New Orleans is honey in the coffee, busking in the Quarter, sleeping through the morning, brass bands in the ghetto; it is music on the streets, at midnight and at midday and right the way through from one to the other. Plans for a summer of music throughout Europe with Rising Appalachia, public rehearsals for same (also known as busking), going over the same few tunes on a borrowed double bass til my blisters are back. Today I converted fingertip skin into bass notes, bass notes into cash, cash into roasted fig and beetroot salad, and – with any luck – at some point tonight my body will convert the salad back into skin for my fingertips. The street names are romantic; I am in Satsuma cafe on Dauphine, close to Piety and Desire, near Port and Burgundy, Alvar, Royal, and Chartres where we pick up the bass from a helpful friend every day on the way to the French Quarter. Last night we ate amazing food and drank wine in a secret venue, a speakeasy with a sign over the exit which said:
so I can’t give you any details. This month has had things in it which are good and wondrous but come with tag attached saying that I may not tell details of them; some tags are to be respected and others not so much. I went for eye surgery as a way of taking my grandparents’ legacy to be a lasting gift; the clinic felt that I might go to another company to have the surgery done and so knocked about two thirds off the price. If you divide the amount (one thousand pounds per eye) by the number of pairs of glasses I will buy before I die, it is likely that I have overspent. If you factor in the feeling of waking up in the morning *every single day* and not having to put glasses on, after having spent 27 years having to put them on *every single day* and keep them on, keep them clean, keep aware of them at night for the next morning…no comparison…in terms of quality of life, the difference is already worth the money. So thank you yet again, grandparents, for this. On to the surgery.
I go in for the consultation. I have booked two of these, one at the Ultralase clinic who have an office in Edinburgh and one at Optimax whose nearest clinic is in Glasgow. A deal of internet research on both companies reveals that Ultralase is considered to offer the high-end treatment; they have the most expensive machines and most recent technology and offer the highest quality of aftercare. Optimax, on the other hand, have a two-for-one offer this month and the lasers can’t be *that* different, can they? This is a field which has been around for a good few years now, and each of the surgeons in each of the many clinics around the country have performed between ten and thirty thousand procedures identical to the one I am considering undergoing. Ultralase’ consultation comes first by about ten days, so I go, thinking that they can answer my questions and do the bedside-manner thing and I can probably jump ship to the Glasgow clinic for the much-cheaper procedure after I know my suitability for the treatment or otherwise. The difference here is that Ultralase quote £2400 per eye for the Elite treatment and Optimax, given their two for one, would cost me half that. Anyway, it becomes academic when, a couple of days before I am due to go to Glasgow, Ultralase call me – my name has surfaced from the belly of their computer – and offer the Elite treatment at one thousand per eye, beating their own initial offer and now Optimax’s twofer by a country mile, so I gleefully book the next available slot which is a week later. Sweet.
The consultation is an extended, in-depth prescription test where I am set before an array of machines which test my eyes in a variety of ways. The first is an updated version of the optician’s routine which I have taken part in every few years since the age of six. You wear a pair of frames with multiple lens-holders where one eye is blanked off while a selection of lenses of various power and orientation are systematically substituted in the holders. After each substitution, you read the chart to the last unfuzzy line, or compare the green dot with the red, or the upper or lower concentric circle-dot, and based on which one jumps out of the fog you move to the next lens. The tech is more efficient now, with an automated carousel of lenses for each eye which the optician controls; it seems to cut the required time for this bit down to a couple of minutes at most instead of the ten or fifteen it used to be. Then a puff of air into each eye, an automated prescription-measurer which neither of the two opticians present are able to adequately explain, and (after a couple of anaesthetic drops) an ultrasound probe which looks like a ballpoint pen and is prodded disconcertingly straight in to the middle of the eye. Imagine looking through a sheet of clear rubber while somebody pokes a stick through it from the other side – the visual distortion is like that, and would hurt like eye-stabbing hell but for the eye drops. Some of the drops have the effect of fully dilating the pupils, so when I am released from the consultation – despite it being a typical not-too-sunny Edinburgh day – the daylight is really rather painful and I have to stagger up the road with my eyes nearly closed, shaded by my hands, until I can pick out a taxi-shaped blob to get me home with my eyes stinging like buggery. The two opticians I meet during the consultation are like a kind of highbrow/lowbrow good cop/bad cop routine, one reassuringly articulate and professional, one prone to showing me vague statistics and saying things like ’so as you can see, it’s really good, really really good’.
About twelve days later I go in for the actual procedure. I am to have LASIK – laser assisted in-situ keratectomy – which entails not one, ladies and ginnelmin, but two yes TWO LASERS in my eyes. I have read and signed all of the forms. The surgeon sits with me and goes through, in remarkable detail, all of the potential failure mechanisms of the procedure I am about to undergo; I am grateful for the clarity of this. There are small-fractions-of-one-percent-chances that it will go wrong in one of maybe three or four ways. My corneas, true to form, are thicker than most folks, so they have plenty of leeway within which to reshape them. The reason for the surgery in the first place is that since the age of about six, I have been highly myopic; short-sighted. This means that when light entered my eyes, my lenses focused it in front of the retina, rather than at the retina, meaning that everything further away than about half a meter (on good days) was irredeemably blurry. I’d be able to see a bus coming if I wanted to cross the street without glasses, but maybe not a cyclist, and I definitely wouldn’t know what bus number it was until it had run me over. Minus 6 in one eye, minus 6.25 in the other, and rather astigmatic (meaning that circles came through looking ovoid, and even more blurry). So, what they are going to do is cut a small flap on the surface of each eye, lift it away, and reshape the cornea underneath until it focuses light right on the retina giving me clear sight.
