Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An eye doctor discovers the heartbreak of presbyopia

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times, January 13, 2008)

Through a miracle of modern optics, I’ve fooled my brain into thinking that it’s 1984. All is quiet on the Old Age Front. Quiet, that is, as long as I keep my head completely still and my eyes perfectly centered through my progressive addition “no-line” bifocals.

For those under the age of forty and therefore clueless, I’m referring to the malady that I call The Heartbreak of Presbyopia (from the Greek, meaning “old eyes”).

Basically, the lenses inside your eyes grow stiff with age and can no longer flex to focus for near vision. This results in a perpetual browache, forehead furrows deeper than those produced by a John Deere tractor and the tendency to read with outstretched arms, or else, to set reading material on the ground.

You’d think that a battle-hardened optometrist like me wouldn’t be bothered by such cold, hard facts of anatomy and physiology. But the onset of presbyopia has been no less severe for me than for the average patient sitting in my exam chair.

Sure I’ve been prescribing glasses for years, but there is no way some wet-behind-the-ears optometrist in his late twenties can possibly relate to the emotional and physical anguish that is presbyopia. In fact, in my youthful ignorance, I often viewed my distraught, hand-wringing patients coming in for their first bifocal as a little, well, whiny.

Recently, though, karma and middle age finally caught up with me. I had to give in and get behind the phoropter, that machine with the multitude of lenses that makes you look like Darth Vader on a bad mask day.

Yep, that’s right; most of us eye doctor types do our own. We even ask ourselves The Big Question: “Which is better, one or two?” We, too, break out in a cold sweat and suffer palpitations when the choices get too close too call.

There, feel better now?

It's true that if you pony up the major bucks and get a no-line bifocal, your friends may not be able to guess that you’re somewhere on the far side of forty. In fact, it may seem like the perfect ruse.

But remember: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Along with the flattering deception comes the fact that you must now become a walking bobble-head doll, constantly turning and nodding your head to keep your eyes centered in the “sweet spot,” or channel of clear vision that runs through middle of the lens.

If you make the mistake of turning your eyes like God intended you to, then life suddenly becomes more precarious. The distortion that you get through the edge of your average no-line bifocal lens causes blurry peripheral vision.

I discovered this immediately as I backed out of my spot in the parking lot after putting my new glasses on for the first time. As I looked over my right shoulder, the cars behind me suddenly began to dance merrily around in a mirage-like shimmer, taunting me like a gang of infernal demons from some Dantean tableau.

It's also good to remember that normal peripheral vision evolved for a good reason and has important survival value, such as the ability to detect and avoid that large Mack truck which may be hurtling toward you as you cross the street at the corner of Governors and Whitesburg. Wearing a no-line bifocal may lead to the following scenario:

Cop # 1: “Say, how old do you think that stiff is over there who just got steamrolled by that semi?

Cop # 2: “Um, I’m not sure, but he can’t be over 40 because there’s no bifocal line in his glasses.”

Actually, the distortion isn’t nearly as noticeable now, and I no longer have to throw back a fistful of ibuprofen in order to get rid of that pesky browache.

Ah, sweet surrender!

But from now on, I think I’ll be a little more sympathetic when my patients come in for their first bifocal. Since I’ve experienced The Heartbreak of Presbyopia firsthand, the chickens have finally come home to roost. Here sits one bespectacled Foghorn Leghorn who's learned to eat a little crow.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Everyday life sings its own song of 'love in the trenches'

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on February 10, 2008)

Another Valentine’s Day rolls around, and my mind is drawn back to 1976—and Annie. I sang her song, and it didn’t matter that she was John Denver’s wife because it wasn’t really about her.

I had in my mind’s eye some future “Annie” who, unlike the freshman cheerleaders who were so blasted picky, would overlook my pimples, frizzy “fro,” skinny arms and oversized aviator glasses and consent to “filling up my senses” anyway. Geeky 15-year-old guys have been known to think such thoughts.

That year, our family attended a John Denver concert at the Roanoke, Virginia Civic Center. Off we went for an earful of “Rocky Mountain High.” I was sandwiched into Section 7, Row 32, Seat 5 between my two sisters.

Yes, those were wild times in Southwest Virginia. It’s a wonder that I survived them. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, my future wife was waving a Zippo lighter while riding some dude’s shoulders at a Boston concert.

But what my parents hadn’t counted on was the opening act—the one-hit wonder Starland Vocal Band. As they launched into the song that briefly lit their flame of fame, sparks began to fly in my direction, and I leaned forward in my seat, all ears and very intrigued—“skyrockets in flight, afternoon delight, aaaafternoon delight!”

Oh really? I thought.

Of course, even hippies extolling the virtues of free love can occasionally stumble upon a nugget of truth. And as I consider this idea of casual, everyday loving, of “anytime, anywhere” romance, it strikes me once again how much time, effort—and money—we put into February 14th.

As if it were the one make-it-or-break-it day of true romance, we pile it on: long waits at overcrowded bistros, roses (one or a dozen, it doesn’t matter), lacey teddies, heart-covered boxers and 5-dollar cards with pop-out inserts that rise higher than the construction scaffolding on the side of a fresh, 10-storey building.

In short, we have Great Expectations and lots of them. Sometimes they’re met, sometimes not.

O! Must we be so predictable? Well, yes, of course we must; otherwise we’ll hear about it—over and over and over.

