Thursday, February 12, 2015

Truth in Advertising


The Eyes Have It

Last November 5th I made the most  harrowing drive of my life, three hours to and then back from Hartford at night after a light rain on a four-lane highway heavily utilized by tractor trailers. It was then that I fully realized just how bad my vision had become as I drove through a visual chaos worthy of the “trip” sequence in “2001: a Space Odyssey.” My hands were more than just a little sweaty and I had cramps in them the next day from my death-grip on the steering wheel.

As do so many people of Age, I had developed cataracts. The biojelly lenses in my eyes had accumulated pigmentation and biological junk that reduced the light trying to reach my retina. The world had become darker, light sources generated distracting halos, and the minor details of everyday life such as facial features and printed text were becoming indistinct even with my “Coke-bottle” glasses. It was time to turn to the miracles of biotechnology.

Uncomfortably, this involves cutting opening your eye with sharp pointy instruments. However, I had numerous testimonies from family and friends as to how miraculous the procedure was and how significantly it had benefited their sensory lives. My ophthalmological surgeon told me that she could not promise that I would not need glasses other than reading lenses, but if I did it would be a light prescription. She also said that while I could be rendered unconscious for the procedure, anything other than local numbing of the eye was not really necessary for the operation which would only take about twenty minutes. The risks were described as extremely low.

As a curious fellow, I watched a video of the operation on Youtube that was vaguely disturbing but then all surgery is a nasty business from a non-technical perspective. The procedure shown did last for twenty minutes. Time to bite the bullet.

Typically when bilateral ocular surgery is to be performed each eye is done several weeks apart, but the surgeon wanted to do my procedures one week apart to avoid perceptual/cognitive conflict. I went under the knife for the first one yesterday. In truth, it was no worse than sitting for a dental extraction except for the incessant eye drops for several days before, a dozen in the hours just prior, and on-going for several weeks following the operation. I am no damn good putting drops into my own eyes! Plus, the drops just before the surgery to numb my eyes and dilate the pupils stung. Following is the sequence in the cataract-removal procedure:
  • Anaesthetic - The eye is numbed with either a subtenon injection around the eye or using simple eye drops.
  • Corneal incision - Two cuts are made through the clear cornea to allow insertion of instruments into the eye.
  • Capsulorhexis - A needle or small pair of forceps is used to create a circular hole in the capsule in which the lens sits.
  • Phacoemulsification - A handheld probe is used to break up and emulsify the lens into liquid using the energy of ultrasound waves. The resulting 'emulsion' is sucked away.
  • Irrigation and aspiration - The cortex, which is the soft outer layer of the cataract, is aspirated or sucked away. Fluid removed is continually replaced with a saline solution to prevent collapse of the structure of the anterior chamber (the front part of the eye).
  • Lens insertion - A plastic, foldable lens is inserted into the capsular bag that formerly contained the natural lens. Some surgeons also inject an antibiotic into the eye to reduce the risk of infection. The final step is to inject salt water into the corneal wounds to cause the area to swell and seal the incision.
A shield that looked like part of the costume of a Bug-Eyed Monster was placed over my eye for the ride home. I could then take it off then wear it again for my first night’s sleep. The nurse said that I would probably notice a general increase in brightness and enhancement of colors. Oh, how I do love truth in advertising! Although my vision will be blurry for several days, the ambient light is brighter, and I realize that I’d gradually forgotten just how brilliantly colorful our world is! And, oh frabjous day, I can see text on prints, posters, and street signs beginning to come into focus! I am actually eager to get my second eye done so that my stereoscopic vision can synchronize.

I look forward to walking the dog in the rain without my glasses being spattered by droplets; to going swimming and not losing sight of the shore. I may need lenses for my most distant vision (and as noted, for reading), but I won’t need them for preparing a meal or finding my way around the house. I am pleased.

Now if only my hips weren’t aching so that I wonder if they’re the next replacement to be needed…

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


While watching the State of the Union Address the other night I was struck by the fact that all of the color one could see on the Congressional floor was clothing worn by the women. Male Senators and Congressmen all wore sensible, sober, and dull uniforms, garb that I was all too aware of throughout my childhood upbringing

My father was a businessman and wore this drab “professional’ clothing with short, matching haircuts. Although he was a wonderful provider, the term “prostitution” occurred to me on occasion, and business suits, white shirt and necktie, remain the uniform of the enemy in my perspective.

