At a recent night out with another couple, we followed Indian food with a nightcap at Rolf’s, a German restaurant. (Thankfully the ethnic leap was mitigated by the bartender, who was Bangladeshi.) It’s not often that I get to talk about my literary obsessions with a willing participant, so I drunkenly tried to keep up my side of the conversation about comic novels with the husband—not an easy task in my state, considering that after two drinks I forget names and after four I forget adjectives, and I was somewhere around my fifth.
As I strained to convince my companion of the virtues of the great Dawn Powell without the benefit of recalling her name, I caught my reflection on the mirror behind the bar. Even from a distance I could see my right eye was noticeably off alignment, as it invariably happens when I’m tired or, as in this case, sauced.
The problem is called amblyopia (a.k.a. “lazy eye”), and it began when I was about three years old. According to my parents, I became cross-eyed after a severe fever. A doctor prescribed eye exercises, and one of my earliest memories is of my mother putting a bandage over my good eye every day, which I resented and rebelled against. She also thought carrots would help and would make me drink a glass of fresh carrot juice for breakfast. To this day the taste or smell of raw carrots makes me gag.
It wasn’t until I was five that my parents could afford to take me to a “better” doctor. Living in Mexico then, they trusted this specialist more because he also practiced in the United States. And they still proudly point out that “he was a Jew,” which serves as a sort of Better Business Bureau quality seal for them. This new doctor told them that the exercises were bunk, that what I needed was surgery (which he just happened to provide). I suspect my mom welcomed the news, as she must have been tired of my constant whining. While a doting mother, she could never handle my fussing—she once told me that she didn’t breastfeed me because I found sucking difficult and cried too much.
The operation was a success, at least for Third World standards in the 1970s. Years later when I got to junior high we learned that my right eye continued to be weaker than the left, and I was prescribed glasses to correct it, but I disliked them and only wore them for yearbook photos (maybe I shouldn’t have gotten aviator-style glasses). The problem became apparent again in college, except this time my eye had begun to point outwards. A prism in one of my lenses helped, but my eye continued to slowly weaken.
I recently learned that amblyopia is responsible for much more than my reluctance to look at myself in bar mirrors. I visited an ophthalmologist to find out whether surgery was an option, and he responded with a question: “What if I told you that your problem gives you superpowers?” I rolled my eyes (best as I could), but what he asked next surprised me. “Do you read a lot?” I admitted I did. “Much more than most people you know?” Why, yes! Pathologically so, as a matter of fact. How could he tell?
It turns out that amblyopia can lead to stereoblindness, or the inability to perceive depth by combining images from both eyes. While it makes it difficult for me to catch a ball, it also makes it easier to read because I’m really using only one eye, saving my brain the effort of having to process two slightly different views into one coherent image. So it’s no coincidence that as my stereoblindness progressed, so did my reading addiction (it’s a simple dichotomy: reading or catching balls).
I told the ophthalmologist that I suspected that stereoblindness might also have something to do with my having become a painter, because seeing everything in two dimensions made it easier to compose on a flat canvas, but he didn’t seem too interested. I looked it up, and sure enough I was right: After noticing that Rembrandt’s eyes were slightly asymmetrical in his self-portraits, a professor of neurobiology compared portraits of famous artists with those of members of Congress and discovered that the artists’ eyes were more often misaligned.
While vindicating, this discovery doesn’t do much for me. For reasons unrelated to my eyesight, I stopped painting about a year ago, giving me even more time to read. Naturally, I turned to books for help. I found one in which another scientist trained herself out of stereoblindness. In it, she writes poetically about seeing snow fall in three dimensions for the first time as an adult. Sounds tempting, but fuck snowflakes, my real motivation would be vanity. I find my lazy eye embarrassing. So here’s my dilemma: Would it be worth not looking weird when I talk about books if it means I would be reading fewer of them?