Archive for October, 2012

Four eyes

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.

What I got. Illustration of hyperopia and its correction by A. Baris Toprak MD, image licensed through Creative Commons.

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.

My next-door neighbor, Heather, and I, and my glasses: inseparable. We’re two or three years old here.

The caption written on this photo says “First ‘garden’ Age 3 Summer 1965”

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.

Perception is such a subjective thing. The phoropter.

The usual suspects.

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?

Twelve. With Mom and little brother Ben in the nation’s capital.

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.

With Mark (left) and Kip (taking photo) on a camping trip at the Washington coast, maybe 1979 or ’80. One of the earliest photos I have of my glasses-free period.

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.”

Damn the uncorrected vision! Full speed ahead! Jeff and I on Ross Lake heading to camp at Dry Creek, c.1984.

Shooting downtown with Kip’s little brother Cal, early ’80s. Contrived? Sure, but at least I didn’t clonk my glasses against the viewfinder (or the window). Extra credit Q: what corner is this?

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.

Wheeling through ancient forests on a day off from my (admittedly light) farm chores, near Tübingen, (West) Germany, 1985. My hawk-eyed vision catches sight of something noteworthy.

That thick book on my knee? It’s the Let’s Go Europe guide. Small print in there. Sailing the wine-dark sea with traveling companions on our way to Thira, 1985.

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.

At the ranch, 1992. I could see for miles. Photo courtesy of Brooke Trigleth, used with permission.

(It wasn’t my dog.) First snow at my little Snoqualmie redoubt, November 1993. I didn’t know it then, but my eyesight was going south.

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.”

Angela and I, yet unwed, capering at a friend’s birthday, circa 1997. I had probably gotten a pair of glasses by now just for reading, but the glorious ride was about over.

At the perfect game with the perfect date, August 2012. My eyes are so bad I can hardly read the menu even with my glasses. Time to turn yourself in, amigo, consider bifocals.

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.

“We’ll see.”

“Maybe.”

“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.

Jubilee Farm

When we drove up and parked at Jubilee Farm a crowd was gathering around the top of a little grassy hill, and I could see Erick Haakenson directing adults and children in what I at first thought was a giant tug-of-war game, folks lined up ready to pull on a rope. But it wasn’t a tug-of-war game. They were cocking a trebuchet. A trebuchet is a cousin of the catapult but instead of a winch a trebuchet has a weighted beam. You lift the weight and hold it in place with a pin. Pull the pin, and whatever you loaded into the basket attached to the unweighted beam-end gets flung out into the adjacent pasture, in this case a large pumpkin.

Arriving at Jubilee Farm. If you click for the larger version you can see the line of people about to pick up the rope.

Locked, cocked and ready to fling. Erick stands at far left on the hill while the three pullers pull.

Erick moved everyone except for three adult volunteers off the hill, for safety’s sake, and then the relocated assembly shouted a countdown from ten, at the end of which the volunteers pulled on the rope that held the pin, the pin came out, the 2,000-pound weight dropped, the beam rotated, and the pumpkin joined that relatively small fraternity of gourd vegetables that have been privileged to leave earth’s bonds momentarily behind, lifted into the blue sky above the tops of fir trees. It landed and exploded in a thud of yellow and orange, and all the children ran out to examine it.

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm occupies 200 acres at a sharp bend in the Snoqualmie River, near the town of Carnation. It’s a small farm owned and run by Erick and his wife Wendy. They raise vegetables and keep some livestock, mainly for the manure, and the farm is supported by a CSA program, wherein townies who wish to know where their food comes from and have a relationship with its grower pay an annual fee and receive weekly boxes of the farm’s produce in return.

It’s a princess patch.

I met Erick years ago at the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair. He had a table set up with a few apples and other fruits and some vegetables on it, but he said he wasn’t really there to sell produce that day so much as talk with people about biodynamic farming, which is his passion. Biodynamic farming seeks to restore and maintain ecological balance, so, for example, instead of adding chemical fertilizers to the soil, BD farmers might use manure from cattle, returning nutrient to the soil from right there on the farm instead of importing something external. Basically, it’s farming in harmony with instead of in opposition to the processes of nature. But there’s also a huge emphasis on community in the BD movement, since the approach is based on a holistic idea of the health of the land.

Shortly after this encounter, we took Mara, who was then two years old, to Jubilee Farm to hunt down a pumpkin for Halloween. We climbed into a wagon for a free hayride around the edges of fields full of broccoli and squash and carrots and chard and onions and cabbage, and just before the tractor started to pull the wagon Erick himself jumped up into the wagon so he could ride with us and tell us how things were going that year. As we skirted the fields he shouted above the sound of the tractor to report that it had been a good year for some things but not for others. He talked about wanting to eventually get his tractors off of diesel and onto biofuels, in keeping with the biodynamic model.

I was entranced.

The man was singing my song, namely the song of can’t we just quit bashing the earth we’ve been given for our home and sustenance in order to make bigger profits and start being responsible stewards and reckon the health of our soil and our communities as a bottom line asset?

Silas explains one of his ideas to Mara. He has already proposed marriage and they talk a lot about the house they will build together.

We started planning how we might participate in Jubilee’s CSA program, which was not outrageously expensive but would amount to a rerouting of our food budget that would take some planning and experimentation and education for us to make work for us. Like how do you make a meal out of kohlrabi? And what the hell is kohlrabi? But that’s when we finally moved out of our tiny 1912 cottage-y house into our big swingin’ 1960s plate-glass windows and a two-car garage house (we don’t have two cars), and for several years we were burdened with a monthly mortgage that forced us to retreat from the expensive moral high ground where our food was concerned.

