Seeing clearly

I have new glasses, and I’m seeing the world in a whole different way. Colors are more intense. There’s a bright prism-like outline of light around far-away objects. My laptop screen looks twice as tall as usual, with two copies of my header one on top of the other. Same with my little dogs – they look like elongated dachshunds. But if I move my head a certain way, everything is half its normal size. If I turn my head from side to side without paying attention, furniture comes to life and threatens to fall on me. And if I look into the distance, I see two versions of reality side by side.

Don’t worry, I’m not driving with these yet. The roads are safe.

Life with amblyopia

I have the insultingly named condition “lazy eye”. My left eye is extremely nearsighted, and what I see through it wriggles, and vanishes if I try to focus on it. An eye doctor once told me the reason for the latter problem was that at birth, your brain learns to interpret the information coming in from your eyes, and if there’s too much variation between your eyes, it might decide to ignore one of them. My right eye is fine, so apparently my brain made the efficient decision to only pay attention to it. It’s called suppression.

All this means that all my life, I’ve used my right eye to see, and my left eye just goes along for the ride. My 3-D vision is pitiful. They used to show me a holographic picture of a butterfly and ask me to try to grab it. I figured out the right answer was somewhere above the page, but my pediatric eye doctor wasn’t fooled. The old-style 3-D movies, where you’d wear cardboard glasses with one red lens, never worked for me, and when those magic-eye pictures were a fad back in the 1990s, I could never see the hidden image. My eyes just don’t work together that way.  (Here’s a fun article about those magic eye pictures.)

Treatment…and not

When I was a kid, I had eye surgery twice, at age 5 to correct a cross-eyed look and then at 15 to reverse a trend towards being wall-eyed. What they actually did was cut muscles, first on the inside (nose side) and then on the outside (ear side) of my eye. (I also had a stainless steel front tooth, thanks to a mishap with a swing set in sixth grade. It’s a wonder I survived middle school.)

Walleye_Male_Sander_vitreus_3-2017
Walleye

 

 

I also had glasses, starting at about age 4. For a few years, there was a serious effort to force me to use my left eye. This was accomplished by putting a bandaid-colored patch over my right eye, or painting the right lens of my glasses with clear nail polish.

Here’s the thing. I’m a reader. I learned to read when I was four, and I liked it. Those patches and the nail polish meant that books were a frustrating blur of squirmy spots surrounded by bright prisms, with blotches of nothing in the middle. So I got really good at pulling off just enough of the patch to see under it, and learned to tilt my head so the fuzzy glasses didn’t get in my way.

Finally, about the same time as that second surgery, the adults in my life decided that if my vision was fine in the eye I actually used, I didn’t need glasses. I saw the world without a smeary plastic filter for the next three decades, until I was old enough to start having trouble with small print.

After a few years of buying readers at the drugstore, I got tired of putting them on and taking them off and spending half my time looking for them, no matter how many pairs I stashed around the house, car, and office. I went to the eye doctor for the first time as an adult, and got a prescription. Because I wasn’t using my left eye anyway, the prescription was just for my right eye, and the optician who made the glasses made a matching lens for my left eye so I’d look more or less symmetrical.

 

New hope

Because my left eye’s so useless, I’ve always had a little undercurrent of anxiety about my right eye. The anxiety level increased a few years ago when my eye doctor told me I had cataracts developing. Cataract surgery is pretty commonplace now, and they seem to have it down, but they still only do one eye at a time – just in case.

As it turns out, there’s new research going on about treating amblyopia in adults. I’m not the only kid who didn’t comply with the patching-and-nail-polish routine. A doctor at McGill University in Canada has been experimenting with using a stereoscopic device and video games to help adults with amblyopia improve their vision – see this easy-to-read article, or this example of Dr. Robert Hess’s peer-reviewed articles about it.