Now please don’t get me wrong; Valentine’s Day is important. In fact, it often serves as an occasion of recommitment and creates the time and space needed to add a little kindling to the fire. But my wife and I have discovered over the years that it’s the “romance-in-the-trenches” that counts—and nourishes—the most.

Indeed, it’s the everyday, “anytime, anywhere” loving that you somehow manage to merge with the ordinary domestic routine that keeps you going from one Valentine’s Day to the next.

It’s the hugs, squeezes and affirmations that occur in between diaper changes, despite the burnt macaroni and cheese, at births, weddings, graduations and funerals, and most especially, “in the middle of a cold, dark night” when you’re bone tired and world weary and all you have is each other to turn to.

These are The Real Thing, the sparks that ignite and keep the home fires burning year after year. Starland Vocal Band may not have had all the answers, but they were at least headed in the right direction.

It’s now 2008, and I’ve ditched the aviator frames for small, oval glasses that lend me an air of hipness that I don’t truly deserve. I really don’t have any problems with pimples, and my arms are bigger and stronger. The frizzy “fro” is gone, my hair having long migrated south to my bearded face.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I listen to classic and soft rock while driving around town. Occasionally, “Annie’s Song” will come on, and I’ll turn the volume knob all the way to 11. At stoplights, young men in their tricked out Honda Civics gaze in wonder as a stone age relic transcends the surly bonds of the mundane and passes into audio nirvana.

But when I sing the words “she fills up my senses,” it’s not Annie’s face that I see.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

New to the city? Here's a handy guide for you newcomers

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on March 9, 2008)

We moved to Huntsville 15 years ago this month. Back then, what I really wanted was a reliable newcomer’s guide. There are probably folks migrating to Huntsville from northern Virginia as part of the BRAC move who feel the same way. Maybe some of them will even read this column.

If so, then relax. As a native Virginian, I feel your dislocation. Allow me to be your guide:

When driving to Huntsville, enter from the east. Cross Monte Sano and behold beautiful Jones Valley and the stunning view of downtown Huntsville. You’ll experience many happy memories of those weekend getaways in the Shenandoah Valley.

Don’t enter from the west via U.S. 72 and hang a right on South Memorial Parkway like I did the first time I came to town. The heavy commercialization and the sight of all those billboards will make you want to get away from Huntsville.

Expect an inconsistent architectural theme to the city. We have more than our fair share of structural gems, such as the ante-bellum homes in the Twickenham District and the charming old churches and business buildings downtown. But be warned - when you pass our courthouse and City Hall, avert your gaze.

Shorter commutes

Prepare to have extra time on your hands from shorter commutes. The natives complain about “the traffic,” but they exaggerate. If you build your 4,000-square-foot dream home in a former cotton field in the boonies of Monrovia, though, you might find yourself having some Beltway flashbacks.

Learn to love barbecue. It’s a little known fact of history that the Saturn V rocket, our town totem, was not powered by liquid hydrogen but instead by pulled pork. Those nerdy NASA guys in the short-sleeve white shirts and skinny black ties who sent us to the moon back in the 1960s ate tons of the stuff. Combining barbecue with sweet tea produces an especially potent fuel.

Remember this name: Wernher von Braun. Go to wikipedia.com and memorize his entry. Everything is about him and named after him. He is THE MAN. And it’s pronounced von “BROWN” not von “BRAWN.” I never had trouble remembering that, but you might.

If you’re a Christian, boy are you going to be blessed! You can stand in any spot in the city and hit three or four different churches with a rock - and you won’t even need a sling.

They know you’re coming, so prepare to be wooed with new building additions, a deluge of mail-outs and TV commercials, potlucks galore and a program for your every spiritual/suburban need. If you’re of a different religious persuasion, you may have to search harder to find some fellowship, but Huntsville’s still got you covered.

If you must criticize someone, please don’t do so directly like you’re accustomed to up north. Instead, insert the phrase “bless his/her heart” when making any potentially negative comment. You can practically get away with slander if you just remember to say those magic words.

If you want your kids to become National Merit Scholars and be taught by first-rate teachers, then be sure to enroll them at that 1960s architectural “uh-oh” known as Grissom High School. Remember, there’s more to a school than its windowless facade and the portable “classroom” units sitting out front. Bless their hearts.

The dividing line

You had the Washington Redskins, but down here we have real football. Families, neighborhoods and churches have been known to divide along the fault line of Alabama vs. Auburn. I would suggest that you remain neutral as long as possible.

Of course, the day may come when one of your kids may enroll in one of those fine institutions of higher learning and, like me, you’ll find yourself yelling, “Roll Tide, Roll!” even though Huntsville is nowhere near the Gulf of Mexico.

No, we’re far from perfect. But don’t be surprised if, despite The Rocket City’s occasional quirks, you fall in love with the place anyway.

As I’ve discovered, Huntsville is still a great place to live.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Life lessons from Keith learned in a tow truck

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on April 13, 2008)

A burned out ignition coil on the last day of a beach vacation is a real buzz killer. Oh, and another thing: The nearest dealer was over 150 miles away in Montgomery.

But my sad tale of paradise interrupted ends well. For every “fix” there’s a “fixer.” Mine was a Diet Coke-swilling, chain-smoking, insomniac tow-truck driver named Keith.

After a tense afternoon on the phone, we’d finally found someone willing to make such a long trip on a Friday night. Keith was the man with the time, the truck and the insomnia for the job.

