A few years ago, my brother and I were doing a bit of grocery shopping, and, as we wandered through the produce section, he abruptly stopped the cart. Trying to suppress a mischievous laugh, he reached for something on a shelf and said, grinning, “Feel this!” When he put it into my hand, I immediately understood his mirth. What he handed me was a fist-sized fruit, whose relatively round shape was disrupted by small, pointy protrusions. I laughed too and he informed me that I was holding a Peruvian horned melon, a specimen separated from the conventionally smooth or modestly bumpy ranks of fruits by its hilarious strangeness. A fruit with horns! I had never touched anything like that before.
I should mention that the grocery store is often a place where I was told, “Look, don’t touch!” – the supervising adult’s way of keeping a curious, tactilely-oriented child from pulling every item off the shelf. Now that I am an adult and can be trusted not to break things for the sake of understanding physics, I touch everything. Especially the fruit.
But the most sublime textures, the ones in which I revel unequivocally, are not to be found at the grocery store. They’re found in a variety of places, and my encounters with them are often unexpected. After all, I can’t see them approaching.
The textures I notice most are probably clothing-related. I walk with so many different sighted guides during the week and they all change their clothes relatively frequently, so I get to experience something new each time I reach for an elbow. Sometimes it’s bare skin (and I can tell whether the person uses a moisturizer or drinks enough water), and sometimes it’s the smooth supple pleasurable leather jacket. My friend Nick has a particularly nice leather jacket; it’s so thick that I can barely discern his elbow beneath it. But most of the time, in this hot Florida climate, it’s some light form of cotton, which is not at all unpleasant.
If I’m lucky, it’s corduroy. Oh how I delight in corduroy! The kind with the tiny ribs, crammed close together, or the kind with the big, soft ribs spaced a quarter-inch apart. There’s something about corduroy that I just love.
And then of course there are the scarves – smooth, soft cashmere or the rough, intricate weave of a crocheted scarf. I have 3 crocheted scarves that I particularly adore – two made for me by my mom’s good friend Suzanne and one from my dear friend Katie. The ones from Suzanne are soothingly soft; I can tell she picked the yarn especially for its texture. The one from Katie is a rougher yarn, more interesting than soothing to touch. She chose an intricate crochet pattern with tiny holes and plenty of features for my busy fingers to explore. And that business is in its own way very soothing to me.
In the presence of these soft delightful textures, I am reduced to the nonverbal cooing of an infant. I love things that are soft and inviting, things you want to rub gently against your cheek.
In his book, Busy Body: My Life with Tourette’s Syndrome, Nick van Bloss writes about his “Touretty” compulsion to touch certain textures, even textures that wouldn’t seem inviting – like a friend’s oily nose! I don’t usually feel drawn to explore oily noses, but I do experience a similar urge to touch things, especially if I can’t make visual sense of them. Or if a friend is wearing a vibrantly-colored shirt, I want to touch it to understand it better. Texture is such an important dimension of my perception.
I don’t think I could choose a favorite texture, but there are a few contenders, delivered in no particular order.
- The smooth surface of a piano, especially the part that closes over the keys – I am ashamed that I don’t know what this part is called. Also, the keys. Piano keys can feel so different from instrument to instrument. I personally like the weathered smoothness of older keys, but I wouldn’t turn down a chance to brush the keys of a brand new baby grand.
- The gritty smoothness of my Macbook. Gritty smoothness? Yes. I can’t seem to articulate it another way. The aluminum of the outer casing isn’t silky smooth, but it is smooth. It still has that quality that sort of drags at your fingertips as you touch it. Unlike the little apple cutout on the Mac’s lid – which I love for its silky smoothness.
- Golden retrievers! My god. They’re incredible! I spoke at a meeting for the Foundation Fighting Blindness back in November and they had two guide dog puppies there. One was a lab, who was adorable in his own way, but the other was a big, lovey, fluffy golden. I had never petted a golden retriever before. I guess people who can see them know what they are getting into; they can behold that inviting fur and think, “It is going to be so soft and fluffy!” But I had no idea. And I am now forever changed. It was so soft…
- A new cane – but that’s an entry in and of itself.
This list is by no means complete. For one thing, I’m talking here about the textures I feel with my hands. This doesn’t take into account the textures I feel anywhere else, the textures that brush my skin or the textures of food, or even the texture of the ground.
In music, the word texture is used to denote the way that melodic lines are arranged within a piece. For example, a piece with polyphonic texture has several melodies of equal importance playing at the same time. Mood-related characteristics like bright, dark, or light refer to a piece’s timbre – its tone color. I run into problems when I start talking about the texture of music, because I mean something more akin to texture in our conventional sense. If a piece of music sounds gritty, smooth, thick, rigid, airy — what word can I use? To me, these are all tactile qualities; I’m describing how the music feels in a sense other than emotionality. But, as I said, the texture of music refers elsewhere. So I am now on the search for a new way to talk about the characteristics of music I’m describing.