A green light to greatness.®

The fat blind man and the podcast

By Jonathan Auping


Fifteen minutes into the 89th episode of the Gut Punch Podcast things are already getting heated. The agitation is palpable. The cursing isn’t necessarily increasing, only because every episode seems to operate under a baseline of F-bombs and A-holes and bull shits. The targets and sources of such frustration are multiple.

Bill Nye.

“This guy is a fucking idiot.”

Bill Maher.

“Bill Maher, being a huge Democrat, just lets bullshit go.”

ISIS.

“Personally, I told someone the other day, ‘Even if we kill innocent people, why don’t we drop a nuclear bomb in the middle of Syria?’”

Environmentalist.

“What a bunch of retards.”

All of this and there is still an hour and 25 minutes left in this episode. The Gut Punch Podcast claims to be the place where “things get hairy.” It is one man speaking into a microphone. There is no one else in the room or on another line for him to argue with, and yet he mostly seems on the verge of losing his patience.

The person behind the microphone is the Fat Blind Man. He’s just not the one that I know.

***
The first time I met Chris Chandler, everyone around me already seemed to know him. I had decided to pick up a few shifts a week waiting tables at a bar and grill to help pay the bills. On my first day, a short, overweight man wearing a Hawaiian shirt walked into the restaurant with a guide dog that led him straight to a small corner table with just two chairs.

The table was in my section. A waitress next to me handed me some silverware to set down.

“That’s Chris,” she said with an almost sinister smile on her face, aware of my general greenness waiting tables. “Good luck.”

It’s not that Chris is a rude customer. He is far from it. It’s not that he is a bad tipper. He’s a great tipper. It’s just that he, well, never shuts up.

All Chris needs is an introduction. You’ll say something that he’ll manage to segue into a story or a joke, which will lead to another story full of new jokes, mostly self-deprecating. It took me five minutes to get an order out of him.

His order was the most specific I had taken in the 45 minutes I had been employed as a waiter. A cheeseburger, sub the burger meat out for bison meat. No bun. Pepper jack cheese. Chopped up serrano peppers on the burger. A side of blue cheese dressing and a side of the buffalo wing sauce. Chips. Oh, and no veggies. A diet Coke.

Unlike with most customers, getting Chris’ order wasn’t the end of the interaction. He kept going for another five minutes, like he had known me for years. Behind me, customers were seating themselves in my section. Other customers were ready to pay their bill. I looked around, nervously, and realized that I was “in the weeds,” a service industry term I had only learned that day meaning I was falling behind on my tables. Behind me, the smile on the face of the waitress had only become wider. This is what she meant by “good luck.”

Chris will react accordingly to context clues if you make them clear enough. But he’s blind, which makes it tough to be subtle. Plenty of times I can remember slowly backing away from him in a way that would normally imply I have to go. He just kept talking, forcing me to nearly yell across the room to avoid impoliteness.

And once he knows a little about you then you’re really screwed. He’ll ask you about an update on your family, or your other job, or your phone call with your ex. You’ll respond in full detail. Maybe you’re humoring him. Maybe you actually want to talk about it.

Over the next five months, Chris came into the restaurant about five times each week. I continued to have similar conversations with him. Even when someone else was waiting on him I would stop by to catch up with him. Over time, these ten-minute chats accumulated into hours worth of talking. About me. About him. About everything.

I pretty casually opened up to him, telling him things that would typically only come up in conversations with those closest to me. I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps it’s because he wants to listen. He’ll deconstruct the topic in a straightforward way that would normally be irritating and patronizing, but he’ll take your side from the start, making the experience feel validating and refreshing.

There’s a part of me that wonders if I subconsciously considered him a safe confidant because he is blind. As if that fact disconnects him from society and makes speaking to him like a therapeutic release without consequence, the way one might journal their thoughts.

While I was not wrong to trust Chris Chandler as a friend, I was very wrong to assume that his lack of vision meant a lack of voice. He has a voice, and a means to broadcast it.

***
Podcasting is one of those things that is too simple not to be a phenomenon. It’s basic in its concept and innovative in its practicality.

A podcast is essentially just recorded audio available for download. It’s not entirely different than a segment on radio except for the fact that it can be listened to at the consumer’s time and leisure. While you might only listen to a radio segment in the car, you can listen to a podcast on the subway or at the gym or at the grocery store and you have the freedom to pause it and pick back up exactly where you left off.

