Excerpt from Cockeyed by Ryan Knighton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Memoir

by Ryan Knighton

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  • First Published:
    May 2006, 288 pages
    Jun 2007, 288 pages

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Before I spill all the gory details, I should explain how it could happen. It's difficult to reconcile how I earned a license. Some find it hard to believe that a person can be blinded, or slowly blinded, yet remain unaware of the vanishing points. Several explanations are clear to me now.

First, blind spots are not darkness or emptiness in the visual field. Those ideas are in and of themselves visual. Try looking at the floor with your feet. That's what blindness looks like. We can't see it, or see it even as an absence in our experience. An omitted image doesn't alert itself to your attention until, say, you shoot past a stop sign, and, wow, suddenly it appears in the corner of your eye. Only then does it occur to you that something was out there, something that did not appear when it should have. Hard to test for that.

Another explanation is particular to my retinas and their degenerative pattern. Nobody tested me for night vision. An inability to see in the dark is one of the early effects of my disease. When it came to reading the eye chart and identifying the road signs, my eyes did their duty. But put those same signs under a street lamp on a foggy September evening—now that's another phenomenon, and one I would have missed.

I do remember the administrator checking my peripheral vision. He flashed a couple of bright lights to be caught only by the corner of my eye. Fine. Then he checked my central vision with the usual alphabet soup made into an eye chart. I passed that, too. But the real problem was everything else. Imagine your visual field, the dimension of all that you see, shaped like a dart board. I could spot the bull's-eye and the outer ring, but the middle or inner rings, they remained a Swiss cheese of tiny blurs my brain refused to see. My cognition, like anybody's, compensated for the small, missing pockets in between. I saw, in other words, by inferring what wasn't there, what connected the edges to the center of my sight. The holes weren't large, but they were growing, and a lot could disappear within so little. Roll a newspaper and hold it like a telescope to your eye. Huge, distant objects can fit inside. Far enough away, even a truck could drive through. Sometimes they did.

Finally, nobody tested for the depth perception I didn't have. Had the administrator of my exam seen me on the job, now waiting tables in a local café, he may have thought twice about taking my picture and giving me a licence to cruise. At work, my hands regularly jammed through stands of water glasses when I meant to grab the first one. Dropping plates on a table with excessive force, as if in disgust at a customer's preference for blue cheese dressing over a nice balsamic, was a habit, too. Like my days at the pool factory, these manners were dismissed as traits of my character. Ryan, the clumsy guy who slams things. So moody, so distracted.

Sure, I sensed difficulty when I drove, but it came and went depending on the weather or time of day. Driving home at night from the café, the roads dark and wet with rain, I could vaguely detect the double yellow line. I thought, as my parents had said, the problem was my lack of experience. They also agreed it could be difficult to spot a painted line on a puddled street. What did I know? I wasn't going to dispute my parents' opinion or insist my difficulties were a tad worse than they imagined. Argue myself out of driving? I was seventeen, not some kind of safety nut. To help find the rainy night lines, I often relied on the raised cat's eyes, the solid reflectors that peppered most of the routes home. Not that I looked at them. If no other cars could help me position myself in my lane, I'd ride the cat's eyes and feel for the "clunk clunk clunk" under my tires. At night I drove Braille. Didn't everybody?

I kept the first accident to myself. The very afternoon I pocketed my driver's licence, I drove straight to my girlfriend's house to take her out for a spin and anything else a car might encourage. She wasn't home. As I left the winding streets of her neighbourhood, I fumbled with all the serious business of driving. I lit a smoke, or tried to, fast-forwarded a Smiths tape I'd just bought, stopped and started the cassette player, listened for that Johnny Marr riff I liked, steered and clutched and shifted gears, and with the successfully tested corner of my eye, caught a stop sign as I sailed past.

From Cockeyed: A Memoir by Ryan Knighton, pages 22-35.  Copyright Ryan Knighton.  All rights reserved.  Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Public Affairs.

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