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A Macular Degeneration Odyssey: Books, Bill Russell And Beethoven

Bill Russell, left, and Celtics coach Red Auerbach celebrate the team's victory over the L.A. Lakers for the 1966 NBA title. (AP)
Bill Russell, left, and Celtics coach Red Auerbach celebrate the team's victory over the L.A. Lakers for the 1966 NBA title. (AP)
This article is more than 1 year old.

About 12 years ago, I found myself at Mass Eye and Ear with a torn retina in my right eye, not long after I had been treated for vertigo stemming from my right ear. I asked the intern who patched my retina back together what the connection was between the damaged eye and the damaged ear. None, she said confidently.

“Oh, come on,” I said incredulously. “There has to be. They're right next to each other. There's gotta be a connection.”

The young woman smiled a smile that could break a thousand hearts and then she broke mine. She looked at me, eye to eye, and said, “Age.”

As baby boom woes go, retina problems are hardly the most dramatic — or deadly. Just recently the Boston Globe alumni lost one great guy, Bob Turner, to cancer while my friend and former TV department roommate Jack Thomas wrote, with his usual artistry, about his own terminal bout with the disease.

Macular degeneration, though it can lead to blindness if not treated successfully, is a big fat nothingburger in the scheme of things. But it’s my nothingburger, a symbol of — what? Going blind? The beginning of the end? One foot in the grave?

Or — conversely — a grand challenge? Coming out the other side of a horrible situation? Americans certainly have experience with that the last few years.

But back to Mass Eye and Ear 12 years ago with that retinal tear. Apparently there was more to the tear than met the eye of the young intern and my vision went to hell again. So back to the hospital I went a couple of weeks later on a Sunday night. I was just about to be called in to the attending doctor when an entourage of twentysomethings arrived from New Hampshire with someone in worse shape than I was. So he jumped the line while his friends joined my wife and me in the waiting room. “The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show,” a Channel 2 fundraiser, was playing on the TV and The Mamas and The Papas were lip-synching “California Dreamin'.”

Mama Cass was singing and one of the young women asked of her pals, “Are those The Beatles?”

Stick a fork in me. I’m done.

Well, not quite done. Time, our mortal enemy, goes by. The eye is stable for the next 10 years. And then some blurry vision in that same eye. My dry macular degeneration has turned wet. (That’s bad.) The vision, I later find out, is 20/60. I’m treated at Harvard Vanguard and am told that I need monthly injections of Avastin, a drug used for colorectal cancer, into the old eyeball but that the blurriness might not improve. And the left eye has a chance of going south as well.

Blindness. Beginning of the end. One foot in the grave. Depression. The full name of the disease is Age-Related Macular Degeneration. Hey, thanks a million to whoever thought it needed to be rubbed in.

I wonder what this means as an arts critic. Should I transition from theater to music, which I love anyway, though I certainly don’t have the ear of a Lloyd Schwartz or Jeremy Eichler? (I can just hear certain theater folk chortling, "I always knew the guy was blind.") As books are blurry I take out a subscription to Audible, even though I usually can’t stand audio books. I begrudgingly set my beloved books aside and grab the Kindle, which I had always treated as a poor substitute for holding a real book in my hands. But now, being able to adjust the brightness and font size — settling for a Kindle wouldn't be half-bad.

I also start boning up about the disease on the macular degeneration website. Be sure to take a 30-minute walk every day. Check. Eat healthy and here’s a start: Buy the macular degeneration cookbook, "Eat Right for Your Sight."

Right. I, who am proud when I boil a hot dog without the Medford Fire Department sending out all their trucks, am going to start cooking. It turns out, though, that it’s a wonderful cookbook, not only because the directions are easy to follow but because everything I’ve done so far is really pretty yummy.

“So you eat a lot of carrots,” snarked one friend with a beta-carotene-eating grin on his face.

Ha ha.

Sautéed spinach with shiitake mushrooms. Tuscan kale salad with mashed garlic cloves, grated pecorino Toscano cheese and bread crumbs. Chicken with cremini mushrooms and thyme. And my piece de resistance: roasted halibut with julienned carrots and julienned snow peas en papillote. That’s parchment paper to you proles de gastronome. Martha Stewart teaches me how to julienne on YouTube. My wife is delighted. Chef Édouard. Plus, ingredients that were no-nos because of acid reflux are now good for the eyes — garlic, onion, tomato and cheese. My doctor agrees that the eye trumps the stomach. Bring 'em on.