And when I had to switch eye doctors because my insurance changed, my new eye doctor suggested trying a new prescription. She showed me that my left eye vision can be partially corrected, so even if I still can’t read small print with it I can read, say, 24-point font. Which might not sound like a big deal but given that uncorrected I can only read the very top line of the eye chart with that eye, it’s pretty astonishing.

Hence the new glasses. The left lens is made with some space-age plastic that keeps the thickness down, but it still has a bit of that old Coke-bottle effect. The right lens is downright weird, though. It has a line across like the one in the picture on the left below, which is the source of my up-and-down double vision. It’s called slab-off, and it’s kind of a reverse prism to make light from the thinner right lens hit the back of the eye at the same distance as the thicker left lens. The picture on the right illustrates the different angles. Physics.

When I picked up the new glasses, the optician said to try them for two or three weeks and see if they drove me crazy. I’ve had them for a little over two days, and the jury’s definitely still out. I’m happy to have better distance vision than I’ve had with my old glasses, but I’m not a fan of the bifocal-type line. I expect I’ll get used to it, as I got used to my old progressives. The real questions are whether I’ll adapt to using both eyes, whether those bright lines will disappear, and whether (heaven forfend) my left eye will start drifting inward or outward again.

I’m hopeful. I’m wondering whether my binocular vision will improve. Even my posture could potentially get better – I hold my head and shoulders a bit crooked, which is probably partly from years of carrying bags on my left shoulder but might also have something to do with subtly turning my head so my right eye faces front and center.

On the other hand – before I had that second surgery, when my left eye tended to wander outward, sometimes people would try to make eye contact with it. It’s really disconcerting when someone’s staring off towards your left ear. I haven’t had that experience in years, until yesterday: the guy in Costco handing out $2-off produce coupons stared at my left eye the whole time he was talking to me. My left eye looks a little bigger through that Coke-bottle lens, so maybe that’s what attracted him to it.

My gift to you

I did a bit of poking around on the web to see if anyone else had any advice on adjusting to new glasses with the slab-off feature. Dr. Hess says 5% of people have amblyopia, so you’d think someone else would have posted something. I couldn’t find much of anything besides articles written for people in the business. For example, here’s a good article that explains the slab-off technique. I did find a few items about adjusting to new glasses in general. In a nutshell, the advice is to wear the new glasses, don’t keep switching back to your old glasses, expect that for a minor change it will take a couple of days but for a big change it could take a couple of weeks, and be prepared to go back to the doctor if you still haven’t adjusted after a couple of weeks. I also found some YouTube videos of eye exercises for lazy eye, and a weird one about using something called eccentric circles to train your eyes, which seems to be aimed at people with wall-eyes.

If you found this because you’re struggling with a similar problem, I’d love to hear about how you’ve managed to overcome it in the comments below. I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks and add anything I think might be useful to other amblyopic adults.

 

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Surviving summer in Phoenix

It’s the middle of June, it was 110 today, and it’s supposed to be 120 in a couple of days. I just got back from a few days in L.A., where it was a civilized 90 or so, and I needed my sweater when I was waiting for the shuttle bus at the Griffith Observatory. Driving home across the desert, especially in the stretch where they tell you to turn off your air conditioning to avoid overheating – a message reinforced by the U-Haul truck with its hood up at the side of the road – I thought about how many summers I’ve spent here. These are the lessons I’ve learned.

Respect the heat

Every summer, people trying to hike, bike, or jog in our beautiful desert collapse from the extreme heat. Some are rescued; some die. This article says it’s nearly impossible to replace the water you lose while hiking in these temperatures, even if you’re carrying enough water (you lose a liter an hour while hiking, double that in extreme heat, and your body can only absorb half a liter an hour). Heat stroke and dehydration kill dogs, too.

 …but don’t let it ruin your life

You don’t have to hole up all summer long. We average 110 days per year over 100 degrees, and 19 days over 110; that means you’ll lose almost a third of your life if you don’t learn to live with the heat. If you plan ahead, you can actually enjoy Phoenix in the summertime. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s less crowded without the winter visitors and university students. There’s not as much to do, which is okay, because in this heat you probably won’t feel like doing much anyway.

