Me and HP: Some Thoughts.

I have in the past admitted that I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft.  I have even, during one story announcement, made rather nervous shufflings about the implications of my fan status– “if I like him, am I like him?” and all that.  In that earlier examination of the question, I didn’t do much of an in-depth handling of the matter, but merely denied.  A few days ago, though, I read a small article in which another fan also touches on the problem of being a Lovecraft fan while being dead-set against racism, and I thought maybe I should also sit down and have a good wrestle with the matter.  It is, after all, Freedom to Read week; the celebration of intellectual freedom isn’t just about shouting “I wanna read it and you can’t tell me I can’t!”  There should be some probing of the urge.

I am, I should admit, a little hesitant to approach the matter openly, here on the treeless and gently undulating plateau of the Internet where everything can be heard and seen by everyone and for all time.  I know that almost anything I say will be inflammatory in some precinct.  However, I still think it’s a useful examination; the stakes of doing it in public will make me actually consider what I’m about.  Right?  Hopefully.

I had made a previous attempt to rationalize my affection for Lovecraft’s works that didn’t quite come to full rise, let alone get to the point where it could be even half-baked.  What I thought to do was give a brief examination of each of his published stories, sift it for what racist content it might hold– indeed, even for what content might with a nudge be interpreted as racist– and discover whether there was so much of it after all and whether it might have improved over time.  As you can see, I dropped it as foolish on a couple of fronts, and not just because I didn’t have the free time and depth of scholarship to do a proper job.

On the matter of asking if one story or another shows racism… well, there’s a certain subjectivity at work.  Taking “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” as an example, one might say that it’s a work that underlines the wickedness of racism; after all, would Sarnath’s doom have befallen it if the people of that city had just left the funny-looking dwellers of Ib alone?  That’s that, Hopeful Fan says, knocking figurative dust from his hands, and a job well done.

Except… the voice of Cynicism says otherwise.  Apart from the descriptions of the Ib folk, which are clearly meant to provoke loathing in the reader, one can also say that the people of Sarnath were right to try and wipe out those flabby creeps because their evil was such that it could rise up a thousand years later to take unnatural revenge on their destroyers.  The point of the story, says this voice, is to be thorough in your genocides– salt the ground, fill in the lake, don’t take any souvenirs home.  It’s an easy argument to make, and gains support from all the overtly racist material that Lovecraft put forth.  There’s no putting a shiny interpretation on the description (or even the name) of Buck “The Harlem Smoke” Robinson in “Herbert West – Reanimator“…

He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life….

…and one has to work very hard indeed to forgive the description of the sinister foreigners in “The Horror at Red Hook“:

The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another…. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares…, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion.

That’s some overt racism, all right.  No painting over that.

The bigger of my stupidities in that earlier exercise, in my view, was to give way to the frequent observation which runs along these lines: “Oh, sure, HPL started out as a mad racist, but he was getting better, just like he was swinging from monarchist to socialist.”  I do, by the way, think there is a little truth in this position, although without a gifted trance-medium we can’t really know it was the case.

True or not, though, it just doesn’t matter.  The stuff of his which I like doesn’t fall comfortably into one era of his life; I think after he fled New York City he did level up in his writing, but there is also stuff from before and even during his New York days that I think has merit.  Even if it were incontrovertibly true, one couldn’t just say, “Well, he stopped being a racist in 1933, so I don’t have to worry about the views he held when he was writing in 1924.”  After all, in 1937 he stopped holding views of any sort, so by that logic there’s no point at all to wondering how his thoughts ran during his life.

