Monday, June 10, 2024

Away Home


My favorite children have always been fictional. Who doesn't love a sweet Dickensian orphan or a Harold and his purple crayon or Harriet whilst spying?! And I love babies -- on paper. Okay, I love 'em in reality too, but they can be a lot o' noise, puke, and pooh and all at once. All my favorite murderers, drunks, talking animals, battles, horse races, bars, barns, carts, and weddings are in stories and novels. I mean, barns are dirty, battles are violent... Most sober folk would agree that drunks are obviously better on the page than in person. Fictional drunks can be hilarious, even quite moving -- like Lowry's Geoffrey Firmin (remember? The chap Under the Volcano.) Real drunks? See "babies" above. Now I think about it, this is also mostly true of brave dogs, clever cats, long journeys, long conversations about the meaning of things, grifters, drifters, grotesque weightlifters, and of course heterosexual intimacies. My memory of that last would be pretty hazy now were it not for its omnipresence in the wider culture. I will admit I often skip right over most of it in novels. Doesn't bother me, you understand, just not my demographic. Likewise monster trucks and martial arts, mixed or straight up. (It occurs to me now that I've never encountered monster trucks or kickboxing in a fictional setting. I lead a retiring life, but has that happened? If not it's high time somebody wrote the Great American Kickboxing Monster Truck Novel. Get on that, surviving editors at Random Penguin House. Potentially untapped crossover market with my fellow Saltine Americans.*) 

Fiction is and has always been kind of my safe space. We didn't have that phrase or that concept when I was a kid. Safety was kind of a crap shoot back then, despite the insidious nostalgia that tells us everything used to be "safe as houses." There were lots of supposedly safe institutions like church and school that were anything but, and not just for wee me. Fiction on the other hand did not disappoint when it came to fidelity. Huck and Jim might be imperiled off the river, but I was perfectly safe when with them. All four of The Musketeers could be called upon to keep safe company with a small, near-sighted boy. Reading in a dusty out-building, my bare feet resting on a push mower, Oz was all around me. 

As an older man, I still find fiction the best possible place to encounter straight men, actual bears, Roman Emperors, naked ladies, authors who call women "ladies," -- another long list! Nowadays fiction is far and away the best place to keep all sorts of messy, demanding, potentially unpleasant and or taxing things that in reality would require more patience than I have left, or worse, timed-feedings and or special clothing, things that need seen to by a surgeon or dressed by a nurse, things that need to be put down for either a nap or for good. Fiction still lets me experience these things without me lifting a finger, as it were, or more honestly without getting my nightshirt dirty. I'm not incapable of seeing to things in reality. I can feed myself. Dress. Drive a car. The beloved elderly husband and I take care of one another. But I can't imagine being responsible for a regiment, or an escape, let alone feeding a baby or a bulldog. I can't keep so much as a houseplant alive. We've never actually owned a pet in my house (husband's asthmatic.) I am then clearly better off with just imaginary warriors, animals, and children, etc. 

Don't know that I ever wanted children for more than a minute at a time. As a gay man of a certain generation, fatherhood wasn't difficult to avoid. I've known LGBTQIA people for whom parenthood has always been a goal. Good on 'em. Not me. (Though, I have been called "Daddy" lately.) Unlike dear old Charles Lamb, I've never ruminated on the kiddies not crowding 'round my knee. 

I am content with just old books, the beloved old husband, and maybe a bit of light dusting. He's the better cook. Sunday morning though I'll make an omelet if I'm feeling ambitious or if I fuck it up, scrambled eggs. I'm not against the idea of other people. I see them all day long at the bookstore where I work. I'm not an ascetic. I don't shun human touch or avoid conversation or contact. My coworkers would attest that I am if anything, chatty. I've known an actual misanthrope or two. If I am no longer convivial much, I'm still friendly mostly. And I will look at the cat photos on your phone. I will grin at your baby. Then, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to my book.

My personal acquaintance with other people's children has been largely satisfactory if shallow. Oddly enough, I am good at walking fussy babies. I am not actually squeamish about bodies and what comes of necessity out of them. There endeth my utility. By the time most children begin to speak in complete sentences I'm afraid we tend to bore one another. Perfectly understandable on their part. I don't really "do" anything in any sense likely to entertain or interest children. I am sedentary, conversational, uninterested in games. A willingness to pull funny faces gets one only so far with children, maybe... aged two? After that, I got nothing. I recall enough of my own childhood to remember how agonizingly dull most adults are to kids -- as not a few will prove to be forever after. The sad truth is that humans tend not to be nearly so interesting to one another as we've been led to expect. We most of us don't get a hell of a lot more fascinating over time. You weren't much fun at five, I wouldn't look for you to be suddenly festive at fifty. I was never a birthday party boy nor a playground player. I didn't really get kids when I was one. By the time I might find anything actually interesting to say to the children of my friends now those kids are taller than me and on their way out the door, at which point the only thing more mortifying than one's parents conversation would probably be awkward exchanges with the friends of same. "I remember when you were a baby!" Fascinating, Mr. Craft. Do tell. Sorry.

