Thursday, February 18, 2010

184 days to Bar Mitzvah: tales of ocular woe

It was a steel-gray mid-winter day as we drove over the Mulberry Street Bridge into Scranton. Or maybe it was an unseasonably warm spring day. Maybe it was October, and the leaves were changing. It was thirty-eight years ago. I can't remember what the weather was like. One thing I do remember very clearly, though, is sitting in the back seat of our car -- perhaps a Ford Capri but probably a Subaru -- and saying to my mother, who was driving, "I think my eyes are pretty good. I won't need glasses."

I was seven-and-a-half years old. We were driving into Scranton, the "big city," for my first eye doctor appointment.

My mother, not always known for having a glass-half-full worldview, responded without missing a beat. "That's exactly what your sister said. She left with glasses."

If not for my sister's sub-par eyesight, I would have had no reason to visit an opthamologist as a second-grader. While my father was regionally famous for his poor eyesight, his was the result of a combination of unfortunate quirks. His original eye condition -- bad enough to snuff out an appointment to West Point in 1956 -- was exacerbated by a botched corneal transplant a few years later. We knew Dad couldn't see out of his left eye. It had nothing to do with us. That's just how things were.

I had reason to feel optimistic as we crossed the Mulberry Street Bridge on that sunny, cloudy or brutally cold day. Who gets glasses in second grade? I could see the blackboard just fine. Two hours later, we emerged from the doctor's office, prescription in hand. Who gets glasses in second grade? Me.

We chose a tortoise shell pair, and then an identical pair three months later after I broke the first pair. A year later, we switched to a clear plastic pair, which died a violent death inside my desk at school, when I slammed the desktop unthinkingly on my way out to recess one day.

Three years earlier, after watching this kid Danny break down in tears because he couldn't do his spelling, I vowed to never cry in school. That vow was tested when I came back from recess to find my shattered clear glasses. It didn't help that Miss Tedesco scolded me for having such a messy, disorganized desk on top of it.

That's the life of a little boy in glasses. You break them all the time. Basically, they mean two things, both of them bad: you spend every day at school thinking of comebacks for everyone's favorite, tired "four-eyes" cracks, and then about once a week in the doghouse at home because you broke your latest pair.

Each new pair of glasses had one thing in common with the last pair: I hated them.

It helped a little when Shelly King, Elizabeth Kulkarni and Danielle Ondrick all got glasses later that year. Besides being fellow four-eyes, all of them were also part of our group that got removed from class every week to go do extra "accelerated" work. We were a little community of dorks, but at least I wasn't alone.

Then comes sports, another hurdle for the nearsighted. When you're 10, you can wear a baseball cap every day, all day, memorize the birthdays of every member of the 1975 New York Mets (Rusty Staub? April 1.) and hit .520 for your little league team. None of it will matter if you're wearing glasses. If you're wearing glasses, all it takes is one little slip-up, one time at the little league picnic trying to crack back on someone but starting your barb with the word "actually," and you're sunk. A nerd.

Those glasses hung like an albatross around my neck. There was no way to shake them.

Until junior high school, when I began my image rehabilitation program. In the space of a week in the fall of 1979, I trimmed my unruly Jewfro and got fitted for soft contact lenses. The following week, Mr. Zimmerman, our English teacher, commented, "Wow, you've really changed your look." That's right, Zim. There's no turning back now.

Unless two months later, your eyes reject the contacts. Sure, the Jewfro is gone, but pair a by-now bent and broken set of spectacles -- now held together with cliched white adhesive tape -- with any hairstyle. Glasses overpower all else in the teenage world. I don't care if Jose Eber's been working on your hair. The glasses win.

So I refused to wear them, except for sports. My grades plummeted. No one could figure out why. People started to think I was aloof, because they'd see me at the mall, wave, and get nothing in return. I couldn't see them.

How are you going to tell a kid who's tasted the sweet nectar of popularity that he'll be sporting the Bad Ronald ( look once again?

I had no choice but to keep trying the contacts. This was many years before glasses became a necessary for acheiving the Geek Chic look. They were still stuck on geek, which doesn't work when you're 15. So I walked around blind, until discovering "gas-permeable" hard lenses. Uncomfortable and improbably low-tech, they provided years of almost non-stop amusement for my friends, who enjoyed watching as, several times a day, I suddenly slapped my face and groaned in pain, as something -- anything, an eyelash, a gnat, a very small piece of dust -- lodged itself in my eye, underneath my gas permeable contact lens.

I wore those things for over twenty years. I put them in my eyes in darkened movie theaters, at the beach, in the back seat of Shaun Hyde's car at six in the morning before basketball practice. Sometimes, if I got something in one and wasn't near a water source, I just poppsed it out, stuck it in my mouth and jammed it back in my eye. That was a good one. The horrified looks I'd get -- they were exactly the same as the ones you get when you toss your kid's pacifier into your mouth after he drops it on the ground, then hand it back to him all-new.

