The Eyes have it.

I’ve always been fascinated with vision. That I can somehow create a representation of what’s out there on an inner screen seems almost unbelievable. And yet, there it is –reality, live-streamed seamlessly into our own personal entertainment center. But is it reality? Just how much editing has been performed on what we see? And how would we know? Only if the result were sufficiently bizarre might we begin to suspect tampering -or others might, if we described it to them. But lesser discrepancies…? Perhaps we have become so used to our own edits, so entrained by them, that over the years, like memories, we have come to believe them uncritically. Come to trust the cameras…

And yet, even though I’ve been using the same eyes for quite a few years, I sometimes think they’re not very loyal to the firm. Like a union gone rogue, they keep asking for shorter hours, greater benefits, and more say in company decisions.

But they’ve always been like that I suppose… Well, at least since I was seven –that’s when they demanded glasses. Or, come to think of it, perhaps it was my teachers. I was already sitting in the dreaded front row in class and that made me the default for a lot of questions nobody else seemed to get. When I’d lean forward in my seat, it wasn’t because I was eager to answer as everybody believed, I was just trying to make out what was on the blackboard. And yet, even after the glasses arrived –big, heavy glasses with butterscotch frames that just begged to be knocked off- nobody in the rows further back would trade seats, so I’m not sure that resolving the blur made any difference to my life. It was then that I began to have doubts…

Put glasses on a short kid, and you’ve crippled him for life –that’s what Russell told me, anyway. He was a boy in my class from South America who always sat in the back row. He apparently had a pet Boa Constrictor in his bedroom, so he said he knew about stuff like that. He never explained; I never asked. But one summer, I saw him wearing glasses. And then that fall, on the Tuesday after a long weekend, he didn’t show up in class and I never saw him again. I never asked about that either.

At any rate, I felt I had to stop my own slow slide toward the precipice and at the grand age of eleven, I discovered a book called ‘Sight Without Glasses’. Like a Rosicrucian, I felt I was in the sure and certain possession of esoteric knowledge that would change my life, and I spent the weekends of a Winnipeg winter bathing my eyelids in sunlight through the storm windows in my bedroom as instructed. But even then, my eyes were stubborn and my butterscotch glasses kept crossing their arms and calling me from the desk.

My mother, sensing puberty, tried to help, and kept a supply of carrots and cod liver oil in the fridge. She even put a copy of ‘Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers’ in my sock drawer, but I pretended not to find it -I didn’t figure an obligate Myopian like me would ever get to use the information. And I came to realize that sometimes an affliction is simply hereditary and intractable; I enjoyed the carrots, though.

Anyway, after Winnipeg, I tried to resign myself to the dualism of a face forever adorned with outrageously coloured spectacles, or an eternity of blurred chalk and improbably fuzzy people. And, although I have to admit I preferred the clarity of distinct boundaries, there always remained the suspicion that it came at a price. Which, I asked myself, was more edited? Which was a better representation of what was really out there?

Of course it might seem intuitively obvious that what is more distinct is more accurately described and investigated. And yet, could it be that this is actually a confirmation bias imposed unwittingly upon the less endowed? An expectation engendered by a majority so convinced of its superiority, that it ridicules any deviance as simply silly? Short-sighted? I resented the inference that I was somehow an unfinished product –that my eyes had just not passed the evolution muster. That to see the world blurred, was to see a different, incompleted world. A Faux Monde.

One day, it all came flooding out. Suddenly imbued with the sort of outrage that gives rise to mass uprisings if not immediately attended to, I decided to test my hypothesis as an anonym -I removed my glasses as I entered a little coffee shop tucked in the dead-end corridor of a downtown mall I’d never visited. I considered filming it on my phone, but then I realized that it might arouse too much suspicion. I was performing an act of civil disobedience, not terrorism. I was making a point and standing up for silent myopes everywhere. I was asserting the right to live in a world denied to most –the unfocussed, nebulous world of the uncorrected eye.

The first thing I noticed as I stumbled through the door was how sight-biased it was. Everything seemed to be identified in blurred letters that obviously pandered to the twenty-twenties (to resort to optometristic vernacular). If I closed my eyes, everything smelled the same; sounded the same; and no doubt –were I able to make an informed choice- tasted the same, but from the moment I reached the head of the line of indistinct people, I felt I was being rushed.

“What would you like, sir?” the blurred face behind the counter said three or four times, each time more irritably.

“I… I’m having trouble deciding,” I said, truthfully. “A coffee, I guess…”

“What kind?” the face said, waving an equally blurred hand at an impossibly fuzzy sign behind her.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, “I’m also having trouble seeing the sign…” Disguise always works better with a soupçon of honesty, I think.

“Forget your glasses?” she said sympathetically, but obviously buying into the reigning paradigm.

