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My sweet old myopia

Every year at Christmastime my younger sister and I would pile into the car with our parents to drive over to Flemingsburg to see the Christmas displays on the houses. (It was an innocent time.) The standing joke in the family was that every year my parents would describe some particularly gaudy display on the rooftop of the local Chevrolet dealer’s house, which was set back from the street, and I would say, “I don’t see anything.”

By the time I was ten, and my teacher, Frances Dorsey, suggested that it would be a good thing to have my eyes examined, it dawned on my parents that I had not been playing some child’s game with them. I was, and am, severely nearsighted.

How severely? If you are more than ten feet away from me, I might recognize you but would have trouble distinguishing your features. If I read without my glasses, I have to hold the page so close that I can’t focus on the text with both eyes at the same time.

But myopia has its compensations. Mine is correctible with glasses, and so since the age of ten I have been readily identifiable as a four-eyed bookworm, which enables people to form their perceptions without my having to go to any effort to establish an identity.

At nighttime, the lights from buildings and vehicles become stars and pinwheels—not when I’m driving, mind you—and it is like being inside a kaleidoscope, investing the most banal surroundings with an exotic air.

Most of all, nearsightedness permits a retreat from the world. When I take off my glasses, the external world just fades away and I am in my own place.* You may surmise, if you see me remove my glasses during a sermon or lecture or meeting, that my eyes hurt and require a little relief; but it is just as possible that I have decided that my private reflections are more profitable than whatever I have just tuned out.

People who can see have no idea how handy this is.


*There are other means, of course. Though I cannot recall how it came about, at some point in childhood I was given dispensation to read at the family dinner table. This had two advantages: It enabled me to withdraw into the world of print, which has always been my most reliable refuge, and it distanced me from the squabbles and criticisms and recriminations that were the family recreation at table.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:42 PM | | Comments (18)


I had exceptional vision as a child, but as my vision faded a bit and the DMV ordered me to wear glasses, I too noticed that the heavens became more wondrous without "corrective" lenses.

I know people who turn off their hearing aids for the reason you remove your glasses, John.

You've described my experiences exactly (though I was luckier and got glasses at age 7). Have always loved the kaleidoscope effects, especially at Christmas time, when taking off my glasses made the tree even more magical. Must try the "removal when losing interest" thing next.

Oh, yeah, and if I should take off my glasses while you're talking to me, it isn't because you bore me, but that I'm trying to listen more closely and concentrate on what you're saying. Yeah, that.

James Thurber, I now recall, wrote an essay, "The Admiral on the Wheel," about how much more interesting the world was with his unaided vision.

I'm in this club, too, and it's been such a part of my life for the past 40 years that I hardly thought about it. Of late, tho, it's occurred to me that certain experiences that the keen-visioned enjoy and take for granted have not been part of my world. There's quite a list, but oddly, what really brought this home to me was that my wife and I were swimming in a lake and she said "Look at that!" and pointed at some distant thing that was, of course, nothing but a blur. For some reason, this single incident crystalized for me the disadvantage of not being able to see without glasses.

I, too, always read at the table. Permission I got by the simple expedient of constant exposure and wearing my parents down.

I'd keep a book in my lap while eating. Or I'd casually prop it up on a side table, or "accidentally" opened on the top of the newspapers at the table end. My parents just got used to the whole thing, and I soon had a book open next to my plate at every meal.

Of course, it helps that book reading is generally seen as a wholesome pursuit. I doubt they'd been as indulgent had I tried to sip Scotch or enjoy some chewing tobacco at the table.

Your several parents should not have given in. Reading at the table is rude. And family squabbles at table aren't necessarily because they are families. Have you never dined with friends and by the salad course, find that an argument has begun at the end of the table? It's people who argue, not just family members.

What on earth would a salad course be, PtT? Yep, I know, I'm as common as muck, but I do try to pass for vaguely middle class.

Any info that would make me a little less unpresentable in decent circles would be welcome. Salad course? Sounds a little cheap, I fear.

Your description of what lights look like at night brings to mind Vincent van Gogh's painting "The Starry Night." I wonder if he had myopia?

Concerning the world of print, Anna Quindlen once said (if I may quote a New Yorker on a Baltimore blog) "I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

It's not rude if everyone is reading.

When my son was six or so, we took him to a math department picnic, and when we handed him his hotdog, he burst into inconsolable sobbing. When he was finally calm enough to speak through his tears, he said, "I can't eat that, I don't have anything to read!"

My seeing problem is different. Without my glasses, which have light-bending prisms, I see double. If I'm conversing with someone and remove my glasses, it's a compliment. It means I want to see two of the person.

My vision was the same as John's for years. I finally had LASIK done in 2005 by Dr. Sheri Rowen when she had the medspa in Towson Town Center. She got my vision down to 20/15 (!) in one eye and 20/20 in the other, with no astigmatism. I was ready to apply for Navy flight school.

As for the dinner table, my family's resembled Alvy Singer's family table in Annie Hall. That was part of the joy of it.

Ah Picky, me lad: The salad course, depending upon which manners maven you ask, comes either after the main course - to refresh the palate - or just before. Either way, it can act on its own during a fairly formal dinner. And often there isn't room on the table for a large salad bowl, plates, etc. Regardless of placement, there is always an opportunity for differences of opinion, particiulary when there are PhDs in Philosophy present. O Lord! And why encourage reading at the table,when there are plenty of times for people to read without chewing at the same time?

Sorry - I mean "particularly." 1000 culpae.

Right. Not tinned salad, then.

Picky, what on earth is "tinned salad"? Sounds like something the Tin Woodman would eat.

Yep, sorry, that was a xenophobic and snide remark, I having just discovered in another thread that green bean casserole, a truly unpleasant sounding dish which apparently the American nation has taken to its patriotic heart (and stomach), was made entirely of canned or packaged "foods".

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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