My Very Own Personal Crisis of Faith
“At least he’ll never be a fighter pilot.”
–Herbert Adolf Mohr
I was born with a rare eye condition known as achromatopsia nystagmus, which literally means “no color vision eyes wobble;” the symptoms of this condition include nominal colorblindness, light sensitivity, nearsightedness and a lack of depth perception. When the doctors told my mother my above diagnosis shortly after my birth, she wept at the misfortune, at the difficulties I’d face, and for the things I’d miss. That’s when my grandfather offered the above quoted consolation. My grandfather’s words gave my mother pause and she realized that yes, I’d never have to go to war, and if that was the least of it, that was still pretty good.
At about age two, I was wearing my first pair of glasses. I was also, around this time, subjected to my very first retinal spectrograph test. The test shot sonic waves into my retinas to attempt to pick up activity and measure the specific amount of color and light reception my eyes detected. Totally blank- I saw only black, white, and gray.
Entering school, I was really no different from the other kids. Sure, I wore gargantuan, tinted Coke bottle glasses strapped to my head with a piece of red elastic and complementing contact lenses, but I played, clapped, and had nap time like everyone else. From my point of view, life was normal. I just couldn’t leap out into the playground unguided without running the risk of smashing into something, a small concession.
In second grade, I became quite the artiste – at least as much as any completely untalented second grade kid can. I also became acutely interested in physics… at least as much as any completely ignorant second grade kid who’s just seen Back to the Future can. One of my major projects was the design of my conception of a time machine. I’d learned the scientific fact from BttF that if a vehicle were to travel faster than 88 MPH, it could break the time barrier. I was already aware of the fact that my mother’s car could easily go that fast and that jet engines could go a lot faster. Logically, I concluded that if I were to design a vehicle with an aerodynamic body and a chunky pile of jet engines propelling it, it’d obviously be able to travel through time. It didn’t bother me one whit that the greatest minds in all of human history had also considered the notion of time travel and come up short.
When I showed my parents my picture of the prototype time travel vehicle, they were amazed. No, not because of my astounding engineering achievement nor my puerile interpretation of physics. They were amazed that I swore that the body of the vehicle was blue and the flames of the jet engines were red and yellow. What artistic instruments had I used to render what lay in my mind’s eye? Crayons? Watercolors? Nope.
A pencil. No. 2.
Yes, I’d “seen” color in the amount of pressure I applied when filling in the various sections of my drawing. I pressed lightly to create the “yellow” flames, harder to create the “blue” body, and hardest to create the “red” centers of the flames-–though not too hard because then they’d turn black. The thing was, though, that I wasn’t pretending to draw color. I truly believed that with the pencil, I had created color. It didn’t bother me that I was using a graphite pencil. I knew what I saw.
How did I arrive at such a delusional conclusion? You could argue that, as an idealistic little kid who didn’t want to be bound by his physical limitations, I found a way to burst forth from those ocular chains- even if only in my mind. But that’s not truly what it was. Since as long as I could remember, and the case remains, my favorite color is red. I see it everywhere. From blood to the color picker in Photoshop, I almost always recognize it without prompting. Almost.
You see, I was aware that I medically only saw black, white, and grey. I’d been to countless eye doctors since as long as I could remember. They all said the same thing. I never thought them liars. I just figured that they didn’t know because they couldn’t see through my eyes. But I knew. I KNEW. Not always, but very often, I could see color. Sure, it was harder in muted shades or pastels. House colors were a real bitch. But the sky, the grass, fire engines, He-Man cartoons, they were all bursting with color, all of which I could see. Okay, blue and green were always dicks. I could never identify each from the other, but that was the exception. And, navy blue and black were tough. But every other color. Fine. All right. Some shades of orange and red were really hard to tell. In any event, maybe I couldn’t distinguish between some colors, but I did see them.
I knew it.
And this is what I told everyone. The doctors say I’m colorblind, but I see something. Into my teen years and adulthood, I even created a “defense of my faith”, a color-seeing apology, if you will. I realized that, since I’d been tested on the retinal spectrograph in the late 70s to early 80s, since then technology certainly had improved. Moore’s Law predicted that in CPU processing power, so why not in all technology?
I was convinced.
My interpretation of the matter was correct. I did see some color, and it hadn’t been detected by the original retinal spectrograph because that was old technology. It wasn’t sensitive enough. I was positive that modern retinal spectrographs took a far superior, far more accurate picture. If I were to get another scan done, my interpretation of physical phenomena would surely be vindicated.
About a month ago, I realized that I had to get an eye exam in order to renew my gimp bus pass. I’d used other means to verify my condition with my current gimp pass, but those means weren’t considered by the state to be “permanent,” so I decided to get irrefutable proof that I was, in fact, visually impaired and, therefore, shouldn’t have to pay the buck-fifty to ride the bus.
I called up LensCrafters. I made an appointment. I went through the routine and rather enjoyed it. It was very relaxing. They showed me the E. They showed me the patterns of colored dots. They looked at the back of my eye and all that. I heard all about what I already knew. I was even a little smug about it. For anyone who knows me well knows that’s very, very hard to believe.
Then I asked about the colorblindness bit.
“According to our readings, you do have a minuscule, almost immeasurable amount of color vision. It’s so minimal, in fact, that it would have been difficult to detect before even five years ago,”- THAT the doctor didn’t say.
“You’re completely colorblind. You only see black, white, and gray.” Yeah. That is what the doctor said.
What?? But… but that’s impossible!! Check your damn instruments! That can’t be right! I see color! I see COLOR!!
My fiancee met me at LensCrafters to pick me up for lunch. We discussed my diagnosis. I whined that my hopes had been dashed, and that I couldn’t argue with testable, irrefutable science.
“But I see something that I know isn’t black, white, or gray. I know what those look like. Red’s my favorite color. And it doesn’t look gray,” I was mystified. My fiancee backed me up in that I was almost always able to identify red.
I tried to reconcile my faith with reality. Maybe it was that my brain over the years had developed some system by which it interpreted the signals it got and filled in the color, kind of how colorization of black and white movies works. But black and white movie colorization is based on comparing the black and white elements with color elements. There’s a means of comparison. A testable, falsifiable means. My brain isn’t able to compare my eyes’ findings with any others. All it has are my eyes.
I’ve had to face facts. I only see black and white. What else I see I can’t explain, but I can’t argue with medical science. Not anymore. Thus it is with great sadness and resignation that I’ve lost my faith in my eyes. I’m an a-I-can-see-SOME-color-ist.