Saturday 07 December 2002

Progressive lenses for the hyperflexible personality

I need to wear glasses for reading: I have one pair for using the computer and and a slightly stronger pair for reading books. But since I’ve started to work on improving my Japanese reading skills I’ve realized that a single pair for both tasks would be more convenient. So I had my eyes tested today, by a new optometrist who’d been recommended by a friend.

He turned out to be a fascinating person. We chatted about reading foreign languages—I said I had no trouble reading Japanese from either left-to-right or top-to-bottom (the Japanese do both) but that I thought I’d have difficulty with right-to-left languages like Hebrew and Arabic. He told me that he used to be able to read and write Hebrew but that his writing skills had diminished for want of practice. He also mentioned the higher than average proportion of left-handed Israelis (compared to other countries), suggesting that the Hebrew writing system probably makes left-handedness more acceptable. If this is true—and, although a Google search yielded no references, I have no reason to believe it is not—then one would expect it would also be the case in Arab countries.

(I recall that in elementary school the nuns used to force left-handed children to write with their right hand by the simple expedient of tying their left hand behind their back with a length of coarse twine.)

Halfway through the testing procedure, which took nearly 45 minutes, I commented on the fact that I felt a degree of performance anxiety, experienced as a strong desire to provide the “correct answer” to each of the optometrist’s questions about the relative sharpness of individual test charts. He told me that this was quite natural, since I had such a strong emotional investment in the process. (He was right, of course: there are certain Japanese texts that I’m desperate to read in the original rather than as translations. I’d unconsciously linked the success of my Japanese reading project to having the right pair of glasses.)

He said that he listened very carefully to a patient’s voice while conducting these tests, in many cases giving greater emphasis to the emotional resonance of their answers than to the choices they actually made. Why? To avoid the risk of prescribing a lens that is stronger than necessary. He also factored this “emotional coefficient” into his choice of one kind of spectacles over another.

My friend had recommended this optometrist because he’d prescribed spectacles for her husband who, like me, needed to use a computer and read printed material on the desk in front of his monitor. So I went to the appointment expecting that he would recommend the same eyeglasses: progressive lenses, which would provide a smooth transition from intermediate to near. This was, in fact, his recommendation but out of curiosity I asked him about bifocals, segmented lenses with two distinct regions for—in my case—intermediate and near vision.

“I only prescribe bifocals for patients with rigid personalities,” he answered. “In other words, people who see the world in terms of black and white rather than shades of gray. Of course I wouldn’t be having this conversation with someone who needs bifocals.”

The optometrist as psychotherapist, I thought to myself, what an intriguing character.

He had another patient waiting so he took me to the frames department, where I selected a pair of thin black rectangular frames just like the ones I currently wear (chosen after seeing and admiring the spectacles the Wes Studi character wears in Michael Mann’s Heat).

My new eyeglasses should be ready late next week (the anti-reflection coating takes three days more). I’m looking forward to switching my attention seamlessly from screen to printed page, hyperflexible guy that I am.

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My mother is left-handed, and her mother, although living in London during my mother's childhood, is a fairly devoutly Catholic Irishwoman. My grandmother took my mother to the doctor when she began to develop left-handed tendencies as a very young child, and asked whether there was something wrong and what could be done about it. Fortunately, the doctor was a reasonably progressive sort and gave the correct answer, that there is nothing wrong with being left-handed. Not all doctors at that period would have been as, ahem, even-handed.

Posted by Stuart Langridge on 6 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Stands to reason that there would be more southpaws in RTL language areas. Writing cursive English is a problem for a lefty, because the action drags the hand over the text just written, smudging it. Chinese characters by their nature almost require right-handedness to write the right way (sorry, couldn't resist). The way you lift the pen/brush away from the page is almost as important as the stroke just drawn, and this lift-off is very different if you're a lefty. I don't know if it is still the case, but I know that Japanese parents persisted in "correcting" left-handed children later than was generally so in the USA, and that left-handedness there is still noteworthy--I remember being stared at by a co-worker there as I ate lunch. I asked her "what's up?" and she commented "I've never seen anyone hold chopsticks in their left hand."

A left-handed girlfriend once took calligraphy classes in Japan. Her teacher forced her to use her right hand. Interestingly, her Japanese penmanship with her left hand improved anyhow. Probably an interesting story for Oliver Sachs in there.

Posted by Adam Rice on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Hyperflexible. Sure, sure. I can see that in you, Jonathon.

(Now, exactly what post number is this?)

I have progressive lenses myself, but I'm also nearsighted and need glasses just to keep from stepping on anything when I walk across the room. My cat tends to appreciate this.

I can see your wanting the non-reflective coating because of using the glasses for computer work, but I found it to be difficult to maintain. My last pair I didn't have it added.

Interesting association between reading direction and acceptance of left-handedness.

Posted by Burningbird on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Stuart, I honestly can't remember whether the nuns associated left-handedness with possession by the Devil, but it wouldn't surprise me if they had.

I can't believe I hadn't considered how being left-handed would affect one's ability to write Chinese characters, Adam. Just doing some left-handed air-calligraphy (like air-guitar, but writing characters) made me realize how difficult it is. I'm toying with the idea of taking some calligraphy lessons, as a way of getting more deeply into Japanese writing. When I was looking for classes via Google, I noticed on one page advice that "left-handed students should consult the teacher before buying materials."

Shelley, I'm interested that you found the anti-glare coating difficult to maintain. I assumed it would be but I won't be carrying this pair of glasses around with me.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Wait a minute, Jonathon. I didn't really mind being called "high and mighty" yesterday because I happen to drive a Toyota RAV 4, even though it's a small SUV, but I have to draw the line at being accused of having a "rigid personality" because I wear bifocals.

Is this more of that INFJ stuff, particularly the "J" aspect of it?

Posted by loren on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Hmm, seems like the "J" aspect of it got off the leash in the last couple of days, Loren. I'll forgive the small SUV, if you assure me you don't smoke...

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

good optometrist. but my first reaction was that maybe the optometrist keeps himself entertained throughout the day by having similar conversations with all of his patients: "i only prescribe progressive lenses to people who can't focus," he answered, "people who are easily distracted by meaningless details. and by the way, i noticed a few cat hairs on your shoes. i'm giving you special cat-friendly glasses."

Posted by scott reynen on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I haven't smoked for years, and when I did I always field stripped my cigarettes just like they taught me in the army.

After suffering throat cancer, I urge everyone I know to quit smoking if they haven't already done so, even thoughI'm not completely convinced that it was the actual cause of the cancer.

Posted by loren on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Hey Scott, I think you're probably right. I can just imagine him having that kind of conversation with the rigid-personality bifocal patient.

Loren, I'm very, very glad you quit. (I'd forgotten that I'd learned to field-strip cigarettes in the army reserve.)

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 7 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, caution on cleaning the lens. Non-reflective coating scratches and gets mucked up very easily. And you be as J as you want to be (thus speaketh another J type). Have to keep the Ps in line.

Loren, I'm also very glad you quit smoking(makes me wonder how many ex-smokers there are among us). I wavered between a Toyota RAV and Focus before I bought the Focus. (As an aside: RAVs aren't _really_ SUVs -- they're just cars that stand up a little straighter and have cute butts).

Scott, sigh. I too have progressives. And you're probably right about people with progressive lenses getting lost in meaningless details. BTW, interesting weblog.

Posted by Burningbird on 8 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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