The hottest thing in consumer medicine right now is laser eye surgery. The ads are everywhere. There are clinics in shopping malls. You'd have to be blind not to notice.
Because I am nearsighted, I'm the type of person who is supposed to benefit the most from this procedure. But I'm wavering about whether to do it, and not for the obvious reason.
I'm not squeamish. It's just that I like being nearsighted. Or at least, I like the option of being nearsighted. I want eyeglasses, so that I can take them off.
Successful laser eye surgery usually eliminates the need for glasses or contact lenses, improving imperfect vision by slicing into your cornea and reshaping it. Proponents say this procedure has become much safer since the 1970s, when Russian doctors first performed it with--and this is the truth--Gillette razor blades. Now it is done with beams of light that annihilate tissue.
(I know this is an improvement, but it still seems disturbing. It seems, somehow, a sort of superficial improvement over something irredeemably suspect--the way lethal injection is an improvement over the electric chair.)
Radio spots for laser eye surgery must walk a slender tightrope. On the one hand, the eye-slice moguls emphasize their surgical skill, implying that this is a potentially dangerous procedure, so you shouldn't entrust your eyeballs to some thick-fingered nitwit employed elsewhere. On the other hand, being in a wildly competitive market, these clinics also tend to pitch themselves with all the dignity of ads for monster truck rallies. One clinic promotes itself as "the exclusive laser eye center of the Washington Redskins." Another suggests eyeball surgery as the perfect Christmas gift (ho-ho-hold still now . . . ).
The clinics ask you to sign consent forms as thick as a tombstone. These documents detail everything that can go wrong, and do so with unnerving specificity. Here is an actual quote from one consent form: "Other reported complications include: corneal ulcer formation; endothelial cell loss (loss of cell density in the inner layer of the cornea); ptosis (droopy eyelid); corneal swelling; contact lens intolerance; retinal detachment; hemorrhage. . . ."
But as I said, none of this bothers me much. I'd do one eye at a time, so the worst that could happen is that I would lose sight in that one only. With only one eye, your greatest problem is with depth perception, which mostly leads to amusing slapstick situations such as raising your finger to signal a nearby waiter and accidentally picking his nose.
No, my problem is that I don't hate being nearsighted. Without glasses, even the seriously nearsighted person can see well up close. I can read a newspaper (though to onlookers it may seem I am licking the page). It is when I try to see at a distance that things get dicey. At middle distances--say, the distance from my head to a computer screen--things are a little blurry. Farther away, the world becomes a strange, gauzy mystery. A benign homogenization takes place: What's that out there? A man? A cow? A Chevy S-10 Blazer? No way to be sure! Who cares?
This is the beauty of nearsightedness. The world shrinks to manageable size. Things become cozy.
Only the nearsighted can understand the comforting intimacy of their affliction. Only the nearsighted can remove their glasses and be suddenly, profoundly alone with the book they are reading or the person they are loving. At night, street lamps take on a warm, convivial glow, with a scalloped, crystalline halo. You are living in a painting by Van Gogh.
Sharp, angular objects become pillowy and inviting. I am writing this on a 5:30 deadline, and it is right now 17 after 5, by the clock on the wall. This is scary. When I remove my glasses, however, I can see that it is no longer 5:17. It is no longer even a clock. It is a smiley face made from bunny-rabbit moccasin fur. I am no longer scared.
The artistic advantage of nearsightedness first occurred to me 20 years ago, while I lay on the floor of a cabin at a little inn in Vermont on a cold winter night. Inches before me was a glass of claret, its stem sunk deep into the russet pile of the carpet. The orange flush of a roaring fire was dancing on the belly of the glass. It was beautiful, and it was all I saw clearly. I had removed my glasses. The rest of the room was a warm blur. I felt alone in an elegant old photograph, a tintype with softened borders.
I could not see anything to mar the elegance of the scene. I couldn't see the tacky furniture. I couldn't see the unmade bed. I couldn't see the pizza box with the ruins of dinner. At that moment, my world was a blissful distortion of closeness.
I contemplated my great good fortune. As I lay there in the cabin, I felt inspired. There was money in this idea! I would write a book. It would be an ode to imperfect vision, a work of art, of poetry. A bestseller. I'd never have to work again. The perfect title leapt to mind: "Myopia Utopia."
The fire died out. I drifted off to sleep, tickled with wine and wisdom.
The following morning, I awoke and put my glasses on. I could see that while I had lain there, enraptured, planning my literary coup, a huge ember from the fire had popped out and plopped itself a few feet in front of me. Right before my eyes, it had slowly sizzled a four-inch hole through the carpet and into the floorboards.
I paid the innkeeper extravagantly for the damage. Didn't write the book. Felt foolish. Stayed poor.
The experience opened my eyes, as it were. I am a disabled person. My body is a damaged vessel. I need better vision. I want better vision. But I also want Van Gogh.
So there's my dilemma with laser eye surgery.
Maybe there's a middle ground. Maybe I could get the surgery, and then buy a special pair of glasses to fuzz up the world whenever I put them on. Glasses that would make me nearsighted again.
Hey. There might be money in this idea. It would be a way to piggyback on the laser surgery craze. I could start a company that would manufacture . . . anti-corrective lenses!
A perfect name leaps to mind: Myopia Utopia Inc.
Gene Weingarten is a writer and editor for The Post's Style section. His diopter reading is -4.25 in the left eye and -4.00 in the right eye.