Another peril of going blind has to do with basic, human communication. When I reached a certain point of vision loss, it seemed like my hearing also got worse. Not for all things, just when people were talking to me. I realized that all my life, I have been lip-reading as well as listening. So, if you’re sitting in a crowded bar or a noisy restaurant, you watch the person talking to you and you put together lip movements and eardrum vibrations and you can make sense out of what they’re saying. When you can’t see people’s lips, you’re left just to your ears. I have found that ears are easily distracted. They not only listen to the people sitting across from you, but they listen to everything else, especially conversations at other tables.
That’s when you hear things like “that’s how I got my second felony” or “I certainly wouldn’t do that in the shower.” You try to tune back in, but your ears are wandering now and your eyes offer no help. Without a focal point, ears become nomadic.
But even if you can’t see people clearly, it’s a good idea to fake eye contact. That makes people more comfortable, and it makes you appear more normal, though you aren’t. This also has risks. How do you know where to aim your eye contact? With impaired vision, you can usually figure out the general area where somebody’s eyes are waiting to meet you. But what if the person moves? This can be embarrassing when a woman you’re talking to stands up and you don’t know it, and now your gaze is fixed on her chest. You smile, you nod, you make your eyes twinkle, and you sense that something is going wrong. So you try shifting your eyes, shifting them and shifting them, like a lying mass murderer. You hoped that you can orient your limited vision and establish real, meaningful, fake eye contact. But as your eyes shift, your ears grow bored and begin to wander. “I never drink more than 4 cocktails before dinner,” someone behind you says, and the person in front of you becomes theoretical, abstract, and annoyed.
You can flash your white cane, if you have one, to indicate that you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at, or you can wear sunglasses, and make your failing vision even worse.
I have my own strategies. Since I usually say deep, philosophical things, I could look off to the side, as though my cogitation consumes me. The problem with this is that people wander away, often very quickly, and I am not aware that they have left and my sagacity goes unnoticed. Or I look like a sidewalk preacher, or your great uncle Bob talking to his imaginary dog. Another strategy is to maintain a fixed gaze and leave it to the listener to establish eye contact. They can see. You can’t. Why not make them do all the work. If they need eye contact, fine. Let them stare into my eyes as I gaze at some imaginary vanishing point, that may or may not be a face, torso, a painting, or someone at a different table. I like that strategy because I’m responsible for nothing, something that comes to me naturally.
Unfortunately, people can convey a lot with facial expression and body language. Fortunately, I can invent a lot of these things and attribute them to whomever is speaking. Their moods become what I want them to be. I become the playwright, the director, and a guy sitting by himself muttering to his imaginary dog.