Tag Archives: thoughts

Thoughts On Today

There is a little path near my office that borders a bit of wetland and forest. I walk that path every day on my break. I like to look at the trees, the murky water, and the ducks that show up in the warmer months. It’s a little bit of nature in the heart of my city.

Along this path is an informative sign with information about wetland areas, the animals that live in them, and why they’re important. These signs are everywhere and they strike me as among the most earnest things anyone ever thought to make. Hey, the signs seem to say, here’s some interesting stuff that the people who made me think is pretty cool. Maybe you’ll think it’s pretty cool, too.

The day after the election, a person defaced this sign. He or she (but probably he) crudely painted the name TRUMP across the sign in blackish paint. The block letters made it impossible to read the text beneath. The sign was ruined and the message was clear. The hour of things that are green and good is over. Make way for the bulldozer and the destroyer.

I’ve looked at those crude letters every day since then, because I still like to walk that little path. Each time I passed the sign, I felt anger and frustration. The sign was ruined and would have to be replaced by the city at some point, but let’s be honest; even earnest little signs are not exactly top priorities for most municipalities.

Today, I noticed something had changed. The paint the vandal used had started to flake off, perhaps in the rain. The damage was not as permanent as I had imagined. The vandalism could be cleaned.

Later, I returned to the sign with my wife and together, we started to scrape off the rest of the paint, carefully so as to not damage the text underneath.

Soon enough, the sign was restored, with only the faintest outline of dirt and grime where the vandalism once was. In time, even that outline will be gone (perhaps sooner, as we’re planning on coming back with a bucket and some soap to see if we can finish the job next week).

Either way, the earnest little sign about wetlands has been restored and TRUMP is little more than a faint, dirty outline, visible only in contrast.

I’m writing this not because I want to brag about what we did. This is, quite literally, a token act. Other people are doing more, risking more, and will achieve more. In the grand scheme of things, one restored sign will not change much of anything.

And yet.

Yesterday, there was something ugly there. An hateful word, a taunt, a mockery.

Today, it is gone.

It is worth remembering. Damage can be repaired. Wounds can be healed. A little sign about wetlands can be cleaned up.

My reverence for nature and the natural world comes from many of its qualities, but foremost of those is its ability to heal and recover from the harm inflicted on it.

A lot is going to happen that is ugly and painful and destructive, but for all that the new president will talk about erasing the legacy of his predecessor,  his is written in cheap paint; filth that can and will be scraped away when he is gone.

Cleaning up a vandalized sign is a small thing.

And it is everything.

An Anecdote About How I Review Books

When I was in college, I studied Creative Writing, which had a fair number of literature classes required, as you might imagine (thought perhaps not as many literature classes as a literature degree would require). In fact, it’s only my years of extensive education that allow me to craft such complex sentences as the preceding one; my education in this area also explains my love of the semicolon.

There’s a lot about college that I don’t really remember. Sometimes, for fun(?), I try to remember all the classes I actually took. For the classes that I do remember, I try to remember my professors’ names. And eventually I arrive at the conclusion that my memory sucks, I’m bad at paying attention, and what’s the point of any of this! But there are things that I remember from college, in particular, the following anecdote:

It was a literature class, although fuck me if I can remember what the actual focus was. We studied Moby Dick for a while, which narrows it down marginally (I took an African American literature class once and can confirm Moby Dick was not part of the curriculum.) At one point in the semester, my professor showed us one of those videos you can create, the ones where there are two animated characters that can discuss whatever you like, and all you need to do is fill out the text bubbles so they’ll talk to each other with appropriate animations and camera angles. It’s the kind of thing that’s a novelty for exactly the first video you see, maaaybe the first video you try to create, and then never again. I wonder if I can find it. Hold please.

And we’re back. For you, dear reader, the transition was instantaneous. For me, it was 45 minutes of getting sucked into YouTube videos. I forgot what I was talking about. Oh, right.

I was not able to find the video itself, though I did the original video that created the meme. Take a look if you’d like to see the style; it’s exactly the same as what my professor did, down to the robot voices and two bears.

In the video my professor created, the title was something like “the problem with reading difficult books.” And one of the bears (the one with the vaguely feminine voice) expresses frustration with how hard it is to read certain books and how she often has to read them several times to understand what they are saying.

