Kaleidoscope

In the summer of 2008, I spent two months teaching at a school just outside Arusha in Tanzania. It was a volunteer position, of course – a chance to share the knowledge I had accumulated in my 20 years and in turn, to experience life in a culture vastly different from what I was used to. What I learned in those brief two months is that the connections you cultivate with people are at the heart of a life that is successfully lived – much more than any financial or academic achievement.

Everyone wants to feel appreciation for the work that they do – and volunteering your time to others, though it can at times be thankless, is a task full of meaning. The cultural exchange that took place between the students, staff, their families and myself during that summer was very rewarding.

Returning to Canada, I knew I wanted to be more involved in my community – so I volunteered through a few organizations, one of which involved being a visiting buddy to an elderly couple in the downtown core. I was there as that couple, who have since become my friends, moved from independent living to a nursing home. I saw the importance of freedom, interaction and activity in a demographic that is so quickly ignored and dismissed.

These friends of mine struggled through many things before they finally found a care situation that gave them that sense of personhood – that feeling that they weren’t simply confined to a room in a ward to wait for the inevitable. Their story has been all the more inspirational, because they are both also legally blind.

I thought of them today after reading Andre Picard’s piece on palliative care in The Globe and Mail.

Even as our bodies age on the outside, our insides remain the same chaos of memories, thoughts, feelings and experiences. People nearing the end of their lives still long for interaction, company, and mental stimulation – something that the care home in Picard’s article is able to provide even to an elderly man with terminal stomach cancer. No one should be made to feel cast aside and unimportant at the end of their lives – a time when you should have more support than ever as you look back over the whirlwind of life and make your peace. This is the time when people look for friends with whom they can share their experiences, their wisdom, and their lives.

I was happy to delve into the story of my blind friends for a piece that was published during my education, in my program’s Pundit Magazine. I hope it shares how truly full of hope and life the elderly are, and how much they deserve proper care and treatment.

*****

Kaleidoscope

Pundit Magazine

Denis wasn’t born blind.

He spent long childhood days in Moncton, digging his way through eastern Canadian snowstorms and watching the clouds move across the sky.

As he turns his head toward the conversation- blinking slowly, smiling gently – it’s hard to believe his eyesight is gone.

But the fact remains – Denis hasn’t had sight since 1985.

“It’s habit,” he says, with remnants of a French accent. The light blue rings around his irises attest to that.

He sits on the edge of his single bed in a room he shares with Diane, his wife of forty years. Perched in her own single bed, she tilts her head in his direction, listening for his voice.

Diane has been blind since birth.

“Qu’est-ce-qu’on fait?” she asks – What do we do next?

Denis turns toward her, reminding her gently that they have a visitor. She nods– a gesture that goes unnoticed.

The muffled sounds of metal carts and nurses’ voices cover the hum of fluorescent lights. Soon, a nurse will knock on the door to offer a glass of juice.

Denis reaches for the handle of his bedside drawer in a confident, well-rehearsed movement. He pulls out a printed letter he wants read, but he has already memorized every word of it.

The letter lays out the brand new retirement facility he and Diane will be moved to. The setting is idyllic, surrounded by acres of green land.

But to Denis, it just means further isolation.

“People can’t jump in your shoes if you’re blind,” he says.

He misses the freedom to leave his room and step outside into fresh air, but he knows he can no longer care for Diane on his own. Long-term care has become a necessity.

Denis fiddles with the volume on his hearing aid and sighs.

“All you can do is think all the time.”

*****

“Seniors account for 70 to 80 percent of the blind population,” says Charles Bailey, who worked through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind for 23 years. He explains that those who end up in seniors’ residences must often learn to navigate buildings that aren’t designed for the blind.

“Builders go more for what it looks like aesthetically for someone who is sighted,” he said. The tougher the navigation, the more time is required to teach someone how to get around – an exercise that might be too time-consuming for overburdened staff.

Maria Kovacs is a blind deacon who advocates for blind rights.

“There’s a lack of opportunity to mingle with others,” she says. “The blind aren’t included in social life, you have to push to be talked to. Seniors are even worse off – they kind of get placed at the side of the room and forgotten.”

One of the biggest hurdles for blind seniors in overcoming physical isolation is access to information. They must have mail, calendars or schedules read to them because the vast majority do not know braille.

“Most people in their old age aren’t going to set out to learn an entire new language,” said Bailey, “especially when most people go blind after 60.”

*****

Denis grew up as the youngest of his family, caring for his mother after his siblings moved away.

“She never fully recovered her health after having me,” he said. He was just nine years old when doctors diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that harms the retina.

By 14, he had already dropped out of school to work at the sawmill. He became the sole breadwinner after his father returned from war with tuberculosis.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind trained and employed Denis as he continued to lose his sight. He moved to Halifax, then to Toronto before finally settling in Hamilton. These cities were much better-equipped than Moncton for independent blind residents.

