July 26, 2009

Amber Cool


When I was in grad school, there was a very clear distinction between the cool students and the uncool students in my department. (Of course this is true in every school, everywhere—it was somehow more decidedly pronounced in grad school). The cool students were generally in the Comparative Literature program, they were generally female, and they generally wore designer fashions and ate in hip, fancy restaurants. There was one absolutely foolproof tell, though—the cool students all wore little round John Lennon shades. This was true without exception. Even the cool professor (the one who hung out with the cool Comp Lit chicks) wore Lennon shades.

            My friend Lefty and I, we weren’t among the cool students. We weren’t in Comp Lit, weren’t female, and we’d both come from Wisconsin, so we knew little of fashion and fancy restaurants. Worst of all, neither one of us owned a pair of Lennon shades. We were hopeless.

            I think Lefty was the first to point out the sunglasses signifier. They all wore them. Every last one. Once he pointed this out, it began to drive us a little batty, all those cool kids prancing around all high and mighty with their little round sunglasses (while it was cloudy out, even!), looking down their noses at the rest of us who weren’t cool. The final straw came when a friend of ours—a very smart and funny but decidedly uncool woman—picked herself up a pair of Lennon shades and immediately began hanging out with the cool Comp Lit chicks.

            Then one spring afternoon, Lefty had an idea. He knew how we could out-cool the cool kids. We’d beat them at their own game.

            There was a ubiquitous low-budget commercial on television in those days. Like similar commercials for The Clapper and the Med-Alert system, this one was aimed at the elderly. There were shots of old people riding three-wheeled scooters, playing golf and tennis, and strolling in the park—and all of these active old folks were wearing big, bulky, wraparound amber goggles. The message was clear: wraparound amber goggles did more than just cut glare and ease strain on aging, glaucoma-riddled eyes—they were a fashion statement as well.

            “That’s what we need,” Lefty said. “We’ll wear those goggles everywhere, and we’ll be so much cooler than those Comp Lit chicks.”

            I knew immediately that it was a stroke of genius. Lefty, he was quite the idea man.

            Well, in the end we didn’t get the goggles—mostly because they were, like, $9.99 a pair. As a result, we never did get back at the cool kids, who in all likelihood are still wearing those damn Lennon shades to this very day, being all hip and crap.

            Then about fifteen years ago as my eyesight began its speedy decline from “merely awful” to “complete collapse”, my optometrist asked me to stop by her office so she could try out a bunch of low-vision gizmos—magnifiers, handheld lamps, little forms to lay over checks so I could fill them out properly. I was a hopeless and ornery patient, and found something fundamentally wrong with everything she offered. God bless her though, she gave it her best shot.

            One of the things she wanted to try out that day was a pair of—yes, indeed—amber goggles.

            “They might help you see more clearly outside.”

            “Better still,” I said, “I’ll be a lot cooler than those stupid Comp Lit chicks.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Never mind.”

            Well, given that there were no obvious Comp Lit chicks around, the goggles just made me feel like an old pervert on my way to play some shuffleboard. They didn’t even help me see any more clearly, not that I was about to admit that. I thanked the doctor and handed them back.

            Now, here’s the big cruel joke at the heart of retinitis pigmentosa. First it steals your night vision. Then it steals the rest of your sight. But it does more than that, too. Even after you’re long beyond “legally blind,” the retinal meltdown also means that stepping out into the sunlight can be absolutely agonizing. It starts as just a little extra glare on bright days, but in time it becomes unbearable, like a fiery awl being driven through both eye sockets. In short RP makes both light and dark your enemies. For this reason, regular sunglasses on sunny days are useless.

            It affects some people more than others. A fellow I know in Chicago can’t be out in sunlight for more than ten minutes before the pain makes it impossible for him to function.

            A few months ago he was in town, so we met up for a few beers. It was a bright day so there was some concern, but when he showed up, he was wearing a pair of square granny glasses that had been turned into amber shades. He seemed quite happy with them. The amber lenses cut the glare, but still allowed him to see (as well as he was able, anyway).

            Then a few weeks after that I met another blindo from another city. And he was wearing those damn round Lennon glasses—but again with amber lenses for the same reason.

            I’m awful slow sometimes. Over these past months the sunlight has become excruciating, but I can’t wear regular shades because then I’d be left in utter darkness again. Then I thought about what these two had done. Of course, they’re much cooler than I am, so once again I began to ponder the possibility of clunky wraparound amber goggles with a heavy-duty white elastic strap.

            Figuring, however, that Morgan would never want to be seen in public with me if I wore clunky wraparound goggles (no matter how cool), I decided maybe it was time I tried something a little more subtle.

            I picked up the phone and called my optometrist. My old optometrist is long gone, but I’ve been going to the same office for twenty years.

            I explained my predicament to the guy who answered the phone, and told him that I thought it was about time I tried some amber lenses.

            He seemed confused by this. “Uh, ooo-kay I’ll, ah, I’ll look at your file and see what I can do. I’ll get back to you.”

            I hung up the phone and went back to work. But something about his tone was nagging at me. Why was getting a pair of amber shades such a big deal? And why would it require a look in my file? I thought back again and again over what I’d said.

            Then it hit me. I’d only gotten contacts from this place in the past, so when I asked him about “amber lenses,” he assumed I meant “amber contacts.”

            Jesus, I’m an idiot. I ran back to the phone and furiously dialed the number.

            When he picked up, he was obviously in the middle of something. “Oh, hey Jim—I’m just putting in this order for you.”

            Thankfully, I was in time to stop him. I explained what I meant to say a bit more clearly.

            “Oh,” he said. “You just want amber sunglasses?”

            “Essentially, yeah.”

            “Oh. We can do that. Put the lenses in whatever frames you want.”

            And that, in the end, might have been the worst thing he could’ve said.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.