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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Parental Undersight

Another victim of glasses

Parental Undersight

In a five-day, four-eye-doctor marathon (counting the school nurse who started it all), my nine-year-old niece learned she has one really bad eye. It dawned like some elaborate hoax on my sister, Kristine, who started off thinking, “Well, the school nurse is kind of an idiot, so maybe it’s nothing.” But it wasn’t the school nurse who identified the problem—it was a visiting county nurse, testing wholesale, one assumes, the many eyeballs of the children of greater Los Angeles one class at a time. At least a lieutenant in the ranks of school nurses, and she did manage to spot the problem that had somehow eluded everyone else.
    My sister called me early in the process, probably because I have the worst eyesight in the family, and have worn glasses since I was five. Plus, my daughter Penelope wears glasses now.
    “I feel like such a horrible parent now,” Kristine said. “We just went to the eye doctor at Cosco, and they said they’d never seen anything like it. The optometrist shined that light in her eye and said, ‘I can see all the way through her eye!’ And then she said they might not even be able to make glasses that will work for her.”
    “Really?” I asked. “Why? Because one lens would be so much thicker than the other? I think they can make glasses for anyone now. And what did she mean, She could see all the way through her eye?” Like, into her brain? Kristine had wondered the same thing.
Raleigh looks just like her dad (in photos, we have referred to her as “Li’l Shane”), but she may have inherited some unfortunate Woody traits—eye trouble for starters. Heritable Woody meanness may have passed her up for her little sister, Georgia, who used to rage against chairs in a knee-high gladiatorial fury, such that curious onlookers would ask, “Why is she so mad?” to which my sister would reply, “I don’t know—she was born a dwarf… you’d probably be mad too, if you were born a dwarf.” After the Cosco visit, Kristine said they would have to try a more expert eye doctor. Georgia complained, “Does that mean I’ll have to sit through ANOTHER long eye appointment?” Nothing can infuriate a Woody like another Woody.
    “Are you kidding me?” my sister snapped. “Do you know how many of YOUR appointments we’ve had to sit through, you little shit!” Being a dwarf, Georgia had required many doctor visits, especially for ear problems.
    “Isn’t shit a bad word?” Georgia groused.
    “Yes,” Kristine said, “You’re being a shit.” Later she told me that she might make sure Georgia attends Raleigh’s eye appointments regardless of babysitting availability.

Everyone wondered how Raleigh’s bad eye hadn’t manifested openly if it was so bad—no lazy eye or eye crossing like my daughter Penelope, no apparent trouble seeing chalkboards and such, as I’d had when I was little. But, she does have one perfectly good eye. Apparently her brain just relied on the strong eye and let the bad one sit out, getting even weaker with disuse.
    Since they live in California, I barely know the kid, but Kristine reports that she’s kind of like I was in early years—shy at school, bookish, not very socially assertive. I wonder, as I have before, if vision problems in some way precipitate introversion, which in turn may feed the creaky stereotype that glasses signify smarts/social inferiority/general nerdiness. Fortunately for Raleigh, the stereotype has faded enormously in our time. Not only have nerds conquered much of pop culture, but nerd chic has elevated many of them (the attractive ones) to higher social rungs. We 40-somethings grew up watching Christopher Reeve and Lynda Carter downgrade Superman and Wonder Woman into hapless weaklings by putting on glasses*. Sure, Katy Perry still has to ditch them to live a “Teenage Dream,” and superheroes still don’t wear them, but at least it’s been a long time since I heard someone called “four eyes” on a sitcom. My wife (glasses unnecessary) and daughter get crazy compliments on their glasses, so I know it’s a thing.

*There’s even a beauty pageant episode of Wonder Woman where she has to infiltrate and inevitably win the pageant to stop something nefarious. At some point, the dopey Major Dimwit/leading man turns to Wonder Woman after she has spun down into her secretarial “Diana” mode, with her glasses and pulled-back hair, and says something clueless like, “I wish you could enter the pageant, Diana… but we need someone who is really beautiful.” Curious and ironic that comic-book alter-ego formulations intended, most likely, to give nerdy fans an empowering association with hidden strength were finally dumbed down to one subtext: eyeglasses can make even a demigod looked like chopped liver.