“No,” I replied, deciding to make a stand. “They’re in my pocket.”

She was silent for a moment, but I could see her turning her head to look at the length of the line forming behind me. “Broken…?”

I shook my head defiantly.

“Ahh, I understand. Wrong prescription, eh? That happens to my grandfather all the time.” As she unwittingly stereotyped me, I could see her hand travel to her forehead, presumably to wipe away some errant hair. “I think he’s actually got cataracts, though…”

“No, I don’t think…”

“Tell you what, sir, I’m going to make a choice for you,” she said, proud as Punch, and turning around to fill up a rather small, indistinct paper cup, handed it to me with a flourish. “It’s on the house!”

“Well, I…” But the woman behind me in the line was already gently moving me aside, like one might a strange, lost child. I almost thought she was going to pat me on the head.

“Aren’t glasses a bother?” she asked as she quickly reeled off her order to the cashier. Then, almost as an afterthought as the barista fiddled with her latte, she turned to me again. “Can I buy you a bagel?” And she smiled broadly. “You remind me so much of my father,” she added, and her hand was about to reach out to stroke my shoulder when I shook my head politely and turned to leave.

Although at my age I hate being matronized, I have to admit there are some nice people living in the unblurred world. I just wish they could see what they’re missing, though.


The Newness of it All

You know, by now you’d think I would have seen it all; tasted all the flavours on the menu; touched at least the edge of the weft and weave the rainbow has on offer. But there is always something new, I find. Something fresh. Something unexpected. And just when I decide the day has run its course, a new one dawns inside my head.

Perhaps I expect too much of sleep –too much of the waning light. Maybe there is no refuge from the New: the message in the cricket’s song; another way to feel the dark… A different voice in memory’s store.

But is it all a mirage –an oasis dream in the parched wasteland of my aging brain? Is it neural loss or neural gain that facilitates my reinterpretation of the Old and makes it garden-fresh? Or have I discovered, in my dotage, the elixir of youth that forever eluded Ponce de Leon: the art of seeing like a child?

I awoke one morning with that dream still coursing through my head and so I thought I’d run it by my friend Brien. The world always seems a wonder to him.

Each time I visit him on his porch, new surprises tend to bump me like people passing in the mall. Sometimes it’s his hair –it is a cherished and precious commodity, divided into separate pastures with which he is constantly inventive. Like farmers with their fields, he has a rotating system of combing that rations which section he will use that day. Sometimes I even think he pencils in any discrepancies -but fallow, he never leaves it.

On other, all be they rare occasions, he will seem to have mastered the button system on his shirt, and neither one too many, nor one too few will greet the final hole. There will be other anomalies to compensate, to be sure, but he faces them as everything else, with equanimity, and a beer. You have to take things as they come with Brien. Life moves at a different pace on a porch.

It is perhaps why Brien is a large man, and although I accept that there may be a chicken-or-egg component to the observation, I’ve always thought he seemed specifically designed for porch-life. Everything about him says ‘veranda’; every change is contextually driven, every surprise adaptive.

I found him on the porch as usual, legs extended from his lawn chair, staring at his favourite tree. It’s always awkward greeting someone who doesn’t see you from a porch –a form of ocular trespass perhaps, so when he finally mustered his eyes I smiled and sat on the steps for a moment. You have to give him time to adjust.

He glanced at his watch. “Wondered where you were,” he said finally, as if I were late for a meeting neither of us knew about. But at least it was an acknowledgement, I suppose, so I dived in.

“Brien,” I said with the enthusiasm of a child at recess, “Do you ever wonder whether it’s possible to run out of New as we get older?” I immediately realized I had phrased it poorly –he does not see the world in metaphor.

He tore his eyes from the bottle he was holding, and I almost heard them ripping off bits of label as they left to walk up and down my nose like a sidewalk. “You mean so we have to go to the store more often?” Brien was nothing if not well-hardened concrete. I shook my head but his face had already turned inward for a moment as if it was looking for something it had missed. Finally, it emerged triumphantly. “No,” it said with conviction, even though the rest of him didn’t seem so sure.

Then one hand flew up like it had another idea in class. “Oh, like new words?” He considered the fresh possibility with a forehead muscle I’d never noticed before. “No,” he said, this time with some emotion. “There are still plenty of sounds left…” He stared at his bottle for a second. “I mean that’s how they made up words in the old days.” From his tone, he made it sound like he was quoting from Wikipedia.

I had no idea why he thought I’d been talking about words. I felt like I had wandered into a class on non sequity -if that’s a word. But, curiosity got the better of me. “How on earth do you figure that, Brien?” I said dismissively.

He shrugged and looked at me as if I had sustained some sort of head injury. “Put a couple of sounds together, point at something, figure out how it should be spelled, and bingo, a new cave-word,” he said smugly.

