For a blessed decade and a half from 1980 to about 1995 I wore no spectacles. I clearly remember the day when at 18 years old I carefully folded my glasses — “my glasses”, the phrase has been part of my brain’s cellular networks since before manned space flight* — placed them into their hard plastic case and put the case in the drawer of the night table between my brother’s bed and mine, where they remained for years.
I had had enough. Enough of the name Four-Eyes. Enough of having to pause on the cusp of jumping into a lake or a pool or even stepping into a shower, or doing anything acrobatic that might render my person upside down or spinning in quick circles, in order to remove my spectacles. Enough of being automatically disqualified as a candidate for adoration by the fairer sex. Enough of glare and fogging and enough of the painful pinching on either side of my nose and behind my ears.
Some people’s eyeballs are misshapen, so that the place where the lens of the eye focuses an image is not at the back wall of the eye as the design calls for, but forward or back of it. If the eyeball is too long front to back, the focal point falls short of the retina, causing distant objects to appear blurred — that’s myopia or near-sightedness. Hyperopia or farsightedness is when the eyeball is too short and the focal point falls behind the eye, causing near (and sometimes also far) objects to be blurred. An astigmatism is something else again, where a defect in the cornea causes two focal points to fall in two different places.
I heard various things over the years about my eyes, but the story is hazy in my mind. I never heard the word hyperopia, but I understood that I was farsighted, and I also remember hearing the word astigmatism, which I misheard as “a stigmatism”. I remember being told that one of my eyes wandered, and I think I remember that it was my left one, and I remember this because I found it confusing later, since my left eye is the sharper. Whatever the combination of problems was, I was fitted with glasses when I was two years old.
Well, that’s the way it goes, and it’s water under the bridge. Life was hard for a lot of kids, and this was a mere inconvenience. I am lucky my eyesight was corrected. But it was no fun having glasses. They fell off my head more than once and broke, which was a disaster because glasses were not cheap even then and my parents had little extra money. I have a memory of this happening right out in the street in front of my house (we played in the street in 20th-century South Bellevue), which is not to say that it happened there, my memory having been proven to be a rat’s nest of crossed fibers. In this memory they broke at the bridge, and whether or not it happened where and when I remember it, I do know that my mom taped my glasses together at least once, so that caricature of the kid with glasses with tape on the bridge was a reality for me.
My eye doctor was Dr. Boyd. I liked him. His voice was comforting. I don’t recall Dr. Boyd’s face but I recall his voice. Its reassuring smoothness was a counterbalance to the cold metal of the phoropter, the eye-testing machine he pulled in front of me like a dragon’s head on a long, hinged neck and set on my nose. As I peered through it with my eyes watering, focusing on the eye-chart at the front of the room which always started with a large sans-serif E, he would test lenses in front of first one eye, then the other, flipping the lenses quickly each time and asking silkily which seemed sharper…”This one?…” (pause…flip) “or this one?” Sometimes the lenses would touch my eyelashes as they flipped and it tickled.
In those days a visit to the eye doctor always involved dilation of my pupils via eye-drops to facilitate the search for any signs of disease in the retina. Nowadays they have other means of examining eye health, but I vividly remember the little cardboard sunglasses they gave you to wear for an hour after your visit. You’d leave the ophthalmologist’s office with your pupils owl-eye wide and unable to focus on anything. I’m surprised, when I think back on this, that this was not more terrifying to me. But I was more worried about what people would think when they saw me wearing those paper shades.
I remember when I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old, asking Dr. Boyd — my mom was there in the room — when I would be able to not wear glasses anymore, and I remember two words of his response, and they were “maybe” and “twelve”. I ignored the first and sealed the second on my heart like a promise. When I was twelve I would be done. I would be cured. I would be righted. I would be good enough. Normal. Whole.
Twelve came and went, and when I complained to my mom that I was promised that I would not have to wear glasses anymore when I got to be twelve, she could not remember any such promise. I don’t recall asking Dr. Boyd about it, but it didn’t matter; regardless of my expectations, I still needed corrective lenses. I believe this is the first thing in life that I recall having an active, conscious resentment about. The world owed me a life without glasses and that life wasn’t forthcoming. I didn’t think about it a lot, but when I did I felt let down. What had gone wrong? Why didn’t anyone remember that I was supposed to be done with glasses when I was twelve?
What can you do? Over the years I became one not only with my specs, but with the resentment and dissatisfaction I felt at being what seemed to me permanently defective. I sublimated all this, of course, because after all I had friends enough and lots of things to do. My aunt and uncle paid for oil painting lessons for me, which I took every week with my friend and neighbor-across-the-street, Mark, at the Ilona Rittler Gallery in Bellevue; and Jeff and Kip and I got hold of a Super 8 movie camera in a drawer in Jeff’s house and started making movies. Life was full.
Still, the damned things rankled. One day when we were in high school my same-age cousin Karen, whom I have always adored, told me that I had to “do something about those glasses”. I think it was one of those moments you never forget and you always see clearly. I remember exactly where we were standing in my folks’ old house, next to the refrigerator. She meant no harm, in fact she was trying to help. At that time I had those goofy glasses that tinted themselves when I went outside because my eyes were so sensitive to light and I was already prone to migraines. She was just calling a spade a spade.
I don’t know how long after this it was, but it wasn’t very long until I tucked my glasses in at the back of the drawer and went about my day with uncorrected vision for the first time in my entire life’s memory.
