You see poor souls of all ages attempting to be brave when facing the air puff test at the optometrist, and then you see their head flinch and a look of humiliation cross their face. Often, they immediately check if anyone noticed their cowardice (I did), wherein the technician says something like, “everyone flinches, don’t worry.”
Like most people, I was taken off guard the first time I took the test (so quick a test, I can’t believe it warrants a story … but it does). The technician had me lower my chin onto the base, and said to stare straight ahead without blinking. Seemed easy enough. But soon a burst of air traveling at Mach 2 shot into my cornea, and sent me hurtling backward against the wall, nothing but a heap of cowardly shivers and peed pants to show for it.
All the affectations of manhood that took years to build up quickly fell away, and were further defeated when she said, “you blinked,” no shit, “we’re going to have to do it again.”
Technically the air puff test is called noncontact tonometry (feels like contact to me!). The burst of air checks the pressure inside your eye by briefly flattening the cornea, and is used to measure for glaucoma and spinelessness (funny, since it makes many of us feel spineless). Since our eyes have a natural protective instinct, milksops like myself often blink and flinch.
There are several versions of the test, though what’s troubling is that the medical community considers the air puff to be the least invasive and effective way to measure your eye’s pressure. Other tests use a probe (what?), a rounded tip tool (no!) or a tiny plunger (Jesus Christ), often in conjunction with numbing eye drops. What I’m getting at here is that the air puff is actually meant for children.
For weeks after my first experience with the test, I flinched at every gentle breeze, and realized I would have been one of those people in the late 1800s who panicked when they first saw a train coming at them on screen. By most measurements, I’m somewhat of a man, but not when facing that dreaded air puff.
And this is the issue: No matter what I do in life—like becoming a UFC champion or climbing some sort of hill/mountain—the inability to stand up to that test will always bother me. I own framed things, old whiskeys, a punching bag (that I still haven’t hung up) and yet the air puff machine cuts through it all to the scared little boy inside. It knows who I really am. It knows that I’d rat on my friends in court and pretend to be sick instead of charging the front in war.
This is not to say all the eye machines at the optometrist’s office are bad. Everyone loves the one where you stare at a white screen and press a button whenever a black spot flashes in your periphery, which tests for spidey senses. I’m so good that I can predict where the black spots are going to be before they appear. “Corner left!” I yell out. And who doesn’t enjoy the test where you say, “now!” when the hot air balloon is in focus? That’s fun to do outside the optometrist’s office.
But the air puff stands alone. When my next optometrist appointment approached, I trained for the rematch, dead set on remaining still and not flinching. Entire days were spent with friends blowing in my eyes, until I worked my way up to jet engines and industrial-grade wind tunnels. The readiness is all. In the examination room, I screwed the chair into the floor, wore medieval armor and put a wooden spoon in my mouth. “Do it!” I yelled. “Fucking do it!”
The air stream made contact and my body convulsed like one of those flailing inflatable air dancers at car dealerships. Still, resilience took hold. I blew back in the machine’s face and yelled, “please sir may I have another!” It unleashed a torrent that blasted me through the building out of the city and into the upper atmosphere, before finally plopping in the Pacific Ocean. That’s how it felt, anyway.
Look, there’s just no licking the damn thing. I’ve flinched like a spaz during every single test, always in front of a cute girl administrating it. They’ll tell you that everyone flinches. They’ll say it’s a perfectly natural response. They’ll say whatever makes you feel better. But I know that somewhere out there is a man, oh yes, there is a man, with stiffened sinews and hardened breath and widened eyes, who releases nary a flinch, not even a blink.
That man is my hero, and yet, at the same time, I kind of hope he has glaucoma. Fucking tough guy.
Chason Gordon is a writer whose work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Seattle Weekly, Ask Men and The Globe and Mail, among others.