The twilit highway as my camera saw it

What really should have alerted me to the fact something was wrong was one time I was on the Toorak Road overpass of the South Eastern Freeway, just on twilight. Most of the traffic below had headlights on, and each separate light was the centre of a star – a halo of light with pronounced vertical and horizontal radiations. This effect is often seen in movies and television – it requires a special lens – yet I was getting it in real life. Despite wondering why, no answers jumped immediately at me, and life went on.

The twilit highway as I saw it, more or less

I have been short-sighted all my life. A teacher at primary school was the first to twig to this fact. My parents never noticed, and I certainly never did. How is it possible to tell whether what you see is (or is not) the same as what everybody else is seeing? (For instance, how do you know the colour your brain perceives as red is the same colour being perceived by everybody else? Even if you are not colour blind? Prove it.) Looking back now, the clues seem so obvious, but hindsight always has 20-20 vision.

I remember one frustrating conversation with my father, trying to explain why he had not caught me playing on the road. There had been a neighbour I was crossing the road to, to see who she was. Dad had been much further away and experienced no identification problems, so he argued that if I had seen her to go towards her I therefore already knew who she was, and was just adding lying to my crimes. Case closed. Four years of vocabulary was not sufficient to explain my way out of that situation.

Then there was the friend who told me he could see his sister way in the distance. He was talking obvious garbage. Yet when she came close…sure enough, it was her. How could he tell? ""I just looked and saw her. She was right there," was the gist of the uninformative reply.

When you are a little kid, you are expected to be a victim. People are allowed to do things to you, but you can not do them back. If an adult taunts you, it is known as teasing, and is quite all right. If you taunt an adult, it is known as giving cheek, and is not all right. People are allowed to explain away the incomprehensible with a meaningless "It's right there, you can see it." Try the same meaningless phrase to explain something obvious to no-one but you, and see where you get.

There was one really silly game everybody played in primary school. We would all go into a darkened room, where a projector cast blobs of light and shadow on one wall, while everyone pretended to see fascinating and interesting pictures. It seemed like a dumb game to me, and it would go on for so incredibly, boringly, long. Once a teacher asked "Can you see the baby koala Bruce?" and I replied in bored frustration "There is no baby koala!" She simply went to another student who was willing to play the stupid game, and gush "Ooh yes Miss, it's riding on it's mummy's back!" It was a stupid game to me. Stupid and boring.

What finally twigged the teachers at school to my eyesight problems was when they brought some trouble-makers from the back of the class to the front where they could be watched. Naturally this involved people at the front being sent to the back. I was regarded as a good student – even though I seemed to think threes and eights appeared interchangeable – but promptly became the worst student once at the back of the room. When they called me up to the front of the class, and I suddenly understood something from the blackboard while in transit, did the penny drop. Of course young Bruce Barnes liked sitting at the front of the class. He had to. It was not possible to see what was written on the blackboard from any further back.

At age five I had my first pair of glasses. I still remember my first sight of the main street of focus.

"Does everything look bigger now?" Dad asked after he came home from work. "No. Smaller. But clearer."

(Actually, glasses do not so much make things look smaller, as stop them seeming to swell up due to lack of focus.)

Years later, attending my first ever science fiction convention, I noticed that every person in a room party bar one was wearing glasses. That same crowd is trending to the pretty ancient now, but back then most of us were all reasonable young...and wearing glasses. Was there some law of nature that made nineteen out of twenty s.f. fans have eye defects? Raising the question on the spot, I found out that the one person without glasses was wearing contact lenses. So, is there something at work here? Does SF make you short-sighted, or is it something like people with certain eye defects find reading easier and thus preferable to looking at things in the distance?

Around about the time I turned thirty, about when I found an undeniably grey hair in my comb for the first time, my eyesight changed in a way it never had before. Every year or three, as things in the distance started to fuzz, I had to get a new pair of glasses to correct my ever-worsening eyesight. Except this time my sight had improved since the last visit to the optometrist. Near-sightedness was starting to cancel out my short-sightedness. Had I not already been wearing glasses, they would now be needed for reading. It was my first indication of age creeping in.

