Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Road Ahead — Chapter One: Cataracts

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Almost two years ago I realized that I was not seeing as clearly as I once did – that maybe I was getting cataracts, especially in my left eye. If you can’t read highway signs on interstates (as ‘became clear’ to me later), you’ve got a problem.

After consulting “Dr. Google,” my first problem was my ophthalmologist of almost 40 years, who shall remain nameless. She’s also the mother of a high school classmate of Lindsay’s at Sidwell. I put off calling her for almost a year, but finally telling her of the cataracts, and telling her I was going to go to the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Hopkins in Baltimore. I had to tell her I thought she was too old at 65 to operate on my eyes. This was hard; she, of course, does cataract surgery all the time – her practice has aged along with both of us. But I did it…

I emailed my internist at Hopkins, and asked her if she had any recommendations for a surgeon at Wilmer. She replied immediately – that Dr. Oliver Schein was “the go-to guy” at Wilmer. I asked, and she said that if SHE had to have cataract surgery, she’d go to Schein without a moment’s hesitation. I looked him up (Hotchkiss and Princeton — sigh) and made an appointment.

By now I’d learned that there are several kinds of plastic lens that they can insert after they take out the clouded lenses. There are lenses that give you great distance vision (hey, that’s what you get with presbyopia anyway – distance vision), and there are much newer lenses that offer some degree of bifocal vision. I asked myself – do you kinda pretend to look down, and then you can read? The other option discussed is to have one eye for distance, one eye for closer up, and then wear reading glasses.

I didn’t think that the bifocal lenses sounded workable, and having two different focal lengths seemed a road to confusion. So I went to my first appointment with Dr. Schein with distance vision firmly in mind. That was my vision, anyway.

Dr. Schein offered a third alternative, “toric” lenses. The good news about toric lenses is that they correct for astigmatism. The bad news is that they are an additional $1500 per eye at Hopkins. Another part of the bad news is that in order to keep them from rotating they have little prongers that stick into your eyes. Oooh! I voted against toric lenses.

I learned from Dr. Schein that I had TWO operable cataracts (one in each eye…) and that the two procedures are done about a month apart, so that the one eye can heal, be seen to be healing properly, and so forth. So for a month, I’d be without a left lens in my glasses. Then I’d get a replacement for that one, and then have surgery on my right eye, not have a lens on that side, wait a month, and then “get well.” There was also a 1 or 2 percent chance something terrible would go wrong, and that should happen one eye at a time. I agreed…

Soon I was at Hopkins, prepped, and on my way into surgery. There I was offered another option – a lens that wouldn’t be as focused on the far distance, thereby making my interim month less confusing. I turned that option down as well, opting for better vision for the longer term. Deferred gratification is always a good thing…

I had the surgery, it was successful, Susan drove me home for a LONG nap, and I gradually got accustomed to seeing a fuzzy distance view out of my left eye. I’ve got a fair degree of astigmatism in both eyes. Sure enough, after a month I got a good lens for the left side of my glasses, and the lens is progressive, if not liberal. I can see very well.

So of course it was time for the right eye surgery, less than a week after I got my replacement lens. Off again…

The second surgery was uneventful (I have grown to like “uneventful”), and another month went by.

I do have to say that in some sense my world “narrowed” during the two months that my vision was degraded. I found myself a bit more cautious, less likely to take on new tasks and perhaps new ideas as well. It’s disconcerting to see the world differently out of your two eyes, and while it may be necessary, I can’t really recommend the experience.

There are other limitations as well – no heavy lifting, no swimming, shouldn’t drive for a few days, gotta remember to put in both antibiotic and steroidal eyedrops according to a complex schedule for the month, and all that. And your eye looks like you were poked in the eye with a sharp stick – but it was really a sharp knife.

I’m sitting here typing with both new lenses in place – and it’s a big improvement. I got the second lens last night, and had two odd experiences. First, while they were fitting the lens to the frames, I drove off without wearing glasses. That’s probably the first and ONLY time I’ve ever driven without glasses. It was quite safe – I’ve now got 20/10 vision in both eyes. That’s one of the benefits of going ‘bionic.” And 20/10 vision is the best that Wilmer can measure with their equipment – they may be even better! Call me “Hawkeye.”

Second, it was raining quite hard when I left the shop. I was careful to use my hand to protect my glasses from the rain – but I wasn’t WEARING glasses! This was a really odd experience for me, being out in the rain and not worried about my glasses getting wet!

As it stands, I’m not convinced that the right lens is as well measured, or as well installed perhaps, as the left one is. I’ll be just waiting a month or two to see how I like/adjust/tolerate the second lens, and how the two work together. Wilmer is known for its excellence at surgery, and NOT for its excellence at refraction. And I went to our local eyewear shop for the grinding and installation, rather than to the shop in DC I’ve been going to for eons.

Of course, if I decide I’ve got to get a better prescription, and better glasses, I’ve got to call my DC ophthalmologist of long standing, and see if she’ll take me in. That’ll be a tough day.

But it was a successful venture. I’m on my way to being bionic, and I thought I’d share the story. You may be next…

Senior Cousin Bob

March 11, 2011

A Family Story

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

My father, rest his soul, who was born in Michigan and lived in Chicago for twenty years, always told me “Wrap your family in Dee-Troit iron, boy – it’s the cheapest insurance you’ll ever buy!” He had a preference for Checkers – he bought one new, driving it back from Kalamazoo to Charleston, SC, where we then lived. He liked Chevrolet and Pontiac station wagons, and Willys Jeep station wagons.

In fact, the first vehicle I ever drove was a Willys jeep, up and down Folly Beach, SC. My Uncle Bill either brought it back from the war, or glommed onto it when he had the chance. This was in 1951, and I was eleven years old. The family joke was that if you were on that beach, and another party came so close you could tell the women from the men, you moved further down the beach. Those were the days.

Long before I had a family to worry about, I had a 1953 Studebaker coupe (not a Golden Eagle, sadly) that Dad bought me for $300 when he got me a summer job that took me to two locations. Much later he gave me a 1952 Plymouth, also two door, that I know I had as late as 1968, because I remember trying to drive it up a steep dirt road in West Virginia on bald tires. I had to make a couple of runs at it.

Even though I flirted with Volkswagens (a red convertible that cost me all of $150 and a microbus that got wrecked on Route 50 somewhere near Romney, WV), I tended to stay with vans and pickup trucks. (That’s ignoring the old BMW 2002 that lived for years in the garage.)

So when my #1 daughter got her license, it was no surprise to her that she “inherited” a full sized Ford van to take her to and from Sidwell Friends in DC. Some years later she complained that the van had proved entirely too big for her to navigate through the narrow streets of Georgetown (where the college students hang out, and where beer at least is available to young ladies if they are tall), much less park there! Something about my expressions of sympathy led her to doubt my sincerity.

And when her younger sister was about to get HER license, O Frabjous Day, she asked what vehicle SHE was going to get to drive! I told her I drove the Dodge convertible, her mother drove the Dakota (a convertible – bet you never saw one), her sister of course drove the big van — and I paused. She exclaimed “DAD! That only leaves that ratty old Ford pickup – and you know I can’t drive ’stick’!” I replied, “I drive the Dodge, your mother drives the Dakota, your sister drives the big van – “ and I paused. She said, “GIMME THE DAMN KEYS!”

We lived in Great Falls then, across the road from a little-used street, and she returned about half an hour later, somewhat flushed, and said “I can drive stick now!” And so she could, and did.

Later her sister was rear-ended on that same road, while driving a Mercury Grand Marquis. I got a call at work, and between sobs she told me that she’d wrecked the Mercury. I asked if SHE was OK, and said not to worry about the car – it’s only a ‘thing,’ and as Art Buchwald told us, the best things in life aren’t things. We’d take a look when I got home.

