Saturday, July 3, 2010
The torture of contact lenses
After falling asleep for a two-hour nap this evening, I woke up and started watching Fury on Turner Classic Movies. I'll watch anything with my name in it. Louise interrupted the Spencer Tracy flick after about 10 minutes, asking, rather loudly, "What are you doing with your eyes?"
Up to that point, I didn't realize I'd been doing anything with my eyes. She imitated the look I apparently wore: one eye closed, one eye open, looking very much like someone who's getting ready to peer into a microscope. I explained that my contacts had gone dry while sleeping. It would take awhile before they felt comfortable again. Until then, I'd be blinking more than normal or closing one eye while keeping another open, anything to relieve the discomfort. At the end of the movie I finally scraped them out and put on my eyeglasses.
I've been wearing contact lenses for 20 years now, and I'm sure there will be a study released any day now that says decades-long contact lens use leads to blindness. Hopefully I'm able to read the report. I started wearing glasses in eighth grade, the victim of genetics - both parents have long worn specs. The first glasses I had were a bizarre pair of white ones. To the best of my knowledge I've destroyed every picture anyone took of me in them, with the exception of a couple from an unfortunate birthday party. Someone - the doctor, a receptionist, a fellow customer with a big heart, a parent - should have stepped in before I picked those out. For God's sake, I could not see when choosing them. I was legally blind.
Contacts entered the picture in 10th grade. When playing basketball, the rim was now only visible when I shot a layup. I could still tell my teammates apart because of the different colored jerseys, but I couldn't distinguish faces. I refused to wear glasses - or rec specs - when playing sports. Refused. Pictures of my dad in his high school basketball uniform, black glasses perched on his adolescent face, haunted me. So we went to an eye doctor in the old Madison East mall in Mankato and got some contacts. The first night back home I practiced putting them in. It took me an hour and a half to get one in. My hand shook violently each time my finger neared my eyeball. It felt like open-heart surgery. I couldn't believe that people actually did this every day. I resolved to leave them in permanently if I ever succeeded. But of course they both had to come out that night.
My first contacts were hard ones. Each night I "cleaned" them by putting them in a small contraption that baked them. I didn't understand the technology and I'm pretty sure the doctor didn't either.
On the court, during practices, everything came into focus. I could see again! Then the games began. In the first one, a contact fell out in the first quarter. I picked it up, ran back into the locker room and tried putting it back in. It took several minutes. My re-emergence out of the locker room and onto the court was not exactly greeted with the enthusiasm Willis Reed received before Game 7 in 1970. Staring up into the stands, I could see my dad shaking his head, the look he usually reserved for a bad pass, a traveling violation or giving up an offensive rebound off of a missed free throw. I played terrible the whole game and blamed the contact fiasco. I could see, yes, but now I could see my mistakes even more clearly. Second game, same as the first. A contact fell out in the first quarter, dropping to the filthy floor in tiny Medford, Minnesota. Even with the one good eye, I could see my dad again shaking his head in the stands. Once again I emerged a few minutes later and played the rest of the game while praying the contact lens stayed lodge onto my eyeball. No wonder I struggled again.
After the game I was told that the contacts were done for basketball, it'd be glasses. God, no. Yes, I loved Kurt Rambis with the Showtime Lakers, but I sure as hell didn't want to look like him. Goggles were always an option, an accessory that has looked good on two players in basketball history: Kareem and James Worthy. Desperate, we found a new eye doctor, who changed me to soft contacts. They worked. The next game, they stayed in and my shot returned.
And that's what I've worn since the winter of 1990. Occasionally I think about whether I should look into Lasik surgery, but no matter the success rate with that procedure, I still fear being a statistic, being the one guy who ends up blind or wearing a patch.
I still fight with them, just in a different way than I did while playing B-squad basketball. The current batch of lenses tears easily, a flaw I'm sure the company deliberately designed so I'd have to buy more boxes. My current eye doctor is a friendly woman who seems very knowledgeable. She replaced an older doctor at the same practice, who I only saw once. When we went into the building, the temperature had to be near 100. Children screamed, parents pouted. The girl behind the counter said the air conditioning had died. We sat in the waiting area for 15 minutes, melting. When the doctor finally emerged, another customer complained to him about the heat - and the humidity.
"Well, it's a hell of a lot hotter where Hitler is, I can tell you that!"
Uh, yes, I suppose it is (by the way, Hitler supposedly refused to allow the public to see pictures of him wearing glasses). That did little to help the situation and did not inspire me with confidence in his ability to diagnose glaucoma. I suppose the heat finally got to him, or maybe it was just an existential crisis, as he felt inadequate about the decades spent peering into people's eyes while coming within an inch of their face, all the while holding that tiny light. How many times can you tell someone "blink," or, "Is it clearer here...or now," without going insane?
I long ago became an expert at putting contacts in. While it took nearly two hours that first night I had them, today I only need seconds to get them in and can do it anywhere - on a sidewalk, an airplane bathroom during turbulence, an airplane seat or in a car going down a gravel road. I don't even need solution, just a little water, maybe some spit. Mishaps still occur. I've put one contact right on top of another, after forgetting which eye I'd already worked on. Very blurry. But that's not as bad as pulling on my eyeball and realizing I already took the contact out. Very painful.
Forty years from now I'll probably still be putting them in every morning and taking them out every night. I've had a parent complain about me wearing them playing basketball and a wife complain about how I look while watching TV with them. If I'm lucky, someday I'll have a grandkid talk about how gross it is watching me put them on my eye each morning.