Oh Say, Can You See?

“Doctor, my eyes, tell me what is wrong. Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?.”
Jackson Browne

The youngsters I manage on my consultant team think my eyes are blue. They aren't. My irises are actually a sort of muddy gray-green with all the esthetic appeal of toxic swamp sludge. In our family, the first three children were born with green eyes, like my mom. My younger sister arrived with brown eyes which made my dad, brown-eyed himself, very happy. He adored Janet for that reason. At least I think that was why - I can't imagine what ELSE he saw in her!

My eyes are misshapen. The eyeball is elongated and the corneas are roughly waffle-textured. I am nearsighted with somewhat severe astigmatism. It takes some pretty significant technology to make my eyes reasonably functional. During my younger years, that meant glasses with lenses that looked like X-Ray shielding that had been melted into bizarre curving shapes.

I'm not exaggerating as much as you probably think.

Thirty years ago, a girlfriend talked me into contacts. At that time, contact lenses did not do astigmatism correction so the benefits would be incomplete, as far as vision was concerned. But esthetically (meaning, in terms of getting me laid) they had a lot of potential. When I got them, I wasn't prepared for two things. First, they were a lot of work. Cleaning and disinfecting were a continuous effort and the mere process of wrestling them into my unwilling eyes was another daily hurdle. Initially, these things added a good half hour to my morning routine.

The second realization was how significantly distorted my vision had become. My glasses had some serious curvature and their ability to refract and distort light was phenomenal. Naturally, the farther away my vision tracked from dead center, the more distorted my view of the world around me became. The human brain, being all miraculous and amazing and stuff, actually compensates for that over time. And I had no idea how much it was doing that.

The day after I got contacts, I was playing softball. That day, they had me at shortstop. I was a decent middle infielder. My arm really wasn't up to playing short, but I had good range to my left so I was not too bad at covering the hole. Anyway, my first game with contacts was a revelation. Early on, I faced a routine ground ball. Timing the hop, I moved in and watched it fall under my glove. Disturbing, but I must admit it was certainly not the first time I'd missed a routine ground ball. An inning later, there was a routine infield pop fly. I drifted under it, lined up my glove, and the ball landed ten feet behind me.

Something was clearly wrong. Being an analytical sort of dude, I considered things. On Tuesday night, I had been able to field a softball fairly well. Saturday morning, I could not. What had changed since Tuesday? Well, my girlfriend had tried a new position in the bedroom which had been intriguing if not enjoyable, Wednesday night at work was tamale night at NATCOM which we all look forward to, and my car's tape deck had eaten a Tom Petty cassette. While all of these things were marginally noteworthy, none seemed to have any relevance to fielding a softball.

Then it dawned on me - I had little pieces of plastic resting on my corneas instead of glasses. Could that be the culprit?

Between innings, I headed to the car and took out the contacts and put on the glasses. Wow! Did the world look different! In roughly two innings of softball, my brain was already beginning to revel in new experiences like actual peripheral vision and humans with normal body proportions. My glasses were turning the world into a carnival funhouse mirror and I was so used to it, I hadn't noticed since roughly kindergarten.

Side note - contacts immediately improved my bowling game. In the weeks following the contact switch, my average in the government employees coed bowling league went from 162 to 168.

In time I got very used to contacts. A couple of years later, my optometrist in Manhattan, Kansas introduced me to a new-fangled type of lens - the soft toric lens. These soft contacts would actually correct somewhat for astigmatism. It was also during this time that my dad was diagnosed with glaucoma. Glaucoma, as you may know, is hereditary. Now my family avoided the major hereditary killers like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But glaucoma is there in the gene pool like a ... well, not a shark, cause glaucoma won't kill you so more like a jellyfish. It beats cancer but you still don't want it. In fact, glaucoma has one and only one benefit: it's a guaranteed approval for a medical marijuana card. Ironically, that has never been a vice of mine so I really don't even see that as a plus.

Sam Odle, my optometrist in Manhattan, heard about the glaucoma and gave me a stern lecture on how I had to start taking eye exams seriously, how I needed more than the standard air-puff eyeball pressure test, and so on. So since then, I have taken eye exams very seriously indeed. But I have continued to rely on soft toric contacts. In fact, I have not had a current prescription on a pair of glasses since around 2000. And because soft contacts naturally have a slight bluish tint to them, especially under flourescent lights or sunlight, my team thinks I have blue eyes.

Enough of that. This past year, I have taken a lot of airplane trips. in fact, I have flown about 25 air segments (takeoff plus landing) since last August. More recently, most of them have been in the 5+ hour range. Contact lens wearers know that air travel makes contacts a less appealing option. Eyes dry out and if you're on an overnight trans-Atlantic flight, well you basicaly find yourself wanting to take them out. Which is fine until you need them and putting them on quickly in your seat is not easy. Airplane lavatories aren't particularly conducive to this task, either. So having glasses for the longer flights coming up is a consideration.

My current eye doctor is Dr. Mark Schaper. I use his name happily because I would recommend him to anyone. He is a soft-spoken Texan, graduate of Texas Tech, and just a first-rate human, in my book. He knows the family history and he's careful to speak plainly with me. I have to pay for a couple of extras to accommodate the glaucoma thing. My eye insurance doesn't cover the fancy laser eye scanning thingamajig he uses to scan for glaucoma nor does it pay for the hi-res photos of my retina which are gradually building an impressive album of my retinal macular health. Dr. Shaper has about ten years of the things on his hard drive.

And they have not changed.