Then the other bear points out that you don’t really need to do that. “Simply stare at the book for an appropriate length of time. Say ‘hmmmm’ a lot. Then in class, instead of talking about the book, talk about how the book made you feel. Other students will think you are attractive and interesting. You will go on many dates with other students who also did not read the book. And perhaps one day you will have children of your own, who will grow up not reading the book.”

And at the time, I was like daaaaamn, this guy is way too young to have that level of despair regarding the worth ethic of his students. And that video was the one thing I remembered from his class, so, hrm, maybe he was on to something.

The reason I bring up this little trip down memory lane is because when I write reviews for books these days, I basically just talk about exactly that; how the book made me feel. And every time I do, there’s this little voice in the back of my head telling me that I’m letting Professor (sorry, can’t remember your name) down, because I’m just talking about how I feel. The little voice tells me that I should be doing more rigorous analysis, more detailed examination, more critical thinking, instead of something I type up during a fifteen minute break or during lunch.

I tell myself that I don’t actually have to do anything I don’t feel like doing; I’m not a professional reviewer and I don’t think my little reviews are going to earn me any actual career advancement. So I can do them however the hell I want. But there’s always that voice telling me that I should do more, that I owe it to the author and to my own ridiculously over-priced degree to do work at the level I’m capable of doing.

But I don’t. I just talk about how I feel after having read it and take comfort in the fact that in my mind, I’m always just talking to myself and if you’re actually reading this now, it’s entirely an accident of fate and not by my design.

Also, there’s the fact that I originally didn’t even bother writing reviews; I’d just slap a few stars down on Goodreads, grunt, and go on my way. So the fact that I’m actually leaving thoughts at all is a big step forward, if you think about it.

All I’m saying is that I’m aware of what I’m doing. But I also know that I don’t really like reviews as a thing. I don’t trust reviews if I don’t know anything about the reviewer. This is true for reviews of everything other than washing machines (for those, I just need to know if it’s going to wash my clothes). But for everything else, for books, movies, video games, I don’t actually care about the professional reviews. I need the reviews from people that match my particular profile: people who think that (motorcycle + velociraptor) x Chris Prat = awesome is an equation that leads us to the highest echelon of entertainment. I’m aware that Jurassic World was not actually a  good movie. I’m just also saying that I don’t care.

So, that’s why I do what I do.

Review: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not one who tends to pick up YA novels too often, but every once in a while I get a recommendation from a colleague and it sparks my curiosity enough to dip my toe in the waters for a while. It’s interesting, because I know that the YA market is very hot right now among adult readers and especially among librarians and since every single person I know is a librarian, you can see how this sort of thing happens from time to time.

So, the book itself. For me, there were some great bits, some okay bits, and some ‘meh’ bits. I’m not much for the YA romance angle, especially the “girl with a crush on one boy who is liked by another.” There’s a good bit of mystery about the “Waves,” what they are, what they will be, and what the titular “5th Wave” actually is. I also enjoyed the speculation early in the book about what the “Others” actually were and there’s a good bit of tension regarding just how, well, alien they are.

There are multiple points of view throughout the book and they shift around often enough that it was, at times, tricky to keep track of who I was reading. A few times I started in on a chapter and thought it was from one character’s point of view, only to realize that I was wrong a few pages in. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that breaks a narrative for me, but it’s . . . inelegant. I liken it to a transmission that clunks whenever you shift gears. It still works, but you notice it when you’d prefer everything to be smooth. It’s also the kind of thing that would be easy enough to fix; slap a Game of Thrones-style chapter header “Chapter 5: Cassie,” for instance, and you’d clean that right up.

Regardless, overall, I enjoyed the book. I like aliens, I like invasions, I like dystopias, and I like survival; there’s a good amount of each here. I’m less interested in teenage romance and the angst therein, but I recognize that this genre has certain conventions that are quite popular, so I’m not convinced that it’s bad. It’s just not to my taste. Your mileage may vary accordingly.

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Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of Bill Bryson’s books. This is the first one I didn’t really enjoy and I’m sad to say that.

I picked this one up, quite appropriately, I thought, during my honeymoon to the UK. There was something marvelous about reading about traveling in the UK while doing so myself, particularly when the Welsh town of Lladudno makes a brief appearance. We stayed there for a few days and it was quite lovely, so it was a thrill to see it get mentioned. Bryson is a witty writer and at his best, his observations earn laughs or at least smiles.