This attitude began early. I was raised in a conservative immigrant Catholic tradition, and obedience was a prime virtue. I learned to read early and was given a Golden Book called “Tootle” about a baby train who discovered the joy of prancing in the fields among the woodland animals and flowers. The townfolk and Tootle’s conductor rectified this by confronting him with red “Stop!” flags wherever he went, reducing him to tears, except for one single green “Go!” pennant on the sole path on which he was meant to roll. As a grown-up Flyer Tootle counseled the little trains “Stay on the tracks no matter what!” This mistreatment disturbed me.

My formative years were during the rebellious ‘60’s and I grew up on the outskirts of Woodstock, N.Y. to boot. Although I can’t say that I really understood many of the details of the Great Issues at the time it was clear that “The Establishment” intended the common people to obey orders and let the Important People decide how we would live our lives and sometime, how we would die. This did not sit well for a young person who only recently recognized the full implications of mortality as family friends and relatives died in auto wrecks, of heart attacks, and of old age. Tedium, suffering, and death were not the goals I aspired to.

In 1969 a short-lived series, “The New People” debuted on ABC television trying to profit from the youth market. It was a hip version of “The Lord of the Flies” with a planeload of teenagers crash-landing on an island on which an unused nuclear-testing town lay fallow. All of the adults were killed in the wreck and the kids decide to “rebuild” civilization without the mistakes of the previous generations. More than simply naive, all the episodes I remember came to the concluding moral that the Established Ways were the Only practical ways by which to live one’s life. Give up your childhood dreams. Stay on the tracks. Obey.

I admire iconoclasts and my rebellious streak has continued through six decades. I despise the cynicism of Winston Churchill’s aphorism “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” The Powers That Be want you to obediently surrender – for your own good, of course! Yes, one must accommodate one’s self to harsh Reality and the powerful inertia of history if one wants to get by in the world with a modicum of comfort and success. Maintaining Hopes and Dreams is frequently a route to frustration and bouts of despair as well. Perhaps, in the greater scheme of things, I’m not much more significant than an ant since I don’t believe in supernatural personalities and their plans. Be that as it may, among the various grains of sand I must move to earn my daily bread I would like to move several of my own individual volition, perhaps a few colorful and glistening ones.

I take inspiration from a saying attributed to two different poets, Juan Ramón Jiménez and William Carlos Williams: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” Deliberately break the rules in small but pointed ways. Take a small satisfaction when they criticize your childish ways. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” advised Pablo Picasso. Maybe we can have some influence and Change the World. But let’s try to have some fun while we so endeavor.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys :
Bringing the Conflict Home

Suppose, in a major American metropolis in the 1960’s, the City government decided that it would try to improve its run-down black neighborhoods by utilizing eminent domain, evicting the residents who had lived there for decades, razing their homes, and offering the property to developers from out of State. Modern homes are built and bought by people from around the Country who had always wanted to live in this city because of its long and rich heritage. Perhaps some of their grandparents had even lived there!

Those evicted are not happy about their involuntary removal, and black rights groups from around the Country took up their cause, urging them to ‘fight back!’ Initially, the resistance involves spray-painting graffiti in the new neighborhood, yelling insults at the new residents, and throwing stones at their cars. The police naturally get involved and set up sub-stations on the avenues between the old residents and the new. They stop and frisk the black youth for minor infractions, arresting some, trying to “send a message.” Black families are incensed by this presumption of guilt and set up community action groups to protest. Some out-of-state black activists come in to participate, and during a series of demonstrations, they attack the police, burn down a number of the new homes, and there are deaths on both sides before the rioters are repulsed.

Bad blood has now developed between the old residents and the new and their police protectors. After several years of sporadic fighting that periodically claims innocent lives, the Mayor decides that there needs to be more strict regulation of the contact between the old and new residents. Playgrounds are fenced off; police are stationed at bus stops to monitor the movements of the black youth, licenses for black businesses are delayed, infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate in the black neighborhoods. A succession of Governors tries to resolve the tensions, but a succession of Mayors, dealing with budgetary issues, decide to condemn more old-neighborhood buildings, selling the property off to new developers to raise revenue. The Governors, while urging a peaceful resolution, are also seeking re-election and provide State funding and training to the City police so that they can expand their peace-keeping presence.