In the 1980s I started wearing contact lenses. I had tried them once before, about 1974. Because of the shape of my eyes, soft lenses were out, so only hard lenses were possible. The damn things sometimes popped out just because I blinked. (This once happened while driving at night.) One morning I tried to put them in, and one of the soaking trays was empty. I never did find that incredibly expensive piece of glass. So far as I can figure, when I tried to put it into its soaking solution the night before, it stuck to my fingernail instead of dropping in. Then I went and took a shower.

Back to ten years later. Technology had marched on, and soft lenses could fit on my oddly-shaped eyes. They were like putting in bits of contoured glad-wrap. I persisted with the new lenses for a while. Once upon a time it had been impossible for me to fall asleep sitting up if I tried. When I started to flake out in my armchair, usually while watching a t.v. programme I did not want to miss, I got to know all about it the moment I woke up. The sensation of oxygen-deprived eyeballs is hard to describe – having shells of granite under the eyelids does not quite get the idea across.

At the time of my second USA trip, the vision through each eye was exactly the same: it did not matter which one I put either contact lens in. Vision had always been slightly different through each eye before, and it seemed strange that they now both matched exactly.

Much later, after getting back home, I noticed it was easier to read the menu board at a particular café if I closed my left eye. This was so with either the lenses or my glasses, which were supposed to fix problems like that.

What finally put me off the soft lenses was a dose of eye infection. Oddly, I had gone through life so far without getting this problem, and now had it while taking routine steps to avoid it. The problem was fixed with a course of antibiotic eyedrops. (Keep them in the fridge, and take care to heed the use-by date.) Did you know there is a direct link between the eyes and the throat? Put a drop of the antibiotic in each eye, and ten minutes later the foul-tasting stuff is trickling down the taste buds on the back of the tongue.

I had heard about the corrective eye operations going on in the USSR. When the laser version of the same operation started up in Australia, it was impossible for me to miss the fact – there was a laser clinic just down the road from where I lived. I refrained from rushing into things. I went for a brand-new pair of glasses when I started having trouble reading small print, and was told I would need a separate pair of glasses for reading. When they gave me my new reading glasses, they were useless. This was because the optometrist had fouled up, and they were long-distance glasses. Suppose the laser-surgeon fouled up in a similar way? Besides, the operation was not cheap, and so long as I wore glasses I could see fine. In any case there is one convenient thing about being short-sighted – never needing a magnifying glass. This can be really handy when reading Japanese. Chinese characters often have pronunciation guides alongside, namely tiny Japanese phonetic characters, (or furigana), often difficult to make out, through normal glasses. Just raise glasses, hold page at point blank range, and hey presto, it’s obvious. All my life close-up vision like this had been possible, and laser correction would take this away. (Though, suppose I only had one eye done? That way I could still have close-up vision, and have normal vision with the other eye. Of course, that way I would still need glasses, and hey, I was wearing glasses anyway).

After having my newest (and to-date most expensive) pair of glasses for just six months, my eyesight was noticeably deteriorating. Even right from the start with the brand-new glasses, it was still easier to read that menu board with one eye shut. Then came the time, unusually soon, when I could not read that board at all, from my usual seat.

Getting my eyes checked again was difficult. The focus changed from second to second. If it was not possible to read a particular line, it might come into focus after waiting a little. The film of moisture on the eyeball seemed to make a critical difference. Blinking could ruin the focus or enhance it. By refraining from blinking, it was a matter of waiting until the eye dried enough to achieve focus. Of course, it would then keep on drying until focus was ruined again. Going at it this way, after two separate checks three weeks apart, my eyesight seemed to improve by a stupid degree.

I was sent to a specialist, who told me I had an unusually high number of floaters in my eye. Floaters are tiny bits of detritus that float around inside the eyeball. Everyone has them, it is just that we are so used to ignoring the things they are hard to spot even when we try to notice them. They are more easily seen against a bright, white background, as little out-of-focus squiggly lines. With me, at this stage, they could actually block fine details simply by floating in front of them. I learned to quickly swivel my eyes about, and then look directly at what was giving me trouble. While the floaters were still swirling in motion, they would not hold still long enough to block things. This little trick is why my vision seemed so much better on the second optometrist appointment in three weeks.

