myopia in Lairg
Wednesday, August 8 2007
setting: Carnbren House, Lairg, Scotland, UK
The vegan breakfast this morning at Carnbren House was the best thus far on the trip for three reasons: I could order precisely what I wanted (instead of having assumptions made about what I like), there was no eggy slime anywhere nearby, and the food was delicious. I'm a particular fan of the Scottish custom (applicable to vegans) of eating fried mushrooms in the morning (along with such things as baked beans and toasted tomatoes). Mushrooms are the only cooked vegetables that I enjoy eating all by themselves.
Today served as something of a break from all the go-go traveling we've been doing since arriving in Scotland. There would be no hitchhiking and nothing particular to visit. Lair is a remote little village and there isn't much to see around it anyway. There is a castle ten miles to the east on the North Sea, but I still had my castle buzz from Dunvegan. Gretchen went out on her own and I hung back in our room, which was a great place to do nothing at all punctuated by showers, reading, and occasional browsing from the three channels of television (cable is nonexistent in Scotland, at least in the bed and breakfasts). While she was out, Gretchen found internet access at the visitor's centre, but was expensive. Everything in this country costs at least a pound, including a litre of gasoline.
Eventually I left the room to go walking with Gretchen through Lairg and into the forest planted just to its east. Scotland has a rule called "the right to roam," which permits anyone to walk anywhere throughout the countryside. It's a backpacker-friendly land reform appropriate to an urbanized a country where the vast majority of land is given over to private grazing estates. Though hardly making up for the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries, it's a bigger fuck you to the landed gentry than would ever be possible in the American legal system. Already on this trip I'd heard many people mention the right to roam, but only later did I learn (while reading the Scottish Socialist Voice) that the right to roam dates only to 2003.
It was with this right in mind that we wandered up an unmarked driveway and into the forest, which was actually a several-decade-old plantation of Scotch Pine. As forests go, it was much more sterile and much less interesting than, say, the woods behind our house in Hurley. But here and there were bushes of red raspberries ripe for the picking. Typical of Scotland, we encountered a number of others as in the forest, all of them friendly and curious about unfamiliar people walking the trails. One older woman walking with her little granddaughter and two Border Collies (a popular dog in Lairg) looked and talked like a relic of the fifties. We got the feeling that change comes slowly to this part of Scotland.
Back in the center of Lairg, we went into a pub hoping to get some chips, but it was hours before the kitchen would open, so we had to settle for pints of liquid food and little bags of salted peanuts. A plump little guy with grizzled hair, a terrier on a leash, and a Che Guevara tee shirt came in and took a seat on the motheaten wall-length couch beside us and proceeded to drink a pint of hard cider.
Still hungry, we ducked into a small grocery store and bought a box of crackers and a tub of hummus and then ate our snack on the steps across the street (8.02346 N, 4.4009 W).
Caroline, the woman who runs Carnbren House, had asked if we wanted to have dinner tonight with her and some of the other houseguests. She'd be making some sort of loaf-based main course containing mashed potatoes and beans. Eager to take advantage of anything to keep the cost of vacationing down, we'd accepted. So there we were at the table with Carolyn, her husband Keith, and two other guests: a young Belgian man and a Belgo-Egyptian man. It was assumed that the two were a gay couple, though this was never stated explicitly. As always, conversation started with the unintelligibity of the Scottish accent (particularly for the Belgians, who were speaking English as a second language). Another big topic was the annoyingness of small children (referred to by the uniquely disparaging British term "sprog"). There had been a small child in the B&B last night who had somehow managed to make the racket of a entire Romper Room. At this point Gretchen and I discovered that Caroline and Keith were unusually sympatico with our worldview, gleefully cracking jokes with us about how more people should leave old refrigerators in their yards for sprogs to play in. It's easy for vegans and others with super-serious lifestyle choices to lapse in dreary moralizing, so it always comes as a relief when they show a fondness for black humor.
The dining room was feebly-lit by a single overhead light fixture and at some point I cast my eyes down to a stack of board games on a low shelf. I could easily read the large block letters on the boxes, but for some reason I couldn't manage to focus through the penumbra of fuzz to make sense of the smaller writing. It was clearly a focusing issue for my eyes, as the letters should have been large enough to read. I kept trying and trying to focus, but the lens of my eye couldn't be relaxed that far. It was physically impossible. Up until that moment, I'd never really understood myopia. I'd always sort of assumed that people with myopia weren't trying hard enough to focus on things in the distance. (It's ridiculous I know, like thinking a paraplegic isn't trying hard enough to walk.) Now I understood what the problem is: if your lens is completely relaxed and things in the distance are still too far away to be in focus, there's nothing else that can be done.
But then I discovered that this wasn't entirely true, at least in my case. As I kept trying and trying to focus, I was also using my fingers to poke and tug at the tissue around my eyes. At one point I pulled at the outside corner of my left eye, tightening my upper and lower eyelid against my eyeball. Suddenly the haze dispersed and everything snapped into crisp focus. Things actually looked a little too crisp, as if I'd overplayed the "unsharpen mask" filter in Adobe Photoshop. This confirmed that I'd become slightly myopic, and that it was almost certainly due to a slight change in the geometry of my eyes (I later discovered that myopia in my right eye could be corrected in a similar way). Evidently my eyes had lengthened slightly, causing the focus of my relaxed lenses to form images slightly in front of my retinas. Almost certaintly this change in geometry is a consequence of the partial liquefaction of my vitreous humor, the cause of all the floaters I've been seeing since May. Liquefaction of the vitreous humor is a natural part of the aging process and is normal at about my age. I am also aware that my mother started wearing glasses at about age 40, so there's a genetic predisposition at work here as well.
Reservoir on Loch Shin and dam near Lairg. The River Shin is an important salmon run.
See more photographs from the Scotland trip.
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