Authenticity, Health Care, Identity, Illusion

Of Optics and Illusions

Maybe I'll work my way up to this pair by the time I'm 90. (portrait of Iris Apfel by Bruce Weber)

Will I ever dare to wear such a pair? (portrait of Iris Apfel by Bruce Weber)

When I learned recently I’d need my first pair of glasses, I had two reactions: gratitude for decades of good vision, and excitement about possible looks.  More than other accessories, spectacles speak volumes about who we believe ourselves to be and how we wish to come across.  Long before I needed a prescription, I lusted after sleek European designs that seemed to imbue their wearers with panache and intelligence, even if they possessed neither.  Now I had the opportunity to play around, too. Would I go for glamorous? Bookish? Mad Men-ish? Or, like the nonagenarian diva Iris Apfel, don outsized peepers?

During my exam, I stared into the phoropter as the optometrist turned the dials.  They clicked and whirred as tiny letters blurred and sharpened while he calibrated my prescription. Since I take pride in having a “good” eye, able to discern details and slight variations in color, I was relieved that this acuity would soon be restored.  But the flip-side to being sharp eyed was a tendency to notice, and then fixate on, flaws and visual disturbances.  I wondered what my life would be like if my new glasses only allowed me to see the beauty around me, rather than zooming in on missing buttons, crooked teeth, dead light bulbs, and askew artwork.  Sometimes a softer gaze or sideways glance is kinder and might reveal a larger truth.

In a culture that worships appearance, it takes something other than 20/20 vision to perceive what’s beneath both the sleek and the sloppy.  The superficial and the subliminal are not always congruent.  Indeed, blind people might have an advantage when it comes to sensing the gestalt of a person or situation.  Their eyes can’t deceive them whereas the rest of us risk falling for illusions, our own or those manufactured by others.  No matter how accurate my prescription, I still have to turn the dials on my internal phoropter and decide which details to leave blurry or bring into focus. Interpretation is also up to me.  Do I choose a lens of compassion, curiosity, criticism, skepticism?

The day following my eye exam, which left my pupils too dilated to see at close range, I returned to the office to try on frames. Would any reflect, if not my essence, at least my taste?  Most lacked the fun factor I sought, either in shape or color.  The few that appealed were too small for my prescription for progressive lenses.  Another possible choice, from a Danish brand, had a much higher price point than their other offerings.  For a moment I wondered if I would have been better off choosing an eye doctor based on their frames, rather than on whether they accepted my insurance plan’s limited benefit.

I embarked on a Goldilocks-esque expedition, hitting three other optical shops.  The first was sleek, filled mostly with handcrafted European designs, many displayed in gleaming wood cases. But I didn’t need glasses to read the eye popping prices.  Lenses, made by camera manufacturers, would be nearly as much, more than what my optometrist quoted for the same.  The optician wore dark rimmed, round spectacles, which he termed “geek chic”, and presided over the wares like a connoisseur.  For kicks, he handed me gold rimmed glasses from the early part of the last century.

“You won’t even feel them on,” he said.

So delicate as to be weightless, they were priced like a piece of fine jewelry.  He pointed to another pair in a locked case, museum quality he said, that would sell for $3,990.  I imagined the buyer would use them to read leather bound tomes in a private library, enjoying these rare spectacles while sipping whiskey of a similar vintage.  That this shop’s selection was so carefully curated filled me with appreciation and longing, as if I were a first time car buyer, nose pressed against the glass showroom of a luxury dealership, not ready to purchase top of the line but drooling nonetheless.

At a less formal shop across town the optician offered to let me borrow three frames.

“We’ll do what we can to make it easier for you to spend your money here,” she said, popping them (red, orange and purple) into a white rectangular case. I liked her forthrightness and willingness.  But I didn’t recognize the type of lenses they used. Perhaps those of camera-quality were no better, but my mind had latched onto that possibility. Would I sacrifice supposedly great lenses for the funky French numbers this store had on display?  This optician recommended anti-reflective and UV coatings, extra costs.

Driving to the final store, my brain spun like the phoropter’s dials as it re-calibrated what “expensive” meant.  Suddenly, the higher end frames at my optometrist’s office seemed reasonable.  The last shop also had scrumptious choices, each suggesting who the wearer might be or become.  I nixed a pair of rhinestone studded cat-eyes before spotting a red and purple metal frame from the Danish company I saw earlier. Though unlikely to turn heads, the colors made me smile. I took down the model number. My optometrist’s assistant ordered them, allowing me to save some with my insurance. For now, they are just right, as long as I remember to look through them with wonderment.

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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais trainee, and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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