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.”


“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.


17 Responses to “Four eyes”

  1. 1 kiwidutch October 31, 2012 at 10:15

    Snap… my eyesight has deteriorated sharply in the last year after a strange lull of some six years or so where my glasses prescription stayed exactly the same.

    I used to wear contacts but a few years ago after 20 years of no fuss, they started making my eyes water uncontrollably so I ended up putting them away and looking forlornly at the old glasses in the drawer.

    Now finally i’ve found a pair of glasses that suit me and gotten not only used to them but also to the fact that they are a new fact of life that I just have to accept if I still want to read, drive and not trip over objects in my path.

    Getting old gracefully isn’t easy but at least we live in an age where corrective lenses exist and latest technologies where making the best of what we have is to a greater or lesser degree possible 🙂

    Great post… (cool photos both with and without glasses too)

    • 2 Matt October 31, 2012 at 11:04

      Hi KD<
      Yes, I'm grateful not only for the years I was given to frolic without the burden of glasses, but grateful also for the technologies that enable me to keep reading and writing. I'm glad you've gotten used to your situation. I personally like to go kicking and screaming into every life change.

  2. 3 James November 1, 2012 at 14:51

    I wore glasses briefly when I was four and five. Something to do with my eyes not being developed enough for the print I was trying to read, allegedly, which sounds unscientific these many years later.

    Around age 22, right after moving to Seattle, I found myself squinting slightly at the movies and straining just a little to read distant street signs. Astigmatism with the effect of myopia. I got glasses with the intention of wearing them occasionally, but realized that my vision was generally improved and so kept them on all the time. I’d pretty much given up my NBA ambitions by then and embarked on the sedentary life I still lead, so what the heck, I figured.

    In these last three months, after years with hardly a change in my vision, I’ve been forced more than once to hold books further away or take off my glasses to read them. Just this last month I finally stopped pretending things were fine and admitted my age. As soon as I get my lazy self in gear, I’m off to the ophthalmologist for a new set of prescriptions. Unlike you, Matt, I’m not ready to call them bifocals. I’m pretty sure it’s people like me who inspired the creative genius who cooked up the term “progressive lenses.” It’s a good way to try to sound modern instead of ancient, not that anyone’s fooled.

    I like the way you buried the lede and saved the denouement of Dr. Boyd’s career until the end. You could write a pretty good comic action film about a middle-aged guy with owlish lenses floundering his way through the tiny principalities of Europe in search of the wealthy, mace-wielding quack who done him wrong. “Vengeance will be mine, Doctor, as soon as I can find someone to help me read this train timetable. Excuse me, does this say Liechtenstein or Luxembourg?”

    • 4 Matt November 1, 2012 at 15:20

      It’s a slippery slope, getting specs to wear “occasionally”. Thanks for this comment, James. Because I knew you would not misspell the word ‘lead’ and therefore looked up your usage, I learned an interesting thing about the history of the word ‘lede’.

      • 5 James November 2, 2012 at 13:13

        I don’t know much about the history of “lede,” but I do know it’s not acceptable to use in Scrabble or Words With Friends. Almost as frustrating as hassling with spectacles or a lorgnette. You can often substitute a different printer’s term, though–“dele.”

  3. 7 Jana November 3, 2012 at 12:45

    Enjoyed this, Matt. When I was about 24 it never occurred to me I would ever need glasses (nevermind that both my parents and all my grandparents did). My dad was photographing a company convention of some sort and my younger sister and I were helping. They were showing a slideshow to their employees and I commented snarkily to my sister that it would be nice if they focused the projector. She shook her head, and handed me her glasses. My jaw dropped when everything came in to sharp focus. Went and got a prescription and was amazed to see detail in the moon! I really had not realized I didn’t have clear eyesight anymore. And it was during a brief period in my life where I wasn’t taking a lot of photos (with manual focus, I would have noticed blurry photos – I’m sure I blamed any blurry photos prior to glasses on my equipment).
    I did glasses for a couple of years then went to contacts which I liked. But then my eyes changed again and I had to wear reading glasses when I wore contacts (I refused this tool until I was 40). Now I do best without any correction for reading, computer, photography and face-to-face conversation. But anything past about four feet away is frustratingly blurry so I’m constantly putting on and taking off my glasses. It’s a pain. But, yes, I’m thankful to have clear vision available to me.
    I remember my Mom did contacts for a brief time when I was young. She didn’t look “right” to me with a naked face! She went back to glasses because I think the “hard contacts” days were annoying. She did Lasik maybe a little less than a decade ago and again went for a time without frames on her face. And even as a very grown adult, “her glasses” are part of her face for me (she’s back to wearing them frequently). Okay, so I’m rambling . . .but your posts (as usual) start me thinking of my similar or dissimilar experiences.

    • 8 Matt November 3, 2012 at 21:08

      Thank you for this. Your rambles are always welcome. And your slideshow story is wonderful. I never wanted contacts. I didn’t know you could add readers to contacts…I would have thought they would cancel each other out or propel you into a mirror-upside-down land..

