The Materials of Solitude

By pretending to have friends, maybe I could invent some.

~ Michael Chabon

I have myopia. Either my eyeballs are too long or my corneas are too steep. Maybe both; no one has ever really spelled out the specifics. Regardless, for several years now I have worn glasses when driving or watching television.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of both lately, lapping up Mad Men on DVD – much like my cat Meepo when he first discovered that he really liked the leftover mauve-colored milk from my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles – in a mad-dash effort to get up-to-speed on all things Don Draper, and making the 6.8 mile trip up Homestead Road every afternoon to pick up my son from play practice. He landed the role of Ho-Jon in his high school’s staging of M*A*S*H. My son has long red hair, pimples, and mumbles in a very nasally, very Midwestern accent which, they’ll tell you if you bring it up, really isn’t much of an accent after all. He’s every kid. And he’s playing a Korean houseboy in less than a month. And I still have the third season to go.

So I’m going to need my glasses.

Only I took them off Saturday night in my garage, after watching the episode in which Peggy Olson finally gets her own office (prediction: she will be running Sterling Cooper before this thing wraps), and sat them down on the trunk of the car. Sunday morning, my wife ran to the store to pick up stuff to make potato soup. My glasses made it nearly two blocks before sliding off. This morning, we found the lenses along the side of the road, pockmarked and caked with Indiana clay. And in the “Wouldn’t You Know It” department, my script expired in 2005. “No, Mr. Thomas, we can’t just make you a new pair.” Curses!

Thankfully, I can handle reading. I’m in the middle of the fall semester and both of my classes are, for the first time in my academic career, online. For the record, this is a recipe for disaster for those of us who are chronic procrastinators. No weekly agenda. No lectures to attend. No hobnobbing face to face with the professor or my classmates. Instead, there is me, a pile of books, some documentaries on YouTube and PBS, Blackboard access, and tons of writing, with a journal entry here, an essay there, and midterms. Having pounded most of that out over the past couple of weeks, I now have the next few days to read and write about Richard Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. With heads bowed and eyes closed, an altar call . . . Who wants to join me?! Anyone . . . ?

What if I throw in something a little less mind-numbing? In the mix, between the bickering and blathering of Arius and Athanasius and their myriad men-behaving-badly minions, I’ve been dipping my toes into purer waters – the consistently stunning prose of Michael Chabon’s latest book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Few authors turn my crank as effortlessly as Chabon, whose Wonder Boys, Summerland, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are staples down the middle of my list of books that should be reread just for the sheer pleasure of doing so. In this book, his “first sustained work of personal writing,” Chabon doesn’t just share a story, he becomes the story. And, as should be the case with all meaningful memoirs, his essays dovetail with my own experiences, leading me to set the book aside occasionally and reflect on the connections we share. For example, in the very first chapter, titled “The Secret Handshake,” Chabon writes about his attempt, at the tender age of ten, to start his own comic book club. He fashioned a newsletter echoing the style of his hero Stan Lee, the brains, brawn, and balls behind the modern incarnation of Marvel comics, and, with the help of his mother, rented a room at the local community center, set up a table and some chairs, and hung up a hand-painted sign inviting one and all to join the club for the price of one dollar. One kid showed up, got freaked out by all those empty chairs, and left. He writes:

This is the point, to me, where art and fandom coincide. Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever as one but which maintains chapters in every city – in every cranium – in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.

And of course, as seems to be the case more than usual lately, especially during an online hiatus of sorts, I got to thinking about all this as it relates to blogging. We live our lives, experiencing the joys and sorrows, the ups and the downs, the times of plenty and times of need, the crowds and the quiet benches, and then eventually we sit down alone at our desks or on my our porch and craft these posts. We take what we see as we gaze at and engage with the grand panorama of life, and then pull our focus up close. Blogs like mine are the materials of solitude. And those of us who do this with no hope for immediate monetary gain become deliberately myopic, choosing not to focus on how far the words reach or on how broadly the ripples may spread, but instead are content with the nearness of the task at hand, the crafting of these invitations that we hang on our digital doorposts.

I admit that I often feel like that kid, sitting alone in the empty room, waiting for someone to come along, pull up a chair, and join me in dunking the cookies of fellowship. And into my little room you have come. This club is small, but it’s mine. I’m glad you’re here. And you can keep your dollar . . .

