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The Eyes Have It

When I was about 12 years old the world began to take on a strangely blurred appearance. I would wait at bus stops with my friends and I was constantly amazed that they could read the route number on the front of the bus long before I could even see the bus itself. (It’s arrival in front of me at the bus stop never failed to surprise me. Where could it have come from?).

Teachers wrote things on the blackboard, but all I could see were mushy white ovals that communicated no messages to me. I mentioned these odd phenomena to my father.

"Sit nearer the front of the class," he thundered. Being himself possessed of perfect vision, he could not conceive that any son of his could possibly have flawed eyesight.

That summer there was an important cricket match between my school and the school next door. It being generally agreed that I was useless at cricket, I was placed out of harm’s way in an obscure corner of the field, miles away from the action and left to commune with nature. Eventually I became aware of semi-hysterical shrieking from the assembled multitudes at the other end of the field.

"Catch it! Catch it!"

Catch what? For the life of me I couldn’t see anything to catch. Then a vague blur moved into my field of vision and for a brief moment, fame and undying glory were potentially mine. All I had to do was catch it.

The moment was all too brief and the potential remained unrealised. The object was moving far too fast and I saw it far too late to do anything constructive about it. With unerring accuracy it hit me on the nose and the world got even more blurred than normal as my eyes filled up with involuntary tears. I didn’t know a nose had so much blood in it.

I moved progressively closer to the front of the class (thus labelling myself a creep to my classmates). Eventually I was right at the front, nose not quite jammed into the chalk dust. The messages remained enigmatic.

"You’re imagining things," roared my father. "You just want glasses because your friends have them and you think it is all the fashion."

My marks deteriorated and I understood less and less (that’s why they call them lessons, I suppose (sorry Lewis)). Eventually, against his better judgement, my father was persuaded to take me to have my eyes tested and it was revealed that I was severely short sighted.

"You made up all the answers you gave the optician," my father insisted. "There’s nothing wrong with your eyes."

Once my father got an idea into his head, nothing short of dynamite would ever remove it. To his dying day he never believed that I needed glasses, though eventually he came to accept it.

"New glasses?"


"They suit you."

The world that revealed itself to me once the glasses were perched on my nose was a miracle of clarity. I remember being surprised to find that things had edges. I’d never seen edges before – to me objects just faded away into vagueness at their boundaries and it was a revelation to find that in reality they were sharply defined. And while intellectually I had always known that roads had another side (after all, just like the chicken, I crossed the road on occasion), I was astonished to find that I could actually see it in all its glory long before I got there. I began to realise just how circumscribed my world had actually been.

My eyes gradually deteriorated all through my teenage years, finally stabilising in my early twenties. My prescription remained unchanged and I got into the habit of visiting the optician only when the frames fell apart (not an unusual occurrence with the cheap British frames – my New Zealand optician was quite scathing of them).

However for the last year or so I have found it progressively more difficult to read the date on my watch or absorb the detail of tiny footnotes in technical manuals. (The only useful information in technical manuals is to be found in footnotes. By and large, the main pages contain nothing of interest or significance).

I find myself constantly taking my glasses off to read things that are close to me (my long distance vision remains stable and my glasses are still essential for that). More and more I find myself in sympathy with my grandfather’s often expressed grumble that the print in newspapers is much smaller than it used to be. Another eye test would appear to be required. Fortunately there is an optician directly across the road from the office…

"First I want to measure the distance between your eyes," said the nice lady as she brandished a ruler. Feeling distinctly more neanderthalic as the ruler got closer, I submitted to the indignity. She nodded and wrote something down. I had confirmed her worst fears.

"Now look through here. Can you see the letters?"


"Tell me which is clearer. Here’s lens one. Here’s lens two."

"Well actually it was clearest when you took lens one away and before you put lens two in."

"Ha, ha." She sounded somewhat grim. Perhaps I was doing it wrong. I resolved to try harder.

"Now we’ll test your close reading vision. Just hold this card comfortably then move it slowly away from you and tell me when it starts to go out of focus."

I tried; I really did. But when she made another note and said, "Ah, I see your arms aren’t quite long enough," I knew that all hope was dead.

Then we had the glaucoma test. The early onset of glaucoma is detected by a rise in pressure inside the eyeball. They have two ways of testing for this. One shoots a jet of compressed air into the eyeball. Obviously it makes you blink, but the machine measures the deformation of the eyeball just before the blink and deduces the internal pressure from the amount of distortion. It’s all over in the blink of an eye (ahem!).

The other, and much more unpleasant way, involves dripping vivid yellow goo into the eye. This is a local anaesthetic. Once the eyeball is numbed, a machine pushes a probe against the surface. Again the internal pressure is measured. The test itself takes next to no time, but for the next hour or so you weep copious fluorescent tears and people laugh at you. (But you look impressively cool under the UV lights in a night-club).

I was pleased to see that this time I was getting the puff of air. Blink! Blink! All done.

Apparently the slight deterioration in my vision is quite normal. If I want, I can have a prescription for reading glasses, but frankly there seems little point. The optician says that taking my glasses off to read is perfectly OK and putting on another pair just so my eyeballs don’t feel naked is probably overkill.

So now my only problem is trying to remember where I put my glasses last time I took them off to read a footnote or check the date. And believe me, that’s a real problem.

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