She hid in the house until I got there, and we went out to look at the Mercury. She explained that the lady who’d hit her had been in a small foreign car, which had had to be towed away. We looked at the back of the car, and I asked her to show me where she’d been hit. Neither of us could see any damage; but there WERE a couple of places where the road grime was rubbed off. I took the opportunity to repeat my father’s mantra: “Wrap your family in Detroit iron…”

A few years later she was driving the Mercury in Santa Cruz, California, and again was rear-ended, this time by a kid in a little pickup truck who “didn’t see the light change.” Same result: truck towed, Mercury mercifully unhurt. This time SHE repeated Dad’s mantra to me over the phone!

Today she drives an old Volvo. Her sister drives a GMC Jimmy. And I’m driving a Toyota Tundra double cab longbed pickup – 95,000 miles the first three years. It’s a damn big truck.

But Checker is gone, and Studebaker is gone, and Willys is gone, first to AMC and now to “Chrysler Jeep” which sounds all wrong. And Ford just announced that they’re killing off the Mercury line as well. The glories of my world are going, going, gone.

And my father’s been dead for thirty-five years, or half my life. By this Christmas I’ll be older than he was when he died.

And thanks, Dad.

My March TriPorkta

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Well, it was my birthday festival week, as the family tradition has it. And so on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009, I set off on my triporkta celebration.

That afternoon I had high tea (well, barbecue high tea) at the Leesburg VA outpost of Red, Hot, and Blue with Doug L–, a friend dating back to a little office on Capitol Hill where we volunteered our time to help the ACLU move Richard Nixon toward impeachment. Those were the good times!

Life’s road has left some dust on Doug and me – he now lives in Bequia, in the Windward Isles, and I now split my time between Annapolis and West Virginia: the old man of the sea and the mountains, both. He asked me if I colored my hair, and I later complimented him on his pure white shock that does NOT have a pink peak above the tree line, as mine does.

Red, Hot, and Blue is a chain, and it does what it does very well. I’ve always loved their onion loaf, although I didn’t finish mine this time. The cole slaw is admirable, the baked beans have a bit of BBQ stirred in for flavor. The pork barbecue is very good, although usually on the dry side. This time it was fresher than usual, although it was 3:30 before I got there. There was enough. Their vinegar-based sauce, however, is more Alabama than North Carolina, and leaves something to be desired.

They serve iced tea in little pitchers that are really enormous glasses, and I asked for “sweet tea” in honor of having grown up in Charleston, South Carolina. Usually I ask for “half and half” to celebrate my years of driving up and down Interstate 95 – dating back to before there WAS an Interstate 95.

After our conversations had achieved a balance of yesterday and tomorrow, with a slice of today thrown in, I took my leave. Doug went back to admiring the house in Waterford he’s been trying to sell for some years now, and I headed west. I was braced by the slice of pecan pie, appropriately cooled down by a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

After a calming evening at Far Muse, I drove to Harrisonburg, Virginia on the 19th for some shopping. And my first stop was Log Cabin Barbecue, exactly 10.5 miles west of Interstate 81 on Route 33, in Elkton. Actually, it’s on the west side of Elkton, where some turn left (and north) to go to Massanutten Resort. And it’s well past Hank’s Smokehouse, an enormous place that has metastasized into a full menu, catering establishment. Must have been a good BBQ place some years ago. Sigh.

For some reason, I again arrived at about 3:00 pm. My first question to the staff was “Where is everybody?” I was told they’d been there, and had left already. Ah well — I had the place to myself. I said a little prayer to the barbecue gods, because good BBQ joints are an ephemeral commodity in the epicureal community – they come and go. I asked, and they said that the economy wasn’t hurting them too bad.

I had the pulled pork platter, adding a side of cornbread instead of the proffered dinner roles. Never liked dinner roles. I had forgotten that Log Cabin gives out a grudging serving of cornbread, wrapped in saran and accompanied by margarine. I ate it anyway. The baked beans were a disappointment, right out of the can. But the cole slaw was a joy! A little more vinegary than most, and obviously made that day. I could have eaten a quart of it! The pork was the best – moist, plentiful, and obviously touched by hickory. Too many places consider the mighty oak a substitute for hickory. This keeps them (a) profitable, but (b) out of the first rank.

