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Christmas is almost upon us (or at least me), and we all know what that means. ‘Tis the season of brightly coloured boxes, eye-catching holiday cards, dazzling lights, beautiful bows and all things aesthetically pleasing. What’s not to love? Plenty, if you’re me, since the emphasis on appearance seems to shift into overdrive during this time of rampant consumerism…I mean quality contemplative congress with the ones you love. πŸ™‚

Trouble is, I love Christmas. Almost everything aboutt the season mmakes me happy, possibly due to the many years I spent belting John Rutter descants in concert venues around my city. I also hail from a family that decks the halls from floor to ceiling when December rolls around. No light fixture is left unadorned, no ornament left unpacked. In such a high-intensity festive home, a love of the season stubborn enough to overcome the more distasteful elements of the modern western Christmas couldn’t help but flourish. Unfortunately, so did a sense of propriety around Christmas gifts, inspired no doubt by the fact that I grew up around a woman who could make a lump of coal look attractive through sheer gift-wrapping talent. Take all these elements, plus a latent competitive streak and fairly high-pressure household, mix them all together and you have a conundrum for the blind Christmas shopper…or do you?

Not really, actually. To get too bogged down in the aesthetics of Christmas is to miss the point of the season entirely, in my humble opinion. Still, some effort is required to make the gift-giving part of Christmas as meaningful as it ought to be, at least according to my self-imposed standards. My effort is put into personalizing the present as much as possible.

Each year, for instance, I’ve been tasked with putting together a stocking for a family member selected through a draw (this year it’s Mom). Most people devote time and energy to selecting just the right gift, but must focus what’s left of their attention on packaging the present just so. Being the world’s biggest quad when it comes to gift-wrapping, my efforts go elsewhere. I take the gift selection process a step further and try to present it creatively. My mom will be receiving a theme stocking entitled “around the world in eight packages.” Each item, selected according to Mom’s tastes, preferences and history, will represent a country and be labelled with a short verse spelling out the connection and providing a hint as to what the item might be. The moroccan spice blend she’ll enjoy for her culinary experiment is pretty self-explanatory, as is the Julia Child “French Chef cookbook” that she specifically asked to have replaced. The espresso beans are a more oblique tie to Italy, while the Benazir Bhutto biography could stand in for any of the locales where that fascinating lady once lived but will likely represent Pakistan. An audio soundtrack for a book she loves will honour India, after the author’s nationality (read An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, it’s excellent). Her favourite bronzer will give her the sunkissed look of a tropical locale, a spanish glass angel figurine will make a nice addition to the collection she displays on her mantle piece, and some obnoxiously red lipstick will hearken back to family jokes past and represent a return to Canada. I’m seriously considering writing this all up in the form of a travel itinerary that she’ll have to follow.

It’s been my experience that a little creativity will thoroughly distract even the aesthetically minded from any deficiencies of packaging. It also salves my conscience as I try to be more eco-conscious in my day-to-day life. When the creative wellspring runs dry, however, it’s time for more practical strategies that help out blind and sighted alike. They’re called gift bags and in-store gift-wrapping, and they’re the best thing since sliced shortbread. πŸ™‚

How do you cope with the aesthetic demands of your holiday obligations? Do you find you have any? Sound off below! Oh, and now that I’ve set up this blog’s very own Twitter account, you can keep up with me there. Follow @eyeronicblog

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First things first — thanks to all who took the time to fill out my blog evaluation survey! Your feedback was really valuable, and I’m delighted that you all want me to maintain my current focus! Btw, for those who haven’t filled it out yet and want to do so, be my guest!

Now that you’ve recommitted me to my previous blogging path, be prepared to be taken deep into a web of neuroses also known as my mind. Yes folks, today I tackle what will no doubt be the first of many posts on this topic, since it’s one that has had to assume a fairly prominent place in my life. I’ve written before about my body image struggles, but I never felt the urge to expand on those thoughts as the problem spiralled out of control. I was trying everything from Weight Watchers to a personal trainer, but the weight kept piling on, climbing higher and higher every month. I finally reached a point of actual terror for my health and decided to take more decisive action — I sought medical help and now attend a full-service clinic run by a physician and devoted entirely to weight loss. It takes a multi-faceted approach and features a diverse staff of doctors, dieticians, physical trainers and psychologists. I was greatly relieved to learn that I am sound as a bell health-wise, even with my weight at an all-time high. Still, I realized full well that this could change at any moment, and I embarked on a dedicated quest to shed the pounds once and for all. Making wholesale changes to your lifestyle has a way of triggering the soul-searching reflex, and I’ve come to an interesting realization over the past few weeks — blindness and weight loss are just about the worst combo ever!

