Scott Snyder on the changing landscape of childhood fears.
Sometimes I think things'll be okay.
This year's letter has been a tough one to nail down.
We had a banner year. 2014 up and tattooed itself all over our lives. New jobs, new friends, new priorities. New possibilities revealing themselves. The year showed us what we could be, what we could do. Then it ended by reminding us of what we already had.
My maternal grandmother died early last month. The wake of her passing was enormous, even if the fact of her death was an overdue mercy. We gathered together in that wake, held each other and wept. And laughed. And ate. And then I wrote you a letter.
Just a few weeks later, my paternal grandfather died too. Just like my Nanaw, his death was a mercy, and just like my Nanaw, he left behind one hell of a wake. He left a hole in things. So again we gathered and held and wept and laughed and ate. And then I scrapped that letter and wrote you another one.
This morning I came to work to discover that a friend and coworker, a 33-year-old husband and father, was killed in a car wreck the night before. He left a hole in things too, one we weren't braced for. So I scrapped that second letter and am starting over again.
I'm unsure of what to say.
My temptation when I write these is to wrap a tidy little bow around things, to shoehorn the events of our lives into some kind of theme. But however comforting that may be to write or to read, those lives defy an effort that small and limiting. It feels dishonest even to try. Losing so many drove that point home.
But it's not just the barrage of loss and tragedy. It's everything, every mark on our lives, good and bad. Each one a single drop, some bigger than others, but none of which is easily contained.
I can't get my head around the sheer mass of all those drops, even just from this year: Loved ones lost, loved ones gained. Corners turned. Chance encounters that rearranged everything. They leave me with no neat little gift to give you. They leave me gobsmacked.
A single life is an inscrutable, baffling, insane thing. There is no order to it, no theme. There are only those drops, added one by one to a great, churning sea of longing and laughter and fear and all-too-brief satisfaction.
The chaos of all that churning is living, moving art. It seeks infinite rearrangement, and that means infinite possibility.
And therein lies our hope. Because as long as the chaos holds, as long as the sea churns, the possibilities don't run out. We can still do more. Be more. There is still time.
There is no map for this. All you can do is wade in, see where it takes you. Maybe keep an eye out for anyone who looks like their arms are getting tired. It can be terrifying as all hell, but it's also pretty damn thrilling, and I am discovering that even that terror is a gift. Even the heartbreak.
We hope your year has been a good one or, failing that, that it has laid the groundwork for good things to come. We couldn't stay afloat without you, and for that we thank you and love you and will be certain to sacrifice the small forest creature of your choosing to Zalgo, the Nezperdian Hive Mind of Chaos. Or maybe we'll make pie.
2015 looks to be at least as terrifyingly full of possibility as 2014. I propose we hold hands.
Jack Torrance would be proud.
Nick Thune's review (sorta) of "1st of Tha Month" is kind of amazing. Read it.
Then read this review (sorta) of "First Wives' Club 2", which is also pretty great.
The only reason I grouped these things together is because they both have "first" in the title, and I like to celebrate the small things. Even though that's the only thing they have in common.
Mildly fun curiosity this time. Let's talk about Sir Francis Galton.
Galton was a lot of things, a polymath. He made some significant contributions to statistics and mathematics, which we'll get to in a second, but he's possibly best known as the father of eugenics. Galton was a cousin of Darwin's who took his findings on animal husbandry and breeding down a predictably shitty, racist, classist path.
The man advocated for the Chinese to take over Africa because they were, in his view, better. He didn't think the lower socioeconomic classes should have the rights of the successful, including the right to breed. He was, in the parlance of a friend, a shitbag made of dicks.
One of Galton's more curious discoveries transcended those prejudices, though, when he conducted an experiment at a county fair. Several hundred locals were trying to guess the weight of an ox to win a prize, and none of them came close. But when Galton gathered their submitted guesses and studied them, he found the median was less than ten pounds off, and the mean was essentially perfect, off by just a pound.
This is a weird result, when you think about it. A bunch of people making really bad guesses, many of them with no expertise in raising animals, collectively made a perfect estimation of the weight of an ox.
