Has Anyone Ever Died from the Willies?

I originally published this as a blog post-only on January 9, but re-ran it as a newspaper column, so I'm republishing it in the regularly scheduled column slot.

In a past job, I worked with people who are blind or visually impaired. I traveled extensively to different conferences, and met all sorts of people and saw all sorts of products related to technology, mobility, and independent living.

One thing I learned is that a lot of blind people — and they prefer to be called blind (read the article. It's a real dope slap to people who use PC euphemisms like "hard of seeing," which blind people think are ridiculous.) — have a strong independent streak. Organizations like the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind use "of the intentionally, because they don't want you to do things for them. They'll do it themselves, thank you very much!

In fact, the NFB members are so independent, they even choose to forego using guide dogs; the ACB, on the other hand, love their guide dogs, but still value their independence.

I got to experience this first hand, because I would attend the NFB and ACB conferences every year, and talk to attendees about how they found their way around the world.

One summer, I was attending the NFB conference in Louisville, Kentucky, and was standing outside the conference hotel with my friend, Brian. We had just been to a Louisville Bats baseball game that night, and were chatting and winding down the night.

As we talked, a school bus pulled up to let off several conference attendees who had been on a field trip to the Louisville Slugger museum and factory. The first woman off the bus tripped as she was coming down the steps, and fell three feet, landing squarely on her knees.

When she fell, she dropped her purse, her cane, and a few other objects. The woman began frantically scrambling around trying to find the objects she had dropped. The bus driver was trying to help her up, but she wouldn't get up, still insisting on finding everything herself.

"Man, that's hardcore independence," I remember thinking. But I also have a caretaker personality, and can't keep my nose out of any situation if I think I can help.

So I picked up a large squarish button that had apparently fallen off the woman's purse. I was going to hold onto it until the woman got up.

Which she was still not doing.

I stood there waiting, and decided to get a closer look at that button. I flipped it over in my hand. I was more than a little shocked to discover that I wasn’t holding a button.

It was her artificial eye. And it was staring at me.

I’m a city boy, born and raised. I never grew up on a farm. I never got to witness the Circle of Life up close. And I’m only on a nodding acquaintance with Mother Nature. So when I see dead things, gory things, or when people talk about their own bodily functions, I get more than a little icked out.

So when I realized what I was holding in my hand, there was a roaring in my ears and the blood rushed out of my head so fast, I thought I was going to pass out. As I stood there, holding this artificial eye in my hand, all I could think was "this was in her head, now it’s in my hand. This was in her head, now it’s in my hand."

(In the woman’s defense, none of this was her fault, and I don’t want to get a laugh at her expense. It’s not her fault she fell in front of a big wuss.)

As I stared at the eye — and it stared back at me — there was an electric tingling creeping slowly up my arm, like when you touch a snake on a dare.

"What do I do?!" I whispered to Brian.

"I don’t know. I’ve never seen that happen before."

It seemed like hours, but was only a few seconds, when I finally realized why the woman wasn’t getting up. She wasn’t looking for her purse or her cane. She only wanted one thing. So I got to say that sentence that only one person in the entire world will ever get to say in all of history:

"Ma'am, I've got your eye."

She popped right up, relieved, and said, "Oh, thank you, honey. I was looking for that." She held out her hand, I gave her back her eye (there's another sentence no one will ever say), gathered up her other things, and went on her way.

I just stood there, staring at Brian, hand still outstretched. I finally said, "I really can’t think of anything to say now, so I’ll just say good-bye. I just need to— I mean, I should— that is, I’m gonna just, well, go."

I went back to my room with a severe case of the willies that didn’t subside until I finally fell asleep, several hours later. But as I drifted off, I comforted myself with one thought.

At least this wasn’t a morticians’ conference.

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available.

My other book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing is also out.

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