Think about it. Common weight loss wisdom suggests you won’t be able to slim down unless you zealously monitor every bite of food that enters your mouth and radically step up your activity level. Neither of these things jibe whatsoever with the life of the average blind person. I’d be perfectly happy to measure out precisely three ounces of hallibut for my evening meal or an exact one ounce of goat cheese to top off my lunch-time quinoa salad…except I can’t read the display on my inherited kitchen scale. As for reading the callorie content on my breakfast cereal of choice and determining the designated serving size, I may as well try to drive a car. Measuring out level tablespoons worth of olive oil can be tricky with the standard-shaped utensils, and slicing that whole grain harvest loaf into dietician-sized slices relies a little too heavily on hand-eye coordination for most blinks’ tastes. Then there’s the exercise component. Mosts sports require the average blind person to ask a sighted friend or family member for help, a request they may not be able or willing to accommodate as regularly as necessary for sustained benefits. Gym equipment is increasingly difficult to manage, since digital displays and touch-pad controls are quickly honing in on their more accessible, push-button cousins. Blind folks who struggle with mobility issues are as likely to take to the streets for an independent walk as they are to play Pictionary (it may happen, but isn’t too likely :)). Even if they do take the time to learn a route or two and attain the comfort level to travel it independently, they soon get tired of literally covering the same ground every time. Add in the fact that the blind population is chronically under-employed and often lacks the financial resources to make the right food purchases/enlist professional help, and you have a serious conundrum.

Many of these issues don’t really apply to me, so I am in no way using my blindness as an excuse for my current size. I have a great job with a more than adequate income. I live with a partner who’s well able to read me labels, coach me on how to use the treadmill in our building’s workout room and generally pitch in where it’s needed. My fleet-footed guide dog sets a brisk clip on our walks and gives me the confidence to stray far from the routes I would only tackle as a cane user. The rest of it is all too familiar to me, however, and I’ve had to get creative in finding the right coping strategies. Fortunately there’s an answer to everything. Measuring ingredients becomes a snap when I’m careful to buy very concave measuring spoons that hold the fluid in place while I use my fingers to make sure I’ve reached the rim. Ditto for measuring cups, which are the dieter’s best friend provided they come in the right units. A simple set of detachable scoops in 1, 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4-cup measurements will give you all you need to accurately portion out solid food, while a single one-cup liquid measure gets me through on the fluid ingredients. The vessel is small enough that I can tell when it’s half-full vs. three-quarters empty, and it also prevents me from overdosing on any one ingredient. The manual dexterity to produce perfect bread slices has only come with practice, but a really top-knoch, razor-sharp chef knife did wonders to help me refine my technique. Even the label challenge can be conquered with some help from my friend the internet. Calloric and other dietary details for just about all common brands are readily available through a simple google search, while SparkPeople is the perfect accessible web tool for the enterprising cook who wants to get a callorie breakdown of her latest random creation. The web is also, of course, a bottomless source of first-class recipes on days when creativity is running low. The only issue left to sort out in my own kitchen is the problematic scale, and technology will likely solve that one for me too when a talking unit is released (there may very well be one out already).

There’s no doubt that this new effort is very labour intensive, as it would be for anybody. My blindness compounds the effort I put into the program, but may also be arming me well. I’ve become accustomed to working my way through issues that may seem insurmountable at first blush, and resourcefulness has become my watch word in all facets of my life. It’s also bred in me a certain level of determination that I know I’ll need to draw upon if I hope to succeed at this weight loss game for good. It hasn’t let me down yet. With some luck I’ll cross the 15-pound threshold tomorrow…perhaps my blindness and the qualities it’s given me may prove to be an asset afterall.

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When I rhapsodized about my personal magic brands, I focused on the cut and fit of their merchandise and the way they felt like they’d been made to order for my figure. I completely neglected one key element of any brand worth it’s salt — strong customer service. Take it from me, blind shoppers make extraordinary demands on retail staff, and those who are able to rise to the occasion immediately earn my respect. Every now and then, however, someone proves to be so exceptional that they deserve to be singled out and praised to the skies.