While working in Toronto, Denis lost his peripheral sight. Still, he lived a regular life while he worked at a canteen run by the CNIB.

“My friend said ‘I got a girl for you – you’ll be married in sixth months,” he says. “And that’s what happened. We met in October and got married in April.”

Denis, more than six feet in height, towered over his wife Diane, but what she didn’t have in height, she had in humour. When police sirens screeched past, she would smile and say, “uh oh… what’d you do?”

Forty years later, Denis still calls “bye, sweetheart!” when he leaves their shared room in long-term care.

“Because I’m blind, if she gets lost or forgets where she is, I can’t find her,” said Denis. “We’re here because of her illness.”

Two and a half years ago, Diane began showing symptoms of dementia.

Denis, standing resiliently as the pillar of his family for decades, felt his foundations begin to crumble.

*****

Kazimierz Chrapka, Denis and Diane’s former music teacher and owner of The Music Stand, recalls their transition to long-term care.

“Denis told me they lost all their music tapes,” he says . Denis’ collection of cassette tapes chronicled years of violin lessons, with Chrapka’s voice guiding his hands during home practice. Chrapka had made similar tapes for Diane.

“Denis likes Scottish-style jigs,” he says , smiling. “Maybe it has something to do with growing up in New Brunswick.”

Denis’ violin and Diane’s keyboard made it into long-term care, but neither receives much attention now. The braille stickers have begun to peel off the instruments.

Diane read often, learning braille from the grey nuns at Toronto’s Nazareth Institute for the Blind. Denis conceded that his own reading was poor, having lost the sensitivity in his fingertips to years of rough work.

“Diane loved to read the Bible out loud at church. She was very serious about it, practicing all the time,” said Chrapka. She was also serious about piano, practicing diligently.

“What did I get today… an A or an A-minus?” she would ask softly after a lesson.

Denis was less of a perfectionist, happy with the mere opportunity to play his favourite instrument.

“They maybe missed one concert in thirteen years – people admired them,” said Chrapka.

*****

“One of the things I used to do is get called into retirement homes to give workshops to the staff,” says Bailey. “I’m not sure how much time is spent learning to deal with the visually impaired in formal training.”

The number of people with vision loss is expected to increase from 2.5 to 4 per cent of the population by 2032 according to the CNIB.

Only 23 per cent of funds for rehabilitation and library services are provided by the government. The rest is donations from the public.

As the number of Canadians with vision loss grows, the lack of government support for programs to improve their quality of life will hurt blind seniors. Without rehabilitation and public advocacy, more of the blind, particularly seniors, face isolation.

“I think CNIB should be more of an advocacy group,” said Kovacs. “We need one strong advocacy group to represent us and investigate all the issues.”

Canadians experiencing vision loss are already dealing with huge life changes. Their perception of the environment, their social interactions and their communication tools are being turned upside down, according to research published in “On the Special Needs of Blind and Low Vision Seniors”.

Self-advocacy can be difficult.

Especially in a society still influenced by what the research refers to as the “folklore of blindness” – the image of the helpless blind beggar.

*****

“It’s just gonna take time,” Denis says one afternoon. “The service is good, they just need to understand that I can do things myself.” His hands clasp brochures of alternate care facilities that will keep him in the city he calls home.

His face breaks into a smile when he mentions his last doctor’s visit. After nearly 30 years of darkness, Denis may have some of his sight surgically restored.

“I’m not going to get my hopes up,” he says with a sly grin. But the possibilities and freedoms that would once again be open to him are hard to ignore.

He hasn’t seen his own face, let alone his wife’s, for the majority of their marriage.

“I know what she looks like,” he says, and Diane giggles from the other side of the room. “I had sight when we met … I could see the colour of her clothes, the stars in the sky, the cars going by…”

For now, the pair remains without sight and without the freedom to wander outside alone. But the thoughts of restored vision and a more accessible place to live have visibly lifted Denis’ spirits.

“Will you take me to look at some of these homes?”

// 2013.

Why I always end up shooting with my 50mm 1.4

When I bought my Canon 60D two years ago, it was a compromise between the more pocket-friendly Rebel T2i and the pricier semi-pro 7D. I knew I was going to use the camera for videography (mostly people) and I also knew I didn’t want the kit lens.

After lots of research and deciding on a budget for my first DSLR lens, I chose the most versatile glass I could afford – the Canon 50mm 1.4. I have never regretted my decision – everything I shoot is extra vibrant with that sought-after “rubbing the fog out of my eyes… every 30 seconds… forever” look.