Two sets of new glasses or not, my vision was fuzzing at a rate faster than ever before. After a while, I stopped using the reading glasses. It was getting easier to read with the distance glasses. It was also getting harder to make out details in the distance.

Before, I had always been able to read without glasses, simply by holding the book close to my face. Now I found it necessary to close one eye in order to see the page in focus. Each eye had a different focal length…even without glasses. There was now absolutely nothing to lose by going to the laser clinic, and having just one eye done.

I went to the laser clinic. In the waiting room, after getting some drops in my eyes, they showed a video, of how most likely my eye problems could be fixed with a laser, and how much better life would be afterwards.

A doctor looked at my eyes, and called in a colleague.

"What do you think?" "Cataracts?" "That’s what I made it."

I was kind of young to have cataracts, everyone agreed, but I had them anyway. They would have been why the vision in both eyes matched up that time. Light bending around the cataracts had gradually been changing the focal depths of the vision in each eye. This new lens-effect had made stars of those car headlights that other time. Now it was getting beyond that. Now the cataracts themselves were beginning to obstruct vision. Lasers would not work in my case. Surgery would be required. In both eyes. Or I could avoid it, and simply go blind over a period of time.

When we lived in Tasmania, there was a faith healer in Ulverstone. He did not charge for his services, but accepted donations. Dad went to him for problems with his back, and took me along for treatment for my hay fever. Over a period of time I noticed Dad still had back trouble, and my hay fever came and went as it always did. Over the same period of time I noticed that another patient he was treating for cataracts was not getting better either. In those days of the early 1960s, they could remove the cataracts, but only after they had been allowed to shut down vision entirely. The old bloke was in no hurry for this. He used to front up by bicycle, at the start. As time went on, he would wobble around over more and more road. Self preservation finally got to him. In the finish he was fronting up by taxi. By this time it is a mystery what he thought the healer was doing.

Earlier still, in the first part of the century, a cousin of my grandmother had his cataracts surgically removed. Afterwards he spent three weeks flat on his back with bandaged eyes, before they would allow things like sitting up straight. Even then, for the rest of his life, he needed incredibly thick glasses to be able to see at all.

Things are different, in the 1990s, with Fred Hollows technology. A tiny incision on the eyeball is all the surgery required. The old lens is sucked out, and the new one (rolled up) inserted through the incision. The new lens could even compensate for my short-sightedness. No glasses required after surgery. At all. I would have normal vision, for the first time in my life.

First though, came more tests. One involved injecting me with a dye which had one side effect of turning my urine yellow. So what colour is it anyway? The answer is: amber – not yellow. This was yellow! Distinctly, canary yellow. Going to the toilet was quite startling, even after having been told what to expect.

One test turned up something I had never noticed before: a huge blind spot in my left eye. It is quite obvious to me now, when I watch anything with subtitles. If I close my right eye, I can read the translation, but at the same time be unable to see the eyes of the person speaking. It is not an area of blackness, it is an area of "nothing there" – as though things are too high to be seen. Further up, on the edge of my vision, is the ceiling, just a little above "too high to be seen", but visible. With both eyes open, I can clearly see both the subtitles and the person speaking, and the edge of the screen, and the ceiling. Close the good eye, and there’s that blind spot again.

At the time one of the tests noticed this cavity in my vision (look unwaveringly at the light in front of you, and press a button whenever you see another flash of light anywhere else) the doctors suspected a brain tumour. A quick trip to a cat-scan relieved the tumour suspicion, as well as an uncomfortable pressure in my wallet. Soon, now, I would get my vision back, and be able to pay lots, lots more.

A little booklet they gave me describes cataracts as "a natural result of aging…the leading cause of vision loss among adults 55 and older. However even young adults and children can have cataracts." This said, the booklet only contained pictures of people who were practically geriatrics.

One of the tests involving the injecting of a dye was preceded by my signing a waiver, stating I knew that some people had allergic reactions to the dye. With something like one in 250,000 it was a fatal reaction. As I signed the waiver, I wondered about my recently buying a powerball ticket….