Follow these tips:

  1. Take advantage of free air conditioning. Movie theaters, libraries, museums, the gym, indoor malls – if you can find one – and stores are air conditioned on someone else’s dime. So’s your office, probably. Summer might be a time to forego telecommuting. Keep a sweater in your car for those places that are kept too cold for comfort.
  2. Go out in the morning, by which I mean as soon as it starts to get light out. It’s the coolest part of the day, using the word “cool” loosely, This is especially important if your dog walks with you. The sidewalk is way too hot for their feet later on.
  3. Hydrate inside and out. Carry water with you everywhere and sip it constantly. Walk under the misters at outdoor malls. Jump in the pool – yours, a friend’s, or the public pool. Visit the splash pad with the kids.
  4. Park in the shade. Yes, you’ll have to walk farther in the sun to get to your car, but you’ll be able to touch the steering wheel when you get there. Better yet, run your errands after dark if you can.
  5. Get out of town. Flagstaff, the White Mountains, Prescott, and Payson are all within a three-hour drive of Phoenix. If you want to hike, those are the places to do it in the summer. You can even drive to the beach in less than eight hours, or catch a cheap flight and be there in a couple of hours. Even a short break away makes the summer more bearable.
  6. Keep your house cool. Plant a fast-growing shade tree or two, replace your old windows with the kind that keep heat out, and install ceiling fans and cool-burning light bulbs. Use your vent fans and don’t use the oven. Learn to love salads. Use your swamp cooler, if you have one, before monsoon season hits – it’ll keep your house more comfortable for less $ than a/c.
  7. Give yourself permission to veg out. Other people do jigsaw puzzles in the winter when it’s too cold to go outside; you can do them when it’s too hot. Same with adult coloring books. Read. Alphabetize your spice rack. Plan your next big vacation. Take it easy, it’s summer.

What did I miss? Add your tips in the comments below.

Happiness

There’s something about being human that makes us less happy than we ought to be. I grew up on A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and knew a lot of the poems by heart when I was little. One little poem has bounced around in my head all these years:

The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Research has shown that the benefits of an optimistic outlook include flexible thinking, creativity, longevity, and better health. What better way to solve the problems of the world, then, than to cultivate happiness in ourselves?

According to Dr. Lamees Khorshid, about 40% of our happiness comes from our genetic preset, our predisposition towards being sunny or gloomy. That means over half can be influenced by “happiness habits.”

