By Robin Rhyner
I bought some reading glasses last week. Not because I need them, but because I want them. I have practically perfect eyesight. I never need to squint, strain my eyes, or move my arm back and forth like a trombonist in order to read even the smallest print. I can read for hours on end in dim light without the slightest hint of a headache. But I really wanted some reading glasses.
It’s kind of like when I was a kid in the third grade and I wanted to wear a retainer, but the dentist said I didn’t need one. I used to uncurl large paper clips, then shape them to look like a retainer and put them in my mouth, pretending I wore a real retainer. When I was in the fourth grade, my best friend wore headgear which I tried to duplicate with a hair band and a wire coat hanger, but couldn’t even approximate. Come to think of it, this is the same friend who wore leg braces when we were 7 years old that I coveted, too.
As a young child, I was blessed with health and a lack of bodily injury, much to my chagrin. Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t want to get sick or to be hurt. But I did want a chance to experience the accessories that came along with these minor childhood injuries and illnesses. I often put Band-Aids on my skin when I wasn’t in need of them. This was in the “olden days” before Band-Aids had cartoon characters on them. I pilfered ACE bandages from my mother’s first aid kit so I could wrap up my arm or ankle. My favorite part was the tiny silver clip shaped like an hour glass with 2 little barbs sticking out at each end to catch at the material of the bandage and keep it closed. I envied my classmates their stitches, their plaster casts, their arm slings, and their crutches.
My friend with the lazy eye who wore an eye patch was in my estimation the luckiest kid in the elementary school. In middle school, I was jealous of the kids whose mouths were full of shiny silver braces and miniature rubber bands. In high school, the athletes with their knee injuries got to stomp around school in boot casts and stick their legs straight out into the aisles between the rows of desks. I didn’t exactly envy their pain and awkwardness, but I did envy their status as injured jocks who got a lot of attention.
Now, when a kid goes off to college and starts spending more time with adults, the natural expectation would be that the kid has matured and left behind any strange longings to be part of the injured list. Certainly there are fewer people walking around with the minor injuries that come with the territory of being a child. And so a person does not really have an opportunity to yearn after these things. You might even think she’d gotten over it. But you’d be wrong. Because in college, there is another kind of accessory that begins to show up more and more. Reading glasses. All those books. All that studying. All that eye strain.
By the time I finished college, I had a wish for reading glasses. Once again, I didn’t envy people their weak eyes. I just envied their accessories. The way they immediately looked more intelligent, studious, distinguished, and collegiate as soon as they put on their glasses. I’ve wanted to have a pair ever since.
I’ve never wanted to be a full time wearer of glasses. I think I would find them cumbersome. Something I could lose. Something to get in my way. Which is probably why so many people wear contact lenses.
But I love the idea of reading glasses. They seem like part of a ritual somehow. How many times have I watched someone in a coffee shop sit down, spread out a newspaper, lift a cup of coffee to their lips, set it back down, put on their reading glasses, and settle in for a good long session with the printed word. Putting on their reading glasses is the last thing they do before entering that other world. And taking off their glasses is the first thing they do before exiting that world. It’s as if the reading glasses are some kind of magical object, giving them some kind of special access to the arena of literature and learning. The glasses are a passport. And the glasses are a surefire signal as to how deeply engrossed a person is in that parallel universe. They indicate whether or not someone else is welcome to interrupt the journey.
When you walk by someone’s table and they’re sitting, reading with their glasses on, and you say Hello, they make a sort of transition with their eyes. If they look up at you, let their glasses slide down to the top of their nose, and make eye contact with you over the top of the frames, you know that you may stop and say a few words, then move on.
On the other hand, if they remove their glasses, you have a clear-cut invitation to stay longer. Exactly how long is determined by whether their glasses remain in their hand, are set down on the table, or are slid back in the case, folded up, and put into a shirt pocket or handbag.
A person’s reading glasses can also be an expression of a sense of reverie or moment of thoughtfulness; as when they look up from a book for just a moment, pushing their glasses to the top of their head so they can look out on the real world momentarily and see the reflection of written ideas shining on real life just briefly, before putting their glasses back on and plunging back into the sea of words on the page.
I want to be part of that club. That world-hopper club. Actually, I already am a part of that club. I just don’t have the glasses that announce my membership. I am the epitome of someone who’s been inaugurated to a life-time term in the “reader” club. I’m just not far-sighted enough to need the glasses that make the reading ritual so obvious. But I want those glasses. Glasses are a powerful symbol. For Clark Kent they meant the difference between mild-mannered reporter and superhero.
And strange as it might sound, I think that’s the same feeling I was looking for as a child. That superhero feeling. Really, I was a superhero, and I knew it. I just wanted other people to know it, too. Stitches, Band-Aids, casts, crutches, slings, ACE bandages–they all say something about you. They all say that you’ve ventured out into a dangerous world and come back a changed person. You have gone forth, bravely seeking adventure. Just like when you put on your reading glasses and venture into a book.
© Robin Rhyner 2009