded hours, it will take a lot of it. It’s profound and moving in ways I didn’t expect. That being said, some passages could have been shortened for a more cohesive read.

4/5 stars.

In the Shadows of Gaslights

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A package was being prepared for shipping. Payment arrangements had been made. By all accounts, an ordinary transaction. But my head pounded, my hands shook, and I just knew I was going to be sick. Before I knew it, I was trying not to vomit into a garbage can. I had to get out, and get out immediately. It wasn’t only the cold I’d been nursing for nearly a week that caused these symptoms; it was the residual affects of gaslighting that reard their ugly heads.

What IS Gaslighting?

Gaslighting can best be described as a manipulative and emotionally abusive tactic that erodes your ability to be confident in your decisions and perception of reality. In an accessible and readable article, LonerWof outlines how gaslighting can be spotted in family, marital or professional dynamics. My own experience, it sadly appears, is far from unique. Because of the personal nature of the stories below, names have been changed.

 

All in the Family

 

We learn many behaviors from our family of origin. When Kendra described to me her extended family dynamic, it sounded like a psychological thriller. One family member was accused of abusing women and children, denied it, and then, to hurt his partner, confessed to the behaviors he’d spent years denying. Children witnessed gaslighting behavior by a parent or grandparent, where some children were favored and others were “unspeakably abused” and made to believe they were imagining it. To protect his family from the toxic family dynamic – and with scars and a possibly undiagnosed mental illness of his own, Kendra’s father refused to permit family members to disclose to others where he and his immediate family (Kendra and her siblings) lived. Kendra believes that, because of what she saw growing up, she was able at a young age to get out of an emotionally abusive relationship before it “damaged her in the long-term.” After the breakup, before the age of social media, her boyfriend wrote her a letter that she describes as a textbook check list for manipulative gaslighting.”

But gaslighting is not always intentional. Sometimes, denial can lead to gaslighting behaviour. Rachel lives with a complicated visual impairment which went undiagnosed for years. Her family tends to dismiss her inability to see things, telling her to try harder, that – because an ophthalmologist didn’t diagnose her visual impairment – it doesn’t exist. Rachel finds herself in a complicated place, because relatives and in-laws don’t think she’s “that” blind, and yet she is the only one who sees through her eyes and processes her visual world, and she knows what she can and cannot see.

 

I love You… but You’re Wrong!

 

All relationships have conflict, miscommunication, and differing viewpoints. But when clearly-stated boundaries are ignored or deflected in ways to make one party feel unstable or irrational, that is gaslighting.

Sarah described to me a relationship she was in several years ago, where her concerns were glossed over or turned back on her. Boundaries she wanted to set were “evidence” of her mental instability, and she was a “psycho who needed to be hospitalized.” Any behaviors he did that hurt her, he denied doing them at all. When she wanted a short break from him to work things out, he tried to take her guns (used for target shooting) away “for her protection.” She began to doubt herself all the time, wondering if her feelings and concerns and personal boundaries were valid, or if her partner was right, that she was unstable and “psycho” as he claimed.

 

“You should Be Glad You have a Job Here!”

My recent experience above stemmed from a job I held years ago. I was belittled and bullied, and whenever I tried to raise legitimate concerns, I was told I needed to accept my colleagues as they were, and besides I had things I needed to work on. When I wasn’t being as productive as I knew I could be and was using substandard technology, my concerns were swept under the rug – until one of my colleagues couldn’t take my “unreadable paperwork” anymore – because replacing any equipment would’ve been giving me “special treatment.” Any time I mentioned anything about the work environment, I was told that I should be glad I had a job at all. The last straw was when the braille display unit I used for work needed repairs, and because it was purchased for me years ago (for work purposes) my employer didn’t believe it was their job to pay for the manufacturer to fix it. I ended up having to rely on a braille display from a wonderful generous friend while mine was out for repairs, but the bullying and gaslighting never stopped. I questioned my own perceptions – was I asking too much? Was I being a special snowflake? Was my colleagues’ and managers’ treatment of me in response to something I was doing, or not doing? Were they right, that I should be grateful I had a job at all in a down economy? Only one person at that workplace told me, in an unguarded moment, that they saw what I was going through, that they recognized it, that yes, it was, in fact, as bad as I thought.

