Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: My Father's Eyes

A year or so ago while I was visiting with Oliver Sacks, he asked me to close one eye and look into a machine—a stereopticon. Then he asked me to open the closed eye, which I did, and of course, the scene—mountains and lakes—changed magically from two dimensions to three dimensions. Oliver was fascinated with the phenomenon—the difference between monocularity and binocularity, a subject he was writing about in his book The Mind’s Eye — and I said that this was not a new experience for me, and was one that, as with him, had always interested me because my father was blind in one eye. I told Oliver that I used to walk around my house, when I was a boy, a hand or piece of cardboard over one eye, so that I could see the world the way my father saw it. I tried to hit and throw and shoot baskets with one eye closed, and gloried in stories about one-eyed athletes. “You should write about this,” Oliver said. And so I did.

The following appeared in the latest, Fall 2010/Winter 2011 issue of the Author's Guild Bulletin.

by Jay Neugeboren.

In 1936, the year my father and mother married, my father suffered a detached retina and lost all sight in his right eye. His left eye was already severely compromised; without glasses, he could not read the large one and two-foot high numbers on advertisements in supermarket windows unless he pressed his nose right up to the glass. I was born two years later, in 1938, and throughout my childhood I’d often walk from room to room of our small four-room Brooklyn apartment while covering one eye with a piece of cardboard so that I could see the world as he saw it. At Halloween and other dress-up occasions, I always chose to be a pirate, a patch over my right eye.

When, at eleven, I was a member of a Cub Scout pack, I earned an arrow point by demonstrating how, despite not being able to perceive distance, my father could score in basketball by calculating angles so that the ball would slam off the backboard and carom down through the hoop.

But why, with one good eye, couldn’t he see in three dimensions?

My Cub Scout den chief drew a diagram and explained that, since our eyes were lodged asymmetrically in our heads (and were not equidistant from some central point), they each saw objects and scenes differently--with binocular (as opposed to monocular) vision. If you were looking at a ball, for example, your left eye would see the ball from a different distance, and angle, than your right eye did. Actually, he explained, each of your eyes was seeing a different image of the ball, which images were somehow combined instantaneously in the brain so as to enable those of us with binocular vision to see the ball--and the world--in three dimensions.

The great passion of my early years, along with reading novels, was sports: I lived as much of my life on ballfields and in local schoolyards as I could, and when I was thirteen, in the concrete backyard to our building, my father taught me how to throw a curveball. When I tried out for the baseball team at Erasmus Hall High School--I was five foot three and weighed one hundred ten pounds--facing guys older and bigger, I not only struck out the side twice in a row but attracted dozens of players to the chain link backstop, and they seemed as amazed as I was that the ball could leave my hand, head for the batter’s head or shoulder (if he were batting right-handed), and then, thanks to my father’s coaching, dip swiftly and suddenly away from him in a two-to-three foot arc, and cross the outside corner of the plate.
But how, I wondered, not being able to perceive distance, was my father able to throw and catch a ball? And how was he able to shoot baskets, or drive a car? And what would happen to him if he lost vision in his one good eye?

The summer I was six years old, my parents rented a two room bungalow in Long Beach, New York. My father slept in our Brooklyn apartment during the week, and on Friday evenings took the train to Long Beach to be with us for the weekend. The first thing he’d do after he arrived would be to get out of his suit and tie and into a bathing suit, after which I’d walk to the beach with him. And all week long I’d hope it would be raining on Friday night, because when we got to the beach, he’d take off his shirt, then hand me his eyeglasses to hold for him while he went swimming in the ocean.

He never hesitated--just handed me the shirt and glasses, ran to the water, waded in, and dove straight into the first line of waves. He’d thrash his way out to where it was calmer, and then would swim further and further out while, his glasses tight in my fist, I’d stare as hard as I could--as if by concentrating with all my might I could keep him from going under--and I’d pray that he’d return quickly (by this hour the lifeguards were gone), for what would I do if, one evening, he disappeared, and I had to walk home alone? What would I tell my mother?

Most weekday nights, on his way home from work, he stopped at the local candy store where he’d take out a novel from their rental library, and he’d spend most evenings lying on the living room couch, reading, a hand cupped over his good eye to shield it from the glare of the lamp.