I recently had such an experience at Laura Canada, one of my aforementioned magic brands. I’ve been pretty lucky with their sales staff in the past, but one of their employees recently blew me away with her combination of personal charm, style savvy and exceptional understanding of my own individual fashion quirks. Below is a letter I wrote to head office that sums up what she did and how the results turned out. I am only making slight variations to the text, since I don’t imagine she’d want her full name and exact work location broadcast on a random blog. πŸ™‚

Hello,

I was given your name when I contacted the Laura _____ location to sing the praises of Stephanie, one of their sales associates. The manager informed me that commendations were best directed to head office, and in this case I am happy to comply.

I am a long-time Laura customer who has been consistently impressed by the high quality and current styles available at various locations. My shopping needs are complicated, however, since I am totaly blind and require sighted assistance to keep me informed about such key details as colour and fit. I have been frequenting the ____ location for several years, but not until recently have I found a sales associate who is able to give me consistently excellent advice. That person is Stephanie.

Every time I come into the store, Stephanie takes the time to walk me through all relevant sections and describe the various offerings in the sort of detail I need. This approach may seem tedious and time-consuming, but Stephanie’s patience and positivity never fail her as I pump her for as much information as possible and scour the store for exactly the right pieces. Stephanie has helped me close gaps in my everyday summer wardrobe on two occasions. Her sharp eye and honest feedback led me to select a variety of pieces, but her coup de grace took place this past weekend.

I was in search of cocktail-wear that would be suitable for the various weddings I will be attending in the next few months. Based on my previous positive experiences with her, I called Stephanie to ask specifically about your selection of formal, knee-length dresses. She obviously remembered details about my size and style preferences, as she immediately urged me to come into the store. She informed me that a certain blue frock, with a v-neck and ruffle detailing over one shoulder, looked like exactly the type of dress she could see me wearing. She remembered my pentient for clean lines and vibrant colours and further recalled that most shades of blue tended to flatter my skin and hair. She also recollected my size and checked to make sure the store had it in stock.

I had already acquired a cocktail dress that I felt would do the trick and had not planned to come into the store, but I changed my mind based exclusively on Stephanie’s urging. It was one of the best fashion decisions I ever made. The blue cocktail dress she singled out turned out to be exactly what I was looking for in every detail. I purchased it on the spot, wore it to a wedding the very next day and spent the entire evening fielding complements on how it looked on me.

A picture of me as I'm about to depart for a wedding. I am wearing a sleeveless, cobalt blue cocktail dress that ends just above my knees. The dress has a straight cut and has vertical seams down the front. It is made of a shiny fabric that gives what someone called an "icy cast" to the blue shade. There is a ruffle detail that moves diagonally over my right shoulder and terminates in a stylized flower on the right side of the v-neckline. My hair has been styled into a moere voluminous bob. I have matched the dress with sparkly silver sandals, a silver satin clutch, a tripple strand of pearls with the odd silver bit in them and diamond stud earrings.

As you can see, she was right on target

This is certainly a testament to your styling team, but even more so to Stephanie’s customer service skills. Her ability to remember details about her customers and zero in on styles that work for them is truly exceptional and deserves the highest commendation. Equally praiseworthy is her sales technique, which has been effective without ever becoming intrusive. She has been a delight to deal with on every occasion and is now one of my main reasons for shopping at Laura.

Kindly share this note with Stephanie herself, as well as her bosses at the _____ location and anyone else at head office who monitors employee performance. I would like to spread the word of what a winner you have hired in her.

Should you have any further questions or need any more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me either by email or by phone.

Many thanks for your wonderful products and the superior customer service provided by first-rate employees like Stephanie.

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I’m just going to pretend the last post went up recently rather than an obscenely long time ago and delve right back into the business of blogging. My long absence will be explained, if obliquely, in later posts. πŸ™‚ Thanks for your patience!!

Today’s post comes courtesy of reader and fashion blogger Marianna, who is wearing and writing fabulous things over at Absolutely Apple (go check her out at once)! Here’s what she asked me to do:

I’d be interested in reading more about your retail experience… can you share some examples of great Β sales associates?

Without further ado, allow me to take you behind the scenes during this weekend’s accessory-shopping Extravaganza!