We never joined, and what’s more, we began getting our pumpkins at another farm up north every year with friends of ours who went there, whose daughter is Mara’s oldest friend. I’ve written about our annual trip to Craven Farm at least twice before, and we’ve had fun there. It’s a big operation and a well-oiled commercial enterprise, complete with tractor-pulled hayride through a corn-maze (not free), some small farm animals in a petting barn, a concession stand with a play-and-eating area, even a permanent espresso bar and a gift shop. We’ve been to weddings and other events at Craven Farm. It always seems to be stunningly beautiful there, tranquil and magical and…the word ‘shimmering’ comes to mind, and they have vast pumpkin patches, and a separate patch with smaller pumpkins for littler people. Even though you don’t necessarily feel the farmingness of it, there’s nothing not to like there.

Millie became rather attached to her tractor.

But for a number of reasons we decided to go back to Jubilee Farm this year. Even though we’d only been once before, a long time ago, we had been missing it. Or at least Angela and I had. Mara didn’t remember it. But she was game, especially since her buddy Silas and his mom said they’d go with us, and Millie at just two and a half years probably doesn’t even remember Craven Farm, so she was untroubled by the change.

When I saw Erick conducting the trebuchet firing I was immediately glad we had come back. It occurred to me that Erick is always outside talking with people, or driving the tractors, or helping people weigh their pumpkins. I love that. Whereas Craven Farm is big and smooth and feels a bit like going to a fair, like a place eternally at ease, the feeling at Jubilee is more like going to a holiday gathering at your favorite uncle’s farm. Erick and Wendy are always participating, engaging the people who support them not just by being customers, as Erick said, but by being part of the community that the farm operates in. This is a farm with a family at the center of it, and the families that visit it during weekends like this are often families that have worked in Jubilee’s fields in a “workshare” capacity. They know Erick and Wendy and Erick and Wendy know them. At Jubilee Farm, you get a whiff of the realness, the danger, the dependence on the weather and on the community of friends, the skin-of-their-teeth determination that keeps Erick and his family in the game.

Getting our gourd on. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

We caught a hayride out to the pumpkin patch and Silas and Mara had a blast running around and assessing the features that in their minds make up the ideal jack-o-lantern. There weren’t pumpkins small enough for Millie to pick up in the field, but she found a tiny one she coveted later at the cashier’s counter. The wagon picked us up with our chosen pumpkins to take us back to the barn. All three kids enjoyed a large haybale maze in one of the sheds, and Millie twice climbed up unaided into an old International tractor, whose gear levers she seemed to intuitively understand. We had gotten there late and things were closing down. It had been a beautiful day, even hot, which I think surprised everyone. There was hot cider and hot corn on the cob for sale on the barn porch, but we bought popsicles out of a freezer.

Erick’s son David conducted an end-of-day pumpkin fling with the trebuchet, and the dwindling crowd again pulled the rope to lift the 2,000-pound block. This time I shot my hand up when volunteers were called for to pull the pin. It took me and the man and woman with me three pulls with all our might before it came out. I fell to the ground. The pumpkin arced through the sky. The children ran after. It was great to be part of the fun.

David Haakenson readies the trebuchet for another fling.

Silas and his mom had to leave, but Angela and the girls and I took a stroll down the long road across the highway — Angela had asked Erick where the cows were that we kept hearing. A quarter mile down the road the cows were in a pasture picking at what little green there was in the grass after the long drought we’ve had since late July or so. Angela and Mara fed them over the electric fence. If I understand correctly these animals are the engine of soil replenishment for Jubilee’s crop fields. Most of the calves were black — all black, even their faces. The cows were mostly black or black with white faces, though some were a dirty white and one or two were brown.

It was cool in the shadow of Tolt Hill, and a little mist was even coming up, even while the lowering sun was still painting the treetops across the valley. The quiet between the lowing of the cows was soul-enriching. David came walking down the road to check that the fence was on. With him was his wife Kristin, who was carrying their baby son Micah in her arms. He pointed to the new barn being built across the fields, and told us that the cows were being so vocal partly because they were unhappy about the lack of green grass. He said they were moving the herd every 24 hours in an effort to make the fields provide enough nutrient to keep them fed until November, when they’ll go into the new barn for the winter (in the barn, I happen to know, they’ll get good hay that was put up at the end of the summer – dry but tasty).

Millie in the shade of the barn. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Silas and Mara enter the haybale maze. Image copyright Juliana W., used by permission.

Angela and I missed the tradition of doing Craven Farm with our old friends, but this feeling was more than mitigated by the fun we had discovering new adventures with new friends. Mara had not uttered a single word of discontent (she was happily capering with Silas). Jubilee’s patch was not as large nor as plentiful as Craven’s, and there were no wheelbarrows to stick your toddler in when they tired of tripping around among the pokey vines and stems. Sending us off in our haywagon, Erick had acknowledged that “at Jubilee we grow pumpkins with our left hand; mainly we’re all about biodynamic vegetable growing.” But, he said, he was glad we were here and he thanked us for coming, and in his voice I could hear a person who really knows the non-monetary value of people, of community. We’re not sure Jubilee Farm will be our annual pumpkin patch until Millie is old enough to tromp around on her own, but Jubilee Farm is busy with family events all year and we want to find a way to work this wonderful little farm into the rhythm of our lives.


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