Aspen Princess: Perception is in the eye of the beholder

Alison Berkley Margo
The Aspen Princess

“The good news is you have 20/20 vision,” the eye doctor said after he’d completed my exam.

“Then why can’t I see anything?” I asked.

“Because it’s the way your brain processes what you see,” he told me.

“So, you’re saying it’s me who’s blurry?” I replied.

I was born with an eye condition called strabismus, which is essentially a “lazy eye.” It’s hereditary. My dad has the same condition and so does my cousin Roger. I had four surgical procedures by the time I was 6 years old to correct it. My right eye was so bad when I was a baby that I didn’t use that eye at all. Weak muscles behind the eye cause the eye to cross, or drift and so I would suppress the vision in that eye and use the other one, which only made the condition worse.

Back then, there was only one eye doctor who would operate on babies and he was located in Washington, D.C. I was in first grade when I had the last surgery, and for many years, I enjoyed eyes that looked like everyone else’s.

That didn’t mean they functioned like everyone else. It wasn’t until I took an introductory biology course in college when I discovered I had no depth perception.

“Excuse me, my textbook doesn’t work,” I said to my professor.

We were studying the eye and the book had little graphics to demonstrate how depth perception works. The professor walked me to the window that overlooked the quad.

“Which tree is closer?” he asked.

“They’re next to each other,” I said.

He looked a little startled. “That tree is about 15 feet closer,” he told me.

My dad, who has a medical degree and the same eye condition, was nonplussed by this discovery. “No, you don’t have depth perception,” he said, with an annoying degree of nonchalance. “You’ve never had it.”

Well! This explained a lot.

It explained why I’ve never been good at ball sports. Like the time I was warming up for a lacrosse game and got hit square in the face with the ball when trying to catch on my left side and broke my nose. Or why I’ve never been able to pay golf or tennis, often swinging as hard as I can only to hear a loud “whoosh” as I miss the ball altogether. Or why I was also hit square in the face by a volleyball when I tried to return a serve. And here, all this time I just thought I was a complete idiot.

It explained how the ground always seemed to come up out of nowhere and flatten me every time I tried to catch air skiing and snowboarding or how, when I dropped into a wave, the flat bottom seemed to come up at me instead of the other way around. I couldn’t decipher if it was 4 feet, 10 feet, or 2 feet. I might as well have been blindfolded.

It explained why, when I was mountain biking on single track, it often felt like a series of images, like when a shutter on a camera lens opens and closes really fast, almost like a strobe light effect. No wonder I didn’t want to ride too fast.

It explained why every single set of binoculars I’ve ever tried to use were broken. Try as I might, I’d see nothing but black, unless I closed one eye. This is due to a lack of stereopsis, or the ability for my eyes to work together.

It also explained why driving at night posed some unique challenges or why, when I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my license and they make you look in that eye thing and I can only see images if I close one eye.

“Orange square, blue diamond, yellow circle,” I’d recited. The tester shook her head with alarm, almost like she had water in her ears.

I looked up. “Oh! Hold on.” I closed the other eye. “I see the letters E, L, M and P.” With the other eye closed, it was a completely different set of results.

When I met Ryan, I asked him if he ever noticed my eyes were a bit crossed. “Oh, sure,” he said in the way Minnesotans do. “But it’s what makes you, you. I always thought it was cute.”

I’m not so sure everyone feels the same way. Once, a close friend of mine confessed that when I’d applied for an editor job at her magazine, the woman in charge of hiring, a rigid British type, had said, “But she’s cross-eyed,” as if that somehow disqualified me.

“I always wonder what the world looks like through your eyes,” my brother often says, especially when I’m behind the wheel.

I’m heading to Denver later today to see the specialist in Colorado who performs corrective surgery on adults. As I’ve aged, my eyes have gotten really bad. In some photos, especially selfies, I see both eyes crossing. This is not good.

“But it’s part of who you are,” a friend said the other day, distressed that I felt the need to have surgery.

It’s true that this has always been part of my narrative. After all, “Born Cross Eyed” would be a great title for my memoir or my first album, if I had any musical talent whatsoever, which I do not. It’s true that it is part of who I am, and the people who love me find it endearing. It’s also true that, like that first doctor said, this procedure does not guarantee I’ll be able to see better, since the way I process vision can’t necessarily be fixed.

In some ways, blurry vision is what helps me to see the world in my own unique way and in some ways, lends itself to the perceptions I have as a writer — depth perception be damned.

The Princess needs a beach vacation. Email your love to