Ylang-Ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory, Essay 5 of #52essays2017

Cananga odorata illustrated in Francisco Manuel Blanco's Flora de Filipinas. 1800-1803?. Public domain from Wikipedia.When I first read about ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), I’d no smell associations, but I was intrigued because it is included in so many aphrodisiac blends. It is both relaxing and stimulating, which is a fabulous combination when you’re trying to get it on.

Then I smelled ylang-ylang out of a labeled essential oil bottle, and I realized I’d smelled it before. I was transported to the sexy time in my life when I could walk around unaided–no white cane, no guide dog, no boyfriend. I’d just arrived in New York City and I could see well enough to walk around without mobility help, but not well enough to read signs or see into shops.

I was a grad student at NYU and was visually impaired, but if you saw me walking around campus, you would not know that I was not like everybody else, unless of course you knew me and therefore knew not to be offended that I did not recognize you. If you recognized me from a class but did not know that I was visually impaired, you likely thought my lack of acknowledgement meant I was a snob. Anyway, in those days of wandering around enjoying the feel of walking if not the visuals that many peripatetics associate with the activity, I regularly got slapped pleasantly in the face by a smell that emanated from a large and bustling shop–perhaps a hair salon–that sat on the corner of Waverly and Sixth.

Each time I walked by, I would hesitate and want to enter, wondering what it was because that smell reminded me of an earlier scent memory. I’d coveted the brilliantly colored hair on the box of Salon Barbie, and her dyes–red, purple and black–smelled of what I now suspect to have been some kind of synthetic ylang-ylang. The smell stuck with me though any fun I may have derived from the oddly punk rock toy has completely evaporated.

That said, I was never a very olfactory-oriented person but rather a visual one. I can still see the photograph on the box of that damn doll with its perfect purple hair quite plainly in my mind’s eye. I still feel like a visual person, but I’ve not got the sensory inlets going anymore, only the imagination and the hallucinations.

The deprivation has finally led me to appreciate smell, and recently I find that I get a little depressed if I don’t have any around–pleasant ones I mean–those that I can control, or at least name and manipulate. The fakey-wakey smell of my cheap-ass Dove “cucumber” shampoo does not count.

Though I cannot, at present, afford to have everything be blessed by natural fragrances, I fantasize about a future wherein I will have complete control of my smellscape. I underline the word fantasize here, because though I long for the day when I can indulge in all the aromas I read about and lust after, having complete control over what enters the nose is of course impossible, as smells permeate all, and each person has their own. Sadly my smellscape could not be vacuum-sealed unless I had no desire to go out or have sex.

Godin brushing hair reflected in antique vanity mirror

Speaking of sex, let’s return to the heady floral scent of the tropics.Ylang-ylang, long admired in its native islands of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for its good effects on libido, skin and hair, grew commonplace in far-away England as Macassar Oil, which was so popular as a styling product for men, that doilies were soon required to protect the backs of upholstered furniture. As mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, the men and women of 19th century England were as mixed up and contradictory as any society, and so it is likely the sensual fragrance of ylang-ylang, reminiscent of bodies barely clad and warmed by the sun, was likely more than one kind of bother in the buttoned-up drawing rooms.

But ylang-ylang is more than an aphrodisiac, or rather, its effects on the libido result from its ability to relax and regulate extreme emotions and to calm the physical and mental effects of anxiety. As Peter Holmes remarks in Aromatica:

” In dealing deftly with intense emotions, Ylang ylang bestows a relaxing, softening, harmonizing and lightening grace over the energetic Heart – a function that is expressed in Chinese medicine as ‘nourishing Heart Blood.’ Its ability to transform dark negativity into lightness and positivity is perhaps unique. In opening us to the lightness of being, Ylang ylang is clearly a remedy for the soul as much as for the body.”

Jar of Yes Organic Ylang-ylang rose night cream on antique vanityLiving now as a vagabond, my essential oil collection has dwindled. Knowing this, my best friend and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, gave me a beautiful cream made with ylang-ylang and rose essential oils. I slather it on at night to smooth the wrinkles of face and psyche. The calming effects of ylang-ylang have been of particular interest to the latter, which has recently been subject to panic attacks.

I was a panic-prone person in my twenties, so I can’t blame it all on aging and blindness, but these two aspects combined with the recent casting off, has allowed the sleeping giant to rise. The first panic struck on the plane from NYC to Denver and hit me again in the bus from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque. In lesser forms, it hits me in each new house, where even the simplest cupboard or table can present a problem–one can be mired in a cul-de-sac no bigger than a public bathroom stall when one cannot see. As mentioned in Winter Wonder Maze, I’m terrible at being blind, and worse when I feel people’s eyes on me. So, putting myself in the position of being in the households of others, with their crap acting as constant reminders of my lack of freedom and control seems an odd place to be. Stupid maybe.

And yet. And yet, who is truly free? My dear friends with house and car payments, children and spouses may be free to walk about the cabin, but they are not completely free either. Freedom comes in degrees, independence a balancing act.

My mother wonders why I do not get another guide dog. “You used to care so much for your independence,” she opines. She does not know how hard-fought and lonely it was. She does not feel the memory weight of its superficiality, tethered as it was to anger and the need for a love that I wielded like a club.

She also does not believe that in these strange blind cul-de-sacs there is another freedom, and the only one that may yet transcend this mortal coil. I will, like all of you, grow feeble, if I am permitted to live, and this body will be but a sack of memories of a time when the body was free. But if the mind is free, there is movement in the soul, right? And, just as those ancients used scent to communicate with the gods, I use smell to transport me out of this body that fears each vase-clad armoire as if it were an on-coming bus, this body that shuffles about like that of a very old person, slowly, carefully, with embarrassing trepidation.