Despite the almost-constant pain they caused, I loved those hard lenses. When I got to college, I told my roommate, "The great thing is that no one here knows I wear glasses." It was like being a different person. For a few years, during my misspent early 20s, when I lived in a series of terrible apartments and had no money, I didn't even own a pair of glasses. Those sharp-edged gas permeable lenses were in my eyes 18 hours a day.

I remember, starting in college, how shocked I was at just how many people wore glasses. I wasn't the only one running around hiding his weak eyes behind a pair of contacts. Sometimes it seemed like 75% of the world wore contacts (and then showed up in the morning in glasses, often as shorthand for "I'm really hungover").

Sandra Bullock finally convinced me, in her pragmatic way, to get "backup" glasses. Just to have. Who cares how they look? You wear them late at night and early in the morning and never in public.

Meanwhile, without telling me, glasses had been rehabbing their reputation. Just like when, again without telling me, in high school people suddenly decided that good grades were an honorable pursuit, after bagging on me for years about mine, leading me to purposely drive mine down in an effort to fit in, people started to think of glasses as an accessory.

The people who came into glasses at a later age -- and that was most of them; not too many people got their first pair of cheaters at age seven -- were much more comfortable with the look. To them in fact, it was a "look." Not a curse. A few wiseguys (and gals) even showed up occasionally wearing glasses with clear, non-perscription glass. They liked the look. To me, they were nuts. That would be like choosing to have stomach cramps because you like the pain.

But you know, you get tired. When I began the slide toward 40, I started running around telling people that I'd be done with contacts by age 50. "You think I want to be shoving these things in my eyes when I'm 50?" said the incredulous boy, hiding thirty-plus years of scars. "Dads who wear glasses look hip," his wife convinced him. Slowly, glasses returned to my life. A few years ago, we went to buy my first pair of "public" glasses since 1978.

I wanted the thick black plastic ones, because all the cool people -- the same people who wouldn't be caught dead in glasses when they were teenagers -- wore them. My old roommate Mod Markie had once called them "birth control devices," but they were everywhere in 2005. I tried some on. "You look like a nose and glasses," said my innocent, tactless wife, immediately sending me through a one-way time portal to 1974.

We settled on some thinner tortoise ones. Not as hip as the series of increasingly cool ones Jeff Price, the tattooed, snowboarding, bar-owning and Japanese toy-collecting Seattlite has worn in the 15 years I've known him. Baby steps. But these were casual. Slightly in-the-know. Not at all the tools of ostracization they were when I was a pre-teen.

Speaking of pre-teens, the Jawa has perfect eyesight. Just like his mother. Her time will come. And her glasses will probably look great.

Which brings us to today, Thursday, February 18, 2010. I have been a wearer of sight-improving devices for almost 40 years. For the past six months, I've devised, without being aware of it, actually without admitting I've been aware of it, thinking I was being very sneaky, indeed, a method that involves looking through my glasses to see things far away, and then looking under them to see things close up. For serious reading, I just take them off, which is why I seldom wear contact lenses -- not even my cool new disposable ones that, while you can't put them in your mouth to clean them, you can basically blow off cleaning ever because if they get uncomfortable or opaque you just toss them in the trash and crack open a new pair.

Contacts are limited to activities like going to the gym, looking at houses (part of my job), or going out at night and not wanting to look like a dork in glasses.

Today did not go well. "Well, your eyesight has changed over the past year," said Dr. Kimberly Tom, after fifteen minutes of using that big heavy thing and clicking different lenses over my eyes, then asking, "Which is better? Number one, or number two? How about number three?"

It's like they're tyring to persuade you. I always wonder if I'm getting the answers right.

One thing I do like about Dr. Kimberly Tom: in nine years of checking my eyes, she's not once rammed her abdomen against my legs, something my old eye doctor in Seattle did every single time I went to his office. I liked the guy; we spent at least half of every appointment talking about sports in general and the Mariners specifically, but that abdomen-jamming thing. I didn't like it.

"I'm writing you a new perscription," said Dr. Tom today. "You could get bifocals. It's up to you. If you don't mind taking off you glasses to read, you could wait a little longer." Call me vain if you want, but remember that I was wearing glasses when I was seven freaking years old. Thirty-eight years later I'm finally used to wearing glasses to the point where at certain points during the week, I actually think I look better with glasses than without, you're telling me I need bifocals?

"You can always buy a pair of reading glasses to wear with your contacts. Last time you weren't even close to needing them, but now they would work."

Who set things up so that your body starts to break down rapidly long before you've figured out how the world works enough to sit back and enjoy it? I'd like to speak to them, please. Dr. Tom added, "I've been wearing bifocals for three years."

"How old are you?" I asked, rudely.


Well, there you have it. When I was 28, they started taking my hair. At forty, I started taking early morning trips to the bathroom. Now they want my eyes.

One hundred and eighty-four days to Bar Mitzvah. You'll have no trouble spotting me. I'll be the one wearing the bifocals.

1 comment:

The Hammer said...

Ha! You're catching up. Last week Sandra Bullock called my reading glasses "granny glasses". Maybe I just need some hip reading glasses but when you need 4-5 pairs strategically distributed around the house, office and car, it gets out of hand. Some day she may understand but you're coming around.