January 4, 2024

My Life as the Jack of Spades

Most nights, to end the day, I turn to the latest novel I’ve been reading, and when I finish my reading stint, I sometimes play a game or two of solitaire before heading toward bed. I usually win only about once in a dozen tries or so, but the partial reinforcement keeps me hooked. Unfortunately, in the game of life, I have had even worse luck, for there I have drawn the Jack of Spades as my calling card.

If you don’t know your playing cards, you may not appreciate the significance of that card. There are of course kings and queens, and all of them are shown with two eyes. But the Jack of Spades is one of the only two jacks with but a single eye showing, and that, alas, is how I look today. Ken as the Jack of Spades, and very definitely not the jack of all trades, as you will see.

So why I am now sporting this piratical eye patch, you ask. Well, the answer is as simple as it is distressing. For the last month or so, I had found it increasingly difficult to read my books and even to read articles on my iPad. I couldn’t figure out why, but then I remembered that in my right eye, which is effectively blind because of my glaucoma, I have long had what is called a “macular pucker,” which is sort of a winkle in one’s macula. It had been stable for years, but lately, it seems, it is starting to spread, and I believe I am now showing the first signs of macular degeneration. (I will find out when I consult my eye doctor in a couple of weeks.) Fortunately, my left eye whose vision isn’t that great, but is my only relatively “good” eye, does not seem to be affected, so like a man who has to rely on just one lung, as was the case for the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, I will have to depend on a single eye. I have become the Cyclops of Kentfield.

I was born with a very rare ocular deformity whose incidence is only about 0.14% in the general population, which means it occurs in slightly more than one in a thousand births – my bad luck! This condition used to be called congenital nystagmus but that term has been replaced by infantile nystagmus since it is now known that it develops in the months after birth, and not at birth. What it signifies is a kind of uncontrollable eye wobble.

Nobody knew that I had this condition or such poor eyesight when I was a pre-schooler. According to what I was told, it wasn’t discovered until I was six years old. I think what might have clued people into my eye problems was the fact that, in order to stabilize my vision as much as possible, I had learned to turn my head to the left. According to what I learned when I was finally able to see an eye doctor, this movement would apparently help my fovea to attain its best possible vision, even though because of my extreme near-sightedness, it still wasn’t that good.

If you were to see photographs of me as a kid and teen-ager, you would see that instead of looking straight at the camera, I am often gazing off to my left. This caused me problems. I looked goofy. I also remember when at sixteen, when I went to get my driver’s license, the examiner thought I wasn’t paying attention to the road, and warned me, saying something like, “Kid, if you keep looking out the window instead of the windshield, you are never going to get your license.” In fact, I flunked that test and didn’t get my license until I was 17 – by faking it. By the time I was an adult, I had learned to control this condition enough to cease looking to my left, but by then the damage to my psyche had been done. My poor vision has been the bane of my life.

In school, I always had to sit as close to the front of the class because otherwise I couldn’t read what was on the blackboard. In math classes in junior high school, it was difficult for me to follow the proofs that the teacher was chalking up on the backboard. I had to learn to compensate in various ways.

I remember when I went to see my eye doctor when I was in junior high – a man that I always remembered because of his unfortunate name, Millard Gump – his telling me that it was very unusual for kids with my condition to do well in school. I would not let that stop me, no matter my lousy vision and the odd looks my appearance sometimes caused me to suffer. (“Hey, four eyes, whatcha looking at?”) Needless to say, the way I looked, combined with my general clumsiness (about which I will say more later), did not exactly make me any girl’s idea of a “dreamboat” once my gonads kicked in. 

(By the way, before I forget, I can’t resist interrupting this story of my troubled youth as a visual maladroit with a sidebar about the funny names of doctors I have consulted over the years of whom Millard Gump was the first. Eventually, there was my proctologist, Dr. Speer; and for twenty years, my urologist was Dr. Piser, who lacked only a second “s” to make it his name perfect; and, finally, my retinal specialist, Dr. Ai – I kid you not.)

Although I eventually learned to do well in school (and actually graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley), my life outside the classroom was marked by a decided lack of success. I don’t know if this had anything to do with my bad vision – I’ve always wondered – but I was never able to do the sorts of things that most boys do easily. When in grammar school it rained during gym periods, we had to go into the gym to dance. I remember my hands sweating because I could never dance – I had no sense of rhythm, much less grace in movement. Those periods were a torture and an embarrassment for me. When I was given a bike, I lost control of it and was nearly killed by a truck. I decided riding a bike was not a good idea and gave it up. I tried piano lessons, but seemed to be born with two left thumbs. I flunked out of cub scouts when I failed to figure out how to tie a knot. I remember an incident when I was playing with my friends in an empty lot near my house and at one point, we had to jump over a muddy swamp. I froze; I was afraid to do it. We sometimes walked on railroad tracks, but when I tried, I would always fall off. Roller skates? Forget it. Ice skating – I would never dare. And so on.

Even when playing sports like those I really enjoyed, such as baseball, I was a flop. I was always chosen last and placed in right field. I could do all right in softball, but not in hard ball. I was always afraid of being hit by a pitch and in a forerunner to little leagues, I compiled a miserable batting average of .207, though it did include one triple. When fly balls did come my way, I could never track them; you can’t catch what you can’t see.  

