How you frame it

Stubbornness, conviction and clarity – on finally getting reading glasses, after much resistance

How you frame it

After experiencing an unusual pressure for a couple of weeks, from within what I suspected were my sinus passages, I called to book an appointment at the doctor. My favourite GP of all time was a young Belgian man called Peter, whom I heard the nurses affectionately call “Peter Pan”, but he’d recently left the practice, which had saddened everyone. The receptionist explained over the phone that my new GP was booked out for several weeks.

“Is there no one else?” I asked.

“No, I’m afraid not,” said the receptionist.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Let me see, hmmm, ah yes, okay, you can see a locum on Thursday at 10:30,” the receptionist said.

You always have to ask twice. There’s always an opening on the second pass, for some reason.

“Great, thanks.”

When I arrived at midmorning on Thursday, I expected an extended wait in a packed waiting room, but the place was empty and I only waited for three minutes.

Not long after I’d been directed to a consulting room, the locum strode in and introduced herself as Dr Spencer. She wore glasses with dark-grey, medium-thick, frames that had silver rivets showing at each corner. Her pale eyes showed a lot of the white.

“What can I do for you?” Dr Spencer asked.

“My nose—” I started.

“I see,” Dr Spencer jumped straight in. “Yes, it looks quite crooked. Has it been broken before?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, yes, I have a crooked nose and maybe it got broken a long time ago, but really what I want to ask you about is—”

“Ah yes, it is quite swollen and red,” Dr Spencer cut in again. “I’ll just go get a dermascope to take a closer look at that skin. I haven’t worked at this clinic for a while – I swear they’ve moved everything.”

“No, hold on,” I said. “True, it is a bit red. There’s some sun damage, and I’ve been seeing a dermatologist who’s going to do something about it. And, well, it’s not swollen. It’s just a big nose. It always looks like this.”

“Oh, I see,” said Dr Spencer. She would take a sharp breath before each sentence, like each thought had arrived as a surprise.

“It’s the inside of my nose, just below the bridge,” I said. “There’s this pressure? It kind of hurts.”

“Really?” Dr Spencer asked, with her head cocked to one side.

She took a look up my nose, prodded around a bit, then shrugged.

“Nothing particularly untoward going on that I can see,” Dr Spencer said. “Perhaps you’ve started doing something different with your facial muscles? That might explain the sensation.”

“I did start wearing glasses a few months ago,” I said. It was true that I was raising my eyebrows a lot more, a reflex to scoot the glasses back up, anticipating that they would start to slide down the bridge of my nose. Except that they didn’t, because they were well fitted, so I was just raising my eyebrows a lot. My work colleagues may have assumed I’m just a lot more surprised these days.

“Well that might be it then,” said Dr Spencer. She gave me some nasal steroids, in case the airways needed strengthening, but I think that was probably because she assumed I wouldn’t want to go home empty-handed.

- – — – -

Did you know that 20/20 vision doesn’t mean that your eyes are flawless? I had always assumed that it was like a test score, and that 20/20 meant full marks and proof that the performance of your eyes was beyond reproach. (I do tend to jump to convenient conclusions. I also often only read the news headlines and nothing else.) I only recently learned that 20/20 just means typical or good “visual acuity” – the sharpness with which you can make things out. But the rating can go further: 20/10 vision would mean twice the sharpness of 20/20. Just reading the bottom line of the chart isn’t the end of the story.

“You have astigmatism,” said the optometrist, Neela. “That means your eye isn’t properly round like a basketball, but more like a rugby ball.”

I knew I had misshapen eyes. Another optometrist had tried to get me to wear glasses in high school, but after getting some fancy Adidas frames and wearing them in class for a week, I insisted that I could read just fine without them, and just put them away in a box. My eyes just needed to work harder, I thought. Which they did. For decades.

“Might that be why I’ve been getting the tired, blurry eyes and the headaches?” I asked.

“It’s likely,” said Neela. Neela was young, perhaps a recent graduate, and seemed vaguely familiar. Perhaps she was a former student of mine? I really should remember. Seeing my former high school English students as adult people in the world always made me feel old and a little left behind, like they were on the up escalator and now I was on the down. (Good on them, though.)

Neela had glasses with thick black frames. It seemed right to me that your optometrist should also wear glasses, so they could see where you were coming from. Sure, there are plenty of reasons an optometrist might not have glasses (decent eyes, for one), but I’d feel the same way about an optometrist without glasses as I would consulting with an unhealthy looking doctor. Your technicians of the body need to look and play the part.

“I’m giving you a prescription for glasses, which should help,” said Neela.

“So you’re saying I need glasses then?” I said.

Neela was packing up the lenses she’d been using to test my eyes. She paused and wrinkled her brow.

“This is a prescription for glasses,” she said.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“You could try continuing without them. But they could really help,” said Neela.

Could, should, likely. Neela was playing this role like a true scientist, never committing to full certainty, leaving the door open for the hypothesis to be disproven.

I really just needed her to say, “Yes, you definitely need glasses.”

