The Beauty of Traffic Lights and Street Signs

My partner Scott and I love an adventure. We love trying out new things, seeing new places, hiking mountains, and travelling to distant lands. The last time I wrote about one of our adventures, we had just taken out a metal detector on loan from the Mattapoisett Library and had a blast going around the Tri-Town searching for treasures (and only finding old beer cans, but still having fun trying something new).

So when I first read the Mattapoisett Library’s press release announcing that they have acquired a pair of colorblind-correcting glasses, I sensed that this was more worthy of a story (and an adventure) than a press release.

I’ve often wondered about how my experiences differ from those of my partner Scott’s ever since he told me that he was colorblind – meaning he could not distinguish between the seemingly dulled, unremarkable tones of green and red that he sees. There have been times when I have gone positively bonkers over some scene in nature for which he just didn’t have the same over-enthusiasm. Most recently, one day during our trip to Scotland, we exited a shaded woodlands trail in Glen Clova in the Scottish highlands and approached the Corrie Fee Nature Preserve. I lost it over the sheer magnitude of the greenness of the surroundings, the expansive emerald of the grasses and brush along the steep glacial edges, the depth of the clover’s green dotted with clumps of purple heather beneath a sapphire sky of blue.

Of course it was beautiful and I could tell Scott thought so too, but his reaction compared to my own overwhelmed reaction was, I suppose, to me, somewhat underwhelming.

The same went for our autumn mountain climbs in the White Mountains. At every turn I’d squeal with delight at the brilliant punches of color – red, orange, yellow, purple even! Sure, I can be rather spirited – fine, spastic! – in my reflexive responses to the sensory splendors of nature, but I have at times wondered why Scott didn’t express an appreciation for what was before us even fractionally as much as I.

So as I sat there reading that colorblind glasses press release, I couldn’t help but wonder, is all of that muted reaction because his vision is actually itself muted, and he truly doesn’t see the same magnificence in color that I do? And what would happen if he were to try on these glasses?

It was indeed time for another adventure.

I knew that I would have my story, and perhaps, just maybe, the man I love would have red. He would have green. He would have sparkling mountaintop views of a gazillion shades of green like I do, stunning rainbows, sunsets that are so on fire you could cry, and even just the simple joy of watching a weekend golf game and effectively distinguishing between the red and green boxes of the golf score sidebar instead of those subtle shades of brown he normally sees.

Either way, we had our next adventure courtesy of the Mattapoisett Library, and I was on a quest to elicit an overwhelmed response to a vivid color-saturated scene instead of the typical contemplative nod from a relatively calm, cool, collected character like Scott.

I had Scott perform some online colorblindness tests using various Ishihara color plates and I gasped every time he was unable to see that red-toned “27” or square or figure of a boat amongst a sea of subdued-green dots. It was astounding, actually, when on one website I was able to upload my own photos and then click on simulations that would turn the photo’s color scheme into that seen by someone with color blindness. That mountaintop view was a dismal display of monotone murky greens and browns. No wonder I’m the only one squealing.

There are plenty of videos online of people trying these glasses on for the first time and sobbing. I imagined Scott trying them on, looking around at the world around him – the trees, the grass, the flowers, my cranberry red pants – and sobbing slightly, just enough for maybe one tear to wipe away.

I met him Tuesday afternoon at the Mattapoisett Park and Ride lot. He hopped into my car, I handed him the glasses, and we parked ourselves in front of a building painted in shades I had noticed he could not distinguish in the online tests. I took out my phone and started recording just as he put the glasses on. He looked around, side to side, slid the glasses down his nose to view the surroundings with his bare eyes, and then pushed them back up again. I waited for the response. He was giving me nothing.

“Well? What do you see?”

Without sobbing and without wiping a tear he told me that, yes, some colors were more intense than he usually sees them, but his mind was occupied mostly on the cost of such glasses – $360 – much too high relative to the experience it offered.

I turned off the video.

“Okay, let’s ride around and you point out the differences you see with the glasses,” I said.

We drove for a few minutes. He gave me no feedback and, still, no single tear.

“Well? Anything?”

“Sure, like I said, the colors are more intense…” he said, seemingly unimpressed with the world in Technicolor. But that all changed when he saw the first traffic light turn green, and then the green highway sign at the intersection of North Street and Route 6.

Now THAT was remarkable, he told me. That green light, he said, is usually white, and that green highway sign was the most vivid shade of green he’d ever seen and never had imagined existed. And hey, look at that fire hydrant! And that fire truck!

Now we were getting somewhere.

The magenta flowers struck him as well, so we pulled over across from Shipyard Park and we surveyed the giant zinnias along the sidewalk. And then a monarch butterfly came around and THAT was remarkable, too.

It seemed like he was rediscovering those everyday things that just naturally get absorbed into the background of everyday life, and finding the beauty in these things that I myself had rarely given much thought about.

“Yes, actually, that fire hydrant is ‘magnificent,’ I suppose,” I’d say. “And that green sign is pretty vibrant,” I responded, sort of perplexed while still sort of “getting it.” He was pretty excited over these relatively insignificant utilitarian objects that exist all around us to a degree that, for Scott, was pretty exciting, and suddenly I was the underwhelmed one forced to look at a traffic light in all its banal brilliance as if it were the first time.

Funny how that one worked out.

We’ll hold onto these for the week I’ve been given, and we will surely take them with us when we hike the Presidential traverse this weekend up in the White Mountains. This adventure isn’t over until I see some tears.

By Jean Perry


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