If my worth were measured in my tiny steps taken , my life, like Prufrock’s measured out in coffee spoons, I would surely collapse in a heap of self-loathing. But if I follow the scent of the Tropics to a place where I can learn and learn and continue to learn, I do not feel old or blind or feeble. Not useless. On the pleasant smelling days, I believe myself to be an organism still sucking life and pleasure, in and out.

The trick is to follow the nose up and up into the rarified air of the unforeseeable future.

The trick is not to panic.

The trick is to keep breathing, nostrils flared as if smelling a flower for the very first time.

 

*This is essay 5 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics here*

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Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics, essay 4 of #52essays2017

Two winters ago, I got a call from my agent in LA to tape an audition for
Hannibal, and it led me on a journey from stars in my eyes to a brand-new appreciation of smell.

I was, as an actor, thoroughly green. I did not even know that for TV/film auditions you sit or stand still with the camera in your face and speak the lines with all the emotions your head can muster. You must have your lines memorized or virtually memorized. If you can see, you can bring in your sides and glance at them if necessary, but if you are blind, like me, you cannot rely on this visual blankie.

Speaking of blankies, I did not know that props are generally pooh-poohed, because I’d not yet read Marci Phillips helpful book The Present Actor until after the fact and learned that:

“Whatever people normally carry around with them is usually regarded as acceptable. A cellphone, iPod, blackberry, bottle of water, briefcase, bag, magazine, pad, pen, jacket, etc. are all fair game…. If you’re eating in a scene and you choose to bring actual food into your audition, make sure that you’ve given this a few trial runs at home first.”

I did not bring actual food into my audition coaching session but rather an eraser on a plate, which I mimicked eating like it, were pie with an actual fork.

It is difficult to say how terrible my self-tape audition would have been if my agent had not found me a professional coach with whom I could work for an hour (and film the self-tape) on the Sunday before the Monday when the tape was due. For those non-actors out there, I was lucky to get a couple extra days to memorize and rehearse because the call came on a Thursday night. As gently as possible the coach, Jonathan Hammond, took my eraser-plate away from me and told me that props came across as a little bit amateur.

I had received two scenes and both were familiar because I’d seen/heard the film Red Dragon many times, and read the novel at least twice when I received the call to audition. Reba McClane is one of the best blind characters ever to grace a novel, let alone a screen. Reba was created as a round and nuanced blind character–a rare and precious thing–by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, the first of the Hannibal series, from which the films and then the TV series developed. Hence, I admit I was pretty excited and honored to be asked to audition. I tried not to think about how awesome a job Emily Watson did in the role.

The first scene I’d been given was the scene where Reba invites Francis Dolarhyde into her home, offers him pie, and tries to draw him out. It was different from the film. Reba’s memory of a cougar at the zoo reverted back to the original llama of the novel, but in each incarnation, the scene has a quirky charm driven by Reba’s rambling.

The second scene for my audition was totally different, scary. Dolarhyde has Reba tied up and she tries to understand his anger. Having done a little bit of theatre, I embarked on my home rehearsals by clinging and pleading melodramatically. Thankfully, Alabaster–who was helping me memorize my lines–told me to sit down and act tied up.

With rehearsals through the weekend about every couple hours, I had gotten it pretty good, but my real nervousness combined with the fact that Jonathan was a pro, took this scene to a level that gave me great insight into acting, and made me realize (once again) that I do not have the stomach for it.

Jonathan told me that the one who got the part would be the one who breaks the casting director’s heart. That was a revelation. I did it with him the second time to such an extent that I had to keep myself from crying after we were done. Alabaster had walked in and was like “wow.” It was so intense; I still remember the feeling of my heart pounding and the need to sob with wonder and amazement. I get why actors are fucked up. Feeling that intense for no reason does not feel any different than feeling that intense for personal reasons–the heartrate still skyrockets, and the body says fear or love or whatever. When it was over, I was confused. I’d never felt that intensely for something that was not a product of my own rumpled psyche. I suppose one taps into one’s own psyche to get there, but still, it was strange to feel that intensity while “acting”.

I can’t say that the taped third try was as good as that second one of memory, but for an untrained actor, I was proud to have pulled it off. In my own mind, I was working very hard to send a tape to my agent that was good enough for her to pass on to the casting director and not dump me. Just good enough to impress her. the idea of actually getting a part in one of NBC’s hottest dramas was impossible, though it’s hard after it’s all done to not have some stars in your eyes, and since I sent off my two scenes in the week before Christmas, I had three weeks to contemplate how the experience would change my life.

Poor Alabaster had to watch (and describe) the entire first season and part of the second of the horrifically graphic Hannibal. (The mushroom-feeding episode is one neither of us will ever forget.)

Also in those three weeks, I started thinking about and researching on-camera classes and found a super little school called MN Acting Studio. I read Matt Newton’s book and signed up for an on-camera class with Joseph starting the end of January.

And, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but this was also the time that started me Googling DIY beauty. I think it was that I thought if I had another audition, I should probably do a little more with the way I looked. My outfit choice for my first big audition was more about the character I knew from the books than what they were probably looking for in a supporting role–the love-interest of a starring serial killer. I don’t think I gave my makeup or hair much thought.

Cheap beauty tricks led me to DIY facials, which led me to discover essential oils. I started buying essential oils and was amazed how smells that I’d smelled before now suddenly had names.

I read the monographs–part historical, part botanical–with wonder and excitement. I calmed my heart with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and my allergies with German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). There is something quite powerful in discovering chemical constituents for fun light self-medication. The new-discovered enjoyment of naming ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) and putting a smell to the laurel (Laurus nobilis) of Apollo’s poets and prophetesses cannot be over-estimated.

It may be that reading through all the Hannibal books for the third time primed me for my smell explorations, as Hannibal Lecter is of course a olfactory -aesthete, but whatever the reason, reading about essential oils struck a nerve. Although two years is probably not enough time to gauge such things, I feel like this exploration has changed the course of my life.

I’m not saying that I plan on setting up shop as a serial killer, but I do appreciate the fact that Hannibal recognizes the beauty and importance of the oft-neglected sense–the fallen angel, as Helen Keller puts it.

Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella fragrance bar

In Harris’s novel Hannibal, we follow our favorite serial killer into the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, and relish with him the olfactory symphony:

“The air was music. Here were pale tears of frankincense awaiting extraction, yellow bergamot, sandalwood, cinnamon and mimosa in concert, over the sustaining ground notes of genuine ambergris, civet, castor from the beaver, and essence of the musk deer. Dr. Lecter sometimes entertained the illusion that he could smell with his hands, his arms and cheeks, that odor suffused him. That he could smell with his face and his heart.”

I did not get the part; they decided to go with Rutina Wesley (not blind) of True Blood fame. I can’t say I was not disappointed, but I’m happy to have been asked to audition, to be a part of a new and important entertainment revolution, to have people with disabilities represent themselves onscreen.

One of the dreams I nurtured during my three weeks of waiting was to go on talk shows and educate the public about the important but still nascent trend that will shape the face of entertainment as surely as it has been changed before. Soon having anything less than a deaf actor cast in a deaf role, or a blind person cast in a blind role or a wheelchair person cast in a wheelchair part will perhaps reveal itself to be as shameful and insulting as blackface. Until then, I open my nostrils to the tears of frankincense and the shy flowers of mimosa and imagine how sweet will be the revenge!

 

*This is #4 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Check out my previous essay The Voice of the Turtle here*

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In the Beginning Were the Eye Doctors, essay 1 of #52essays2017

Before the base closed to make way for the National Park, Lucasfilm, and the Thoreau Center, my mother and I drove regularly through the Presidio to buy cheap groceries at the commissary or to the Letterman Army Medical Center for visits to the pediatricians and then many eye doctors. My dad was in the military, and as a dependent, I received benefits that extended beyond my parents’ divorce.

Letterman Army Medical Center photographed from above with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. (Wikipedia)

I loved the drive that took us through the Arguello Gate, punching our car into an enchanted forest of Monterey pine, Monterey cypress, and the Tasmanian bluegum, a eucalyptus all the way from Australia. I did not know their names then, or that these seemingly primordial trees had been planted but a hundred years earlier. Inspired by the success of Golden Gate Park and Planted by the U.S. Army, these trees were meant to beautify the windswept brush lands that were an eyesore to the San Francisco Bay newcomers. It was no accident that the sudden woodlands reminded me of the enchanted New England greenery I looked longingly at in my mother’s pictorial atlas of America. The easterners who came to take over the Presidio after the Mexicans did not appreciate the sandy bluffs blowing into their windows or the scrubby barrenness sweeping down to the bay. So they made that landscape familiar by planting thousands of trees. And in those trees they nestled their Georgian Revival buildings for my mother to point to, with all the authority of having, for a few years, been the wife of an officer, “That’s the house of a general.” Or “those are bachelor quarters,” and I was duly impressed. One of those exotic brick buildings is now a boutique inn for tourists looking to enjoy amenities and hiking trails.

but this was the early ’80’s, at least ten years before the base was decommissioned, and long before I had need to know that the landscape was man-made. To my keen young eyes, it looked ancient, as if it were what San Francisco looked like under or behind all the people and buildings–prehistoric, darkly enchanting and full of dappled light. I could not know it was all fakery beyond those gates, all artifice and make believe.

 

In fourth grade, I suddenly couldn’t see the writing on the blackboard from the back of the class. I told my mother and she made an appointment at the optometrist. I was excited. Getting glasses seemed to me to be very grown up. We drove to one of the bungalows that lay in covered strips with wooden steps leading up to planked covered walkways, almost like an Old West town. The building was dark and creaky. I sat in the big chair and looked through the tiny eyeholes in the cartoonishly huge lens machine. I could not read the small print on the chart. Still, no matter how many times the lenses shifted and the doctor asked, “tell me if this one is better,” (click) “or this?” (click) “this one, or this one,” the line did not reveal itself to me. I was a child who wanted to please, so I tried very hard to see a difference. “Maybe, a little better.” I’d say, but there seemed to be no difference in any of the shifting lenses–no better anyway, only worse. Many of the lenses made my vision blurry. I did not know how to explain then that my vision had not been blurry before. I have never lived in a blurry world. My eye problems have nothing to do with focus. It was always a question of a lack of information, of a pixilated visionscape, of television fuzz, but I hadn’t the words then, or even much of all that was to come.

The optometrist prescribed some glasses, though he sheepishly explained that he could not get my vision down to 20/20. They did nothing to help me see the writing on the blackboard.

We went to another optometrist and then maybe an ophthalmologist. Again, there was the same clicking of lenses with its odd attendant sensations of shifting air currents so close to the eyeball, with no luck. “Maybe a little better.” Or “worse,” was all there was for me to say. After a long time, the eye doctor called my mother in and told us that he could not correct my vision.

Perhaps it was that doctor, or perhaps the next, possibly to allay my mother’s fears or perhaps to mitigate his own impotence, said, “Her eyes are growing too fast for her body.” Or maybe he said that my body was growing too fast for my eyes. That satisfied us for a little while.

Finally, we were referred from the bungalows to the main hospital–the building that has since been demolished to make room for the Letterman Digital Arts Center–to see the head of ophthalmology. This was when my mother began to worry that something queer and a little scary might be going on. Though My vision loss was not very impressive, maybe 20/40 in the worst eye, the head of ophthalmology could not offer a solution either. He sent me out of the room to talk to my mother, to berate her for bringing me to him.

In response to my mother’s worried summery–eye doctors offering wacky opinions and no answers–this brilliant man spoke lamely and with spite, “Maybe she can’t see because you’ve been taking her to so many eye doctors.”

This summit of ludicrous subterfuge, this apotheosis of smug defiance in the face of ignorance has oft been repeated by my mother and myself (who was loitering just outside the door, listening) as the climax in our sad little detective story: What was killing my sight?

