I have had this ability for as long as I can remember, but I did not realize that it was anything unusual until second grade. The class was playing a game in which objects, such as silly putty and a box of sand, were passed around. We were told to close our eyes and try to figure out what each object was.
The teacher, Mrs. Oersted, became suspicious as I correctly identified a picture frame, then a bowl full of salt, then a soft eraser, all without hesitation. Moving quickly from the front of the room to my seat, she told me that I'd been peeking, and fit a blindfold over my young head. It was then that I realized that most children could not see with their eyes closed, although I did not yet realize that I was the only one in the world with this ability.
It wasn't until my senior year at high school that the subject intruded on my life again. I mentioned the anomaly to my biology teacher, who mentioned it to some of his friends and colleagues, one of whom decided that the phenomenon merited further study. I was a young man very much dazzled by science, and I was happy to do my part, whatever papers I needed to sign or experiments I had to undergo. So I spent about a month taking dozens of strange tests on afternoons and weekends, at the end of which a paper was written about me and published in an obscure medical journal. The findings were inconclusive: I apparently was seeing with my eyes closed, but they had no idea how I was doing it. The tone of the paper seemed quite frustrated, which I knew to be accurate, since I had watched its author become more and more exasperated as his theories fell apart.
After high school I attended college, where I fell to drinking. I had a friend there who was studying to be a psychologist, and he tried to save me from my shortsighted vices, but I ignored most of his advice and dropped out after only a year. This was at the height of the dotcom bubble, so I managed to get an ill-defined computer job, which eventually settled into "GNU/Linux administrator." During my year at college, I had studied creative writing.
In one of my classes at college, we read a poem called "Harlem," by Langston Hughes. I didn't think much of it at the time, but after four years as a GNU/Linux administrator, the idea of a "dream deferred" started to make a lot of sense to me. It was then that I decided to begin writing my own book, which is nearly done now, and which is called "The Comprehensive GNU/Linux User's Guide." I wrote it to satisfy my own dream of being a writer, but also because I think it fills a need in the GNU/Linux community. Sometimes, to be sure, all you want is a man page; but sometimes, particularly for beginners, a few more words are helpful to "soften the blow." To give you some idea of what this book is like, here's the section on grep:
Many common GNU/Linux commands return a list of information. ls gives you a list of files and directories; ps gives you a list of processes; and strings gives you a list of strings. This information can be useful, but it can also be overwhelming. Try "ls /usr/bin" or "strings moby_dick."
The psychologist friend I have mentioned talked to me once about my unique ability. He was the only person I have ever known who read that obscure paper. His name was Dylan "Fish" Purcell---he was called "Fish" because his hands were so cold and clammy, which I thought was terribly unfair because he was such a warm and animated person. I never called him "Fish" myself, but it was widespread at college, and he never seemed to mind.
Such lists of information can not be dealt with by a human being---to try to use them in such a raw form is a fool's errand, a task cut out for those who like to fail. No, the task of filtering such overwhelming floods of meaning falls properly to the computer, and is done through grep.
Simple uses of grep are simple; more complex uses require a more thorough study, for which you should consult "man grep." grep will search through a list, taken from a file or standard input; then it will filter the results by looking for a string which you give it; then it will return any lines which match the filter. For example:
$ cat moby_dick | grep "Call me Ishmael"
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long
grep can also be used with regular expressions (see chap. 4) instead of a literal string.
$ cat moby_dick | grep "Call.*Ishmael"
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long
Other options, detailed in the man page, allow grep to search through directories; to return some number of lines before, after, or both before and after a matching line; to label lines with their line numbers; to match multiple patterns at once; and several other useful modifications. Still, despite all its powerful features, grep has severe limitations as well. It can be pedantic:
$ cat moby_dick | grep "Call me Ismael"
This can be fixed by checking your spelling, but a more serious problem is completely unsolveable: if the pattern you're looking for is not to be found in the document.
$ cat moby_dick | grep "fear in a handful of dust"
The string is not in the file, and so no results are returned. There is no correction for this condition. A foolish GNU/Linux administrator could spend his entire life searching futilely for a pattern which simply isn't there. He could destroy his happiness and squander his youth looking for such a pattern. And after finally giving up, he could never be sure that the pattern was not there all along; that he was not, perhaps, simply misspelling it.
"This scientist who wrote the paper," he told me, "was at a loss to explain your condition. That is because he approached it from the radical empiricist perspective, without taking into account the nature of the observer, which is to say, the nature of humanity. A psychologist has no such disability; a psychologist can explain anything!"
"How do you explain my condition, then?" I asked him.
"In class the other day, we learned about a man whose wife had been a cat lover. She died violently, which traumatized the poor man severely. She was survived by her cat, so the man began taking care of the cat: feeding it, taking it to the vet, and so forth. One day he had to take a long trip for business reasons, so he asked a neighbor to take care of the cat. The neighbor asked him 'I didn't know you had a cat?' To which he replied that of course he didn't have a cat, he hadn't kept a cat since his wife had died! You see, the man had been taking care of this cat completely unconsciously. Until he was confronted by this neighbor, he honestly believed he had no cat; yet he'd interact with it every single day!
"Now, this man is quite an extreme case, but what if all of us have our own cats? Suppose there is a symbol or item which is buried somewhere deep in all of our minds, and each of us is compelled not to notice it? If we see direct evidence of this thing, we pretend not to see it; if we see indirect evidence, we explain it some other way or simply forget about it.
This is the only explanation I can think of for your apparent closed-eye vision. Perhaps we all have three eyes, for example, but we are all unable to notice them, or to see through the third. And perhaps you are the first person born with sight in his third eye, but no one realizes what's going on because we've all been ignoring the thing for so long! Your condition hints at a world of unknown and wonderful things, completely new truths about human psychology and physiology!"
