Seeing Stars

I got my eyes tested this morning, for the first time in five years—just one of the many things that were interrupted by the radical gear-change in my life that occurred back then. They haven’t been particularly bad, just a bit more tired than usual, perhaps. It sometimes takes them a while to focus in the mornings.

Optometrists have moved on a bit in five years; now they take photographs of your retinas for their files, eerie maps of Mars lined with blood-vessel canals and complete with an optic-nerve polar ice-cap. Then it’s the usual reading lines of letters and telling whether the circles look sharper against the green or the red.

My prescription turns out not to have changed much. The right eye hasn’t changed at all, while the astigmatism in my left has changed direction slightly. I don’t particularly need new glasses after all, apart from the frames looking and feeling slightly wonky from small fingers grabbing them triumphantly off my face. The morning tiredness is more a result of routinely going to sleep after midnight and waking up before seven when the radical gear-change climbs over my head.

The optometrist told me I was also perfectly fine for contact lenses if I wanted them. Oh no you don’t. I know those signs on your wall said you can leave them in for a month now, but I remember that grimy end-of-day feeling, and more importantly I remember rubbing my grimy end-of-day eyes and accidentally pushing a contact lens around an eyeball. I’ll stick with the wonky frames and viewing the world through a thin film of accumulated dust.

As for lasers, the Don’t Stare at the Sun philosophy has served me well so far, and I plan to stick with that too.

Every time I get my eyes tested it takes me back to the first time, or at least the first time of my adulthood. I was twenty going on twenty-one, and had just come to the end of my third year at uni and my second year of editing the student mag. Not long after the end-of-year exams, I was beset by headaches and blurry vision. The vision aspect suggested that getting my eyes tested would be wise, so I did, a process which at the time involved eye drops that made everything look underwater for hours afterwards. My left eye was astigmatic, I soon learnt, which wasn’t such a surprise—it was always strange, and was the eye I couldn’t read out of if I shut the other one—and I was long-sighted in both eyes.

Very long-sighted. When I picked up my first pair of glasses, the woman who handed them over was amazed that they were my first pair. It turns out that my eye-muscles had been squeezing my eyeballs into ellipsoids to compensate for my long-sightedness, which was what had allowed me to read all those years. When I’d come to the end of one of my heaviest reading years yet, and had suddenly relaxed, those same muscles stopped squeezing, and I couldn’t see properly.

So I started wearing glasses: rectangular rimless lenses which looked cool in 1988–89 and look staggeringly huge and thick in old photographs now. One of my mates at the time said, after trying them on, “You must have bloody good eyes to be able to see through those.”

Well, yeah. With those on, all of a sudden I did have good eyes. I remember a moment just after I’d got them, sitting in the car while Dad was picking up his mail from the Art School, staring at the fibres on my jeans. Fibres that were actually visible to the naked eye! I was mesmerized.

The other thing I remember are the stars that looked like stars. In Tasmania, even in Hobart, the light pollution is low enough that you can actually see the stars, so it wasn’t that seeing the stars themselves was novel; but now they had points, just like all those pictures in storybooks. I’d only ever seen them as round white blobs. It turns out that one of the effects of astigmatism is to cancel out the optical effect that makes stars look pointed to most people.

I don’t see what I used to see if I take my glasses off now. I don’t see much at all; my eye-muscles long ago adapted to the new regime, and are now thoroughly relaxed. If I’m not wearing my glasses, I can’t read a thing, not even if I squeeze really hard.

With them on, though, I can read the numbers of buses from the other end of the street, which is handy for impressing old ladies at bus stops.

I mentioned that that was my first adult eye test. I did have one at around age 10, and even ended up with glasses back then, briefly. I wore them for a while, now and then, a bit. As far as I know, there’s one school photo of me wearing them, and that’s it; by the end of the year I’d abandoned them. They must not have made such a big difference to my vision at the time; but they certainly made a difference to what you got called in the schoolyard.

Which brings me back to today. I wasn’t the only one getting his eyes tested today; the radical gear-change got his tested too, in advance of going to school in August.

He was bitterly disappointed that he didn’t need any. His eyes are perfect, unlike his parents’, but he’d been hoping to get some glasses just like ours. I was just relieved that he won’t be immediately typecast as The Speccy Kid on day one of year one of the rest of his life. It’s just so much easier when you start wearing them as an adult.

Who knows where his eyes will end up, though. He’s uncannily good at reading the numbers of buses a long way away. Maybe in twenty years he’ll be marvelling at visible fibres and pointy stars too.

11 February 2012 · Journal