Recently, that same braille display quit working. My work environment has changed drastically and is so supportive I can’t even begin to describe it. But so many circumstances were the same. I was borrowing that same display from that same wonderful generous friend, the box with my broken display was being prepped for shipping, and I was making phone calls to figure out how to get the repairs compensated. While support came from all sides – from the idea that I shouldn’t be the one to jump through hoops to simply be able to do my job, to modification of job duties if needed – I couldn’t escape the flashback. I felt like I was back in that office years ago, at the same desk, with the same people stabbing me in the back. Those who actually currently surrounded me were lifting me up and holding me together, and yet all I could hear and feel and see was my experience of years ago, being crushed underfoot, smothered by unreasonably unmet expectations.

In a room full of people, I was alone.

I was staring into the flames of the gaslights.

 

What if YOU See the Gaslights?

 

Gaslighting is real. It is not a figment of your imagination. Many who have shared their stories with me have told me that if they had known of its existance, they may have been able to put their fears and concerns into words, and may have removed themselves from the situation sooner.

Sarah has found that spending time with people who take her concerns seriously really helps heal the wounds that her gaslighting experience left on her. She thinks it’s essential to surround yourself with solid reliable people, and to remember that your alleged faulty memory or irrationality would be pointed out by more than just one person (or group of interconnected people), and never consistently in a way to manipulate a situation in someone else’s favor.

Rachel finds, for her, that it’s important to love her family, but to also recognize and embrace her own voice. She describes her family as “voices that I love,” but they do not live her life, and they are not always right, and she thinks that’s okay.

As for me, I don’t think it’s enough to keep my head down and just keep on plugging along. My plan is to seek out both social and professional connections to help make sense of all of this. When one questions their own reality, it’s hard to put it into concrete words. But I will try. I will hold my head high, surround myself with people who support me (singed gaslit eyebrows and all) and truly learn to trust myself again.

If you are reading this and have experienced gaslighting, please know that you are not alone. There is truth in what you are going through, and it is not inescapable. You are not alone. You are not wrong. How you experience the world matters, and no one has the right to take that away from you.

“Um… Dad? I got a Tattoo…”

