June 8, 2015

For lonely children

When I was five years old my grandfather gave my brother a Christmas present – a collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. And the instant I laid my eyes on it, it struck a chord with me that now, 25 years later, few other things have ever managed to strike. I seem to recall fighting with my brother over the next few days about who, exactly, would maintain possess the collection: it was obviously his, as it was given to him, but at the same time that was bullshit because it was meant for me.

But that’s not really true. Libby Hill over at the AV Club has put together an excellent piece on who Calvin and Hobbes was meant for, whose voice it embodies, whose viewpoint it so perfectly and tragically articulated: that of a lonely child.

My brother and I grew up in a weird ass house out in the woods in a small town in South Carolina. The previous owner had designed the house himself, and had done a remarkably, remarkably poor job of it: looking back on it, I recall a mishmash of queer roof angles and clutches of windows and a whole shitload of cinderblocks, all features which had some faint ambition of modern architecture but were restrained by the overwhelming sense of cheapness that pervaded the whole thing. It seemed to have a preternatural ability to collect dust and cobwebs, nothing but nooks and crannies and unbelievable angles no normal person would ever attempt.

The previous owner had not contained his ambition to the main house but had expanded across our acre lot, constructing numerous crumbling sheds and carports and half-forgotten attempts at a something like a gazebo, which grape vines had taken over and almost obliterated. Birds lived there by the dozens, a dark tangle of vines alive with cheeping and movement. Everything built on the lot was confusing and, on the whole, unsuccessful.

To an adult, like my mom, it was probably not such a great place to live. To a kid, it was awesome.

As were the woods. If I recall correctly, we lived on one acre of land surrounded by acres and acres of woods, which was then surrounded by farmland – you’d walk out of the woods and find yourself in something akin to a wasteland, just loose soil in all directions, and the distant glint of cars on the highway. We had giant trees everywhere, pines and magnolias and maybe the odd oak, I can’t recall. I think the soil was too acidic for oaks.

It was a great place to grow up, I think. But we were alone. There were no neighbors our age, no friends down the street – not for miles at least. I remember talking to a friend on the bus on the way home from school, and discussing building a tunnel connecting my house to his – it was only a few miles, we agreed. It shouldn’t be that bad. I drew up the plans for it, if I recall. Somehow I never got the necessary funding for the endeavor.

I didn’t encounter planned housing until I was seven or so, when I went to a friend’s house for a birthday and found he lived on the cul-de-sac of a subdivision. It seemed both powerfully strange and wonderful: I’d only ever seen subdivisions in movies before, but here these kids were, living in one, and unlike the highway by our house there were never any cars! They just played in the street and on the sidewalk. It boggled the mind.

So yes, looking back on it, we grew up with acres of hinterlands to fill up with our imaginations. But we were still powerfully alone, I suppose. Trees and dogs and not much else. Much like Calvin himself, who I saw as an immaculate reflection of myself, of who I really was. Only it never snowed where I lived.

Would I have been an odd, lonely kid if I hadn’t grown up isolated in the woods? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s tough to say. But Calvin and Hobbes makes me think so. Those comic strips suggested, however obliquely, that this was the natural order of things, that children would always feel like outsiders: small, rejected, confused by these myriad systems, always fleeing from the whims of powers greater than we. I paid close attention to everything Calvin and Hobbes did, feeling they understood a truth that I had only just stumbled across.

I remember making my own tiger friend out of denim and cotton and markers, which I sewed together myself. My mother kept it after all these years. It’s a remarkable copy of the real Hobbes, I even managed to capture his blank yet lopsided expression. I suspect it wasn’t my first attempt.

And I remember very distinctly moving away from the odd house out in the woods, packing up everything in it and putting it in the car and knowing someone else would one day come to live there. I remember my mother sweeping up the living area, the bright light of the afternoon sun reflected a murky gray on the old linoleum floor. I remember the house’s emptiness, how hollowed out it felt, both big and small at the same time. A small place filled with many echoes.

I remember sitting in the back of the car, which was stuffed to bursting, and playing some cheap early 1990s videogame as we drove away. I played it but I didn’t really look at it. It was the loneliest feeling I’d experienced yet in my short life. I think Calvin would have understood it quite well.

There’s no shortage of Calvin and Hobbes nostalgia these days. I see people sharing the strips on social media, still going 20 years after their date of publication. Clearly the comic had effects on other people as well.

But for some reason this wanton nostalgia has always made something curdle within me. I feel a puerile urge to tell other people that no, actually, they don’t like Calvin and Hobbes nearly as much as do. Perhaps I don’t want my love of Calvin and Hobbes to feel so commonplace, so ordinary. It’s like finding out Hobbes was a friend of many children beyond Calvin: the allure is escape and solitude. This is a place I used to go to feel alone, and feel all right in my aloneness.

This place was mine. I’m still not ready to give it away and let someone else live there.

When she was young, one of my wife’s teachers was actually the brother of Bill Watterson. He actually designed and drew all the shirts for her debate team in high school, and as captain of the debate team, she got to talk on the phone with him – to tell Bill fucking Watterson what she wanted on their shirts. She did this twice, for two different shirts.

It was an idea I found both fascinating and appalling. He was a real guy, a real person, pleasant to talk to. Yet somehow I’d always imagined that, against all reason, whoever had made Calvin and Hobbes was, at heart, a melancholy child alone in the woods.