"If only these glasses didn't make me look like a leggy bucket of sewage."
My sister drove Raleigh into LA to see another eye doctor on Saturday. I think, in Los Angeles fashion, she based the choice largely on location and availability—living in LA is mostly about avoiding as much of LA as possible, after all. Unfortunately, they ended up at another optometrist rather than at a pediatric eye specialist. The ominous prognosis suggested by the earlier examinations meant that the whole family went. Shane and Kristine were both quite worried, and Georgia was of course in tow for make-up empathy points.
    At the clinic they were told that only one parent could accompany the patient in the exam room. But that’s not how Kristine and Shane roll. They all wanted to go in, so that’s what they did. When the eye doctor entered, he grumbled about how there were too many of them in there.
    “Oh,” Kristine said, “I thought you were joking about that.” She was just trying to defuse his authoritarian impulses, but she later said he stuck slightly to his guns and remained a bit of an asshole. “Shane was really worried, and I wanted him to hear everything—he’d missed the first appointment. That doctor just wasn’t very friendly.”
    So Raleigh got another eye exam. This new doctor had similar misgivings about her eyes, and wrote a prescription that was more than 200 points different from the previous one. Fortunately, he also recommended they go to a specialist, providing a doctor’s name and a warning: “Most people don’t like her very much, but she’s a good doctor.”
    “Why don’t people like her?” Kristine asked.
    “She doesn’t have a very good bedside manner.”
    “So,” Kristine told me later, “I was kind of worried, like, if this jerk thinks she’s bad, then HOW BAD is she going to be?”
    “Yeah, who knows?” I said. But it did cross my mind that maybe the enemy of your enemy could be your friend. “So, no idea which prescription is right?” I asked. “Those are really far apart.”
    “Oh, they’re crazy different.”

Once freed from the exam, my sister felt compelled to consult Yelp, the Californian’s handiest, iPhoniest oracle, about the next eye doctor. I don’t know how many reviews she found, but they were predominantly negative. So, they entered Raleigh’s third appointment with considerable apprehension.
    After Kristine summed up their story, the doctor tossed the first of several bedside-manner grenades that immediately demonstrated why Yelp is a mouthpiece often hijacked by semi-pro complainers and weak whiners overloading their squeaky-wheeled shopping carts.
    “So why” asked the doctor, “did you think that the place where you sample sausages and get your tires rotated would be the best place to have your kid’s eyes examined?”
    Ha ha! I don’t know if she told the doctor the same truth she told me in the retelling: “We go to Cosco all the time, we love it… the other night when there was a big storm, Shane decided he really wanted some of their cinnamon rolls. So we were driving around in all this wind, seeing trees broken on the road, but we just had to go eat cinnamon rolls!” I suppose the doc would have asked if they also sampled some sausages and picked up a six-pack of faulty glasses for the whole family!
    So the fateful moment arrived. Raleigh got a real eye exam from a real ophthalmologist. Kristine asked her if Raleigh would be able to get glasses. “The other place said maybe they couldn’t even make glasses for her because… they could see all the way through her eye.”
    “Because they’re idiots!” said the doctor. “I’ll bet they didn’t go to Stanford and get one of these.” She pointed to her diploma on the wall.
    After dilating Raleigh’s eyes and a couple more jokes at the expense of the stupid optometrists of greater LA, they had a prescription for glasses that sounded, in the one lens, not all that far from my own strong lenses.
    “So, she said Raleigh could get glasses?” I asked later. “Her eye wasn’t going to be a lost cause anymore, like the others made it sound?”
    “Yeah,” Kristine said, “she told us to try the glasses for a couple of months and then see her again. She sounded like it wasn’t that big a deal. I mean, she’ll probably have one weak eye from here on….”
    “But at least it’s correctable,” I said. The optometrists had scared us into thinking there was something freaky and calamitous going on.