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I recently celebrated a birthday. I chose to celebrate it by attending a stellar performance of “Phantom of the Opera” with my husband and a good friend, silencing my phone’s frequent ringtones heralding “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” messages from all corners of the technological world, and capping it off with a personal-best-speed 6-mile run. In the midst of all this, I received several birthday wishes and instruction from my father, that I could get ANYTHING I wanted…. except a tattoo.
That’s great!
because… I already have one tattoo… and I don’t want any more.
When I told my father this, he seemed surprised. “How did that happen?” he texted me.
Well, in the manner of all things sarcastic, I texted back that I consulted a tattoo artist, had a design drawn, sat in the chair, and got it done.
Isn’t that how all tattoos “happen”?
I never intended to keep my tattoo a secret. In fact, my dad reads my blog; I mentioned it here. But for people who’ve just met me or don’t read my blog or missed the whole half-a-sentence mention my tattoo got six months ago… here’s some details!
I chose to get it where it can be concealed in the workplace and shown off in a more casual summer atmosphere. Originally I wanted mine on my shoulder blade, but many friends told me in general tattoo-based conversations about their shoulder pain horror stories, so I nixed that idea. At the time I was working in business-to-business sales, and many colleagues had tattoos. I asked a couple of them where they got theirs done, called a couple of shops, and went in for one consultation.
I know many people who have TONS of tattoos; others are terrified of needles. I fall much closer to the “terrified of needles” camp, so I was kind of scared to get this done. Several friends (blind friends in particular) asked me about my experience getting a first tattoo, if it hurt, what my artist was like, how I knew things would be OK… the whole bit. I had to think a lot about it, because I lucked out; my one consultation was so easy and fluid that I never even considered getting another.
When choosing a tattoo artist, you’re effectively finding a doctor, a therapist and a graphic designer all in one. It’s an intensely intimate process and both artist and “canvas” need to be able to effectively communicate, otherwise…. not-cool things could happen… and they’re pretty permanent!
When I walked in for my consultation on an unseasonably warm Friday in January, I had no idea what I would be getting myself in for. The entire staff was warm and welcoming, and Jessie (the artist who would design and place my tattoo) and I sat and chatted about what I wanted, where, and how she could best describe her design for me as a blind customer. I’m pretty no-muss-no-fuss, and I wanted something I would be happy with but that wouldn’t be too elaborate (see above comments about needles). It was one of the easiest service-provider/customer conversations I’ve ever had in my life, and I knew I’d found the right tattoo artist. Money was pretty tight at that time, and so I told Jessie I would give her a call once things picked up and I could justify the expense, but I definitely wanted the tattoo. Not three weeks later I got my current job offer, paid my deposit, and asked for Ben’s thoughts on some drawings. He wanted his own tattoo, but different from mine, and on the first concept drawings Jessie hit the ball out of the park for both of us.
The designs had been chosen, I left Jenny at home, and I made my way back to the tattoo shop. I don’t know what I expected (some cubicle-style room with a curtain across it? Dingy dark corners where tattoos are applied in secret?) but the open airy room I entered with huge windows along the back wall definitely wasn’t it. While I was nervous about getting the tattoo, Jessie was great about putting me at ease. I even got to put on gloves and feel the tattoo gun (without needles) as it vibrated, and touch the needles in their sterile packaging. As I sat in the chair, Jessie went to work, describing everything she was doing, giving me fair warning if she was using a different needle (yes, they feel different), offering me a break if I needed. We talked about other things, too, like good food and dogs and work and business ownership… life, really. The time flew by, and while the tattoo application hurt a little, it really wasn’t that bad. Just over an hour after we got started, a bandage was placed over my freshly-tattooed skin, and it was done.
I remember telling Jessie at the time that I seriously don’t think anyone has ever just “gotten” communicating with a blind person so well. She admitted to feeling slightly uncertain about how much information to give, but she knew that everything she did would have to be described. One never would have guessed that I was her first blind client, though not her first with a disability (she mentioned having done piercings and tattoos for Deaf clients). Not only did I get a cool-looking tattoo, I got the seamless experience – the true luxury – of not having to explain anything at all about blindness or accommodations or humanity and disability. Remember when I wrote about a tattoo artist being like a doctor, a therapist and a graphic designer rolled into one? I hit the jackpot.
So, if you’re in Edmonton, hit up Jessie at Shambhala Tattoo. Tell her Jenny sent you… because, in a way, she did.

 

My tattoo of Jenny’s paw print with her name inside it

 

 

Raising my Voice: My Thoughts on the Proposed Canadian Service Dog Standards

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We’ve all seen the news stories about people bringing their pets into public spaces and pretending they are service dogs. We’ve all been angry at the dishonesty, the danger to ourselves and our legitimate service dog teams, and have various ideas on how to combat this. Some propose service dog registry and identification; others place the burden on businesses to exercise the rights they do have (notably to ask the handler of an aggressive or disruptive dog, service dog or not, to remove it from the premises), rather than the people with disabilities who depend on service dogs to live fulfilling independent lives. Still others want governments to take action.

In Canada, an organization in the Public Works and Government Services (not a government committee) – made up of representatives from service dog training organizations, veterinarians, advocacy groups, regulatory bodies, and individuals – has been hard at work for two years to create a national standard for service dogs. Their stated objective is to provide a universal standard for service dog teams. Over the past month, many friends and advocacy groups have sent the draft standards to me, advising me that there is a public consultation phase that ends on July 14. As I know several groups and members who have helped draft this proposed standard, I chose to take my chances and hope for the best. But as emails and facebook posts flooded my phone and computer this past weekend, I realized that I couldn’t bury my head in the sand anymore. I had to figure out just why my phone was going crazy.

