For better and worse, I am a product of the seventies, when teachers and coaches and counselors and babysitters and parents charged with the temporary safekeeping of other people’s children were, to an extent that is unimaginable today, letting it all hang out. This included doctors: the very square pediatrician whom I associate with my first asthma attacks was, by the time I had outgrown him, wearing Mardi Gras beads where his stethoscope used to be. We used to see our dentist around town in a red Corvette; he wore a moustache and his shirt unbuttoned like Magnum P.I., and rumors were he raced horses and dated all the hygienists.
I’m not sure I derived a lot of confidence from all this flamboyance, in fact I’m pretty certain it would represent a deal breaker today, still consider the opposite perils. Namely: what sort of institutional skepticism is likely to result when everyone looks and talks the same?
The optometrist in Lane Smith’s Glasses, Who Needs ‘Em? is wild-eyed and even a little dangerous looking, but at least he doesn’t mention the timeworn advantages of being able to read the classroom blackboard. Instead, he starts addressing this patient’s concerns about “looking like a dork” by citing all of the inventors and stunt people and robots and snowmen and little green men and baboons and Hong–Kong-Flu bugs and sock puppets and potatoes whose appearances aren’t very much compromised by corrective eyewear – the argument gets nuttier and more hallucinatory by the page.
But less compelling? Somebody pointed out to me recently when I was hedging a little over William Steig’s Tiffky Doofky that what this author did consistently better than anyone was tell stories like children would tell them. With virtuosic artwork, and really cool words, but plots which seemed hatched from a headlong, still developing imagination. Here is a garbage dog, a crystal ball, an emerald necklace, a boa constrictor, and an arrow-shooting chicken who also happens to be a witch. Unlikely sometimes, sure, not fully explained or substantiated, rarely moral, but urgently, thrillingly possible.
Which is finally the magic - and madness - of Glasses, I think: eyesight and insight and foresight and every kind of sight can be an intoxicating thing. Today I would barely recognize my own hand without lenses, and yet I spent most of my life until college declining the favor of those head-eclipsing tortoiseshells that were the default in those days, squinting through fogginess instead, and waving at strangers (just in case!) and memorizing questions from those legendary blackboards - without ever feeling the loss. The patient in Glasses seems a great deal saner than the doctor, but he allows himself a preview finally, and so did I; we’re never turning back. To open your house to these strangers, and be astonished by them, is fatefully also to wonder if there are stranger and more astonishing where those came from. I don’t know if this arrives at wisdom exactly – in fact arriving seems kind of beside the point – but at least it appears to hint at further destinations. We always worry we’re missing something of course – not getting the story, or buying it - still what is more ominous than the prospect of finally figuring it all out?