Through all the years of my growing up, my father worked in the printing business as what was called a ‘jobber’: he had ‘accounts’--businesses and individuals who would place orders with him--for stationery, invoices, business cards, invitations--which orders (jobs) he’d take to various printing shops around the city to get the work done, after which he’d pick up and deliver the order (or, on school vacations, have me deliver them) to his customers. Sometimes, when I asked about his business, he’d show me how he prepared material for the printers--how he wrote out the words, and created columns, charts, and designs with a straight-edge ruler, a protractor, and stencils--and I was always astonished at how neat and clear his handwriting was, and how graceful his script.

I remember wondering why it was that a man so compromised in his vision had chosen to spend so much of his life having to look at words on paper, but I never asked him about this. Later on, though, after I’d begun publishing books, I’d sometimes find myself attributing my own love for words and story--for how magical it was that words on a page, in my mind and feelings, could be transformed into entire worlds--to those times we were together in printing shops and factories, where what had been blank sheets of paper would fly out from the presses--across rows of small blue flames, positioned there to dry the ink--with words on them, words that in my life, as in my father’s, were suffused with enormous power.

I recall, too, when I was in the fifth grade and we had a unit on people who, like Helen Keller, had overcome physical disabilities, going to the front of the room, and telling the class that my father was blind in one eye, yes, but that because he was, his hearing had improved miraculously and he could now hear things, especially music, better than most people.

Although what I told my class was largely a sentimental wish, it turns out that, neurologically, I may have been on to something, for we now understand that the nervous system has astonishing plasticity, and that when areas of our brain ordinarily used for one function--seeing, for example--are disabled for that function, that region of the brain can often be taken over--reallocated--for other sensory functions such as hearing.

At about the time I was trying out for my high school baseball team, Tommy Thompson, blinded in one eye when he was a child, was the starting quarterback on two Philadelphia Eagles championship NFL football teams. A few years later, Bob Schloredt, a one-eyed quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies, was voted the Most Valuable Player in the Rose Bowl. I doted athletes like these, who, despite handicaps, had succeeded: Whammy Douglas, a one-eyed pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns, Gene “Silent” Hairston, a deaf Golden Gloves champion, and on others who, later on, would occasionally make their way into the ruminations of characters in my early stories and novels.

My father failed at the printing business, and it was my mother, a Registered Nurse, who, often working double-shifts and taking on extra jobs, brought home the money that paid the rent and put food on the table. Although they fought about money constantly--my mother railing at my father for not earning a living, and my father retreating into a depressed silence because he’d failed to provide for us, I never recall either of them, even in their most heated arguments, referring to the fact of my father’s impaired vision.

From the time I was about ten years old--1948--until my father’s death in 1976, at the age of 72, however, my mother would chastize him at least once a day for having given up his driver’s license, and he would respond with the obvious: that he couldn’t see well enough to drive, especially at night, and that he didn’t want to endanger us or others. Although their cruel dance--a painful mix of rage, guilt, venom, shame, and humiliation--was a constant in our lives, in this one thing, and with a confidence he rarely showed on other occasions, he’d state his case and stick to it.

And though he occasionally threatened to put an end to my mother’s misery (and his own) by killing himself, he never, to me, or to her, or to anyone else I knew, excused his failures or moods by reference to his faulty vision. So that, when I walked around the house with one eye covered, I was identifying with that part of him which, though wounded, was also a source of strength. When I closed one eye while shooting baskets, or throwing a ball, or crossing a street, I was training myself to do what he and men like Tommy Thompson and Bob Schloredt did: I was noticing shadows, and which way they fell; I was becoming aware that the smaller objects were, the further away they were likely to be, and that the brighter similar colors were, the closer they were likely to be. I was noticing the way people and things overlapped, whether they were arms or legs or curtains--and I was paying attention to the infinity of small and large markers that, like roadsigns on highways and yard lines on football fields, defined space; by being attentive to such things, I could, in my mind--the way all of us do when we watch (2D) movies or look at photographs--turn two dimensions into three. In this way I could not only see the world the way my father saw it, but I could also, briefly, be my father, and could be close to him in ways that eluded us through most of our lives.

In the decade before he died, I began publishing stories and novels, and he talked to me about them in ways he’d rarely talked to me about anything else. He even bragged to others that I’d not done the expected or the predictable--become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer--but had become, his emphasis, a writer and maker of stories. How sweet, it occurs to me, that I had somehow chosen a vocation whose task, as Conrad reminds us, is “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Beautiful read, I enjoyed it in a rainy day in Salzburg, Austria. Stories are powerful, they take us places and they activate our imagination.
Thank you Jay Neugeboren!