Susanna J. Sturgis    


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My Terrorist Eye: Risk, the Unexpected, and the War on Terrorism

That August morning two round droplets appeared in the lower left quadrant of my right eye. The drops weren't on my glasses; I had my contacts in. By early afternoon a large opaque but partially translucent disk blocked three-quarters of the vision from that eye. Around the peripheries the world was its colorful, sharp-detailed self. Straight ahead it was very strange. Since childhood, my vision has been lousy but correctable to almost 20/20. I'm an editor and writer; without functioning eyes, I can't work. I called Dr. F., my optometrist. Meet me at the office first thing in the morning, he said.

Detached retina was the most likely, and least dire, of the possibilities. Dr. F. made phone calls. Within a few minutes I had an appointment with an ophthalmologist in Boston. "I don't have insurance," I said. "Don't worry about it," said Dr. F. "Do you have a credit card?" Something wasn't being said, but I didn't want to hear it so I didn't ask. There was a 10:45 ferry to Woods Hole. I was going to be on it. In Woods Hole I would catch the 11:45 bus  to Boston. (I live on Martha's Vineyard. Living on an island adds an extra leg and considerable hassle to every trip you take.) My appointment with the ophthalmologist, Dr. H., was for 1:15, or whenever I got there.

Detached retina it was; immediate surgery required. The surgery, I was told, is successful in 80 to 90 percent of all cases. Surgery would take place Wednesday morning. Dr. H. said that as an uninsured person I would get "the Medicare rate." I had no idea what that was, but I inferred that it was less than what an insured person would be charged. What choice did I have? I could shop around, get second and third opinions -- but whom could I ask, and how long would it take? For best chance of success, surgery had to be done within seven days of detachment. I was already moving into day 2.

Focus is a remarkable thing. Within twenty-four hours, I (who under ordinary circumstances can put off making a phone call for several days, especially if spending money is involved) had made all necessary arrangements, and this person who for fifty-three years had been spared any kind of surgery that wasn't dental (wisdom teeth at thirty-one, a root canal at almost forty-eight) was heading with reasonably tranquil mind toward an imminent surgical rendezvous with a man she'd just met and about whom she knew next to nothing. Sure, all sorts of terrible things could happen, but deep down I trusted my sturdy, strong, no-nonsense, low-maintenance body to get me through. And it did.

Surgery, first thing Wednesday morning, was uneventful; during the hour-long procedure, I swapped stories and a few jokes with the operating team. Behind the blindfold the light show was fascinating: multicolored pixels performed an abstract and minimalist modern dance for a captive audience of one. I didn't try to imagine what was actually going on in there. My first post-op appointment was the next morning. So far, so good. Gauze patch over my right eye and my glasses over that, I took a cab to South Station, caught the bus to Woods Hole and then the ferry to Vineyard Haven, where a friend met me at the dock with my dog, Rhodry Malamutt, some greens from her garden, and a cold beer.

The most arduous aspect of retina reattachment isn't the surgery; it's the days and weeks that follow. To help the retina stay attached to the eye wall and to reduce swelling around the eye, for as many hours as possible I was supposed to position my head so that my eyes looked down. Fortunately, this position was compatible with my upcoming jobs, which involved editing on paper or on a client's laptop computer. My left eye, always the weaker of the two, rose to the occasion and made my living for me. At first my right eye was puffy all around, swollen nearly shut and very sensitive to light. Don't sleep on your back, I was warned; it could cause glaucoma. To make sure that I stayed face-down or on my left side, I took Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary to bed and positioned it about two inches behind the base of my spine.

The biggest challenge was that I felt normal -- strong, healthy, alert, fine. I look around when I walk, noting people, passing license plates, the colors of the sky and the patterns of the clouds. It didn't come easy to gaze continuously at the dirt, the grass, the asphalt. No heavy lifting, I was told; avoid sudden movements and anything that might result in a blow to the head. But I have a horse, Allie, as well as a dog. I spend two or three hours every day riding and helping with chores at Allie's barn. Sacks of feed weigh fifty pounds and bales of hay often sixty or more. After my surgery, an operating room nurse insisted that my sister, who had come to pick me up, carry my backpack, which might have weighed fifteen pounds. I didn't mention the hay.

