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Jewish World Review June 7, 2001 / 17 Sivan, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Learning the art of selective focus -- THE DOG is small and fuzzy and getting nervous.

He is nervous because he is fuzzy. He is fuzzy because he is low to the ground. Ever since I got bifocals, everything at ground level is fuzzy.

Usually this makes me a danger only to myself. But the dog has suffered from my new eyewear. At least twice a day he comes dangerously close to being stepped upon.

By way of compensation, though, he is much less ugly than he used to be. He is a happy, if more cautious, canine blur. This seems a reasonable tradeoff. At least that's the view from up here.

Bifocals change the way the world looks and that has to change your outlook.

Already, I look different to people because I look at people differently. The eyeglass people always warn new wearers that they must aim their noses squarely at anything they want to see. And now I cock my head and swivel it to face head-on anything I must focus upon. This takes a lot more head movement.

It gives me the mannerisms of C-3PO. And I must walk like an aerialist, taking care not to look down. And if I disobey the rules of typing class and look at the keyboard when I type, the keys shimmer distressingly.

But there are also cool things I can do now. I am foolishly grateful for a newfound ability to read the numbers on my watch, to use a phone book, to read the print on CD booklets, even when the letters are as small as spider toes. Too cool.

The last stock market crash had passed me by because it's been ages since I could focus my eyes on newspaper stock tables.

I'm shocked to have discovered what has transpired since I stopped reading small print. Before I got bifocals, I was strictly a long-term investor, serene in my ignorance.

As a compulsive reader, my problem with tiny print cramped my style. Now, I am rediscovering the pleasures of reading dangerous sounding ingredients in candy bars and corn chips. (What is partially hydrogenated soybean oil and why don't they just hydrogenate it and finish the job?)

I can again experience the momentary disappointment of discovering that I am not an instant winner. I confidently know how many sinus tabs to take and am dutifully warned that it is a violation of federal law to use them in ways other than directed. ("Show me the statute!" I say to myself skeptically, now that I can read statute books again.)

I can see both the road ahead and the dashboard. This means I can find out exactly how far the gas gauge needle can go below "E" before the gas actually runs out. Valuable knowledge in a declared energy crisis.

But these new-found amazing powers come at a price. I can't look down. If I swing my head too fast while looking downward, it creates a visual effect that hitherto I could achieve only with the aid of $28 worth of margaritas. Allegedly flat surfaces bob like beach balls in the surf.

And then, too, there's the matter of that blurry little dog. He is a lovable fuzzball at my feet now, but I have been warned about looking at my feet. In my new variable-focus world, my blurry toes and everything around it are soft and indeterminate.

I will no longer feel bad about wearing scuffed shoes. And if I try to stomp on cockroaches, they might end up with the last laugh.

The thing a bifocal wearer learns -- and learns hard -- is how selectively we look at the world around us. A detail here, a blur there and clarity only with the things at the end of our noses.

We tend to think of the world around us as one big movie of uniformly clear images. But any nearsighted person who graduates to bifocals knows differently. We are very selective in what we take in. We take for granted the sky above our lenses, the dim peripheral-vision fog beside us, and the things right at our feet.

Unless they bark, of course. In which case it is good to tell them you're sorry. Right away. It's been almost a week, but so far, he's still in a forgiving mood.

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© 2001, M. R. Lane