“That’s not how it was done, Brien!”

“Sure it is!” He tends to dig in his heels once he’s decided something; I should have known.

I sighed rather dramatically, I’m afraid. “Okay,” I almost shouted, “Give me an example of a random sound that is also a word…” It seemed like a suitable challenge under the circumstances and for a split second I thought I had him.

He shrugged. “Dog,” he said and smiled.

That caught me off guard, I must admit. “The word probably has deep historical roots,” I mumbled staring at his now empty bottle for a moment. “And anyway, nowadays we tend to adapt old words for new purposes…” I realized I was on pretty thin ice here. “…And besides, we wouldn’t just make up new words with any old sounds…”

His smile grew alarmingly large. “Yes we would.”

I started to shake my head vigorously but he held up a finger like a Philosopher King as a mild rebuke of my childishness. “Bling,” he said and went into the house to get us both a beer.

Maybe the Ponce should have talked to him…

The King of Infinite Space

We are truly enmeshed in a web of life. I suppose I’ve come to this realization rather late in my own process, but serendipity seldom runs up to greet you –it peeks around corners first, daring you to approach. You don’t even see it -at least I didn’t.

The evening started off as usual; I was taking the lid off the garbage can where I have to store the dog food to keep it away from whatever has taken up residence under my woodpile, when I noticed a magnificent spider web sparkling in the phonelight. One strand was attached to the lid, whether because of engineering considerations, or because it had just moved into the neighbourhood, and didn’t know I had to feed the dog every day is unclear- but its spans reminded me of the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and I stared at it, entranced.

Until, that is, I noticed a huge rainbow-coloured spider in the epicenter staring at me as if I were the motherlode it had been praying for. I suppose I should have been flattered at being appreciated for something other than the clothes I wore or the phone I carried, but it just felt creepy. Nevertheless, I opened the lid very carefully and managed to destroy only one of the stanchions that anchored its office. It still managed to stare at me –I don’t think they can turn it off- but with new respect I’d like to think.

But, given a fresh lease on its career path, by the next evening it had reattached the recalcitrant span to the lid and watched me approach with unnerving calm. I tried to get at the dog food without destroying the web strand, but alas I am clumsy and I could feel the exasperation from those eyes. My dog only shrugged; she was hungry too. One has to apportion loyalties appropriately; collateral damage has to be factored in as an unfortunate consequence of taking sides, I think. Yes, I felt guilt –who wouldn’t? But at least I had arrived at a workable compromise: I didn’t bulldoze its house or anything; it still had a decent storefront and I think the sign in the window was still legible. Of course I don’t read spider.

By the third evening, however, having mulled the matter over, I decided to see if I could reattach the offending strand to something else and mitigate both the inconvenience to the spider and my not inconsiderable guilt. I arrived with what I hoped would be appropriate tools –tweezers, a wearable headlight, and a magnifying glass. I also dragged out a chair from the kitchen realizing the rescue effort would probably drag on into the early hours of the night. It’s like surgery –you can’t rush unprepared, willy-nilly into the unknown. But, unlike the multitude of textbooks describing operative techniques to which I was privy during my salad days, there was precious little on repairing spider webs in the common sources. There was the usual talk about sticky and non-sticky threads and so on, but to a non-arachnid, it was like reading an insurance policy –full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.

And yet, as I approached the lid under the spider’s watchful, anxious gaze, I was reminded of what Oppenheimer said after witnessing the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo; he quoted Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. Stuff like that runs through your mind when you are attempting something really outside of your species training. I suppose its natural enough, although I did wonder what the spider would do if our roles were reversed.

In fact, I felt a bit embarrassed; I fervently hoped no one would come up the driveway, or stare curiously from the road as I sat, tweezers poised, with the narrow beam of my light focussed on a garbage can but otherwise alone in a dark garage. People have been put on medication for less. And yet, I was convinced of the importance of my mission. I have always wanted a cause. I have always wanted to travel abroad and fix wells and nail schools and things. I think we all have that innate need to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I never made it to Africa or Asia, but sometimes charity begins at home. Sometimes we are blind to the needs of those around us -the silent ones who cannot complain. I girded my courage, swallowed my doubts, and sat down in front of the web.

But occasionally we underestimate the ingenuity of those we do not fully understand. Give someone a fish, and they eat for a day; teach them to fish and… well you know how it goes. I felt like I would be building a home –well, repairing it at least- and he could take it from there; I felt good about that. Sometimes we just have to swallow our mammalian chauvinism and get on with it.