[That's .667 of the triporkta -- even better than Ted Williams did in 1944. Sigh.]

Eulogy for Will Simmons, Esquire

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

[ I wrote this a few weeks after receiving word that Will Simmons, one of Annapolis' best attorneys, had virtually closed his practice. I knew that Will had had colon cancer, and that it was not responding well to treatment. I delivered it to his office on February 12th, only to learn later from one of his associates that Will had died on February 9th. Will was only 53 years old. Sic transit gloria mundi. ]

February 12th , 2010

Dear Will;

Susan and I were talking about you, wondering how things were going, not long before we got your letter. We understand your cutting back on your practice, and we’re crossing our fingers for you.

As you know, I graduated from Georgetown Law in 1972 and joined the DC Bar in 1973. That’s over a generation ago, and of course I knew lawyers before I went to law school. I worked elbow-to-elbow with many during a thirty year career in the Federal government.

In the few years we’ve known each other, you have become my exemplar of the lawyer for three very simple reasons. First and foremost, because of your unflinching and unquestioned probity. I cannot remember a single instance of your bending, shading, or evading the truth in the slightest, or proposing anything but the ethically correct thing to do. I could ask no better model for every law student and lawyer in America.

Second, because of your consummate skill as a lawyer. As you recall, you took virtually the same fact pattern into two cases about subdivision restrictions. The cases were heard in the same county, much less the same state. And in the second case, you found yourself arguing against the precedent you’d set in the first case! And yet you won! As your colleague said, you earned SIX Mogen Davids with that one.

Third, and perhaps most memorably for me, are your efforts at resolving controversies – clearly as important to you as winning cases. I will never forget the day that you insisted that I shake hands with Bob Foster, one of our adversaries in the disputes over the easements etc. here on Old County Road. And even though Bob had earlier attempted to run me down, or at least brush me off, with his vehicle, and you knew that, you were emphatic that resolution was possible, and that neighbors should learn to live with each other, and that I must shake his hand. Only a very few lawyers look beyond the ‘case or controversy’ at hand, and fewer yet look to resolve the underlying issues. That brings you at least within the penumbra of being a “philosopher-king.”

You will be pleased to know that a degree of neighborliness has returned to Old County Road. Most of us are nodding, if not speaking just yet. And a few days ago while I was digging my truck out from under our first big snowfall of 2010, Mark Aiello came up the hill running his snow blower and volunteered to help keep the snow from blocking me in. And I said, “Thank you, Sir!”

There is hope for us all.

And I thank you, Sir!

Birthday Message!

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Dear L&L;

One of my clearest memories of your childhood days is asking if you’d done everything you wanted to do that year – on the evening before your birthday. It was a ritual, remember, but it was also my way of focusing our attention for a moment on your past, as well as on the year you’d begin the next morning. Google can’t find the person who said “time flies like an arrow,” except for Groucho Marx, who famously followed up with “…and fruit flies like a banana.” But time does fly, and pausing for a moment to reflect on its passage is a habit you’ve well begun, and one that I continue.

And so, you might ask, the night before you turn seventy, Dad, have you done everything you’ve wanted to do? And the question might be extended to all sixty-nine years, and not just the sixty-ninth. This is a harder question to face, especially as there’s no turning back – and no eraser, either, in this Internet-laden era.

On the grander scale, I was reflecting recently that I was sorry I’d never made it to Eagle Scout – I lost interest and enthusiasm while no more than Second Class. Successful men often have “eagle scout” on their resumes. Upon further reflection, however, I did recall several marks of success. I’ve (too) often told the story about calling my father from Choate and asking what colleges he’d recommend, and proudly telling him that according to the counselor I could go to “any college I wanted.” And of course in due time I stepped up to the challenges of “my” Marine Corps.

