Billion Year Old Carbon

There’s an episode of the Simpsons where homer is sent to outer space as an Average Joe in attempt to boost NASA’s crashing TV space-launch ratings. The episode is bookended by Homer’s bumbling anti-heroism getting justly unrewarded and overshadowed by the feats of an inanimate carbon rod.

Many folks, back in the day where we walked the streets like some kind of 2-legged monkey, would see me and tell me “You’re inspiring.” It happened every day. Judging by their general lack of interest in my day-to-day life, their source of inspiration was entirely limited to seeing me pass them by in a bar or café, like I was an apparition to rival Mary on a slice of toast -- nobody cares how she got there, or whether she’d prefer being eaten, and if so, whether she’d recommend butter or jelly. I’m more like Homer than Mother Mary though. You needn’t be inspired by me, nor even the toast. If you like me being around, thank the inanimate carbon rod. I’m talking about my cane. This non-collapsing, 172-cm-long hollow tube of carbon fiber with a metal tip scarcely left my side during my recent 2 and a half years in Asia, and the good thing endures to this day.

I started using these strong, light-weight carbon Fiber canes when I bought one from the Louisiana center for the Blind in 2003. During the previous 9-months, which corresponded with my residency there, I used slightly shorter, slightly less flexible fiber glass canes. By the end of my time, it was clear I’m just too much and untamed a bronco for a delicate flower as a 65-inch-long fiber glass number. Many go for a shy little cane that barely goes above the waist, and tells you as little about your surroundings as a tight-lipped umbrella – you might as well just goose step through life, and feel around with your feet, but lots may take this the wrong way -- I’m not saying listen to them, I’m just saying try something else first.

The kindly gurus at the Louisiana Center for the Blind told me I should always use a cane that reaches no lower than my chin when we’re standing, but the only carbon fiber beast they had that fit the bill went higher than my nose. This is no shy cane. This here boss sticks out like a sore trigger finger. All you non-blind people should watch your step.

Stronger than pride itself, I’ve only had to retire these carbon fiber canes about once every 4 years, often because the notch that anchors the replaceable metal saucer tips gets warn down – likely something fixable, but I get replacements anyway.

When someone asks me for my cane’s name, I can usually think of something on the spot: Whitey Bulger, John Ma Cane, Hermon Cane, Sugar, Cracko, Nova, Frazier, etc.; but I quickly forget what I went with. I’ve rarely decorated my cane like some folks, and thus, I have no strong memories attached to any specific one. Each was family – like children – I just don’t remember any of their names. This is a shame, as each has a story, I’m sure. Since embracing cane use in Louisiana 18 years ago, I’ve spent years of my life overseas, visiting over a dozen countries, and living on both coasts of the U.S. We’ve trekked up mountains, bushwhacked through tropical rain forest, trudged through wetlands, danced at fancy balls, performed on stages, all those things I probably wouldn’t be able to do without such a simple tool. The glorious simplicity can be something to be marbled at. I know that’s no way to treat your child, but sometimes you have to detach yourself. Other times you have to reflect.

This is strong stuff; these carbon fiber canes. It is remarkable what they don’t handle – apparently getting swung like a baseball bat into a wooden table leg. The one I’ve got has been stepped on countless times (almost never by me), run over (almost never by me), mistaken for a pool stick, and plucked like an upright bass. It’s been about Four years since I got this one, I believe. My previous guy was stepped on and cracked in two by my apartment complex’s manager (like so many contracts) not long before my flight to Vietnam . The guy apologized profusely, and, without my consultation, rush ordered a replacement from Amazon – a collapsing, metallic 4 feet of dead wait. I flipped over the long half of my once singular cane before it slithered away, used it to scurry back to my apartment, and ordered my own free replacement from the National Federation of the Blind.

I’d been to Vietnam before, as early as 2012, where I learned I could simply hold the long white sucker horizontally and parallel while on a motorbike – there was no need to start using these collapsing jobs. I fondly remember holding mine, together with a suitcase, and bike captain Chi N, as we raced down the highway out of Hanoi at night in pouring rain, at least 10 cm of water on the ground, singing something. It would have been nice if I was singing Rain Drops keep Falling on my Head, but to be honest, I don’t remember. Maybe Misunderstanding by Genesis.
Never the less, I brought that heavy metal white cane with me to VN, realizing even your strongest carbon fiber children don’t last forever; but that collapsible little Amazonian is still in its packaging. Together, me and Herman, Long Tall Sally, or whatever he’s called, are going strong. To Portland, Stockholm, Cat Ba, Sa Pa, Phu Quoc, Thai Binh and not least Hanoi we’ve been, up mountains, and in kayaks on the ocean. I give my cane all the credit for my success.

There’s an irony I’ve pointed out several times — when I was a kid, I regularly refused to use a cane, fearing it would single me out as an incapable blind person. I didn’t do much as a kid though. I stuck to familiar places for the most part when on my own, didn’t have many friends, and when school was done, I returned home and pressed reset. I was correct in my child’s premonition though. When I finally bit the long white bullet, suddenly I was in business. I was all over the place, exploring the unfamiliar as a matter of course; but all of a sudden, I was the blind guy. To others, and to many blind folks that refuse to be seen with a cane, I was the feeble orphan stripling, groping my way from station to station, looking for my handler, but somehow also inspiring and life-affirming. But a cane gave me life, independence, strength, endurance, and, most of all, confidence – think the opposite of truck nuts.

Inspiring? Well, you don’t have to thank me, thank this…

“Hey, what is that?!”

“It’s an inanimate carbon rod!”