I am shown into the treatment room and asked to lie down on the couch and shuffle up so that my head is in place under laser number one. The surgeon’s assistant administered the first set of eyedrops a minute ago in the pre-treatment room; the surgeon now gives me another set. The first laser scans my eye – if I remember this right – and I am told which bit of light to look at. There is a flashing red dot there which I will need to focus on when I come back under this laser in a few minutes. The couch is swivelled so that I am between the two laser heads, and the surgeon fits on a plastic jig to hold my eyelids open. At this point I realise that I am jittery as anything; excited, sure, but my face is terrified and all of my facial muscles start doing everything they can to push my eyes shut. I ask for a hiatus and am wondering how I’ll get through this at all, and then remember some breathing techniques and start breathing in a very fast, controlled way. I’m not sure of the mechanism here, but it seems to work to put me back in control of my own face; the back of my neck and head vibrate like a bell for a second or two and then my eyes allow themselves to be opened again, feeling genuinely relaxed now. This sense of panic comes and goes several times during the next ten minutes, and each time I breathe through it, the breath serving to reconnect me with my body, stopping me from disappearing away from the fear into an abstract space within my mind and leaving the muscles to push the surgeon as far away as possible.
Back in the land of voluntary muscle movement, the surgeon tells me I am going to feel pressure on my eyeball. He puts a suction cup onto my right eye, which presses inwards a fair bit, feeling like it’s squashing my eye a little, and preventing me from seeing anything out of that eye. Visual field goes a sort of brown colour and the first laser starts a circular journey around at nearly the outer diameter of my iris, cutting a very thin flap, less than a millimetre thick, which takes about 45 seconds. I again am grateful to the staff because somebody is counting down the number of seconds until the laser has finished the cut, and there’s nothing which alleviates discomfort quite like knowing it’ll be over soon. Then the surgeon lifts the newly-made flap away from my eyeball – the pressure is eased now, so I can see the tiny needle-like tool he uses for this as it lifts something, and then everything is even more blurry than before. I’m swivelled back under the first laser and the light show starts. I can see a pulsing red cloud with that weird precision about it that you only get from laser light; it’s not a dot but then probably nothing could be as all of the focusing equipment I have has been moved out of the way or anaesthetised or otherwise disturbed. There is a bigger field of light, also with the laser-light quality about it, which has some coloured dots in it and which covers quite a bit of the visual field. It blinks on and off at a stuttering high speed, with a buzzing sound, in short bursts which the staff again have the grace to count down: two of five, three of five… until it’s finished, and I am aware of the smell of my cornea being gently, precisely vaporised, and the feeling of relief. The surgeon has removed up to around two millimetres from parts of my eye, giving the lens the correct shape. I see the little needle-thing come sideways on again as it places what looks like a bit of cling-film over my eye; this is the flap being replaced. At this point I think the speculum was removed and I was free to close my right eyelid again. The whole procedure then happened again on the left eye. They warn me that the second side is often experienced as more traumatic because you know what’s coming, and this is borne out – no matter how fast I breathe I can’t quite get the left orbit muscles to relax, and although the whole thing is over in under fifteen minutes I feel quite battered when I come out. The lasers are on for a total of maybe three minutes – 45 seconds to cut the flap, 45 to reshape, same again for the other eye – and the moment I sit up from between the two laser heads I can see, I can SEE! The back of the treatment room is in focus! Holy shit! It’s like there’s a heavy mist around everything, but I can see straight away that things are in focus. Wow.
I am led to a very dark room and brought a hot chocolate; I forgot to bring shades again (because I’m an idiot) but the receptionist had a pair that I could borrow. They order me a taxi home which gets me to my front door about twenty minutes before the stinging starts; the anaesthetic drops have worn off and I have to spend the next six hours in my room with the shutters closed and sometimes with shades on as well, or with my eyes screwed shut against the more-or-less intense stinging sensations in each. I take photos in the mirror of the neat circles bloodshot on my eyes, not the edges of the flap but the marks made by the suction cups that kept my eyes still while the flap were cut.
Later the same evening – after about six hours – my friend Cammy comes over having just been to the osteopath. He can turn his head without his neck clicking, for first time in seven years. I can see him, in focus, by turning my head only a little, without the frames of my glasses obscuring his face because I no longer have to wear them and likely won’t have to again, until maybe I’m in my mid-fifties and begin to go long-sighted like everyone else. We have a moment of nonsense joy – we’ve had upgrades! – and my eyes have stopped stinging. The next day, after the first of several followup appointments, the clinic confirm that my eyes are healing well, there is no sign of infection, and I walk home in the (narratively convenient) beautiful sunshine, able to see more detail and more colour on distant Arthur’s Seat than I ever have before even with my glasses on. The sight test showed that I can see up to two lines better than 20/20 on the chart; that is an American system where the UK equivalent is 6/6 and means that you can see letters 6mm high, 6m away. I can read 4mm letters at that distance – I have actually come out better than expected. I’m overjoyed, and the next couple of weeks are full of slightly psychedelic moments as I get absorbed in the fine details of my environment which I’ve never seen before. So: painful and intense for about 15 minutes, and afterwards, amazing. As I write this, in the spirit of atemporality, I’m still in New Orleans scouting for a sousaphone for the Horndog Brass Band (I call one shop and the guy says ‘you have to wait until someone dies and wills you one, in this town) and might have to wait a couple of weeks until I can write about it. Now we’re off to busk…
love from the French Quarter,