He came by his sleeplessness honestly. Keith was a retired Air Force tech sergeant who had built “tent cities” and wired them up in various exotic locales throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We put up stuff that the Army couldn’t,” he boasted.

Occasionally, Keith even put in a swimming pool. You know those fly-boys and their creature comforts.

“Yeah,” he explained as he pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, “I only sleep about two hours a night anyway, so this is nothing. Mind if I smoke? I’ll keep the window rolled down.”

Well, actually I do, I thought. But you go right ahead, brother. There’s no way I’m denying you nicotine on tonight of all nights.

Off we went on our mad, moonlit dash up U.S. 331. He told me that he had just picked up his flatbed truck from the shop that afternoon right before he received the call to come get me. That didn’t exactly inspire my confidence. But that was only the beginning.

I saw that he kept lifting up his round, rimless glasses to look at his dashboard. Being an optometrist, I notice stuff like that.

“Yeah, I can’t see the damn dashboard anymore with these stupid glasses. My night vision ain’t what it used to be either. But as long as I can see the lines on the road, we’ll be fine.”

I’d heard that line before. I double-checked my seat belt and consoled myself with the thought that if we hit something, a 6-ton tow truck plus car would likely come out the winner.

We sped over Choctawhatchee Bay, past Eglin Air Force Base, through Florala, and onward and upward toward Opp.

The heart of the Deep South was beating out its familiar Friday night rhythm. Families gathered beside lighted baseball diamonds for early season practice, dimly lit, locally owned diners bustled with loyal patrons and elderly couples rocked on the front porches of ancient clapboard houses in one-stoplight towns.

I watched the lifeblood of a great nation flow by my passenger side window. I saw the workaday people who go about their tasks, earning their daily bread and caring for their families and neighbors with nary a complaint, forever faithful in the trenches. People sort of like Keith.

Depressed over the sound and fury of presidential politics? Then remember that regardless of who occupies the Oval Office next January, those same salt-of-the-earth souls will still be holding down the fort. Let that be a comfort to you.

Four hours after our odyssey began, we reached Montgomery and dropped off my car. By that time, Keith had polished off three Diet Cokes and four cigarettes, and shouted out his entire life story over the deafening roar of his diesel engine. He was clearly feeling the euphoria of “mission accomplished.”

“Hey, let’s go to Hooters! I’m buyin’!” he generously offered. Such is the bond that forms between the tow-er and the towed.

For the record, I politely declined. He agreed to drop me at my hotel instead. Although I had a reservation, he told me that he would wait around until I had my key.

I paid him his fee ($264 after AAA discount) plus tip. It occurred to me that it had been quite a while since I had received such fine service.

As I walked along the second-floor balcony toward my room, Keith spotted me, gave me a little salute and hit the gas. I stopped, stood at attention and saluted right back.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

My advice? Swing away while the sun still shines

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on May 11, 2008)

Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Well, it’s May, and all across the Tennessee Valley, players of all shapes and sizes - some of them smaller than the bats they’ll attempt to swing - are heeding the umpire’s call to “Play ball!”

Somewhere, Rogers Hornsby is smiling.

We’re smiling too, although our family’s Little League days are long over. We filed those diamond memories away but replay them every now and then like a SportsCenter highlight reel. Da-da-duh! Da-da-duh!

We remember the many hours spent with friends and neighbors at Fern Gully Park, watching our children learn the great American pastime and trying to create a little bit of common good in an unpredictable, topsy-turvy world. There were hits, catches, strikeouts and dropped balls, most of them lost in the sun which sets low and harsh over Redstone Arsenal on a late spring evening.

And who can forget those hot dogs (burp!)? For several years, my wife managed the concession stand at “The Gully” and cooked dinner for several hundred people each evening. I developed quite a taste for those little gastronomical gems, the more mustard and relish, the better.

Humphrey Bogart once said, “A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.”

Bogie, you’re preaching to the choir.

Remember that movie “Field of Dreams”? Well, it’s true. I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes.

Ten years ago this month in Roanoke, Va., a red-headed 10-year-old boy named Andrew stepped to the plate with two on and two out. He was our nephew, and he was born with hydrocephalus.

Andrew had endured much, but he had taken the hand that was dealt him and played it for all it was worth. He loved his mom, pizza and the Atlanta Braves - and not necessarily in that order.

He had already struck out twice that night, so when he took one called strike and then swung and missed for another, the opposing team began to relax. The shortstop stooped over and started to draw little circles in the dirt, and the center fielder reach down to pick a dandelion.

But their coach saw something. I’m not sure exactly what it was. Maybe it was the glint of steely determination in Andrew’s eyes. Maybe it was the way he dug in a little deeper and guarded the plate, just like his hero Chipper Jones.

Whatever it was, it was enough for him to suddenly shout to his team, “Hey, look alive out there! This guy’s ready. He’s gonna do something!”

And in that moment before the air was filled with the crack of Andrew’s bat, all of us who stood by that field dared to dream.

By the time the dandelion-picking center fielder returned the ball to the circle-drawing shortstop, Andrew had long since rounded third and was headed for home. He crossed over standing up.

I’ll never forget the look of pure joy on that boy’s face. And I’ll never forget the sight of my oldest son, who was sitting on the bench with Andrew’s team, screaming “Run, Andrew, run!” and then hugging and high-fiving his cousin afterwards.

You know what? It only takes one of those Roy Hobbs moments to fill up the life of a little boy. You carry a memory like that with you until the day you die.

