Read an Excerpt
As I See It
In the Mind’s Eye
A FEW YEARS AGO, I had the chance to meet a remarkable man named Michael May. At the time Mike had just won medals in the Winter Paralympics in multiple ski events—the downhill, the giant slalom, and the Alpine combination. He also had been crazy enough to ski faster than any person without sight, clocking a time on a downhill course of over sixty miles an hour.
Okay, so my friend Mike is a little crazy, but he’s also a genius. He probably has done more for the development of technologies for blind people than just about anyone in the world. His breakthroughs in voice actuation and adaptations of devices like the iPhone and iPad have made it possible for guys like me to operate professionally on an equal playing field with my colleagues. A Stanford graduate with an IQ that’s off the charts, Mike was actually born with vision, losing it along the way, so he has a perspective on both what it means to see and what it means to be totally blind.
Recently, he became a major story in newspaper and television headlines when, due to an amazing breakthrough in ophthalmology, Mike got a good deal of his vision back. Imagine that. After having lived much of his life in darkness, Michael May was once again able to see—to see his family, to see his beautiful wife, to see nature, to see a computer screen. All of it—the world—now was open to him, and yet it was all too much. Too much for this remarkable brain to compute.
The pictures taken in by the camera we call the human eye just didn’t make sense against the pictures he had evolved during his life as a blind person. Was a face a face of someone he knew? He couldn’t tell right away. Could he ski as freely as he did when he was blind, as he struggled with depth perception and real-object identification? My friend arrived at the remarkable conclusion that the world he experienced being blind was a world he understood. The new presentation based on his renewed capacity to see was, in a phrase, much more complex than even this remarkable man would have expected.
I believe Mike’s story definitely frames the amazing separation between the world you understand with your eyes and the world I’ve taken in, not only through four other senses but through the collaboration of all my external antennae into a picture my mind’s eye can absorb and turn into my personal reality. I will spend a lot of time in this book talking about the capacity of the senses, but I think it’s just as important to discuss the limitations.
For me to have a true picture of anything material, I generally have to shrink it down to something I can touch. So, as an example, when my children were born I remember absorbing every inch of their bodies with my fingertips, smelling their heads, feeling their newborn breath on my cheek, analyzing what was meant by any cry issued from these infants around their needs. Like you, I counted every finger and every toe over and over again, just to make sure they were all in place.
And then there was my sense of the world. Until I began traveling for a living, the globe and its countries only existed on a large tactical relief map with lines and bumps that defined oceans and mountains I touched at the school for the blind. Though I knew all about dogs, cats, and even horses, based on my childhood experiences that were very up close and personal, lions, tigers, elephants, alligators—all of Noah’s two-by-twos that entered the ark—were completely foreign to me because I couldn’t see them. I didn’t know them.
During the 1970s in the Soviet Union a number of experiments were done with blind people trying to find out if they could learn about color through touch. Certainly after a while the heat given off by various shapes could be deduced as light and dark by touching various materials. But it really was only an exercise because color is only a part of the visual spectrum.
For me, the world is only three-dimensional if I can touch it and hold it.
And what about understanding large spaces, like when I would go to Red Sox games or when I sang in the National Cathedral or stood in the middle of a football stadium preparing to sing the National Anthem for the 1976 Super Bowl? In that moment of unbelievable American pride, with my voice echoing around the vast stadium, I came to another truth about what it meant to be blind: I would always struggle with large spaces. The size of things, the depth of things, the dimension of things that you know so easily with your eyes. For me, the world is only three-dimensional if I can touch it and hold it. An object becomes real in its dimension only when my hands send the message to my brain that makes my knowledge of whatever the thing is complete.
As a little boy, I loved erector sets and building blocks, and I remember so well how my friend Billy Hannon and I built forts and houses, all of them in miniature, of course, but all of them something I could touch and then understand. My favorite place to go on a Saturday was the Children’s Science Museum in Boston. Even back in the fifties the museum had a policy of allowing blind kids to touch as many things as possible, and thanks to them my perception of the world and many of the creatures that live in it took on real shape.