In third world countries the cost of a cataract operation is down to a few hundred dollars. I, however, would get to pay a lot more. I did not have full medical cover, and upgrading now (with a pre-existing condition) meant having to wait a year before being covered. By this time my eyesight was changing so much, differences were noticeable between one week and the next.

I started to get double-vision, even when looking through one eye. Then triple-vision set in, (with the centre image slightly higher than the other two). I was unable to make out faces of people across the street. (Near the end it was hard to recognise faces an arm’s length away.) Driving was very gradually becoming a hazard, at an imperceptible rate.

It was no problem to see things like pedestrians and cars, but as for noticing details like shadows and reflections – which had saved me from having car accidents in the past – forget it. I finally gave up driving altogether, after the time I missed an obvious turn, and spent an hour getting back on track. This was an hour of stopping at intervals to strain over a street directory, and stopping and parking the car to walk up to street signs to read them.

And things continued to get slowly worse. The universe was constantly out of focus. I kept wearing glasses only because without them, everything was far more fuzzy. Working on my computer at home, more and more I would suddenly notice my nose coming into physical contact with the screen. One night I stared at some distant trees, wondering why they looked so clear and distinct, when houses the same distance away were so fuzzy. (I still do not know why. Something to do with the colours?)

Finally came the day of the first eye operation.

I live an easy walking distance from the surgery, and had in mind walking home afterwards. This idea horrified them at the surgery. If I could not get someone to drive me home, it was necessary for me to take a taxi – and they were not all that happy with the idea of a taxi. Once this was settled on, they let me through the doors into the sterile area. This even involved slipping plastic covers over top of my shoes, and wearing something like a shower cap. (Plastic at both ends.)

They prefer patients awake during the operation. Sleeping people might wake up and jerk at just the wrong moment. Everything happened under local anaesthetic.

A tiny incision is made in the eyeball, through which the original lens is sucked out. Then a folded soft flexible silicone lens is inserted, unfolded, and put in position. They give you something which stops you blinking for the whole operation. My view of all this was just a blur of coloured lights. It also stung a bit. It was easy enough to ignore, but given the $2000-odd I was paying for the experience, I did not want to be feeling anything at all. I mentioned it, was given another injection, and the operation went on.

Afterwards, with a massive patch taped over my eye, they wheeled me back out to the waiting room. Free coffee, biscuit, and then a wait for the taxi. They were still not happy about the taxi, and made it plain they wanted me driven home by someone who knew me. But a taxi was better than nothing.

Next morning when I woke up, I could see light coming through the edges of the eye patch. I resisted the impulse to see what else could be seen through that narrow slit.

Before: Me in Clark Kent mode I walked back to the surgery, and had the eye patch removed. Ah, the incredible novelty of seeing everything in perfect focus again. Well, most everything. I could not read my watch, with what was now my good eye. By holding my wrist as far away from my head as I could, the time did come into focus, so long as it was in bright light. This was odd. I had never noticed clarity going with good lighting before. It was also a new experience to see things more clearly by holding them away.

After: Me in 1999

I mostly stopped wearing glasses from this point on. Things were still blurry out of one eye, but it was easy to ignore this in favour of the clear image, most of the time. The same day the eye patch was removed, I had one lens removed from my glasses, and used them for a while for things like reading or watching t.v.. They were useless for pretty much everything else. When a change in depth was involved, the images from each eye refused to integrate. While looking at t.v. through my modified glasses was okay, looking at a movie screen was something else. I could get the images to integrate at the top of the screen or at the bottom, but could not get one clear image. It was easier to sit through the movie with my hand over the weak eye.

The first three nights back home, I had to tape a plastic cover over my eye, as a guard against inflicting damage while rolling over in the night. Other than that life could go on as normal…so long as it did not involve doing any jogging. Rubbing the eye was a definite no-no.

During the period with one good eye and one cataract-troubled eye, a major difference became noticeable in colour perception. Without my becoming aware of it, the colour white had been turning yellow. My collection of Astoundings suddenly did not look quite so ancient any more – so long as I looked at them with the correct eye.

