Susan Orlean and John Laroche

Author Susan Orlean and muse John Laroche at the premiere of the film version of The Orchid Thief, Adaptation, in 2002.

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What is bigger than huge? A ginormous THANK YOU!!!

A GINORMOUS (gigantic+enormous) THANK YOU goes out to Rob Kurson and his son for joining us last night.  It was beyond amazing and I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow that up.  It was a huge honor for him to join us and he was impressed with our little group devoted exclusively to non-fiction.  So again…a GINORMOUS thank you to Rob Kurson for making last night possible.

Also, a ridiculously large thanks again to Mike May.  I was holding out on publishing some interview questions figuring they’d come up in the discussion, which they did, but I’ll include them a little later just so everyone can access them.

More Mike (I need to start asking shorter questions)

Evanston Public Library:  There are very few criticisms about the book.  In fact none about the story or the writing style, but there are some discussions about you.  You aren’t shy about your admiration/love of beautiful women.  People criticize that because I think they expect you to be such an enlightened man given what you’ve gone through and they expect more from you.  I found that the candid discussion about your feelings and your entire life was refreshing and really gave the reader a sense of who you are.  You dated a model without ever seeing her and fell in love with her anyways.  Yet, you highlighted how it was important to you that even though you couldn’t see her you needed to know the woman you were with was attractive.  So the question is: is beauty all it’s cracked up to be?  Is it more intriguing to you now that you can see these beautiful women you’ve always been curious about?

Mike May:  Well, I was just talking about this this morning, the fact that all these years when I couldn’t see and the one thing you can’t do, if you can’t see, is know the information or any sort of detail about the people that are around you.  Men and women, you can’t touch them physically.  But your eyes essentially do touch people.  You look at somebody and whatever detail you can pick up through clothing or whatever, you know; people process that in different ways.  But as a blind person you don’t have that access and there is no equivalent.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t imagine and that you can’t smell perfume and hear high heels and different things.  But the truth is you don’t see any of the kind of stuff that the guys have been looking at all their adult lives.  So once I could see, I am mostly just astounded, even with my limited vision, of what people can see.  And I say, “Oh my gosh!” it’s amazing that people see this all the time and don’t talk about it.  And maybe they just get numb to the fact and they aren’t really noticing and I’m still in the noticing mode.  I don’t know which it is but I am mostly astounded by that aspect of vision. 

Are you still?

Yeah.  Absolutely.  And some of it is still; let’s say looking at a mountaintop, something that is 100% visual and 0% other senses.  And what I mean by that is if there’s a mountaintop that’s 10 miles away and I can perceive it visually there’s not an audio or tactile equivalent of that.  The only thing is someone can describe it to me, like my friend Fiona describing Mont Blanc.  And I can get a sense of it through someone’s audio description, but that’s it compared to the sighted person who can actually see it across valleys and against the sky.  I think their experience is going to be much richer because of that additional information.  So it’s the same thing with people, you can’t touch people other than with your eyes.

And how is your vision today?  Have you relearned how to see?  Is depth perception still an issue? 

Um, things have not changed dramatically.  The Vision Science published an article in 2003 in Nature and Neuroscience saying, “May’s vision will never change.  It’s hardwired.  What he has is as good as it is going to get.  No depth perception, no detail, no face recognition, it’s not elastic; it’s not going to change”.  But about 6 years after that, because they continue to do test and they said, “We might be wrong.”  And I tease them and say, “You’re just trying to lead me on so you can continue to test me.”  But Ione Fine said she was thinking that I actually have some sort of hybrid in terms of depth perception.  I don’t have 3-D, I have what they call 2.5-D.  Now they’re curious to know why did it change and how is that? 

More Mike May Interview

Evanston Public Library:  It says that you started ski places in 10 countries and 15 states, are you still actively involved in Enchanted Hills and skiing and all the things you were before your vision was restored? 

Mike May:  It’s not really to do with my vision.  Sort of in the mid-90s my ski partner Ron and I kind of burned out on some of these things.  It mostly had to do with typical politics and dynamics of non-profits and organizations, there are always a couple people that do all the work and a few people who complain, and then most people don’t do anything.  So, we just burned out and said, “Well it’s time for somebody else to take on setting up ski programs and teaching guiding clinics.”  And other people have.  I still enjoy going to ski events and promoting blind skiing. 

We were just in Aspen at a pro-ski event foundation fundraiser event with Olympians going back to the 60s and international pro-skiers, a lot of whom I’ve met before.  And it was great to be back in that retired celebrity circuit. 