My mother, never good at checking her emotions, allowed her voice to rise with tears and said, “then why can’t she read the writing on the blackboard?” She would not accept another answerless dismissal. To his credit, he did not dig in, but relented, perhaps embarrassed deeply, though on the surface the coolness remained. He called me back into the room and took another look into my eyes, with his headlamp and magnifying monocle, and saw…something. I can only imagine that it was a blip on the landscape of my retinas, a suggestion of that dystrophy that would grow into eventual blindness, or it may be that he saw nothing, but suspected something, something remembered from medical school or read about in an ophthalmology journal. Perhaps it was a eureka moment that sparked the intelligence of this head of ophthalmology–an intelligence that had been momentarily dimmed by ignorance. Maybe it was then that he remembered a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), or maybe it was later, but, in any case, the diagnosis would be forthcoming, and one which I would use for decades.

As it turned out, my eye disease did not present like RP–I lost my central vision first whereas most people with retinitis pigmentosa lose peripheral vision first, so that as it progresses, they experience an ever more restricted tunnel vision. My disease progressed from the center outward, albeit jaggedly, leaving pockets of living cells.

Thirty some odd years later, I’ve learn that my cone-rod dystrophy is caused by a gene mutation that remains unidentified. In a world of rare eye diseases, I have a really rare one. As I write, my blood is going its second round of genetic testing, and it may be that I have a mutation all my own.

Back then, a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa was at least a name, a thing I could tell people, and it was rare enough and unique. I was strangely proud, so that when at the end of that first year, I was sent across the road to the Letterman Army Institute of Research (LAIR) for observation and experiment, I was excited. For three days they ran me through a battery of tests–from organizing little disks of gradient colors to a primitive electroretinography (ERG), putting me into a dark room to measure the electronic firings of the photoreceptor cells in my retina. The ERG is standard procedure at retinal specialists now, but they were just figuring it out back then.

In my most recent visit to the ophthalmologist, after dilation and numbing drops a technician laid thin wires along each of my bottom eyelids and taped the ends to my cheeks and forehead to keep them in place. The thin wires were then connected to thicker ones that in turn made their way into a computer. But that first ERG, a lab rat was I, laying in the dark for many hours with my eyelids held open by grotesque contact lenses from which the wires sprung. That had been perhaps the scariest, but also the most important test I underwent at LAIR, one that likely contributed to the current state of the art technology that even suggests the possibility of a near-future cure.

I subsequently did a presentation on the experience. By that time, I’d moved from fourth grade to fifth grade, and in my private girl school, that meant a change in uniform, from green plaid bib dresses to sailor-style middies and pleated navy skirts.

My presentation on retinitis pigmentosa and my battery of testing at LAIR, with its photographs and little moments of humor, like when I described looking into a contraption to click a button when I saw (and did not see) a tiny red light move into and out of my visual field, as resembling nothing so much as staring for hours into an illuminated toilet bowl, got a laugh from my classmates. I also got some pointed questions from my teacher. Perhaps she, along with my other teachers, was concerned, but they did not let on. It was a small school and I was a scholarship child in a sea of very rich girls, so there was perhaps a lot of feeling sorry for me going on. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just my grown up self who feels sorry for that little girl who tried so hard to make light of something scary and totally out of her control. Out of even the control of her mother and teacher’s and eye doctors too.

Image of Godin's retina in 1983

The progress of my eye disease has been the degeneration of my sight–progress and degeneration have thus been strangely confused in my mind since I was a kid. And today, it is not clear to me whether this long eye progression of sight to blindness, the slowest of calamities, akin to aging in its relentless and somewhat boring degeneration, has diminished or enhanced my life experiences. But human existence being what it is–complicated and fleeting–I imagine the answer must be both.

 

*This is the first of #52essays2017 written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read more about the project and the woman behind it HERE*

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Audio Description & Sound Design in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Back of Godin's head wearing earphones attached to personal DVD player, screen shows Star Wars opening title.Last week I enjoyed my first blockbuster movie with audio description Star Wars: The Force Awakens! Overall, despite the unbelievable ending (spoilers below) it was a great experience. Alabaster‘s dad, having worked behind the scenes in film and TV, is a movie fanatic, and has a huge collection of DVD’s. He noticed that many of the newer Blu-rays come with an audio description track, which can be turned on at the menu. (Unfortunately, on a typical Blu-ray player, the menus are not accessible, but perhaps this could be remedied on a Blu-ray equipped laptop.)

I was certainly curious to check out one of these movies, but Alabaster’s parents were actually the first to experience Star Wars: The Force Awakens with audio description. They had put it on to test it out, after we’d gone to bed and told us the next morning that they’d ended up watching the whole thing with the audio description going because it was “so cool–almost like listening to old radio shows.” When I learned this the next morning, I was both excited and jealous. “They watched it without me?” and Alabaster was like, “See, they do like you!” Right. That’s good.

The first time through Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we watched it together on a TV, and from the moment it started, I was drawn in, since the audio describer read the words as well as what was happening to the words:

“Growing ever smaller, the words continue to crawl away into infinity. … The tiny illegible shapes of the last few words finally disappear completely into the vastness of space.”

 

Not only is this a lovely and immediately recognizable image, calling to mind the first time I saw the first Star Wars in the movie theater when I was six and perfectly sighted, but it also resonates for me personally, symbolizing the progress of my degenerative eye disease.

In case you’ve not experienced an audio described movie, an article at WGBH.org about one of the major suppliers of audio description (as well as captioning), MoPix, explains: “Description conveys the key visual aspects of a film or television program by describing scenery, facial expressions, costumes during natural pauses in dialogue.”

By the way, a Justice Department amendment to the ADA requires theaters to “have and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed movie captioning and audio description at a movie patron’s seat whenever showing a digital movie produced, distributed, or otherwise made available with these features;” and will take effect in January 2017. So all my blind buddies can look forward to having a theater near them play the next Star Wars with audio description. This will be the subject of a future article, and I look forward to speaking with a representative of Media Access Group at WGBH soon. So consider this the first in a series–the sequel is in production!