Yesterday I marched myself down to The Bay, i.e. Canada’s answer to Macy’s, in an effort to kit myself out for the myriad weddings I have to attend this summer. The turquoise cocktail dress is being assembled by a seamstress as we speak, so my job was to attend to the accessories needed to take my outfit to the next level. I’d already dealt with shoes by haunting a store that actually caters to people with yetti feet like mine. The silver sandals I found should serve me well for interminable cocktail hours, dancing, and other such wedding-esque goodness. My goal yesterday was to score a multilayered peral necklace, an appropriate evening clutch and a pair of versatile everyday summer sandals, preferrably in pewter metallic (my new go-to footwear shade).

Shopping on your own as a blind person takes planning if you expect to have any success. To that end, I called the Bay’s Guest Services desk Saturday morning, explained my situation and asked if someone would be free to accompany me through the store in search of my purchases. I need the help not so much for navigating the palacial flagship location, though that certainly helps, but more to help me sort the merchandise wheat from the chaff. Items like jewelry tend to be kept behind glass counters and away from prying little fingers like mine, and while I can size up the main style points of things like bags and shoes, functional eyes are still needed to fill me in on features like colour, price etc. The obliging folks at Guest Services got back to me promptly and informed me that they had found a staff member who would be free to help me out at 3:30. I suppose they would have dug someone up if I’d just arrived unannounced, but I know from experience that they appreciate having notice.

The staff member they found turned out to be Godi (sp?), a delightful 24-year-old sales associate plucked from men’s denim and thrust into an afternoon of unbridled femininity. She turned out to be fabulous, catching on quickly to my style preferences even though they appeared to differ somewhat from her own and being endlessly patient with her picky new customer.

Our first task was to find a necklace that struck the balance between understated elegance and evening glamour. I’ve developed a passion for pearls and decided a multistrand necklace would set things off nicely. Accordingly, Godi and I raided the jewelry counters, dragging another sales associate along with us, and unearthed several possibilities. Godi then made a strong case for future canonization by agreeing to snap pictures of me wearing these necklaces, which I could then forward on to my “Magnificent Mobile-Shopping Mavens” (TM), aka Marianna and Maya from the YouLookFab community.

Godi first selected a necklace that my friends ruled to be a little too blingy:

A picture of me wearing a tripple-row of pearls, each strand longer than the next. The middle row has sparkly faux-diamonds in the centre.

The next selection won an aesthetic thumbs up, but was rejected out of hand by me because it felt too cheap and flimsy. πŸ™‚ Yes, sadly I am one of those who will pass up a bargain in favour of quality.

A picture of me wearing a simple tripple strand of white pearls. They're all around the same length, i.e. a little below my collarbone

An option that was just a tad more me

Godi and I indulged our inner girly streaks with the next two floral-inspired necklaces, which were both vetoed by my reliable friends (one too dainty, the other too cute).

caption id=”attachment_107″ align=”alignleft” width=”300″ caption=”I guess I shouldn\’t steal thunder from

A picture of me wearing a delicate single strand of pearls that has a single silver flower in the middle. The flower is about twice the width of the necklace with inward-curling petals. In the centre of the flower is a single stone that catches the light.

Not gonna lie, I thought this looked pretty and elegant, but my girls help keep me modern

“Guess I shouldn’t steal thunder from the bride\’s bouquet”]A picture of me wearing another multistrand necklace, this one with three or four silver flowers placed at intervals along the front.In the end, though, our efforts paid off when a sales associate unearthed this Ralph Lauren piece. The few silver pearls gave me the sought-after touch of evening sparkle, plus the tactile interest I can rarely resist, and it got the green light from real-life and virtual helpers alike.

A picture of me wearing the multistrand necklace I finally settled on. It's a tripple-strand of moderately-sized, almost champagne-coloured pearls, with all strands having beads the same size. Scattered over the three strands are about 10 silver pearls with a little sparkle. They're placed in no set order, but each strand has at least two such touches. Each strand is slightly longer than the one above it with the necklace stopping about two inches below my collarbone.

We have a winner!

With pearls safely in hand, we proceeded to the handbag department where I expected to be thoroughly overwhelmed with an outrageous selection. Alas, it wasn’t to be. I could count the number of clutches on one hand, and most of them weren’t my scene anyway. Fortunately we did find one reasonably-priced winner, a sleak silver satin bag that will fill a gap in my cocktail wardrobe. Kindly ignore the red one I’m also holding in the pic below. I loved it even more than the silver, but the shade was too dark for my purposes (I’m told a brighter red would work best with my dress).