Also, as much as people like me hope that Lovecraft was mending his ways as he got older, the same problems of subjective interpretation arise as did with the attempt at sifting.  In “The Shadow Out of Time“, Hopeful points out that the people of various times, races, and even species, all shoved for a time out of their own bodies by The Great Race, hang out and chat convivially.  That same Hopeful voice points out in the climax of “At the Mountains of Madness” we find a Lovecraft protagonist saying this of hideous semi-vegetable creatures:

…poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence!… Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

…by which he means “humans,” of course.  Let’s not frolic off into a consideration of sexism in the early 20th century, as that’s a vast and noxious garden, too easy to get lost in.  You can see how Hopeful’s thinking is running, but Cynical has a few things to offer to balance them away.  The underlying horror of “The Shadow Out of Time” is not the ghastly things that chase The Great Race from past to future, but the fact that anyone may suddenly find themselves stuck in a body of something else.  The Elder Things who have been admitted to the fellowship of Men built Shoggoths, which one in a mood to do injury might describe as “uppity slaves,” and the fact that H. sapiens might be at length descended from Shoggoths is one of the elements of fundamental horror in that story.

I’ve got a little aside on that last point that I’d like to pursue.  It seems to me that however racist Lovecraft was at any given point in his life, he at least wasn’t trying to win people over to his point of view.  A lot of his writing which runs in that direction presents other races and the prospect of miscegenation as simply scary in and of themselves.  He’s not saying “Here’s why you should fear this,” but simply waving it around and shouting “Boo!”  Now… that certainly doesn’t forgive racism, but it perhaps lets some of the air out of it and renders it a little more pitiful than malicious.  It’s similar to a claustrophobe who hasn’t quite grasped that claustrophobia is not so deeply-felt in all people, and who includes in his horror fiction a lot of obligatory elevator rides– other claustrophobes will get a thrill, of course, but people without that deformity will just wonder at the strange literary tic.

If only, alas, people were as little hurt and offended by racism as enclosed spaces are by claustrophobia.  I could stop right here.  Since racism does hurt and offend, and it’s something of a virus of the imagination, even as relatively innocent an excursion as it seems Lovecraft made into it can’t simply be waved away.  The aside now ends.

This little self-examination began gestating quite a while ago, in fact, and the article I mention above merely induced a long-delayed labour.  As with most pregnancies, I had little idea of it being underway when I finished watching Wagner & Me, a film in which Stephen Fry (jewish) examined his enjoyment of the music of Richard Wagner (anti-semitic, rather popular with Nazis).  In fact, I had sort of forgotten about that film until I started in on this little essay, but in remembering it, I remember some of the conclusions he came to, and they help me drag myself towards my own.

Art and its creator are not the same thing.  At most, art reflects some aspects of the creator.  To take an extreme example, one may look at a pancake and never be troubled by thoughts that the person running the skillet has a radically different opinion on the matter of same-sex marriage; the pancake is delicious, and that’s what counts.  Art reveals somewhat more of the artist than a pancake does of its cook, but remember that it reflects only some of the artist, not the whole person, and sometimes inaccurately.  Beethoven’s “Eroica” doesn’t tell us anything about his declining hearing nor of the change of opinion regarding Napoleon he underwent between starting on composition and the initial performance.

Ah, yes, says Cynicism, but these examples are not writing.  Writing is words, not flapjacks nor instrumental music.  Words convey direct meaning, and a writer shows more by choice of words than does a composer by choice of notes.

Granted, although I think someone with a strong foundation in music theory might take issue.  Still, it is a distorted reflection, and we should be careful how much of the nature of the work we impute to the author.  Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle probably don’t want a large interplanetary object to actually smack into Earth, and yet they have written about it in some detail.  At least twice.

Still… still, that doesn’t address the racism of Lovecraft, which does not only appear in his writing, but in his letters and in things those who knew him have recalled into posterity.  That aside I made earlier is predicated on the acknowledged fact of his racism.  How do we get around it?

Let me show you something.  You may not like me for it.

Der_Alte_Hof

It’s not great art, but it’s better art of its sort than I could manage, and I think we can all grant that within limitations it’s a pretty enough picture.  The sort of thing one wouldn’t mind, perhaps, looking at for a month on the upper half of a calendar.  It is not in and of itself offensive.  However, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who read what I’m writing would happily push the artist into a septic tank and hold him under until all bubbles stopped rising– the person who made that art was Adolph Hitler.