It turns out the human voice is still enough to captivate an audience. This American Life’s breakthrough podcast, Serial, proved that much by garnering millions of downloads since debuting in fall of 2014. Serial tells the story of a 1999 murder case in Baltimore, Maryland, which sentenced a teen to life in prison despite disputable evidence. The podcast is both investigative and cinematic and its success has many believing that podcasts are the future medium for storytelling.

But even before Serial, podcasts gained popularity through another old niche: people talking about stuff. Comedian Marc Maron multiplied his popularity with the creation of the WTF Podcast in 2009, which has fostered a cult following. Sports writer Bill Simmons strengthened his brand with the growing success of the B.S. Report since 2007.

Citing Edison Research, The Hollywood Reporter claimed “39 million Americans listened to at least one podcast in March [2015].” They’re a venue for interviews or free form discussions or rants about anything and everything. There are podcasts for sports, comedy, movies, television, politics, technology, religion and everything in between. It’s not a matter of liking podcasts; it’s a matter of being interested in one of those things. iTunes offers nearly 300,000 different podcasts for download.

Some people – very few – make a living off their podcasts. Others use it to promote their career. However, pretty much all podcasters have one thing in common: they have something to get off their chest, and they assume someone wants to hear it.

***
For as many anecdotes as Chris could pack into the moments before and after I took his order, I still knew that if I wanted to get his story in full I would have to meet him outside of work.

We agreed to schedule lunch and I suggested a little Mexican restaurant near my apartment called E-Bar. I picked up the self-proclaimed Fat Blind Man outside of his apartment where he was waiting. I opened the back of my Toyota 4Runner so that his guide dog, Westin, could jump in.

By the time I was settled in the driver’s seat I turned to him to make sure he was buckled into his seat. Immediately, I noticed his navy blue hat. It read, “E-Bar Tex-Mex.”

Once there, he and Westin led the way as we navigated to a patio table. En route, waiters and bartenders greeted him with, “Hey Chris, how are ya?” and asked about his wife, Marty.

Asking Chris to open up about his life means clearing your schedule for the day. Asking anyone in their forties to sum up the events that led them to where they are now is a broad task, but Chris understands that so much of his world is a reaction to a specific period in his life around age 28.

“This all happened in a matter of about 10 months,” he said. “I had lost my sight. Lost my job. Lost my wife. Lost my baby. Had my income cut by [75 percent].”
 
We had barely touched the chips and salsa.

Chris was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. His father was a business owner who worked outside with his hands and his mother dished out an intense combination of love and discipline.

At nine years old he was struck with a sickness that had been spreading around town. His body didn’t respond well to the illness. So badly, in fact, it “killed his pancreas.” This left him vulnerable. On September 13, 1978, he was diagnosed with what at the time was called Type 1 Diabetes. Before the eventual progress of insulin in medicine this was considered a likely death sentence. He wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital until he could give himself a shot. Nurses demonstrated the process on an orange.

At nine years old, hours after a diagnosis he barely understood, he taught himself how to take a needle to his body to maintain his own survival. While trying to master this terrifying practice he overheard the doctor say to his mother, “You know, he won’t live past 20.” It began a trend in Chris’ life of people around him talking about him like he wasn’t there. It was a trend that continued far past the age of 20.

Improvements in medicine and attentive parents didn’t make living with diabetes easy, but they allowed for a better alternative than waiting to die. Preparing for the future was a reasonable notion, so upon graduating high school, he enrolled in Christian Brothers University, a small Catholic college in Memphis.

For all that would be placed on Chris’ shoulders or taken away from him in his life, the first tragedy that he could really grasp as a potentially world shattering moment was actually pretty relatable.

“I met a girl my freshman year of college and I was just so in love with her,” Chris remembers. “We had a bad breakup and the rest of my college career was just fuzzy, at best.”

The hangover of his first big breakup eating away at his rationality, Chris turned into a bit of a campus weirdo. He walked around everyday in overalls and work boots. He and a friend invented a game called “extreme badminton” and played on the courts near the classrooms instead of attending class.

Natural smarts and a desire to eventually get a job and move on with his life pushed him through and he graduated with a degree in civil engineering and a math minor. His first job out of college was as a furniture salesman. It wasn’t long into the job that he was engaged in an expletive-fueled argument with his boss in which he claimed he could sell as much furniture as his superior if he too were allowed to discount products whenever he wanted. Already, this was Chris: a smart ass, a stirrer of the pot who refused to accept things as they were told to him.

