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On the Road Again (part 1)

I almost called this one “A Blind Retailer in Charlotte,” but one post has become a series and there’s so much more to it than that.

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Comics Pro is a trade organization for comic book retailers and it holds an annual meeting where retailers, publishers, and distributors all come together to talk. I joined 2 years ago and traveled to Portland for the 2018 meeting. As I write this, the 2019 convention has just ended and there is a lot to process. There’s so much dissect and I’m going to do a little of that but mostly tell you about the trip from the perspective of a blind person in the heart of a major convention.

I spent most of my life terrified of travel. I stayed at home, at my shop, and I deeply and truly believed i would not be safe if I traveled. I think I even developed a nearly psychotic attitude that was hell bent on the idea that I could not possibly do it, that I would have to endure the uncertainty of it– not enjoy it, and I convinced myself that was okay. It was a dark way to think and live, embroiled in that kind of depression and self doubt. More than that, it was a shame issue. I didn’t want to see myself as blind and didn’t want to reveal to anyone else that I was either. Being blind was an embarrassing, shameful existence that had to be hidden. I built all kinds of ways to hide it by staying home. I could control my environment so I knew where things were, how to find them, and could control my surroundings enough to convince most people I was “normal.” And most of all I had safe space to run to. If anything went wrong, there was my couch and tv in my single bedroom apartment that I could always escape to. Basically, I was so scared that someone would know who I really was underneath all my layers of protection that I would do anything to keep the secret that I was blind. 

That’s how bad it was. And the worst part was how deeply I believed in this model of living. Discussing all the therapy that went into change is not the point of this post so I’ll stay on topic but it’s enough to tell you that I’m a different person now and show you how my trip went. As I’ve built my support system and made friends in the blind community, I’ve come to develop the tools needed to make a trip like this. In a previous blog, I talked about how low expectations are the biggest barrier for blind people but now I’ll add that training to adapt to who you are is perhaps the biggest asset. Everyone can travel and I know now I can do everything a fully sighted person can do.

I needed a couple things: the willingness to ask for help when needed and a tool box. The first of those required a long series of therapy sessions, meeting a lot of blind people who were already knew what I was trying to figure out, and some experience. The second one, the tool box, well, turns out that’s just plain awesome because we live in a world of technology that just gets better and more fun every day. 

My tool box includes: an iPhone X, an iPad, an Apple Watch, a service called Aira, a good old fashioned white cane, and best of all people who love me.

Despite living in Fargo ND, we flew out of Mineeapolis, MN. It’s about a 3 hour drive and it comes with a savings of over $500 because of the differential in tickets. My dear fiancé Jennifer was willing to do the driving. She was the only driver in our motley crew which included the two of us plus her 13 year old daughter and my comic manager Darren who is a British national living here as a resident so has no license.  So Jen knew she had to do it all and by the way was fantastic despite adverse weather. Our original plan was to leave early on Wednesday morning to get to MPLS on time for a flight out but as this winter never ends, a virtual blizzard was predicted for Wednesday. So we all scrambled and hit the road on Tuesday night. We’ve got a pair of wonderful puppies named Seven and Dipper and I don’t have the heart to kennel them so we hired a dog sitter for the week. Side note: I don’t think I can ever kennel them again after our last experience which featured one of the employees there telling us: “he’ll eat when he’s hungry” in response to us explaining his needs. Yeah, that did it for me.

Ok, so we got where we needed to be. When you are traveling with a sighted driver, you take it as a responsibility to entertain them at the very least and try to contribute. I am actually our navigator. I have an iPhone X and good old Google maps — never use Apple Maps, sorry my beloved Apple but that needs a lot of work. Not only does Google maps have a beautiful female voice to read directions but in addition I have the Voice Over functionality provided on all IOS devices. It’s interesting to me to think that most people learn visually since I learn auditorially. The only person in my life who has tried to see the world the way I do is my brother Nick and he has found some amazing ways to do things. Anyway, my navigation consists of me wearing a blue tooth Airpod and relaying instructions to Jen so that all she has to do is focus on the road. I’ve learned that she can be a bit impatient while I am very ADHD and that can make a frustrating combo. I try to repeat instructions and remind her where we are in the process and I try to set aside all distractions and focus only on the task. I imagine it’s very difficult to trust an auditory relay when you are used to visual input.

The trip went perfectly smooth and we spent the night at a family friend’s home. In the morning, while we were treated to a wonderful breakfast, the Fly Delta app said everything was on time so we headed to the airport. So now I need to navigate the airport. I’ve got lots of options. I subscribe to a service called Aira, a company that uses the camera on your phone and a trained rep to talk to you live and guide you. They have free minutes in airports. A lot of blind people value their independence greatly so a service like this or using a cane on their own is their first preference. I completely understand that but I find myself sticking to old patterns of relying on others rather than being more independent. My skills and coping are still works in progress but more and more I’m coming to realize the satisfaction of being able to do something yourself first but that allowing your friends and family to aid you is okay. It takes a lot of communication and all of them were looking for gates, checking bags, and navigating a crowded space for themselves as well as a 13 year old and a blind guy. I ran into stanchions, nearly lost track of my group a couple of times, and needed to be directed which way to go often. But we made it. The fact is I should use Aira in that situation to make it easier on them and yet they are kind and often stubborn folks who love the crap out of me.

