Why I'll Never Get The Wise Monkey Badge

Authors Electric has decided to give me a regular slot on the 26th after my recent guest post about snake oil. They should have spoken to the schoolteacher who wrote on my homework "Ruby Barnes has a complex neurosis that makes him cry out for attention by not fulfilling his obligations." The subject was meteorology and I was writing about cloud formations. I guess he didn't like my blue sky thinking.

Back to the monkeys in the title. Last week I collected my first ever vari-focal spectacles from the opticians. Fooled by the 2 for 1 special offer, I over-invested in Tommy Hilfiger and Timberland frames and had to lie to Mrs R about the real cost. These are the first you have to wear them all the time glasses since I first donned John Lennons at school aged 9. I had managed to reach a venerable half-century without further deterioration, so I thought.

The Kindle is to blame. For the last two years I've done all my reading on my Kindle 3, adjusting the text size for comfort. My day job changed too, less looking at tiny figures on spreadsheets and more sitting in meetings and facilitating results from what I was hearing. Then I branched out from being an indie author into publishing and breathing life into a fellow author's out-of-print backlist. I found I couldn't read the tiny print of his paperbacks. And Lidl, I blame them too, for printing cooking instructions in twenty languages with miniscule print.

The truth was revealed when I was snowbound in Glasgow airport with twenty Scottish rugby players, a Welsh male choir, assorted nurses and random flesh-eaters (a whole other story but it pays to fly Aer Lingus and not Ryanair.) Out of boredom I bought a bottle of TCP and a pair of reading glasses. After a lot of staring around and glaring at people, I realised my eyes had adopted a fixed focal length. Fast forward, back (?) to Specsavers and the optician did her tests, showed me computerised images of my retinas and told me I had stigmata. I was quite pleased as I've always had a certain messianic quality (maybe that schoolteacher was kinda right and he just misdiagnosed me?) Then I watched her lips as she repeated the word astigmatism. I had left my hearing aids at home (congenital high frequency hearing loss - nothing wrong with my genitals as my father says.)

Later, when I was fibbing to Mrs R (who is 8 years my junior, as she's always reminding me) about the cost of the glasses, she said, 'Let's hope nothing happens to your voice as well, or you'll never be a wise monkey.' She's of the opinion that I have always missed a lot of what's going on due to my hearing and will now miss even more due to my eyesight. Oh contraire, Mrs R.

It's true that I have never fully understood the lyrics to pop songs. I can't dissemble the words run together by all those regular singers and anything like rap is just an aural blur. I assumed the other kids all bought Smash Hits magazine or something and learned the words there. TV was a mystery. I followed the sense of the story rather than the dialogue. Reading books was substantially more satisfying. Throughout school, college and work I made a jester's career out of deliberately mishearing and throwing back allegedly humorous misinterpretations. No, I can't think of an example. Stigmata will have to suffice as evidence.

This partial sensory deprivation made me more attentive to other things - things I could see. I became an observer. While people verbally engaged in work meetings, I wrote pages of notes on key points (well, the ones raised by people with loud, clear voices.) Observing the body language of others told me who was in power and what people were feeling regardless of what they were saying, and I was off in my own world of problem solving. After two decades of this my imagination was running riot. The doodles started to take up as much space as the notes. It was a logical step to transform my observations and start writing fiction.

I remember the day, five years ago, when I first collected my hearing aids. Small digital devices with near-invisible clear tubes, like rice noodles, bringing the missing sounds of the world into my ears. I chose a colour for the plastic business end of the devices from the broad palette of choices - light grey to match my hair. Individually programmed to restore the deficient components of my hearing capability. I sat in my car in Waterford, the weather traditional Irish, and was nearly deafened by the sound of raindrops whipping the driver's window. On the drive back to Kilkenny my vehicle issued a continuous symphony of creaks, squeaks and whistles. Arriving home I used the bathroom and it was like Niagara Falls. My senses were heightened to an excruciating level. These days I don't wear my devices all the time, only for meetings, watching TV, and social occasions. And for sensing the environment.