Seven months later, Andrew succumbed to complications of the hydrocephalus and was gone. Hundreds convened on New Year’s Day 1999 and mourned his death. But we celebrated that home run and the many other great feats of his meteoric life.

I’ve heard some call baseball a great metaphor. I say it is a great teacher too.

This is what it has taught me: That our days are short, and while the sun is still shining, we must all step to the plate, be ready to “do something” and like Andrew - swing away.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Even menial jobs can elevate one's stature

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on June 8, 2008)
I’ve watched my oldest son and his friends return from college and start their summer “scut work” jobs with a certain bemusement.
“But work is sooo boring,” they protest.
Well, duh, compared to Ultimate Frisbee on the quad and nailing that expert-level riff on “Guitar Hero” at 2 a.m., I suppose it is. Looks like it’s time to peer through the distorting lens of nostalgia and show them how hard “real work” was “back in the day.”
I worked as an orderly at a nursing home during college. It was backbreaking work that left me physically and mentally drained.
But I discovered that if you volunteered to drive the van and take residents to their doctor’s appointments, things went more smoothly. If you were lucky, you could blow an entire day reading magazines in an air-conditioned waiting room.
Sometimes the ride home could be eventful, though. Like the time I forgot to lock the wheels on a sweet little old lady’s wheelchair and then started driving up a steep hill.
When I heard her “sweet little” cry and looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the wheelchair rolling toward the back of the van, I had a flashback to a 1970s Barbara Streisand screwball comedy. There was my charge, rolling through the streets barely missing cars, pedestrians and workers carrying large, plate glass windows, and me, her “caretaker,” in hot pursuit.
Fortunately, I had shut the back door tightly. Even today, although the floor to my office is perfectly level, I always reach down and lock the wheels to a patient’s wheelchair before starting an exam. Some lessons just stick with you.
As for the various times I worked as a construction laborer during college, there are really only two words that need to be said: I’m sorry.
Sorry for all the outlet covers put on upside down; sorry for the insulation that wasn’t stapled in correctly; sorry for that door that just won’t shut quite right.
All across the Southeast, homeowners are taking a closer look at the so-called “quality craftsmanship” of their suburban, executive homes and asking, “Who the @#$% put this thing together?”
Uh, that would be me, and, like I said, I’m sorry.
I wasn’t exactly a whiz at brick masonry either. One time I went to throw a shovelful of mortar up on some scaffolding and didn’t turn my wrist quite hard enough and then - you guessed it. Splat!
Now there’s a lesson they didn’t cover in advanced biology.
Even after I finished optometry school and started my first “real job,” the humiliation continued. I had quite the baby face back then, and one of my first patients asked me, sans smile, “What high school did you just graduate from?”
The staff at that first clinic treated me like I was an adolescent too. I complained to my supervisor that I was a doctor, dadgumit, but, like Rodney Dangerfield, I just couldn’t get “no respect!”
He was so compassionate: “Want respect? Earn it.”
That’s a little pearl that I’ve passed on to my residents and students over the years. Take good care of your patients or else all those initials behind your name will be worth less than the noodles in a can of alphabet soup.
Beauty and order
When I think about the meaning of work, I lean hard on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him - for this is his lot.”
And I recall that Jim Carrey movie, “Bruce Almighty.” Particularly that scene where Bruce discovers true contentment helping God, a.k.a. Morgan Freeman in a janitor’s uniform, clean a warehouse floor until it gleams.
Maybe there is no real “scut work.” Maybe any labor that adds a little beauty and order to a creation that trends toward chaos can ultimately be meaningful and redemptive.
Note to self: It’s about the warehouse floor, stupid.
©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A reminder: 'We the People' are a motley crew

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on July 13, 2008)

I peered through the protective glass at the yellowed parchment and tried to discern the ancient calligraphy, now faded from years of light and exposure. The words were faint, but I strained harder until they finally came into focus: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...”

As I stared at the Preamble to our Constitution recently, I realized that “we the people” are not perfect and neither is our union. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying to make it “more” so, nor does it appear that we’ll be giving up any time soon.

My wife and I strolled down the broad, expansive avenues of Washington, D.C., and stood at the national memorials, reading the words of sacrifice, promise and hope. We watched workers, busy as bees in a hive of democracy, carry on the difficult work of keeping this lumbering, stumbling, sometimes bumbling behemoth of a country lurching forward into the future.

As we rode the trolley and hit the highlights, we noticed something else too: “We the people” are a motley and colorful crew.

“We” are the congressional aides, lawyers (lots of those), hotel workers, nannies, housekeepers, construction workers, museum docents and university students who descended together into subterranean tunnels and boarded the Metro trains - one nation, underground, with standing room only for all.

“We” are the urban hipsters, Latino families with young children and pale-legged tourists in khaki shorts who mixed and mingled on Mt. Pleasant Street on a sunny June Sunday, variegated cultures bumping together, blending and bonding into a stronger whole.

“We” are a Maryland-born WASP named Chris and a Southern California-bred Japanese-Filipino named Suzanne. My wife and I were privileged to be among many other guests from near and far who watched the couple exchange their wedding vows.

People like the beautiful and classy Dr. Jane Fall-Dickson, a clinical investigator at the National Institutes of Health, who, with her grace and infectious humor, celebrated her friends’ new life together even as she braced herself for the second anniversary of her cancer researcher-husband’s sudden death.