In the deteriorating neighborhoods embittered black youths form gangs and ally themselves with gangsters from around the State. They arm themselves and decide to ‘teach Whitey a lesson.’ They engage in random drive-by shootings, uncaring whether politicians, police, little old ladies, or school kids are the victims: White is White. The City sends SWAT teams into the neighborhoods. Doors are kicked down, innocent families are terrorized, some are killed when they resist. Homes are bulldozed to create a firebreak between the neighborhoods. The Mayor decides that water and electrical service will only be provided during certain hours of the day, and black workers trying to get to their jobs in other parts of the city must endure long queues and humiliating searches before they are allowed to proceed.

Some black neighbors try to organize alternative civic groups to the gangsters and militant activists, but they are marginalized. The State and City government demand that they “rein in” the gangsters before they will work with them. Nothing less than zero violence will be accepted before they will talk. Militant groups from outside the State mock them as “Uncle Toms” and raise funds and provide gang propaganda, urging them to strike back against the people who have stolen their neighborhoods. Moderates are openly mocked; their stores are boycotted and firebombed, some are abducted and executed by thugs as a warning to the others. White Supremacy groups have gotten involved in the controversy, urging citizens to take up arms against the Darkies – it’s simple self-defense! - and even getting members elected to the City Council. A hundred black barbarians are not worth one civilized White man, they declare!

The gangs have established networks of gun runners with gang-bangers in other cities; the City police have munitions supplied by the State under the authority of the Governor. Gangs unify and escalate attacks on any whites they can strike at, in cafes or on buses; the police begin to bombard the black neighborhoods with military-grade weaponry including artillery and air-support. The police chief prevents the press from getting near the conflict, citing prejudicial reporting.

The question is: is it Moral and Just for the City government to carpet-bomb the black neighborhoods into submission regardless of casualties to get the gangs?

Of course I am talking about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. And no, this is not a completely exact analogy.

I have no answers. All I know is that a lot of innocent people are getting killed by uncaring and manipulative governments and gangs, and everybody is declaring that ONLY one side or the other bears ALL of the guilt for the tragedy.

I call bullshit on that position.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Today is the Future


The background buzz had been increasing for months with articles in the papers and excited chatter among family and friends, but now the impending reality stood before me. The behemoth then-named brontosaurus rose up above me next to stegosaurus, and t-rex was still under construction in the nearby hanger. My fifth grade class was on a field trip to a fiberglass artisan’s workshop near Hudson, N.Y. where they were constructing full-sized dinosaurs for the Sinclair Petroleum exhibit at the New York World’s Fair which would be opening in a few short months.

We had all heard tales of the 1939 World’s Fair from our aunts and uncles, those hopes and dreams running into the harsh realities of the Second World War. The Cold War, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Assassination of the President had followed, but now the Space Race and new electronic technologies were inspiring the global civilization, and the upcoming fair was due to showcase the changing world. Better Living Through Chemistry! Our Friend the Atom! Bringing Good Things to Light!

My class roamed among the life-sized saurians, touching their flanks and examining the exposed frameworks over which layers of fiberglass were laminated. Scattered boulders of volcanic pumice accented the statues while they waited transport to Flushing Meadows, and my teacher chastised me for chipping off a lava fragment as a souvenir. I may still have that bubbled lump in a box somewhere.

Then, to international fanfare, the 1964 World’s Fair opened, with the stainless-steel Unisphere the focal point about which a jetpack-wearing daredevil flew orbits! Every Sunday the New York Daily News color magazine section would print gorgeous full-page pictures that highlighted an exhibit, glowing colors splashing the sides of pavilions or illuminating the Fair’s many fountains. My brothers and I eagerly anticipated our families and our classes traveling to behold these wonders with our own eyes.

Finally the day came, and the parking lot looked like the rows of cars lined up at a drive-in theater, only bigger. The globe of the Unisphere gleamed in the sun and colorful flags fluttered in the breeze. The buildings were something out of science fiction, truly “The World of Tomorrow!” They lined great fountains into which visitors flung coins for luck and were composed of domes, planes, rotundas and turrets. The scents of exotic foods wafted on the breeze, and an international chatter of voices delighted the ear. America was the crossroads of the planet! Heroic sculptures depicted men flinging stars across the sky, and full-size replicas of spacecraft stood erect around rippling, glassy buildings.