Happiness and Mindfulness

  • Cultivate positive emotions and work on countering the natural negativity bias (a survival trait when it was important to remember the lion attack). Rewire your brain through practice:
    • Choose to see problems as challenges and opportunities. This will increase your sense of control.
    • Reverse the tendency to blame others when they make mistakes – we tend to blame the environment when we mess up, but think other people cut us off in traffic on purpose. Let it go.
    • Change the channel – choose to forget negative things after they happen.
    • Think happy thoughts.
  • Practice gratitude.
    • Make a list of what you’re grateful for. Keep going past the obvious first few things.
    • Pick one of the people you’re grateful for and write a paragraph about why. Read it to them. It will be good for both of you.
  • Engage in life. Plan your time so you include the things that give you pleasure.
    • Figure out the things that take you to a flow state where you lose track of time, and plan your day to include those things.
    • Identify your time thieves and the things that replenish you. Schedule time for the things that nourish you. Things that give you short-term happiness, like watching tv, can detract from your long-term happiness.
  • Get adequate sleep. Without it, it’s harder to regulate your emotions. You function better and your memory’s better when you have good sleep. A lot of people have trouble sleeping. If you do:
    • Create a sleep climate about an hour before. Dim the lights, do relaxing things. Don’t eat for 2-3 hours before bed, don’t exercise for 4-5 hours before, and avoid stimulants after 2 p.m.
    • Keep a regular schedule, even on weekends.
    • Don’t have a tv, phone, etc. in the bedroom. Keep the lights off.
    • If you’ve been trying to get to sleep (or get back to sleep) for 30 minutes, get up and go do something boring. If you still can’t sleep, do it again. Don’t just lie there and worry about how you ought to be sleeping.
    • Naps reverse your sleep drive. If you have insomnia, skip the naps.
  • Movement and music. If you can only do one thing to improve your mental well-being, make it exercise. A brisk 10-minute walk is better for mild to moderate anxiety and depression than medication. If you have to choose between 30 minutes of sleep and 30 minutes of exercise, you’ll get more benefits from exercise.
    • Don’t schedule exercise for your most tired time of day.
    • Morning workouts give you a stress buffer that lasts through the day, and your schedule’s less likely to be interrupted by things that come up during the day – but if you aren’t a morning person, you won’t stick with it.
    • Make it a routine, not dependent on whether you feel like it. You still get the benefits of doing it even if you don’t want to.
  • Nutrition. A low glycemic diet is best for your mood; it keeps your blood sugar on an even keel. Frequent small meals are better than a couple of large ones. Avoid sugar, which lights up a part of your brain that makes you want more and more – this is even true of sugar you don’t taste that’s been added to non-sweet foods.
  • Manage stress. Identify your stress triggers so you can avoid them or prepare for them. Having a baseline level of energy and physical health (sleep, exercise, nutrition) will help. Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing and rely on your social supports and relationships. If your stress comes from all the unfinished tasks on your to-do list, start with the one thing on the list that will make the greatest difference today.
  • Practice mindfulness. We recycle 95% of the same thoughts every day. Mindfulness keeps us in the here and now. Use meditation, which will improve your ability to process emotions and be less reactive.
    • Non-judging awareness: notice your wandering thought, name it, and then come back to the here and now.
    • Beginner’s mind: don’t expect a life-changing epiphany every time you sit.
  • Take care of relationships. Other people can be a major source of both happiness and stress.
    • The 4 horsemen of broken relationships are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This applies to friends  and coworkers just as much as it does to couples and families.
    • Check out the Seattle Love Lab for tons of information on this topic.
    • If you have gridlock problems that you can never fix – like your and your uncle’s opposite views on politics – it’s actually healthier not to talk about them.
    • Practice the art of the start: the way you introduce a topic predicts how the discussion will end.
    • Support the other person’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Ask their opinion. Look for moments of connection.
    • Learn the other person’s “love language” – what makes them feel loved. It could be gifts, acts of service (doing things for them), physical touch, words of affirmation, or quality time spent together. This works both ways: you can give the other person what they need, and you can also recognize the ways they’re trying to show you their feelings.
  • Find your purpose. Not having a purpose or mission is as bad for your health as smoking. When you’re doing things that align with your values, you’re happier. Figure out your own top values, and set goals that align with them. Dr. John Izzo studied end-of-life reflections and identified being true to yourself and following your heart and dreams as two important factors in a well-lived life.
  • Simplify. Forgive and let go, don’t make social comparisons, and spend on experiences instead of things.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. I wrote a bit about this a few weeks ago when I talked about Mike Robbins’ class. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
  • Use humor and laughter! Learn to appreciate the ironies in life. Bring funny stuff into your life – photos, videos, comics, comedy shows, that coffee mug showing nervous little dogs preparing for their day by making espresso. Laughter is contagious. It induces a relaxation response and it benefits the immune system.

Read more

In Dr. Lamees Khorshid‘s book, I Want to Be Happy, which provides a 21-day plan for forming happy habits. Her class at my office inspired this post.

In Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s books, like Wherever You Go, There You Are, to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, and to find video guides.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project (and on her website & podcasts).