I read the standard, beginning to end, and will be submitting my comments to the board.

What The Committee Is Not

This is not a bunch of egotistical, evil people out to make life harder on service dog teams and handlers. While training programs had voting power, other advocates, professionals and owner trainers had votes in the meetings as well. This is a large group of people, all of whom have valid concerns and objectives: to make sure service dogs, handlers, and the general public are safe. If you choose to comment on this post, please be forewarned that I will delete any personal attacks against the committee or disrespectful talk about how you will never visit my country. If you can’t offer anything constructive (be it praise or criticism), keep it to yourself.

What this Document Is Not

This document is not current legislation. Even if it passed as is tomorrow, it is not law. While it may be used to create universal legislation across the country (so that someone in BC won’t undergo stricter scrutiny when they travel to Saskatchewan), legitimate service dog handlers can wake up on July 15 (after the open consultation period) and go about their lives, hopefully with no public interference.

This document is not a declarative statement on where a Canadian can train for a service dog. I’ve seen a ton of fear-mongering on this topic, that the board is saying Canadians can’t train in the States, and no where is this stated or implied. Guide and service dog programs may be concerned about their ability to serve Canadians due to the standards, but the standards themselves, as written, do not restrict location of training. There are enough legitimate concerns in this document without creating more.

This document is not permanent. That’s why it’s called a “draft”. For future readers of this blog, anything written below is paraphrased from the draft standards published on May 2, 2017. It’s a living document; it will change. We as Canadians can make our voices heard by providing feedback through the Web site. We have an opportunity to push for change, to offer suggestions, in a way that is seldom available. Take it!

What They Got Right

This document is thorough. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s a long comprehensive document. People with a wide variety of disabilities are represented, along with a non-exhaustive list of tasks their corresponding service dogs can perform. It touches on everything from training and behavior to realistic expectation, equipment fit, first-aid… I could go on and on. No one can accuse the standards board of not considering any situations. The needs of both service dog and handler are referenced throughout, with great emphasis being placed on the biological and emotional needs of the dog. The rights of persons with disabilities to access public spaces safely with their service dog are well-documented.

Unreasonable Intrusions

But while it’s clear these standards indicate that handlers should have realistic expectations about their service dogs performing learned tasks or learning new ones, their expectations of obedience are higher and, frankly, not as realistic. According to the draft standards, a service dog must respond immediately to obedience commands, on or off-leash,  in all conditions and circumstances. While later in the draft, there is mention of intelligent disobedience (when a dog disobeys a direct command when it is unsafe), the words “under all” do appear related to obedience (Section 4.2.2).

But what is not specified anywhere in this document is who can assess – and how frequently – whether the handler has “enough” knowledge on any of these things, or when the dog is obedient “enough”, even off-leash, in the home? It does appear that an assessor will at some point enter the home of a person with a disability, just because they wish to use a service dog, and I do wonder about an intrusion of privacy that no pet dog owner has to undergo.

There is also particular concern about the equipment used by a service dog team. Based on the current draft, any slip collars, E-Collars, prong collars, or muzzles would not be considered appropriate equipment (section 5.2.1.1). While I personally have strong opinions on my dog with equipment, it is not my place to judge another handler’s appropriate use of tools; even a flat-buckle collar can be used in an abusive manner. I have used a head halter (frequently mistaken for a muzzle, even though my dog can fully open her mouth while wearing it) to re-shape behavior; this standard does not address that at all. If we are responsible enough to handle service dogs in public, we should be treated as responsible enough to use appropriate tools humanely to mitigate behavior or receive tactile feedback.

A brief note about identification: several people think identification is a good way to weed out the fakes. Section 7 addresses the information that would be made available on identification (on a service dog’s harness/leash, or ID card carried by the handler). It does not appear to provide provision for those who wish or need to make their own equipment or buy from manufacturers whose equipment fits their unique needs as a service dog team, but does not readily identify “service dog”. These draft standards do not – nor can they – address who can ask for service dog team identification, under what circumstances.