[top photo credit]


26 thoughts on “The Materials of Solitude

  1. Aw, I’d gladly give a dollar to be in your club.

    I’m like you, I blog but don’t think much about the ripple effect. It is satisfactory to me to simply post when I have time.

    And, I never knew there was a stage version of M*A*S*H. That was my favorite show when I was growing up. You will definitely have to give us a review of the play next month! 🙂

  2. LOVE that analogy! I started blogging with no real sense of purpose — and still don’t have one, beyond giving me a forum to write in which there are no rules, no superiors to please, no clients to impress.

    I don’t know how far the ripple has gone outward but I can sure tell you the impact it’s had coming back the other direction. I’ve found SO many fabulous writers and just genuinely good people that I would never know existed. Many times, these are the folks who revive my faith in mankind. (And you do realize that you’re among them, I hope.)

    It’s fun to have such great company in everyday life.

  3. Whoa! That book sounds awesome.

    Bummer about the glasses, tho 😦 I feel your pain. That reminds me, I need to order contact lenses…

    Good luck to your kiddo in his school play!

  4. the words ring true – if i meet someone new, and discover a shared adoration of an artist, author or musician? there is ‘resonance’ and we are drawn closer… similarly with blogging, i find a bit of resonance here or there, and am drawn back to visit. what i like about the blog experience? it’s all voluntary when people stop by, comment, come back, ‘chat’ in the comments box with other readers…

    good luck with the glasses. i keep all my old pairs just for such emergencies. i am blind as a bat and need them to function… i feel lost without my eyes…

  5. When I blog, it’s me and the computer. I blog for myself. I’m always glad when someone shows up in the room to share my cookies and a glass of milk. I like to talk with other people.

    Kudos to your son and good luck in his play!

    Sorry to hear about your glasses.

  6. Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake…

    I feel as though I will be chewing on this sentence and concept for the foreseeable future. Interesting.

  7. I have little to add other than to say I really enjoyed this post.

    Oh, and I hate it when I lose my glasses.

  8. I realized this morning that this post may sound like a slap to those of you who make money blogging. Not my intention at all; many of you too take the time to craft quality, myopic posts, and therein lies the secret of your success. For some, this “art” that we dish out pays off, and that fact in no way belittles the effort it takes to hit publish.

  9. This post is a beautiful reminder of what we’re [bloggers] really doing here. At least the ones like us.

  10. *pulls up chair*

    Can I join?

  11. Oh good, I was scrounging looking for a stupid dollar. I use my debit card all the time now and so never carry cash on me! 🙂

    I blogged at first to gain readers but realized quickly enough that I didn’t have that star quality… meaning I didn’t have anything to add to the blog world. Nothing new or exciting. Nothing to teach. So then I blogged because I networked a group of friends that I loved hearing from everyday.

    That is why now, I can never give it up. I love the people I am meeting. It’s my out and somewhat of my OWN happy place.

    Great post.

  12. The gesture is very much doomed from the beginning, this whole writing thing, blogging and all. No promise that anybody will ever even see it, and if they do, almost certainly no way of knowing that it had an affect. And yet, and yet…..

    Tell your son to break a leg!

  13. Mad Men, eh? This is a series that HBO turned down and is now veddy veddy sorry since it is so popular. I, too, watch it but I was just thinking the other day that it is written in a very unusual way…I do not “like” any of the main characters in any traditional way…as I did in The Wire, for example, my fav series of all time, or Deadwood. There is something more compelling about them to me without this affection I am finding…and I find that odd to say the least that I keep coming back to see what choices they are making this week. I can’t think of another example where I have felt this way about continuing characters.

  14. You are good people, B.

  15. If you’re myopic, your cornea is too steep. Football shaped.

    Wait until you are also presbyopic. The horror.

  16. I’ve never read Chabon, but I loved “Wonder Boys” in it’s film incarnation. Probably doesn’t count, does it? He sounds good – I like my insight served up with a bit of wry humour on the side.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, comparing blogging to a club of one. I don’t think anyone who blogs is happy about what they write, unless they’re writing it strictly for themselves. I’m never really sure anyone would want to read my external rantings, so I rein it in, and thus begins the writer’s block.

