Sunday, March 21,1999
Sunday Plus: Page 4

When the lens harden

President Clinton is said to have fallen for the intern at the time he started using reading glasses. Intimations of mortality do things to a man.

IT TOOK me a little time to realise that I needed reading glasses.

I didn't wake up one morning and found out that I needed help with my eyes.

The world didn't turn dim dramatically. It was more prosaic. I was just finding it harder and harder to make out the telephone and pager numbers of the housing agents in the Straits Times classifieds.

I had to hold the paper further away from me, to see the numbers more clearly.

It was a time when I was fairly obsessed with property, and scrutinising the private apartments for sale columns was a daily indulgence.

(By the way, until recently, you could tell if the person seated in front of you in an SIA flight was a Singaporean. He would be reading intently The Straits Times property classifieds. Two years ago, on a flight back from New York, I happened to be seated behind what I took to be a glamorous woman, judging from her teased hair and her obviously expensive jacket.

She was reading the property classifieds. It turned out to be TCS actress Zoe Tay -- and who could be more Singaporean?

Anyway, soon it wasn't just the numbers in the classifieds that I couldn't make out. Whenever I found myself having to pick up the tab in a restaurant, I could not make out the numbers in the bill. I signed blindly, as the saying goes.

And stubbornly. It was never my eyesight, it was always the couple of glasses of wine which I blamed -- they dilated my pupils.

I cannot remember how I ended up having my eyesight checked in a spectacle shop but, there, I was told finally that I had farsightedness and needed reading glasses.

Reading glasses? Nothing marks one out as an old geezer as tellingly as a pair of those. And I was only 45.

I can relate to the recent suggestion by a magazine writer that one of the things that drove American president Bill Clinton into the yielding arms of a young intern was the fact that he started using reading glasses at about that time. Intimidation of mortality can make one do silly things.

At the spectacle shop, I ordered three pairs -- one for the office, another for the home and the third a spare to be kept away. Trust me to stash away the most expensive pair.

I didn't realise how silly I was until two years afterwards, when I had to change to stronger lenses. It is like buying an Apple G3 Powerbook to keep, the better to cherish it, only to find it obsolete when you want to use it two years later.

Visual acuity declines with age, just as computers get twice as fast every two years.

I used to think the condition comes with the general slackening of muscles in the body. Now I know that it is the lens that have hardened.

It's a biological problem: the crystalline lens of the human eye hardens around the age of 40, and the eye can no longer focus on close objects.

Eyeglasses were invented in Italy towards the end of the 13th century. By the middle of the 15th century, Italy, particularly Florence and Venice, was producing spectacles by the thousands.

Historian David Landes contends that eyeglasses were one of the great technological inventions that came out of the Middle Ages which helped propel Europe into a direction found nowhere else.

Eyeglasses extended the working life of skilled craftsmen, especially those who did fine work: scribes and readers (this was before the invention of printing); toolmakers, weavers and metal makers.

Conversely, they also encouraged the invention of fine instruments like gauges, micrometers and fine wheel cutters. The knowledge of lenses led to further advances in optical technology: both telescope and microscope were invented in the Low Countries around 1600 and spread quickly from there.

Landes points out that Europe enjoyed a monopoly of corrective lenses for 300 to 400 years.

"In effect," he says, "they doubled the skilled craft workforce, and more than doubled it if one takes into account the value of experience."

Since I can only pass off as a scribe, my productive life would have ended some five years ago, if there were no eyeglasses. There would not be much of a life left anyway, since reading is one of my two greatest joys.

Science and technology makes the world a better place, never mind that the romantics raged against it. Swept up by their beautiful words, and never a numerate person, I used to subscribe to the notion of the two cultures, and that one (the arts) was superior to the other (science).

In the last few years, because good novels are harder to come by, I have turned to books written by scientists instead, and a whole new world has opened up to me.

There are so many good ones writing popular books now, and just their titles alone can send me reaching for my eyeglasses.

Consider, After Thought: The Computer Challenge To Human Intelligence by James Bailey (1966). What a clever title, for a book that argues that machine will inevitably evolve away from man, to have its own intelligence.

Or, Out Of Control (1994) by Kevin Kelly, the executive editor of the magazine Wired. It's a chronicle of the future foretold, of love in a time when machines are autonomous, adaptable, and creative, and "consequently out of our control".

Mention reading and I almost got out of control. I had said it is one of my two greatest joys in life. The other, I must confess, I don't want my glasses to get in the way.

And that is, to break bread and share a carafe of Australian red with a congenial companion. And, despite the recession, signing the bill blindly afterwards.

If it is not scientific fact that the combination of good wine and good company does cause the eyes to go glassy, then let it be poetic licence. I do subscribe after all to the notion that the two cultures are in fact one.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia