The Sense of Beauty

I have a good friend that I talk with regularly, but whom I haven’t spoken with in many years. Her name is Lacy. Her (now) husband Scott and I played Soccer together at Portland State, and I got to know her when we would both walk down from Goose Hollow to our respective jobs in Pioneer Place Mall (hers answering phones and providing customer service at Saks Fifth AvenueNordstrom, mine working as a stock manager at Victoria’s Secret).

Lacy didn’t need me to walk her the ten city blocks, which she made expressly clear the first time I accompanied her, but I was welcome as long as I stayed out of her way. This might sound a bit harsh, but there’s another detail, Lacy was born without functioning optical nerves. She is utterly and completely blind.

A few years after we all left college, Lacy was fortunate enough to be selected for partnership with a seeing-eye-dog named Justice, but at the time she was making her way confidently down Salmon Ave to the rhythmic tapping of her cane, counting off the streets, and listening for the crossing signal at every intersection. It was a point of pride that she didn’t NEED anyone to get where she was going.

[Author’s Note: Justice passed away last summer at the ripe old age of 13. Not bad for a German Shepard, and he will be dearly missed. As a dog lover I just want to take this moment to remember a really great dog that I only met once, but who touched a lot of lives just by doing what he loved to do, which was be there for Lacy.]

And Lacy DIDN’T need anyone. Sure, there were a few mishaps: the occasional rogue messenger bike, herds of teenagers without the collective intelligence not to blunder into a woman walking with a white cane, cars blaring their horns constantly at a stoplight rendering the walk-sound inaudible, and so fourth…but she never needed me to get her where she was going. If something disrupted her progress she would stand up straight, square her shoulders, extend her cane and begin again. It was an amazingly regal gesture in someone who had never seen regal in her whole life.

I was never anything less than astounded by the way she strode confidently through chaos and arrived where she meant to go, without error, time after time.

Lacy was majoring in Communications, which is probably not much of a surprise for someone who focused on the intricacies of communicating day-in and day-out all her life. Take away visual clues and facial expressions, and the true utility of something as a communication object becomes quite clear.

Which reminds me of a funny story from her days working customer support, which I will relate here to her gentle embarrassment (she has no reason to be embarrassed, but she will be anyway).

At the wise and experienced age of 19, Lacy worked the customer service desk at the downtown Saks 5th AveNordstrom. Which is to say she worked the phones. Nordstrom had made some accommodations for her impairment, and by and large she was quite happy with the work. She had a knack for handling upset or confused people on the phone, and it showed. What was not so good, were the occasional moments when she would be the only CS rep behind the counter. Most customers were understanding and waited patiently for someone to return and handle their issue…but one time…not so much.

He was obviously in a hurry. The urgency of his voice, the tinge of panic as he called for assistance, she couldn’t just sit there with her back turned when a customer needed assistance.

“One moment sir, someone will be available to help you shortly.”

“I really can’t wait, I must get to an appointment at OHSU” he said, just as urgent as he had been when he called out over the empty counter.

“Well sir, I might not be able to resolve the issue, but perhaps I can help get the process started. What can I help you with?” She got up from her chair at the phone desk and crossed over to the counter, approximating where he was by the direction of his voice.

“Yesterday my wife bought several shirts and ties for me, but she didn’t get the sale price. She paid full price and the markdown should have been thirty percent! I sent her here specifically for my shirts because of the sale. How stupid do you have to be? Full price for shirts and ties?”

She wasn’t sure who was supposed to be “stupid” but he was shifting from urgent to angry. “Well sir, obviously I don’t know what items she bought specifically…but the sale on Menswear ended last week. I’m afraid any purchase yesterday wouldn’t have been eligible for the-”

“That’s what the last two sales girls said! I don’t want to hear that! Obviously these were supposed to be on sale! Who would buy all this at regular price!?”

“I’m sorry sir, I can’t give a sale price for merchandise bought after-”

At this point her cut her off again, and the sequence started over. This went on for about five minutes before he tried a new tactic. “You know I’m right! You won’t even look at me, and if you weren’t lying about what you could do, you’d look me in the eye!”

