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High Contrast Foliage

By James Oliver Smith Jr

(Editor’s Note:  James is an active member of our Metro Chapter.)

Sitting on the bench at 31st Avenue and Franklin Avenue waiting for the bus, I marvel at the sunshine: bright, incandescent yellow, angled low from the south.  It highlights newly fallen leaves from nearby maples, basswoods, hackberries and the mulberry tree extending above my head, still and glistening from the nighttime rain.  The leaves on the sidewalk are huddled together in thick clumps, a scrum of nature’s flight from the warmth that has started its own migration to the south, following birds, the sun and long days.

Each leaf seems to be suckling on the effervescence of an October morning.  For a moment, in this light, with the high contrast canary flash of dead leaves soon to be buried in urban compost bins I am deluded into thinking my vision has turned back to that golden realm of crisp, clear acuity.  It's a fleeting experience, because the moment that sensation arrives I move my one partially functioning eye to the intersection signals, the signs on the restaurant on the opposing corner and the architect's office across the street.  Reality creeps back into my compromised visual cognition.  It's as distorted, incomprehensible and confusing as it was just before that moment of perceived clarity.

I reprimand myself for once again falling for that trick of high contrast juxtaposition of daylight, strongly defined shadows, edges and well understand patterns.  Forty-five years of full-featured stereoscopic vision, combined with a bonus of an extra fifteen years of reasonably normal monocular vision has given me a good sense of how things should look.  I've become all too aware of how well my visual cognitive self can create the perfect image I want to see.

I stare at the white cane held vertically between my hands.  Its tip rests on the sidewalk.  I navigate the tip to the leaves resting peacefully in their morning nest of fresh rain and traces of mud.  A twinge of nostalgia settles in and I reminisce of falls past, the season when I'm driven to reflect on all my 64 years, years when vision was a loyal companion across ten states, forty-five moves, two marriages and several careers.  I can replay videos in full color and sound.  Even the smells, tastes and tactile experiences are embedded, but the images were the key to tying memories together.  The world was normal and routine.

I look in the direction of the Franklin Avenue bridge over the Mississippi and watch the obscure figures I know are cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians.  A cyclist slips by.  Her body somehow manages to move without head, arms and limbs.  Only a torso with a skirt flapping in the wind sits, balanced, on a dark frame.  The wheels flicker in and out of visibility.  At times, it appears to be a frame and torso floating in air as they slide smoothing over asphalt and cement.  I've become used to these broken scenes, images of the impossible, signs of a brain that just can't make sense of the data coming back from the retina that is doing its job to gather light and package it for further processing in the brain, where the fiction we call vision takes place.

The bus will soon appear and I'll be on my way to the Pow Wow Grounds coffee shop on 15th and Franklin for a day of writing, but not before I've had to remind myself of how fragile my sense of normalcy is.  I've become obsessed with these glimpses of perceived visual clarity.  They form a divide between the sighted "me" and the vision-impaired "me", but not the blind "me", at least not yet.  I've known for twenty-six years that there was no cure for pigmentary glaucoma; just delay tactics.  This has been the mantra I throw out to others as an explanation for why there are so many signs of my exit from the world of the fully, normally sighted. 

The first big sign was the elimination of cycling from my life after running into the back of a parked truck on Como Avenue in 1994.  I snapped the handle bar, bruised my thigh and was quick to blame everything but my vision: my attention, my helmet, the truck itself.  That was eight years after my initial diagnosis.  There were no discernible effects of pigmentary glaucoma at that time.  The ointments I used initially and my first laser surgeries had more of an impact on me than my pigmentary glaucoma had.  Both eyes seemed to be working fine.  When fall arrived, all of the trees were fully absorbed by my stereoscopic vision and appreciated.  But I gave up my bicycle anyway.  There was something about my vision that seemed to be deficient, but I couldn’t quantify it to myself or anyone else.  It was easy to give up cycling since it was a pastime that had no bearing on my professional, family or artistic life.  I could still shuttle my children to their events and videotape their activities.  I could still work and I could still write and play my bass trombone. 

Between 1994 and 1999 my left eye deteriorated to the point in which there was no data coming into the brain.  The 1.2 million optical nerves from the left eye were no longer functioning.  My vision became monocular and I adapted.  I could still design software and there was still a demand for my skill set, but I was becoming less comfortable with driving.  There were too many unseen cars, pedestrians and cyclists in my diminishing visual field even though the acuity in my right eye was still correctable to close to 20/20 on the Snellen Vision Test Chart.  I gave my car to my mechanic and started using public transportation, another step in the direction of what was starting to become inevitable.  For me, it was easy to justify not having a car.  My years in Boston in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s gave me respect for the value of public transportation.  I never really liked cars after that.  Giving up the car was framed as a personal victory for my desire to ride public transportation.  Sitting on benches, waiting for buses was a great opportunity to observe the fall’s palette.  The leaves, the trees themselves, the groves were all still visible in my right eye.  I could still write and play my bass trombone in community bands, so I told myself that if this was my future, I would be OK with that.

By 2001, reading the music on band charts had become so difficult that the pleasure of playing was being eclipsed by my inability to read the notes, making it increasingly frustrating to try to play the horn I once wanted to play professionally.  The decision to give up the bass trombone I had carried across five states over 30 years was my first emotional adaptation to decreasing vision.  I didn’t think I would want to have anything to do with playing music again.  I donated that horn to a small high school in northern Wisconsin.  There was finality to that decision that was disarming.  Now, my vision loss to pigmentary glaucoma was becoming personal.  It was encroaching on the things I enjoyed most, my music and my writing, for even the use of a pen and paper was starting to become difficult. 

However, I am a computer scientist.  I was quick to adapt technologies available to me to continue writing software, increasing contrast and font sizes.  I could still write, but it was becoming difficult and far less convenient.  Computers were still large and cumbersome.  Even laptops were heavy and not very flexible.  Nonetheless, fall was still beautiful.  I could still tell the difference between oaks, hackberries, maples and basswoods.  I could still reflect on good times and look forward seeing familiar faces, recognizing neighborhoods and using computers with ease.

A retinologist once told me our bodies and all their parts have reserves that sustain them through life.  When that reserve is exhausted, we lose an organ, a limb or perhaps our life.  The eyes are no exception.  When an eye has been subjected to many surgeries and regimens of therapies, they become exhausted.  Each successive surgery presents increased risk of side effects that can affect vision.  The efforts to maintain lower intraocular pressure to prevent optical nerve damage is a grueling process that takes a physical toll on the eye.  In 2010, surgery to remove a cataract and simultaneously perform an iridectomy in my right eye had finally, after 23 years, exhausted much of its reserves and my vision deteriorated significantly.  Eyeglasses now provide little acuity.  The optics from my eye is littered with distortions, low-light blindness and glare effects.  My visual cognition presents a plethora of sometimes fascinating, sometimes terrifying Charles Bonnet Syndrome hallucinations.

Nothing in my visual world is the same as it was during my life before that last surgery in 2010.  I am left completely in that nether world between the world of the normally sighted and the world of the totally blind, a world where nothing works in ways that are predictable or consistently useful.  Everything has to be tested, re-tested and challenged.  The world I’ve known for 64 years is still there physically but my remaining eye is incapable of getting the data describing it back into my brain.  Trees have become impressionistic blotches on a canvass of obscure, soft patterns that shift and morph with light, shadows and angles.  The universe now is a giant puzzle with many missing pieces, forcing my visual cognitive self to improvise, doing what it can with the pieces it has.  To make matters worse, every time the puzzle is restarted, a different set of pieces is missing, so whatever was learned on the previous day doesn’t work today.  Three years ago, I started to use a white cane to serve as my feeler for the world I navigate, a most direct sign that I have left the shores of the fully, normally sighted.

So, here I sit, looking at a single October leaf on 31st and Franklin.  The sun illuminates a shape so familiar I can reconstruct it with the clarity of a photograph, but now it is a complete fiction made up from images in the past.  Like the leaves around me, that will decompose and return as life within another plant or animal.  My life is returning to functionality in ways totally unexpected.  I have purchased a new bass trombone that I play improvisationally, visualizing notes for myself, accompanying Count Basie, Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong on audio files.  I can write now with a variety of portable digital technologies that let me write with big bright strokes that are translated directly to text I can construct into documents with vision that would otherwise be useless.

I clutch the white cane as the bus makes its way from the Franklin Bridge, snorting and huffing with the powerful presence of a well-fed dragon.  The rectangular door opens and I step in, waving my wallet containing the GoTo card in front of the scanner I know, and can feel, is there.  I greet the humanoid form positioned in the driver’s seat and visualize a welcome face with a smile.  I let my cane seek an open seat where I can sit, look out the window and observe the large patch of butter someone has spread on the sidewalk, next to the bench I was sitting on, knowing full well it was really a scattered cluster of fallen October leaves, cool and wet from the overnight rain.

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