You’ve inspired so many people through your story and all the things you’ve done.  It’s hard to even list your accomplishments; I don’t know how one book could have done it.  But, on the other side of that, who inspires you?  Or who has inspired you in your life?

Oh, a lot of people.  One of the guys mentioned in my book, Rob Reis, my high school buddy; we’re working on a new venture right now.  And Rob really shares that spirit of, “There’s always a way;” which you really need to be involved in start-up ventures and a love for music and musical artists and so forth.  So Rob is certainly on that list. 

The older generation Warren Miller, who is the producer of many ski documentaries, is definitely a mentor.  There’s another guy around his age, in his mid-eighties, named Ralph Emery, who is an orientation mobility instructor up in Washington State.  And he was really an amazing friend and we traded cassette tapes about once a month over the years, so we each have the other person’s life documented for, I don’t know how many cassettes.  Sometime I want to do a tape montage of, “The World According to Ralph.”  Yeah, he lived in Japan, Australia, and Canada.  And he’s done a lot of neat things and the way he expressed himself walking through the rice paddies and under a railroad bridge in Japan.  I loved his stories and he was quite an inspiration.

Stevie Wonder is an inspiration for me.  We spend a lot of time together, we are close friends and he’s just an amazing guy.  He’s obviously achieved a lot in his realm and we enjoy each other’s inspiration. 

Yeah, you two look like best friends in the photo I saw, how did you come about meeting him?  Just reached out?

It was doing this start-up company with Rob in 1984 it was a turntable company.  He said, “I want you to get in touch with people who really love records and who have a lot of money.”  And that was Stevie and Gordon Getty.  And it took me a couple years to get in touch with each one of them and when I did Stevie and I remained acquaintances over the years.  Then a couple of things drew us closer together, namely technology and then our mothers both passed away around the same time and that was the sealing bond. 

You mention Bryan Bashin in the book.  Are you two still friends?

Oh yeah, he’s now executive director of the San Francisco group of the LightHouse for the blind and we’re still very close.

Has he gotten the surgery you have? 

No.  And he hasn’t talked about it in a long time.  I think it’s not on his agenda. 

It was very interested the dichotomy of your friendship.  You were injured very young and adapted very quickly so you never missed it.  It says in the book the one and only time you ever thought about sight was with the hypnotist to see if you could remember your visions from when you were a child.  Then you didn’t really think about it again until the doctor proposed the stem cell surgery.  As opposed to Brian who, as the story is told, gets Stevens-Johnson syndrome and as he progressively starts to lose his sight all he can focus on is losing it.  He puts off learning braille or walking with a cane until he was 39.  He just puts it off because all he can focus on is his vision, but when we get to the end of the book when you, who had never cared about sight, get this surgery and Brian, who cared deeply, was going to wait until science and medicine were more advanced and less risky.  It’s very interesting to compare the two of you.

Yeah, you outlined it perfectly.  It is interesting and I do hear from other people that have had operations that restored their vision or are losing their vision.  They email me.  I heard from a young gal just recently, everybody’s got a different way of looking at it, that’s for sure.  It’s so individual.

Also at the end of the book it briefly touches on the skin spot you had to have removed.  You stated to your wife that you would have done everything the same even if you would have gotten the cancer.  How is your health today?

It’s the same.  No reoccurrences of that basal cell carcinoma.  Yeah, so I’m in good shape.  Knock on wood.  Things are going well.  I’d say the most dramatic thing that has changed since then is that I’ve gotten divorced in the last year.  So you read through Crashing Through and people get to know me and the kids and they’ll call up and, they’ve never even met them, but they’ll say, “How’s Wyndham?  How’s Carson and how’s Jennifer?”  And I say, well I’m not sure about Jennifer, but I can tell you about the boys.

So the follow-up question to that is: your vision is still tenuous right?  It still could disappear at any moment with no warning correct?

It could.  It could.  Or there could be warning, not sure.  I’ve had a few little downturns where the doctor will say, “Oh, ya know it’s getting a little bit thin or a little dry.”  But nothing significant, it seems to be stable.

Would all of this still have been worth it if one day you wake up and it’s gone?

Sure, I think the longer I have the vision it would be harder to readjust completely.  But when you think about it, it’s still been 12 years of having vision and 43 years of not.  It’s going to take a while before that balance shifts.