A picture of me holding up two evening clutches for inspection. One is a dark red satin, almost a burgundy shade, with a sparkly couple of stones at the top. The other is a simple rectangular bag in silver satin. I am wearing a black dress with white polka dots, a chunky strand of creamy pearls and sandals in a brighter red than the bag in my hand.

With that accomplished, Godi and I proceeded to the shoe department, where an amusing misunderstanding soon gave way to the most frustrating part of the day. I don’t think she heard me when I talked about searching out every-day sandals, because she started directing me to various silver pumps, stilleto sandals and other evening shoes. Once she got on the same page as me, however, she soon realized why I hate shoe shopping so much. Ridiculously wide feet + very strong opinions about what I’m looking for = a hellish shopping experience. But being the pro she was, she listened carefully to my style preferences and trotted out a better selection of viable options in five minutes than bona fide shoe salespeople had shown me in three days. Silver or pewter metallic shoes with low vamps and moderate heels are a tall order for some, apparently. Designers, I’m talkin’ to you!

Unfortunately for Godi, her brilliance didn’t bare fruit immediately, since most of what she showed me proved too narrow for my snowshoe-esque peds. She’s a trooper, though, and stuck with it for half an hour until she came across these.

Imagine my shock and delight when they actually fit in the size above what I normally take? And imagine my further joy when the salesman, upon discovering they didn’t have that size in stock, ran to a neighbouring location in another shopping mall to get them for me? That’s the kind of customer service money can’t buy!

By now Godi and I felt like firm friends (never question the tie that binds you to someone who actively tries to help you put shoes on), and we chatted about our respective jobs, her family back in Jamaica, her singing aspirations and her planned course of study. But her bosses would have been proud to note that she wasn’t just passing idle time — she spotted a bag that she rightly guessed I would love and talked me into buying it. Gorgeous leather, lovely styling, a sale price and a silver tongue proved irresistable.

A picture of my new bag on it's own. It's a slightly shiny dark pewter colour with only one small piece of metallic hardware on the front. The bag itself is made of quilted leather, while the handle consists of two silver chains with leather woven through the links.

Some impulse purchases are worth it, no?

Obviously I felt the need to put these new pieces into action asap, and here are most of them in a real–life context.

A picture of me posing with most of my new purchases. I'm wearing a short-sleeve, v-neck top consisting of three parts. A blue and green floral pattern on a black background runs from the neck to just below the bust, at which point it's replaced by a stretchy black patent belt. Below the belt is solid black ending a bit above mid thigh. With this I am wearing skinny black jeans, my new multistrand pearl necklace, my new pewter bag and my new pewter sandals. The sandals have a 1.5-inch heel and consist of kind of criss-crossing leather parts, one at my toes and one further down on my foot. There are silver studs on the leather and my toenails are bright red.

A good day's work should be celebrated without delay!

By this time I’m sure Godi was delighted to receive a grateful hug, pop me in the back of a cab and see the back of me for a long time. But not as glad as I was to have lucked out with such a patient, fun and savvy sales associate!

Marianna, hope this answers your question!

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Jenny asked me a question as part of a discussion over on You Look Fab — she wanted to know how I go about applying makeup and dealing with my grooming in general. Thanks for the question, Jenny, I’ll be happy to answer it!!

My approach to hair and makeup is really quite minimal for reasons that are both personal and practical. A fuss-free cosmetic routine absolutely fits my personality which shuns excessive fakeness, and my inability to see what I’m putting on my face or creating on my head pretty much demands a simple approach. I’ve always opted for hair styles that I can assess with my hands and tweak using just a round brush and hair dryer. My current bob cut fits that bill perfectly: if parts of the hair are flat, I can feel it immediately and simply fluff it up with the brush. If one side is falling lower on my neck than the other, I can play around until I’ve gotten it back into cymetrical lines. I’m all about natural hair texture, so I use no products on my head except on *very* special occasions when I’ve let my hairdresser take over.

My approach to makeup is similar, though a little more nuanced. I put the bulk of my effort into making sure I have good skin, not messing about with cosmetic combinations that just give me a handful of unreliable quick fixes. While I’m not a hippy-dippy person by nature, I have discovered the joys of natural skin care and have made Evan Healy my skin care solution of choice. Her products are genuinely natural, not faux-organic like “Kiss My Face” and that ilk. πŸ™‚ Her simple products, which feel incredible and smell even better, keep my skin soft and hydrated. I cleanse twice a day and moisturize only in the morning, allowing my skin a chance to breathe at night (the natural oil produced while you sleep is often enough to keep your skin healthy. Try it)!