For about the first 30 minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s probably not more than five minutes of dialogue, so it’s a really great thing to not have to task your companion with so much information gathering. However, when there was dialogue, the mix felt wrong; the audio description voice was too loud, creating a sense of distance from the on-screen characters. The main character became very quickly, the Brit reading the audio description, rather than Rey or Fin. Kylo Ren came through quite clear, though a bit lacking in gravitas, as if he were not only talking through a mask but also stripped down to a mono track. This was less the case as I listened privately the second time through with headphones on a portable Blu-ray player lent to me for the purpose. The ideal situation would be to be able to mix the sound volumes of the audio description and soundtrack oneself.

That said, listening with headphones was a much better experience, though I think the mix could still be more balanced, as the audio description dominated the sound design. But perhaps that’s just me; I am a bit of a sound geek, as demonstrated by my soundscapes for short films and readings. If you’ve no idea what goes into sound design for a blockbuster movie like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, here’s sound designer Matthew Wood discussing the many layers of sound in an interview with The Daily Dot:

“The main elements of a soundtrack are the dialog that’s recorded on the set; the dialog that you have to re-record after the production—because of line changes or droids or helmets or technical reasons that they didn’t get recorded on set properly. That’s called ADR. So there’s the dialog, the ADR. There’s the sound effects that you take from library, which would be the classic sounds that were made for Star Wars. And then there’s the new sound design that’s created specifically for the movie, so that’s part of the sound-effects track. There’s the foley; that’s all the very specific sound effects that are really too specific to be found in a sound library. And we have performers go through the film and we spot every little moment where that might be. And they actually perform them, like an old radio play. And then we have, obviously, John Williams’s music.”

Consciously or unconsciously, a good sound design is intensely satisfying, and can be especially appreciated by blind moviegoers. As a blind person, I find that with movies I loved as a sighted, or partially sighted, person, I can enjoy the action through the sounds. A good example is Apocalypse Now! Which I’ve probably experienced more times than any other film, and my appreciation of it has only deepened in the twenty or so years since I first saw it as a visually impaired person. Its sound designer, Walter Murch, is a legend in the field and the (at the time revolutionary) surround sound effects are memorably visceral. If you really want to geek out, here’s a cool article at Filmmaker Magazine about the iconic ghost helicopter sound that opens the film.

Star Wars VII sound designer David Acord told The Daily Dot in an interview, Murch, along with original Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt, are the “two people that come to mind as far as the people that are considered the godfathers of sound design. … Ben’s aesthetic for sound design—and I don’t want to speak for him too much—but it’s been an organic approach. It’s recording real-life sounds to be manipulated into something completely different.”

A fun example of this is how Acord turned his cat’s purring into Kylo Ren’s Force rumble:

“…he’s got this sort of chunky, almost animalistic Force rumble that he does when he’s interrogating and that kind of thing. And it’s sourced from my cat’s purr. It’s pitched and kind of slowed down, and it’s got a ton of low-end added to it. But you listen to it, it’s one of those things…it’s tough when you sort of pull back the curtain for sound effects, because then that’s all you’ll hear, is that. [laughs] But yeah, that’s Pork Chop purring.”

As I get more comfortable with a movie, the less I’m bothered by what’s going on visually. With movies I’m very familiar with, I find perfectly satisfying representations floating or zinging, as the case maybe, before my inner eye. I found this also to be the case with The Force Awakens. Granted knowing that the aesthetics of the original 1977 Star Wars influenced the making of Star Wars VII, helped with the formation of new visuals, but I was amazed how much listening to the audio description track helped my inner eye form new mental pictures for a movie never seen by my physical eyes. So much so that the third time through, I scanned backwards to listen to my favorite scenes without audio description, in order to enjoy the sound design, the dialogue, the music and sound effects with only the Force of my inner eye to guide me.

The first scene I scanned back to without the audio description was the saloon scene in Maz’s Castle–a callback to that original Star Wars cantina scene, now quite hackneyed, but still so enjoyable–to hear the strange new creatures and silly karaoke style singing. It was nice the first time through to have the audio description give some details about what’s happening and to read the subtitles (a very helpful feature), but the overwhelming feeling I had was, “SSSH, let me listen!”

I found the torture scene where Rey finds the Force and frustrates Kylo Ren’s attempts to get information from her particularly crippled by the audio description, as it is so intimate. What may be gained from knowing, for example, that Rey grits her teeth, or that Kylo sets his jaw, is not worth the feel that someone is shouting in your ear while you are trying desperately to eavesdrop on something juicy.

Here’s sound designer Acord, from his Daily Dot interview, talking about that scene:

“There’s a scene in the movie where Ren is interrogating Rey as she’s shackled to the torture chair, and they end up having this sort of Force battle, basically, where at the end Rey has the upper hand and has basically entered Kylo’s mind and releases some of his darker thoughts. That was a fun moment for us. That’s a pure sound-design scene in the purest sense. If you’re a person standing in that room with them, you don’t hear those Force sounds. All the Force sounds are meant to be feelings; that’s not a literal thing. If you were standing there, you wouldn’t hear anything, except maybe the rattle of her chair. So that was a fun moment to play with that, to play with the back-and-forth, with the Force ebbing and flowing between the two of them, and there’s…music comes in about halfway into that scene, so there’s a bit of a dance you have to do as well with the music.”

That scene is also really cool because the reveal–that Kylo is a perfectly normal human under his “leather-and-metal head appliance that looks like a domination mask by way of the grille of a 1952 Chevy” as a New York Times review put it–is both a vocal and visual one, and the shift from the digitally distorted and pitched down voice of the actor Adam Driver to his normal voice must be as startling as the visual unmasking.