My eyesight in those days was not that bad. I could see distance a little better with the specs on. Without them there was just a little softness to the world’s background details. After a few months I didn’t even notice this, and when I tried the glasses on again out of curiosity the world looked bent and strange. I couldn’t go back now even if I wanted to, I thought. But it was fine. I could read the small print on an aspirin bottle. I was excellent with a Frisbee. There was nothing I couldn’t do.
After several years, I went back to Dr. Boyd for a check-up and admitted that I’d abandoned my prescription. He seemed unfazed by my recklessness, and after hauling the phoropter over and measuring my eyesight he told me my eyes had actually gotten better. This was great news to me, but it made me wonder if I shouldn’t have rebelled sooner. Dr. Boyd said that as I aged, my eyes would get tired by the end of the day and when they did, if I had glasses it would be less of a strain. My choice. Go. Be free.
I could hardly believe my good fortune. My ophthalmologist had given me my walking papers. I could get glasses again someday “if and when I wanted them.”
So began my blessed decade. I ran and jumped and climbed and flipped and dove and twirled and hung upside down. A lot. I developed a measure of physical heedlessness. The line across my nose disappeared, as did the impressions behind my ears. Shooting photographs was much easier without spectacles in those days before digital monitors, when you had to press your eye up to the viewfinder. I could wear normal-people sunglasses instead of my tint-o-matic glasses or even worse, the flip-up plastic shade attachments.
My young adult years featured a good measure of travel and adventure. At that decade’s beginning I went to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and packed crab. In its middle I worked on a farm in Germany and then toured Europe, and toward its end I assayed to reach the Sahara Desert through Morocco. Not that I wouldn’t have embarked on these adventures if I’d had to wear glasses, but the going was sure easier without them and there was a noticeable decrease in my drag quotient. I sped through life. At twenty-nine I went to Ohio and rode horses every day for more than a year in all kinds of Ohio weather, without having to wipe the rain off my glasses so I could see, or take them off and defog them after walking into the ranch house from the cold outside, or push them back up my sweaty nose while I bent over a horse’s hoof with a farrier’s rasp in the punishing afternoon sun.
It was a John Barth novel that signaled the approaching end of that crisply outlined era. I was living back in Seattle and sitting one dim wintry day (I do not say a winter’s day, for it may have been a wintry day in summer, as happens frequently in these parts) at Diva Espresso, a coffee shop on Greenwood that relied on its big windows for daylight and on dark days was poorly illumined by overhead lamps. I was reading The Sotweed Factor. And all of a sudden I was unable to resolve the text. My eyes could not pull hard enough to bring the letters into sharp focus. I was about thirty-three or thirty-four years old.
An astonishing failure of my memory now presents, which is a stone bummer when you’re trying to wrap up a story of epic proportions like this one. I don’t recall whether I got glasses right away or waited a while. My wedding picture from 1999 shows me without them. I have very few actual memories of putting them on or taking them off prior to about the year 2000, when I was thirty-eight. At that time, I was using them for reading at work, and in subsequent years I remember that it became a requirement of the State of Washington Department of Licensing that while driving a motor vehicle I must wear corrective lenses. I remember putting them on while getting into my truck. But at some point I started keeping them on after getting out from behind the wheel.
My eyes have deteriorated in descending plateaus. I think I had a single prescription from the late 1990s until about 2008, a plateau of about ten years. But my eyesight tumbled another level last year. I was still a few months shy of my fiftieth birthday and I was dead set against getting bifocals until I had put a tidy half-century of living in my wake, but the eye doctor I went to said that the days of single lenses were coming to an end for me. He chuckled when I mentioned Dr. Boyd, and I was surprised that my old ophthalmologist’s name was familiar to him.
But Dr. Boyd is now infamous. He has not been seen in Washington State since 1995 and his license was revoked in absentia in 1997, according to an article in Eugene, Oregon’s Register-Guard in 2000, which cited his entry in the National Practitioner Data Bank: “Boyd transferred his assets to Lichtenstein and fled his $6 million mansion in 1995 — taking with him one of the world’s largest collections of medieval armor — rather than face an avalanche of more than 100 lawsuits alleging that he botched radial keratotomy eye surgeries.”
So at age fifty I have ordered my first pair of bifocals. I could have gotten progressive lenses, a graduated solution with no lines so that no one can tell you’re wearing readers and mid- and long-distance glasses all at once. For a number of reasons I opted against that for now and decided to keep my distance glasses for walking around and driving and get a pair of bifocals that split between computer (arm’s) length and close-up book reading. But the story may not quite end there, because after two weeks of wearing them I went back to the glasses counter and told the people that I needed them to adjust it slightly because it feels like I have to hold books too close to my face while at the same time I find myself leaning forward slightly toward my computer monitor. They referred me back to the doctor and said that maybe, just maybe, a single lens adjusted between computer and book might be an option. My appointment is tomorrow so we’ll see.
“When you’re twelve.”
As I said, despite the inconvenience attending my early life I was one of the lucky ones, and I now see that I was lucky in more ways than one. The surgery Dr. Boyd got sued so many times for was an operation he routinely recommended for myopia. But I didn’t have myopia. I had everything else.
*Absolutely untrue. Russia’s Yuri Gagarin went into space in April 1961, and we flung Alan Shepard into suborbit less than a month later, in May. As near as I can reckon, I was conceived a month after that.