If you’re still with me after that ugly revelation, have another honest look at the picture.  It’s still… kind of pretty.  There’s no sign of the monster in human shape that brought it into existence in it (another aside– part of what makes Hitler troubling is that he was a human with many dimensions, and if he could be what he was then you or I could also, with the right shoves).  I admit that it takes a strong exercise of compartmentalization to hold onto those thoughts, but the picture is blameless.  What it reflects of its artist is only his skills and limitations as maker of graphic images.  One could almost wish it were somehow repellent, but there it sits.

What I want to take from this, and what Fry more or less took from his peregrinations, is that it is possible to separate the whole and diverse artist from the artist’s work.  In the case of Lovecraft, it takes a little more effort in certain works because the reprehensible is frequently side-by-side with the desireable.  “The Horror at Red Hook” is held to be one of Lovecraft’s more offensive objects, and it is, but the last eight paragraphs of the sixth chapter are a joy, if perhaps not much better as art than the painting above.  A taste, which I edit because it’s just so damn baroque and you’ve been reading a while now:

The corpse was gaining on its pursuers…, straining with every rotting muscle toward the carved golden pedestal…. Another moment and it had reached its goal, whilst the trailing throng laboured on with more frantic speed…. [I]n one final spurt of strength which ripped tendon from tendon and sent its noisome bulk floundering to the floor in a state of jellyish dissolution, the staring corpse… achieved its object and its triumph. The push had been tremendous, but the force had held out; and as the pusher collapsed to a muddy blotch of corruption the pedestal he had pushed tottered, tipped, and finally careened from its onyx base….

Purple, oh, so purple, but certainly not freighted with racism, even in the unedited form.  That’s what I read Lovecraft to get at, or in part it is.  His magnum opus, “The Call of Cthulhu,” when it’s not busy casting sidelong glances at people who are in any way browner than Lovecraft himself, is busily and in relatively economical prose giving a magnificent sense of the how little the vast immensity of all creation cares about people.  White? Black? Humanity as a whole is less than an insect!  That’s a wonderful and chilling concept, and that is also what I read Lovecraft for.

Let me end with an analogy, then, which is flawed as all analogies; please think of flavour and not of nutrition in what follows.  Lovecraft’s stories may be viewed as a plate of food.  The extravagant, adjective-crammed style is represented by a heap of mashed potatoes that are at least 15% cream and butter.  The finely-crafted horror is a perfectly cooked and seasoned slab of prime rib.  But then there are the overdone, leathery, unappealing Brussels sprouts of racism, revolting to all but a few insane people.  I approach Lovecraft stories as I approach one of these plates.  Aware of their nauseous presence but unwilling to assimilate them, I will pick around the Brussels sprouts to enjoy the rest of it.  In some cases there is little meat indeed, and the sprouts are actually mixed in with the potatoes– “The Street” and “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” fall firmly into that category.  Yes, I have tried it, and I still do not wish to taste it again.  If you find that the mere presence of the sprouts on the plate makes you gag too much to even take up a fork, I understand entirely.  I hope, if you are that way inclined, you understand that I’m here for the beef, I enjoy the potatoes, and I spit out any sprouts I encounter.

 

A Day I’m Not Fond Of.

I am, excepting the Bill Murray film, not a fan of Groundhog day. This is a state which stretches back to childhood, when I first realized the stupid joke upon which it is founded and realized that it was propounded by people who come from a latitude where astronomical spring and the local effects of that season actually line up. Winter, in the gross local-effect sense, can start in my little patch of the world as early as the first week of October.  It can last long enough to see the high school seniors struggling to their grad proms through drifts of snow only slightly reduced by the Sun’s power.  All hearing about the power of a rodent to see its shadow or not does is make me want to start punching people.

