It’s that time of year again. Spring is in the air, or at least in the wishful thought bubble around my head, the snowdrops have reared their delicate heads over the last dusting of snow in Central Park, and the dark nights of February promise to blossom into the bright sunny mornings of March. Along with NYC spring, in the world of eyewear and eye care, comes the long-awaited and much-lauded VISION EXPO EAST.
The first time I entered the great glass halls of the Javits Center was in my first year of Optometry school, way back in 1989. The convention center was brand new, having finally opened its doors after years of delays, construction problems, and allegations of mafia contracts. It replaced the aging Coliseum, allowing for that eyesore to be demolished and in turn replaced with the prettier but horrifying monument to the urban mall, the Time Warner Center. But I digress.
I was just a wee thing with perfect vision, and the vast array of fancy frames and tantalizing technology, magnified and illuminated under the panels of glass that lined the cathedral height ceilings, nearly blinded me. Sensing my discomfiture, several elegantly clad gentlemen leapt to the rescue offering me lovely lunettes and trays of bedazzled sunglasses procured from every corner of the earth. It was the late 80’s, a time of unabashed excess, selfish indulgence, corporate greed, and unapologetic hedonism. I had never in all my life seen so many sparkly treasures gathered under one roof. My classmates and I wandered about, testing out new equipment and modeling pretty eyewear. We flirted mercilessly with the industry reps to get free trinkets and invitations to parties. We were young and naive. Noone had yet warned us of the impropriety or consequences of this horrifying behavior. There were no cellphones to distract us from our villainous deeds, no cameras to record our antics, no social media to advertise our every transgression. Every new aisle revealed a gorgeous model clad head to toe in Armani, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Thierry Mugler, Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier…
The only photo I still have from that first foray into the fashion optical industry is a polaroid of my shiny young retinas, taken by one of the brand new retinal cameras on the showroom floor. I still remember the salesman winking as he handed it to me and telling me it was the prettiest set of eyes he had seen all day. Blissfully unaware of the fact that I was supposed to be insulted, I smiled and continued on my merry way.
Last night, after lecturing at a dinner held by my local Optometric Society, I sat down with three young doctors over a glass of wine and a good old-fashioned man-bashing session. Uncharacteristically, I did most of the listening and they did most of the bashing. The bashing wasn’t new but I left feeling sad and depressed. Three young, brilliant, charming, accomplished beautiful doctors, all complaining of how difficult it is to date online. Now don’t get me wrong, dating has always been difficult and maybe we all wax nostalgic for a bygone era that is gilded with the silver mist of time, but there is something inherently awful about having too much choice. Swiping and swiping right and left until your head spins, always looking for the next date to be better, prettier, more accomplished, richer, taller, younger….always chasing the impossible dream…one of the women said very aptly, “It’s like going to a restaurant and looking at a 20 page menu – you lose your appetite with that many choices.” It made me so sad. All this wonderful opportunity to socialize with people from all over the world at any time of day or night and yet we are lonelier than ever? All these selfies of glowing happy faces at exotic locations – are they just masks that hide companionless, desolate souls?
It is not in my nature to wallow in self-pity or remain downcast for long. I like to look for solutions. That’s what optometrists do. We like to fix things. We like to make people see something new and smile at the vision. So I went home and thought. It’s not an easy problem to fix. Where did most couples meet and fall in love in the years before dating sites?
School? We are now told to buckle down and work, to delay serious relationships until our careers are established. My optometry class had at least four students who met and married their own or upper or lower classmates but it was 50/50 male/female and even then the women complained that the men who entered the field were ‘odd.’ Today the graduating classes across medicine are predominantly female.
Work? Don’t get me started. I certainly don’t long for the days when sexual harassment was a daily ordeal at every interview, at every office of more than ten employees. I don’t condone the inappropriate comments in the workplace. On the other hand, if all interactions in the workplace are sterile and all dating verboten, where to next?
Social gatherings? In 2015, the New York Times published an article by Teddy Wayne, called, “The Death of the Party.” It wasn’t a political piece, but rather a lament on the steady decline of the House Party. That lighthearted gathering so commonplace in the ’50s and ’60s where friends gathered, got tipsy, paired off and had a great time. Now everyone knows I love to throw a party. Every year, 80-100 of my nearest and dearest friends are invited to eat, drink, and be merry at my home. But even I have noticed that people have become increasingly rude. They RSVP online and then text minutes before the event with their regrets. A confirmed guest list of 80 dwindles to 60 within minutes. As a young girl, I was taught that accepting a dinner or party invitation meant your only excuse to get out was contagious disease or an invitation to the White House. I have only used the second excuse once. Maybe next time I’ll forgo the evites and go back to sending lovely handwritten paper cards with nothing but a landline listed as an RSVP option. Try texting your way out of that one.
The ’70s saw the rise of the dance and disco scene. The ’80s, my own adolescence, was awash in school dances, concerts, and underground bar scenes. 1990 was the decade of the Rave, the decade of the enormous corporate parties. The days of the Vision Expos of those years were followed by nights where the Cosmos flowed freely, the Scatman screamed from the speakers and Right Said Fred strutted around half naked on enormous video screens announcing his catwalk sex appeal. We stumbled home in our Manolos in the pale hours before the dawn, laughing on the arms of our “dates.” Ok, so the hangovers were epic but at least the evidence remains only in our memories. There was no risk of being exposed online for the whole world to see.
So I thought and thought. I want these lovely, smart young doctors to be happy. I want to help them find love, to have fun. I want to help them look back one day from the safety of middle age and smile at the vision. I’m an optometrist. It’s what I like to do.
So here’s my suggestion. Put on your fancy shoes. Call your three best friends. Arrange a time and place to meet. Leave your cell phones at home. Go to Vision Expo. Play with the equipment, try on the sparkly sunglasses. Snag a few invitations to industry parties and go. Meet someone whose profile you have never vetted. Misbehave just a little but leave no photographic evidence. Trust me, your mental photos will serve you in good stead as the years go by. Party like it’s 1999!