The barn is about three miles from where I lived at the time. If you're supposed to be looking at your lap and you've got a patch on your right eye, driving would seem inadvisable. Three days after surgery, I removed the patch from my eye, drove to the barn, then replaced the patch. I didn't drive much. If I'd lived anywhere else, with more ferocious traffic and less familiar roads, I might not have driven at all. Some ten days after surgery, I cautiously resumed helping out with barn chores, and -- at week two, day two -- riding horseback again. I stuck to the easy stuff that doesn't jostle one's head: walk, posting trot. A week and a half after surgery I went to Boston for another post-op appointment. The ophthalmologist noted a "perforation" in the reattached retina that might affect my right-eye vision in the future, though he couldn't say how. Whatever, I thought. I've got what I've got.

By my next trip to Boston, a little over a month later, my activities were back to normal, though my right eye sure wasn't: the vision was improving, but colors were markedly distorted (by day the yellow lines weren't yellow, and by night the taillights ahead of me looked red to my left eye and magenta to my right), straight lines weren't straight, and right angles weren't square. The plump green hose turned ectomorph when I closed my left eye. Still, the verdict of two ophthalmologists -- my surgeon's associate, and then my surgeon himself -- came like a sucker-punch: my retina had redetached, and I'd have to do the whole thing over again. The surgery, the recovery, the money -- all of it. There was no money-back guarantee. Surgery redux was performed on October 4. The second time around, I paid closer attention.

* * *

Since I started wearing corrective lenses at the age of nine, the world has looked different with glasses on and glasses off. With glasses on, the world is sharp-edged, crystal-clear. With glasses off, it's blurry, soft-focus, impressionistic. When I first got contact lenses, at nearly forty, for the first time I saw my adult face in the mirror without glasses on, and without pressing my nose to the glass. In recent years the glasses world and the contacts world have diverged: with my glasses on, the world is sharp close up; in the contacts world, road signs a hundred yards away are crisp and detailed but I can't read the small print on a bottle of eye drops. In the glasses world post-surgery, left eye read the words, right eye couldn't even see the bottle. Two days after my second surgery, I tried to describe my right eye's world:

Looking into a pearl white pool, a shallow white dish of water rippling very gently in an imperceptible breeze. The water is swimming; there are no fish no minnows no guppies. I perceive -- "see" is too precise, too strong a word -- motion on the other side of the pool but do not know what is moving.

Without the white gauze patch the movement clearly belongs to a hand, my left. But "clearly" misleads. The hand is clearly a hand, but the hand is not clear. The hand is a sinuous shape of peach-pink. When the fingers spread, contract, ripple and play, it might be a sea anemone waving under clear water. . . .

Close right eye, open left. New world: hand is crisscrossed with fine lines; flesh whorls rubbery around the big knuckles, the cuticles are ragged, the nails irregular but without jagged edges at least for the moment. The hand protrudes from a dark red sweatshirt. The notebook pages are lined, and the lines on the right carry string after string of words, green words, words written in green ink -- the same green ink that stains the left forefinger.

Close left eye, open right: the green words disappear, the gray lines disappear, the page is bare white, not even recognizable as a page.

Nearly all my life I've known that the world's appearance has much to do with my eyes: right eye or left? glasses off or on? contacts or glasses or no correction at all? "Binocular vision" has been a favorite, and powerful, metaphor of mine: at once I see through the privileged eye of a white, middle-class person, and through the unprivileged eye of a woman. Do I ever see through both eyes at once? Is it even possible? What I do is flick back and forth between one eye and the other, so rapidly that the world before me seems coherent and whole.