    Alas poor spectacles! It is the fate of so many pairs of glasses, especially those worn only for reading, driving, etc. I wore glasses from the time I was 7, until I was 40, because I was BLIND without them! Even after lasik surgery, with 20/20 vision, I am unusually careful of where I put my sunglasses. It’s that hard-core conditioning, man! I’m hating that you have to go get the whole prescription thing – yikes! Glasses are PRICEY these days!

  17. Brian, I’ve been putting off getting new glasses for a few months, but the rough & tumble nature of being a toddler’s Dad has taken its toll and a nasty heel swipe to the nose last week was the last straw. I bent my mangled glasses back into some reasonable facsimile of shape and made an appointment with Dr. Munoz for a checkup since it’s been two years since I had a new ‘script.

    Anyway, I mention this because you, like me, probably have always grimaced and ponied up the big bucks at your local EyeMasters, LensCrafters or other such “brick & mortar” eyeglasses shop. And now that I’m doing the bifocal bugaloo, glasses are even more pricey. But this time will be different…

    When we when looking for glasses to fit Liam last year (and sheesh, it breaks my heart that he has to wear these confounded things!) we couldn’t find a store locally that carried a frame small enough for a 2 year old. One shop did come close, but their frame was $129 and didn’t feature springy hinges, flexy temples, or anything that would inspite us to believe that they’d hold up to the toddler’s torture. We were nudged towards Zenni Optical by another adoptive couple and the results couldn’t have been better!

    So, now that it’s Dad’s turn for new glasses, I’m going to boldly venture out into the world of online eyeglasses for myself too! I’ve priced out a snazzy pair of titanium, rimless, springy-hinged frames with Transitions-style progressive (no-line) bifocal lenses, treated with anti-glare pixie-dust for just under $100. That’s a fraction of what something similar would cost locally. Look for a post on our blog in the very near future for the outcome. Am I nervous? Yeah, a little. But am I excited too? Heck, yeah! New glasses for $50-90, even with trimmings? I’m eager to see (rimshot!) how this experiment turns out!!

    By the way, it turns out that there’s a rapidly-growing mass of glasses-wearers who use online shops like Zenni and you can find some fantastic info on Ira Mitchell’s website. The forum section is a quite active discussion group where friendly & knowledgeable folks will help you ease into this new frontier with lots of anecdotal info & suggestions.

  18. michael.offworld October 17, 2009 — 8:11 pm

    I might just have to find this book. (It’s fun to be alone together.)

  19. This was brilliant, sir. Truly.

    Apart from the brilliance, have you read Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union yet? Because I haven’t yet, and I want to. Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorites.

  20. This was a lovely post…we do focus in on things up close as bloggers. One small snap shot of our lives up close, turning it loose and having no idea how far it might go.

    I am nearsighted as well, really nearsighted, and it messes with my love of watersports. I used to surf with contacts. Once I lost them in the ocean and felt panic rising in my chest as I realized that I could no longer make out the waves, how big they really were, when they would hit, or how hard. I felt lost and small, helpless, unable to prepare myself or control my part in the situation. After that I am a little afraid to venture out without someone who knows me well at my side to guide me back in.

  21. This is great and yes, I relate. I am introverted. Though I am an extroverted introvert, I’m still an introvert and blogging is perfect for those of us that love the glimpses inside someone’s head. I love to read and most of my blogroll is populated by talented writers so it’s kind of like having favorite authors but being able to hear about their day or random thoughts.

  22. Wonderful post. Thank you.

    As for the glasses…I just picked up my new pair yesterday. I normally wear contacts and just have the glasses for the odd times the lenses aren’t in. I knew that soft lenses don’t give you the sharpest vision…and I knew that my old glasses were scratched…but wow…it’s like my vision improved 25% when I put those new frames on. Almost worth the outrageous price I paid for them.

  23. I’m teaching an online course for the first time this summer and I can relate to the procastination. From the teaching point of view, there’s also a really steep learning curve. So far – don’t like it. I’m kind of old school.

    Would like to check out that Chabon book. He’s a personal favorite of mine as well.

  24. Your post reminded me of a documentary I saw on memory.

    Apparently the more connexions we have to a memory, the better able we are to remember it. I suspect that writing and the thinking it causes help build up new and stronger pathways to a memory and strengthen the memory. I’m willing to bet that the things that you’ve written about will become the strong memories of your later years.

    As always, I’m glad you’ve taken the time to craft some of your thoughts and memories into a post to share with us out here in blogland.

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