FRIENDS CAFE: Kind Servers and Craw-fishy

I will use the overarching title “Friends CafĂ©” for my trip to Louisiana, both because it’s the translation of an actual place we visited, and because it applies to pretty much everything I experienced on this journey. Never have I seen truer examples of “Southern hospitality” than I have in this fine state. So, let’s begin the journey shall we?

Friday, December 26

3:20 AM, I make my halting way out to the curb, absorbing the absolute quiet and clear cold that are present on this post-Christmas night. As the duffel bag’s strap digs into my shoulder, I hope that my prearranged taxi does show up at 3:30, for I have no other viable options that I can think of. 3:22, 3:24, and finally it pulls up at 3:27; actually three minutes early. Well done!

I hop in and nearly doze, warming my digits in the heat stream as the driver, from a Middle Eastern country I think, chatters about perceived differences between Christianity and Islam.

“Do you know why you’re here?” he asks.

I think his take-home message is that death exists to keep us from doing things that are too far out there, and that it also focuses us on finding our purpose. We should also strive to live the best we can while in this body. I can agree with those conclusions. I think more than anything though, he’s just talking to keep himself awake long enough to reach Raleigh-Durham International Airport, an 18-minute ride along Durham Freeway and Highway 40 according to Google Maps.

We do reach the building, and I am disgorged at the Delta Terminal. A woman who says she is on her way to Detroit helps me to the check-in counter, but I do not get anymore time to speak to her. Really, I suppose that few people feel like speaking at 4 AM, as even the worker who is guiding me says the bare minimum.

At the ever-so-fun security checkpoint, I am pulled aside and wanded, even having the palms of my hands scanned. Fun times. Then down to my gate, where I sit for about 15 minutes before being silently ushered aboard.

The first flight to Atlanta departs promptly at 5:10. I am annoyed for most of it, because the Braille display absolutely refuses to cooperate. Airplane mode has shut down Bluetooth, and when I attempt to re-enable it I still can’t regenerate the connection. I have since come to the conclusion that it is better to turn on Bluetooth immediately after going into airplane mode, and not once I plan to actually use the display.

I have brought two books onboard with me: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, an exhaustive piece about that city’s musical, Jim Crow, and other history as it relates to that jazz great; and Buccaneer by Maycay Beeler, a true crime story about a drug dealer who has all sorts of adventures transporting product and eventually lands in prison. I find the latter to be a better airplane read, as the chapters are generally short and action-packed enough to hold my interest.

After having guzzled a cup of coffee to also give me juice for the day, we touch down in Atlanta where I am to wait another hour and a half for my final flight to New Orleans. No one talks to me at this point, so I finally fight the display and get it working, and chat with people online.

The next flight is relatively uneventful and on time, so I just sit and enjoy this one. On both of these trips, well really all four, I have been placed in right-side aisle seats. This means I have difficulty engaging seatmates in discussion, since I can’t hear particularly well in my right ear. In the small talk I do manage on the way to the Big Easy, I ascertain that the person beside me is from Massachusetts and is visiting family.

“It may be kind of cold out there,” she says: “but I’ll still enjoy it!”

As we disembark, the flight attendant insists that I must try beignets and of course that other Louisiana thing: crawfish. An agent then shows up, whisks me into the airport, and since I’ve managed not to check a bag, straight out to where my party awaits.

I have come to see two individuals with whom I serve on the board of the Norrie Disease Association, mostly for the vacation and fun chatter that would ensue. They are both due to make the long trek to Australia, another place I would very much like to visit, at about the time that I return to the shop for work. The woman who is hosting me at her place actually resides in Lafayette, which is about as far from New Orleans as Charlotte is from Durham. I suppose I should have known this, but still end up feeling a bit bad for not flying straight into Lafayette. That choice does save me $100 at least, though.

Before beginning that drive, we stop at IHOP for a quick bite. I opt for a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich and fries. They really give me two, and I can barely eat even one of them! This is only the beginning of my food consumption in that great state. I also have fun talking to the server in there who asks “what are you doing with that phone!” I think she was surprised at how I could even operate an iPhone. She is fun, funny, and cool, and keeps watching me for most of the time I am there.

On the road again, the guy and I in back start conversing about topics as wide-ranging as independence for blind folks, the pending big changes in the Norrie Disease Association, and what we want out of life in general. Eventually we start to drift off, and she turns on the radio probably to stave off the silence and keep going. After nearly 3 hours, we arrive at her place.

It is a comfortable little house with a 1-car garage. I am given a quick tour: shown where the two bathrooms, stairs, and the guestroom where I will sleep are located. I am then ushered to the little rocker where I immediately get comfortable, wrapping in an LSU blanket and enjoying the warmth of a fire. I quickly adopt this chair as “mine” during my stay there.