The only problem was that I couldn’t find the silk rope that he’d been so faithfully gluing to the lid. I tried changing the angle of the light and even tried gently shaking the can to see how well that affected the rest of his web. Nothing. The spider just sat there, king-of-the-castle, chewing his cud and smiling. He’d decided to attach his kingdom somewhere else I suppose, but for some reason I felt diminished. Offended. I had offered succour in a time of anticipated need, and yet I and all my vaunted preparations had been spurned. Made to feel foolish. Unnecessary.

I briefly fantasized about tearing down his entire web and punishing him for his hasty improvisation, his unsuspected initiative. And then it occurred to me that he had learned from my clumsy destruction of the evenings before. Imagine that –a primitive animal proving it could be self-sufficient. That it was as good at surviving in its world as I was in mine…

There’s probably a lesson in that, but I just fed the dog and hurried into the house before it started to rain. I’m pretty confident there will be other spiders to help, though. You just have to watch when you dust.

Socks and the single pensioner.

Okay, I know losing socks in a clothes dryer is the stereotypical single man trope, but when you add Age into the picture, it hints at perceptual problems and presumes, well, cognitive declination. That which, in my salad days, was merely assumed to be an idiosyncrasy, has now become part of the entrance exam for the Home. The sock has become a sort of washable Rosetta Stone to interpret otherwise puzzling psychological conundrums.

I suppose it’s understandable; it’s natural to seek resolutions to ambiguities –no matter how banal. But algorithms for more efficient sorting of socks? It’s supposed to be a Radix algorithm, or something, so I looked it up in Wikipedia (of course): ‘radix sort is a non-comparative integer sorting algorithm that sorts data with integer keys by grouping keys by the individual digits which share the same significant position and value’. I didn’t understand a thing, but anyway it seemed like a waste of math.

You don’t get to my age without solutions, so socks are a mere piffle. When I sort them into pairs and stuff them into each other, if they don’t exactly match, so what? Who would lift my trousers to check to see if the socks are the same length, or shine a light on them to see if the colours exactly match? The trick is in the pant length, so all these years I have managed very well without an algorithm, thank you. But the very idea that someone might want to make a name for himself in the sock-sorting world intrigued me.

Brien has always had problems with his socks and I thought he might be interested in the approach outlined in the BBC article. He gets all his information from television or the old newspapers stores sometimes still wrap stuff in. The latter is not strictly ‘news’ in the etymological sense – but, as Brien always says when I see the yellowing, crumpled paper near his chair, “You have to learn from the past -it explains a lot of what they say on TV.”

Anyway, I found him dozing on a lawn chair on his porch, a woolen blanket covering everything but his head and feet. Even before I climbed the steps, though, I could see a sock colour discrepancy, but there was a certain symmetry to them, too: they both had big-toe holes. You have to admire his logic.

One eye opened as I mounted the wooden steps, and both feet disappeared under the covers.

“Cold today,” he said, his arms obviously stretching out under the warmth of the wool.

“Brien, it’s November. Why would you sit outside?”

“I didn’t know you were coming over,” he said and rolled his eyes as if that explained everything except why I was there.

“I just read an article about socks.”

“Why would you do that?” He shook his head slowly. I was a complete puzzle to him.

One foot surfaced for air from under the blanket and I pointed at it before it disappeared again.

“Private socks,” he explained. “The holes match, so I figure they’re good to go when I’m not expecting company.

He wasn’t clear on why he’d wear them on a porch so near a sidewalk, though.

“They’re different colours, Brien.”

He sat up straighter in the chair and pulled the blanket tighter around him. He still managed an indifferent shrug, nevertheless. “Lost the brother sock to each, so I matched something different… That’s gotta count,” he whispered irritably to himself. Then he ventured a glance at my face. “So what’s the article say counts as a match?” He sounded unwilling to accept the advice of a mere ‘article’, however.

I thought about it; Brien had a point. If we match lengths, colours, and patterns –even textures and materials- then why not holes? I brought the article up on my IPhone to check. They talked of sorting things into categories but there was nothing in it that disqualified holes as a group…

“What’s wrong with matching holes?” I could hear him muttering. “Why just colours? Seems like a waste of the rest of the sock…”

I put the phone away and smiled my best conciliatory, pedantic smile. “You sort for what people notice –what they see, Brien.”

He rolled his eyes again at my dull-wittedness. “You were the one who advised me about the pant-length trick.” He shook his head slowly and sighed. “Now, I’m going to advise you about the under-reported footwear trick.” He screwed his eyes into my face like he was going to hang a picture. “I’ll bet there are hundreds of guys walking around with hidden holes in their socks, as we speak. Thousands, maybe… How would you know?”

For a moment I thought he was going to put his theory to the test and ask me to take off my running shoes to prove the point. But all he said was “What happens in the shoe, stays in the shoe, eh?”

He sat up fully in the chair, and slipped his holes into a pair of rabbit’s fur slippers. “Want a beer?” he said, and padded off into the house before I could answer.