This villain is not, as granddaddy Darth Vader was, forced to wear the getup because of horrible life-threatening deformities. Blind or sighted, we understand immediately that This bad guy is trying real hard, so that, as interesting as the face and voice is under the freaky prosthetics, his badness is all too human.

Here again is sound designer Wood (excerpted from The Daily Dot interview) describing the process of working directly with Driver:

“I was able to work with Adam Driver really directly and build the process for how his voice was going to sound in that mask. We built [it] in sound design and actually took it to Adam and got him to play with it. He could hear the process of his voice through the mask as he was doing it live, so we could use it like an instrument and play on it. So you could get these really creepy performances of him playing a very intimate recording right up on the mic. And yet it has this distorted, otherworldly feel through the mask, so it still keeps [dialog] intelligible. That mask’s sole function is to intimidate. It’s not keeping him alive like it [was for] Darth Vader; it’s just a mask of intimidation. We really wanted to work with that.”

And, because we at Godin Rhumb SoundWorks have our recording studio set up in the walk-in closet, I cannot resist giving a little more from Wood:

“At one point, we had to record when Adam was rehearsing for a play in New York. We set up across the street in a hotel across from his rehearsal space. And so he’d run over to us, and we’d work in a hotel room. We outfitted the closet in the hotel room as a makeshift recording room. So he’d come in and we’d work on it, [and] we’d send the files back to J.J. to see what he thought. That was some guerilla sound design, and Adam was really up for it.”

Learning about the making of a movie is helpful for anyone to geek out and appreciate it more, and this is particularly the case for blind moviegoers, so feel free to comment below–as a blind or sighted person–about the audiovisual details you found exciting in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Winter Wonder Maze: My first week without a home of my own and blind

I wish I could claim “winter wonder maze” as my own term for Alabaster‘s mother’s incredible Xmas installation–involving 42 trees, countless elves, Santas, snow babies (little snow men), thousands of feet of garlands, lights, a train set, and whole mountain ranges of glistening cotton snow, but I can’t. It was he, with whom I set out vagabonding, that comforted me with the coinage.

Winter village with train set in front of TV playing scary movie with closed caption, "We're gonna come find you. I promise."

I had been struggling with my inability to navigate the path to the kitchen which cuts through the living room–the nexus of Xmas décor–not only because there are so many obstacles but also because in order to do so one must pass between the watchers of the giant TV and the TV itself. Moving slowly and uncertainly as I do, prolongs my status as obstruction on the one hand and moving picture of interest on the other. I told Alabaster that I could not bring myself to do it. He reminded me that it would be easier when the Winter Wonder Maze came down. But that will not be until January 2.

It was Alabaster also who, when I apologized for not being more present because I was concentrating so hard on just getting around the house, made the connection between what I am experiencing and John Hull’s struggle in Notes on Blindness, which we saw last month at Film Forum.

Towards the end of the film, Hull and his wife and kids travelled from England to Australia to spend time with his parents. He had not been seen by them since the final calamity struck in England, and their shock and awkwardness regarding their adult blind son combined with his feelings of incompetence in an unfamiliar place, made the visit one that was uncomfortable physically and psychologically, gladly left behind and never to be reenacted. In the film, the trip to Australia represents a climax of struggle for John Hull, after which Hull experiences such a sense of relief that it leads him to his ultimate acceptance–almost embrace–of his blindness.

It’s true that I, like Hull, feel a little helpless and useless in this unfamiliar environment, but it is different insofar as Alabaster’s parents only know me as a blind person, and seem mostly curious and accepting. On our first full day here, his mom took me on a touch tour of the house so that I could feel the elves and Santas and trains and villages with church steeples set in snow. The biggest obstacle to my comfort is that I’m really bad at being a blind person. While I feel ok stepping slowly around the several Xmas trees and candle-laden tables in the basement living area to get from the couch where I sit writing to the bathroom, I prefer it if no one is watching me play this very unexhilarating game of pinball.

Once alabaster’s dad came downstairs just as I hit the couch on the far side near the bathroom, but on the wrong side. So with him looking on, I had to negotiate around the couch, Xmas tree number 33, hit the glass cabinet (gently and as a comforting reference point) to slide into the bathroom with a sigh on my side, and some little congratulatory remark on his.

Godin in red, hand on hip, standing in front of winter wonder mountain village on top of mantle.

I work hard to do my slow bumbling thing out of the sight of others, which is why traversing the path of the TV and train room to the kitchen is unbearable, and I generally hop on the Alabaster train. This is not necessarily less embarrassing than going it solo, but simply gets it over with quicker.

Other parts of the sprawling house are easier to traverse because they are less spectacle inducing, though it must be said that the architect was stingy with right angles. The stairs into the basement living room where we work ascend towards the front door so that it is just a matter of turning the corner to the left to slip down the crooked little hallway to our bedroom on the main floor. Well maybe not so easy, for there are several fickle Christmas wreathes extending from the wall like the human-arm candelabra holders in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

When we first visited a year and a half ago, it was springtime. If I wanted to get to the upstairs living room or kitchen I would follow the ungarlanded rail guarding the stairway and hit my comfy chair to sit and experience TV with one ear and listen to social media with the other. Or, I could turn right at the end of the railing, following the path of the mantle, into the dining room (which in other seasons is decked out in a nautical theme) and continue on into the kitchen, thereby avoiding the whole discomforting road between the couch and the TV. Unfortunately, that path is closed to me until the snow melts.

I guess this all begs the question why I’ve put myself in this position. Why have I left my comfortable Astoria apartment where I’d been shuffling from room to room for nearly 17 years, for parts unknown? Our plan is to be hobo artists for a year and then settle somewhere–maybe back to NYC, but probably not. And although I could not imagine taking this trip by myself at this point in my life (both for practical reasons as well as reasons of the heart), the experience is, by design, unsettling. A learning experience. Will I succeed in feeling more comfortable moving through the world as a blind person at the end of it? Will I be better at it? I don’t know.

