Saturday, February 10, 2007

Thousands of Leaves:

In a job interview, has anyone ever asked you this question: “When you look at a forest, what do you see?” This is an unsubtle attempt to determine whether you’ll claim that you see a forest, rather than a bunch of trees. I have a third answer for this question, which I’ve actually used: “I see thousands of leaves, and I see them all clearly.” My answer reflects pride in my ability to master a large amount of relevant detail in my software work. But remarkably, it also reflects one of the most exciting moments of my life, literally. Here’s what I mean:

I started wearing glasses when I was nine. I had a traumatic experience with a local ophthalmologist, who ordered an incorrect prescription for me and ignored an awful lot of complaining before admitting his mistake. My parents then sent me to a friend of theirs, an optometrist, who tested me and prescribed my glasses for free. (My parents also got a break on the cost of the glasses, it was a great deal.) My glasses were never corrected to a full 20/20, I always had slightly blurry distance vision. The optometrist explained to me that fully correcting my eyes would make me cross-eyed and give me headaches, he was adopting the best compromise.

When I went to graduate school, it was no longer feasible to go to that optometrist, so I picked a local ophthalmologist out of the yellow pages. (He turned out to have been Einstein’s eye doctor!) I explained to him how it was impossible to correct my eyes to 20/20. “Nonsense,” he said, “I’m going to give you 20/20 vision, and you’ll see things you never saw before.”

And he did. My great memory was looking out the window of his office and clearly seeing the leaves on the trees, in distinct profusion. Wow, what a wonderful sight!
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