- – — – -

I still needed to choose and pay for some frames and order the lenses, which left me plenty of time still not to get reading glasses.

The signs started to get a little harder to ignore than they had in the past. I was often tired and swimmy-visioned after a whole day on the computer, and the headaches grew more frequent. I also started to doubt my confidence concerning the bottom line of the chart. During my consultation with Neela, had I actually accurately read the letters on the bottom line? She’d just said “Great” and then made some notes on her computer. Did “Great” mean “Correct” or just “Nice try”? I was even starting to second guess my recollection: Had I read the lines with the test lenses on or off?

I went back to the store to choose some frames, a half-commitment to getting the glasses, since I figured I could always just choose my favourite frames but not actually purchase the glasses.

My partner Vic came with me, to help with the choosing. Vic has excellent judgement on matters of style, and is also a primary audience of the glasses, as someone who will have to look at them every day. She needs to like them.

“The frames can’t be too dark or thick,” Vic said.

“How come?” I said. “I kinda like the thick ones.”

“Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but with your moustache and that nose, when you wear thick black glasses it looks like… you’re wearing those classic joke glasses,” Vic said.

We both laughed. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but Vic was right. Most people would need the Groucho glasses to become a caricature of themselves, with the big nose, moustache, thick black frames and generous eyebrows. But I could deliver that same effect au naturel.

My facial architecture really did narrow down the selection of available frames, which I was glad about, because there the selection of colours and styles was bedazzling. Only a select few would fit over the bridge of my nose and not squeeze into my temples like a vice.

We went back and forth on a few translucent coloured options. The winning frames were pale green. They sat perfectly on my nose at an appropriate distance from my face, and just felt familiar, both to Vic and me.

Another shopper, an older woman, came over to me while I was looking in the mirror still wearing the green frames, and put her hand on my shoulder.

“You look like you’ve been wearing those your whole life,” the woman said.

It was such a kind thing for this woman I didn’t know to say to me. If the store was paying this woman to go around dropping comments like this, it’s a sneaky ploy but quite brilliant. This kindly stranger had delivered what I’d wanted from the optometrist in the first place: just a little bit of conviction.

I went and paid for the frames. The clerk said that I’d get a message in a few weeks once the glasses arrived from Australia, where the lenses were made.

- – — – -

Waiting for a couple of weeks for the glasses to arrive was enough to make me start doubting I needed them again, even though I now had the added incentive that I’d already paid for them. But I hadn’t had too many headaches. My eyes were back in business. All on their own.

When I got the message that they’d arrived, I waited another two weeks before going in to pick them up.

It was raining when I finally decided to walk to the store. When the rain cleared, I stared at the outline of the hills in the distance, crisp with that post-rain clarity, and thought, yep, I can see them just fine. I aimed my eyes at the number plates of cars at varying distances. Yep, I can read those too, mostly. So, I’d wasted some money on some glasses. A shame, but never mind. They could go inside a box in the wardrobe, just like the ones they gave me in high school. Maybe I could pull them out if I ever needed a Harry Potter—themed get-up.

I sat down at the glasses store and put my wet raincoat over the back of the chair. Droplets of water fell on the floor, and I stared intently, trying to make out the edges of the lights reflecting off them, perhaps even to catch my own face reflected back at me.

A guy in a suit jacket sat down at the desk in front of me and put down a little tray with the glasses on. He introduced himself as Aaron and asked me a few questions to confirm that I was me, and had me confirm that these were the frames I had ordered. It was like a job interview for a role I didn’t really want.

“Here, have a read of this,” said Aaron, handing me a laminated card with paragraphs of varying sizes printed on it. I could make out most of them without too much effort, although the last one got a bit hazy. The small print.

“Now try again, with your new glasses,” said Aaron, smiling.

“Okay, I’ll give them a go.” I slipped them on and picked up the card. “Oh,” I said to him.

“They all right?” Aaron said.

“Yes. Um, they are… very good.” That was all I could say. I was too busy marvelling at the extraordinary contrast between the black of the letters and the white of the page. Have letters always had such sharp edges? I had a look around and the difference wasn’t quite as stark at longer distances, but looking back at that page… I started laughing.

“What’s funny?” Aaron asked.

“It’s just, well, I’m only now realising I’ve been putting up with slightly fuzzy, swimmy text for decades, probably. And I never needed to.” It felt like a tragic, grand joke – on myself. The headline for a local newspaper article flashed through my mind: “Man falls foul of his own overconfidence, strains eyes for half a lifetime.”

For weeks afterwards I would flick the glasses off my nose and then back again, to compare the “before” and “after” image, trying to catch the glasses off guard. Eventually I settled into an appreciation of this secret extra fidelity I’d forgotten could exist, and a begrudging acceptance that looking through those lenses was better than not.

Recently I told my manager at work about how this all went down, after he commented on my new glasses. He said he’d gone through a similar experience when he first got his own glasses.

“Just relax and enjoy it,” he said.

“Enjoy what?” I said.

“Life in 4K.”