The fact is that I never imagined staying in that Astoria apartment for so many years. I did not even imagine staying in New York for that long. When I arrived in New York to attend grad school, I had academic stars in my eyes. I thought I’d continue to move east for a while, slipping into some professorial path that involved feeling at home in many cities of the world. I’d already moved from my home in San Francisco to New Orleans to New York, and forayed to Paris during my first two summers in grad school, but then the adventure–at least as a forward moving trajectory–stopped.

Many factors changed my destiny and my mindset: my distractibility, my blindness, my ambitions, academia, downtown performance, karate (specifically a talent show night that put being a comedian into my head!), and a feeling that academia was not exactly what I had wanted when I was a kid, but seemed the most likely.

Strange to say that the ADA has done great things with education regarding blind people since 1990, but less in what is possible after school. Getting a college degree and continuing onto grad school seemed the least resistant, most doable path for me.

Blindness forced a desire for comfort and stability that was not in my nature. When I was a visually impaired teenager, my biggest fear regarding the high probability of future blindness was a loss of independence. These days I’m not so independent physically, but my mind feels quite free.

Although I did not pursue a career in academia, the mission remains the same: to think expansively about blindness as both a physical experience and a metaphorical  construct that is in dialogue with some of our most fundamental conceptions of humanness. From my dissertation to my short-lived standup endeavor                                                                                 , my solo show to this article, I attempt to expose and collapse distinctions between these two ways of thinking about blindness, to trouble the waters between the literally blind and the figuratively blind, seriously and with humor.

But how can I continue to fulfill this life’s work if I close myself up to the world? I think the comfort of living in the same place for so long made me less open to humanity in all its particulars. So I’m out here in the wilds of Colorado, not yet having an adventure in the ordinary sense, but priming myself for it.

winter wonder maze view from front door, including  descending stairs , with garlanded  rail and Christmas lights extending into the distance.

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A Blind Person’s Notes on Notes On Blindness and Touching the Rock

Notes on Blindness movie poster featuring John Hull with visual memories superimposed on his head
Upon entering the Film forum, where Notes on Blindness, an innovative documentary centered around the voice of John Hull recorded in the early years of his complete vision loss, is playing, I was offered a headset, but told that I should only wear it over one ear. It turned out that I could not mix the audio description track with the soundtrack. The only solution was to put the audio description on low in one ear and hook the other plush earphone–like the kind one uses for recording–around my head to rest behind the other ear. The contraption was a little tight and began to squish my brains after not too long, and I should say that I don’t have a very big head, at least not literally.

Though the system was not ideal, the audio description turned out to be quite pleasant. And yet I found sitting in my own little audio bubble to be a bit strange. Usually my head would’ve been resting on my boyfriend’s shoulder to facilitate his whispered descriptions. The sensation of separation was both cool and lonely, our only connection the shared bag of popcorn. As Notes on Blindness suggests, blindness is a paradoxical gift–not one Hull (or I) would have asked for, but still with unique compensations, one being the closeness that comes with occasional dependence, a closeness that can sometimes be awkward and other times charming.

 

I was excited to experience Notes on Blindness because I remembered reading Touching the Rock (John Hull’s recordings in book form) when I was new to New York and grad school. At that time, some of his observations resonated, such as the social difficulties of negotiating parties and bars, as well as the interesting, and not always unfortunate, adaptations one makes when one is forced to read books with one’s ears instead of eyes, such as the development of a good auditory memory and acute attention to the spoken word. But at that time in my progressive cone-rod dystrophy, I steadfastly existed as a visually impaired–not a blind person–and could not relate to the vast majority of Hull’s observations.

Twenty years later, I find that Hull’s words resonate more fully, but that his experience still differs from my own in some fundamental ways. For example, now I understand his sometimes strong desire “to hide my face from others” and wonder with him, “Is this a primitive desire to find some kind of equality? Since your face is not available to me, why should my face be available to you?” But I do not feel Hull’s “horror of being faceless, of forgetting one’s own appearance, of having no face.” I’m very aware, self-conscious even, of my face being present and vulnerable to the gaze of others. In this way, I believe my experience of blindness is colored by my experience as a woman, with all its attendant expectations of beauty.

Of course, Hull is but one individual who lived one path that included blindness. He was also a father, a husband, an educator, a deeply religious man born in a particular time and place, whose unique and philosophical observations ought to chip away at, rather than fortify, the monolith called blindness.

Hull alludes to the impossibility of speaking for all blind people in his preface “To the Blind Reader”: “Blind people differ from each other as much as sighted people do. I do not claim to speak for you, but only for myself. You do not need to know what blindness is like, because you are blind.” As a matter of fact, I am intensely curious to learn about his experience of blindness because it is, in many ways, very different from my own. I do not accept his assertion that I “know what blindness is” for anyone but myself.

In “The ‘Dark, Paradoxical Gift’” (first published in 1991 in The New York Review of Books and republished as a forward to subsequent editions of Touching the rock), Oliver Sacks writes, “There has never been, to my knowledge, so minute and fascinating (and frightening) an account of how not only the outer eye, but the “inner eye,” gradually vanishes with blindness; of the steady loss of visual memory, visual imagery, visual orientation, visual concepts,… into the state which he calls ‘deep blindness.'”

Sacks did not at first question hull’s assertion of “deep blindness”–where physical sight loss leads inevitably to a shutting of the inner eye. But almost twenty years later, in The Mind’s Eye he admits his mistake:

“I assumed that Hull’s experience was typical of acquired blindness, the response, sooner or later, of everyone who loses sight–and a brilliant example of cortical plasticity.