And Father Ray East, African American Catholic priest, pastor of an inner city parish and a cherished counselor to scores of suffering AIDS patients throughout the D.C. area.

He delivered the homily then surprised the wedding party and guests by singing a rousing and rhythmic Hebrew song of celebration and then leading us all in another - “Bless This Family” sung to the tune of “Edelweiss.”

Cmdr. Marquez Campbell and his lovely wife, Maricela, one of the bride’s best friends growing up, traveled all the way from San Diego. Marquez, a 25-year Navy veteran, described to me what it was like to sail on the hospital ship USNS Mercy and to be one of the first on the scene after the Indonesian tsunami in 2005.

“Projecting ’soft power’ is a good thing in this day and age,” he said.

I couldn’t have agreed more.

They, and many other new friends, smothered us in hospitality - apparently the Deep South hasn’t completely cornered that particular market. Neither is our fervent, Southern-fried recipe for patriotism, as tasty as it can be when it’s done right, the only item on the menu.

“We” Southerners are one brick in a great wall, one thread among many in a strong, diverse and colorful garment. Maybe it’s time we got past some of our provincial prejudices, looked beyond the Mason-Dixon Line and gave the rest of the country a little more credit.

To us, this joyous wedding celebration seemed symbolic of the hope and promise of “a more perfect union” writ large across the land. If Chris and Suzanne can jump in and try to make it work, then what’s stopping the rest of us from doing the same thing?

Chris and Suzanne got hitched, and we left D.C. feeling more invested in and proud of our country.

“We the people of the United States…”

The letters may have faded, but the hopes and dreams shaped by them seemed bolder than ever.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

From 1978: My Olympic dream dead? Not so fast!

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on August 10, 2008)

My Olympic dream died sometime around 1978. The reality was that I could barely crack the top ten of an average high school cross country race, so there was little hope of me ever mounting the winner's platform and hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in my lifetime.

But I kept on running anyway. Just like Forrest Gump, I didn't have sense enough to know when to stop.

During the 1972 Munich Games, American runners like Jim Ryun, Steve Prefontaine, Dave Wottle and Frank Shorter captured my elementary schoolboy imagination and launched my own much less stellar running career.

Ryun, the world record-holder in the mile, was my hero. He'd finished second in the 1500 meter run to Kenya's Kip Keino in the thin, rare air of Mexico City four years prior and was a favorite in Munich. But someone tripped him during a qualifying heat, ending his gold medal dreams forever.

Harsh reality

To my young mind, it was an early tutorial in cold, harsh reality, a warning that nice guys can finish last no matter how fast they are. I knew what I had to do to right that great wrong: I set my sights on 1984 and started training right then and there.

I fashioned a makeshift running singlet by cutting off the sleeves of a white t-shirt and stenciling a crude "U.S.A." across the front in red and blue magic marker. Soon I was racing an imaginary Kip Keino around my house, and I eventually wore a bare path in my father's lawn, not as sacred and pristine as the track at the University of Oregon's legendary Hayward Field, but just as oval.

The farmers driving by in their pickup trucks laden with bales of hay looked on in bemusement, gave me the Southwest Virginia salute—chin lift, one finger raised off the steering wheel—and probably thought, Lawdy mercy, what's that Brown boy up to now?

My father never complained but simply smiled and asked, "How many laps did you run today?" Dad never came to any of my cross country meets. He was a postal worker, and neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor your child's extracurricular activities could stop the U.S. Mail back then.

But on the mornings after meets, he'd always check the sports section of The Roanoke Times to see where I'd finished. He'd tell me how proud he was to see my name in the paper like that, right there beside the NFL scores and college football rankings.

The Perfect Run didn't come until I was in college, though. In March, 1983, I ran in a charity fundraiser on the Harding University track. I wasn't intending to run that hard, but when I saw the lovely ladies of Sigma Phi Mu gathered in the stands to cheer us on, I knew this was as close as I would ever get to a piece of Olympic glory.

I dialed in a sub-six minute per mile pace and aimed to hold it for as far as my legs would carry me. They carried me ten miles in just under an hour that night.

Lingering effects

You've heard of the "runner's high?" It's been 25 years since I ran that far, that fast, but I still get stoned just thinking about it.

A few years ago, I finally got a chance to meet my boyhood hero when he spoke at Harding. By then, he was Congressman Jim Ryun, and I told him how he'd inspired me to start running, and that I still didn't have sense enough to know when to stop.

I also mentioned my duels with the invisible Kip Keino on the dusty oval that I blazed on my father's lawn, and he asked me who won.

"I did," I replied.

"Good for you," he laughed.

Then he held my gaze just a little bit longer, and I saw in his eyes a wistful mix of pain and pride and knew in an instant what he was thinking:

If we'd run that race at sea level back in '68, I would have won too.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Once neutral, a new convert faces the real No. 1 Tide fan

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on September 14, 2008)

I was as neutral as Switzerland for my first 18 years in The Yellowhammer State. If you'd asked me who I pulled for, Alabama or Auburn, you'd have received a shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyes and a coolly nonchalant, "Whatever."

But that was before my oldest son enrolled at Tuscaloosa—bye bye, bipartisanship. I had to convert to The Crimson Way, and that came as a surprise to those who knew of my roots and how that 77-6 smackdown Bear Bryant's boys delivered to my hometown Virginia Tech Hokies back in 1973 had stayed stuck in my craw all those years.