Low Light

Low light is perhaps the area that I appreciate this lens the most. Most lenses deliver a crisp picture outdoors in daylight, but once you begin moving indoors into poorly-lit spaces or into the night, you can forget about it – particularly if you are using your DSLR for HD video. An aperture of 1.4 allows this lens to deliver the same smooth image in poor light as it does in well-lit situations, which is more than I can say for my 10-22mm 3.5-5.6 wide angle Canon lens, and other zoom lenses i’ve tried (including the L Series 70-200mm 2.4). Though it’s more of a hassle to work with several prime lenses (prime meaning one set focal length, such as 50mm) rather than one or two zooms, there is a clear difference in image quality. It’s more noticeable in HD video than in photography, because you not only see the noise/grain, but it becomes animated as the grain changes from frame to frame. DO NOT WANT.

Depth of Field

I love the look of shallow depth of field. I think most people who have been raised on cinematic film can recognize the added magical quality of a shallow depth of field. Setting the aperture between the 1.4 and 3.5 range on this lens creates a stunning image with beautiful bokeh – an image you can get excited about. Shooting in this range allows you to easily transition in and out of focus, or to shift focus from one plane to another in a smooth, artistic movement. This lens helps me achieve that gorgeous indie/artsy look that seems to be “en vogue” for DSLR shooters – and with good reason! A shallow depth of field is mandatory to blur away unimportant, busy or plain unattractive backgrounds (or foregrounds), and helps keep the focus of the viewer where you want it. One issue with the lens wide open at 1.4 – 1.8, your focal point becomes rather small – which makes the lens quite “soft” in this range. This means you won’t be able to get something like a person’s entire face in focus at this aperature.

Crisp Image

So crispy. So clean. Unless I have to bump the ISO above my comfort level (800), this lens produces a very smooth, consistent image in HD video mode. There are work-arounds for grainy images in post-production, but it’s never going to be the same as capturing a clean image in the first place. This lens definitely delivers for me.

Image Fidelity on X & Y Axes

What did I just attempt to convey there? Well mainly that this 50mm focal length captures images whose vertical and horizontal proportions look right. Have you ever tried to capture a huge, stunning vista with a wide lens? And the resulting image is crushed vertically (for example a cliff-face becomes a small rocky hill) or the horizontal lines begin to warp at the edges? Wide angle lenses have their applications, as do telephoto – but 50mm sits in the “normal” focal length range, meaning its field of view is close to what you’re observing with your eye. My main subjects tend to be people and I find this focal length is ideal for “entering” the human world contained in the film, or connecting with what my subjects are emoting.

And that’s why I always keep this delightful little lens on hand for videography (AND photography) work.

Before You Fold

Life’s a bit of a wild card.

Which is why most people come to that point where they sigh (very audibly) and start trying to play the game with a crappy hand and a dealer who only deals in IRONY. This is the conclusion I came to this morning while spilling green tea all over myself and crying over the school degrees I found shoved into the corner of my closet. I assure you that Helen Fielding did not magically appear to model her next Bridget Jones novel after my life.

When the game begins – and it is a game that is devoid of thrones and sadly devoid of Peter Dinklage (I am hoping to get these amazing earrings to make up for it) – one finds herself blinking wildly at the landscape of a life in A STATE OF ZOMBIEFICATION.

Or rather, a state of “Ok… I’d better start placing some bets at this point. Before I am dealt with…. MORE IRONY.”

A young lad once told me to stay the course.
And by “young lad”, I mean sad solo Google search.
And by “stay the course”, I mean a search result titled “Why Intelligent People Fail” that was accessed by one of my trembling 25-year-old fingers.

There’s a strange spiritual moment when the internet produces something that puts all of your problems into words. Not just my problems, but likely also the problems of everyone else.

I stared hard at the first point – Lack of motivation. Then I skimmed the rest of the list. Then I thought… yes of COURSE who DOESN’T have a lackofimpulsecontrol fearoffailure procrastinationproblem excessivedependency toolittleselfconfidence, etc. Tell that to the bag of Doritos I consumed for breakfast. But I would argue that the underlying issue is just not knowing where to start. There are a lot of repeat cards in the deck of life, and most of them are OVERWHELMING.

Because most people are overwhelmed with enough advice, interests, education, experiences and opinions to make decision-making difficult. (P.S. that’s one of those opinions I’m overwhelmed with.)

And that’s why, ten years after I started blogging, I decided to buckle down and make a permanent nest and begin a little permanent work. Then with a little bluffing and a little card-counting, the rest will fall into place. I KNOW if I realize my “full potential”, my cats will learn to view me as an authority figure and promptly sew up the underside of my couch.

Or perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

What I’ve learned from this list is for some, that motivation or will to begin comes not from outer stimulation (happy rainbows, dance music, horses) but from inner reflection. So I’ll go ahead and post this oddly motivating list in my workspace with one important addition.

Get them coins, coins, coins.