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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Inability to See Distances


I was in third grade. Initially, my teacher, Mrs. Reins, was out recovering from cataract surgery, and we had a substitute. This was back in the day when cataract surgery was a life-threatening operation, before implantable lenses. After surgery you looked like Mr. Magoo, with eyeglass lenses so thick you could fry ants on the sidewalk with the magnified solar energy. Mrs. Reins was no exception. When she arrived in December, she was a target for mockery. A frightening sight, her eyes were magnified to the size of tetherballs. And unfortunately, she was still pretty blind. You could make wild faces at her, and she never knew. Her handicap also enabled Howard Frankland, Steve Smith and me to stay busy drawing Batman pictures while she assumed we were practicing our newly-learned cursive techniques. Today, of course, if you need cataract surgery, all you have to do is pull up to the speaker at the cataract drive-through.

“Do you want 20/20 vision with that?” comes the voice from over the speaker. “It’s only seventy-five cents more.”

You then answer, “Yes, and I’d like mine with cheese.”

“The doctor will see you now. Please pull up to the first window.”

For ignoring my blind teacher and failing to do my class work, my karmic justice arose four years later when puberty hit. I flunked the in-school eye test and was sent home with a note to my mother, directing her to take me to the eye doctor.

The optometrist confirmed the myopia, and I was given a prescription for eyeglasses. At that time, the choice of frames for boys was virtually unlimited, provided you wanted only black or brown horn rims. I chose the black plastic frames, because I knew that my ability to look like pubescent Woody Allen, along with my sparkling orthodontia and clunky orthopedic shoes, would make me the most popular boy at Wilson Junior High School.

Picking up the glasses at the optometrist’s office, I remember looking through the storefront window across the street to the clock on the bank and being able to tell the time.

Wasn’t technology wonderful?

But my vision continued to deteriorate. When I was fifteen, I begged my mother to let me have the now-available wire-rimmed frames. Up until then we just replaced the lenses in my shabby looking Woodys.

By then the braces had come off, and I flat-out refused to wear the orthopedic wingtips anymore, knowing full well that this would cost me my popularity for the rest of my youth.

The frames were awkward and heavy. My lenses were glass, and thick glass at that, and they drilled dents in my nose and behind my ears. When I took off my glasses, there were big red spots on the bridge of my nose and blisters on my ears. They couldn’t be adjusted enough to make them comfortable.

When I was a junior in high school, I don’t know how, but I convinced my mother to pay $200 for a pair of hard contact lenses for me; the cornea-scratching, painful, masochistic kind. Had to have them.

For two weeks I ran around school with my head tilted back at a 45-degree angle, because that was the only way I could see. I looked like some kind of William F. Buckley trainee. I never thought they might be ill-fitting. I just thought that was the price I had to pay for fashion. They made my eyes itch horrendously, and I would rub them, and the lenses would slide up into my brain. Then I’d have to raise my hand and tell my teacher I needed someone to guide me to the bathroom so I could look in a mirror and fish out my lenses, which were lodged up somewhere in my dura mater. I had insisted that getting rid of my thick spectacles would make me appear less ridiculous, and clearly that was happening. I had evolved from Woody Allen to José Feliciano by way of William F. Buckley.

I got refitted, and the new hard lenses weren’t so bad, but every other time I blinked, one would fly out, and then I went back to glasses for a week until a new lens was ground for me.

The next year I switched to soft lenses and had a little celebratory party in the bathroom to flush my old hard lenses down the commode.

In my life, I wore soft lenses, gas-permeable lenses, extended wear contacts that damaged my eyes, and disposable lenses. With every new contact lens breakthrough, I stood up to the plate to try them.

In my 30’s I got sick of buying the paraphernalia required for contact lenses: cleaning solution, boilers, conditioning solution, saline solution, forceps, artificial tears, re-wetting drops, and endless cash to buy all that crap. Not to mention the affirmation cassettes that told you that nothing was wrong with plucking rubbery disks off your eyes with unsanitized digits. It was too much trouble. I went back to glasses.

My vision still declined, but just as technology changed with contact lenses, so they did with eyeglasses. They were now able to condense the thickness of my Mrs.-Reins-tetherball specs to a thinner polymer. There were glasses that were almost frameless, making them very lightweight and comfortable to wear.

Still, when I entered the production floor of the beer factory where I worked, I had to wear safety glasses, and the employer didn’t pay for condensed lenses, and the required frames were solid and heavy. The lenses were 5/8" thick, so thick that they prevented the side temples from closing. Legally blind is 20/200. I was 20/200 light years.

I closely followed vision technology. I remember seeing a show about a procedure called radial keratotomy, where your cornea is sliced like a pizza to improve your nearsightedness. The procedure was discovered by accident by a Russian doctor after picking shattered eyeglass lenses out of a young boy’s eye.

Yeah, baby, come at me with an X-Acto knife, smile and say, “Pizza! Pizza!” I’m ready for that.

I only knew one person who got the radial-K surgery, and he ended up having to get new lenses implanted from a cadaver. He had stitches hanging out of his eyeballs, and if that doesn’t make you wince, you are not human.

Then along came LASIK. And after Tiger Woods had LASIK, I went to the same doctor who did Tiger’s eyes. I was making enough money then that it seemed reasonable that for perfect vision, I would have to pay four thousand dollars. As a bonus, before the procedure, they gave me Valium, which to me is worth at least half of that.

I thought the procedure would be grosser. My worst fear of seeing someone come at my eyes with a knife was unsubstantiated. They just had these little gizmos that pried my eyes open so I wouldn’t blink. It went dark, and I heard a little buzzing and felt a disgusting little splash on my face (eye soup?) I sat up, looked across the room at the clock and could tell the time.

Isn’t technology wonderful?

That was ten years ago. Three years ago I got a prescription from an optometrist and am again wearing glasses. My myopia has returned. And I need a magnifying glass or readers to look up a number in the phone book.

My dear third grade teacher, Pauline Reins, I’m sorry I ever mocked you. If you were alive today, I’d treat you to a ride through the cataract drive-through. And then we’d go split a pizza.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the much needed laugh, Bill! Personally I had light blue cateye glasses. All the rage back then, you know. My glasses are more practical tortoise shell frames now, but I don't wear them unless I need them for things like driving, reading and generally seeing.