However.

I’m not sure if it’s because this was one of his earliest books and he refined his style or if it’s because he was just in a bad mood during a lot of these journeys or if he mellowed out later with age, but the Bryson in this book is . . . well, mean. He seems like a jerk. There were exchanges earlier in the book that made me wince a little bit, but I wrote down the exact moment he lost me:

From Chapter 26:

In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into a crowded McDonald’s, waited ages in a long, shuffling line, which made me even more fractious and impatient, and finally ordered a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin.

“Do you want an apple turnover with that?” asked the young man who served me.

I looked at him for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said, “do I appear to be brain-damaged?”

“Pardon?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t ask for an apple turnover, did I?”

“Uh, . . . no.”

“So do I look as if I have some mental condition that would render me unable to request an apple turnover if I wanted one?”

“No, it’s just that we’re told to ask everyone, like.”

“What, you think everyone in Edinburgh is brain-damaged?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone, like.”

“Well, I don’t want an apple turnover, which is why I didn’t ask for one. Is there anything else you’d like to know if I don’t want?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone.”

“Do you remember what I do want?”

He looked in confusion at his cash register. “Uh, an Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee.”

“Do you think I might have it this morning or shall we talk some more?”

“Oh, uh, right, I’ll just get it.”

“Thank you.”

Where do I even start? He complains about the kid behind the counter wasting his time, when he was the one that prompted the ridiculous exchange by being an asshole in the first place. A simple “no, thank you” to the question would have had him right along on his way.

We all have bad days. I get that. And he notes before and after this passage that he was feeling “fractious.” But here’s the thing. I’ve been that teenage kid, working a shitty entry job that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to be able to afford to drive myself to school. I’ve had stupid corporate requirements and disinterested managers force me to use scripts, force me to pitch things that I knew customers didn’t want, forced me to upsell, etc. I know that this isn’t the kid’s fault. And anyone who’s been on the other side of that cash register knows it, too.

If you’ve ever worked food service or retail or any other job where you’re the public face, you know that the guy or girl at that register has no power. They don’t make any of these decisions. Why upbraid them, except to make them feel worse and to make yourself feel better? Everyone knows this, except, apparently, for Bryson. But all I felt after reading this passage was a reminder of all the goddamn times a customer has been an asshole to me over the years and how much it sucks, how much it ruins the rest of your day, and how much you despise people that do that to you. A simple “no, thank you” would get everyone on with the rest of their day. Hell, if you really felt the need to make a point, ask to talk to a shift manager, who only has slightly more power than the poor kid, but at least there’s a chance they have some control over it (although, having been the shift manager too, I can say that it’s unlikely).

Here’s the thing. It’s only a few pages and it comes towards the end of the book. But were this a fiction novel, this would be a character defining moment. This is the sort of thing that shows us who a person is, by how he treats his perceived lessers. And this, compared with earlier comments, makes me feel as though Bryson is a mean person, a jerk, the kind of tourist I cringe when I see, the kind of person who would embarrass the hell out of me doing exactly this kind of thing, all because he feels so fucking smart that he has to point out all the little bits of bullshit in the world around him, when the rest of us just want to get through that bullshit as intact as possible, without breaking character.

Fortunately, his later books don’t cast Bryson as this much of a churl, but rarely have I been so turned off in a book such as this. Skip this one. Read his other, better work. How the hell this chapter made it past his editor is beyond me.

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Review: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American CenturyExit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book largely due to the chapter on Christopher Hitchens, who has long been a writer I’ve admired (his support for the Iraq War notwithstanding). I was very interested in seeing a neutral perspective on Hitchens, since I already have read at length what Hitchens himself said about that decision.

Before we get to the Hitch, however, we move through history as we explore the political careers of several other Leftists who ultimately, well, left. On the first few chapters, I am more ambivalent; these stories are likely going to be of more interest to those who are familiar with the men in question. I myself had only the vaguest recollection of who Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham was (before going to look it up on Google).

Although it was likely not the author’s original intention, what struck me as most interesting about the chapters on very early Leftists like Chambers and Burnham was the stark reminder of the history of the Left. It’s so very easy in political history to assume that the arrangement that exists today is equivalent to what came before; the Left is liberal, the Right is conservative, end of story.