He got out of furniture, but kept the salesman hat on, this time applying his education. He began his career in engineering sales working with civil engineers on wastewater treatment plans. Part of his job was writing reports for certain plans. He noticed that the engineers were simply copying his reports verbatim before sending them off to their superiors. He playfully tried to call them out on this by sprinkling random words into the reports. They were again copied exactly and passed on. Instead of reveling in an office prank, he was called into the boss’s office where he was both reprimanded for his behavior and thanked for the revelation he provided about his co-workers.

With engineering sales he found the sweet spot between building things and making a deal.

“It’s guys like me that make sure the bridge goes up the right way, meaning you can’t just sell them anything,” Chris says. “It’s very specific things. After the engineer designs it, you still need someone to build it and supply all the right stuff and I was that guy.”

But it was the lighting business where he found his true calling. He sold lighting systems to large buildings and big factories, assessing what was needed and making his pitch for why his company was the one to provide it.

“I did that for years,” Chris reminisced. “I would have worked for free for the rest of my life. I was actually very good at it.”

The kid who was supposed to be killed by diabetes before his twentieth birthday was in his mid-twenties with a thriving career as well as a wife by his side.

But then on Good Friday, April 15th of 1995, he went to the gym to play racquetball with a friend. His goggles were broken so he made the decision to play without them. A few minutes into their match the ball struck him square in his left eye. He fell to his knees and felt around on the ground for the eye he assumed had popped out of his head.

Once the initial shock wore off and he could confirm his eye was located in the same part of his face it had always been, he refused to go to the doctor for 10 days despite pain and abnormal coloring in his vision. “It was like being on psychedelic drugs.” When he finally went to the doctor, one thing was made clear: he should have gone sooner.

On April 27th he had surgery on his left eye. When he came out of it, the next day, it was his birthday and he had some vision out of that eye. It was the last time he ever saw out of it. In total, he had four operations on it before accepting that it was not getting any better; it was actually getting worse each time. Nine years later the eye would be removed due to pain.

It was during these trips to the optometrist that something else was revealed. At one point the doctor was taking a look at his right eye (his good eye) when he suddenly said, “Oh my God.” He then broke the news to Chris that he was going to lose vision in his right eye in the next three years. There was diabetic retinopathy slowly damaging his vision.

The story is thick with irony. The racquetball accident had nothing to do with the impending loss of vision in his right eye. Though it’s hard to measure, Chris currently has approximately five percent vision in his right eye, allowing him to read at a close distance with a magnifying glass. Chris claims that noticing the diabetic retinopathy as a result of his injury perhaps allowed doctors to better prepare for the blindness and preserve that miniscule five percent. Even so, his doctors believe that his eye will continue to worsen and he will eventually have no vision.

He has had a total of 12 surgeries between his two eyes. The University of Tennessee Medical Hospital teaches his case because of its uniqueness dealing with accidents to the eye and diabetic case studies. Interns from the hospital have met him and declared, “You’re the one. We study your case.”

***
The Gut Punch Podcast recorded its 100th episode last May. In its original conception in 2013 it was not a one-man show. Chris’ friend, Steve, was a founding member of the podcast and brought a little financial acumen to the show.

“He was the good guy and I was the asshole,” Chris said about the dynamic.

In fact, that was the original title of the show, “The Good Guy and the Asshole” but you can’t get a podcast on iTunes with the word “asshole” in it so they settled on "Gut Punch.”

The two of them would get going on a subject and Steve would nervously sweat through Chris’ hot takes on politics or borderline offensive jokes about current events.

But when Steve accepted a job with Guide Dogs of Texas, a position that he had sought after, Chris told him, “You’re no longer allowed to do the podcast.” When Steve asked why he responded, “You know how rough I get sometimes. I’m not dragging you down with me.” Despite Chris’ politically incorrect banter, he is not unaware of the culture we live in; companies have fired employees for less than some of the things said on the Gut Punch Podcast. So Chris carries on alone and with free rein.

“People have a hard time getting through my podcasts,” he says. “People come out and tell me, ‘I don’t want to think that hard.’”

It’s true that engaging in the Gut Punch Podcast requires thought, and Chris’ opinions from one topic to another are unpredictable. But is that really what makes it hard for some people to get through them? Or could it be that they are sometimes over 100 minutes of ranting?

Chris’ inspiration came from the No Agenda Show, a popular podcast hosted by Adam Curry and John Dvorak that takes no corporate sponsorships in order to maintain its credibility as unbiased. Chris emailed Curry the first episode of the Gut Punch Podcast. Curry’s advice was blunt: “You need to get a better microphone and you need to figure out what the hell your podcast is about.”

