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Mirror, Mirror

If you have stopped here looking for specific guidance through the joys, the mysteries and challenges of parenthood, well, good luck. I also cannot refer you to anyone wiser through a blogroll or mutual linkage, owing, let’s say, to naiveté in such things, and probably pigheadedness, and probably the thousands of dollars a month I would rather spend on rent, or groceries, or getting my cuticles tended, oh lordy, just about anything rather than donate to whatever nefarious entities enable such flimflams.

Sorry. I’ll compose myself now. No, please let me get you a drink! We could talk about, um, health care reform. Jon and Kate. We could debate the merits of eating well and eating locally (thousands of dollars for groceries!?), I could recommend parks and museums and local color where you can find it, and I could tell you to put down those Cheetos, that clicker, and rescue puppies and learn about a foreign country and never to see any movie starring both Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler - wait, where was I? Oh, children.

I could recommend against reading blogs that offer four basic rules for anything, and I could instruct you in the Many Wondrous Ways of Living Blissfully by me, because you are here, all six of you, trapped in the middle of this sentence in the middle of this essay that is nominally about children’s books, except that I really. Don’t. Know. You do this for enough years (raising children, not blogging) and all the tricks and hard-earned lessons keep dropping and falling away. It’s like this: I used to work in restaurants, night shifts, on Sundays, when they hadn’t taken deliveries since Friday, and the fish was a day older than it probably should have been, and every ten minutes or so a call would go up from the Mexican kitchen staff: “Eighty-six sal-mon!” “Eighty-six filet!” “Eighty-six chimichangas!” and so on till there was almost nothing left in the coolers and you started to feel kind of bad for the customers who weren’t (also) yelling at you, and wondered what purpose you were even serving in this life.

Anyway. Stuff runs out. You probably have your own analogies. Don’t eat out on Sundays! That is all I have to offer, and this: Read to your children. It’s easy. It’s cheap. And once in a while, if you are lucky, and an author and illustrator really pull it off, you are treated to the rare and probably essential reminders of how it ever felt to be a kid.

We forget. Particularly when we become so fascinated with the question of exactly what it means to be a parent. This isn’t going to make me a lot of friends in the neighborhood, I know, but really, people, the mirror isn’t big enough for everyone.

So let me tell you about James Stevenson instead, who writes (and draws) a feature called “Lost and Found” in the editorial section of The New York Times, though it’s not an editorial really, but history – mixed with a couple of personal reflections – of odd forgotten landmarks or otherwise American obscurities. Stevenson is eighty-something now, still scrupulous, and his stories appear in picture books also, the best of which describe an ordinary suburban landscape across the magnificent uncertainties of childhood. Keen eye, young heart: to be able to pick these things out – the fears, the expectations and delusions – requires not just the journalistic chops, but also, perhaps, the enduring curiosity that comes with never exactly finding the answers. Higher on the Door is written from the perspective of a man carrying his grandson on his shoulders, but he may as well still be marking his growth with a pencil. Up and down that door frame are probably some of the places he dreamed of visiting by glorious ocean liner, confetti streaming as it left port from New York City; the ends of automats and milkmen and trucks dumping coal into basements; of learning to whistle with two fingers, and forgetting how to fall on his face without getting hurt. 

It’s all good, and all relevant still, notwithstanding the period details. These books don’t look like much from the covers, indeed you are likely to skip right past them in the library (and nowhere else) nestled between the picaresque fables of Steig and blinding pyrotechnics of Dr. Seuss. I Had a Lot of Wishes in particular is rendered in mostly faceless watercolors, though such sketchiness is by design – and it works, the titular wishfulness brimming riotously over in splotches of colors and words. Here is the barest ontology laid out like a table of contents on the second page:

“Wishes that something would happen.”

“Wishes that something would not happen.”

“Wishes that what was happening would stop.”

“Wishes I could get something I didn’t have.”

“Or maybe borrow it for a while.”

What follows doesn’t always fit neatly into each of these categories, still this is clearly a work in progress. There are motorcycles here, and brothers and sisters you do not have, and ice cream headaches, and G-men and gangsters, and daydreams of flying in blimps, and catching fly balls, and olive loaf, and slightly boring friends, and arguing parents, and a plastic pickle pin from the 1939 World Fair. There’s a someday-wish you wish would hurry up and finally get here when you ask your father if you can use his work stuff (he’s an architect) and he says: “Someday. When I’m not so busy.”

“Do you make wishes a lot?” asks the young Stevenson of one of those slightly boring friends. “Why should I?” she answers. Remember? Remember worrying you were different? Adopted maybe, or left behind by aliens, or challenged, just no one would tell you? Remember the awesome responsibility of such wishfulness – the burden, the danger, the ache – when everyone else appeared to be keeping their heads? No, stay awhile, won’t you? I promise I’m just getting started. 

Mar 26 2011 | Comments: 0

Filed Under:  History    Quiet Please    Truly, Madly, Deeply    We Are Old  






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