A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What You See Is What You Get

I mentioned earlier that I had been having trouble getting my shirts on right-side-front and my shoes on the correct feet. I don't anymore. As before I got sick, I can just look at a pair of shoes and tell which goes on the left foot and which the right.

What amazes me is how a simple, everyday task could have become so arduous. Because even though I could see the shoes perfectly clearly -- i.e., no cloudiness or blurring or double vision -- I couldn't see the difference between them. I would have to feel for the arch inside -- and even then, I sometimes failed to match the shoe to the correct foot.

My problem, it seems, was one of pattern recognition -- something that the brain does to help us see. I could "see" the shoes, but I didn't "get" them, if you know what I mean.

The first time I recognized this phenomenon was when I was in the hospital. Lying in bed, unable to read or make sense of what I saw on TV, my mind wandered everywhere, but especially to my home. And I realized to my horror that I couldn't visualize it. I even tried to map out a floor plan in my head, but it was as if my imagination couldn't hold anything as complex as a rectangle.

When I first arrived at the nursing facility, one of the therapists had me play the kids' game Connect Four -- the one in which you drop checkers into slots so they line up. Get four in a row -- vertically, horizontally, or diagonally -- and you've won. But I couldn't make sense of the game. I especially couldn't see the diagonal pattern. It was revelatory, but also depressing.

The first thing I mastered was the clock on the wall. I could see the hands perfectly clearly, but I couldn't make them tell time for me. Gradually, however, the ability returned. And the first time I saw a calendar I was baffled. I had "forgotten" the familiar pattern of the calendar -- left to right, starting with Sunday. I would scan across to Saturday and then have no idea which way to go, until I "remembered" that I had to look at the leftmost date on the next line. On the other hand, things that involved some kind of muscle memory rather than visual techniques, such as tying my shoes, never went away.

I still have a gap in my vision. I notice it most when I'm reading, a process that involves scanning lines from left to right. When your eye reaches the end of one line, it darts back to the left-hand margin and begins the next. But sometimes, when I'm reading particularly wide text, as on some Web sites, the gap in my vision puts in a fake "margin" to which my eye goes. I have to force my eye beyond this imaginary margin to the real one.

The thing is, through all these experiences, I remained perfectly lucid and verbal -- or at least I think I did. Which only made them more frightening. The brain is a scary organ.