Now, you could argue skepticism is what Chris’ podcast is about. “THERE’S. SOMETHING. GOING. ON. HERE.” Chris probably doesn’t realize it’s basically become his catchphrase because he uses those five words all the time in everyday life.

There’s a lost Gut Punch Podcast out there that features myself as the rare guest with the topic being the ethics of college athletics. Unfortunately audio troubles deemed it unusable. My microphone volume was far too loud, while, ironically, Chris’ voice could barely be heard.

The day before the recording we did a trial run, which turned into a forty-minute debate about the effects of civil protest, the necessity of political correctness, and whether or not we are all born with empathy. “I just wanted to see where you would take this stuff,” he said smiling, satisfied with my ability to verbally spar with him. It was supposed to be a microphone check. He had lured me into his world of questioning everything. He wasn’t the authority; he was the Devil’s Advocate.

***
Chris’ wife was pregnant when he started losing his vision in 1998. When his son, Ryan, was born he couldn’t hold him because of a diabetic restriction on lifting things. What led to the separation of Chris and his ex-wife is ultimately between the two of them. It certainly wouldn’t take much effort to paint a vilified image of her, but a woman getting married in her twenties would never think of the possibility that she is signing up as one man’s caretaker for the rest of her life.

Therapy couldn’t salvage a relationship between a man who had so much ripped away from him and a woman with little interest in holding his hand through his new life. Communication meant hostility between the two of them. Chris understood that this would take a negative toll on Ryan’s life so he made the conscious decision that he would give Ryan’s mother space if it meant less conflict. Now Ryan is 17 years old and Chris sees very little of him, but he’ll beam with pride when he talks about how “bright” and “gifted” his son is.

Nothing could be done about the loss of Chris’ vision. He could put a selfless spin on the loss of his son. He could hold on to a sense of relief over the loss of his wife. But he refused to accept that his career would be just another casualty to his misfortune.
There was no meeting with his company to discuss his newfound blindness. He just showed up and did the work.

His mother took a year and a half off to drive him around on sales calls. His father would come with him and tell him the size of the space he was selling lighting to and Chris could do the rest from memory. The lights of any large retail store are typically equidistant from each other. Once you know the measurements it’s just a matter of math and knowing the function of the lighting patterns. His father could provide all the details his vision would have allowed him. “This is how dedicated everyone in the family was,” Chris remembers.

This process worked. He remembers a particular sales visit early after his loss of vision, which went as follows:

“Are you my sales rep?”

“Yes sir.”

“I didn’t know you were blind.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“How are you going to see if it’s lit correctly?”

“Well, if I can see it then it’s definitely lit correctly.”

Of course, he made the sale.

Two years after he went blind Chris hit all of his sales numbers. In fact, at the year-end awards banquet it was announced with much surprise that he had blown his numbers out of the water. He stood up to accept an award (at the time he didn’t use a cane or a guide dog) and tripped over a chair and fell down. Still, he received a standing ovation.
Yet when the company was bought by a big conglomerate, Chris started to look remarkably expendable. He was told that it seemed infeasible for him to continue to put up such strong numbers and it was suggested that he take disability. The alternative was a demotion that would pay less than disability.

“They didn’t really give me a choice,” Chris recalls.

But there is still the story of his last big sale. His company did a job for Proctor and Gamble. It concerned a Pringles potato chip factory. He remembers meeting with the woman heading the engineering group on a picnic table in 104-degree heat. “I sold the damn thing,” he says. It was a 10 and a half million-dollar sale, the largest in his company’s history.

There was a commission on the sale worth approximately $300,000. “I never saw the money,” he claims, a technicality of his pending departure from the company.
April 1st, 2000, was the last working day of his life in a career he can now only think back on. “No one wants a blind man in the lighting business,” he says.

***
Every sensationalist voice of the media provides his or her share of controversial sound bites. The Gut Punch Podcast is full of them. What is so frustrating about most agenda-based talking heads, though, is that their anger seems like an uninformed charade.
Chris rejects the notion that the goal of his podcast is to expose the liberal media. He considers himself a moderate who has voted on both sides of the spectrum.

When he explained to me the thought process behind the topics of each episode, he used gay marriage as an example: “Logically, either we’re all free or none of us are.” Mid-explanation he switches subjects completely. “Let’s use Russia as an example. Everyone wants to make Putin out to be the bad guy…” He believes, based on economics, that raising minimum wage to 15 dollars is ridiculous…because it’s too low.