One of the many other concerns I have is statements regarding separating dog and handler. Section 5.2.3.3 states that the service dog will “tolerate” removal from the handler (by whom?) when required by circumstance. The draft indicates this will be inspected (section 8.2.2.3) by having a person unknown to the dog promptly remove the dog from the handler and walk away a minimum of 6 meters. While I understand this is to test for aggression, as a visually impaired person who has had her dog forceably removed from her, this is traumatic, and does not show compassion and understanding (as stated in the goals of the inspection). As an aside, my dog might be tolerant of being separated from me, but I wouldn’t be! It would be like someone driving a car and the passenger just ripping off their glasses.

Other Concerns/Questions

A few questions I pondered while reading the standards. At what stage of the service dog’s working life these inspections are administered. What do owner trainers do? Where are the inspections held? How frequently? Who pays for travel? Does the handler have the right to access public spaces before the inspection? Does a Canadian who receives their dog from an American source have to undergo additional testing? So many more questions about the logistics that the standards themselves cannot address. They are only the first step in a complicated process which will need regulatory and legislative bodies to implement and enforce. Many (myself included) have grave concerns about the implementation of the standards. These concerns are not without merit. But at the end of the day, these standards can provide a foundational framework in which all service dogs, handlers and the general public can feel safe alongside each other.

So where do We Go from Here?

I will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have had friends whose service dogs have had to retire because of attacks by overly stressed legitimate service dogs or encounters with out-of-control pets in vests. Standards, by themselves, are not a bad thing, and I do see some value in these proposed standards of behavior by both handler and service dog. However, I think there needs to be much more clarity about the inspection process and the access rights of a person with a disability using a service dog. If someone owner-trains their service dog and/or uses third-party equipment without “service dog” markings, are they still protected by each province’s Human Rights legislation? If so, then there needs to be more education of service providers about when a disruptive or aggressive service dog team can be asked to leave, and more teeth to penalties for impersonating a person with a disability to take a pet dog into public.

While I believe there is the best of intentions for this standard, I question its enforceability and the potential intrusion it places on the lives of people who already receive strict scrutiny. While the commentary period is open until July 14, raise your voice in constructive ways. Don’t only point out what’s wrong, but how it could be better. And above all, don’t forget to indicate what was done right.

Book Review: Love and First Sight

I picked up this book during a period when I needed something light to read. Something very very light.

And I’m not really sure that’s what I got.

 

Love and First Sight

By: Josh Sundquist

In his debut novel, YouTube personality and author of We Should Hang Out Sometime Josh Sundquist explores the nature of love, trust, and romantic attraction.

On his first day at a new school, blind 16-year-old Will Porter accidentally groped a girl on the stairs, sat on another student in the cafeteria, and
somehow drove a classmate to tears. High school can only go up from here, right?

As Will starts to find his footing, he develops a crush on a charming, quiet girl named Cecily. Then an unprecedented opportunity arises: an experimental
surgery that could give Will eyesight for the first time in his life. But learning to see is more difficult than Will ever imagined, and he soon discovers
that the sighted world has been keeping secrets. It turns out Cecily doesn’t meet traditional definitions of beauty – in fact everything he’d heard about
her appearance was a lie engineered by their so-called friends to get the two of them together. Does it matter what Cecily looks like? No, not really.
But then why does Will feel so betrayed?

Told with humor and breathtaking poignancy, Love and First Sight is a story about how we relate to each other and the world around us.

 

What I Loved

As I read this book in audio format, I loved the narrator. he became Will. With the exception of a really horrible Italian accent for one of the characters, the narrator’s characterization was superb. As for the book itself, I’m thankful that Will is not a loner – he hangs out with the super-smart kids – and he’s a practical joker (as evidenced by Will’s response when he is asked to touch someone’s face). The author did an amazing job of recreating a situation where someone is treated differently because they are blind, but he doesn’t leave it there, showing Will (and us) that some people do “get it.” Will also seems to possess a certain amount of awareness about himself and the world around him, and yet he wants to be able to conceptualize visual information when he meets Cecily, whose photography hobby is a foreign world to him.  This book does ask important questions about vision, autonomy, independence, helicopter parents, even though I found myself vastly disagreeing with its conclusions.