It's a credit to this bigoted shitheel that he didn't just dismiss the result as a statistical fluke, but actually published it and cited it as an unexpected phenomenon worthy of study: crowds can be smarter collectively than the individuals of which they are composed.
That finding was one of the major milestones on the path to what would become the field of study known as emergence, the idea that complexity arises from groups of simple individuals that are themselves incapable of that complexity. Many people think that intelligence and consciousness are themselves emergent phenomena: just get enough neurons firing, and consciousness will happen...somehow.
A really good overview of emergence (including Galton's story) is in this episode of Radiolab. It's one of my favorite hours of radio ever produced, and it covers emergent behaviors in populations of fireflies that blink in unison, business districts in New York City, Google's search ranking algorithm, and beyond.
But that's not why I wanted to write about Galton. I wanted to write about Galton because motherfucker figured out the best way to slice a cake.
Which doesn’t quiiiiiiiiite balance out being a proto-Nazi, but is something of a start.
(Note that the rubber band really only works if you use fondant instead of buttercream frosting on your cake, which if you do, you’re actually as bad as a fucking eugenicist.)
Sicktimes as a boy I'd lie quietly and let my mom run her hand over me and sing I Am a Promise. I wouldn't dare move too much for fear of letting on that I might not be quite sick enough to merit the attention. I did not know that parents are all too happy to join you in the lie, provided you do not push it.
Lying there with her hand on my back or belly and her lips on my forehead was bathing in need and quiet and you-poor-poor-dear. I would pretend to be asleep until I woke up later, confused.
Then I became a young man and I kept that boy in my pocket. When I was alone I would take him out and make him tell me stories of spacemen and giants and remind me of the old expeditions we took with Frog up his underground stream where we would catch lizards and snakes and poison ivy.
I didn't dare let him go, and I didn't dare show him to anyone. After awhile I didn't bring him out so much. I forgot to feed him every day.
Then there were children in my family, and then I made my own boy and my own girl, no more real than he, but of the flesh-and-blood sort a grown man could be excused for playing with. For them I found I could bring the boy back out and introduce them.
I still have him right here in my pocket, next to Molly's watch and my slab of meteorite. These days I don't always need to wait until I'm alone to let him out. Sometimes I introduce him around. Particularly if there are other children or animals for him to play with.
Jack has a fever. He played it with me just as I did with my own parents, and I played along. I whuffled in beside him at bedtime, put my hand on his back and took his temperature with my lips. We lay there, he and I, and I did not even dare to sing to him. He finally broke the spell, yoinked out of our reverie by an urgent question:
"How long do you think it takes carrots to grow?"
A minor but well-won triumph today. Today marks ten years since my last cigarette. There was no fancy send-off, just a pack of Marlboro Lights in a bar with my friend Scott.
Jesus, just a Marlboro. Not even a decent cigarette, much less a good cigar. But hey, then it was done.
I owe my wife for the push. Look, she said, you've been whining about getting a new computer (I was; hers was a $300 Windows ME hatecrime that I had to try to compile code on for school). If you quit smoking for six months, she said, we'll save the money you would have spent on cigarettes and you can buy a new desktop. But if you smoke one day before, I get the money.
Thank God I was too dumb to realize how thoroughly she was working me. Thank God vaping didn't exist back then, so I couldn't just trade one addiction for another, hopefully-less-deadly but certainly-more-wizardy-looking one.
Segue: Math time.
A pack of 20 a day for 10 years at an average of 365.25 days per year yields 3,652 packs of cigarettes (rounding down) for a grand total of 73,040 cigarettes. Wow.
Let's be conservative and estimate an average of $4 per pack. That's $14,608 I didn't spend on tobacco over that decade, which of course means that it's new MacBook time. I may even throw in an iPad.
More math: A standard king cigarette is 84 mm long and 7.8 mm in diameter. Laid end-to-end, that's 6,135,360 mm, or just over 6.1 km worth of cigarettes. That's 3.8 miles of smokes.
Laid side by side, they'd still go, what, not quite 570 meters, well over six and a quarter U.S. football fields in length (not counting end zones). Or you could stack them in a pyramid that goes 381 levels high and have 269 cigarettes left over to have tiny swordfights with.
Scaling it like that helps me put a handle on it. Helps me realize what I've done in those last ten years. Gives me a glimpse of how my addictions have run my life.