But we forget that the political Left went through a long history with competing ideologies and that the social liberalism that brought me to the Left once struggled for intellectual oxygen against communism. These days, the idea that “Lefties are all commies” is basically a dead horse trope, a political joke that’s amusing irrelevant. So irrelevant, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it used to be true. But I digress.

The most interesting chapters were on Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, and the Hitch. Podhoretz isn’t someone I was familiar with, but his story is so fascinating in its self-destruction that you can enjoy it entirely on its own merits. The ill-advised publication of the book that led to his public humiliation and ostracization doesn’t need you to be political to relate to what is basically a very human story. Especially when you consider how many people tried to warn him about what he was doing.

I list Reagan and Hitchens as the other highlights of the book as these were the individuals who were most relevant to me personally, since Reagan continues to cast a long shadow over the political landscape even today and I’ve read most of Hitchens’ books. It’s also interesting to contrast Reagan with the other figures of this book, as he’s the only one who isn’t described as an academic or intellectual. His story is a different one and at the end of it, I wonder what would have happened had he never been shifted to the right (although such a shift seems inevitable, given his personality).

Finally, we come to Hitchens. It’s unfortunate that Hitchens is one of the shorter chapters, because this was what I most wanted to read about. While author Daniel Oppenheimer generally takes a fairly neutral tone throughout the book, never allowing his own politics to color his prose, he describes Hitchens in particular as having fallen as a result of his rightward drift. Not because Left = Good and Right = Bad, but because the decision to double down on the Iraq War ultimately seemed to demolish Hitchens’ own vitality when the war effort began to unravel. Oppenheimer describes Hitchens’ best work as having come before the Hitch left the Left, which I would agree with.

It should go without saying that this book is for those with more than a passing interest in political history and thought. But for readers of that persuasion, it’s a fine read. It’s particularly refreshing in its balance and even tone, neither sanctifying nor demonizing of Left or Right. That’s something that’s increasingly rare in modern political thought (unfortunately, and yes, I hold myself as having failed this standard). If you’re interested in the topic, even a little, this book gets a solid recommendation.

Finally, I’d like to note that although it’s only described in the foreward and postscript, Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the nature of political allegiance and ideology were especially important to me. More and more, I’ve fretted about how people on “my side” can hold what I feel to be profoundly stupid ideas; most anti-vaxxers are on the Left rather than the Right, for instance. How can people who hold compatible ideas to my own be so misguided about other things, I would ask myself?

Oppenheimer reminded me that Left is a broad category and that many competing ideologies fall under its umbrella. He describes the Left and the Right as suits that don’t entirely fit right; maybe they bunch in the shoulders or have sleeves that are a little too short. But we pick the one that fits the best and ignore the little ways it doesn’t fit. Oppenheimer offers his book up as a challenge “to wrestle with the ways in which his or her own political suit might strain at the shoulders a bit more than is comfortable to admit.” And while it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll be leaving the Left any time soon (if ever), this book helped sharpen my perspective.

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Review: American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics

American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and PoliticsAmerican Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the avid Savage fans out there, this book might be unnecessary. If you’ve read Savage Love religiously, if you’ve read all of his other books, if you’ve followed his work very closely, you may not feel the need to pick this one up. There’s a feeling early on that there isn’t as much “new” stuff here, that these are topics and discussions that Savage has covered before. The subtitle for this book might be “the complete Dan Savage primer.”

And yet, even if you’ve read the entire Dan Savage canon, I still think this one is worth your time. Savage’s writing style is just so crisp, so compulsively readable, that his books are a pleasure to work through, even if the topic is deeply serious.

Of particular interest to me were the chapters about growing up Catholic (I can relate to that) and his experiences when his mother passed away (which, fortunately, I can’t relate to yet), the latter of which prompts some thinking on the death with dignity movement and physician assisted suicide (both of which I support whole-heartedly).

There’s so much more to be enjoyed, however. I love his frank style. I love the practical approach to sexuality. At one point in the book, Savage describes a particular piece as “the kind of discussion you’d have with someone after a few glasses of wine.” I think that’s a perfect description for the book as a whole, as wine-fueled discussions can be serious, deep, silly, opinionated, intense, thoughtful, and everything else one can imagine, but never boring.