On Eric Barker’s blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree (he writes about this topic often!):

Starting Yoga (Again)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to do more than I’ve been doing, exercise-wise. I have a fantastic personal trainer I see once a week  (Jeremy Jones, co-owner of Funktional Fitness in Gilbert & Chandler) but for several reasons more sessions funkgearthere aren’t practical for me right now. I walk the dogs every day for a little over a mile, which is great, but not enough.

Last Monday, I was thinking about it when I was at the park with the dogs. I figured out that what I want is to gain strength, balance, and flexibility. So, yoga. There’s a place near me called Floating Lotus Yoga, right in downtown Mesa, and it turns out they have a Groupon – 10 sessions for $26, which is a dynamite deal.

Floating LotusIt’s a nice place – a big open room, wood floor, pretty wall murals and other decorations. Plenty of mats, bolsters, blocks, and rugs to use to make the poses more comfortable or more achievable. No mirrors. A bit of music.

I’ve been to three classes so far – two Mindful Flow and one Yin-Yang Flow. Good choices for starting out, I think. The movements are slow and deliberate, and the instructors do a great job of explaining them and helping the students. Even though the movements are slow, they’re challenging, and I can feel them working on those three things I want to improve. And bonus, it provides that mental well-being you would expect from yoga.

I’m really pleased. I think the key was thinking about what I wanted before deciding what to do.

Floating Lotus website

Funktional Fitness website

 

 

 

 

 

It’s more for the dogs, but…

In July of last year, I spent a week at the beach in Carpinteria with the family. There were lots of walks on the beach and around town, and I came home with a resolution to walk every day.

Obviously, the dogs were one hundred percent supportive of that resolution. They have a doggy door and a big back yard, but going for walks where they can smell new things is their absolute favorite thing in the world. Well, except for eating. And tummy rubs. And sleeping. Okay, they have a lot of favorite things, but walks are right up there at the top of the list.

So far, we’ve gone walking every single day with just a handful of exceptions. I was sick for a few days in November, and I’ve been out of town without the dogs a few times. Otherwise, rain or shine, we walk. When it’s hot like it is now, we walk as soon as I wake up in the morning. In cooler weather, we can go out whenever we feel like it, but we still usually go in the morning. Lucky (the white dog) tells me to get moving if I wait too long.

Walking is never going to make me thin, but it’s still good for me. The way the dogs & I walk, with lots of stopping to smell stuff, it’s not much of a cardio workout. It’s still weight-bearing exercise, though, so good for staving off osteoporosis. It makes me more aware of how my body is working, too. Earlier this year, something went awry in my right foot, and it was painful to walk even a quarter of a mile. Frustration at being unable to keep up my daily walks gave me the impetus to try acupuncture, which somehow magically did the trick for me.

The best thing about walking is seeing what’s going on out there in the world. We usually walk around the Cubs spring training stadium and practice fields, so sometimes we get to see baseball practice, and the grass is always green and there are beautiful trees and shrubs. We see people walking or playing with their dogs, bicycling, running, playing soccer, and doing complicated outdoor routines involving orange cones and pushups. When it’s cooler, we walk over by Tempe Town Lake or at Papago Park, where sometimes we can see the desert bighorn sheep at the zoo and we can visit Governor Hunt’s pyramid tomb that overlooks the zoo’s savannah exhibit with its giraffes. And then there’s the weather, and the sun, and sometimes clouds or wind or even rain.

Sometimes I use my walking time to think about the plot of the novel I’m writing, or do music theory memory drills, or plan my day. Other times I listen to a podcast or NPR or an audiobook on my phone. Usually, though, I don’t think about much at all. I have my eye out for loose dogs, because my dogs are small and they aren’t good with other dogs; and I’m constantly adjusting how I hold the leashes as Lucky wraps himself around my legs.Otherwise, I’m just in the moment – thinking about whatever I’m looking at, registering the warmth or cold on my skin, feeling my feet hitting the ground. I guess it’s more like meditation than anything.