Not much happens until dinner, where I get to try crawfish for the first time. It is in a pie that they get from a place down the street called Pouparts French Bakery, kind of like a chicken pot pie type thing. There seems to be some other filling inside of it too: consisting primarily of the “trinity”: onions, bell pepper, and celery, and I enjoy it. I don’t notice much taste in the fish itself, but it might be hard to distinguish within that context. Accompanying that, we have a delicious salad. She accidentally gives me the one with Caesar (sp?) and he the ranch dressing, but I certainly don’t mind. It is delicious and full of flavor. There is also a potato covered in flecks of bacon and cheese. MMM.

And that just about wraps up Friday. As the weather turns gloomier, we opt to just stay inside and call it a night early. I am pretty tired, so take a bottle of water upstairs, crawl under the covers to catch some football on the phone, and soon enough give in to dreamland.

Christmas Vacation 2: The Party

Because I am completely unimaginative, I will use the same subject line I did at this time last year. As I had then, this year I also venture to Lumberton NC to attend the now-Annual Christmas party this past Saturday.

First, the departure. I am excited to learn that Megabus has now made available a route straight from Durham to Fayetteville. This means that, unlike last year when I had to get a neighbor to drive me to Raleigh where I connected with Greyhound, I am able to launch straight from home.

I almost don’t even manage to get out of here in the first place, though. Uber, I still love you as a service, but I have to wonder about the drivers you’ve hired of late. I know that the Megabus is scheduled to leave at 11:25, and I would have to stand in the near-freezing rain to wait, so I admittedly opt to push it about as close as I can and leave at 11. The Uber driver I get though is unable to understand English or, I gather, follow the GPS. I try in vain a couple of times to explain the somewhat complex instructions for locating my apartment and finally hang up. Pondering what to do and prepared to call Durham’s Best Taxi, another taxi happens to pull up in front of me and ask if I need a ride. I’ve seen this guy before as he regularly cruises the neighborhood, and so I don’t hesitate to jump in and hope I still have time to get to that Megabus stop. And because I was unable to properly cancel my Uber, they still billed me $4, I guess their base fare.

Oh man is it cold at this stop! The wind is cutting, and the rain isn’t absolutely pouring but it’s certainly hard enough to make even checking my iPhone impractical. A couple of other families stand nearby, kids milling around and probably trying to keep themselves warm as well. The vehicle mercifully arrives, and a woman lets me stand with her so that I will know when we can board.

I guess the vehicles can be designed differently, as this one has virtually no seat pitch. I sit with my knees almost under my chin, well ok maybe not quite that drastic but close, and try to figure out a way to balance my Braille display on my lap so I can read.

“Excuse me, sir” I hear a voice ask: “where are you getting off?”

I tell her, and discover that she is an older woman from Connecticut who is coming to visit her mom for a month. She has some kind of physical issue who’s origins she is not even certain of, and thus is unable to walk easily.

“I usually use an electric wheelchair,” she tells me: “but they’ve taken it and put it somewhere else. Having to use my walker now, which kind of hurts me.”

We talk about potential careers, and she says she once worked in customer service, but wants now to use her cooking abilities to start a food truck. MMM!

She has offered to help me sort things in Fayetteville in the event that I arrive and my pick-up ride isn’t there, but as it turns out, my ride is indeed waiting. She, as well as the woman on the bus, expresses some concern about the area of town in which the bus disembarks, noting that it’s “real ghetto”. I am just relieved to not have to wait in the cold again.

We speed toward Lumberton as I make conversation with the driver and a front-seat passenger who is also a friend. Both of us blind folks opt to remain in the car during the quick grocery stop, sitting for only about 7 minutes while some additional supplies are acquired.

The party is much the same as it had been the year before and the one before that. I meet my cousin and his wife there, as well as another couple from smalltown NC not far away from Charlotte, who had also been there the previous two years. But, a friend from my university days has made an appearance for the first time in a while. And the most exciting find: my other long-lost “cousin” also shows up with his very kind girlfriend, who impresses us all by her willingness to just jump right in and make herself at home among this disparate, sometimes crazy group.

I am given two tins of cookies, as well as a gift that I still have wrapped because I want something to tear into on Christmas. Just a little of that childhood sentimentality, for old time’s sakes.

The evening’s highlight is the gift exchange. I brought an umbrella, easy to tell what it is even though wrapped, but hey a useful device! Especially considering that we’ve turned into Seattle lately. I don’t know who takes it, but it is plucked near last. I initially get a $25 Starbucks gift card (OO, nice!) but am not surprised in the least when someone opts to “steal” it. On my next draw, I got some sort of ringholder. Funny.

We also consume delicious nachos with cheese and meat, pasta sallad, and the requisite sausage ball that I have every time I go to this particular residence. We laugh as the NFL’s Washington Redskins amazingly knock off the Philadelphia Eagles, ending the Eagles’ hopes of making the playoffs.

