Score one for the optimistic optometrist

Every childhood road trip followed the same pattern. First, we were all excited to be going. Then, boredom set in. And once it did, we struggled mightily to keep our spirits up.

We played all the usual games -? 20 questions, or trying to keep a list of how many different state license plates we saw, or naming all the car makes and models we could … until, inevitably, my mother slipped into her character of Ole Eagle Eye.

“OK,” she’d say. “See that billboard there, off to the right?”

My brother and I would look. The billboard was at least a half-mile away.

“Yeah, we see it,” we’d say.

“So what does it say?” my mother asked.

“It says, ‘Hotel Acme One Mile Ahead.'”

“Obviously. In the big print,” my mother would say. “But what does it say underneath it, in the small print?”

My brother and I would stick our heads out the window and squint mightily, but to no avail. We could see what appeared to be words underneath the big letters, but what they were was anyone’s guess.

“It says,” said my mother, unable to keep the smugness out of her voice, “‘modern rooms, all with color TV’s.”

Then, to drive the point home, she’d say, “That’s what it says.” After which she’d add, “Jeeze, are you guys going blind?”

My brother and I would look at each other and shrug. It was the only thing we could do.

A victim of the eyeglass cartel

I got glasses when I was 12, so my ability to see things in the distance improved (though never coming close to matching my mother’s). At the same time, I became dependent on my glasses, so when I wasn’t wearing them, things even in the near distance were blurry, sometimes beyond recognition. Luckily, my prescription didn’t change, but unluckily, neither did my dependence.

This went on for 20 years, till I was having trouble reading papers and decided to go for my first eye appointment in years, with Neil Miller. He went through all the standard examination rigmarole and when he was done, he took my glasses and put them on some strange, medieval-looking instrument.

He checked this and that and then suddenly held up my glasses and said, “Just what I thought. You don’t need to wear glasses at all.”

I couldn’t have been more boggled if he’d told me I could breathe underwater.

“Whatta ya mean?” I said.

“Just what I said,” he said. “You don’t have to wear glasses.”

“So why am I having trouble reading?” I said.

“Been correcting a lot of papers lately?”

“Been always correcting a lot of papers.”

“So you’ve got eye strain,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. You could have 20-20 vision without glasses.”

“How?” I said. “I can’t even read the smaller print on those diplomas on the wall.”

“Neither can I,” he said. “Having 20-20 vision doesn’t mean you can read everything.”

“OK, so if my vision is as fine as you say, why have I been wearing glasses for 20 years?”

“Because you don’t know how to converge without them.”

Of course I knew what “convergence” meant in general terms, but I had no idea what it meant in optical ones.

Neil then patiently explained it: Two related components of sight are focus and convergence. Focus means how sharply you see something. As for convergence? Well, each eye sees a different image and if those images don’t converge – that is, if they’re not put directly on top of each other, the image will be blurred.

In my case, my focus was fine, but my convergence was off. What my glasses did was make me over-focus so my convergence increased, and I could see clearly. In other words, I was wasting energy. And according to Neil, I didn’t need to. I only needed to learn how to converge without glasses.

And how was I to do that? Simple. Neil handed me a small card that had an eye exercise on it. I’ll spare you the details?- I’ll only say the exercise was psychological, not physical, It involved training my mind to see a certain way, and had nothing to do with how my eyes already saw it.

I checked out the card’s instructions closely.

“All right,” I said. “So how many people have you given these exercises who then went without glasses?”

He shrugged.

“You’ll be the first,” he said, with what I thought was an odd lupine smile.

Victim no more!

I followed the instructions on the card religiously, having four or five daily training sessions. After a couple of weeks, for the first time in two decades I went without my glasses, for a grand total of 15 minutes. It was weird. I thought I was seeing all right, but I didn’t have the confidence to believe I truly was. Things weren’t completely blurred, but they weren’t crystal-clear either. I had no idea what “normal” vision was.

A day or so later, I took off my glasses again, this time for around a half hour. Things were better, except I still didn’t believe I could be seeing well. But I kept doing the exercise and kept going without glasses, and within a month I’d quit wearing glasses completely.

I went without glasses for another 25 years or so, when I had to get reading glasses.

As for my distance vision? Luckily, it’s has held at a steady at 20-30. It’s not perfect, but it is good enough to pass my DMV eye test, without peepers.

It’s also pretty shabby compared to Ole Eagle Eye’s. But no shame in that, since darn near everyone else’s is, too.