This is what makes the Gut Punch Podcast so hard to label. Chris doesn’t stand behind an agenda, a party or an ideal. He’s all over the place. He discusses things based only on his reaction to them. Despite only five percent vision in one of his eyes, he reads constantly and is well educated, especially on the subject of technology. He seems to believe that everyone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes and so aligning with one faction would be foolish.

His shows are full of clips from other shows or platforms, most of which he refutes after playing. “I can scream until I get blue in the face, but I never interrupt the clip. I let it play all the way through. Some shows cut if off so they can get into their thoughts. I hate that. If you can’t hear the clip all the way through then you can’t make an opinion.”

It’s true that he plays clips – even ones he vehemently disagrees with – until their conclusion. It accounts for why the episodes are so long.

Opinions berate our sensibilities from countless sources. Our society is informed based on reactions to reactions. Bias does not have to be intentional. People unknowingly have agendas based on disproving other people’s seemingly harmful agendas. Chris maintains that he is not trying to back an agenda beyond providing information that is not being provided elsewhere. “I’m not trying to change your opinion.”

The 59th episode of the Gut Punch Podcast was recorded on the one-year anniversary of the death of Chris’ mother. The tone was quite apparently softer. It allowed for more self-deprecating humor about his size – “(When I was born) I kind of looked like a football.” He spent over an hour telling stories about the impact his mother had on him from the time he was diagnosed with diabetes to the year when he lost everything. “She never told me what to do, all she did [was] be there for me when I needed it.”

For listeners of the podcast, it was surely a different side of Chris. When someone unwaveringly asserts opinions with the confidence that Chris exudes it’s often easier to simply ignore that person. The podcast about his mother, though, was a reminder that talking into a microphone alone for over an hour isn’t easy, and Chris is actually quite good at it.

***
It isn’t that depression never hit, but anger was the prevailing emotion during Chris’ initial years of blindness. His life was taken away from him. It was during that time when he met Marty in 1998. He would attend programs with the Alliance for the Blind where she worked for the state of Tennessee, assisting blind people and teaching how to help them live better and more independent lives. He was one of the few non-seniors in the program or as he put it, “the only one under 100 years old.”

They were both in the final stages of doomed marriages when they met. Having gone through a divorce before her, he provided advice and comfort when she eventually ended her relationship with her first husband. He remembers the exact date of their first date and second date, which was at the first T.G.I. Friday’s ever built – the type of fact that could only be interesting to someone whose love story shares ties to it.

They were married within the year and they eventually moved to Dallas, Texas, together where she is a certified low vision therapist. Marty is 20 years older than Chris, but their support of each other makes this number seem insignificant.

“She has calmed me down, makes me think more…and I gave her more strength to stand up for herself.”

People try to applaud Marty for “taking care of Chris” – in fact, they’ll often say it in his presence, as if blind people are also deaf. She’ll just respond, “He’s better to me than I am to him.” He and Marty are in the process of launching a joint podcast together about fountain pens, surely a less hostile subject matter than the ones he normally covers.
 
Now, you could pick a restaurant in Dallas and there’s a decent chance one of the waiters will know Chris or, more likely, he’ll know something about them, being the conversationalist that he is.
 
At the point when his career, and thus part of his identity, was slipping away from him his next move would be calculated. “Why don’t I take the disability and start helping other people. That’s what I dedicated my life to.” Chris knows the power an hour of conversation can have on someone who truly needs it. So he’s there to listen and give his support to people who aren’t quite sure what they did to deserve it.

“I had very few people that wanted to help me and a lot of people that walked away from me,” Chris remembered. “I decided I couldn’t live my life like that.”

Between that mission, Marty, and the podcast, Chris’ life seems to have a lot more purpose than it used to, even before his blindness.

***
At some point since I met Chris, his weight became a potential issue. Surgeries loomed as a possibility if a healthier lifestyle wasn’t adopted.

He still came into the restaurant. Westin still grabbed a seat next to him and wagged his tail when I came over because he knew I wouldn’t resist petting him at the risk of my other tables seeing me touch a dog. Chris still brags about the podcast. “I’m on in 45 countries. Some countries like me more than others: China, Australia, Germany…”

But his order has changed: Half of a spinach salad with chicken. Dressing on the side. Diet Coke.

He lost 75 pounds in an astonishingly short amount of time, his clothes now hang off of him. He and Westin cover more ground by foot than a lot of Dallas residents do in their cars.

So technically he isn’t the Fat Blind Man anymore. It sounds wrong just calling him the Blind Man, though. That would be selling him short because his ears still work. So does his mouth. To do what Chris does, that’s all he really needs.
 

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