Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I really need a bib when I eat

So going blindfolded while dining at CNIB fundraiser just... craziness

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Every shirt I own looks the same.

They're different colours, different materials, different patterns, but they all have one thing in common -- a softball-size stain located somewhere beneath my chin and slightly above my belly.

This is because, even when I'm mindful of my table manners -- especially when I'm eating on the couch in the den -- a large dollop of something, typically mustard, ketchup or barbecue sauce, will plummet from my mouth directly onto my shirt's sweet spot.

Even after they come out of the washing machine, a ghostly grease stain remains, a permanent reminder that, despite a lengthy career as an adult, I haven't yet mastered the challenge of eating with a knife and a fork.

"Dad, you are a P-I-G!" my children will mutter before slinking off to the zoo in search of their real father.

I mention this to give you an idea of how nervous I felt last week when I put on my cleanest shirt and headed down to the convention centre for the second annual Dine in the Dark gala, a unique fundraiser for CNIB Manitoba.

Along with raising cash, the dinner is designed to give all the guests a small taste of what Manitobans with vision loss experience every time they sit down to eat. The way it works is, before you are allowed to attack your gourmet meal, you first put on a blindfold or special glasses that simulate different visual impairments, including cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration.

Before wielding our knives and forks, we learned the ropes from Tracy Garbutt, who has been legally blind since the age of 12 and has spent the last 16 years as an independent-living-skills specialist teaching people with vision loss how to prepare and eat food they can't see.

The general idea is you use your utensils as extensions of your hands and treat your plate like a clock, with the food items located at various points on the clock. To find other things -- a glass of wine, for example -- you walk your hand along the top of the table like a large, hungry spider.

Simple, right? Argh! The reality is, it is difficult, using the written word, to describe what it's like transporting food you can't see from a plate to your mouth, but I'll give it a try: It is (bad word) difficult!

Surprisingly, I managed quite well because of two key factors: (1) What with wearing a blindfold, my ability to concentrate increased dramatically; and (2) I cheated a lot.

Look, I'm not proud of this but, from time to time, I peeked under the blindfold, partly to ensure I hadn't dragged my hand through the communal salad dressing, but mostly to take in the amazing spectacle of more than 400 people struggling with a normally simple task that had suddenly become extremely hard.

Parked beside me was the iconic children's entertainer Fred Penner, who -- and his legion of fans will not be surprised to hear this -- refused to cheat and kept his blindfold on all night, including when he was led up on stage to rock The Cat Came Back.

I grilled the blindfolded legend as he carefully poked at his dinner. "I do the weight system," Fred said, gently holding his fork aloft to sense whether he'd speared a tidbit. "It's the find-something-to-stab system, and don't care how big it is, just prepare yourself for any-size item that reaches your mouth."

When I suggested we were lucky, because we could remove our blindfolds once dinner was over, Fred explained why this challenging event is so special to him.

"My younger brother, Terry, was born prematurely," Fred told me. "He was two pounds, four ounces, and back in the '50s when he was born, they didn't realize oxygen would damage the eyes of a preemie. So they put him straight into an incubator without covering his eyes, which they do now. They put him in the incubator, fired in the oxygen and it damaged his eyes, so he's legally blind."

Even blindfolded, I could see it was a wonderful evening: My shirt remained spotless, but I felt a few pangs of guilt when I stole Fred's dessert.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2013 A2

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