I was, in fact, unbecomingly pleased to hear that one of the Canadian incarnations of the prognosticating beast had died. One should not, except in the case of specific Hitlers, take joy from the death of a fellow being. Such is the state this day puts me in.

Having said all that– I’m using today to announce something that also displeases me.  I figure that I can’t taint this date in my own mind any more than years of gritted teeth have already managed.  There’s an apology involved, too.

When I began this little effort of mine last fall (and it was, uncharacteristically, autumnal here, but I digress), I had some misgivings about my ability to keep up with an unstated pace of a couple of new stories each month.  These misgivings have borne their unwelcome fruit, for my shot-locker is not bare but it doesn’t have much ammunition left in it.  Having caught the attention of some followers over the past few months, I find I now have to admit that I can’t maintain the pace.

In a desperate bid to garner sympathy, let me explain my writing process.  The first draft is done long-hand; some people will cry out at as being a slow way of doing things, but I find an advantage to it.  I’m not tempted to fiddle away with edits when I should be letting the creative centres of the brain run freely with their tongues lolling.  Also, in this initial phase of the activity, the actual words are coming no faster than the pen can race; images, perhaps, appear more briskly, but not the words to convey them.

Second draft is the point at which things pass through a keyboard.  Since I am at this stage editing and re-working some of the more convoluted stuff the “who’s this ‘syntax’ fellow?” creative centres uttered forth, this is not brisk typing.  A particular brisk patch recently works out to about 20 words per minute.  That’s not a complaint, mind you– I can transcribe faster, but when actually processing the material, I’m quite pleased with that sort of productivity.

Third draft, which is usually what you see in the stories here, waits until a couple of patient readers look through the second, pronounce certain elements of it still gibberish, and point out that I completely forgot a verb somewhere.  This is useful stuff, and I’d hate to do without, but it’s also the work of volunteers, who act only when other demands on their time allow.

Speaking of demands on time– there’s plenty clinging to me, too.  Thanks to job, and a son who really wants his dad to share in all his joys (mainly Thomas and Friends, but with occasional excursions into more sophisticated diversions, plus sleds, swimming, and/or bicycles), I can count on as much as an hour each day to perform the writing task.  Keeping in mind that, as Douglas Adams noted, “as much as” includes the amount none at all, I get absolutely giddy when I can get a moderate-length story shoved through first and second draft in the space of two weeks.  Third draft doesn’t take much work… once the notes come back.

Even leaving aside stories that curdle in the initial draft (usually a result of point-of-view error, but in some cases a more fatal deformity), to get things polished enough that I dare let them see the light of public scrutiny takes not less than three weeks.  Without a substantial change in the household finances letting me set the day job aside, or some kind of compassion blow-out which will allow me to ignore my family completely, that’s not going to change.

I’m not… wait, that’s insufficiently emphatic.  I’ll go again.

I’m not shutting down the operation here.  I’m just letting you know, you who have taken a moment to poke the “follow” button, that there will be a little less action here.  The occasional flash story will still appear, too– those things don’t take more than a week from mere notion to gem of deathless prose (hah!).  I’d rather reduce frequency than polish, and I’m hoping the various readers of my stuff are similarly inclined.

Edging Out Onto Thin Ice

The new Current Story, The Golden Oracle, is the sort of thing that a writing chap could get in a variety of troubles over.  At the back of it are a couple of authors whose works I quite enjoy.

The first burden I’m giving myself, and the one I’m content to shoulder, is one of vocabulary.  When I decided to pursue this story in the general way I did, I seemed to me that the style should match the setting, as far as I was able to make it.  Since I don’t have a publisher to please, I didn’t need to suppress that urge.  I don’t think “blatant attempt to pretend to 19th century writing style” is a trigger warning yet, but I suppose there are some who will appreciate a warning all the same.