* * *

When I caught the ferry to Woods Hole on August 2, en route to my first appointment with the ophthalmologist, I'd been off-island by boat exactly once since September 11, 2001. The wake of 9/11 had wrought a few changes that I hadn't noticed while going about my daily routines. A sign, for instance, had appeared at the car-staging area at the Steamship Authority dock in Vineyard Haven, on the little kiosk where employees check you off the reservations roster and tell you which lane to park in.


"ELEVATED" was printed in black on a yellow board. I took to checking the sign whenever I was near the ferry dock. On Martha's Vineyard, it seemed, the nationwide threat level was always ELEVATED.

At the edge of the state forest, at the well-traveled intersection where Barnes Road meets the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road near the county airport, stands another sign. Smokey Bear used to announce that the fire danger was low (green), moderate (yellow), or high (red) and admonish us to prevent wildfires. He still admonishes us to prevent wildfires, but his color code has changed. Now low is green, moderate is blue, high is yellow, and very high is orange.

Fire danger clearly correlates with rainfall and the lack thereof. What, I wondered, did the nationwide threat level correlate with? Number of bearded, dark-skinned individuals presenting themselves at U.S. airports? Anonymous tips to FBI field offices? I was tempted to ask the fellows in the Steamship Authority booth: "You know this sign out here? What's 'elevated' mean? Elevated from what?" Once I had my little point-and-shoot camera with me; did I dare take a picture? I lost my nerve. Wearing an eye patch and asking suspicious questions, even a middle-aged English-speaking white female might fit some computer-generated terrorist profile. Rhodry was with me. What would happen to him if I got hauled off for interrogation?  I still don't know "elevated from what," and in all my travels back and forth to Boston I never saw any color but yellow on that sign.

The 9/11 backwash didn't begin or end with the Vineyard shoreline. On the boat, in the Woods Hole Steamship terminal, at Boston's South Station, the loudspeakers crackled to life at regular intervals. On the ferry Islander the words were nearly unintelligible -- was that a security warning, or were they just telling us whether we debark from the starboard or port side of the vessel?

At the South Station bus terminal "Do not leave your luggage unattended" alternated with "The Massachusetts General Laws prohibit smoking . . ." and with an injunction against taking pictures or videos. No one seemed to be paying the slightest attention. True, no one was smoking (we were well trained long before 9/11) or photographing exits, boarding gates, and ticket windows, but people were leaving luggage unattended right, left, and center and no security guards were taking them to task.

In October 1975, during a three-month hitchhike around Britain and Ireland, I stayed a week with a family in Bangor, Northern Ireland, a suburb of Belfast. The terror/counterterror of the Protestants and the Catholics was not then at a peak; still, evidence of hostilities, both past and expected, was all around me, in the graffiti, the checkpoints around the shopping district of downtown Belfast, armed military here there and everywhere.

As I hiked across the bridge into Derry (Northern Ireland) from Donegal (Irish Republic), I had resigned myself to shelling out pounds and pence for bus and train tickets. Who would stop for a stranger thumbing on the side of the road? Any stranger might be dangerous, and "profiling," racial or otherwise, was hardly feasible when everyone belonged to the same people and your accent might identify what county you were from but not what side you were on. But drivers stopped as readily as they had elsewhere on my travels.

The morning I left Belfast, the father of the family I'd been staying with volunteered to drop me off at the station from which I would catch the train to Larne, from which the ferry sails for Stranraer, Scotland. A professor at Queen's University, he had an early class, so I arrived at the station almost forty-five minutes before departure time. My host had warned me that the station had been bombed more than once; nevertheless, accustomed to the spacious (if dark) Victorian rail stations of London, I was taken aback. This station was small and starkly bright. Its corrugated steel walls were supported by a framework of exposed metal. I was one of only three people there; the others were the ticket seller and the newspaper vendor. A sign mounted above the big metal trash barrel warned against leaving luggage unattended. I took the sign seriously. Before crossing the room to dispose of a candy wrapper, I slipped my arms into the straps of my backpack and took it with me.