  4. 9 marni November 5, 2012 at 20:57

    Oh. My. GOSH. Dr. Boyd, a shady criminal who fled to European parts unknown??? I SO did not know that! He operated on my wandering eye when I was in the 2nd grade (so glad that wasn’t the notorious operation-of-nefarious-misconduct), and put me in bifocals and on those darn eye-dilation drops daily for 3-4 years in junior high. THAT was fun, walking around with my pupils constantly dilated-and it’s why to this day I walk with my head down (well, that and my perpetual clumsiness that causes me to trip over everything in my path- and of course my unfailing modesty). What a great tale, as usual. And love seeing some old photos of you from when I first knew you!

    • 10 Matt November 5, 2012 at 21:40

      Marni, what a pleasant (and terrifying) surprise! You were a fellow customer of my Dr. Boyd? I don’t remember you wearing CLs by the time I met you, but it doesn’t surprise me your folks would have sent you to the best eye doctor in the northwest. So you had a wandering eye, too? There must be a custom or legend in some culture somewhere that celebrates people like us as special. Surely the Indonesians, who tell children whose heads have been the successful targets of pooping birds that it’s a blessing from heaven, must have something wonderful to say about people half of whose vision goes its own unfathomable way.

      • 11 marni November 6, 2012 at 12:44

        I still have the wandering eye, my sweet- the operation ended up not doing much for it. It shows when I’m exhausted-very attractive. did you have to do all of the eye-strengthening exercises that I did in my youth? I just can’t get over the delicious scandal of Dr. Boyd….I don’t know if it’s the fleeing, or the fleeing while transporting armor that entertains me more!

        • 12 Matt November 6, 2012 at 13:49

          I didn’t do any ocular calisthenics, no. As to the now delicensed doctor, here’s what I think. We are all designed and placed here as God’s gift to each other, and we succeed or fail at that purpose in individual moments, all day long, helping some and hindering others, often unknowingly. No one is entirely evil or entirely good. The fact is, I received direct benefit from Dr. Boyd’s expertise and dedication as a child, and that fact will never not be a true fact, so I feel compelled to remain grateful. It also seems clear that his expertise failed him in a sufficient number of cases that his own moral fiber eventually buckled. That doesn’t make him evil, to me. It makes him tragic and I feel bad for everyone involved. But you’re right about the armor. The armor makes his story, as you put it, “delicious”.

          • 13 marni November 6, 2012 at 17:21

            You CAN’T ignore the armor-it’s just the best part of a scandalous tale that, while as you point out in all of your goodness needs to be considered in the context of harm vs benefits to mankind, just makes it jaw-droppingly awesome. AND WE KNEW HIM. You only read about eccentric crazies fleeing with precious family heirlooms in cheesy suspense/romance novels, but we lived it my friend! We could be extremely minor footnotes in a true crime tale….it’s one way to leave your mark!

  5. 14 Matt November 6, 2012 at 21:30

    @Marni, I see you are determined to shake me out of my somber equilibrium to share in your giddiness over this turn of events. You are irrepressibly naughty. Fair enough. We’ll be gleeful cofootnotes in the sordid tale of the doc who went on the lam with his medieval helms and lances.

  6. 15 leatherhead109 November 6, 2012 at 23:14

    Dear brother, I swipe the mist from my eyes, having just taken off my “reading” glasses. From time to time the young firemen on my crew come bursting into the bunkroom to yap at me about various things, the drain is plugged, dinner is ready, coffee’s on….the fire engine won’t start. And when they do, and I’m in the middle of reports or other lofty officer things, they pause and gape at my reading glasses. And I think, “so, this is what it feels like to need glasses”..I need them more and more all the time. My eyes have been through a lot, but were always sharp as tacks. A few years back though, …well, I can say I’ve looked through the photocopterthinger or whatever you called it. The monster with all the eyeballs. Great read, dear brother.

    • 16 Matt November 7, 2012 at 08:58

      Ben, thanks for this little vignette. I can totally see the scene…them young squirts halting in the doorway and not knowing what to say, like they’ve seen the walking dead, and you giving them that wry “what are you lookin’ at” look. If they give you grief you can always sic the photocopterthinger on them.

      • 17 leatherhead109 November 7, 2012 at 11:00

        You’ve got the picture exactly! Add to that, the image of me in the cab of the Ladder truck, 2 am, sleep hair, fire hood askew, racing down the road with lights and sirens, trying desperately to read the fine, tiny print in the map book by dash lamp and overhead red light. First the book is up to my nose, then I hold it all the way to the windshield, then mid-way, ….ah, I think that’s a “9”….(Driver dares to snipe a peak at me from the corner of his eye)…I have reading glasses in the cab, but I can never find them in the jumble. And since I grew up without wearing glasses, I never think to put them on…there all mangled anyway from being crushed by my fire helmet.

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