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May 31, 2003

Sweet clarity
Posted by Teresa at 11:02 AM *

I finally got new glasses. Progressive trifocal lenses have to be one of the greatest achievements of modern civilization.

Comments on Sweet clarity:
#1 ::: Clark Myers ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2003, 04:01 PM:

Dedicated computer glasses - I am partial to the Prio process as it seems to take some of the art out though a skillful and interested practitioner is all it takes. Means I carry about 4 pair of glasses though.

#2 ::: Stephanie Zvan ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2003, 08:45 AM:

I still remember the revelation my first pair of glasses was, almost ten years ago. It wasn't that I'd forgotten, really, that trees were supposed to have leaves and buildings were supposed to have bricks, but more that I'd forgotten these things were supposed to be accessible to me. With my glasses, they were little gifts I no longer had to struggle for.

Since then, I've found that my glasses have many more uses than just seeing. I can't start fires, the way my husband can, but I have found them a wonderful prop in conversation. If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch Jane Yolen some time; she's a past master of the art and where I learned most of what I know.

#3 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2003, 08:57 AM:

Jane is indeed a past master of starting fires with heavy lenses. Oh, that isn't what you meant?

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2003, 09:12 AM:

I don't like the multiple pairs of glasses system. I arrived very late for a Seder service at Moshe Feder's house in Flushing, having gotten lost several times during the drive. I was having to read street signs and my own handwritten directions. I couldn't see all that well close up or at a distance, and I absolutely could not do both at once. In the end I only made landfall by having Lise Eisenberg go out and stand by the curb where I could see her.

On the subway, using multiple pairs of glasses means you can either read the subway map in the car, or look out the window to see which station you're in, but not both.

If I'm settling down for a long spell of close work, I still have my reading glasses. For everything else, my trifocals are immeasurably better.

The other reason I wouldn't want to swap out three or four different sets of glasses is that I'm not accustomed to being able to see only part of what's around me. Until a very few years ago I could read the two-volume microtype edition of the OED without glasses or magnification. I could see fine structure in mineral specimens, and in plants ten feet away. On a clear winter night I could see all the Pleiades, and one memorable evening saw the crescent of Venus.

(Admittedly, that same evening I covered my left eye, and through my right eye saw between nine and fourteen images of that month's new moon; but that's a different issue.)

I'm resigned to my friends who've never had good eyesight not feeling very damned sorry for me at all, but that's also a different issue. The point is that I have a lifetime's behavioral habits, affecting everything I do, which are based on being able to see my entire field and range of vision. I never knew until all this happened that I use my eyes to think and remember as well as see.

Stephanie: Jane is a master of that, but Tom Doherty may be the greater master. Longtime Tor employees recognize the point at which he takes off his glasses and throws them across his desk as an exact measure of his exasperation.

I'm with you on losing track of things you ought to be able to see. When I first got my reading glasses, I looked at my hands in amazement -- where did all those little wrinkles come from? -- and realized that for some time I'd been unconsciously filling in nearby detail from memory. I have an excellent visual memory, but things change.

Now I can see at all levels of resolution, and -- my god! My house is a mess! Just look at all that dust! (scuffle scuffle scuffle clean clean clean...)

#5 ::: language hat ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2003, 03:23 PM:

Yes! Progressive lenses rock! I can now watch a movie on tv, read a book, and/or help my wife with the Sunday Times crossword, all with the same glasses on -- and because I don't need to bother changing pairs, I wear them much more frequently, which makes both my wife and my optometrist happy. And I got used to them in record time.

#6 ::: Stephanie Zvan ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2003, 09:37 PM:

Thank you, Patrick. Having mostly seen Jane only in crowded hotel conference rooms and dark nightclubs, I never would have known about the fires. I'll have to ask her to demonstrate next time I see her. (I'm sooo glad I put down my soda before reading the comments. Spit takes are all fine and good in their place, but that place is not the computer room.)

Sigh. Anyone know where I can find the right pair of glasses to spot that kind of snafu? Or would those just be caffeine goggles?

Teresa, I'd always kind of hoped to meet Tom Doherty. The people I know who have mostly have been charmed by the experience. But now I'm a little afraid--personality quirks and mannerisms fascinate me maybe a little too much.

So if Tom ever complains to you about talking to a young woman with a nose ring who looked more entertained the more exasperated he got, you've never heard of me.

#7 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 05:41 AM:

I've worn glasses since I was 7 - and have been going to the same optician at regular intervals to get my eyes tested ever since. It's kind of a family business: my eyes were first tested by the father, and these days I usually see the son.

But a couple of years ago, I got the father again, first time in years, and he looked back through all the records of my various prescriptions, back to my very first pair of glasses, and commented casually that if I'd needed lenses at that strength when I was 7, I probably really needed glasses years earlier.

I suspect that my teacher at the time figured it out when she realised I couldn't read from the blackboard - and conspicuously, I could already read, so the problem wasn't literacy but eyesight.

I re-experience what it's like not to be able to see properly whenever I go swimming - I can't wear glasses there, and don't recognise people until they come within 3 feet of me.