Until perhaps five minutes before train time, it was just the three of us. Then a sluice gate opened: people poured in, queued up for tickets, bought papers; the train arrived, and I joined the torrent that proceeded straightaway to the platform and got on. Passengers had evidently adjusted to local conditions; they weren't hiding at home, or driving to work, but they weren't hanging around in vulnerable public spaces either.

At Boston's South Station, three years into the "war on terror," bus passengers in waiting sat on the plastic chairs, on their luggage, on the low windowsills between gates. They read, they listened through their headphones; they talked desultorily with companions. A young woman struck up a conversation with a young man. Within moments she had produced a mandolin, he a guitar, and they were sitting head to head on the floor, tuning. People wandering down the concourse paused to listen, then wandered on. They glanced up at schedules on the closed-circuit TVs; they panned the concourse with eyes that didn't register much. No one was acting endangered, or even cautious; no one acted as if a suicide bomber might roll in any minute and explode himself among the croissant-eating pigeons.

While hitchhiking in Ulster, I stayed a night at the youth hostel in White Park Bay, on the rugged coast of County Antrim. A school party from Belfast, ten- and eleven-year-olds and their teachers, happened to be there the same weekend. The hostel warden, an unassuming grandmotherly sort, slipped anti-Communist leaflets under our plates as we prepared supper. The Troubles were all around her, refugees from sectarian violence were sleeping under her roof, and she was worried about Communists.

When I told people that my retina detached, the first question out of nearly everyone's mouth was "Why did it happen?" It just happens, I said. Hardly anyone believed me. They were sure I'd done something foolish, or careless, or negligent. Retinas do sometimes detach after a hard blow to the head, but usually it's just a glitch in a natural process. As people get older, the vitreous -- the clear, jellyish substance that fills the eyeball behind the lens -- withdraws from the retina, the membrane that lines the inside of the eye. In most cases it doesn't take the retina with it. In some cases it does. Mine happened to be one of them.

The first detachment wasn't hard to accept. Shit happens, and sometimes it happens to me. When the second detachment was confirmed, I thought, No fair. Shit shouldn't happen twice, and medical shit shouldn't happen twice to people with no insurance. The ophthalmologist explained that scar tissue from the first surgery had attached to the retina and pulled it loose again. No way to prevent it? No way to prevent it. Some of my friends were even more skeptical this time around: with the occasional reminder or rebuke they made it clear that they thought I drove too soon after the first surgery, went to the barn too soon, rode too soon. If only they were right! Then I'd know how to prevent a third episode. Stay home, look down, take vitamin C, drink fruit juice, meditate, pray, take it easy . . . I might as well be performing rituals to persuade Zeus not to throw another thunderbolt.

We blow on the dice before we roll them, dosing on echinacea and vitamin C, do yoga, work out, jog three miles a day, so we won't get sick, so we'll live forever, so shit won't happen to us. Shit happens anyway.

The world is a dangerous place, I'm told; more dangerous than it was when I was growing up. Do I believe it? I remember hiding my head under the pillow during the Cuban missile crisis, so I couldn't hear planes flying overhead. My theory was that if I couldn't hear them, they weren't there, and they couldn't be bombers about to start the next world war. At about age seventeen I decided that the risk of getting pregnant wasn't worth the possible pleasure of having sex with men; add in the prospect of gonorrhea and syphilis, and heterosex wasn't very tempting. I can't imagine why any woman would have consensual unprotected sex with a man -- it's right up there with getting in a plane with a skunked pilot.