Chicken with mushrooms and thyme. (Courtesy "Eat Right For Your Sight" cookbook.)
Chicken with mushrooms and thyme. (Courtesy "Eat Right For Your Sight" cookbook.)

Still, Devra First has nothing to worry about. Nor do any other food critics. I do think, though, this is a wake-up call, that it may be time to move on from running into town for theater, opera, music, etc. multiple nights of the week. We should pay attention to the knock on the door that time is of the essence and ask ourselves how we want to spend it. How do I want to spend mine? Remains to, uh, be seen.

Meanwhile, the treatment is working, at least so far. My vision has gone from 20/60 at the onset of the problem to 20/35 after one injection to 20/25 after the second and the blurriness is gone, though there’s no guarantee how long they'll be stable. Living for the moment, I pick up the hardcover version of "Tall Men, Short Shorts," Leigh Montville’s superb account of the 1969 Celtics-Lakers championship series and his own early days as a sportswriter at the Boston Globe. Lo and behold — I can read a physical book again and not just the Kindle.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Montville’s prose is so good it can make the blind see, but I did feel a little like Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove when he finds he can walk again. There are other reasons to celebrate the book. The Celtics of the late ‘50s and ‘60s were this Boston boy's favorite team ever, winning 11 of 13 championships while the Red Sox and Bruins stank and the Patriots were just getting started. Their center, Bill Russell, was the real Greatest Of All Time (sorry, Brady) though he had a terrific supporting cast thanks to general manager Red Auerbach. I was reading about game six (spoiler alert: the Celtics won in seven) while listening to Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, arguably the finest version of that masterpiece, and thinking that Montville writes about the Celtics with the same virtuosity with which Schnabel interprets Beethoven.

Here he is playing another concerto, the fourth. (Schnabel, not Montville.)

Two years after that 1969 Celtics-Lakers series I’d join Montville in the Globe Sports department which he also captures marvelously. I started at a somewhat lower position — making coffee runs for the department staffers. After I was promoted to the copy desk, the Globe ran an apology for a headline I wrote on a Montville column about how the Patriots board was planning to remove its president and founder Billy Sullivan. As this was during the Nixon impeachment process, I wrote “Patriots board plans its own presidential impeachment.” The Sullivan folks weren't amused, complaining that impeachment implied wrongdoing and Sullivan wasn't being charged with anything illegal or unethical. Ugh, no poetic license when the lawyers get involved.

Anyway, my doctor and her team seem thrilled that I have responded so well to Avastin as, of course, am I. But I would like to think that my daily walks and the sautéed spinach have something to do with it as well, eh mes amis?

Not that I’m wedded to the cookbook. I recently got my monthly injection at Harvard Vanguard in Medford and I thought that I would take myself out for French toast as a treat. I went to the Lighthouse in Medford Square, which was closed for a staff vacation day. I went across the street to Colleen’s. Closed. So, dilated scratchy eyes, dark sunglasses on a cloudy day and all, I walked a macularly degenerate mile to Tufts and a very nice breakfast-lunch place, Tamper, where I once had some delicious pre-pandemic French toast. They had taken French toast off the menu. I thanked them but said I’d go across the street, that my heart was set on French toast. “You mean Tasty? They’re renovating.” Feeling a bit like Roman Polanski in “The Tenant,” where the protagonist is forced into a different identity, I order the bacon and eggs at Tamper. And damn, if they weren't about the best bacon, eggs and potatoes in memory.

Bacon, eggs and potato mash at Tamper in Medford. (Ed Siegel for WBUR)
Bacon, eggs and potato mash at Tamper in Medford. (Ed Siegel for WBUR)

So maybe challenges do result in, dare I say it, growth? Or at least change? Yesterday’s breathlessness walking up a hill is today’s multi-mile power walk. Yesterday’s diner French toast is today’s bacon and eggs at Tamper. And yesterday’s hot dogs are today’s, wait for it, roasted halibut with julienned vegetables en papillote.

And if the eyes do deteriorate, just set me up with my Kindle, Schnabel's Beethoven and my large-print cookbook. But, you know, I'll still have that order of French toast when you get a chance.


Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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