In the dark

April 22, 2022 Trevor Plumbly

"The nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" Wallace Stevens


As a child I never had the poetic comfort offered by Mr Stevens. Fears of the unknown were dealt with by well-worn homilies such as, ‘there's nothing in the dark that isn't there in the daytime.' The reassurance seemed to work OK, in that the boy-strangling thing never made it out from under the bed.


These days, the phantom's switched to the day shift, capable of causing actual – rather than imaginary – harm. I can't remember whether the old thing had a name – it was safe to call it 'Nothing' in daylight, but that changed pretty quickly to a whispered 'It' when the light went out. You could get rid of the old one with a torch flash under the bed and in the wardrobe to prove it was off somewhere threatening some other kid, but light doesn't seem to bother this new one much and I reckon it can move things!


The cane's OK for basic defence against chairs and half-opened doors, but it doesn't help much with the smaller, portable stuff. I should be match ready for that but I'm not. Cups, saucers and the like seem to sit around the edge of the table, waiting for me to arrive. The accident-free touch process for blindies should be simple enough; you kick off with the thought, transmit to fingers and freeze when something rattles. Much the same should apply to phones and remotes – jab a few buttons and hopefully someone in Silicon Valley will do the rest. But it’s just not happening and I'm beginning to think that this Nothing's not going to go away without a fight.


"I got plenty of nothing" George Gershwin


'If you can't beat them, join them' looks like my best option. There's plenty of ammunition on offer, with whizz-kids knocking up all sorts of stuff every week and promising lots more down the track. It’s obvious I need to upgrade my attitude. This thing isn't under the bed anymore; it’s grown-up, tech-savvy and working its way inside the computer to inflict a bit more uncertainty. Dire warnings leap at me, totally unbidden, threatening that if I don't obey certain commands my home will be plunged into darkness within 24 hours. It seems a bit pointless to threaten a blindy with that, but I guess it’s general rather than personal.


Then there are the people offering to restore bits of my body to adolescent functionality, others anxious to warn me that Apple & Co are slipping microchips into everything from Covid vaccines to Rice Krispies. With all that ahead, it seems prudent to limit my endeavours to the lower levels of the technology ladder.


Caught in the net

Determined to join the cyber crowd, I have laid the old flip-phone to rest among the torches and magnifiers. I'm now the somewhat apprehensive owner of a smartphone, which I'm beginning to think is smarter than I am. Buying one of these latter-day essentials is not for the faint-hearted blindy – we require guidance. Daniel at Vodafone on Ponsonby Road didn't do patter. After listening to a litany of negatives and needs, he took us slowly through the options, without bypassing me to direct the conversation at Pam or using the equally irritating 'you just do this' demonstration technique beloved of those unable to grasp that sight loss often slows the ability to process information.


Cyberspace is a strange world. Not long ago, someone pronounced that there's no better time to be blind, and quite right he was too! He might have added, 'there's no better time to get confused’. I remember the glory days of the rotary dial phone made of black Bakelite and weighing a ton. Using it carried a seriousness far beyond the idle chit-chat everyone feels the need to engage in these days. My phone’s got functions – functions for goodness’ sake! Until this thing entered my life, functions were something you attended or discussed with your GP in private.


These R&D folk keep on giving. I understand they're working on a 'smart cane'. Not quite sure what that involves, but anything labelled ‘smart’ puts my imagination into overdrive. Ideally, they could be tailored for the individual – given the pace she sets, my friend Camille’s would be fitted with air bags.


I like my old cane; it asks so little of me, trundling along in front, doing its job quietly and, on most occasions, efficiently. So, what's next – beeping obstacle warnings? By the time you've worked out whether it’s your cane or someone’s cellphone, you'll probably have fallen over whatever it was you were trying to avoid. Another possibility is voice-activated GPS where you say, ‘84 Queen St’ and it does the biz. I like the basic idea of that, but lots of that stuff gets overloaded nowadays. Just imagine tootling along and you decide to alter course by saying "Hey Cane, Sky Casino" and a voice chirps back, "All our lines are busy at the moment, but please leave your name and destination and we'll get back to you as soon as possible.”


Next to nothing

In an effort to catch up, I watched a few cyberclub blindies at BLVNZ headquarters and I've decided to settle for an associate rather than full membership. It’s all a bit depressing really, they don't seem to know what uncertainty’s all about. Peter whips out his iPhone, taps and swipes with bewildering speed before tucking it away with a half-modest flourish. Others airily chat about the merits of Facebook and Snapchat, while I sit in dumbstruck envy. It’s just not fair – at my age I shouldn't be subjected to this sort of uncertainty. Surely there's a place for blindies like me, a sort of halfway house between the tried and true and constant updates, a safe haven where Nothing's nothing to worry about.



Born in the UK, our ‘white-caner’ columnist, retired Dunedin antiques dealer Trevor Plumbly was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa more than 20 years ago and now lives in Auckland.