At this point her brow furrowed in perfect proof that facial expressions are inherent and not learned by observation. “Actually sir,-”

“Look at this receipt, who would buy all this at regular price? Even a blind person could see that I should get the sale price for these shirts and ties!” His voice was aggressive and his breath was hot in her face, leaning in to drive home his point.

“Sir!” she said sharply, wresting control of the conversation back to her side of the counter. “As a blind person, I assure you that the only thing I see is that you are being unreasonable and refusing to listen when I try to discuss this with you. We are here to help you, not to be yelled at because you missed a sale. I would gladly refer you to a manager, or assist you in processing a return of the shirts and ties you are unsatisfied with, but what I don’t SEE is a reason for you to demand the sale price for merchandise bought almost a week after the sale ended.”

At this moment the Store Manager who had paused while concealed to listen to the last few moments of the exchange now came around the corner from the back office to the customer service desk. “Good afternoon sir,” she said with a professional smile. “I understand Lacy has been diligently trying to resolve your concern with your purchase yesterday. I’ve also spoken with two associates on the floor that also had this discussion with you. As the Manager of the store, I would like to resolve this once and for all. I understand that Lacy has given you the store’s position on sales. We would be glad to refund you for a return of the merchandise, but we will not be able to extend sale prices for merchandise bought after the sale ended. Lacy, was there anything else that you saw?” Her emphasis squarely placed on the man’s own foolish word.

There was a long pause. Deciding that honesty was more important than a smiley face on her review, Lacy answered “Yes. I plainly SEE that you sir, are an ass.” and then she turned and walked away.

These days, Lacy works as a communication consultant for a media agency in Portland that focuses on reaching niche markets. She also sidelights as a Book-on-CD performer and records radio commercials for several area radio stations.

Scott (her husband) and I are probably “closer” in the male-bonding sense of the word. I used to see him once or twice a month for lunch, we are Facebook friends, and we’ll IM every so often when something makes one of us reach out to the other. I only hear from Lacy via email. One of the things that I’ve realized is that the Social Media revolution is not convenient for the visually impaired. Facebook is a highly visual design; and Twitter, with it’s #hashtags and overuse of acronyms and abbreviations seems designed intentionally to foil screen-readers and text-to-braille interfaces.

Lacy has only recently started to follow blogs regularly. She used to be a Podcast addict, but she’s discovered that by using the text-to-speech facility on her Mac, blogs are becoming meaningful to her. Her favorite “computer voice” is Alex, which comes built-in with the OS X operating system.

It was that detail that led her to email a link to this TED talk by Roger Ebert along with some thoughts about how the internet begins to replace our senses, and what that means for different people with different sensory impairments.

I love everything he says in his talk, she writes, and I love the way he chose to say it. What I wish people understood is that the internet is wonderful for people who have no sense of sound, either due to deafness or muteness, because it creates a level playing field of visual communication. But for people who have no visual communication, these tools could be just as wonderful, but right now are much harder to use.

Our senses create the way we experience beauty. For Scott, beauty is in both the way something looks and the way it sounds. Beauty can exist independently of either sense for him. I don’t have that luxury. I only know the sound of beauty, its taste and feel, the way it smells. Yet we can both find the same things beautiful. The sense of beauty isn’t limited by a missing sense, only changed into another kind of beauty.

The visually impaired desire beauty just as much as the deaf or the mute. But, just as in the “real world” the visual bias is turning something that could be a strong community tool into another means of isolation. The internet could be a powerful way to supplement a missing sense, a means to have descriptions and instant communication with thousands of other people, thousands of other perspectives at our fingertips. But as the interfaces become more visual, the tools become harder and harder for the blind to use.

What I struggle with every day is how the internet seems to be moving more and more towards the sense of sight at the expense of the other ways to experience beauty. I love that Alex can read blogs to me, I hate how difficult it is for me to navigate through blogs. What I really wish is that the people who write blogs could understand how badly some of us would like to hear them READ their blogs. I long for a personal experience with bloggers on the same level that their readers can have. And that’s something that a computer voice simply can’t give me.