With the best intentions in the world I was recently asked if I might be willing to read aloud to children... and, no, no I am not. Not the first time I've been asked. I do read aloud to grown people and have done for years. Should a child (or a dog) happen to be present I will not fuss so long as they don't. All are welcome, generally. (I did once suggest to a lady with a very vocal cockatoo that she may have interpreted the phrase "open to the public" far too broadly.) Other than the bird and the occasional crazy, I've been pretty lucky when it's come to my audience for this sort of thing. I tend to attract grown ass people. I needn't worry about cursing, and they needn't worry I'll read anything I wouldn't read to my own elderly mother. Please keep in mind that that little lady, at ninety-two, still has a mouth on her. I actually have tried reading to children before. I've done a story time or two. Not a success. The kids were not impressed. And they unfortunately reminded me not a little of that cockatoo. Not enjoyable for anybody. Once, when reading a story to the small children of a friend, the littlest one, when shown the charming illustration in my collector's edition of The Rose and the Ring took the page right out. Right. Out. RIP. End of story, end of story-time. The poor mother looked stricken. She was lucky not to be, struck I mean, because I don't strike children. (No harm done, save to my Thackeray. That baby's a graduate student now. Some day though, we may meet again. I am a patient man. Hmmm... may I see that diploma for a second?)

I do remember being read to as a child, but more I remember the glorious revelation of being able to read for myself. The magic of that moment has never left me, never dimmed. The standard of pedagogy in my hometown was never remarkable. My first teachers, and many of their successors right through to high school, were -- how to put this? Very nice ladies. Nearly all of them came from what used to be called "teacher colleges." Most taught from lesson-plans older than the building we were in. Modern science, contemporary letters, history, many subjects might have benefited from a more worldly employment pool or diversity of background. Not to be. I believe diversity then in my home town came down to United Methodist or one or the other of two Presbyterian. I guess the gym teachers might have been Baptists? (There is a private college right there in my home town, by the way. Again, Presbyterian. It is still a religious institution better known for its quaint horror of mixed dormitories than for its lofty academic standards or the diversity of its staff or student body. Elementary education, business administration, and theology majors abound.) In this one task though my early teachers served me well. I was ready to read. They helped and encouraged me. They put good books into my hands. True, I never mastered spelling, and grammar came to me late and still limps under the weight of me, but reading? A gift. I remember the triumph of "sounding out" an unfamiliar word -- something that I understand is not strictly done anymore -- and reading aloud, making the printed words back into sounds. I remember learning how a sentence and then a paragraph worked. It was all as magical and mechanical as Newton's universe. Reading put the whole world and all the stars right under my imperfect eyes and gave me a power I'd never known. I could travel, fly, kill, forgive, talk, laugh, love and be loved at will. Later still I could, in Whitman's weird phrase, "snuff the sidle of evening" with other, actual readers like me, talk about something other than just our day, our bills, our sorrows. Reading was also how I found my tribe and came to know community. I survived because I learned to read.

From childhood then books became my Gods. Is this really so strange, this apotheosizing of the one thing that took me out of and over my largely rural and not altogether happy childhood? What else was there for me to worship? God proved to be both not and a thorough shit. Religion was something that happened, like weather, and no more meaningful most of the time than that. Of sports I knew and know nothing. Those boys looked hot both ways in their short shorts, but even if they let you touch them they were no less likely to punch you. Best not. Music happened on the radio and little enough of that reached where we were. I did not control the TV dial after four PM. Books. Other people? Other boys? I had friends but saw little of most of them after school. Very long bike rides between houses in the country. By the time I came to fall in love I already knew it might not go well and was unlikely to be reciprocated until I could get away. Until then, books were my away.

And now books, my books, are home. Books are what I do for a living and where I go when work is done. And now in a very, very small way, books have been my children. I've made about eight of them to date; drawings and clerihews and essays. I may yet do another. I've no more expectation of their ultimate survival than a barn cat surveying her litter. Maybe? Good luck. The point of them remains much the same as the point of this: hope to amuse my friends and occasionally confound and refute our enemies. Not so very lofty. Certainly nothing like the expectations of an actual parent, or an actual writer. Should I be discovered after death and reprinted, well I won't be here, will I? Where's the fun in that?! 

The idea that we must all of us find a way to extend something of ourselves out into posterity, that we deserve no less is just fucked up. Why? Why should I? Why would anyone want or need that? Wrong reason I believe to have a baby or write a book. Talk to me. Write to me. Play with me. Books and babies, happy to hold either. Now take this precious widdle woojie woojums back, sweetheart, so Daddy can get back to his novel. (Send me the picture.)

*Got in trouble on social media for calling my fellow rednecks "crackers" which is evidently and hilariously an ethnic slur in the age of Triumphant Trumpferism.