Is my picture of life broader than yours or narrower in scope?
Is my mind’s eye—that is to say, my picture of life—broader than yours or narrower in scope? When I’m confronted with a problem that is complex and I need the help of the smartest people I know, what do I do? I have found that the basic life secret is to go talk to children. They don’t lie, and their perceptions are far more intuitive and to the point than adults’.
I recently spent time with a third-grade class at our local elementary school and discussed this fascinating idea. First they asked me basic questions like did I understand color, how do blind people dream, did I know what my wife looked like, did I wish I could see—the things I’ve been asked all my life. And then we got down to the conversation about how they perceive the world and the pictures they have of things that were only appropriate when understood from the perspective of external vision.
A little girl asked me simply how I could tell who she is from someone else. I first talked about how special her voice was, and then I told her that I could smell chocolate candy on her hands.
“Yes,” she said, laughing. “I had a Twix bar at recess.”
I told her about when we shook hands I noticed how soft and long her fingers were and that when she gave me a hug I happened to touch her hair and remembered that it was very thick.
“What color is it?” she asked.
“I think it’s blond,” I said.
“How do you know that?” she asked, amazed.
“Oh, I just know,” I said. “You kind of learn how to connect voices to people.”
A little boy at the back of the room piped up. “I guess I use my eyes for almost everything, but I think you’re telling us that we should make our picture better, right?”
“That’s right,” I said. “When I picture a flower, as an example, I know what it feels like to touch a rose and then to smell it. I know what the air is like on a beautiful spring morning when you can almost taste the moisture and how I feel when I walk through a beautiful garden. All of that is part of the picture I have of not just the rose itself but the environment it lives in.”
“Wow,” my little girl friend said. “So, it isn’t just what you see, is it? It’s what you sense?”
“That’s right,” I answered, really excited that they were getting the idea. “The world is not just about what you see from the outside, but it’s about how the mind can give you a more complete picture by using all of your senses, all of your intelligence, and all of that very special thing we call instinct. Does anybody know what instinct is?”
A little boy in the second row said, “It’s how you know whether or not you’re going to like some other kid. It’s a feeling you get.”
“That’s right,” I said. “It’s just a feeling, and you should always trust it.”
I loved my time in the class with the kids, and it brought me back to connecting the dots with the prologue of this book. Remember, I told you the story of my trip to Italy and the amazing opportunity I had to touch some of the great works of Michelangelo Buonarroti and how under my hands the artist’s genius came alive in a far more personal way than you could ever experience with your eyes.
My mind’s-eye picture of life has no boundaries.
So, is my vision for things twenty-twenty? Well, certainly not if we discuss it only in external terms, but if we frame the world I operate in from what I like to think of as my own dimension of inside out, my mind’s-eye picture of life, though different, has no boundaries. Because, along with the information I take in, my imagination expands all of my understanding. And, ah, the power of the imagination. I think I’m a writer because I’m able to transport myself virtually anywhere I want to go on the wings of my imagination.
I once wrote a novel called Together, where my principal character was a sighted mountaineer climbing high in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. From my imagination I discussed fall colors, along with a rainbow he watched after a summer shower. I wrote about how far you could see from the top of a fourteener and how cars down below became like toys played with by a child.
I’m not trying to tell you that I understand the world as you do, but I’ve learned to adapt my mind’s eye to create a commonality with you. And my passionate desire as I write this book, I think, is that you allow yourself to journey inside the dimension of your mind to broaden the picture of life as you know it. The perspective all of us can gain by mutually understanding the pictures drawn either by the eye or by the mind can only benefit all of us in our capacity to engage with each other as human beings.
Though there is so much I wish I could see, there’s also so much I already am blessed to know through the mind’s eye, inside out.