One excuse for my sister’s failure to get it right the first time (or the second) is the generalized overuse of the term “eye doctor” for the vaguely similar words “optometrist” and “ophthalmologist.” A bigger excuse is that we Woodies were raised rather carelessly and on the cheap. Even by the more libertarian and free-range standards of that earlier time, we were parented haphazardly. Our parents meant well, I assume. We didn’t get any drunken beatings, exposure to drugs, rapey molestation, or even diddling by untested mom-boyfriends. Just envelope-stretching neglect (more than once in the 5-7 age range, I had sunburns so bad that coin-sized water-filled blisters covered my back, because I suppose I should have known to pack my own sunscreen) punctuated by screaming fights and the occasional rage eruption ending with broken furniture or a horse beaten to death. My dad, as might be expected, was the anger volcano, but I’ve learned over the years that my mom is far from innocent when it comes to keeping the peace. Despite appearances of sweetness, she became a master of turning our lives into a pressure cooker of intolerable conditions—most notably, accumulating animal hoards at the expense of a decent lifestyle.
    It also takes a special sort of patience to put up with my mom’s layer cake of mental illness—a cake that self-frosts with blame for others when it comes to the screwball drama of her own life. Unfortunately, she’s become a completely unreliable witness, especially when it comes to reporting her own experiences. A snowballing mass of obsessions, paranoias, and revised memories clouds her judgment in general; in particular, our family history and her own health issues have been distorted by years in the echo chamber of her mind, where she has spent decades hammering away on the anvil of her favorite narratives: being Norwegian (she’s only half, and has never been to Norway), improving people’s lives by selling them purebred dogs (maybe in some cases), blaming my dad for all that’s wrong with her, being “a survivor,” having to figure out her own medical needs because most doctors are bad people if not conspiring against her along with Obama and the government, and a smorgasbord of racist/socioreligious prejudgments, simplifications, and misconceptions. The ice cream on top of the cake is that many years of bipolar thinking and medication have perhaps eaten away at the wall between her objectivity and her subconscious. She literally lets material from dreams—maybe even daydreams—scurry into her record of day-to-day experience, so that she believes firmly in a number of things that never happened. Finally, as if to specifically annoy her family, she has a terrible memory for things that we think matter (such as my wife’s full name or where she works), yet seems to have total recall for the detailed personal histories of her kennel customers.
    At the time of Raleigh’s eye trouble discovery, my mom was tangled up, as always, in a new and unnecessary drama. At least this time it wasn’t her fault, but the outcome is always the same—there’s little room made in her life for meaningful interaction with her kids/grandkids. Just the day before, she’d phoned me about my dad having a psycho-rage-fit at the neighbors—their best neighbors, who have helped them with numerous problems—after both parties’ herd bulls knocked down fences to fight each other in the road. Mom was naturally upset; unlike my dad, she prefers not to be friendless. Such emotional messes always launch her back into accounts of the bad old days when she was institutionalized, and how my dad had her put away, and was going to let them kill her by putting her in (the state mental hospital in) Nevada (, Missouri), because if you go to Nevada you never come back (even though I believe she did go there once), and if it hadn’t been for Greg Crouch (their large-animal vet in the ‘80s—large-animal vets are frequently the heroes in my mom’s mythology), she would have been put away forever and probably killed… and my dad didn’t care, he went away to work and didn’t even leave money for food for us kids, all while Family Services was trying to get us kids.  
    “Well,” I responded, “we did eat… I mean, I remember we weren’t starving.”
    To make sense of some of this, you have to know more backstory. Family Services was never TRYING to get us—had they had been trying, it wouldn’t have been hard. I was seven, Kristine was 12, and for weeks at a time we were left alone on a farm with a few dogs, a few dozen cattle, and several horses. My mom spent a few months that year committed to a mental hospital. My dad did month-long stretches, on average, working out of state for other cattle ranches. By today’s standard’s it’s insane. Back then, it was somehow possible to squeak by, by not saying anything to teachers, and with the help of a complicit neighbor or two. As far as I can tell, that would be the neighbor who was also our landlord, so I suppose he wanted his payments to keep coming in. Our closest relatives were near Chicago. That’s really where we should have been sent, but then my dad would have had to pay someone to feed his livestock. Ironically, he never seemed too keen on having kids, but he still thought the two of us were reliable enough to balance the farm on our scanty little shoulders.
    “You kids only had money to buy food,” my mom claimed, “because Kristine found the silver dollars from Reno that your dad kept in a drawer.”
    Having never heard the silver dollar thing in that context before, I wasn’t prepared to argue. Plus, I had been six years old at the time in question, so those memories are quite spotty. The next day, I spoke to my sister again.
    “Mom thought we bought all our food with those silver dollars,” I said, “but there’s no way, I mean, there were only a handful of those… I stole a couple, but I don’t remember riding our bikes up to Willard with our pockets loaded down with silver dollars. Didn’t Dad leave us a twenty or something? I seem to remember getting twenty bucks worth of groceries.”
    “Yeah, but Dad didn’t send us anything for food. He was too much of an asshole to do that,” Kristine said. “He would send us a check in the mail to buy feed with, for $100, but it was made out to the feed store, wherever we got our cattle feed.”
    “Uh… Tindle Mills.”
    “Yes, and then I had to ask them if they would give us money back if we bought less grain, so I’d say, Can we just buy 80 bucks worth of grain, and then get 20 bucks back? And they were cool with it!”
    “Ha ha!” I said. “But how did we get up there? We couldn’t drive yet.”
    “The neighbors drove us. The Burkses.” I can’t really remember any of that, but I was probably just in the back of the supercab reading a dinosaur book, along for the ride. I don’t even know if we used our truck or theirs.     