After more chattering and ingestion of punch mixed with OJ, lemonade, Southern Comfort, and perhaps something else, I slunk off to bed.

And that’s pretty much the crux of the happenings at this year’s party. Most everyone had already departed long before I do, but I stay with my friend and watch our Carolina Panthers keep their playoff chances, which should by rights have been long gone, alive with a win over the Cleveland Browns 17-13. We have to defeat the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday starting at 4:25 in order to win the woeful NFC South, and extend our season with the worst record in NFL history of any team that has managed to do so.

I guess I’ll check in on that one while down in Louisiana, as I will be from this Friday till next Tuesday. Those will of course be my next series of posts. I’m guessing more will happen than I can even contain in two entries. We shall see, though. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

EDIT: Oh, and I also don’t have to await a ride when I arrive on the Megabus in Durham, as the individual I’ve designated as my favorite cabbie happens to be there. I guess she positions herself near arriving transit vehicles like that and Amtrak to see if she can get a fare. Makes me happy, again.

Brailliant Follow-up, and Holiday Travel

So, the promised Braille display did in fact arrove last Wednesday. I was so happy about this that I coasted through the rest of my workday, unable to think about anything else but coming home, opening the online User’s Mannual, and figuring it out.

This is exactly what I did. First, I was impressed with how intuitive the display and its commands are. Access the iPhone’s status bar? Press the Braille letter S, as represented by its command keys. These are a set of three keys on either side of the unit, not part of the keyboard but off to its side, that give additional functionality. And because the letter S is taken by said status bar, you press W to swipe down and read continuously. This is very nice indeed.

The display also has a set of thumb keys that are along the front of the panel. I probably don’t exactly use these as intended, because well what do I do that is as intended. I just place an index finger on the key that advances by display length, then can run my other index finger, the right-hand one, along the top. This method has me reading almost as quickly as I would on a full sheet of Braille paper, and boy does it bring books to life in a new way.

While I had great success with the reading aspect of things, the writing took a bit longer. First, it took me a minute to work out how to power up the Braille Keyboard. In a brainwave, I finally deduced that this could be done within the display’s onboard menu. Then, I kept having an issue with the keyboard locking after I entered only a few characters. First, I concluded that this happened only if I turned off VoiceOver’s speech on my iPhone. When it occurred again, I assumed it was only on the initial startup for that day. Finally, I’ve just given it over as a random issue, possibly in VoiceOver, iOS, the display, or some combination of all three. The more I use it though, the less I’m finding that it even locks up period. This is definitely a good thing for my frustration level.

This display has had the effect I’d hoped for. Because I can sit in a coffeeshop or my job’s break room with ears unencumbered by a headset, I am much more able to meet new people. Not to mention that I can read for way longer periods of time without that feeling of agitation that can sometimes come when listening to something for too long in one’s ears as well. I can’t wait to see how this technology will help me on my coming bus rides and flights. More on those in a bit.

I have also enjoyed using the display as a remote of sorts for the iPhone. Now, I can have my phone plugged into the speakers and charger on my low table, and change songs, sports, NPR stations, etc from the comfort of my desk. And now that I’ve turned off the clicking sounds the iPhone normally akes when VoiceOver is in use, I can check and play with other apps on the same device even while listening to other media. This definitely makes the iPhone more computerlike than it had been before

Along with this fantastic display, the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind allowed me to re-acquire the JAWS for Windows Screen-reader. Once the dominant way in which blind folks accessed PC’s, this thing now seems to be kind of, well, iffy. At least on my machine, when I use Jaws it causes my Internet to slow down somehow. I know that doesn’t make much sense, but it’s true. I can hardly pull tweets, log onto websites, or do much else. I’m not really sure why, but it’s disappointing as I was hoping I could disconnect my current solution and save some dough. Hopefully I’ll figure out what on earth is going on there.

And speaking of dough, more the spending than saving as I probably should be, I have two fun trips booked for this month.

First, I’m going to what has become an annual tradition: my friend’s Christmas party in Robeson County North Carolina. It’s a large, rural county a couple hours Southeast of here, and I’m kind of looking forward to just letting everything go for at least one day and reveling in the holiday spirit. The party will be on Saturday, and we will partake in what is sure to be an entertaining gift exchange, some fun conversation among long-familiar folks, and good food! Sausage balls?

Then the real kicker of my extended vacation from work, which lasts from December 23-January 5: I’m taking a jaunt to Louisiana to hang out with some good friends with whom I have been working as part of the Norrie Disease Association for some time. I will fly into New Orleans, then be whisked to Lafayette. More good, probably rather interesting food shall be consumed, I think a show will be listened to, and probably a lot of chatter about any and everything will happen. I am definitely looking forward to that, will be there from the 26-30. The only thing is the crazy flight times: I depart Raleigh/Durham Airport (RDU) at 5:10 AM and will return there at 12:22 AM. It’s all good though, I should be well-rested and ready to go on both ends. I’ll definitely take traveling at those times over working anyday!