There is another burden I look with distaste at and will attempt to leave where it lies.  I am known by some to be a fan of the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, and if that’s news to you, I don’t deny it.  The problem with this admission is that it brings with it a question of whether I also admire some of his less amiable qualities.  The way I phrase that should give a clue, but let me be clear; Lovecraft’s racism saddens me deeply, and I do not share it.  I bring this up because I’m setting a story in early 19th century England, and trying to write in the style of that time, and I’m presenting the reactions of people of that time and place to foreigners.  I try to go no farther than I absolutely have to, but people do like to impute a writer’s attitudes by holding up characters as an example.

On a final note, I’ll admit to there being an element of hubris at work here as well.  The initial inspiration for this story was a bit in the middle of Sheridan le Fanu’s The Room at the Dragon Volant which is marvelously weird on its face… but for one who spent a childhood in the 1970s getting very angry with Scooby Doo’s approach to the supernatural, it felt like a big fat cheat when the truth of it was unveiled.  I wrote this story in part to get the taste of that out of my mouth.

I will still bow to le Fanu, generally.  I know my place.

Hey! Look Over There!

I don’t want to get too much in the habit of cross-posting, especially since there’s cross-links in the left-hand bar of this screen, but I thought those who are following this enterprise of mine but not my non-fiction blog might enjoy a chance to point at and giggle quietly over an entry about my reading habits.

As a bonus, it reveals less than one might expect because it’s based (partly) on an artificial exercise.  But there’s a list of books, most of which I enjoyed.

Announcing the Next Announcement

I was gearing up to release a new story for tomorrow, when a voice came into my ear.  I’m not sure if it was Sloth or Wisdom, but what it said was reasonable.

“You damned fool– everyone will be having a party or plotting, Grendel-like, the destruction of everyone who is having a party.  No one will have a moment to look in at a new story, however short.”

I thus abandon the time-table only I know about, and prepare for the next release to appear not tomorrow, but in the new year itself, shortly after the hang-overs fade (all but mine, which shall never be born– woe, woe, the lot of the driver).

The Irredeemable Debt

I feel the effects of 11 November fairly deeply, although I live in a peaceful country.  The giant wars of the last century involved Canada, but not as a theatre of operations, and apart from a brief and hopefully never-repeated recent bellicosity we incline more towards peace-keeping than peace-making (one of those euphemisms one can spend a long time unpacking), and yet the nature and value of military service frequently occupies my imagination and at certain times reduces me to prostrated grief.  I don’t claim any virtue for this attitude; it may be a side-effect of having imagination or empathy to a certain degree, or it may just be a selfish echo of “thank goodness it wasn’t me”.  There is certainly an element of selfish consideration in it, given that my father spent his childhood under Nazi occupation and I appreciate at second-hand those who levered him out from under the jackboot.

The point of what I mean to be a short entry is simply this.  Think about the fallen, and those maimed in their body and mind by passing through the experience of war.  If you don’t think about them at other times, then at least spare a minute for them tomorrow.  I won’t presume to know the motivations of each soldier, but what they were about was at least presented to them as defending their fellows from death and oppression, and in pursuit of that defense they paid with curtailment or deformation of their entire future.  Doesn’t that deserve at least a minute’s reflection, if not a regular offering of tears?  Doesn’t it call for some consideration on how, as those for whom such price was paid, we might conduct ourselves in making the world the better place, in which such extravagant expenditure would never be called for again?

Utopian.  Certainly.  Still, even if you’re less flamboyant in your outlook, give them a thought.

Confession of a Concerned Father

It is something of a cliche in modern drama to show a father who slowly discovers that his son is not quite what he’d expected.  Denial crumbles before mounting evidence, until a dinnertime explosion of pointless injunctions shatters the family forever.  Or until someone is about to perish of a fatal but photogenic disorder.

I’ll bet everyone reading this with any exposure to North American television has the scene clearly in mind already.

“But, Dad… I hate driving stock cars!  I want to be a tree surgeon!”

“You’re no son of mine!  Get out of my house!”