I don’t recall very much from that time. I know my sister told me what to do, and I usually did it, but every once in a while I would get snotty, probably in refusal to do what she deemed my share of the work, and she would clobber me. I remember never brushing my teeth, and not bathing for a week or longer. Either I was too young to stink much, or too young to be conscious of it. I did fine in school, if not quite well. I read a lot. My interests were shifting from dinosaurs to Encyclopedia Brown and nuclear war.
    Some years ago, I wrote a poem about those days. I think it remains pretty accurate.

    Sympathy for the Mental

When they took away our crazy mom,
my sister and I survived for a while
without her. Days or weeks at a time
we were alone. Our dad went to work
in other states and told us what to feed
the cattle and horses before he left,
and knowing him he probably left us
a twenty but no real advice on how kids
of six and eleven should get groceries.
We only knew we had to be careful
to seem cared for, so Family Services
wouldn’t come take us away, but I
rarely bathed or brushed my teeth. My sister
looked nice, though, I’m sure, as we rode
our bikes to the IGA food store in Willard.

We weren’t wise when we shopped—buying
junk, our dad would say—but we got bread
and some other right things, plus marshmallows
and pop. I’ll bet we looked at Lucky Charms
and Fruit Roll-Ups, and ruled them out: too high,
for the rich, a frightening magic word back then,
meaning people who might get us, but also
what we wished to be. We bought pickles
that day—sweet gherkins, like Gramma would eat—
hoping no one there would remember us
from when our mom screamed about the Devil
and spread-eagled herself in the automatic door
so we could escape these people, their store
suddenly a trap set just for us.

Paper bags wrapped over bike handlebars,
we rode home, avoiding cars. Almost there,
my sister’s bag split open on the last big hill,
pickles smashing on the road, lighter stuff
flying into the ditch. I remember thinking
all those pickles were really still good, we
could just gather them up, pick out the glass.
I can’t remember what we did with them,
though—my sister was the mom at the time.

And we had some fun being by ourselves:
me not bathing, warming fish-stick dinners,
mixing a ketchup-and-mayo tartar sauce
that we thought was the best. Missing
our mom wasn’t so bad—I stole silver dollars
from my dad’s drawer, as big as my palm,
cold silver dollars “from Reno,” and bought
candy with them. I read dinosaur books
and collected rocks. But I figure our mom
had a harder time, locked up with strange
strangers in the mental institution, the devil
always rooming just around the corner,
a hospital like a maze full of “city people”
who smoked and ranted and never rode horses—
locked away from her life while her kids
and her dogs went on without her.

I wore glasses back then, too, so someone must have taken me to the eye doctor at some point. But it was never in a hospital. Back then, Pearl Vision was just about the only game in town. I think we had to go all the way to Battlefield Mall, which meant the south side of Springfield, which meant a 40-minute drive and complaints about how much my glasses cost. I can’t remember prices, but I know I felt guilty about the cost of my glasses—enough that the life of any pair I ever had was stretched out as long as possible. Many months could be added to the useful life of any glasses with a combination of squinting and duct tape. Even if my parents were around, I can’t remember them ever volunteering that I needed new glasses. I think I just played it cool (or, super uncool, with my duct-taped loser glasses) as long as possible so they wouldn’t grouse about how expensive my eyesight habit was getting, every couple of years. Ophthalmologist? None of us knew what the fuck that was. I was lucky to see a damn optometrist—and in the rich-people mall. It was near an Orange Julius!
    So, any deprivations suffered by Penelope, Raleigh, or Georgia are rather dinky by comparison. Except of course the part where Raleigh’s eye almost died. I’ll try to tamp down my dickish Woody instincts to remind Penelope how many sacks of Sweet Grain we could have bought with her eyeglasses money, or to call Raleigh a cyclops.

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