“Yet when I came to publish an essay on Hull’s book in 1991, I was taken aback to receive a number of letters from blind people, letters that were often somewhat puzzled and occasionally indignant in tone. Many of these people wrote that they could not identify with Hull’s experience and said that they themselves, even decades after losing their sight, had never lost their visual images or memories. One woman, who had lost her sight at fifteen, wrote:

“‘Even though I am totally blind … I consider myself a very visual person. I still “see” objects in front of me. As I am typing now I can see my hands on the keyboard…. I don’t feel comfortable in a new environment until I have a mental picture of its appearance….'”

Those words could have been written by me, so close are they to expressing my reliance upon and constant sense of the visible. Unlike Hull who loses his visual memories and the ability to create new ones, I, like the woman above, use the inner eye to map and remember my world as I encounter it. For example, although I cannot in any sense have been said to experience a recent dinner party–From the outfit I was wearing to the position of others at the table to the food on the plate in front of me–through my physical eyes, when I call it to mind, it appears as a vivid tableau, punctuated by conversation and smells, but occupying mental space just as those memories from before vision loss.

In the Mind’s Eye Sacks presents Hull’s concept of deep blindness in dialogue with alternate neurological responses to total vision loss .Sacks writes, “Had I been wrong, or at least one-sided, in accepting Hull’s experience as a typical response to blindness? Had I been guilty of emphasizing one mode of response too strongly, oblivious to other, radically different possibilities?”

Sacks goes on to relate the story of Zoltan Torey and others blinded, but retaining a strong sense of the lasting vitality of the inner eye. The experience of blindness reveals itself to be as complex as the experience of sight. Even though Hull’s experience of deep blindness is not my own, his philosophical and sociological grappling is fascinating and intellectually stimulating, as well as entertaining.

In Notes on Blindness, I found Hull’s considerable insights smothered by the family recreations and straining narrative–a narrative that is precisely flouted in Touching the Rock. Notes on Blindness seems not to be fueled by Hull’s wanting “to understand blindness” but rather by the more quotidian formula of overcoming blindness, his original conception of deep blindness barely alluded to. The movie attempts to shape the meandering thoughts of a very smart and philosophically-minded blind man into a domesticated docudrama, where Hull’s recorded meanderings project a bleak arc.

But, like most blind people I know, Hull has a lively sense of humor regarding himself and the sighted people he must deal with, which sparkle throughout Touching the rock that would have added much fun and insight to the film. For instance in a 1984 entry entitled “Does he take sugar?” Hull describes behaviors painfully familiar to me:

“This situation often seems to arise when I am getting in a car with a group of other people. ‘Will you put John in the back with you?’ ‘No, I’ll put him in the front with you.’ ‘All right, you put him in then.’ At this point, I interjected, crying out with an exceedingly loud voice, ‘John is not put anywhere, thank you very much. John is asked if he has any preferences about where he sits.’ At this, all my friends laughed uproariously and were covered with apologies and confusions. On a similar occasion recently, I shouted out, ‘Hey, you guys, don’t you talk about me as if I’m not here.’ This, again, brought shouts of laughter and a mixture of apologies, agreements and congratulations.

“It is, of course, very embarrassing for intelligent and sensitive people when they are caught out like this, in using the ‘Does he take sugar?’ approach to a disabled person. These people are all sensitive, and well aware of the humiliation which this approach implies. So the question arises, why do they do it?

“It is so easy to marginalize a blind person; indeed, in certain situations it is almost impossible not to.”

There is great pathos in the film, but I found the highly stylized and self-conscious metaphorics a bit much, though that could in part be a problem of translation–how many times can a person hear “fade to black” without feeling bored? The raining indoors (and without the family taking notice of it) also seemed needlessly artsy and contrived–not nearly as beautiful as Hull’s intricate description of the sound picture made by rain earlier in the film.

On the other hand, the filmmakers neglect what, to my mind, is one of the most outrageously visual scenes in Touching the rock. Perhaps they felt that a blind man stretched upon an enormous stone altar at the front of an abbey that he had learned by feel, incrementally, and alone in the dead of night, would be too weird or offensive. But it is precisely this image that expresses the whole body seeing that seems ultimately to offer Hull compensation:

“Every night I returned, to explore a little bit more. From pillar to pillar I would work my way, counting the steps, remembering the angles, always returning to the foot of the stairway.

“After several nights, I discovered the main altar. I had been told about this, and I easily recognized it from the description. It was a single block of marble. Finding one corner, I ran my fingers along the edge, only to find that I could not reach the other end. I worked my way along the front and was amazed at its size. The front was carved with hard, cold letters. They stood out boldly, but I could not be bothered reading them. The top was as smooth as silk, but how far back did it go? I stretched my arms out over it but could not reach the back. This was incredible. It must have a back somewhere. Pushing myself up on to it, my feet hanging out over the front, I could reach the back. I did this again and again, measuring it with my body, till at last I began to have some idea of its proportions. It was bigger than me and much older. There were several places on the polished surface which were marked with long, rather irregular indentations, not cracks, but imperfections of some kind. Could it have been dropped? These marks felt like the result of impact. The contrast between the rough depressions and the huge polished areas was extraordinary. Here was the work of people, grinding this thing, smoothing it to an almost greasy, slightly dusty finish which went slippery when I licked it. Here were these abrasions, something more primitive, the naked heart of the rock.”

I fear I may be criticized for having anything negative to say about a film that I should appreciate, perhaps, simply because it attempts to illuminate, in these dark times, a unique perspective, and even includes me, a blind movie-goer into the experience by offering audio description. I think it would be a fair criticism; I would not even feel comfortable writing about–even offering, in my meandering way, a review–on something that was not ostensibly accessible to my appreciation of it. So the opportunity is not to be squandered.

I used to love movies and have in my mind’s eye scenes, decadent visual images (several from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover, for example!), to remind me that filmmaking tends to be extremely visual, though many blind people I know get quite a bit from listening to movies. In other words, I am delighted to write about Notes on Blindness and thrilled to have had an afternoon at the movies to enjoy something that was made, at least in part, with someone like me in mind. I hope there will be more.

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