You also may (or may not) remember that I received a Distinguished Rank Award as a senior civil servant in 1997, an award given annually to only one percent of the 6,000 career Federal executives. And was first listed in Who’s Who in America in 1984. (And that my favorite title ever was “Night Vice President of the Student Bar Association at Georgetown. What better title than “Night Vice”?)

But on the personal, and more important scale, I am more proud than you know of my two kids. Both of you have graduate degrees, are happily married, and have full time jobs with health insurance! In today’s world, and today’s economy, these are no small feats (or feet, either!).

I have wonderful memories of the steps each of you took along the road to adulthood. One that comes to mind is listening to Luciano Pavarotti in La Boheme on the American Legion Bridge, coming back from Sidwell, and having you ask me to stop the CD and replay his singing “esperanza,” inche gelida manina. The perfect moment in the opera, the perfect moment in my memory.

And when you asked me what car you were going to get to drive, and I told you, oh so subtly, that it was the old pickup, and you asked for the (goddam) keys and came back in thirty minutes, all flushed, and proudly said that now you could drive “stick!” One giant step for Laura, and one giant step for fatherhood!

You have also heard me say that the goal of parenting is to raise children who are ready to go off into the world to make their way and not look back. This is perhaps the hardest job of a lifetime – because while you’d love to wrap your child in your arms, away from the hazards and disappointments, the insults and injuries of childhood, that’s not what’s needed. After some small consolation, you must set them on their feet and aim them back at the prize. It’s not what your heart tells you to do, but it’s what you must do.

So that’s what I did – and it seems to have worked! So as I look back as I turn seventy, I’ve done what I wanted to do – and what needed doing – and now my most important job is done. The world is in your hands. Enjoy.

Lots of love, Daddy

March 18th, 2010

I Love Libraries!

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

[I wrote this when I was president of the board of McLean's Langley School, the largest independent elementary school in Virginia. Yes, it's part of a fund raising effort...]

I have loved libraries since the fourth grade. The Charleston (South Carolina) Public Library was less than a mile from home. Children could only get four books, but very soon Miss Janie Smith let me take out the adult’s ration of ten. She was as much an institution as the Library itself, and her obvious approval was hazardous to my ego. Letting me take out so many was also hazardous to my health; ten books are a lot harder than four to balance on a bicycle when you are eleven.

So I grew up thinking that libraries are special, which they are. Newton once said “If I have seen so far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” We are all standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. Humans accumulate, record, and store information; that’s what we do best. Libraries are the repositories of human thought and achievement.

So you’ll understand why I consider the destruction of the Library at Alexandria (Egypt) the greatest disaster yet to befall the human race. The fall of the Library really caused the dark ages; mankind did not begin to recover for a thousand years.

The Library was over 600 years old when it was sacked by the Christians, and almost 1000 years old when it was finally destroyed by the Moslems. During its early years every Hellenic conquest brought more scrolls to Alexandria. Mark Anthony captured 200,000 from another library and sent them to Cleopatra as a gift. It was said that the library held a copy of every known literary work in Western civilization. It held complete texts of the pre-Socratic philosophers, of which only scraps survive. Aeschylus is known to have written 28 plays; we know him from three or four. What if we know Shakespeare only from his comedies? As tragic was the loss of most Hellenic science. We know the Greeks invented the steam engine and discovered cybernetic feedback; where could we have been if mankind had built on this base for 1500 years, instead of having to reinvent it 500 years ago?

Alexandria had at least 500,000 volumes at its peak. In the seventh century, according to fable, their burning heated the water in the public baths for six months. By comparison, the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Library today has 1.7 million titles, and its Dolley Madison branch about 60,000. The Library of Congress was started in 1802 with a thousand volumes; in 1814 the British used it for kindling when they burned the Capitol. In 1850 a fire destroyed 35,000 of the Library’s 55,000 volumes. Not until one hundred years ago did the Library of Congress exceed Alexandria in titles. Twelve hundred years later.

