The eyes have it

Even after staring at computer screens for decades, thankfully my eyesight is pretty decent.

Things were much worse back in the ‘80s.

In my full-time job I formatted text for teams of computer programmers. I spent endless hours — including overtime — working with thousands of lines of monochromatic text on screens.

On evenings and weekends I volunteered with community nonprofits, producing newsletters and teaching desktop publishing. The Macintosh computer was still new, and I often found myself developing a full-size newspaper on a tiny 9-inch screen.

At one point I calculated I was staring at computer screens 16 hours a day.

Then, on a beautiful day, I had a very odd and scary experience while driving. Everything outside my windshield — people, cars, buildings, trees, clouds — flattened into 2 dimensions. It was as if the car’s windshield became a computer screen with everything projected onto it. I couldn’t tell how far away anything was, and wondered: Am I about to hit the car in front of me? How can the clouds be right next to those people? Why are all the buildings flat?

I immediately pulled my car to the side of the road. I closed my eyes, and after some time, fortunately my eyesight returned to normal. The world around me was restored to its glorious 3‑dimensional reality and I could maneuver through space safely again. Thankfully that has never happened since.
After that incident, I made the dramatic decision to step away from work and computers entirely and get away for a couple of months. Not just anywhere. I planned a trip to a remote part of Alaska, to stay in a cabin by myself with no computers, books, or even a camera. I didn’t even mind that it was winter.
I drove 3,000 miles from Boston to Seattle, where I stocked up at REI with all the winter clothing I might need. Then I flew 1,500 miles to Fairbanks and asked where I might find the kind of cabin I was looking for. They recommended a place called Coldfoot. So I took a small cargo plane 200 miles north to Coldfoot. I was certainly getting away from it all!

Coldfoot itself was mostly a truck stop, touted as the northernmost truck stop in the world. It consisted of a restaurant, a post office, and a few rooms for guests to sleep, all run by the same couple.
The surroundings were majestic: the vast sky glowing with stars and the aurora borealis. Dense forests where the snow reflected light so well I could see at night as if it were day. Giant mountain ranges with huge drifts whirling around them. Even though it was -30° F most of the time, I walked through the woods every day and bathed my eyes in the wonder around me.

Back at the restaurant in Coldfoot, the proprietors were curious.
“What brought you to Coldfoot?”
 I told them of my quest to find a remote cabin.
“Where are you from?”
The Boston area.
“What do you do for a living?”
I work on computers.
“Great! We just got a new PC and are trying to install accounting software and it isn’t working. Would you mind taking a look at it?”

Sigh… 4,700 miles away and I was back where I started. As they say, no matter where you go, there you are.

New habits

As it turned out, I wasn’t able to help the kind proprietors in Coldfoot. I did manage to find the remote cabin I was looking for, but that’s a story for a future newsletter.

I had learned my lesson. Upon my return home, I started practicing new habits to keep my eyesight (and perspective!) healthy:

  • Commune with nature. I get outside daily and try to really take in nature — trees, the vast sky, clouds, birds chirping.
  • Subtract to add. I try to spend less time working on computers and more time engaging with people.
  • Focus the mind. I do my best to concentrate on one priority at a time, rather than multitasking.
  • Ergonomics for the eyes. I step away from the computer screen regularly and try to focus my eyes for a minute on something at least 40 feet away.

Hopefully these habits will be helpful to you as well. And the bonus is that you don’t even have to go to Alaska in middle of winter.