Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Blind Spots"

This post in an announcement on behalf of people who appear to be extremely stupid.

The short version: We’re not.

We’re not stupid, though in certain situations, we unquestionably appear to be. The tip-off? A glazed-over look in our eyes, a perplexed expression, accompanying an endless barrage of inane questions. Put together, they say,


I remember years ago, this guy was trying to teach me how a computer works. It was early in computer history, and I had never seen one before. The guy, a successful writer, escorted me into his office and pointed to this machine sitting on his desk that wasn’t a typewriter, and he began to teach me how it worked.

The guy was patient, he was kind, he was generous with his time, and he was a very good teacher, explaining things in incremental steps, and answering all my questions along the way. But after forty-five minutes, I still had no idea what he was talking about, and I made him stop, telling him I was tired.

I pretended I “got it”, more for his sake than mine – what did I care about computers? – but he knew I was faking. You could tell by his expression, an embarrassing mixture of pity and contempt. I could almost read his mind:

“This guy’s not going to make it in the twenty-first century, which is good, because we have a limited food supply on this planet, and we can’t afford to waste any of it on people who haven’t got a clue.”

I didn’t want to confirm his impression of me by saying, “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand”, so I took the other option. I blamed him. I said,

“Learning computers from you is like taking piano lessons from a guy who plays by ear.”

It was his fault. He was a natural.

I should make it clear that my apparent stupidity extends beyond the terrain of technology, though, through a combination of my age and my natural incapacity, my technological limitations are particularly humbling. Last week, on the same day, our phones couldn’t take incoming calls, my cable remote wouldn’t turn on the television, I couldn’t connect with the Internet, and our fax machine blinked, “Paper Jam”, though I couldn’t find any paper jammed in it.

With four of my machines malfunctioning at the same time, I felt a powerful impulse to go out, search out some railroad tracks, and lie down on them. I didn’t have a prayer.

My “slow area” also comes into play when I’m required to handle cooking instructions. It happened just this morning. Dr. M was giving me cooking directions for completing a recipe she’d prepared before going to work, and I could feel my face freezing into the same clueless expression I had when the guy was demonstrating the computer. I could read the irritated response in her eyes:

“What kind of person did I marry, and why didn’t I know this about him ahead of time?”

Dr.M views my "brain freeze" as a subterfuge, believing that I’m acting dim, because I’m annoyed at the imposition of having to take part in the preparation of my own food. I endeavor to explain that it’s not true. Annoyance has nothing to do with it.

“You have to believe me. I really am dim!

Some things you get, and some things you don’t. It’s just the way things are. This concept was never better expressed than it was by a once-famous Iberian ventriloquist.

His name was Senor Wences. Senor Wences would smear lipstick on the top edge his thumb and the bottom edge of his forefinger, put a wig over his hand, place a doll’s body underneath it, and by so doing, he’d create a “person”, speaking for that person through the mouth-like opening between his lipstick-stained fingers.

At some point in his act, Senor Wences would light up a cigarette, take a long, relaxing drag, and then offer his dummy a puff. The dummy, whom Senor Wences called “Yanni”, would politely refuse.

“Why,” asked Senor Wences, referring to the cigarette. “It’s very nice.”

“I can’t,” “Yanni” would reply.

“You can’t smoke a cigarette?” Senor Wences would respond with incredulity. “It’s easy.”

At this point, “Yanni” came back with one of the most profound lines I have ever heard, a line I have used on numerous occasions in various contexts. To the response that it’s easy to smoke a cigarette, “Yanni”, the dummy, would truthfully reply,

“For you, easy; for me, difficult.”

Think about that. It’s reverberating. I’ll bet, pretty soon, you’ll be using it in conversation.

For a dummy, it literally was impossible to smoke a cigarette. But “Yanni” didn’t say “impossible”; he said “difficult.” Maybe that’s what made his answer funny – the deliberate understatement. But it also made it universal. For some people, in certain situations, something that is easy for others is, for them, not impossible, but extremely difficult.

I’ve given this condition a name. I call it “Intermittent Blocked Idea Syndrome.” Or IBIS, since diseases, apparently, need acronyms, or it’s harder to raise money for the cure.

As the name implies, IBIS is not pervasive. It only happens in certain situations. The painful thing is, you never know when this debilitating affliction will strike.

Everything’s going along beautifully, you’re making people laugh, you’re a buoyant asset to the party. Suddenly, you’re asked to extract a cork from a wine bottle, using the latest state-of-the-art contraption invented for performing such a task more efficiently than ever before. And there you are, your body frozen, staring at the thing, and doing nothing. It’s like the weather has changed. You’re no longer the life of the party. Suddenly, it’s

“What’s wrong with that guy?”

It’s not all bleak. Sometimes there’s a breakthrough. Despite my condition, and although there is no cure or even palliative “meds”, there are occasions, admittedly rare, when the darkness parts, the fog lifts, and I “get” something that’s been mystifying me for decades. I tell this story as a public service, to encourage IBIS sufferers out there, and to remind them that there’s hope.

It can happen. It happened to me not long ago.

For those of you for whom this insight I’m about to impart is “Duh” – “Everyone knows tha-at!” – try not to gloat, it’s not classy. IBIS is a disease. Our little victories need to be acknowledged for the achievements they are. We really don’t understand certain things. And when the light bulb finally goes on, it’s a cause for joyful celebration.


For years – and I mean from childhood till the recent past – I never understood why the line of cars moved ahead at a red light. It didn’t make sense. It was a red light. You stop at red lights. And yet, to my complete and utter perplexitude, I’d see cars at red lights continuing to move forward. My biggest confusion was that the longer the line of cars at the red light, the more they moved up.

“Where are they going? It’s a red light?”

People tried to explain it to me. They’d say something about the movements of the cars at the front of the line… it didn’t seem to explain things, at least, not to me. Eventually, they’d give up, abandoning me on the unhappy side of the divide – the side that didn’t understand.

Then, one day, it came to me – and that may be part of the lesson – you have to come to the understanding yourself. I’m aware that for non-IBIS sufferers, my revelation will sound ridiculous, but to me, the “Eureka! Moment” of finally “getting it” was as transforming as Helen Keller’s associating the word “water” with the wet stuff dripping onto her hand. Okay, that’s over the top, but it’s up there.

For the two or three of you out there who are bothered by the issue, here’s the answer to why cars move forward at red lights. (I’m still thrilled that I figured it out.)

The distance between cars when they’re driving is greater than the distance between cars when they’re standing still. Like at a red light. The cars’ moving up reflects the shortening of that distance between each of the cars, from driving distance to the acceptable distance when standing still. This also explains why the longer the line at the red light, the further cars move up. There are more cars shortening that distance.

I have tears in my eyes.

It’s so incredible. Not the explanation. When you think about it, it’s totally obvious. Duh. What’s incredible is, I finally got it!

I’m finally on the other side. The side that understands.

IBIS sufferers! Be patient. The answer will arrive in its own time. And if it doesn’t, if your time runs out and you "go out" never understanding how a can opener works, or how airplanes are able to remain in the sky, and you can’t for the life of you recall how much water to use when you’re steaming asparagus, or how to keep the fire in your fireplace from going out, remember always:

You’re not alone.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Perfect!!! A couple of typos, but, perfect!!!