Over time, though, I’ve come to accept the fact that my face could use some additional polish. This is one instance where I had to put myself entirely in the hands of professionals, try out their recommendations and see if they passed muster with the reliable style critics in my life! πŸ™‚ I allow someone to shape my eyebrows every six weeks or so, since I know they’d wind up resembling a ploughed farmer’s field if I took on the task myself. When it came to acquiring makeup, I decided to compile two sets — one for every day use and another for more festive occasions. My day-to-day cosmetics come entirely from Mac , a brand with sky-high approval from friends and professionals alike. My makeup regimen takes about 30 seconds to complete — dab on concealer as needed, put on minimal blush, apply lipstick and go. Powders, primers and all that extra business are just not on for a variety of reasons: they would undermine the natural look I’m going for, and I just flat out can’t be bothered! Ditto for mascara, which isn’t really necessary with my naturally long, dark lashes.

A couple of visits to the Mac counter were sufficient to sort out my every-day makeup choices. The friendly salespeople made a few consistent recommendations and hooked me up with a neutral-warm concealer , a subtle mineralized blush , and a versatile lipstick in a purplish-pink shade.

Applying makeup is a very tactile exercise, at least with these particular products. Concealer is the easiest of all — find the blemishes on your skin, touch the tip of your concealer pen to the area, then blend it in with no more than two fingers. Sure I may miss the occasional spot that can’t be detected through touch, but that’s absolutely ok — I’d rather have the odd natural spot than look like a painted lady.

Makeup experts taught me how to apply blush by showing me exactly where the apple of the cheek is located. That area is much more defined if I put on a ridiculously huge smile. My cheeks bunch up, allowing me to easily define the boundaries where my brush should go. I’d rather under than over-do it, so I swipe the brush over the compact once, do three to four strokes in a downward motion across the area in question, then repeat the procedure on the other side. I keep the number of strokes balanced for each side of my face to ensure cymmetry where possible.

Lipstick is also a breeze — just follow the contours of your lips. A lot of people have observed me as I put lipstick on and said my technique differs from the sighted approach. I’m not sure exactly what most people do differently, but I’ve been assured the results look comparable.

A picture of me wearing the sort of makeup I apply for day-to-day activities. I'm wearing a black boyfriend blazer with the sleeves rolled up to my elbows and exposing a beige lining, a black t-shirt with a studded red floral graphic, a double-strand of white pearls, slim dark blue jeans and pewter faux-snake ballet flats. I've just applied my every-day lipstick, blush and concealer.

Every-day makeup

My approach for dressier occasions doesn’t change too much. I substitute foundation for concealer and apply it all over my face, swap out the neutral lipstick for a more dramatic dark red shade, apply subtle eye shadow and use a different blush. A makeup specialist selected a Chanel foundation as the basis of this look, since it matched my skin tone beautifully and was childishly easy to apply with its liquid consistency and pump dispenser. I just put a bit onto my fingers, dab it onto a couple of areas of my face, then blend all over with my fingers. The creamy texture makes it easy to spread and leaves me with no doubt as to which areas have been covered. The Chanel Tweed Ambre blush was similarly easy to apply, with its streamlined design and convenient brush. I just follow the same technique as I do for my every-day look, being careful not to put on too much. Eye shadow is probably trickiest for me, but again a knowledgeable makeup salesperson came to my rescue and found relatively neutral shades in user-friendly pencil-style applicators. I didn’t automatically know the shadow had to be applied on both the lid and the skin covering the brow bone, but that’s what experts are there for, right? The lipstick routine is the same as above — I’ll just put on an extra layer for evening looks.

A picture of me heading out for a swankier evening. I'm wearing a knee-length, black wrap dress with a low v-neck, three-quarter sleeves and ruching through the torso. The lace part of a black camisole is showing above the v-neck to prevent clevage. A long strand of cream pearls is lying over the dress and falling just below my bust. A black quilted cross-body bag with a silver chain is slung across my body, and I'm wearing black hose and red pumps. I've put on my evening makeup, consisting of slightly deeper blush, a touch of beige eye shadow and dark red lipstick.