 

But Mooooooooom!

I could devote an entire blog post to the real-life counterparts to Will’s mother. She is the embodiment of a helicopter parent. Mom packs Will’s lunch every day, braille labeling the containers, wanting to hover at every opportunity. She insists that he wear big dark sunglasses to school (unlike some more stylish options he can wear), and Will just seems to go along with it after he freaks out Cecily by unintentionally staring at her.

This meddling is not new. As a young boy, when another child takes advantage of Will’s inability to see, instead of teaching Will how to handle that situation, his parents ship him off to a school for the blind. Ten years later, Will is trying to find his way, and his mother is smothering him… until, suddenly, she isn’t? And Will realizes that her hovering is preparing him for independence? And we’re all somewhat dependent on each other? Um… what?

The Disability Cure Trope

When Will begins to regain his vision, his confusion and exhaustion are obvious. The author does a great job of describing in general how exhausting it is for a brain to completely re-wire itself to process things differently. However, unlike Mike May in “Crashing Through”, Will’s parents do the initial leg work with him and his identifying of objects. I had a hard time with the disability-cure-leads-to-happiness idea, particularly since Will was never certain he wanted the operation to begin with, and the idea that Mom and Dad are teaching him to “see” just rang hollow and like the author didn’t feel like doing some research.

Speaking of Research

There were some truly cringe-worthy research blunders in this book. For example, Voiceover reads textx, not Siri. While in some ways the author adequately described the dynamics at a school for the blind, and the frustrations of electric cars, he also completely misnamed someone who teaches the blind to navigate as an “Orienteering and mobility guide.” One of Will’s friends wants to help him and Cecily deliver the morning announcements at school, does a bit of research, and asks Will if he’s heard of a refreshable braille display (Will has, but doesn’t have one). Buddy is able to procure one (something that costs thousands of dollars) in a matter of just a couple of days, and he (not Will) is the one to set it up. A little research would have gone a long way to making this book so much better… but as a fun aside… Do Scratch ‘n Sniff stickers come in gasoline and smelly socks?

 

Conclusion

The above paragraphs sound like I hated the book. In fact, I didn’t hate it at all. I had a really hard time with some ideas within, and I’m always very frustrated if an author decides not to do their homework. But it’s a fun way to spend some time, and it’s written in an engaging style that made me smile. I grew to love Will and Cecily and their friends. Even Will’s Dad grew on me. Take a ride with Will, Cecily and their friends; it’s a mildly wild one.

3/5 stars.

Have you read this book or any of the others I’ve reviewed? Leave a comment in their comment sections, and let’s chat about it!

Summertime… when I Feel More… Respected?

