Tuesday, February 16, 2016



I woke today and automatically reached for my glasses. Just as I have done for a lifetime.
My hand groped around and found nothing, just as my mind groped to the new reality that I no longer need glasses just to navigate the bedroom.
My life has been stood on its head with a change to my body so fundamental that it will take months to adjust.
I don't mean to offend the blind and visually impaired who can never be blessed by the two cataract operations I had but I do mull that  "was blind, but now I see" line from the great hymn based on the Bible verse from John.
Now I wasn't blind but I was so myopic that without glasses my left eye really didn't work and the right couldn't handle even the top E on the chart.
With glasses, my vision was good, but as everyone knows who have to rely every second on them, the maintenance is a hassle before you even get involved with sun glasses, swim goggles, photogreys, etc.
And I'm trying to ignore the costs which thanks to the giants that dominate the business ensure that too many people routinely pay $500 for a  pair, or even up to $1,000, when everyone could make a nice profit at a fraction of that.
Believe me, I know. I have a large container filled with dozens of pairs that I have bought over the decades. There are even contacts from the years before they became soft and easy to handle.
It all started badly. The little school in Chesley didn't have much in resources, so no one noticed when I thought all the other boys and girls were bluffing when they read what had been printed on the blackboards because it was a blur to me.
 Even the big print in those kids' books was difficult. No wonder they worried about my reading.
 Finally in Grade 3, someone, probably not Miss MacLean, who gave me the strap 85 times in her final year before retirement, figured out that I really didn't see very well and old Dr. Morgan gave me an eye test.
I will never forget looking through my first pair of glasses, a flimsy affair with little gold metal rims designed for an old lady, not a rambunctious boy. I looked out the window of Morgan's office at a hedge and saw for the first time that a hedge wasn't just a green mass but was made of leaves and branches.
I walked home and some kids playing street hockey half a block away shouted at me and I could see who they were and didn't have to rely on their voices.
At supper, I could see the lines on my grandparents' face for the first time and read the time on the old wooden clock perched on a shelf.  I still have that clock and still remember the first time I actually saw its hands.
Life changed for the better that day. Maybe that was why I knocked out the bully who had made my life miserable for three grades.
By some regular miracle,  I didn't break my glasses that much. I learned what was important, that to sacrifice even the testicles rather than the spectacles, or else I was grounded.
I played sports without glasses -  special frames and contacts not being common  -  even in a  championship game at Varsity Stadium where I concentrated on trying to figure out the colour of the jersey before I tackled because of a few experiences of bringing down my own team mate.
It doesn't matter how much you avoid the doctor during life because it all changes when you sort of retire. You learn about cranky prostates and all the other balky problems that present themselves as the bad side of the coin that brings you on the flip side the wonderful gift of living longer than the three score years and ten promised in the Bible.
Your friends and relatives get the new knees and hips and there are thinners for hearts with flawed wiring, and then there are the tentacles of the assembly lines for cataract surgery that seem to clutch everyone you know.
 Mary wasn't quite the kindly wife because she grumbled when I wasn't having any problems about her  surgery on both eyes - once paying for the basic $500 intraocular lens that was installed, then OHIP got nicer and paid for the second one - which rejuvenated her weak vision.
My turn grew in a rush. My eyes clouded quicker than a summer storm.  One year there was nothing and then Dr. Robert Wagman looked at me with Harvard gravitas and said there was a problem.
And I discovered from personal experiences that all those rumours I had heard were true. It does take six months or so just to see an ophthalmologist and they are so swamped in some clinics that you may cool your heels for four or five hours past your appointment time. (Even other guilty specialists think that's excessive)
Since their work life seems to be divided into 20-minute bursts, I see no reason why they can't plan their schedules better. As I wrote in a blog "OHIP: LONG WAIT FOR WONDERS" on Dec. 1, 2015,  the health ministry should fine doctors or clinics for excessive waits if there is no emergency as an excuse.
The world has become accustomed to this salvation in sight as just another miracle of modern medicine. I also realize that just about everyone is doing it when it comes to cataract surgery.
 But after a lifetime of being yoked to glasses and all the little hassles, I am not blasé but feel like shouting from the rooftops about how great it is that my life has changed because of two three-hour sessions less than a month apart.
The agreeable surgeon was Dr. Sharif El-Defrawy who is the Pooh Bah of Eyes at U of T  as  head of the department of eye sciences there and at the Kensington Eye Institute. He wants to have the university as a major centre of excellence in eye care in North America. He has made a great start with a clinic staffed with pleasant, efficient men and women which must ease the experience for the paranoid worried about an experience that really is not to be feared.
I still have to figure out all my adjustments and retrain my memory. It's great that I can see perfectly for driving, TV and other distance tasks without glasses even though I have the comparatively minor problem of needing a weak pair for reading and work inside the length of my arms.
 I will have to get used to the fact that after a lifetime of pulling fine print and tiny tasks up close to the naked eye, that no longer works and I will need a magnifying glass.
But I willingly accept the trade-off. Nothing matches the improvement when the clouds in my eye lens vanished and in went two AMO ZXROO Symfony IOL lens costing $1,230 each.
 Now the colours are more vivid and everything is sharper than what I used to see with those damn glasses that always needed cleaning.
If only I had eyesight like this when I was a teenager chasing girls at the beach!

