Change of shape

I got my first pair of glasses in second grade. We’d recently moved from Chicago to the distant Indiana suburbs, and Mrs. Carlson noticed the way I was always squinting at the times tables and lessons in D’Nealian cursive projected on the wall behind her. It’s a familiar story, but this is where the cliche ends; I was thrilled at the prospect of glasses and delighted when my first trip to the eye doctor confirmed that they were necessary. 

I’m not exactly sure why the idea of having glasses thrilled me. I certainly don’t think it was because I was excited to be able to see better. Maybe it was because my parents both wore glasses sometimes, and my parents were my favorite people. Maybe it was because I was already beginning to embrace an idea of myself as a bit of a nerdy weirdo, and the glasses would help sell the look. I think I was mostly excited to have an accessory, something to make my face more interesting. Whatever it was, I remember crying in the car the Sunday evening we went to pick up my glasses and found the shop already closed. That’s how badly I wanted those glasses.

Young girl in glasses sits in a white armchair next to a scruffy cocker spaniel puppy.
Me in my first pair of glasses. The dog’s name was not Gizmo, but props to little me for what I’m pretty sure is a GREMLINS reference. Clearly I had not yet mastered D’Nealian cursive.

The bloom didn’t fall off the glasses rose until middle school. My vision got slightly worse, year after year, and I was told that this would likely continue to do so, though the rate would taper off. When your vision changes, you need new lenses; new lenses are a prime opportunity for new frames, and this was always a delightful prospect. When I was about 12, I chose metal frames in a burnished turquoise that looked a lot like the kind my mother wore. To fill the frames, I chose these amazing new lenses that turned dark in the sun — automatic sunglasses! But what felt like magic in the Pearle Vision showroom was, in the halls of Westchester Middle School, a source of very unwanted attention. Every morning, after every recess, and every time  I saw a flash photo of myself developed, I had to explain about the temporary tint to my lenses. 

Not having learned my lesson, I followed this pair up with something arguably even more esoteric: Thin wire frames in a kind of octagonal oval shape that I never would have called “granny glasses,” but in retrospect, that’s just what they were called. The phrase was introduced to me by a popular girl in my class whose name was (of course) Jennifer. “Why do you have granny glasses?” she asked me once. And once was all it took. If it doesn’t sound like an insult, picture it coming out of the mouth of a pretty, 13-year-old girl who you’re not exactly friends with. Out of nowhere. While you’re sitting on the floor of the communications wing of your middle school, working on a group project. 

It was time to get contacts.

I’d wager that anyone who’s ever worn contacts can describe how utterly insurmountable it felt to put in that first pair of lenses. It’s positively primal, the way your fingers shake as the lens nears your precious, vulnerable cornea. It takes an eye-watering eternity to get them both in, and then you have to face the impossible prospect of getting them out. But it only takes two or three tries before your brain adapts to the simple fact that you are NOT trying poke yourself in the eyes. Nothing will be touching your eyes at all except for a thin buffer of saline solution (which your eyes are already pretty comfortable with). 

I was 14 when I accepted the challenge of contacts and, for the reasons I just described, it quickly proved almost no challenge at all. I have worn contacts almost every day since.

A few years ago, at my annual vision check-up, the impossible became possible yet again: my vision had improved. I was told that as the eye changes shape, those changes can sometimes shift in a positive direction1. Because this went contrary to what I’d believed about the trajectory of my eyesight, I chalked it up as a possible fluke. 

This past Friday, I sat in my optometrist’s office, eyes pressed to that fantastical eyesight contraption — it’s called an phoropter, apparently. The phoropter is a machine of choices (1 or 2? How about now? 1 or 2?) and the distinctions between “1” and “2” are often so fine that I struggle to choose. When I was a teenager, I exasperated an optometrist with my series of choices, and I’ve never forgotten the way she heaved an annoyed sigh and told me that what I was telling her was “impossible.” 

Last week, the doctor was a genial young woman with long, dark hair. I told her that I’m bad at deciding which looks better, 1 or 2, and she assured me that I was doing just fine. A few tough calls later (1? 1? 2 I think? Can I see them again?) she told me that last year’s contacts were too strong for me. In other words, my vision had improved yet again. 

She had me try on a new prescription so she could look at them in my eyes and see how they fit. She checked and decided that the new left one didn’t fit properly, gave me a new size, and checked again. Each time I took out one contact and put in another, she turned around in earnestly surprise and said some version of, “already? That was so fast!” 

This is what nearly a quarter-century of contact wear can do, I suppose. It’s not much of a skill, but it’s mine.

As I waited in the reception area for my new prescription (and my new bill — thanks, American healthcare system!) I was already deep in Metaforia territory. I was thinking about how it’s not just the world that changes; we change too. And not just collectively, but individually. We think of the body deteriorating into old age, but here was a change for the better. Those too, are possible with age — probable even, if we can be bothered to pause and take stock. 

Sometimes when changes aren’t measurable, they can be hard to notice. Our vision changes, but we hold on to the old prescription. Someone points out a way that we’re different and the memory crystallizes into something we wear around for decades. Someone scolds us for our indecision and we learn it as a defining trait. We decide at one chapter of our lives what kind of person we are, and rarely stop to see if the look still suits us.

The entire time I’d been in the optometrist’s chair, a trim man in his 30s had been sitting in front of a mirror, just off the waiting area. Now, as I prepared to leave, he called out to the doctors and technicians, anyone who could hear: “I finally got them in!” He’d been putting in contacts for the first time. 

“Great,” the doctor told him, peeking out of her office. “Now try taking them out.” 

His eyes pink and watery, the man balked. “How do I do that?” 

I couldn’t resist telling this guy that it really does get a lot easier. He seemed appreciative, and told me that he’d tried contacts once before but gave up. I wondered how long ago that had been. Just last year, or when he was a kid? I pictured myself at the Wal-Mart Vision Center in Michigan City, 14 years old, sitting in front of a lighted vanity mirror and thinking that I was going to have to quit the whole contact plan and go back to my granny glasses, totally unaware of how soon it would all seems so simple.

I paid my bill. The technician came over to explain to the man how to remove his contacts. “You got this,” I told this total stranger, and it made me happy to say so. I knew it was true, because I used to be like him. But I’m not anymore. 

1

According to allaboutvision.com, “As the eyes grow and mature, their shape can change slightly. Most people with astigmatism are born with eyes that are more egg-shaped (from the front view) than round. It is possible that their eyes can become less egg-shaped over time.” (I have astigmatism.)