I'm damned grateful for that perspective. Not to mention all the extra days.
So today we're going to talk about comics and spacetime and butt stuff and addiction and Willem Dafoe and did I mention butt stuff.
(Some NSFW pics follow, so, you know.)
That's not my favorite cover. This one is:
The premise is this, in a nut: A young couple discover that when they rub their no-no places together and make the big ugly wow face, they temporarily stop time. They pop a wahooney together, the world freezes around them, and for a time they can go anywhere, do anything. They decide to use this talent to rob banks.
It's to save a library. They're not jerks or anything.
I've giggled like a goddamn loon, reading this thing. It's stuffed with joy from both ends. For instance, there's this particular romp through a time-frozen porno store:
There's Suzie's girl's room sex ed:
And there's even a sex advice column in the back.
But that's not why I'm bringing it up here. I'm bringing it up because I'm not a careful reader, so it took me a few times reading the first issue before I realized that Matt Fraction's not really writing about 4 CORNER SIMULTANEOUS 4-DAY TIME PUBE. He's doing something a bit more subtle.
Here's Suzie going into what she calls "The Quiet" for the first time:
Pretty normal response even for those of us who can't stop time with a tub faucet or battered lingerie catalogue. But Suzie's fascination with masturbation goes well beyond the usual teenager's, because for her there is of course more there there. There's a refuge, a country to explore. And she needs that refuge because, well, her dad died and her mom's an alcoholic now.
This is the one place where Matt tips his hand and shows us what he's really holding here:
Let's back up for a second and talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Russell Brand wrote this after Hoffman was killed by his heroin addiction:
The reason I am so non-judgmental of Hoffman or Bieber and so condemnatory of the pop cultural tinsel that adorns the reporting around them is that I am a drug addict in recovery, so like any drug addict I know exactly how Hoffman felt when he "went back out". In spite of his life seeming superficially great, in spite of all the praise and accolades, in spite of all the loving friends and family, there is a predominant voice in the mind of an addict that supersedes [sic] all reason and that voice wants you dead. This voice is the unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void.
Addiction's a bitch to pin down because yes, it's a physical illness, but addicts use for psychological reasons too. It's an anesthetic, a way of hiding from whatever part of their lives or themselves they find intolerable. Taken to its logical conclusion, it's suicide by shelter.
Booze and drugs are a comfort, a respite. One that to a certain sort of person with a certain sort of brain suggests it could be more than that, maybe even a solution to their problems. Then it fucks everything up, which amplifies the need for further retreat, which means you use more, and round and round the garden like a teddy bear.
Suzie and Jon each find and retreat into The Quiet on their own. Then they find each other, and now they have someone to share it with. The love affair with their hiding place is renewed and grows stronger, even seems healthy. They go every chance they get. Then comes the day they figure they can use it to solve their problems. You see?
Matt's writing about his own addiction here, dressing it up in a Star Trek redshirt and a garland of anal beads. The story's really about about hiding and enabling, looking in the wrong places for solutions and finding only more reasons to hide. It's about being hooked.
Stuff like this is why I keep coming back to comics, why they continue to matter so much. There ain't that many places in Very Serious Litchracha that problems with this kind of weight get processed through very childlike (if R-rated) play. And make no mistake, for all the boobies and boners, this story has a child's heart at its center.
It's tailor-made for my twitchy, addled brain, and I know it's the real thing because I always feel grateful to have read it. So you should too.
Also? Glowing dongs.
In everything that you do, always strive to be exactly this awesome.
Because the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Personal favorite. Hope your holidays are happy.
Figure I'd send this out through the blog, though the cards themselves are still finding their way through the United States Postal Service. This is our 2013 Christmas letter, because yes, we're white:
There's this kid that lives somewhere in the neighborhood. Down the hill from us, I think, though I probably think that because I only see him ever in the park down there.
Early teens, lanky. Body of a runner, or maybe a basketball player. All puppy arms and ears.
I only ever see him by himself at the swings. Third swing from the left, back to the street and facing the tennis court. White earbuds. The only sound he makes is the fwee...hee-hahhh call-and-response of the swing's squeaking as he pumps it as high as it will go without throwing him.
