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'New York Times' writer Frank Bruni on what losing eyesight taught him about life

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Frank Bruni's professional life had been a series of wins. He's held titles at the New York Times from White House correspondent to chief restaurant critic to opinion columnist. Then in 2017, he had an unexpected medical calamity. When he woke up one morning, his eyesight was strange.

FRANK BRUNI: The right side of my field of vision had a sort of dappled fog over it. And then it just didn't go away, and it didn't go away hour after hour, and I realized something was very wrong.

SHAPIRO: He'd had a sort of stroke. Doctors told him it was likely irreversible and his vision could get worse. Rather than write a book focused on his medical odyssey, Frank Bruni's new memoir, "The Beauty Of Dusk," introduces readers to many different people who share something in common.

BRUNI: Everyone in the book, whether the person is someone whom I knew for a long time and had never really kind of talked to in the way I began to or whether it was someone I met and questioned in a way I wouldn't have before, everyone had been dealt some sort of hardship, challenge or setback well before old age, but in a way that sort of augured old age and had gone through that with grace, had adapted and had so much to teach me, had so much to teach anybody, but is never asked for that lesson.

SHAPIRO: Can you just choose one of the many people who you describe in this book and tell us a little bit about them?

BRUNI: A person who really touched me greatly is - I went for a long weekend to Las Vegas because - please don't judge me - I have a soft spot for Las Vegas. And I like to play...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BRUNI: And I like to play blackjack and...

SHAPIRO: You could have said it was for a political story about Harry Reid or something, you know?

BRUNI: Well, you know, the book is radically honest, and I try to practice radical honesty, right?

SHAPIRO: OK (laughter).

BRUNI: So I went to Las Vegas, and I went to a restaurant a little bit away from the strip, and I made the reservation in my name because I'm no longer a restaurant critic and I'm not hiding. And it never occurred to me that someone in the restaurant would recognize the name, but someone did - a manager. His name was Danny (ph), I later learned. And he came up to me to say hello.

But what he really wanted to let me know was that he had read a column I'd written in The New York Times about my imperiled eyesight. And he said to me, you know, it meant a lot to me because I've been through similar things.

And then the next day I thought, you know what? I want to know more about him. And then I connected with him, and I heard his whole story, which I've put in the book. And it is an extraordinary story about a young man who has not seen normally since the time he was born, but nonetheless got through high school with much effort, got through college with much effort, was making a very significant career for himself as a manager in the restaurant industry. And not a day goes by when he doesn't struggle to see clearly. And nobody knows that unless they ask him. Nobody knows that unless you give him occasion to tell you. And I could tell stories like Danny's over and over again from the years after I lost some of my eyesight because I moved through the world in that entirely new and inquisitive and open-hearted way.

SHAPIRO: I'm struck by something you said earlier, which was that some of these are people who you had not previously talked to in the way you began talking to them. Some of these are people who you reacquainted yourself with in a different way. What was that shift?

BRUNI: I paused when this happened to me, and I realized that one of the greatest dangers when you have a kind of medical setback like mine is to end up trapped by self-pity, to wallow in self-pity. And I kind of instinctively realized that one way to prevent that was to look at everybody around you and assess them in a way you normally don't and say, wait a second, I'm going through this really hard thing, but that person has been dealing for years with an autistic child. This other person has known that she has multiple sclerosis for decades and wonders if at some point that it's going to really, really impair and inhibit her functioning.

I started noticing these things that we know about people, but we don't ask them about. And I started asking them about these things because, A, I wanted to live a more truthful life in terms of really understanding struggle as the norm for all of us, but I also realized there are people all around us who have so much wisdom to share with us, but we never ask them the right questions because those questions maybe make us uncomfortable or we think it'll make them uncomfortable. But in fact, it ends up being rewarding and enriching for everybody involved.

SHAPIRO: I've run into this in other contexts where there seems to be a divide, where people going through something don't want to burden others by talking about it, and the others don't want to bring the person who is going through something down by raising the subject with them. And so it never gets discussed. What did you find when you started actually discussing it?

BRUNI: I discovered that this kind of politeness we all practice is nothing that any of us really likes. I have a wonderful, wonderful friend from college named Dorie (ph). And she was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and fairly severe Parkinson's at a very young age. And I would see her through the years, and it would be like we would pretend it wasn't there. We would pretend that she didn't shake. And I kind of went out on a limb and I started emailing her and said, Dorie, I've never asked you the story of your Parkinson's. Would you mind emailing back and forth and answering questions because I'd like to know what you've been through.

And far from being discomforted, far from feeling vulnerable or feeling like I had said something that had made her self-conscious, she just kept writing and writing and unburdening herself. And we formed a sort of connection and relationship that we hadn't had for years, and it's just a shame we didn't get there sooner. I think we all suffer, Ari, from this excess of politeness that does none of us any good.

SHAPIRO: There are a few moments in the book where you say something along the lines of I'm not arguing that a loss has commensurate gain. And I think there can be a trap of painting suffering as inherently noble and good. And there is a sort of slippery slope to a kind of relentless sunniness (ph) that feels like a denial of reality. How do you strike the right balance, not just in writing about it, but in living through it?

BRUNI: So I think that it is important to recognize that certain things just aren't ideal, certain things are hard. I'll speak for myself. There are moments when I'm trying to read quickly and I can't, and I used to be able to. There are moments when I look at a paragraph that I typed and there are 10 typos that have to do with my compromised vision. And I will let myself take a minute or two or maybe even 10 to kind of sit with the fact that this is hard and I wish it were a different way.

But you have to make a decision. Am I going to focus on that, or am I going to focus on and be grateful for all the things I still can do, you know? Someone has invited me to type that paragraph, and someone's going to read that paragraph once I fix it. I can choose, and I should choose to focus on that.

SHAPIRO: There's one other idea you write about in the book that I want to ask you about because I've actually brought it up with people since I read it. It's the sandwich board theory of life. Explain this idea.

BRUNI: What I mean by the sandwich board theory is if every one of us, everyone you came in contact with, was wearing something on the exterior that told you what he or she had struggled with in the past, was struggling with right then, the anxieties, the heartaches, you would understand much better how many people, which is basically everyone's struggle in some way, you would be much, much less inclined to self-pity, and I think you would be called to a degree of empathy that ideally we would always all show one another.

SHAPIRO: Frank Bruni's new book is "The Beauty Of Dusk: On Vision Lost And Found." Thanks a lot.

BRUNI: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.