…or…

“Arthur, Daniel isn’t going to the prom… with a girl.”

Dinner flies into the air as Arthur flings the table aside to grab Daniel by the front of his shirt, the coveted Thanksgiving drumstick raised like a cudgel.

Yes?  We’ve seen plenty of examples, haven’t we?

I’ve recently had to wrestle with such a disappointment inflicted by my own dear son.  Because I am not a fictional character, not contrived and only slightly two-dimensional, I have almost come to terms with the problem through introspection and through gentle discussion behind closed doors with my wife, who is equally concerned.

I imagine that there has been an intake of breath by some readers, shocked at the characterization of the situation as “the problem”.  If I’m not a two-dimensional caricature of paleolithic fatherhood, how can I think in such terms?  Bear with me.  This is very like finding myself in a place where gravity and down don’t both point in the same direction, and I am trying to come to terms with it in the best way I can.

I can at least defend my reaction as not springing from on the usual sources.  If I’m right about those sudden shocked gasps I imagined, it’s probably because those who did so thought I had suddenly realized that my son was something other than cis-gendered.  Put your minds at rest.  That’s a possibility which my wife and I discussed back when the pregnancy first manifested, and that discussion was primarily one of hoping that the way for our child would be less rocky when the time of discovery came, if his or her inclinations ran that way, than it had been for those of our generation who were “different”.  Because Fate apparently doesn’t want to present a non-issue to the well-prepared, our son appears to be as cisgendered as one might tell from a kid in grade two.  He may not be neuro-typical (and we’ve got a diagnosis to lean on there), but in the gender department all appears to be exactly as the most bigoted parent could hope.

Where then the tragedy?  Is he not assuming the mantle of my preferred sport?  Spurning the great tradition of the men of his line in going out on the athletic field?  Denying me the vicarious victories I was never quite a good enough player to achieve, the filthy little brute?

Well… possibly, but in a highly inverted way.  Assuming I had two figs, I wouldn’t give either of them for sports.  There is a slight danger, as I perceive things, that the lad is becoming interested in using the physical powers the particular blending of my and my wife’s DNA has bequeathed to him.  He likes to run.  He deadlifts his own weight for fun.  He does handstands as a preparation for sleep.  It’s unnerving.  However, it’s not something I’m strongly enough against to rewrite the will over.  As with the other thing, the main concern is that he’ll get hurt as a side-effect.

No, the matter which brings dismay into my heart and my wife’s heart, the baffling proclivity that I struggle to accept is… well, best to get it out and said.

 

My son doesn’t like Hallowe’en.

 

I need a moment.

 

To understand how this affects his parents, you have to realize how much Hallowe’en means to us.  The general tone of the fiction I post here probably gives a clue, of course.  My Facebook avatar for October is…

price
…the inimitable Vincent Price…
She doesn't even have to speak French to me, as long as she keeps talking like that.
She doesn’t even have to speak French to me, as long as she keeps talking like that.

…who also provided a middle name for my son.  A glance at the sort of junk I watch for entertainment would also give an insight, especially if you make allowances for things I’ve clearly watched because I have a young child under the same roof.  My wife is the same way, as a recent Facebook post of hers suggests →

Hallowe’en is to us what I suspect hockey is to many other Canadians– a reason not to put out one’s own lights the moment autumn declares itself, and a source of fond memories to cling to through the cold part of the year.  Before the appearance of our son, we would get the house decorated the way we had always hoped to as kids, because in our separate childhoods we appreciated people that went to a little trouble for the night that the vale thins.

Our quiet, welcoming display last year.

Our son won’t have it, though.  Even though the household decor is all low-key (some styrofoam grave markers, a relatively comical backpack-sized spider, a fog generator, some plastic skulls), he had gotten very quiet every Hallowe’en night since he was taking in information, and this year he actually came out and said it.

“I don’t like it.”