The name of the game is risk. Acceptable risk. What risks are acceptable, and how do we decide? My risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident is far higher than my risk of dying in a plane crash, yet anxiety rules when I have to fly and I rarely think twice about getting behind the wheel. Statistics aren't everything. I believe I'm a very good driver and that very good drivers can, most of the time, avoid getting into accidents. Every time I fly in a commercial airliner I feel like I've put my life completely in other people's hands. I know nothing about the pilot, and nothing about the mechanics who fuel and service the plane. But the year before my retina detached, I had occasion to fly from Martha's Vineyard to southern New Hampshire and back in an eight-seater. Friends told me I was brave, but I felt practically invulnerable. The co-pilot was a friend of mine, the pilot was a long-time friend of his, and the co-pilot's wife was aboard. That was all the assurance I needed.

In the fall of 1999 I got my first horse in thirty years. A woman I know, about my age, said, "My husband would never let me do that. It's too dangerous." (On the tip of my tongue was "I'd get another husband.") To be sure, riding is not a risk-free activity. Horses may weigh less than cars and lack their metal casing, but they have minds of their own and those minds are ruled by the wariness of the prey animal. When threatened, their instinct is to run; when they can't flee, they'll fight. Even when everyone's in a good mood, a thousand pounds packs more accidental wallop than one-fifty.

My mare, Allie, and I go trail-riding several times a week, usually for an hour or more. Sometimes we rendezvous with a friend or two; much more often we're accompanied only by Rhodry Malamutt. If there's someone around -- there often isn't -- I'll tell them what direction I'm heading in, but my flight plan (if I have one) may change any time the trail forks or a crossing path or dirt road appears. I don't carry a cell phone on my solitary rides. I don't own a cell phone. This really, really bothers some people: Where's your cell phone, don't you have a cell phone, why don't you carry a cell phone? What if something happened to you?

A week after my second surgery, I was sure something had gone wrong. I wrote in my journal:

Freak freak freak -- there's an anomaly there, just like the one that turned out to signal the re-detachment: part of a disk in the upper left corner, a pale very watery yellow, barely perceptible. Is it there or isn't it? is it part of the gas bubble or isn't it? Could the damn thing detach again with the bubble in there and the buckle in place?[1] Maybe I'm hallucinating, maybe I'm too jumpy, maybe I've cracked the door to the future and what's there is an endless series of detach-and-repairs at $2,100 a pop, down time, distraction, desperation. . . . I'm ready to start screaming. You aren't keeping your side of the bargain -- I pay you the money and you fix my eye. Now you have the money and I don't have my eye.

Two days later I was headed off-island for another scheduled post-op appointment. If I'd had dice to roll, I would have been blowing on them. Instead I wrote in my journal, on the ferry, on the bus, waiting for the subway:

Hypochondria makes more and more sense. Of course you're dying; we're all dying. Of course you're sick, although the confirmation may not appear for a year, five years, twenty years. When it does -- see? I knew it! When you get mugged: See? It's dangerous to leave the house. When you fall off a horse: See? Riding is dangerous.

You know right: the trick is to suspend your knowledge and hold it over here. Don't repress it or deny it; don't give in to it either. Take the chance; see what happens. Do it again. That's life. Every choice you make is a risk; every choice you don't make is likewise. If you walk out the door, you could be hit by a truck. If you stay in, you may trip on the stairs and break your neck. You could do the safe thing, take a nine-to-five job with benefits, and a plane could fly into your office building.

Maybe religion is about suspension of belief, not disbelief. You know the world is chaotic and dangerous, so you invent gods and angels to look after you, and you thank them when nothing bad happens. They're responsible for the good stuff, but they don't take the rap for the bad stuff. You know you're going to die, so you invent an afterlife to make it less scary.

This time the news was good. All's well, the ophthalmologist assured me; "very smooth," meaning there were no wrinkles or perforations in the reattached retina. En route to the subway, I stopped for a celebratory lunch at Burger King: spicy chicken sandwich, fries, extra barbecue sauce, and soda.