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I Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About Water

There’s an interesting piece about water rights in the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic that’s worth your time, especially if you live in the Southwest, which I did and the majority of my tiny readership (most likely) still does. Short version: it might be time to adopt a free market approach to how water rights are managed in the American Southwest. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are a few highlights that I found particularly compelling:

America consumes more water per capita than just about any other country—more than three times as much as China, and 12 times as much as Denmark. People in the driest states use the most: Residents of Arizona each use 147 gallons a day (not counting agricultural water or water used to generate power), compared with just 51 gallons in Wisconsin, largely by filling swimming pools and watering lawns year-round in the desert. This extravagant use continues despite scarcity because water is kept artificially cheap. The water bills that Americans pay cover a mere sliver of the cost of the infrastructure that delivers water to them. Some city users pay $1 for 1,000 gallons. On farms, water is even cheaper. One thousand gallons of agricultural water in western states can cost as little as a few pennies.

Have you read Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner? It’s a good read, although you’ll learn more about dams than you ever thought you could possibly wish, but what’s most striking about it is how prescient Reisner was; he wrote about this in 1986, when climate change was still “the greenhouse effect” and acid rain was a really, really big deal. And here we are in 2016 and it’s all going pretty much the way he predicted, which isn’t good.

Back to the article; can the power of the free market fix the water rights problem in the Southwest? Well, I’m not one to argue for “the power of the free market” to fix all of society’s ills, but honestly, I also can’t see how a free market solution could be any worse than what we’re doing now. Give it a shot, I’d say. Let’s see what happens. The environmentalist finds common cause with the libertarian on this issue.

One more excerpt from The Atlantic piece, because I’m a vegetarian and this is my blog and I can tout stuff like this if I wish:

And, of course, growing more food requires more water. In theory, Americans could simply eat less meat: A vast majority of the West’s water is used to produce feed for cattle, and data from Water Footprint Network, a Dutch NGO, show that if Americans gave up meat one day a week, they would save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado River each year. But that cultural shift might prove even more difficult than reallocating water rights.

The entire flow of the Colorado River each year. Just something to think about.

Review: Skipping Towards Gomorrah

Skipping Towards GomorrahSkipping Towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My fellow liberals: remember the Bush years? We were at the mercy of the “Moral Majority,” the theocracy seemed inevitable, our LGBT friends (or selves) were criminals, and everywhere you looked, another blonde Republican lady author was scrawling a book that we were traitors or monsters or traitor-monsters. It was a dark time. Dan Savage wrote a book lashing out at the perceived “immorality” of the times. “All things in moderation,” he writes, “even moderation itself.”

And although I’m writing this review during the odious rise of Donald Trump and all that this entails about a certain percentage of the electorate, it really has gotten a lot better. Gay marriage is the law of the land (although like abortion rights, it’s under assault and will be for a long while), DOMA is dead, and the “Moral Majority” as a political entity to supporting an obvious lizard-person in a human skin suit (Cruz) or a blatant opportunist who so obviously doesn’t give a shit about that “moral majority’s morals” so long as they vote for him. It’s been a long, hard fall from the Evangelical’s pinnacle of power in the early 00’s. We have an African American president now. We (hopefully) will see the first female president. Pot is legal in a few states, including mine! Concern about climate change has gone from being a punchline on South Park to a real thing that many reasonable people are seriously concerned about. In short, it’s a different era.

But it’s good to remember what it was like, not too long ago. “Skipping Towards Gomorrah” isn’t timeless; it’s rooted deeply in the political landscape that was the Bush years. But that’s precisely one of the things that makes it so compellingly readable today. It’s a chance to remember what it was like before. It’s a chance to compare what we railed against then to what we rail against now. And while we’re certainly not living in liberal utopia (and might soon take a hard right turn to dystopia, if we’re not careful) . . . it has gotten better.

Aside from the trip down memory lane, Savage’s writing style is crisp and wonderfully funny. He writes with clarity and self-awareness (but not self-consciousness). It’s unlikely that you’ll read this book if you’re not already drinking deeply of our liberal gay hippie kool-aid (it’s organic and locally sourced, yo) but Savage will surprise you. He doesn’t always do what you’ll expect for a sex columnist who is also a gay man. Look for the chapters on wrath (guns) and pride (gay pride) to see what I mean.