Evening makeup

Of course, on really special occasions like fancy weddings or swankier industry functions, I’ll just bite the bullet and let someone else do it. πŸ™‚

A picture showing me from the waist up as I'm about to go to a much more formal function. My hair is more styled and my makeup is more dramatic, with redder lips and much more detail around the eyes. You can't see my whole outfit, just a champagne-coloured satin top with a v-neck and ruffles that start at either side of my chest and taper in at the waist. The skirt you can't see is black with embroidery in the same champagne shade as the top. I'm wearing a necklace with black, cream and gold and gold earrings to match. The makeup artist played on the gold and made red the only other splash of colour.

So, Jenny, I hope that answers your question. But now I want to throw the floor open to you guys. This is the system I’ve devised so far, but I’m always open to new suggestions. If you don’t think these looks are working for me, speak up and tell me what’s not floating your boat. If you think there’s a shade that’s either too present or too absent from my arsenal, name it. I’m at your mercy! πŸ™‚

P.S. For those who are interested, a site called VisionAware has compiled a really great resource with detailed, descriptive makeup application tips for the blind. I’d never seen this guide when I was figuring out my own technique, but I can absolutely vouch for the pointers they provide.

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My last two posts have examined the way in which my senses of touch and smell play in one of my favourite hobbies — cooking. I wrap up the series today with a brief mention of how my ears earn their culinary keep, as well as other strategies I use in the kitchen.

Of the three senses I rely on in this context, hearing plays by far the most minor role. Nine times out of 10 I’d far prefer to blast music than cook in silence, and I’ve never come to grief when I succumb to the urge. But there are times when I’m forced to turn it down and listen. The most obvious example of this, of course, involves pots on the stove. Hearing is the most effective sense I have when trying to determine if something is boiling. The sound of rapidly bubbling water clues me in that it’s time to add the pasta and let it cook. When bringing a stew to an initial boil, I’ll wait for the same sound, then reduce the temperature until the bubbling noise has reached a level that says “simmer” to me. Even if I’m just grilling a chicken burger in a pan on the stove, I can usually gauge how high the heat is set by the sound the meat makes when it makes contact. This is useful, since my sense of touch is far from infallible when setting stove and oven temperatures (though there are ways around that).

Hearing is also valuable when using some of my favourite kitchen appliances, most specifically the food processor. Ever noticed the sound the motor makes when you throw a few onions in there for a quick chop up? Then ever realized the pitch of the motor goes up as the vegetable pieces reduce in size? Well it’s true, and that’s my favourite way of determining whether or not the job is done. I don’t profess to understand why this may be, though I presume it’s because the motor doesn’t have to work as hard on thoroughly chopped vegetables, but I do know it works every time. The same can be said of my trusty hand-mixer, without which I’m sure I’d go mad. When baking a cake, the mixer’s sound differs subtly during different stages of the process. It sounds more laboured when I first beat the butter and then cream it with the sugar, but runs at a higher pitch once the eggs are added and it’s working with a more pliable mixture. It’s a distinction that some may not hear, but I’ve come to recognize it over time simply because I’m constantly on the watch for helpful sensory clues. Relying on the sound of a motor beats having to stick my hands in a batter to see if it’s done — a sentiment I suspect my guests would share. πŸ™‚

Apart from the three senses discussed in this series, my cooking prowess, such as it is, hinges on a few other things.

— Websites: As mentioned in the first post, I really don’t think I ever could have learned to do more than open a jar of peanut butter without the web. Recipe databases like Epicurious, All Recipes and the Food Network provide endless techniques and inspiration for the aspiring cook. When it comes to baking, I have to give credit to one person, Sarah Phillips of Baking 911. This is the Angie of the baking world — a woman who gives real-time, personalized advice and who has never led me astray in more than two years. Her recipes are fool-proof, her techniques are outlined into plain English, and her instructions are detailed and informative. Well worth the nominal annual fee!