But The Bear himself was apparently looking down from that Great Practice Tower In The Sky and wanting to make amends. Just days before the kickoff of the Tide's 2007 home opener against Western Carolina, the inaugural game of the Saban era, two tickets gently wafted into my lap like manna from heaven.

Off to the temple

So off I went to the temple itself, Bryant Denny Stadium, for my full immersion baptism beneath the Crimson Tide. But as I took my seat near the 50-yard line, I knew that I was still a neophyte. A Capstone catechumen lacking proper instruction. A wandering sheep in need of, well, a pastor.

Not to worry, because Amanda, her arms loaded down with concessions, shakers and a handheld "Alabama Fan" to sweep away the evening humidity, was making her way down the aisle.

Amanda was straight from central casting. She was fifty-something, five foot one inch and 100 pounds if she was an ounce. Her nails were painted a glossy crimson, and she wore a Bama tank top, grey sweat shorts and Roll Tide flip-flops. She was loud, salty and full of sass, in a Steel Magnolias, Ouiser Boudreaux sort of way (although I can assure you, she was no Cajun).

She'd been born for that night, and as Amanda called the assembly to order, she was, to put it simply, on fire. "Hey evra'body, it's time to party! Roll Tide, Roll!"

Amanda knew every play of the pregame film by heart and served as my personal narrator, latching on to my arm and squeezing tightly every time a good catch or hit was coming up—which is to say, constantly.

"Ooh, ooh, watch now, look at George go, oh, here comes Tyrone, check out this catch—YESSS! Look, here comes a good hit—BOOOOM!

But not even Amanda in her most technicolor houndstooth dreams could have imagined what would happen next. On the first play from scrimmage, freshman tailback Terry Grant took the pitch from John Parker Wilson, ran right, cut back left and then scampered against the grain for a 47-yard touchdown.

Crimson tsunami

You think your local First Baptist Church Choir is loud? Then just try keeping track of your part when a 92,000 member congregation erupts in a hallelujah chorus, drowning out a decade's worth of spleen and disappointment in a towering, all-consuming Crimson flood.

I looked over at Amanda. She was jumping up and down like a jackhammer on crystal meth, her mouth chattering away in some kind of strange, never-before-heard goal line glossolalia. I looked more closely, and I could have sworn I saw an aura flitting about her head. My God, I thought, the woman's been transfigured.

Amanda kept up her non-stop sermon and "GO, GO, GO, BAMAHHHs" well into the fourth quarter. Despite a little hoarseness setting in, she saved enough in the tank for the benediction, a loud "Rammer Jammer" as the final seconds ticked away on the 52-6 thrashing.

As the game ended, I shook her hand and thanked her for helping make it a night to remember. "I think Phyllis from Mulga had best watch her back," I said, referring to the so-called "Number One Alabama Fan" of Paul Finebaum radio fame.

Amanda beamed. Then she sighed, and in one of those authentically Southern moments, the kind deep-fried in an extra crispy coating of good old-fashioned irony, said: "Ya know, I'm so damn happy I don't know what to say."

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Dad to son: Eat right, study hard, vote well

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on October 12, 2008)

Dear Eldest Son,

By now, hopefully you've received your absentee ballot for your very first presidential election. It's your ticket to full-fledged citizenship, so try not to lose it beneath that Mt. Everest-sized laundry pile on your dorm floor.

Yes, you must put an actual stamp on it and mail it the Cro-Magnon way. No, you can't text your selection in, nor can you vote on Facebook.

Congratulations! You're about to make history right out of the gate by helping to elect either the first African-American President or the first female Vice-President in our nation's history. You know who I'm voting for and why, but so what? I expect you to own your vote, just like you do all the other Big Decisions you're making these days.

Still, may I pass on a few political pearls as you approach this important milestone? Just consider it another long, cool drink from that "font of wisdom" that you've been lucky enough to draw from all these years.

First things first: conservatives versus liberals. G.K. Chesterton once wryly observed, "The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected." So, everyone has a role to play it seems. But it appears to me that neither of these political philosophies has the correct answer every time.

Hard-core ideologues divide the world into nice, neat black and white categories. Then real life suddenly intrudes, and pragmatism eventually rules the day. Each side likes to demonize the other, but some of the best solutions are ones that are hammered out on the anvil of compromise. Our Founding Fathers designed a system that would be perpetually at loggerheads, and, frankly, they liked it that way.

Yeah, I know, you won't discover that little truth in your typical political ad or below-the-belt email forward. Those aim for the gut, not the head. They whip low-information voters into an emotional frenzy and impart the same buzz as Saturday night professional wrestling: Johnny Be-Good-Always Patriot versus Ivan the Terrible, Commy-Loving Spawn of Satan.

Don't fall for it. Soak up as much information as you can and read widely, right, left and center. Above all, for the love of God and humanity—think past the end of your nose.

Speaking of God, please remember you'll be electing a president, not a preacher. Oh sure, some say that if Jesus Christ were here in America today that he would endorse Brand X because that party embodies his ideals and teaching better than Brand Y.

But considering how scripture portrays the founder of Christianity as more of an anti-establishment type (the real Maverick perhaps?), I'm pretty sure that if Jesus could somehow score an interview with Katie Couric, he'd probably tell both our major political parties to take a short hike off a long cliff—but to "go in peace," of course.