But at least now I know what the problem is - I'm severely short-sighted. Before I was 7, before I got glasses, I had no idea that everyone else saw the world differently: or rather, I kind of did, but didn't understand what they did, to see the details that I couldn't. They looked and said that things were there: I looked and saw nothing: my recollection is that I usually lied by nodding, pretending I could see these things too. I didn't have a name for what my problem was: I didn't have any way to explain that I had a problem.

I am deeply grateful for modern technology.

I can't imagine using my glasses for conversational gesturing, though. I need them so much, and am so used to them, that I think of them almost as part of my face: I can't imagine even switching over to contact lenses.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 12:01 PM:

Language Hat: Yes! Isn't it glorious? It puts me in mind of someone's observation that "Blindness is blindness, but deafness is a communication disorder." What progressives give you isn't just the ability to see at several focal distances; it's the swift interactivity with your visual environment at all focal distances at once.

Stephanie, it's almost impossible to exasperate Tom Doherty on short acquaintance. The only instance I can think of was when Tom was in a hurry to catch a connecting flight from Paris to Leningrad, and the cabbie taking him from one terminal to another decided to get out and have a long, long argument with another cabbie over a fender-bender that had damaged neither car.

Yonmei, I'm always fascinated by my friends' stories of being unable to see when they were young, and how they coped with it, and what they thought about it. Claire Eddy and Patrick have both told me about the strange experience of getting their first pair of glasses and finding out that trees have fine detail.

Young Jo Walton believed that Impressionists were the only painters who painted the way things actually looked, and that everyone else was observing an artistic convention whereby distant objects were depicted as having the kind of high-res detail that can only be seen from close up. I love this for its unassailable logic.

My own equivalent of this was taking years and years to figure out that other people could hear quiet conversations that weren't in their direct line of sight. All I knew was that everybody else seemed to know more details about what was going on than I did. When I was younger, I had a vague theory that they were finding stuff out from watching television, which for some reason they all seemed to enjoy a lot more than I did. As I got older I realized that television couldn't account for it, so I figured I must not have been paying enough attention.

Then one evening I put on headphones attached to a friend's Walkman when it was in "record" mode and had the volume turned way up, so that I was getting an amplified version of the feed from its microphone. "My god," I said, "I can hear the traffic down on Broadway." (Our windows faced upper Broadway.)

Patrick was stunned. "You mean you can't normally?"

"Hey, cool!" I said. "I can hear you talking behind me!"

At that point, many things became apparent which had hitherto been mysterious.

Other implications have taken longer to sort out, like my knack for crashing computers. Partly that's just plain mutant ability: I walk into Patrick's room, his computer freezes. But it's also my inability to hear that the machine is still working on something.

Once, when I was working on a Mac in a quiet basement bedroom at David Hartwell's house, I became convinced that the internal hard drive was about to fail. Patrick came and listened to it, then told me it sounded just like every other Mac, including the one we'd owned for years. I'd never before been able to hear more than a blurry ghost of the sound of its internal hard drive.

It's like we can have these really significant sensory deficits, but as long as we're minimally functional, nobody pays much attention to them. My mom was once showing her students the colorblindness test cards, and had one student become distressed at his total inability to see the numbers. It turned out he had profound red/green colorblindness, and had gotten all the way to high school without anyone noticing it. He was a gifted mechanic and loved cars, but he'd been in danger of flunking his Auto Mechanics class because the instructional materials had red/green color coding throughout.

Back when the Pepsi Challenge first came in, a friend's co-worker remarked that it was all a shuck -- all sodas tasted alike, and calling them "cola" or "orange" or "root beer" or "ginger ale" was just a marketing ploy. He bet my friend a substantial sum on this proposition, and was genuinely amazed that he could instantly tell the difference when blindfolded.

Moving into weirder territory: In my first-year Survey of Modern Humanities course in college, a fellow student who obviously wasn't hard of hearing in any normal sense once asked me how everyone else could tell the difference between the assigned recordings we had to identify during tests. He'd been exposed to music all his life, but he literally couldn't distinguish between Melanie, Jefferson Airplane, Thelonious Monk, and Frank Zappa's "Cleetus Alreetus Alrightus". I still regret not being more helpful, but at the time I had no idea what to tell him.

Then there's my old friend Scraps DeSelby. A standard vision test will tell you that he sees well enough with his glasses on. What it won't say is that there's something funny about the way he processes and remembers visual data. If you put a manila folder next to a schoolbus, he'd see that they're different colors, but he wouldn't remember that they were different colors unless prompted to do so -- and then he'd remember the fact, not the colors. I've seen him mess up on every single visual detail when describing a woman he was madly in love with, except for the last and most important one: "-- and she's beautiful."

Scraps once stayed with us in a tiny apartment where the entire kitchen counter area was two feet by three feet square. One corner of it was taken up by a shiny metal two-slot toaster. Scraps has a long-term continuing interest in toast, but he'd been with us for two weeks before he found out about the toaster's existence by hearing it pop up. After that he could find it and use it because he knew it was there. Beyond all doubt, his visual universe is hugely different from the one I inhabit.