Our world, no less than the worlds of so-called primitive peoples, is so riddled with dangers, the wonder isn't that some people are phobic or prone to "irrational" fears, like the youth hostel warden in Northern Ireland who was so worried about Communists; the real wonder is that we all aren't incapacitated by fear. We can take precautions, but precautions don't prevent accidents. This is where some people choke. They can't bear to believe in the wild card; they cling to the conviction that bad things happen only to the careless, the godless, or the karmically unfortunate.

Why don't I carry a cell phone when I ride out alone? Because I don't believe it's likely that I'll get into any trouble that I can't get myself out of, and because for me "You'll Never Walk Alone" is the stuff of nightmares. Sure, there's a chance that I'll fall off my horse deep in the state forest and be unable to move, like there's a chance every time I drive to the barn that I'll be broadsided by a dump truck and left a paraplegic. But I can't live as if the worst-case scenario were imminent or inevitable.

There are moments -- not many, but memorable -- when I've wished I'd been more cautious: gripping the armrests in a bucking plane 30,000 feet up; hearing footfalls half a block behind me on a dark city sidewalk . . . But so far the plane has always gotten through the turbulence, and the man on the sidewalk hasn't wished me ill. The second time around, the retina stayed attached. The first time around, when it didn't, I didn't see it coming and had no time to be afraid.

WARNING: Life may be hazardous to your health and safety. To function in this life, denial mechanisms must be enabled. Please test your denial mechanisms now.

George W. Bush may have discovered terrorism on September 11, 2001, but many of his fellow Americans have been living with it most of our lives. Women, for instance, make choices, big ones and small ones, based on the possibility that a potential rapist is outside the door, in the neighborhood, in the parking lot, in the woods. How many actual rapists does it take to keep millions of women in line? Not all that many.

Why do we think that terrorism is new on U.S. soil? The history of the U.S. of A. is a history of terror and counterterror, going back at least as far as the Pequot War of 1637. Who were the terrorists and who the counterterrorists? Depends on which eye you're looking out of, the one that sees the sharp edges or the one that sees blurry soft-focus shapes. After just over two hundred and fifty years, one side held all the land and the other, homelands occupied, cultures and livelihoods virtually destroyed, barely clung to existence. The winner names the age, and winners rarely call themselves terrorists.

What is a terrorist really? Terrorists inspire terror because they can't be controlled; their actions can't be predicted. Terrorists are the ones that "we" can't compel or persuade to do or refrain from doing something. For those accustomed to being in control, anything that can't be controlled is terrifying: commies, the devil, gods, one's own body. No doubt about it: the events of 9/11 were terrifying. What was remarkable in the days and weeks following, however, was that the most bombastic rhetoric and violent actions so often came from those at some distance from the actual events, those with least cause to be terrified. Those with most cause -- New Yorkers, for instance, and the passengers and crew members on the four hijacked planes -- often rose to the challenge with breathtaking courage and generosity.

9/11 scared those who think they're entitled not to be scared, from the man (often white) in the street to the man in the White House. When the shock wore off, someone had to pay: the nearest man in a turban or woman in a hijab, or the next person to declare that the fall of the towers didn't nullify the Bill of Rights. George W. Bush and his colleagues found opportunity in crisis. For all our rhapsodizing about "the land of the free and the home of the brave," Americans are a scared people. Our economy capitalizes, quite literally, on fear, fear of death, fear of aging, fear of fat, fear of losing out, fear of being left behind. You name the fear, there's a product that promises to make it go away. The product Mr. Bush elected to sell is called war -- on the people of Afghanistan, and the people of Iraq, and on the civil liberties of just about everybody.

* * *

I am not an especially brave person; I didn't intend to become uninsured. Once upon a time, while living in Washington, D.C., I was covered through my employers. In 1985 I moved to Martha's Vineyard, where self-employment and employment by very small, seasonal, and/or barely solvent businesses was the rule. For a self-employed single woman who mix-and-matched part-time jobs for many years before settling into full-time freelance editing, the insurance options were few. For the first fifteen years I managed to find barebones major medical plans through a series of progressive or literary organizations. The premiums and the deductible crept, then leapt, upward together. Despite the bite it was taking out of my meager earnings, I couldn't imagine doing without it. What if I got run down by a truck? What if I got cancer?