At this point he sat back, and a pensive air seemed to settle over him. "You see something no one else does, my friend. But it will be worthless if you continue with your current habits. You are on your way to joining the great masses who contribute nothing to human progress, I'm afraid. You will become as unseen and unimportant as that cat, if you keep this crap up." He gestured at the beer I was holding.
After I was kicked out of school, I wished I had listened to his advice more earnestly. For a time, I didn't know if I would even be able to find a job. Finally, one of my drinking buddies got me an interview with the CEO of a dot-com startup.
* * *
"Well," the CEO told me, "I don't need to tell you that your qualifications are lacking. But you know, those are old-world qualifications, and it's a new world we're building. I mean, I didn't finish college myself---I left to start this company, and so did my two top programmers. No, the qualifications aren't the central issue."
I grinned. "I'm glad to hear that, sir."
"Let me finish," he told me. "The central issue is the matter of vision. Bill Gates dropped out of high school, but he had vision. Einstein was kicked out of college, but he had vision. Without vision, a college dropout is just a loser, an outcast of society - but with vision, a college dropout can achieve greatness. So I ask you this: are you a man of vision?"
There was only one possible answer to this question. I saw this immediately. "Yes," I should say, "Of course sir." A confident look on my face, maybe a little bit hurt, as if to say "how could you doubt it, sir, when every detail of my demeanor screams VISION at you?"
And yet I knew that this would not be my answer. I could already imagine myself stuttering out a "Y-yes, sir, of course, yes, I do have vision, I do." Eyes glancing to the side, then forcing my head about to bring them back onto his face, as if to say "I have no vision and I know I have no vision but I am so desperate and dishonest that I will try to imitate an honest man, a visionary man, a far better man than myself, by looking you in the eye."
When I finally did speak, neither one of these possibilities came out. What I said was this:
"Hell, sir. I can see with my eyes closed."
* * *
A year from now, I completed my book. I couldn't get it published, so finally I paid to self-publish it. Sales were dismal. The book went unread and unreviewed.
Twenty-five years from now, I was working at a bookstore. I'd been kicked out of my GNU/Linux administrator job for drinking. I applied to the bookstore under the vague hope that such a job would encourage my writing career, but it had the opposite effect. Interacting with the reading public day after day just made me feel alienated from them. After a month at that job, I stopped writing. After two months, I stopped reading anything printed. I stuck to slashdot and a couple of blogs.
I hated the customers. They were so passive. In the morning I would arrange a selection of best-sellers on a rack near the door. They were the worst of books - more lurid and empty with each passing year. Every day I hoped that someone would come in and spit on them. It never happened. The best-sellers were sold, they were sold to an endless stream of simpletons, herds of sheep bred by capitalism.
I often thought back to Dylan "Fish" Purcell's views on their kind. "The great masses who contribute nothing to human progress," he had said. I saw them sometimes as fish, floundering along, helpless in the rushing river of history. They swam through the bookstore every day, but they saw nothing, they comprehended nothing, they knew nothing, they were just fish.
I had saved up some money from my previous job - along with my job at the bookstore, it would support me until I could retire. I expected to run out of savings just in time to die. I had lost the desire to do anything with my life.
Finally, I lost the desire even to live such a life. I would leave no impact, accomplish nothing. It was better, I decided, to die. I gave three weeks' notice at the bookstore. They didn't care. I went to buy a gun. There was a three-week waiting period. Sometimes, things do work out.
My last day on the job, a woman came in, middle-aged, energetic. Most of the reading nowadays is done by middle-aged women, I think. Some of them are energetic, by which I mean that they will try to talk to me as they buy their books. They'll say something about the weather, perhaps, or something about the books they're buying. "Did you know that Tolstoy never won the Nobel Prize?" I could spot such people from a mile away. And sure enough, when this woman brought her stack of books to the counter, she began to speak.
"Goodness, I just can't get over this weather! It's so warm for October."
I started scanning her books. She would not give up.
"My niece recommended this book for me, and she's a creative writing major in college, so I thought I'd better have a look."
"The total is $58.89, Ma'am."
As she took the cash from her purse, she glanced at my nametag, and seemed to become even more excited.
"Goodness, are you the author of that book?"
"What book?" I asked her.
"Why, I know I remember it, it's on the tip of my tongue - 'The Comprehensive GNU/Linux User's Guide.' That's it. Oh, it was just wonderful. It opened up a whole new world for me, you know." She took her books and was gone.
When I got home that evening, I checked my finances. I would be okay for several months, even without a job. It occurred to me that I had a great deal of my writing left over from decades past. Perhaps I had written something publishable. Perhaps I had written something worth publishing.
I never did make it big as a writer. However, two months later, my story "Mrs. Archer has the Last Word" was published in an obscure, but respectable magazine. From then on I managed to eke out a living writing short stories, tech articles, and anything else that paid. My crowning achievement was the publication of a single novel, which flopped magnificently. Still, I was satisfied - perhaps someone, somewhere had read it, and perhaps it had opened up for them a whole new world.
* * *
After Mrs. Oersted blindfolded me in class, I wandered down to the river. It had always seemed to me that the river flowed in one swift current; but, as I watched more closely, I saw that it moved forward in a thousand eddies and whorls. Some leaves had fallen in the river, and I watched them sail downstream - sometimes they stood still for a moment, or moved backward, before surging ahead, caught once again by the river's momentum. I sat down there for an hour or two, and closed my eyes, and watched the river move by.