And that’s a little about what’s going on this month. It has been a great one, as this year has entirely. I should do a review of the extremely fast-moving 2014 at some point, but not real sure when I’ll get that in. No doubt I’ll have tons to write about Louisiana, so we’ll just have to see how that all plays out.

Do you have fun holiday plans? Whatever they are, I hope you stay safe and eat lots. More comin’ soon.

2345-125-15 12-15-1-136-2345-13456 15-124 12-1235-1-24-123-123-15

In its simplicity, it reveals the word(s) to so many on an 8-by-11 inch sheet of thick paper. At least this time-tested method had been the most common way to present written text to those who are blind for many years, taking me from the good ol’ days of primary school up through the proud moments of my high school graduation. Its existence ensured that I was able to get an equal education to that of my sighted peers.

It is not, in and of itself, a language, as so many think. Thus the question “is it harder to read this way than in English?” is an incorrect one. Rather, it is a medium: a means of transmission in the same way that print is.

“24-2345” 24-234 12-1235-1-24-123-123-15, and throughout this entry, I intend to pepper little bits of code that are to represent the dot presentations as we see them. View the Code Legend here, and try to figure out as many of the words as you can. Many can probably be ascertained by 14-135-1345-2345-15-1346-2345.

Braille is made up of different dot combinations that are centered around a six-dot cell. On the Perkins Braille Writer, the most regularly used device for hardcopy output, the dots are as follows: to the left of the space bar going right to left, dots 1, 2, and 3. To the right of the space bar, going left to right, dots 4, 5, and 6. The dots are pressed simultaneously to create whichever letter/number/symbol you wish to generate.

When viewing Braille characters on the paper, however, the dots are aligned so that dots 1, 2, and 3 are on the left side of the cell, while dots 4, 5, and 6 are on the right. I am not certain how challenging it would be to discern this visually, but know of many people who are able to sight-read Braille so suppose it can be done.

As I suspect many are aware, Braille was created, or more like modified, by the Frenchman Louie Braille, who had lost his sight due to an unfortunate accident involving an awl that stuck into his eye. This actually helped to give rise to the first method for writing in Braille: the slate and stylus.

1235-15-123-1-2345-15-145: Connecting the Dots: Braille in the Digital Age An excellent post recently written by one of my online friends.

While Braille is not a language, it does have the ability to shape thought. For example, take the oft-used phrase “knowledge is power”. Because Braille tends to take up so much space it also has a contracted form, called either Grade 2 or Contracted Braille. In this form, the word “knowledge” is represented by only the letter K. Oddly, this does seem to confer an unusual amount of power into that statement.

Well, I should say that Grade 2 Braille is what I grew up with, but that is now being phased out as attempts are being made to move to a single standard called United English Braille, or UEB. I don’t really know much about nor have I seen this type of Braille in action, but I hear that some of the symbols we’ve been used to are changed or removed. Hopefully, it doesn’t take us older folk too long to master this new incarnation, though.

I’m writing this, because in theory at least, I will get a new refreshable Braille display, the Brailliant BI 40, next week. This designation means that it has 40 of the six-dot Braille cells I referred to earlier, making it 15-1-234-24-15-1235 to read an entire line. I am happy about this, as the previous display I had only contained 18 cells. This meant a lot more clicking, and was generally not all that 14-135-1345-1236-15-1345-24-15-1345-2345.

This equipment is being provided to me via the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP), a trial effort to help individuals who need this technology but cannot practically afford it. In order to obtain it, I have been working for the past year with my deafblind specialist at the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind, who has handled much of the paperwork and coordination with the Division of Services for the Hard of Hearing. There are some income eligibility and hearing/vision requirements, and so if you are interested I would advise checking with your state’s equivalent department(s) to see if you meet these and can be assisted. I think in my case, the ear infection incident I suffered earlier this year definitely showed why I should get my hands on a display as soon as possible. Not to mention it will be pleasant to be able to read books and create my own ideas of how characters sound without the interference of 15-123-15-14-2345-1235-135-1345-24-14 or human voices.

Currently, the cost of these displays is quite high, I would guess no less than $1500, and well upwards of 10 G’s for a high-end model. Happily, there is an attempt by two orgs to bring that down to around $300. It looks like those models would have only 20 cells, but that would still revolutionize access for people who aren’t able to utilize government programs for whatever reason. It also would bring the price in line with most other mainstream pieces of technology. I have high hopes that this will happen. I do not think Braille will disappear as technology advances, but as my friend said in her piece, it will become more accessible and useful than ever before. 123-135-1345-1245 123-24-1236-15 12-1235-1-24-123-123-15!