Power-hungry men have been dressing up Jesus and other religious leaders in fancy clothes and pimping them out for their own political purposes for centuries. Shame on them! And shame on us for being gullible enough to fall for it! Don't let anybody ever convince you that sincere people of good faith—patriots all—can't have differing political views.

Remember, too, that your personal politics may evolve over time as you—and the world—change. Look at each candidate and ask this question: Who has the best experience, skill set, intellect and temperament for the challenges that we presently face?

Yes, politics is a spectator sport, but, believe it or not, it's more important than Bama versus Auburn. Lives, literally, can hang in the balance. Still, regardless of the outcome, our country will survive because stout-hearted men and women will continue to get up every day, show up on time and follow through.

That reminds me: Good citizenship begins with tending your own garden. So get plenty of rest, eat right, exercise, study hard for your midterms and pray like mad.

Roll Tide, and God bless America.

Warmest regards,


©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Permit me a moment for Marvin, 1995-2008

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on November 9, 2008)

Marvin the Goldfish spent 13 years swimming itty-bitty laps inside the fish tank on our bathroom counter. That translates to approximately 120 human years; not as old as Methuselah, but long enough to make me wonder what was in those fortified fish flakes he enjoyed so much.

We purchased Marvin and two companions in 1995 as "starter" pets for our three young sons when we moved into our first house. We noticed immediately that he was always starvin', so we named him after the gas station chain. It was a moniker that just stuck, like algae to the side of an aquarium.

Our menagerie would later include Duchess the Rabbit, Mia the Guinea Pig, Boomer the Bird, Gracie the Dog, Joe the Plumber (sorry) and a hermit crab whose name I can't quite recall. But early on, three goldfish were all we could handle.

Or so we thought. The first one died almost immediately, and another one got depressed around Christmas and leaped over the edge of the tank and plopped to its death near one of the double sinks.

The grief was apparently too much for Marvin to bear. Just a few nights later, he tried to commit suicide as well. My wife heard the splash and "kerplunk" on the counter and was about to get up to investigate when she heard the pitter-patter of little feet.

It was my youngest son. He stumbled into the bathroom, scooped up the flailing fish, dropped him into the tank and went straight back to bed without saying a word. The next day, he barely remembered it. In fact, he thought he'd dreamed the whole thing.

Marvin was a friendly fish—maybe just a bit too friendly. "Don't use their bathroom," one young visitor gravely whispered to a companion. "Their fish watches you."

Yeah, it was a little creepy, but it's not like he was a pervert. He was just hungry. His intense stares were merely his way of saying, "Hey, when you're done with your business over there, how about tossing a few of those fish flakes my way, would ya?"

Marvin witnessed our sons growing into young men. He heard their laughter, cries and fights. He watched them all shave for the very first time. He saw more naked bums in 13 years than most doctors do in their entire careers.

But to his credit, Marvin never ratted anybody out. What happened in the hall bathroom, stayed in the hall bathroom.

Marvin fared well over the years thanks to regular tank cleaning by my wife and conscientious feeding from my youngest son, but recently he took a turn for the worse.

His once golden hue faded to a ghostly white, and little red splotches began cropping up on his head and tail. He didn't swim very straight anymore. When he stopped begging for food and began retreating into the corners of his tank, we knew his time was short.

My middle son found Marvin floating on his side, his dark, beady eyes staring vacantly into the void. He's a lifeguard at the YMCA, so his rescue instincts took over. He rapped hard on the glass and shouted, "Marvin, Marvin, wake up!" He then flicked him gently with his finger.

The noise, vibration and touch jump-started him like a defibrillator; he suddenly popped upright and began swimming around again. We thought about renaming him Lazarus.

But a week later, Marvin was gone for good. His corpse now resides in our freezer-turned-temporary-morgue. We're not preserving him in the hopes of some future cryogenic miracle. We're just keeping him on ice until my oldest son returns from Tuscaloosa and we can have a proper ceremony.

I have a birthday this month, and I'll turn 5 in goldfish-years. I doubt I'll make it to 120 in human ones, but I'll try my best to live as simply and righteously as Marvin did in the time God grants me.

But I'm keeping those fortified fish flakes. I may even pinch a few for myself and start adding them to my morning yogurt.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Christmas and parties go together so very well

(First published as a community column in The Huntsville Times on December 14, 2008)

There's something about this "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" that brings out the inner party animal in all of us.

Our ancient pagan ancestors noticed the lengthening evening shadows during the winter solstice and probably felt the cold shiver of mortality. Oh well, they thought, might as well light the fire, roast some meat and have ourselves a shindig.

The early Christians saw the Romans celebrating Saturnalia and said, "Hey, why not?" Hence, the birthday of Baby Jesus was born.

The urge to put on our dancing shoes and kick up our heels in the face of death is apparently hardwired into our lower brains.

I get my share of warm fuzzies when I recollect my Virginia Christmas memories: rich, heart-unfriendly food, tightly-packed family scrums, evergreens festooned with large (and hot!), multicolored lights, and most importantly it seemed, the presents. In 1972, I even received the coveted "official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock," and, no, I didn't shoot my eye out.

But for the most part, my early Christmases were more like X'ed-out-mases. I grew up in a denomination which followed a strict creed of no smokin', no drinkin', no cussin', no dancin' and—God help us—no whoopee-makin' prior to wedlock. Spittin' was allowed, but only in emergencies.

When it came to holidays, we tried our best to ignore the religious element in them. While others zigged, we zagged. We sang "Silent Night" in April and "Low in the Grave He Lay" in December.