Now it’s security check time. Personally, I try to strip down to bare necessities to get through TSA. I had a carry on packed with everything I needed for the week and had removed my belt, wallet, and anything else i could to only turn in as little as possible. I had to surrender shoes, my carry on, my iPad, my sweatshirt, and of course me. Here is where I did announce to several TSA personnel that I was low vision. That crew is busy trying to funnel everyone through but they do an excellent job of making sure I get through. My biggest anxiety is on the opposite side of the scanner, finding all my buckets of stuff. It’s always worked out on flights so far. The biggest issues are that my field of vision is extremely narrow so it’s hard to stay oriented with my location and search through the things coming by. I have of course nearly picked up someone else’s bag as it appears as dark as mine and I can’t tell it’s different visually.  There’s so many moving parts during the security line from showing an ID to the person at the counter, to finding trays for my things, listening to and following instructions on what to put where, and getting through the body scanner to the other side then needing to find my own things in a sea of other people’s. I felt an immense amount of anxiety the first time I went through this process. Actually, it starts earlier when I have to wind my way through the stanchions and dividers plus try not to run into people in front of me or move too slowly for people behind you. TSA has always helped me through the scanner and I can see the outline that shows where to stand and hold up your arms. Coming through that, waiting for everyone’s possessions to come through, that’s probably the worst part for me because I have no clue if mine have already gone past or if I should be waiting for them. This trip everything worked out great and honestly after that the rest of the trip was a snap. I described flying recently as: you go in a building, hand someone your shoes, sit by a stranger, walk out a different building and you are somewhere else.

We got to Charlotte in the early evening and it was already dark out. We found the shuttle to our hotel easily enough and for us from Minnesota, the 40 degree temperature was amazing and waiting outside was a treat. We even ran into a friend we had made on our first trip to Comics Pro last year. He goes by Brainy and last year he welcomed us at registration and was incredibly kind to us first timers who had no idea what we were doing. That’s two years in a row he’s been our introduction to the meeting and it was a great way to start. From that point, we easily got our rooms and started to settle in. The conference started at 8:45 the next morning and there wasn’t much for us to do but relax.

One of the main things I wanted to do this year was tackle the stuff I still couldn’t last year. Everyone tells you that while the meeting is awesome and important, the fact is that the parties are where the relationships are truly formed. Last year, I was overwhelmed with my first trip on a plane in over 30 years and meeting everyone and just generally how long and grueling the event itself even was. So I didn’t go to any parties. I went to my room and stayed safe and out of the way. Old habits. This year, I wasn’t having any of that.

Wednesday night featured a reception for those who had already arrived and Jen and I had her daughter settled into her room and headed over. We each had 2 glasses of wine but were seated at a table by ourselves. It was a relatively dark room with little light contrast so all my low vision problems were exaggerated. I can’t see faces or name tags so I don’t know who is around me. I use voices to recognize most people but I knew a lot of these folks from online plus it was noisy and hard to pick out individual voices. Nonetheless, I said to Jen that we were going to get up and mingle. She could read name tags and I could let her know if we knew the person. So together we jumped up and dove in.

By sheer chance, the very first pair of attendees we ran into were Phil Boyle and Nancy Spears. Phil owns Coliseum of Comics in Florida and is one of the most successful chain retailers in America. I met him last year in person in Chicago but he hosts a secret FB group for retailers and I’ve talked to him quite frequently there. I had no idea who Nancy was but it turns out she is the senior Vice President of sales and marketing for DC Entertainment. Well then. Basically, I don’t know that we could have randomly picked a more perfect conversation to join. 

I won’t go into details of private conversations but I’ll say that Nancy is an amazing woman. She is not only very intelligent and friendly but she is a willing listener and learner. She was there to hear what we said, listen to us, and give honest replies. I tend to get a bit excited and I apologize still to Phil if I took too much of his time but I can’t thank him and Nancy enough for this incredible start to my weekend.

Even in a one on one conversation, I have all kinds of interactions to manage that come naturally i assume to sighted people. I can’t make eye contact with others so I do my best to fake it, staring with as much concentration as I can at their heads. I have no idea how awkward this is for the people on the other end and I know at times it comes off as though I’m not paying attention or listening. I can’t see the body language cues that indicate interest or the need to leave and so on. My only clues are what’s being said and the direction of the conversation. Also, I can’t see the environment around us either so I don’t know when someone else is trying to speak or enter our group so I’ve had lots of embarrassing moments including one during this conversation when Dan DiDio needed to talk to Nancy for just a minute. It was a thrilling situation for me, something I was not used to, and I had a lot to say but also did not want to take over a conversation Phil needed to have. Jen says I did just fine. Nancy not only listened and absorbed but asked lots of questions and had a lot to say and a few days later found me and gave me her card, saying to email her so we could continue the conversation. I’ll take that as a good sign.

That was the first half of my great night. Eventually, Chris Powell of Diamond Comics came near. I have known that he is well thought of both by retailers and himself but I’ve never had the chance to directly talk to him at any length. That night I got at least an hour of one on one attention and discussion. That man knows what he’s doing don’t ever let him fool you. My respect for him and my loyalty to him and his company is now solidified. Again, I won’t reveal that conversation but suffice it to say that many of my doubts and concerns about DCD are gone and my goal is to help make them better so that we can all be better.

That was my first day, and the conference hadn’t even kicked off.

I’m going to break here and come back in the next post to pick up with Thursday morning at Comics Pro which was immediately full of fireworks and learning.

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