I had my annual eye exam today. The works, as usual. The stupid laser scanner thing is fussy and it always takes at least two tries to get usable results. You have to stare unblinking and unmoving at that red dot for a good fifteen seconds. It's a challenge. The dilation drops and the numbing drops are annoying. In the middle of a sunny Texas day, it takes Ray-Bans and window tint to survive that and the numbing drops keep my eyes from focusing right for a few hours. But when he puts those photos on the screen and says, "I don't see any change" the sense of relief makes it all worth it.

This year, it did come with a touch of ominous news. The right eye has the first hint of a cataract. It isn't a problem yet. In fact, Dr. Schaper says not to worry and we will re-evaluate next year. When it comes time to take action, cataract surgery has an extremely high success rate, causes little to no discomfort, and can even give surgeons the opportunity to fix astigmatism issues while they're at it. Almost makes me look forward to it.

I ordered a year of contact lenses as I always do, but this year added a pair of glasses. Since my actual prescription hasn't changed in 15 years, I got the works. This pair of glasses is going to last, after all. Calvin Klein frames, progressive lenses, dual-side coating, white sidewalls, 8-track player, quadrophonic sound ... there was a lot of stuff and I may have zoned out somewhere in there. Anyway, after everything was said and done with the new specs plus 12 pairs of contacts plus the fancy tests plus the normal co-pay, I dropped around $600 out of pocket. I need my eyes, folks. I'm not complaining. And since my insurance covered around $550 (which is actually almost the entire annual premium) I'm comfortable with the results.

I'm not aging gracefully - I know that. There's a lot of gray in the hair and the beard. I'm overweight and out of shape and the idea of exercising in Texas is not appealing. It's like jogging on Mercury. I hate having to have reading glasses with my contacts. The toric lenses adjust for astigmatism really well - left eye is actually 20-20 for distant vision. Righty is closer to 20-35. Still, given that my uncorrected vision requires scientific notation, that ain't bad. But inside of 18 inches, reading glasses are needed with the contacts and I absolutely hate not being able to read microwave instructions or the thermostat or a credit card receipt without the readers. Aging sucks. I hear all the time how we're not getting older, we're getting better. Oh yeah? Tell that to my waistline, my memory, my eyesight, my endurance, my sleep patterns, my aching joints, and my memory.

If there's one thing that the years have actually given me, it's a resistance to panic. Earlier this year, we had a lot of turnover at work. We lost four or five people out of our department in less than a month for a variety of reasons. You could feel the young folks getting skittish. It was like cows lining up at the slaughterhouse and one calf began to get a vague notion of what was waiting up there at the top of the ramp.

Except it was nothing like that. It was a couple of people taking new jobs, another one getting fired for cause, and a couple more relocating within the company. But as I have said before, I work with a lot of young people. The average age in professional services is around 25 to 28, if I had to guess. And they were spooked by the number of departures. So the director of PS held a big all-hands for our department to try to calm the troops. He opened by inviting people to speak their minds and express their concerns. I raised my hand. I basically said, "I think I'm the oldest person in this room, if not the entire company. I've spent more years in the professional workforce than most of you have been alive. I've been a government employee in years when the budget was not getting approved. I've been in the tech world right through the 2008 downturn. Trust me on this, people: as workplace crises go, this is NOTHING!"

This was followed by two minutes of silence. Finally, our director said, "Anyone want to say anything else?" No one did. Back to work. Crisis averted.

My incredible aura of calm (which some might confuse for ambivalence or, say, boredom) was apparently contagious. Six months later, the ship is sailing relatively smoothly. And the newbies are still bamboozled.

All of us can see the now and we are often blinded by fears about tomorrow. Our vision of the past is generally pretty spotty. There's an old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Actually, what I believe is that those who do not learn from history are doomed to do it far worse the second time. Psychologists say that our minds concentrate on the positive by instinct so our memories tend to edit out the really bad stuff. I make a point of remembering bad things because I know deep down in my soul, they could have been so much worse!

I'm nearly fifty-eight years old and I have never spent a night in the hospital (or jail). I've never been a victim of a violent crime (except that night Matt Breen punched me in the mouth because he thought I had flipped him off). I never failed a class. I've never gone hungry because I couldn't afford my next meal. And while I know my poor eyesight is an evolutionary anomaly that would have killed me 1000 years ago, these days it is a relatively minor inconvenience.

And before you tell me I don't know how lucky I am, let me tell you:

I know exactly how lucky I am.

These eyes have some issues, but they have seen a thing or two:

Like the mountains of Colorado.

Or the Pacific Ocean.

Or the face of my wife on our wedding day.

Or the face of my 5-year old step-daughter as she left the earth in a hot air balloon.

They've seen the Chiefs win a Super Bowl and the Royals win a World Series.

They've seen my nieces and nephews find things about which they're passionate.

And I'm only fifty-eight. And yeah, there have been some pretty awful sights in those years, too. But in balance, I think the beauty has come out ahead.

I think we have the freedom to choose what we see and how to respond to it. You can see the horror and the ugliness and the injustice and you can despair, or you can do as many of my friends are doing and try to change things. And when things DO change, the beauty that you see in that moment will far outshine the ugliness that started it all.

I remember my summer at Pester Refinery. I was working in the maintenance gangs and my dad was the Cat Unit Supervisor. That summer, they were installing a liquid oxygen supercharger for the cat unit and I think most of the maintenance guys were convinced it was going to explode the second they turned it on. One day at break time, they were discussing it rather loudly. One guy predicted the day they activated it, the refinery would turn into a smoking crater. Another advised me to kiss my daddy goodbye because this thing was going to blow him halfway to the moon. Then someone asked the instrument man I worked with what he thought.

Tom stood up, adjusted his hard hat and smiled. As he walked toward the door, he said, "Bigger and better. That's what I see - bigger and better."


Some probably thought Tom needed to have his eyes checked. And his head examined.

I liked the way Tom saw things.

I still do.