Back to the glasses. Astigmatism means my eyes can no longer adequately focus of their own accord. That explains why other people's features at work meetings have been floating asymmetrically across their faces for the past couple of years. I had assumed that the Irish health service (yep, that's my 9 to 5) was infiltrated by aliens. When Specsavers handed me my vari-focals, together with a test card of different sized sample texts, I had another epiphany. I could read anything. Even tiny text. Even with my left eye which hasn't been able to read properly since I was a kid (yeah, sounds like I was a bit negligent in giving up those John Lennons).

I don't wear these glasses all the time. One eye is weaker - the left was never quite the full ticket. That means the vari-focal aspect of the glasses requires me to 'point my nose at the target,' as the optician said. Otherwise one eye's focus is blurred. This is a new experience as I've always been the kind of dodgy guy with wandering eyes, best suited to hiding behind portraits in scary films and following people around the room with my gaze. Now I have to point my nose at the target. I'm still adapting to this technique with book, laptop, computer and TV, but I have it down with driving. I guess that's because the world outside has infinitely varying depth. I don't even notice that I'm nose-pointing. What I have noticed is I can see everything better than ever before in my life. I can see the clouds swirl on top of Mount Leinster when Heaven touches Earth.

This is my point, the nub of the thing. There's a world of sensory perception all around us. If you have perfect senses then you are, perversely, desensitised to these things. The blind man's spatial awareness is a wonder to behold. As a writer, your job is to build sensory perception into your writing. As a reader, your job is to appreciate and enjoy.


Al said…
Oh the joys of getting old!
CallyPhillips said…
Excellent post Ruby,I've been through a similar ocular experience recently BUT I hate to tell you there is a choice beyond glasses... I now have varifocal contact lenses. Oh yes. They are the bees knees. Like you, I was doing the font size dance on ereaders and wondering why it's impossible to read the 'other channels' section in newspapers and with my contacts I can (and do) read ANYTHING however small that print might be!!! LIke you my epiphany came with a cheap pair of reading glasses, but since it's a well known fact that I become an axe weilding homicidal maniac if I wear glasses for more than 5 minutes, I had to find another way. Bring on EXTENDED WEAR VARIFOCAL CONTACTS. I only have to take them out one night a month and the rest of the time I can see and read EVERYTHING. I guess it's just a stage we're going through at 50! Tell your wife I think you ARE a wise monkey. You may not speak evil but you write funny and that's worth a wise monkey award in my (e)book!! Thanks for a laugh to start the day.
Chris Longmuir said…
Good luck with the varifocals. I gave up on them and went back to my bifocals. The problem was the nose pointing. Now, I could manage to point my nose at most things, but making an extreme right or left hand turn when driving defeated me - I couldn't get my nose far enough around to get out of the hazy section of the specs, and was having to take my life into my hands when making the turn! Maybe it's a new neck I need! Great post, Ruby.
Bill Kirton said…
Good stuff, Ruby. Thanks for the laughs.
Dennis Hamley said…
Cally's right, Ruby. You do write funny. And a Mr Chad as well. It made my morning. I've had the normal sort of eye progress, I suppose. I had a cataract removed in my left eye seven years ago which made a big difference, notable a sudden access of colour which nearly blinded me. In June this year I had the right eye done, with extraordinary results. I thought it was my weaker eye, but not so. With the cataract gone it's now perfect, 20/20, and I'm having the right-eye lenses of all my reading glasses taken out and plain glass substituted. And, amazingly, I'm back to driving legally without glasses, even with the dodgy left eye. So my driving glasses are having plain glass put in as well. Weird. And the double dose of bright colour has made looking out at the world a joy!
@Ruby_Barnes said…
@Al I'm thinking of turning vampire but unless that makes me younger, it's already too late.

@CallyPhillips That's interesting but not sure I can bear anything on my eyes. Are they okay when doing sport?

@Chris Longmuir - I think a pair of simple reading glasses are needed as well. The nose pointing is a strange thing. I much prefer sly glances.

@Bill Kirton - Cheers!

@Dennis Hamley - that's good to hear. Perhaps you could let us know the routes you normally drive on ;-)

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