Not only was I a klutz about most physical things, but I had absolutely no mechanical ability whatever. When my mother re-married when I was ten years old, my stepfather turned out to be very good at all things mechanical and could fix anything. I tried to bond with him and show interest in what he was doing, but it was hopeless. I was no good at that sort of thing, and he soon saw it was a waste of time. And I was a menace, too. Once when my dad was doing some electrical work in the kitchen, I got a really strong shock that scared the hell out of me. I decided to stick to non-electrical books.

When I got into junior high school, we were obliged to take “shop.” That is, learn to work with tools. I was and have always remained afraid of tools other than a hammer or screwdriver. I never read the works of the historian Thomas Carlyle, but I have always resonated to what he said about tools, viz., machines are inherently aggressive. Touché Thomas. It was also in junior high that I had to confront the fact that, despite my biological father having been an artist, I could not for the life of me draw. I remember I got a D+ in art class, which was a gift. In high school, although I was an outstanding student, we had to pass a swimming test in order to graduate. I nearly flunked it, but managed to pass, thanks to the kindness of my instructor.

The list could go on, but you get the picture. Something was radically wrong with my brain and my body. It was stupid. The only thing I was good at was reading, writing and learning languages. 

I take that back. There were actually two things that occurred in junior high that finally came to my rescue and began to repair my very low self-esteem. I had been a somewhat pudgy kid when I was in grammar school, but before I went on to junior high, I had begun to shoot up in height and become slender. I also turned out to be fairly good looking after all. And best of all, I found that I could run. In fact, I became a track star and set school records for the 50 and 75 yard dashes, and also anchored the final lap of relay races, which I ran barefoot.  

I don’t have a good photograph of me in those years, but I do have one taken when I was ten and a half that will show you the kind of kid I was developing into.

Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman in California who could write. He wrote several wonderful books during the 1950s, which were very well thought of and which I read. It’s been many years, but I remember learning two things from him. One was that nature was pitiless and one must not romanticize it. The other was that, in his opinion, he had reached his peak at the age of 5 after which he began to decline. Likewise, I think I reached my peak in junior high – looking back at them now, they were my golden years.

The other important thing that occurred during that time that bolstered my woeful self-esteem was the interest taken in me by an English teacher, Evelyn Murray. She encouraged me to write; she thought I showed talent as a writer. She believed in me. We stayed in touch for several years afterward. What would I have become without her seeing something in me that no one else had noticed?

Well, as my life developed after that, especially in college and graduate school, I had more success, and not just in my studies. With women, too. I learned that I was attractive to women and have had many rewarding amorous relationships in my life. And that I could indeed write. I would never really become a scholar, but I did become a successful and respected author, particularly for my work on near-death experiences. And the father of three wonderful children of whom I am very proud.

I still had problems with my vision, however. I always sweated bullets before having to go for a renewal of my driver’s license because my vision remained poor. Indeed, for a period of seven years after I became a young professor, I drove without a license because I was so afraid of failing to pass the vision test. I finally succeeded, but it was always touch and go at the DMV. But eventually I drove across the country, back and forth, three times, and never had an accident. Kind of a miracle, eh? I had to give up driving at 86, and though I hated not being able to drive any longer, I was so relieved never to have to go back to the damn DMV.  

Actually, now that I think of it, I did have one experience when I was a young professor that finally gave me an idea of what it must be like to see well. When I was about thirty years old I decided to try using contact lenses. In those days, they were “hard” lenses, and, naturally, given my lack of dexterity, I found it difficult to insert them properly. I also didn’t like the way they felt – I was always conscious that I had something “foreign” in my eyes. But I could finally see amazingly well, so clearly. I was thrilled.  

Nevertheless, there came a day during the summer when I had to change a flat tire. Sweat poured into my eyes, and I had a terrible time completing my task. After that, I decided to go back to wearing glasses, and pitched the contacts. Never did go back to them.

Eventually, however, I did develop more serious eye problems. I started to have glaucoma at sixty, so I’ve had to deal with that and take thousands of eye drops for almost the last thirty years. I’ve had cataract surgery, too, and even worse, a partial corneal transplant, which was one of the worst and most traumatic ordeals of my life. And in recent years, my vision has continued to deteriorate so that it’s now harder for me to follow the ball watching tennis on my TV or see the news and sports commentators clearly (or hear them that well, for that matter). And, as I said at the outset, now in having to read, I’ve had to embrace my life as a one-eyed jack of no trades. I’m not worried that I will go blind – I hope that I will die before that happens and like Helen Keller who was convinced that she would see after she died, I believe I will finally see perfectly then. Can’t wait!

So that’s the story of my ocular and other misadventures in life, so far. It didn’t start well, and my poor vision was often my bête noire growing up, but just as people hoping for racial justice sing “We shall overcome sometime day,” I think I’ve managed to overcome my own visual struggles and a body that just isn’t good for much except for a few things that have made my life, and I hope the lives of others, worthwhile.


  1. Hang in there, Cyclops of Kentfield!

  2. Great blog, as always!! Thanks. One funny name to add to your list of doctors…a dentist 🦷 in my state is named Dr. Hurt.

  3. Cheered me up no end with my Dry Eye problem and Chemists running out of the prescribed medication. Julie