The internet is slowly helping the deaf feel less alone in a silent world. Disappointingly, it seems as though the same advances are making the blind feel more alone in a darkened one.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit in the last couple of years actually. Lacy once asked me if I ever thought about podcasting because that was her primary interface into the blog-o-sphere. I know Lacy reads My Bad Pants with some regularity via screenreader, or had Scott read it to her when they have the chance to surf the internet together. And while I love the thought of two of my friends reading my writing together, experiencing it in a cooperative way that only a couple like them, that have overcome challenges like they have, can really understand; I also want to respect that sentiment.

“Why can’t this be an audible resource as well?” I ask myself.

I worked for six years “on air” for several radio stations. I have a “radio voice” and enough elocution and diction and enunciation training to choke a horse. There’s a microphone built-in to the laptop I use to write these posts, not to mention the software and apps out there for recording on my iPhone or iPad or iWhatever that are cheap and easy to use. Why can’t I record what I write? Why can’t it be personal?

So, I’ve decided that I’ll do my best. I’m going to start by working out any tags and css elements necessary to make this site friendly for VI Browsing, and I’m going to go back and start to record the posts as mp3’s. I know how to embed those, and I’ve got plenty of storage with my hosting provider. It will take some time, but hopefully I can get all of my posts recorded and uploaded in the next few weeks.

So soon, at the bottom of every post, there will be well-tagged audio player that will spool out my dulcet tones and shimmering verbalizations. Barring that, it will just play a recording of me, reading my own words in my own voice, so that readers can experience my words the way I meant them, and not the way a computer parses them together. I don’t know that it will be a “better” experience, but it will certainly be more personal.

[Word Count: 2240]

10 thoughts on “The Sense of Beauty

  1. I love the idea of having an mp3 with your voice reading your words! I can’t wait to hear it! For easy finding, though, you might want to include the audio player at the top of the post, underneath the title, so Lacy and others don’t have to scroll through the entire post to find it.

    This is an amazingly good point. One that I will implement.

    As a nod to my writing and editing style, I’m going to wait 24 hours from the time I post until I record the MP3. I’m notorious for post-publish edits, and I don’t want to re-record every time I fix a gnarly sentence or smooth out a really bad turn of phrase.

    So, sometime tomorrow, expect the first few MP3s to show up. Right on top, as you suggested.

  2. As I say when someone at work or a friend takes a brilliant suggestion of mine (though it might not work so well on the internet): *motions hand over face* “More than just a pretty face.”

    It seems to work pretty well on the internet too…it made me chuckle. :-)

  3. But, you do plan to keep writing too, right? That way your hearing impaired wife can still follow along?

    I’ll only read what I write. I’m not a “Talk to the Mic” kind of guy. So yes, my hearing impaired peeps will still receive the same level of service they’ve always received. What’s that? Service around here stinks, updates are rare and no one bothers reading anymore? That’s ok. I’ll just keep on keeping on. :-)

  4. A blatant and obvious attempt at scoring points with the handicapped, which will be responded to exactly as it deserves – with a big old THANK YOU.

    Aww…I’m just honored to have you guys comment!

    We look forward to hearing you recite your essays. I’m guessing it will make you edit more, once you have to read thousands and thousands of words into a microphone.

    Heh, yeah. I bet your text-to-speech program is relieved too.

    I’m sad though, because when Scott reads them he tries to sound like you. He peppers in extra “dude’s” and “hella’s” just to give it that Nic-at-Nite flava’ as he reads along.

    WHY WOULD YOU REVEAL THAT??? Seriously?!?

    Ok, so, in my defense, yes, in 1994 I did say “dude” and “whoa” enough to sound like a Bill and Ted convention, and yes, I did occasionally use the word “hella” to signify something was particularly noteworthy. But how is THAT the most memorable thing about my pattern of speech?

    Take care hon, we’ll be listening.

