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When I was ten years old, my mother decided that I was mature enough to visit the optometrist alone to have my eyes examined and choose my new frames. After showing me myriad combinations of letters on his one-dimensional eye charts, Dr. Shiffman balanced the world's ugliest glasses on my nose. Into these steel spectacles, whose only form was function, he inserted lens after lens ("Number One or Number Two?") until he arrived at the combination that would defuse my astigmatism and fashion my focus. A few weeks later, I would return to pick up my new glasses. One hour eyeglasses then were as incredible as a man on the moon. On my first solo visit, I chose a pair of black plastic cat eye frames with rhinestones. I probably looked like a displaced Miami matron in miniature. My mother, who never let any form of frippery mar her severe sense of style, was appalled. She was all too happy to let me order new frames when I accidentally sat on my glasses only three weeks later. Isn't it ironic? If I had saved my original cat eyes from 1957, I might have a pair of highly collectible relics from an age gone by.

More than forty years have passed. Like everything else, visiting the ophthalmologist is distressingly complex. Today, instead of waiting in a room filled with pink, black and tortoise-shell frames, I am assaulted by a continuous videotape extolling the virtues of radial keratotomy. Like Big Brother, the video follows patients wherever they sit, making sure that no one escapes the pleasure of seeing six radial incisions puncture a perfectly innocent eyeball. Luckily, there is plenty to read. I search for some mindless magazines to pass the time. I've outgrown Highlights, my childhood favorite, but most doctors' offices subscribe to magazines which chronicle lifestyles I do not. An inveterate page-turner, I like to flip through articles spotlighting people who have things, or consoling others who do not. But the only reading material here is optical information for the layperson; a selection of booklets whose composite titles sound like a recipe for witches' brew.

The first to catch my eye is "Detached and Torn Retina." (Add two and shake vigorously.) Of course, I'm much too advanced for that, having seen the aqueous humor actually pool in the eyefolds of the radial keratotomy. "Diabetic Retinopathy" sounds vaguely interesting, but I find myself much more interested in vessels that contain wine instead of blood. I try to decide between "Glaucoma" and "Amblyopia," having flirted with both over the years. But the last brochure captures my sensibilities. "Dry Eye," it proclaims. So what do they call the other one? Or how about, "What happens to a Cyclops in a sandstorm?" And what about "Wet Eye?" Is there such a thing? Inquiring minds want to know.

Finally, I am reprieved from the horrors of the waiting room and invited in to the doctor's chambers. Alone in this Valhalla of Vision, I am surrounded by tissues, bottles of eye drops, and a full-color poster in two parts depicting "The Structural Anatomy of the Human Eye." The all-knowing enters. He ensconces my chin in a Viewmaster vise which guides my eyes down a winding road, one at a time. By the time he has checked both, he has mathematically determined the angles of vision which need correction, and my new prescription pops out of a printer. How naive of me to think I had finished. Drops which turn my pupils into flying saucers ("Look up!") spill onto my unprotected eyeballs. A visual being, I am crippled by this latest assault. In my weakened emotional state, he starts to ask horrifying medical questions I don't even answer to myself! "How old are you?" The only reason he doesn't faint from shock at my revelation is that he seems to be even a bit farther along. You'll have to fill out this chart, he says lightly, and thrusts a checksheet on my lap which contains more evils than Caligula's closet.

Alone again, I read about the human body and am forced to record my frailties. Endocrine, Cardiovascular, and other systems are scrutinized as I place check after check in the "Yes" column. It seems there's no such thing as a simple eye exam these days. In forty years we have managed to poison even this usually pleasant and painless procedure. I wonder which has changed more, the world of corrective lenses or my sense of self. I was a much happier patient when I thought macular degeneration was the opposite of macular conception. But, the doctor is smiling as he returns to peruse my report, so I feel optimistic. "Well, your prescription has changed slightly; you'll need new bifocals. The progressive lenses should give you a spot where you can do computer work. We'll wait and see if you really need trifocals. As for reading glasses, you might want to get a separate pair to wear when you're doing close work." He reminds me that we'll continue the glaucoma watch. Believe me, this is not at all like a whale watch, where you see one, cheer and go home. Watching for glaucoma involves eyedrops originally designed for the Spanish Inquisition. "These may sting a bit," the technician says cheerfully. Until the eyeballs are numbed, the hapless patient actively hallucinates about fire ants. Mark my words. The tonometer, allegedly invented to measure intraocular pressure, is really the evil wand of the ophthalmic technicians. Dorothy and I know exactly what would happen if we threw water on them.

As I head to the optician with prescriptions for enough glasses and sunglasses to correct the vision of a small third world country, I realize that my entire life style must accommodate the inexorable demands of aging. I was thrilled when my children outgrew Mom's enormous bag, a colossal carryall containing everything from stuffed animals to stuffed olives. (Hey, when you have four children, you never know when you're going to need a martini!) I took to carrying fashionable clutches with barely enough room for lipstick and car keys. That way, I was sure that I could get somewhere and look terrific when I arrived. At forty, the reading glasses crept in. I tried wearing them on a string around my neck but ended up looking like Charley McCarthy in drag. Into the purse went glasses, make-up (lipstick alone no longer does the trick), pens, checkbooks, Tic-Tacs, and a liberal supply of Advil. I'm reminded of my great-aunt Zissel, whose name meant sweetness, an irony best left unexplored. She carried a bottomless bag filled with hard candy. "You never know when you'll get a little scratchy throat," she'd advise, pulling out an exotic lozenge or a subtle mint. Into my bag go some raspberry drops. Like a retired cop who just can't give up the weapon, I'm carrying again.

I haven't picked out my new frames yet. My husband has asked me to wait until the second mortgage comes through. All sorts of beguiling possibilities come to mind -- tortoise shell for the intellectual look, modern matte metal for that Euro je ne sais quoi, or perhaps those frameless spectacles which make most people look like Benjamin Franklin on Minoxidil. I think I'll avoid the cat eyes, though, despite their resurgence in some sophisticated circles. In fact, I'll probably avoid the rhinestones as well. I plan to let my eyes do the twinkling while they still can.


Written by Marcia Brown Rubinstien
December 19, 1998

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