I'm sorry. I'm going on about this far too long. I'm not sure there's a moral. I'm just fascinated.

#9 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 12:12 PM:

Everyone from the world material constructs the world experiential, and lives in it, and they are strange countries, one to another.

I remember trees getting leaves; I also remember not being able to tell if the mosquito was in this tent or the next tent.

#10 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 12:54 PM:

Your hearing is that good? What an interesting world it must be!

#11 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 03:00 PM:

It's often a world really short of sleep, too.

I seem to have got the creep-through-dark -forests package; a bit short sighted, good low light vision, good sense of smell, good balance, very good ears.

My hearing is now somewhat dimmed with age; going nuts with the mosquito was when I was about eight. I can still hear the raccoons walking on the roof at night (I would not be surprised if dead people could hear them having territorial disputes) and the individual presumed-forks going on the table in the apartment next door, though.

#12 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2003, 10:26 PM:

I too had the experience of being amazed that most people didn't see trees as green blobs from more than x feet away.

My own perceptual weirdness is kind of subtle. Everything is part of a pattern. I don't hear a traffic jam, I hear a chord (albeit one played on annoying instruments). I couldn't have put my finger on why, but I was clearly aware at my HS graduation that the prezzes of the Junior and Senior class, both boys, were sleeping together. I love Steve Reich, especially Music for 18 Musicians, because it gives all my tracks something to listen to.

Whenever anyone says anything, all the possible puns on it rush through my head. And like that.

I guess I'd characterize it by saying that I can never see just the tip of the iceberg...I can't help inferring the rest. This can look a lot like paranoia in some circumstances ("This pear is too soft!"), but it saved my life growing up, believe me.

#13 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2003, 04:34 AM:

It's like we can have these really significant sensory deficits, but as long as we're minimally functional, nobody pays much attention to them.

Exactly so. My short-sightedness is simple enough to explain now I have the terminology, and to fix: but I have another and (as far as I know) quite unfixable problem.

Tone-deafness, technically, is the state you describe in your fellow student in the humanities course: an inability to hear the differences in changes of tone in music. I don't have that - not quite - but I tend to describe myself as tone deaf anyway, because it explains why:

1. I can't dance. I mean, I can walk through the steps of a dance (did the usual Scottish country dancing classes at school), but what I've been told other people can do that I literally can't is connect the beat of the music to my movements. I don't feel any connection. I can hear the beat, but I have never understood how it is that other people manage to then move in rhythm to the beat. I'm always half a beat out (at least) because I'm hearing and then moving, where other people seem to move on the beat.

2. While I can certainly hear a difference between (for example) Abba and Mozart, if you played me two tunes without words, even if I'd heard both tunes before several times over, I would be unable to identify which tune was which. I tend to be able to identify theme tunes of programmes I watch very frequently by ear alone, but it does have to be very frequently - the first time I noticed I could do that was with Blake's 7, after having listened to the theme tune about 200 times. (B7 has 52 episodes.) I do listen to music, but it's nearly always music with words in it, and what I enjoy is the way the music sets off the words.

3. I can't listen to both music and conversation at the same time. I can "tune out" the music, and pay attention only to the conversation, providing the music isn't too loud. If it is, and I can't tune it out, I can't then properly listen to the conversation. It used to make me very cross when people stopped in the middle of a conversation and said something about the music, because I assumed it meant they hadn't been listening to the conversation (well, it would have meant that if I'd done it).

4. The bizarre thing is, that I can sing. Sort of. I can't reliably follow a given tune on my own, but I can echo other people, and I can even echo other people that I'm hearing in my head. But I once sang an entire filk song that was supposed to be to the tune of "Good King Wencelas" to the tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers" (or something like that) and never noticed that I'd done it until one of the filkers in the circle asked me why. Much easier to say, without explaining the details, "I can't sing."

5. My accent never changes. I was born and brought up in Scotland, went to a Scottish nursery, primary school, secondary school, and university, but my accent remains as English as my parents accents: my younger sister and older brother, who also went to the same nursery, primary school, and secondary school, used to speak with broad Scottish accents, which they revert to whenever they come back from England and talk to their friends from school. When in England, they speak like most Anglicised Scots do: you can hear the Scots in their voices, faintly, but mostly they're English.

#14 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2003, 12:28 AM:

Teresa: By now you've seen through my glasses (also progressives though only bifocals) and know what bad vision really looks like. I also noticed the individual leaves on trees on first putting on my glasses at age 10. I don't think I have any weird sensory deficiencies (other than blind in one eye and can't see out of the other), but I've got a really weird information processing/thinking style. Suzette Haden Elgin pointed out years ago that I was one of the rare touch dominant communicators. Touch is also a much ore important sense for me than it seems to be for a lot of people. And I don't understand or process things in words. I can think in words, particularly if I am composing conversation or writing, but I understand in big gestaltic mass/shape/movement thingies. It's very weird and it's taken me ages and ages to figure it out, understand it, and begin to see how it makes me different. And how if affects my communication.


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