Getting accustomed to a new perspective.

A few years ago, as a tourist in a touristy part of Rome a bit east of the Pantheon, I was losing faith in my wife's directional sense and asked her for the map. As I walked along and tried to read it through my prescription sunglasses, I couldn't make out the street names. The print was too tiny. Or—and I really didn't like this scenario—I was finally old enough that I was having trouble seeing small print.

[Google map east of Roman Pantheon]

It turns out that I had lasted a few extra years before getting what one optometrist called "forty-itis". Still, as a classic bit of irreversible natural physical deterioration that shows that you're getting older, it put a damper on the birthday I had a few days later. On my next visit to the eye doctor, I told him that I sometimes had to take my glasses off to read small print, and I asked him when I'd need bifocals. His answer: "When you get tired of taking off your glasses."

On my last visit, I quoted what he'd said before and told him that I was tired of taking off my glasses. He put together the prescription for my progressives. (They hardly use the word "bifocals", which conjures up grandparent images. I believe the new name describes how the near-sightedness part of each lens gradually blends in to the far-sightedness part without showing a line. And of course, the new name just sounds, well, progressive.) The optician said that the new lenses would take a few weeks, and that you can't just pick up your first bifocals and run or have someone else get them for you, because an optician must teach you how to wear them.

Five weeks later I went to pick them up. Matthew, the young man who helped me, was friendly, polite, positive, and provided me with very little useful information. I put the new glasses on and thought "I can see up close! I can see far away! It's that simple, and I'm set!" Matthew agreed that I was set, so we finished up the paperwork and I went out the front door and almost fell over on their brick stoop.

There's a key fact about getting accustomed to bifocals that Matthew neglected to tell me, and in retrospect it seems obvious: the trade-off of having the bottom part of your lenses focused a foot away from your eyes is that it becomes more difficult to see through the bottom of your lenses at objects that are farther than that, like the little step in front of your feet as you leave the optician's office.

My next errand of the day was the supermarket, where it became very clear (or rather, very obvious) that distant text well below your usual sightlines is harder to read with bifocals. Supermarkets have plenty of this, with a bottom shelf of products on either side of every aisle.

As I walked through Charlottesville's sunny downtown mall shortly afterward, I got another surprise: the glasses were becoming darker. While I certainly hadn't asked for the kind that automatically mutates into sunglasses in the sun, that's what they gave me. The slight tint that you would see in them after going back indoors gave me the appearance of a bit player on Miami Vice, and not a good guy bit player. (Being of bifocals-wearing age, I'm referring to the TV show Miami Vice, not the movie.)

When I returned to the optometrist and explained to Matthew what had happened, I think he only heard the part about the sun shining on the downtown mall, and he made a polite, positive, vague response. An older optician was more understanding and apologetic and promised me new lenses within ten business days. I get to keep the sometimes-tinted lenses until then, so along with the short scruffy beard that I've grown to camouflage the stitches under my chin from a recent fall on the ice, I look pretty shady. Maybe, until I can pick up my new lenses and shave again, I'll pick up some gold chains and unbutton a few shirt buttons and go all-out for the bifocaled coke dealer look. That should be a big hit among the dealers in Chinese antiques and greener-than-thou political action tables of the downtown Charlottesville mall.


After everything my wife went through learning to use bifocals, I firmly decided not to get them until I could no longer read without my glasses. So far (almost 49) that hasn't happened. Indeed, I enjoy being able to go without my glasses most of the time: I wear them now to watch TV, movies, and theatre, and when outside, and that's about it -- a big relief after wearing them nonstop since I was 7.

I've been using contacts for a few years now (approaching the mid-thirties), but only just now dawned on me, that I might need "progressives" one day.

When that day comes, it likely won't be possible with contacts!

Progressive contacts do exist. A Google search on the phrase gets 1.5 million hits.

As an early-40s I could do with some mildly progressives. I have an old pair of specs for myopia which are perfect for use at the keyboard, an newer pair that are good for TV distance and further, but which give me eyestrain if used at the keyboard. Dunno, maybe more to do with lifestyle than age, lazy-eye-tis.

It's rather a coincidence that the people now in line to use progressives are of an age to grow up with the influence of Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer...

I got bifocals last year (43) and really felt old at that point. (Un)fortunately, those glasses got ground into the bottom of a pool and I went back to my old lenses. I'm finding I don't mind having to lift up my glasses to read the small print--I think it's better than having to tilt my head back to read my computer screen.