    Alrighty then, I’d better get on the mic.

  5. Oh, you just don’t want me to grumble at you because I can’t hear you clearly! LOL

    Yeah, yeah…I’d be sure to record on low with a bunch of buzzing background noise just for you! :-)

    But seriously, I think it’s cool you’re doing this. I thought it was cool this morning when you told me about being inspired to do this for Lacy.

    Yeah, now I just have to overcome “the lazy factor” and actually DO it.

  6. Neat story and great idea!

    It’s an excellent story, and I can’t really claim the idea, just the execution.

    Favorite BP sentence: “At this point her brow furrowed in perfect proof that facial expressions are inherent and not learned by observation.”

    Thanks, she has a great furrow. Also, a fearsome scowl and a beautiful smile.

    And I think it worked well for Rachel in writing too.

    Favorite Lacy sentence: “I only know the sound of beauty, its taste and feel, the way it smells.”

    I’m kind of busted on this one (see next comment), the wording there is a bit of a team effort. I think her sentiment was absolutely beautiful, by any sense of the words.

  7. Sorry Alison Im a reader not a writer. I wrote an email not the beautiful essay in this blog.

    Here I am going to disagree. Yes, I did some ghost-writing touch-ups. Yes, I might have reworked some of the sentences for tone and flow at your request. But, YOU most certainly wrote the essay. I wouldn’t have posted it if you hadn’t given it your stamp of approval.

    Nick asked if he could quote my email and I asked him if he could make it sound better. The line you quoted is a good line. It says what I wanted to say.

    I want to believe it only says what you DID say; I think that’s absolutely worth you receiving the credit.

    But Id be lying if I took credit for it. My exact line was “to me beauty is made up of sounds and touches and tastes and smells.” I dont think it has quite the same verve. I dont create verve I add it with my voice.

    You coined “sense of beauty.” Your exact line, actually, was “my sense of beauty is made of sound and touch and taste and smell.” Which is fundamentally identical to the line I wrote.

    Nick was nice enough to change the names to protect the innocent and add punctuation and give me credit for the end result. Which was very sweet. But Im not a writer and I cant take credit for beauty I didnt create.

    I’m going on record here saying “you wrote every bit of that, I only polished some edges. You deserve all the credit for the beauty at its heart.”

    Just like my computer voice those are my words but with a different voice.

    Scott told me what it meant to you, and I’d be honored to write with you anytime you want to send a wonderful commentary about anything my way.

  8. hon you missed your calling. There are pro ghost writers that cant hold a candle to you. Dont feel bad about getting credit for your work. It s really good work.

    Thanks, maybe ghostwriting is a good side job to look into! :-) Might depend on the subject matter though.

    I fell like you wrote what I wanted to say better than I could write it. That s exactly what I wanted. So thank you. You do good work. Next time I have another brilliant thought you will be the first to know!

    Do Keep me in mind! We can do one about “the assholes who invented hook-and-eye fasteners for women’s undergarments” because I know that one always get’s you riled up. 😛

  9. In that case, I like the original line according to Lacy; the original line according to BP; and the slightly edited line by Lacy & BP :-).

    Very diplomatic decision! :-)

  10. Lacy has a razor wit and I like that about her. Girl balls…

    Yes. Yes she does.

    (as a parenthetical aside, we need to collectively – as a culture – come up with a better descriptor than “balls” because I know way to many humans without testicles that exhibit the courage/attitude/confidence often described as “balls” and way too many humans with testicles that have none of those qualities. I get and agree with what you were saying, and I use the same word all the time to describe both sexes, I just realized as I read this that we all need a new word. No one looks at a strong and courageous woman and says “she’s got ovaries” which is essentially the anatomical and colloquial equivalent. Because it sounds stupid. Hi. Stream-of-consciousness maybe?)

    I have no doubt that throughout her life Lacy has experienced, and will continue to experience, assholes. Being strong enough to use what one might perceive as a weakness to point out a major strength takes courage. I am envious of that talent.

    I’m right here next to you Pammy. Envious is a very good word.

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