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Review: And Yet . . .

And Yet ...And Yet … by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t always agree with Hitchens’ views. In fact, I don’t think I even often agree with them. Despite a brief flirtation with the New Atheists a few years ago, I’m unwilling to consider myself more than a spiritual agnostic. I disagree with his embrace of war and military intervenionism. And yet. And yet.

Hitchens was one of the best goddamned writers of . . . possibly ever. Even when I completely disagree with his thesis, he’s delightfully readable. And I don’t disagree on everything. His more wry observations of life and culture and literature are a true delight and one comes away from a good Hitchens essay with the feeling of shared a drink with a brilliant and eloquent intellectual.

Of this final collection of essays, book reviews, and other short pieces, I will say this; I’m going to miss that voice. His thoughts on quitting smoking, getting healthy, and doing the physical makeover are bittersweet and poignant, the words given an unintended emotional gravitas when you consider how closely they were written before his own death.

This is more of a ‘completionist’ work of Hitchens writing than a ode to ‘the best of the best.’ Book reviews from books that are ten or more years old tend to feel dated, even for books that are remarkable. There isn’t really a true standout piece here and if you were new to Hitchens, this isn’t where I’d start. Despite that, there also isn’t anything that falls flat and nothing that isn’t interesting. It was nice to spend a little more time with a voice that I have missed and will miss. Overall, a very solid collection.

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I Went To A Thing Called “The Blind Cafe”

As an introvert still getting used to life in a new city and a new corner of the world, it’s easy for me to retreat into my lair and not come out for days at a time. I have books to read, writing to do, video games to play, and Netflix to watch, so . . . really, with so much to do from the safety of my own home, why should I venture out into the wider, scarier world? Well, obviously, that’s not a great way to live one’s life, so even though it involves a mental kick in the ass to get in gear, I try to live by the adage (it’s not really an adage) of “do cool stuff whenever possible.”

Last week, one of the area mailing lists I got sucked into (from Yelp, I think) told me about an event happening called The Blind Cafe. Here’s the basic elevator pitch: you’re served a meal in absolute darkness. No lights, no emergency exit signs, nothing. You’re led into a room, seated at a table, and from there, you get to experience life the way . . . well, the way a blind person does. After dinner, there’s a keynote speaker and a Q&A and the night caps off with some live music. With the exception of the host and a few volunteers, all of the staff for the event were blind; servers, kitchen staff, speaker, etc.

So, what’s it like?

Your mileage may vary, but for this author, it was nothing short of terrifying. In a good way. In the way that a great roller coaster is terrifying. The way paragliding is terrifying. But it’s still really scary.

Our tickets were for the 8:30 event, but since we’re still learning our way around the city, we left early to give ourselves plenty of time. We arrived outside at about 8:00pm and waited outside as the previous group finished up. As people staggered out, most were wide-eyed and blinking. It seemed both promising . . . and foreboding.

We went into a little lobby and checked in. It was a pretty tiny room for about 60ish people, but we were each given a glass of wine, so I was content. Once we were checked in, the host gave a brief introduction and told us what to expect (they asked several times to have phones and watches turned off, so as to not spoil the effect). We lined up in groups of eight to go into the dining area. Each person put his or her hand on the shoulder of the person in front to avoid getting separated. We were advised to go to the bathroom before the event, for obvious reasons.

The door from the lobby to the dining hall was turned into a sort of “light-airlock,” with multiple heavy blackout curtains that we walked through. They were thick enough and heavy enough that it was a little disorienting, which led to the effect. I was plunged into complete darkness with nothing but my hand on Jenn’s shoulder to guide me. We were led to the table and seated. From there, it would be up to us until the keynote.

Dinner was all vegetarian, which was helpful for me (being a both a vegetarian and someone with a pretty serious food allergy). There was some bread that we figured out how to pass around in the dark, although I never did find the butter. After that, it was up to each of us to eat and talk. In complete darkness.

Here are the things that wigged me out: because the room was pitch black, it wasn’t like wearing a blindfold, where there’s always a liiiittle bit of light peaking around through your nose or at the corners. There also was nothing I could do to be able to see; no blindfold to take off, no watch to light up, nothing. You can’t really recreate this experience at home, because even if you turned off all the lights in your house and managed to make it completely dark, you’d still know roughly where you are. You know your house. You might stumble and shuffle, but you know what the area looks like.