Then, after one corporate carrier gobbled another, my premium went from $272 a month to nearly $643. This was more than I was paying in rent, and the coverage was for major medical expenses only, with the usual restrictions and deductibles. My routine medical expenses  were already coming out of my pocket. What was the hypothetical risk of getting hit by a truck or diagnosed with cancer worth? I'd been managing $272 a month (in retrospect I'm not quite sure how), but $643 was screamingly out of the question. I took a deep breath and let my insurance lapse.

The hypothetical risk of getting cancer or being hit by a truck had been trumped by the clear and present threat to my work in the world. I was deep into my first novel and actually beginning to believe that I might finish it. Without question, I owed my progress to the sustainable balance I'd managed to improvise in my life: the indoor, sedentary life of a writer and editor complemented by the outdoor, physical chores of a horse owner and stablehand, cobbled together by the flexible schedule of the freelancer. What if, faced with that impossible premium increase, I'd done the prudent, sensible, responsible thing: found myself a nine-to-five job that came with health insurance? My retina surgeries would have been covered, and my checkbook balance would almost certainly be fatter, but would my novel be done, and would horses be so much a part of my life? I think not.

Can you imagine living without fear? What would your world look like if you could hold the "what ifs" at bay? In January 1941, with Hitler ascendant in Europe and the United States preparing for war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded his fellow citizens: "The mighty action that we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all things worth fighting for." He looked forward "to a world founded upon four essential freedoms," and he listed them: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

In his own way the U.S. president who more than sixty years later instigated the "war on terror" is preoccupied with the fourth of these freedoms -- to the exclusion of the other three. It seems, too, that his fears are quite different from mine. To be sure, I don't want the building I'm in to be smashed by a hijacked plane, and I don't want to be blown up by a suicide bomber. (I do wish my country would stop creating the conditions in which suicide bombing is an imaginable, even rational form of resistance.) But these fears are hypothetical, like the Communists in Northern Ireland. Once upon a time my worst fear was being stricken with an illness or an injury whose treatment I could afford only if I put all my dreams and aspirations on indefinite hold. Assuaging that fear was worth $272 a month. It wasn't worth $643. Exactly how much was it worth? If my monthly premium had gone up in modest increments, when would I have bailed out? I'll never know.

We will never live in a risk-free world. I doubt many of us really want to. The question is how much we're willing to pay for the illusion.

*  *  *

Not so long ago, hardly anyone on Martha's Vineyard locked their front doors, or their back doors either. Some would have been hard-pressed to tell you where the house keys were. The car or truck keys, however, were easy to find: they were in the ignition, or perhaps (in summer, when there were more strangers about) tucked behind the sun visor. Many of us still don't lock, but the times they have been a-changin' for quite a few years now. I knew it for sure the day I was walking down Circuit Avenue, the main street of Oak Bluffs, and spotted a car with its parking lights on. Like any good Vineyarder, I reached for the driver's side door so I could turn them off. Squawk squawk squawk! the door cried. Help help help! I glanced up, caught the eye of a vaguely familiar guy heading in the opposite direction. We both shrugged and proceeded on our respective ways. Squawk squawk squawk! cried the door. No one paid it any mind.

[1] A "gas bubble" was inserted in my eye during each surgery to help keep the retina attached. The first one lasted thirteen days, the second eight weeks. Each dwindled gradually, eclipsing ever less of my vision, and eventually broke into jewel-like rounds that changed in size, number, and configuration from hour to hour, day to day. This exquisite show had to vanish without a trace; I can't draw, and I couldn't take snapshots of the inside of my eye. The "buckle" was another surgical technique to the same end, this time outside the eye instead of inside.

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