We wanted more than anything to set ourselves apart from "those other religious people." We ignored Advent altogether, and at Christmas we tiptoed around the manger as if the Baby Jesus Himself was taking a nap.

But most of us still honored the general "good cheer" of the season with merrymaking and good works. We celebrated the old Roman Saturnalia without even knowing it.

I'm not saying this to be mean—I cherish my roots. But in retrospect, that particular part does seem a little silly.

My father apparently thought so, too. He was the full time song leader and an elder at our church; someone who would presumably toe the party line.

But come Christmas, his inner party animal tugged hard at the leash. He delighted in being a little mischievous, and with a twinkle in his eye, he always led a few Christmas hymns in—gasp!—December.

This didn't sit well with Mrs. "Book, Chapter and Verse" on the back row. I'm not sure which Dad enjoyed more, the hymns themselves or watching Church Lady's face turn redder than Santa's suit.

Well, the partridge doesn't fall far from the pear tree. As the sun sits low and still, I, too, start craving my annual Baby Jesus fix and channeling my inner party animal, just like Dad.

I'll be making the rounds among my brethren in "those other churches" again this year. So hang those greens, polish that altar rail and strike up the "Hallelujah Chorus." Hark ye Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians; I'm coming to a pew near you soon.

And if it's "your" pew, don't fret—you'll get it back come January.

Jesus in a crèche or on a cross. The Word in a book or etched in panels of kaleidoscopic glass. Welch's grape juice or the Real Stuff. It makes no difference to me; it's all good.

Well, the Real Stuff is actually better.

Those evening shadows are getting longer now, but I can clearly see the bottom line: I am one sad sack o' bones. God knows I need Jesus any which way I can get Him.

By the way, thanks to all of you for reading my column this year and for your kind words of encouragement.

On Christmas Eve last year, John Ehinger called and told me that I'd be a community columnist for 2008. Thanks, Huntsville Times. It was one of the best Christmas presents I ever received—almost as good as that official Red Ryder air rifle. Almost.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

BONUS TRACK--Deflating Debut

("Deflating Debut" was first published in "Reflections--The Human Side of Optometry" in the September 1995 issue of Optometric Management)

This student OD thought he knew everything--until his first day in the clinic.

I was a young, brilliant third-year clinician who, on my first day as a student doctor back in 1988, took great care to line my pristine clinic jacket with cover paddles, decorative tongue depressors, breath mints and reference cards.

I was looking good. And feeling better when I pondered my first clinical assignment. An automatic +2.50 add named Mr. Colombo was the only patient on my schedule, which meant I had four hours to grind away as I saw fit. But I was also sad that the curtain would rise on my career with a humdrum refraction when I had always dreamt of drugs, disease, diagnosis...

I checked visual acuities with his habitual correction of a +1.50 OU and a +2.50 add. I fogged each eye the requisite six lines and removed the fog in -0.25D steps in a slow, agonizing descent toward 20/20. I double-checked with the duochrome slide. Triple-checked with the clock dial. Threw in a balance and a final binocular best sphere. An hour later, I concluded that Mr. Colombo had suffered a (gasp!) +0.75 hyperopic shift. I demonstrated his supercharged prescription in the trial frame.

"I'll be able to see this tiny print? Even up to my nose?

I nodded. We were both impressed.

But my luck turned at the slit lamp, where I spotted brown speckles spread across the back of the cornea. I preset the tonometer to 20mmHg and began a long, careful approach. Even with near maximal effort, the mires remained far apart. I slowly wound the tonometer drum, pulling the mires closer. My rapid-fire serial tonometry left his corneas a little worse for wear, but the final score was in: OD 40 OS 38.

I then did what any rookie would do in that situation--freaked out and ran to my instructor.

"I've got a patient with IOPs of 40 and 38! He's gonna blow!" I shouted. My fellow students and their attendings who were in the "ready room" suddenly grew silent. All eyes turned toward my instructor and me.

"Calm down," my instructor said. "We'll deal with that in time. But what about this refraction? Is it possible that you're pushing too much plus?"

Refraction? Too much plus? What did they preserve this guy in?

He signed the glasses prescription with a sigh and examined my patient at the slit lamp before taking me aside.

"The 'brown stuff' is pigment--technically, a 'Kruckenburg spindle,'" he whispered. "Mr. Colombo has pigmentary glaucoma."

We referred Mr. Colombo that day to our disease clinic, where he underwent successful laser surgery and drug therapy. He had moderate optic nerve cupping and mild visual field loss. We'd caught the glaucoma in time.

A month later, he returned to our clinic. Was he going to thank me for saving his sight? No chance.

"I can't see with these glasses; I have to hold things too close to my face," he said frantically, waving them if front of my face. "I liked my old bifocals better. Fix them!"

My insides were broiling as I went to work. The +0.75 hyperopic shift was still apparent, but a +2.00 add restored his comfortable lap-top reading vision. That was the last time I saw my first patient, but I still carry the lessons he taught me seven years ago:
  • Prescribe bifocals for the distance where patients want to read, not for where you think they should read.
  • The cornerstone of optometry must remain excellence in refraction.
No matter how far we progress in disease diagnosis and management, we must continue to provide patients with crisp, comfortable corrections. Dazzle them with your diagnostic and treatment wizardry, but you better get the glasses right, or your name will be mud.

©2008 Dr. Michael Brown/20/40-Something. All Rights Reserved.