If you are of a certain age, you may remember the Mr. Magoo cartoons. Mr. Magoo was a little man whose extreme nearsightedness got him into all sorts of trouble (and caused trouble for all sorts of people). This animated short, Magoo Goes Overboard, is an excellent example of the formula: Magoo mis-sees, misinterprets, and, with a perfect lack of self-awareness, goes confidently in the direction of his misapprehension. It can be a dangerous progression in the real world, but it’s a great formula for comedy, and a little bit of mis-seeing can open up creative possibilities for the writer.
Sometimes when I forget to wear my glasses, the world seems a little more adventurous than usual. For instance, I have only seen two cougars in my life. Both sightings were in places where cougars had (supposedly) been long extinct. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but both sightings came at times when I was driving without my glasses. (Semi-related note: Here’s a National Geographic story about a cougar called P-22 who lived wild in Los Angeles; you may have seen the famous picture of him near the Hollywood sign. He died a couple of weeks ago, probably hit by a car.)
Once I was driving through rural Alabama and saw a sign for the Church of the Elephant. I had no idea what that might mean, but I didn’t see how it could be good or theologically appropriate. It stuck in my craw. I pointed the sign out to my wife Lou Alice; to my surprise, it didn’t bother her at all. It didn’t bother her because it was actually a sign for the Church of the Epiphany. Which, you have to admit, looks a LOT like Church of the Elephant.
Another time I was enjoying some glasses-free shopping at Target, and in the back aisle of the store, I saw a very impressive-looking imam. He was wearing this white robe that billowed down to the floor, and he had the most incredible beard I’ve ever seen, before or since. Black and glossy, it flowed down below his belly button. I couldn’t even imagine how such a beard could have time to grow so long without first growing gray.
I wanted to get a better look at this man and his fabulous beard. But closer up, even a person without glasses could see that the man wasn’t wearing flowing white robes, and his beard wasn’t anything special, and he wasn’t an imam.
The man was talking to a woman who was about half a head shorter than he was. She came up just to his nose. Her back was to me; if one mistook the white dress on her for white robes on him, it only took a little imagination to mistake the long black hair cascading down her back for a long black beard cascading down his front.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” To which I might add, “Tell the truth, but tell it squint.”