It’s profoundly different going into a place you’ve never been before in the dark. I couldn’t tell how big the room was (I tried to estimate based on the sound, but turned out to have wildly overestimated the size of it).

That was the part that really got my anxiety churning: I’m intensely claustrophobic. Claustrophobia takes many forms and for most people, it’s regarded as a fear of small spaces. The tight spaces are part of it, but they’re usually actually a trigger for a larger fear: the fear of being trapped.

In my daily life, I have this little ritual that I go through whenever I start to feel anxious: I visualize where my exits are. I look around for the ubiquitous red or green glowing EXIT signs. I imagine the process if there was, I don’t know, a fire or an earthquake, and what I’d do to get out. I don’t spend very long on it, maybe a few seconds at the most. It works.

The first time I felt that anxiety in the dark, I realized that I didn’t know where those little EXIT signs were. I had no idea of the layout of the room, having gotten disoriented from the thick curtains we walked through. I didn’t know how to get out of the room and that tripped my phobia into overtime.

I will be honest: there were a few moments when I nearly lost it. I thought about saying “fuck it, grabbing my cell phone out of my pocket, and using it as a flashlight, and to hell with the other sixty people who paid to have this experience.” But through some very calm and steady reassurance from Jenn, I was able to keep a lid on my anxiety and got through the first part of the event. I can’t really say whether the food was good or not as I mostly picked at things on my plate due to my churning nerves.

It’s intense. You have absolutely no real idea how hard it is until sight is taken away from  you. I’d thought I’d be fine with it, since I wear glasses and I’m about as nearsighted as a baby mole without them. But there’s really no comparison at all. If a person tells you “I’m legally blind without my glasses,” cuff them upside the head. Being nearsighted is a wonderful world of visual cues and data compared to having your sight taken away. My 20/200 vision can tell me where I am, where the exits are, and where people are. I’ll never take it for granted again.

The keynote speaker was excellent. His name was Rick and he’s been blind for (if I remember correctly, again, I was fighting off a panic attack for the first hour) most of his life. Having his voice in the dark to focus on helped steady my anxiety and his talk was a great one. He invited people to ask questions, anything at all, about blindness, about his life, whatever they wanted. He told us that the anonymity of the dark often encouraged people to ask things they normally wouldn’t in the light, which turned out to be true. Not that anyone asked anything inappropriate, but folks were able and willing to talk about blindness in a real, concrete way. My favorite questions were “what’s the rudest thing a sighted person does, either intentionally or unintentionally” and “do you think a ‘cure’ for blindness would damage or harm blind culture?”

I won’t spoil the answers here, both because I couldn’t do them justice and because I think you really had to be there, in the moment, to experience the profundity of it.

The night closed out with a few live songs. Music really does sound better in the dark. I was able to listen to it in a way I don’t normally listen; normally, music is a background thing, something I listen to while I’m driving or writing or cooking. I never devote my entire attention to it, but when you’re there in the dark, you feel the music in a wholly different way. It’s pretty incredible.

The night ended with the host lighting a candle in a the middle of the room. Just like that: sight restored. We were able to explore the room, which is when I learned that what I thought was an entire ballroom was really a fairly small meeting room with eight tables and a little stage. After that, people started to depart. We stayed around for a bit to recover and to talk with the host and with Rick, to thank them for the experience.

I’ve spent most of this post talking about my fear; how scared I was to be in the dark, how much it triggered my own anxiety. But that’s not really what the event was about and it’s not what I took away from it. It was an amazing experience getting to talk about blindness in a way that was real and deep and honest. It didn’t make me feel pity but it did make me aware of my tremendous privilege. It made me realize how much I take the smallest things for granted.

If you have a chance to take this experience, I recommend it. It’s not something you really do for fun. It wasn’t that way for me. But it was powerful and it felt meaningful. I learned some pretty deep things about myself. You may not be able to learn “what it means” or “what it feels like” to be blind in a few hours, because we’re talking about a topic much deeper and broader than can be encapsulated in such a small amount of time. But you’ll have the beginnings of understanding; you’ll have taken a few steps in someone else’s shoes.