Mike May Interview Questions 1 – 5

Here’s Part I of the Mike May Interview.  And, as usual, I’m going to keep you on the line until Tuesday.  I know it is a holiday weekend, but I’m going to be hard at work digging up more videos, insight, and, of course, posting the rest of the interview.  So sit back, stay cool, and keep checking back.

 

Evanston Public Library:  You’ve said this in a lot of interviews and it is underlined in the book that you didn’t feel like anything was missing from your life.  It took you such a long time to even think about the surgery to get your vision restored, so people always ask you, “What is it like to see now?,” but I’m very curious about something else.  Is there anything you miss about not seeing?

Mike May:  Um…no.  No.  Not really, because I fortunately have the best of both worlds.  I don’t really feel like anything went away now that I can see.  And it took me a little while to sort this out and figure out when do I rely on my blindness skills and when do I rely on my low vision stuff and how do they work together.  When do you shut one down and ramp the other one up?  And once I sorted that out I realized that I really had the best of both worlds so if the vision is overwhelming or not helpful then I have my other skills which are still intact and by using them I use my blindness skills they stay honed so things like echo location and being able to walk around at the house, in the night in the dark, things like that haven’t changed, I still do it the same way I always did and I don’t even think twice about it.

For a different interview in for the Ouch! blog you said that you most want to be remembered as creating the location information revolution.  What implications does that have for the world at large versus just the visually impaired community? 

Well I’m a strong believer that the better you get around, the better you participate in all aspects of life.  And this applies to sighted people as well as blind people.  What’s different for blind people is they have fewer alternatives when it comes to accessing location information such as street signs, businesses as you walk by them.  If you don’t have technology your only way to know what these things are is by maybe by the smell (if some door happens to be open), you get such a small percentage of access compared to what a sighted person gets that the location information really becomes invaluable.  But even with sighted people, I know folks who don’t travel very well or they are uptight bout not knowing where things are, they don’t want to get lost, that they too can benefit from having GPS and knowing how to use it and becoming more participatory in life. 

Speaking of travel, you said that is one of your favorite things to do, so I have to ask…What is your favorite place to travel and did it used to be easier in countries like Spain where there is a large blind population and they have made modifications to their crosswalks and whatnot to help them along or do you prefer to actually get lost and navigate on your own with no help?

Well I’m certainly happy when there are accommodations that are present.  I think that the real proliferation of accessible signal lights and such is best in Australia. 

Really?

I think so.  Spain is pretty good in the cities, but not so good in the rural areas obviously.  And I think, it’s not that they have more blind people, it’s just that they have an organization with a fair amount of money, ONCE, that helps fund some of these things.  That’s really the issue.  All the equipment costs a lot of money and a number of European countries they fund more of this as opposed to the US and Canada.  Scandinavia is amazing when it comes to funding these things. 

But, as far as my favorite place, I readily say, “The people make the places.”  So I could go to Topeka, Kansas or Fresno, California or any place that wouldn’t sound that sexy but if there was really cool people I met along the way or had dinner with somebody who was really neat then I’d think very highly of that particular place.  I wrote a piece called “The People Make the Places” back in the late 90’s just really focusing on this whole business.  I just made an effort when I took a trip from California to Switzerland and to Europe and back to make a note off all the people from flight attendants to cab drivers and waiters and hotel bellman, to remember and write down their names so I could write a story that really included all those people that made the places what they are. 

Well I guess that was your world at that point really, the people and not the places.

Yeah, well I think it still is.  I love; I mean there are certain places I’m pulled back to.  I love Dublin, I love Barcelona, I love going to Chile.  These are places I’m drawn back to.  The list could go on and on.  I love Auckland and Sydney, I mean there are not too many places that I dislike and now, with some vision I can pick up a bit more information than I could before but it hasn’t really changed my perception of these places. 

The question came to me because in the last chapters of the book when you risked rejection, you seemed almost wistful that you hadn’t seen the Galapagos, or the Pyramids of Giza, or the Taj Mahal.  I was just curious if you had fulfilled those desires or if it really didn’t matter anymore?

No, I think they still do.  I mean that’s part of the “Bucket List” There are so many places to go that I haven’t been.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the Galapagos and every time I try to go there, it’s too complicated and it’s a bit regimented, and that turns me off a little bit.  I like to be able to explore more and I’m not a big fan of tourist groups and cruise ships.  Hey, I’m sure those things are great but if I have my druthers I’d rather figure out things on my own and not have things scripted for me.  And that’s the main reason I haven’t gotten back to the Galapagos.  I do think it would be worth going, even if it would be a scripted trip.