In the kitchen itself, I know I’d be lost without a few treasured tools:
1. A good, sharp knife. Having a cutting instrument that gets the job done the first time greatly reduces the chances that I’ll slice my fingers while I cook. Saying “the sharper the better” sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true — ask a real chef!
2. Tools that I can take apart and wash easily to ensure maximum sanitation. Garlic presses are a nightmare for someone who has to rely on her fingers to assess cleanliness, but a simple garlic twist (in which you drop the cloves and rotate the two parts to mince them) is the ideal solution.
3. Measuring tools that aren’t too confusing. I know lots of people have huge measuring cups in which they could easily fid massive amounts of solid or liquid ingredients, but I prefer to keep it simple. This way I’m never estimating my measurements, but always know exactly what I’m working with. A one-cup dry measure and a one-cup liquid measure are all I need (for me, it’s worth the extra time). As for measuring spoons, I choose very rounded types that hold ingredients easily and can stand up to my occasional prodding.
4. Really hardcore oven mits. We’re talking the rubber/silicon type that go nearly to my elbows. I won’t go near my oven without them, nor will I handle one of my completed baked goods unless I’ve used the mits to orient myself (putting the mits on either side of the pan as it sits on the cooling rack gives me an easy way to locate things again without burning myself by accident).
5. A variety of spatulas and knives: spreading things evenly or attractively is not my strong suit (aesthetics in general are a little sketchy), but tools in various sizes help me make things work.

The average pantry/kitchen can be easily adapted for the blind, provided it’s clean and free of clutter. I don’t personally put stickers at strategic points on my oven to demarkate the positions on the dial, but I know from experience it would work. The same could be done on the microwave. Got your red and white wine vinegar in bottles that feel identical? Put an elastic band around one of them and leave it there. The list is endless.

Sightless cooking isn’t always easy, and a reality show featuring a blind chef would be more likely to share network space with Jeff Dunham than Emeril Lagasse, but I’ve found that it’s well worth the effort. Acquiring culinary skills has empowered me within my home and left me able to create a cozy, domestic atosphere where friends and family can be assured of a good meal!

What do you guys think — do my strategies sound like blindguy babble or common sense? If you like cooking, what are some of your favourite techniques? And if you hate it, what keeps you from getting in the game?

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Thanks to those of you who responded to the first part of my series discussing why sight isn’t crucial in the kitchen. The people I did hear from certainly seemed to agree that other senses come into play more strongly than they first realized. Part two of this series delves into the way smell compensates for my lack of sight and sometimes makes all the difference in the world.

Touch is the building block of my culinary “technique”, but smell is the sense that allows me to take things to the next level. My nose is indespensible if I want to produce flavourful dishes that are neither under nor over-prepared. The copious asortment of seasonings in my spice rack and on my cupboard shelves may seem daunting to someone who can’t read labels, but sorting the herbes to provence from the saffron is an easy matter of flipping open the lid and taking a quick sniff. It gets a little dodgier with things like cayenne pepper and paprika, but by and large identifying spices by smell is simple (and fun, if you’re with me in being nerdy like that). πŸ™‚ Touch and smell combine to sort the parsley from the cilantro, but while buying the herbs in the first place, I’m driven solely by which bunch gives off the freshest fragrance. Since I adore strong flavours and will do anything to avoid bland cooking, it’s been fun to get familiar with spices and experiment with them. I suspect smell is a similar guide for sighted cooks, too — eating something with a fowl odour isn’t really anyone’s idea of a good time, is it? πŸ™‚

There are parts of the cooking process that just don’t lend themselves to touch, and on those occasions smell is my most reliable indicator. When preparing a stir-fry I couldn’t tell you when the onions become translucent in the pan, but I know when they smell like they’re cooking and are probably ready to receive other ingredients. If I was waiting for the lamb or veal to turn brown while I seared them for an osso bucco, my dinner guests would be dining at Chez L’HΓ΄pital for a week after coming to dinner at my place. But by removing the meat from the pan when it starts to smell the way it tastes, then double-checking for doneness using my hands, I’ve been able to concoct meals that brought friends back for return dinner dates.

Similar rules apply in baking, when factors like oven strength, humidity levels and altitude can render timers almost obsolete. The recipe may tell me to take the banana bread out of the oven when it’s golden brown on top, but I’m only removing it when an appropriate length of time has passed and the aroma drifting through my apartment makes me want to devour the loaf on the spot. I have a running joke with a cook of my acquaintance, who habitually forgets about appetizers she’s put in the oven and only realizes what’s happened when the rest of us start opening windows to prevent the smoke alarm from blaring. Her nose clues her into why we’re doing this, but would also probably let her know the pastries are ready to eat if she paid attention to it five minutes sooner. πŸ™‚

I also fall back on my olfactory resources when trying to figure out if anything has gone bad in my fridge, as I suspect many of you do too (is there anything nastier than the smell of sour milk)? Even if something feels fine, there’s often an odour that gives it away.

Next time, the few contributions my ears make to my meals, plus the indespensible tools for any blind cook.

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