I clicked away with my Kodak Brownie 127 camera which I had received for my First Holy Communion, winding on fresh rolls of film and dropping the exposed film into pre-paid mailers for development and printing. The resolution might not have been great, but the images would resurrect memories for decades to come. Then came nightfall, and alas that the price of color film was prohibitive! Fortunately bright postcards and Ektachrome slides were available by the rack full, because the Fair was transformed into a fairyland of colored lights and beams streaming up into the sky! The GE dome was an expanse of swirling colors and the panels of the Tower of Light were transformed into rearing planes of glowing crystals. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Commander Cody could not hold a candle to this exhibition, and I have only described the architecture! Let us discuss the wonders of science!

Drop a dime in the slot and out popped a neutron-irradiated coin to insert into a souvenir holder and carry in your pocket when you visited the Atomic Energy Commission! Nuclear power would be “Too Cheap to Meter!” Walk through jungle and mountaintop and desert environments and smell the indigenous odors sprayed into the air at the Coca-Cola exhibit! Walk through a sound-deadening corridor that made your ears pop in the Bell Telephone pavilion on your way to the videophone which would periodically take a call from Walt Disney across the continent in Anaheim, California! Watch lab-coated jugglers in the DuPont exhibit pull long polymer strands of nylon out of beakers, or combine flasks of colorless fluid that suddenly glowed yellow-green like the tail of a firefly! Miracles and Wonder! Period-piece android families complete with tail-wagging dogs told the tale of advancing home-convenience items as the audience rotated around GE’s Carousel of Progress. Cities of the future, undersea and on the moon, were practically close enough to touch in the GM and Ford exhibits, and their prototype automobiles looked like they could take off and fly, as one of them would periodically drive out into a lake before returning to dry land.

The news entertained us with stories of runaways who slept in the Coke pavilion, fishing the coins out of fountains on which to sustain themselves with hotdogs, hamburgers, Belgian waffles, and cola. The free economy was transforming the world!

No one was talking about Vietnam. Not loudly, yet.

We knew that this marvelous world was coming to pass; my father brought home portable cassette recorders for his sons, then a color television. Party-line telephones were vanishing, and the newspapers printed pictures of the new, smaller computers that were only the size of bank desks! Cars were available in multiple hues, the roar of jet airliners thundered in the sky, and Polaroid cameras produced pictures virtually instantly – just don’t forget to apply the fixer! The Soviets and Americans competed to send men into orbit with eyes set on the Moon, and there was anticipation of satellites replacing the trans-Atlantic cable to carry conversations across the Big Puddle. In South Africa Dr. Christian Barnard transplanted a heart into an ailing patient. Oh, brave new world! Bi-planes would annually fly over our neighborhood, spraying DDT to eradicate those annoying mosquitos, and we waved to the pilots as the dust settles around us. Toy stores carried walkie-talkies, no longer the province of the military; and the robotic Great Garloo did your cable-controlled bidding. Colorful bug-like transistors were quickly replacing the tubes glowing within the radios, TVs, and “Hi-Fi” record players. AM radios could now be carried in your palm. Did anyone doubt that we teetered on the edge of Utopia?

How did we arrive at this pinnacle? The General Electric audio-animatronics told us about the last century, and Bell Telephones and International Business Machines displayed the evolution of electronic and calculating devices. Westinghouse encouraged visitors to inscribe their names in a register to be included in a time capsule that would be buried next to a similar container from 1939 to present the 20th Century to the world of the year 6939. The Traveler’s Insurance exhibit presented dioramas of “The Triumph of (White) Man,” from cave dwellers to the walls of Ur, the Roman Empire( subtly promoted Christianism), and the Renaissance thinkers observing and calculating the celestial realm. You could purchase the stirring soundtrack on a red vinyl 45 rpm record to remind yourself that you were a jewel on the crown of creation.

In two years the festivities concluded and visitors packed away their assorted souvenirs and pamphlets which that they might view with nostalgia in later years. Most of the exhibits were razed and Flushing Meadows was planted as a park, the Unisphere still gracing the center, a few sturdier constructions left to perhaps be utilized at some future date.

The Future did not come as advertised although the marvelous technology highlighted at the World’s Fair was, in retrospect, quaint, far outstripped by its future’s reality. As communication and transportation brought nations closer together, it brought them into fricative conflict. The marvels of chemistry and medicine have disturbed our environment and challenged our ethics. Poor policies were implemented and mistakes were made. Utopia has receded like the chimera it has always been. But the experience of walking the lanes and corridors of the World of the Future for these brief two years in the middle 60’s still gleams like a bright dream. We can erect tower in short years and send robots to the Outer Planets. We can do whatever we set our minds to do.

But grownups need to be mindful that the choices we make can turn our dreams into nightmares.