Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Color Me Stupid
The neuro-ophthalmologist instructed me to cover one eye as he opened a book filled with colored dots.
“Tell me what you see,” he said.
“A horse,” I replied.
He sighed. “It’s a number. Try harder.”
I squinted at the page that looked like a squished-up Damien Hirst dot painting. I could see the individual dots were different colors, but while zooming out nothing distinct emerged.
“Unicorn?” I asked.
“No, it’s the number twenty-nine. See? There’s a two here and a nine next to it.”
I couldn’t see it at all. We flipped through the rest of the pages and all I could see were bunches of colored dots and the occasional farm animal.
It’s official: I am color-blind.
I have known this all my life but never thought of it as a disability. Briefly, when I trained for my pilot license, it became a problem. Colors are important during night flying so I was prohibited from flying in the dark. Also, most airports use colored lights at runway thresholds to help pilots make a proper approach. At certain times of day the colors all looked the same to me which prompted my exasperated instructor to say, “Well can you at least see the runway? The paved strip thingy? Just land on that.” I did. The runway at Grand Rapids is two miles long. Landing a small plane on it is like throwing a wet towel down a hallway and hoping you hit the floor.
Besides my doomed affair with flying, the “problem” with color-blindness is two-fold. 1) It is an aesthetic disadvantage. Autumn does not look as pretty to me as it does to everyone else. To me, pretty is spring. Large trees with flowers all the same color. I love big expanses of solid colors. An artist like Barnett Newman is very comforting to me. Mixed colors confuse me and make me think. 2) Every time I tell someone I am color-blind they grab their shirt and ask, “What color is this?” They think “color-blind” means I see random colors. “Your shirt is electric pink,” I say. “Really?” they respond. “That would be so cool to be color-blind. You’d never have to adjust your TV.”
I can see traffic lights just fine, but even that has put me in trouble. Once, during another doomed affair, I was urged to “Make this light!” I gunned it and sped through as the light turned red. Police sirens wailed a moment later and I pulled over. “License and registration,” the officer said. As he studied my papers I heard the voice next to me say, “It’s okay, officer. He’s color-blind.” “What?” A flashlight was in my face. “I can see!” I said. “I am color-blind. But I can see the traffic light!” She added, “That’s right, officer, he can tell by the position of the light: up, middle, or down. Other than that he's blind as a bat.” I said, “No! I can see fine! I can see individual colors!!” The officer said, “But you’re color-blind.” “Yes, I know! But traffic lights are fine!” He handed back my license and registration. “Don’t do it again,” he said.