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Jack Smith

La belle epoque? It's hard to imagine life without one's specs or indoor plumbing

August 27, 1986|JACK SMITH

We are so dependent on the products of invention that it is almost impossible to imagine life without them.

What would it be like without the automobile?

Few living people, if any, can remember a time when cities had no automobiles. Only in movies about the 18th and 19th centuries do we see carriages rattling down cobblestone streets behind pairs or teams of horses.

Such movies fill us with nostalgia for a time we never knew. How quaint and peaceful everything must have been back then. Was life ever more elegant and graceful than in the Paris of la belle epoque?

Of course the poor were freezing in their unheated apartments; sanitation was primitive; there was no electric refrigeration; and tens of thousands died of tuberculosis, syphilis and smallpox.

Life was not altogether as charming as it was depicted in that buoyant film of some years ago, "Gigi."

I wonder what single modern invention we would most dislike having to give up.

Many people might thoughtlessly say the automobile. Indeed, it has shaped our cities, our sexual mores and our century. We could go back to streetcars, but we would not have the freedom of movement, the spontaneity, the reach, that urbanites enjoy today. If we went back to horses and carriages the street cleanup problem would be so enormous that we might be happy to exchange it for smog.

But we could do it, without giving up too many of the amenities of life, and it would be great for blacksmiths and the livery business.

What about the refrigerator? It is a boon, no doubt. But we could go back to the icebox if we had to. The iceman was once a familiar figure in our streets. He could come again.

The electric light? It has lengthened our day. It has kept us from early beds and extended our social and cultural life. But families survived by candlelight and coal-oil lantern. Great books were written and read. Lincoln got his learning, we are told, by firelight. In la belle epoque the cancan girls danced at the Moulin Rouge by gaslight, and were doubtless all the more enchanting for it.

I suppose some teen-agers think life would be insupportable without their portable radios, by which they enjoy the uninterrupted din of rock music even as they walk down an otherwise serene summer street.

But of course teen-agers were born to all the many wonders that have appeared in this century of high technology, so they take almost everything for granted.

No teen-agers born in our cities can remember life without television, jet airplanes, stereo, microwave ovens, amplified music and polio shots.

If I had to say what one invention I would most hate to give up I might, without giving it much thought, say indoor plumbing. It does make life tolerable, especially in the winter, when it's raining.

Certainly the discovery of the smallpox vaccine has spared us that scourge of earlier centuries, and modern anesthesia has spared us much agony in the dentist's chair and on the surgeon's table.

What made me think about these things, though, was getting out of bed this morning and not being able to find my glasses.

I can see without them, but I can't read. I went into the kitchen and found the paper on the counter where my wife usually puts it. But all I could read was the larger headlines.

The letters in the stories were gray blobs, one merging into another. It has been years since I have been able to read a newspaper or a book without my glasses. And years before that a page in the telephone directory had become one large gray blur.

Without my optical lenses, in fact, I would be shut out from reading anything that wasn't printed in letters one inch high.

As I say, I can see. I can see shapes and colors and people. I can still enjoy the blue of the swimming pool and the sky and the green and purple of the jacaranda tree, and recognize faces, and appreciate a shapely limb; I can watch a football game on television; but all of these sights are sharpened, of course, by my glasses.

If it came right down to a choice between automobiles, television, lights, plumbing, anesthesia and eyeglasses, I believe I'd take my glasses.

I remember having to use the outhouse at my Uncle Charlie's farm in the Ozarks, but at least one had the Sears, Roebuck catalogue to read--at least in the daytime, and one never went at night unless it was absolutely necessary.

Eyeglasses may be better than ever today, but they are not, strictly speaking, a product of modern technology. In 1280 the Florentine physicist Salvino degli Armati, having damaged his eyes in experiments with light refraction, found that he could see things better by looking at them through two pieces of glass having a specific thickness and curve. This discovery was spread through a Dominican friend at the convent of Saint Catherine of Pisa.

In 1746 a French optician invented the frame, which fits over ears and nose and holds the lenses in place. Thus, we are all familiar with the pictures of an elderly and stout Ben Franklin peering benignly at us over the half-lenses to which he gave his name.

As I write these words it occurs to me that I wouldn't be able to do it without my eyeglasses.

I'd have to make an honest living.

Do you wonder at my choice?

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