The Library of Congress now has 25 million titles, and 83 million items. For years I lived three blocks away; within five minutes I could be seated amidst the world’s largest library. This was before the James Madison building opened, however, and the stacks were so crowded the staff couldn’t find half the books requested.

The explosion of knowledge in the century since the Library of Congress overtook the Library at Alexandria beggars the imagination. Ten items are now added to the Library every minute. No professor and few graduate students can keep abreast of their colleagues without the aid of computer searches. Children now in elementary school will need automated searching to do their college-level work, and today’s infants will be using CompuServe and Dialog in high school — and not for extra credit, either.

Information around the world will be stored and linked electronically. Nexis can find every reference to any person mentioned anywhere in the New York Times during the past 20 years — in minutes. Increasingly, libraries are not where information is stored, but where one can gain access to it. This requires a terminal and a printer, but it also requires expertise. Just as we all learned the Dewey Decimal System, our children will learn to manipulate search strings and descriptors.

At some point, however, there will be too much information to sort through “by hand”. The Japanese are focusing enormous resources on exactly this problem: can  artificial intelligence help us search the world for information we could never find unaided? Their answer is yes; by the mid-1990’s they expect to have a “fifth generation” of computer hardware and software, optimized for searching global data bases. Such a system will know what the student knows (or at least has read), and with minimal instruction will be able to find what the student needs, nosing about with the speed of electricity in files maintained from Stamford to Sydney.

The good news is that it is now impossible to destroy mankind’s accumulated wisdom — it is stored in too many places, available to too many people. The bad news is the accumulation of ever-increasing quantities of information (can you imagine having instant access to every episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”, or to every article printed in America containing “Washington Redskins”?). The problem of too much information rather than too little will still be solved the old way — by asking a librarian for help.

I view librarians as “keepers of the flame,” and I think most people do too. Librarians fill us with awe: they either know or can find out everything. The librarians in my life have all stayed with me. I treasure Miss Janie Smith, forty years ago in Charleston; Miss Anderson at the Choate School — a special friend to all the boys who didn’t quite fit; and of course Pat Bush, a part of Langley’s bedrock. Even Meredith Willson’s treatment of Marian in “The Music Man” pokes only gentle fun at an American institution.

Librarians now stand watch over an enormous, ever-increasing, indestructible, and invaluable resource: human knowledge. Information technology is now linking libraries together, and librarians will soon be helping readers sift through the accumulated wisdom of our species (except for what was lost at Alexandria). Librarians have only one problem: America is running out of readers.

I haven’t the time nor the energy to list the studies cataloging the ills of American education and industry, comparing our students with those in other countries, and anticipating our national decline. The problem is now a given. We have all seen the headlines and watched the talk shows. I’m sure some of us have actually read the studies. Langley parents are very concerned about the education of children; why else are we here?

In the next century America will need leaders (a) who understand the  breadth of human knowledge and human experience, (b) who know how to search, collect, and focus it on the problems then facing society, and (c) who find the searching itself as comfortable as old clothes.

The time to teach these skills and encourage this familiarity is in elementary school. Using a library well is akin to having an “ear” for foreign languages: starting early helps. The place, for our children and those who follow them, is the new Langley library. It is no accident that our first capital campaign is addressing this need.

So far, 117 donors have recognized the importance to our children of access to, familiarity with, and reverence for, the world’s knowledge. This small band has pledged $465,000 to the Library Campaign. There’s still room for you. We need $600,000 in pledges to get underway, and more would be better. Our goal — yours and mine — is to get the pledges in hand by the end of April. There is a lot of work to be done before some lucky future Board President cuts another ribbon, and we need to get on with it.

In the weeks ahead you will be asked by fellow Langley parents to give generously to the new Library. Please take time to listen and give what you can. Langley’s children — to whom so much has been given, and from whom so much will be expected — must above all learn to love libraries.

Good night, Miss Smith — and thank you.

Robert A. Knisely, President of the Board

The Langley School, McLean, VA 22101

January 15th, 1988