I've seen him there at different hours of the day. Weekend afternoons, Tuesday nights after everyone's gone home. Once I went out for a run in the rain, long after dark, and he was there, kicking away.
Seeing him there, under the orange haze of the streetlights and with the rain coming down, it looked like the beginning of a horror movie, Playgrounds of the Possessed or some damn thing. It didn't occur to me until I was back home and warm and dry that maybe the kid didn't have it so great at home, maybe that's why he was out there swinging in the rain. Or maybe he was the right kind of eccentric, indifferent to the storm or even wanting it to fall on him while he listened to his music and cut graceful knife-fight arcs through the air. I hope his iPod survived it.
There's a thing about rhythm and repetition that pulls you out of your own head, if you let it go on long enough. You drop your cares on the floor and disappear into that dark, quiet spot at the center of you. People find it in meditation, in dance, in the methodical plod of running, in that space on the edge of sleep where your mind gets just a touch unlaced and your inner censor shuts the hell up for a few minutes before you go dark.
You return to the ground. You remember what's real by turning the hypotheticals loose. There's only the next beat.
Last year I introduced Jack to Star Wars. I'd even found and downloaded a de-specialized edition of the movie, the way it was before George Lucas screwed it all up. Eat your crackers, boy. We are doing this.
I try like hell not to inflict my childhood on my kids. I know it's not about me. But Star Wars is basic cultural competency stuff, and I expected that he'd like it.
What I didn't expect was that I'd get to be five years old again. But then he cheered. Then he needed me to hold him and reassure him that nobody was getting smooshed by the garbage smasher near the cell block (because let's face it, you need properly smashed garbage before you shoot it into space, and also a prison is where you'd put that, but only if you populate it with aquatic monsters). And then, when he literally jumped up and down and clapped and yelled AWE! SOME! when the Death Star exploded...
Well. There I was, in my jammies. There was no job to hate or money to worry about or ear hair to trim. For right around an hour, it was 1979 and the worst thing in the world was that Chewbacca didn't get a medal at the end because, I dunno, racism.
His selfless enthusiasm dragged me to the center, and there I found a weird kid with a big head in Mork suspenders. I'm learning such things are possible.
The other night Georgia and I were engaged in pre-bed snuggle time, which is our euphemism for five minutes of tickling and poop jokes. This round was mostly focused on her shoving her rear in my face again and again and shouting "Watch out for my butt!" (Jack would fart on my head later that same evening.) She stopped mid-whumph as if shocked to silence, froze for two seconds, and latched onto me as tightly as if I were one of those dads in Lifetime movies who go out for cigarettes and never come back.
I didn't dare move, of course. I just closed my eyes and we slipped into that dark place between the beats. Later she would reassure me that she is indeed my Pea Pod and forbid me to eat her hair. But for that interminable moment it was just fwee...hee-hahhh.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." But if you're in the moment, I don't know if you're capable of such a thought until it's gone and you're left with fresh nostalgia. Reflecting on the beat isn't dancing or running or pumping your legs higher and higher. It's getting tangled up in your stupid conscious brain, which I urge you to do as little of as possible.
Mine mostly grumbles about stuff, then dreams about other stuff and hopes there won't be too much work. Jennifer's tolerance of it is Herculean, as is her entirely metaphorical grace. For a woman who falls down and drops stuff as much as she does, Jennifer is a ballerina of a mother, every day enduring the pain of turning on her toes so that the show can continue.
She's the one who insisted on the custom superhero mask station and molding white chocolate stars for the birthday party. She invented the living room dance party. She videos the kids doing Tom Waits impressions. She toils. Gleefully, she toils. And she holds it all together. I wish she'd sleep more.
And that's pretty much where we are. Holding it together, trying to slough off the other crap and just listen for the next beat. It's hard to do, particularly this time of year when everything goes nutso until the new year, but still we look for it.
I hope you find yours. I hope you find the quiet, if only for a moment. That's where the deathless part of you abides.
Happy Holidays to all.
[Update: Two days ago I was running errands. It had been raining for hours. I drove by the park and there he was, soaked to the bone and kicking away. I was wrong, though. It's the second swing from the left.]