For the next three weeks after the operation, I was putting three sets of eye drops into my eye every four hours – a cleaner, an antibiotic, and an anti-inflammatory.

The vision in my bad eye kept right on worsening. The focus of my vision came to less than the end of my nose. At work, manually entering details from an account into the computer could only be done by holding the account against the side of my nose to read with my short-sighted eye, while simultaneously looking at the monitor with my long distance eye, and entering data via the key board. This got me some odd looks from the customers, but was the only way to do things when the bar-code reader did not work.

Although we all ignore it, the human nose is always in our field of vision. With me, it became impossible to ignore. I could see the side of my nose with total clarity – every pore, blackhead, and flake of loose skin.

I could drive again, but at first driving at night was rather a bother. By day the out-of-focus view of the world was indistinct and easy to ignore in favour of the in-focus and clear. At night out of focus lights – such as street lamps and oncoming headlights – swamped out the smaller but clearer in-focus images. This would not have been so bad if left and right images had matched up. Then I would have seen clear light sources surrounded by massive haloes. Instead I saw each sharply focused light to one side of its massively blurry counterpart, how far to one side varying with distance of the light. Being in a moving car at night with other moving cars coming at you was something of an experience at first. Then I realised I could make the images come together by tilting my head up and looking down at them.

After the second check-back with the surgery, where it was decreed I could stop sluicing my eye with all those drops, an appointment was made to have the second eye done.

For the month until then, I still needed a magnifying glass in order to do any serious reading. My computer screen was no trouble, nor were books with large-enough print. (And the average book does NOT have print the right size.) It can get really infuriating swinging a magnifying glass from side to side to read a book line by line. Getting one of those magnifying sheets was a great help, although if the waiting period for the next operation had been much longer, it would have been necessary to rig up some sort of magnifier-holder.

Then came the operation for the second eye.

The doctor apologised again for the way the anaesthetic had failed during the first operation. (Interesting expression on the face of another patient waiting for the same operation.) I had, as he put it, "long eyes". But they were allowing for that this time, so things would be far more comfortable.

And things were. The lights I could see during the operation looked different too, somehow.

I had arranged for a lift back home with a neighbour, this time, thereby making the staff much happier.

Back to the surgery the next day, eye patch off, and the return of normal binocular vision. This time the doctor made my vision slightly short-sighted, so I could do things like read my watch more easily.

Again with the four-hourly eye drops for three more weeks. At the end of this time my sight had settled down to a point where it was safe to get new reading glasses.

As I head toward my half-century mark, I can see normally for the first time in my life. (Aagh, half a century! I haven’t recovered from turning thirty, yet!) I can hardly call it 20-20 vision. Seeing things more clearly now involves holding them away from me. To read anything with any ease requires glasses, although I can usually manage without them at a slower pace and more discomfort, depending on the size of the print. Leaving the glasses on accidentally is not possible, as distant objects (IE further away than the length of my arm) are indistinct. All of which is an interesting experience for someone who has gone through life being able to see close objects clearly whenever the desire came. For the first time it occurs to me that maybe the elderly relative who used to quip "Maybe if you took your glasses off you’d see better" might perhaps have thought he was making a useful suggestion. Nowadays I can see my bedroom clearly the instant I wake up, without first having to feel around on my bedside table for visual aids. I can exhale while downing a hot drink, without having my vision fogging over. When I take a shower I can see what a horrible state the shower-stall is in, and when I step out, realise again that the sight of my unclad form in the mirror is something fit for neither man nor beast. I had been warned that my night vision might become less acute after surgery, but the opposite seems to be true. Before, entering a cinema involved standing around for five minutes waiting for my eyes to adjust, and even then carefully feeling my way down the aisle with my feet, in case of steps. Today I carry sunglasses far more often than ever before, and when I go into a cinema I can immediately see well enough to sit down, with my peripheral vision enough to warn me of any lurking steps. Once in a rare while I try to adjust a pair of glasses that aren’t there. Apart from that it is amazing how easily I have adjusted to seeing things the way most others have always taken for granted.

 Bruce  Barnes
January 1999 

Thought I was out of the woods did I? As it turns out the saga continues in 2000, in Eyes II, the sequel.

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