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This time last year I remember (and facebook reminded me) getting up for a 9:00 AM job interview. I opened my eyes and got hit with a sudden burst of intense stabbing pain… right in both eyes. I had two options: reschedule the interview (as I had already done the day before because I was feeling absolutely awful) or attend the interview with a light-sensitive migraine. If I chose the second option, I had two options stemming from that: suffer through it, or do the somehow stereotypical “blind” thing and walk in with sunglasses.
It was far from an easy decision. To me, sunglasses were for sunny days, not moderately cloudy ones, and absolutely never ever ever indoors. I looked so… blind in them (I still don’t know what I meant by that thought). When I asked several people I knew – sighted and blind – through the instant question-answer format of social media, I received so many answers, and many conflicted with each other. All paraphrasing is mine, but the general ideas went something like this.
“Absolutely not! Your interviewer NEEDS to at least have the semblance of eye contact.”
“Why not? Your eyes hurt; you need to be functional.”
“It’s SUCH a blind thing to do.”
“If they’re fashionable, wear them!”
I chose to wear the sunglasses. They had been purchased years before and were both fashionable and moderately functional for my purposes. The frames were basic black with round lenses, and they didn’t scream “blind person!” to anyone who looked at them. The instant I put them on, just before leaving my house, I felt my entire face relax, and the stabbing pain in both eyes magically disappeared.
The interview bombed. It bombed worse than almost any other interview I went on the year I was unemployed. It had nothing to do with my glasses, my headache, or anything else. The job and I were simply not a good fit.
But when I left the interview and went about my day, my sunglasses still in place, I noticed something else I hadn’t considered before.
People treated me better.
You see, if you were to look at my eyes directly, you would know that I am blind. My left eye is, for all purposes, unusable. My right eye won’t stay still. Walking down busy downtown streets that morning – even with a guide dog – while wearing those sunglasses, people seemed more inclined to make general non-blindness-related conversation with me, or accepted my assertions that I didn’t require their assistance. This old pair of sunglasses seemed, in a way, to be magical to me, to open a doorway to some previously rarely-found milieu of autonomy and dignity.
During the course of a few weeks, the more I wore my sunglasses, the less blind I appeared to others. The less blind I appeared, the more people left me alone (or at the very least respected my polite declining of their assistance, something they offered less frequently). I loved how it felt.
But those glasses I wore to that interview no longer flattered my face the way they had years ago when I had first purchased them. I needed, as a friend stated, a more fashionable pair.
So what does a girl do when she needs a stylish pair of sunglasses that she doesn’t need to see clearly through? She goes to Walmart, and finds the coolest, most professional-looking pair of sunglasses they have that also covers her eyes and flatters her face. I spent a grand total of $15 on my sunglasses, and the complements from friends, family, and strangers make me feel like I should’ve spent more. And when I wear them, people generally treat me better, like I’m any other office worker or customer or pedestrian.
I wonder why that is.

And I wondered why I had resisted them for so long.

When discussing this topic, I had no idea the types of division I would stir up. Some people were very comfortable with their choice to wear glasses, others firmly confident in their decision not to, and many fell somewhere in the middle. Comments ranged from “No blind person should wear glasses, ever, because it makes them look pathetic,” to “I wear them on sunny days because the glare bothers me, but I’m still uncomfortable doing so… it’s such a blind thing to do,” to “I wear glasses because my eyes hurt otherwise,” to “I wear them because I know my eyes are damaged due to accident or illness, so I wear them for the general comfort of those around me.” Others hadn’t considered them one way or the other, either because they were never encouraged to wear them, or because it was really never an issue; while my sunglasses made me look “less blind”, some believed that their wearing them would call attention to their blindness in a way that their uncovered eyes never do. Still others believe that wearing sunglasses means that they are hiding a part of themselves – their blind eyes – even if they are imperfect.

But one friend, whose blindness is due to Retinoblastoma, described in vivid detail being forced by parents or teachers to wear them. She would get in trouble in school if she took them off, and even now – as a grown woman – if she’s in her family’s company, the comment is made that she needs to wear them. Like it or not, she is judged on her appearance. Retinoblastoma can sometimes lead to facial scarring that may be off-putting to some, so some may argue that if it can be covered by makeup or glasses, then why not use them? And yet, my friend has a very complicated relationship to glasses today, for the simple reason that they were pushed at her so much as a child and teenager and even now as an adult.

A simple accessory to some, to others a way to make it through the day. To some they bring freedom, to others a sense of complicated shame. I had no idea that the job interview a year ago would start me on this journey of asking questions about an accessory that most people wear without a second thought. It’s opened up far more questions for me than it’s answered, and yet, I’ve made my own piece with my sunglasses. My cute sunglasses make others more comfortable with me, which makes me more comfortable with myself. I hate that this is so. And I hate that others would receive the exact opposite reaction because their uncovered eyes don’t make them look blind.

So for now, while the days are long and the sun is so bright that almost everyone has to squint to navigate the world visually, I’ll take that automatic respect that these lenses and frames seem to have granted me. Now the question is… can this continue in the winter?