Sunday, February 14, 2016



I celebrated Valentine's Day, sort of, by chuckling through the Peanuts movie and trying to ignore the memories of my days as a skinny orphan when teachers announced who got the most Valentines in the class.
I am not a politically correct fan but it is nice that in the decades since my days of schools that the maiden teachers of the junior grades have smartened up enough to see how hurtful it is when they ask who got the most Valentines as they polled the class.
I can't remember my Grade One count when I imagine that my sisters Joyce and Joanne loyally found some battered Valentines for me and I recycled them.
Although Valentines really only cost pennies then - the greeting card industry hadn't yet the gouging tactics of banks - we three could only afford to erase the pencilled names and reuse them. Fortunately no one signed with the leaky fountain pens, and ballpoint pens hadn't yet been invented.
So all I needed on Feb. 14 was a good eraser and the tolerance of the other boys and girls who I am sure knew that the Downings were just giving back the cards we had received the previous years.
The Peanuts movie, just like the strip did in its days of glory, charmed me with its cute imagery and Walter Mitty daydreaming. For me there never was a red-haired girl like the one in real life that the cartoonist Charles Schultz never forgot, and made a fortune out of remembering, but there are so many skits that remind me of the perils,  frustrations, nervousness and surprise test nightmares of growing up shy that it is a glorious carpet ride of memories back to the days before I succeeded, sort of.
The Peanuts strip was so popular at the late and lamented Telegram that we put it in a special spot away from the comic page. When I noticed that some people at the outdoor newspaper stands (that have vanished thanks to the punitive policies of city council) just picked up the Tely, flipped to the strip and then put the paper back, I suggested we move it around each day. I was just a kid editor then, so I was ignored. Besides, the brass didn't want to tempt fate by doing anything different with Peanuts.
I am amazed that some people (like my wife) just don't appreciate  Peanuts. Just as there were some who didn't like Pogo which gave us the Sadie Hawkins tradition along with some wonderful satirical bits on American politics. And the great line peering into the mirror: "I have seen the enemy and he is us."
I only found out about Mary's indifference to the pearls among the comics after I married her a year and a week after I first saw her. It wouldn't have been a deal breaker because I do have a romantic side, although the family disagrees. Mary does too. For our first Valentine's Day, I gave her a bottle of  No 5 Chanel.  Took half of my pay as a cub reporter. All these decades later, I am still not sure whether Mary really likes that perfume but I suspect there's a chance she doesn't and won't say that so she won't hurt me.
One nice Valentine tradition for Toronto is the annual Valentine gala that raises money at $500-a-plate for the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons.  There have been 32 of them and give people a chance to have a great evening and a chat with some leaders and athletes that the foundation has honoured.
For example, this year my son Mark and I sat with Chris Williamson, who has retired as a blind alpine skier after winning a gold, silver and two bronze in several paralympics, and a gold and two bronze in world competition.
It certainly is a humbling experience because it brings you back to reality with a crash. After all, the people honoured by the foundation, like my old friend David Onley - whom I first met as a political researcher 40 years ago  -  started life facing more hurdles and serious problems than whether they could find a clean enough Valentine to send to the quiet blonde in the corner.