Parents all know that battles need to be chosen; losses are to be avoided,  and pyrrhic victories are worse than a loss.  When autism enters the scene– we are aware that we are faced with a very minor manifestation of the spectrum and daily give thanks for that– one has to emulate Sun Tzu in the battle-choosing department.  There is little to be gained from fighting the Battle of Pumpkin Hollow but despair.  That being the case, let all the despair fall on us, while he can have a happy night of pitching chocolate at his peers.

There is a potential of a silver lining.  Casting my memory back, I find a portion of my own childhood in which the whole Horror genre was an unwelcome element of reality to me, even though dressing up for trick-or-treating was a joyful punctuation to autumn.  I don’t know exactly when or how the change came over me; there was definitely a patch of fleeing the room when ads for Jaws came on TV, but it was not long thereafter I was avid to get to showings of old Universal monsters at the public library.  There is hope.  Hallowe’en is an acquired taste, and as it has gotten a little spicy since I was a kid– movie-grade props now available at grocery stores!– I’m not entirely mystified at my son’s current reaction.

Until hope bears fruit, I have the consolation of knowing that this sensitivity to the mock horrors of Hallowe’en also manifests as a more general sensitivity to less-fictional unpleasantness.  He wept during a recent bedtime reading of The Adventures of Tintin at the prospect of a rickshaw driver being thrashed by a portly racist (even though Tintin thwarted him), and wept also at being given a vague, brief and heavily bowdlerised explanation of what the recent Orange Shirt Day at school had as a historical foundation.  He embarrassed his parents slightly over the summer, explaining to the guy in the car next to us at a red light that smoking is unhealthy.  He avoids stepping on bugs.

He’s becoming a decent, caring human being.  That forgives a lot, and certainly outweighs foolish parental expectations.

Living in the Past

This is the sort of thing I more usually do in my other, non-fiction, existence, and indeed did do not too long ago when I commented about how much we can infer about the inward state of people from their outward appearance… if they’re dressed like freaks who can’t get hep to the times.

If I were a very superstitious person, I’m make a connection between that post and a recent terrifying manifestation in my driveway.  It is “terrifying manifestation” which makes this post grist for the mill of this particular blog, of course, since that’s what I’m all about over here.  Anyway, imagine my alarm at suddenly discovering this:

Uh-oh.
Uh-oh.

You will have to continue imagining my alarm, though, as I’m the one who put it there.  Another stage of the downsizing of my parents is the banishing of this beauty from the garage in which it has been avoiding the notice of the Norns since about 1994.  It was bought about seven years before that, from the original owner, who did very little driving with it herself.  Actually… I should have said “the original owner’s widow”.  It’s one of those deals.

I didn't put the hub caps and wheel trim on for the photos, as they were under the mysterious large packages in the trunk. You'll have to imagine them as well.
I didn’t put the hub caps and wheel trim on for the photos, as they were under the mysterious large packages in the trunk. You’ll have to imagine them as well.

It is, undeniably, an elegant object from what some would call a more civilized age.  I got to drive it from the shop where it was rendered capable of locomotion after its decades on blocks (the original (!) tires were replaced last spring) to my house, where it was slightly better off on my driveway than parked on a curb while my brother made room in his garage.  I had driven it a few times before its long dormancy, so this was a return to my salad days.

As the plate indicates, it’s a 1961 model, making it a half-decade older than me, and almost a half-century older than the vehicle I currently get about in.  This little plate inside the engine compartment gives an excellent feeling for the state of the world at the time of its creation:

Not "Federal Republic of...", but just, "that bit, nearer France."
Not “Federal Republic of…”, but just, “that bit, nearer France.”

The interior is as plush as you could like too. It still smells of leather conditioners that haven’t been used on the upholstery since it came into the family. It is comfy, and the ride is smooth.

There's a lot of wood in there. Actual, tree-made wood.
There’s a lot of wood in there. Actual, tree-made wood.

It scares the living crap out of me.  It disillusions me, in fact, on the subject of vintage cars and their purported charms.  It’s not just the entire lack of seatbelts, although the sensation of drifting along the seat when passing through a mild curve is disconcerting enough.  I am, after my years of writing with vintage pens and cooking in vintage pots and wearing clothes that are at least reminiscent of vintage fashions, used to the idea of stewardship.  The stuff I have is mine for but the current moment, to be handed on to future generations in as functional a state as I can manage (socks excluded– there’s some ephemera in every life).

Driving this car, with its manual choke and its stupid/clever transmission, with a cutting-edge-in-1961 vacuum-operated clutch that engages when you take hold of the gear selector, requires all four limbs and both tails.  The steering is not powered, of course, and neither are the brakes.  The former is only an issue at low speeds, but the latter is a big one.  We are used to linear rewards for braking effort in our modern cars, with the amount of deceleration linked to the amount of pressure on the pedal.  In this car, most of the brake’s travel is merely to get the tail-lights to warn people that you’re about to do something.  Actual braking only begins as your foot nearly gets to the floor, and then there’s about five millimeters of travel between sort of slowing and just about locked.  While working the transmission and keeping the choke happy so you don’t stall.

Stewardship.  I don’t want to get into an accident in a new car.  In one this old, with 18,850 miles on the odometer, it would feel like a war crime.  Every moment of driving is like carrying a baby while walking on stilts through the wreckage of a roller-skate factory.  I can’t imagine having it as a constant companion.  I’m very glad that it’s in its new enclosure, and I’m sort of delighted that my father is entertaining a couple of offers he’s had on it.  We’re not the right care-takers for it.  That return to the salad days I mentioned came with a realization; I wasn’t scared driving this thing in the late 1980s because I was a kid out in daddy’s car, or at least not entirely.  I was appropriately terrified by a terrifying activity.

I’m frankly amazed at how many people encumber themselves with old cars like this.  I’m even more amazed that humanity as a whole got through to the point where cars were so accommodating that people could entertain the notion of texting behind the wheel– deeply stupid, selfish people, of course, but there’s no way you could do anything but drive a car like this and there’s still a huge window of disastrous possibility available.  An end to civilization through pile-up seems as narrowly avoided as the nuclear exchange that didn’t quite top off the Cuban Missile Crisis when this car was only a year old.  I may choose to adopt some aspects of the past into my life, but in automotives I’ll stick to the now.

I love you, old car, but I can’t stand to be with you.

"I love you, too. Now drive through a school zone, I'm hungry."
“I love you, too. Now drive through a school zone, I’m hungry.”

The Master of Disguise

This is not a story.

Well, it is a story, because I’m laying it out in a narrative structure, with intent to entertain (or, as the courts say, malice aforethought).  But it’s not going into The Back File conveniently located on the sidebar, because it’s a true thing that happened rather than some stuff I made up.  It’s one of those things that you wouldn’t dare to put into a work of fiction, because it’s so unlikely.

A great deal of time that I would prefer to have devoted otherwise over the past few months has been given to clearing out my parents’ house, and my childhood home.  They have downsized, in the benign meaning of the word, moved into what you might call a deluxe apartment in the sky, or as skyward as the fifteenth floor of a rather decent condo tower allows.  Nearly five decades of continuous inhabitation and repetition of the phrase, “Say, that might be useful later,” makes for some very compressed storage of junk.  The decompression process recently ran a rather disheartening sub-routine: the garage sale.

As the day of the sale wore on, we found that there were unaccountable surges in traffic.  The place would empty out, then swarms of unrelated people would toddle in to marvel at our pricing policy and buy books by the kilo.  During one of the later surges, a lone person entered, which was in itself noteworthy; pairs were the norm.  He was an older fellow, with an ill-kept white beard concealing everything between nose and collar.  His hair was hidden by a cap which was adorned with the logo of a local energy exploration company.  His eyes were indistinct behind thick, square-framed glasses.  He wore jeans mounted so low that one might almost think he was trying to emulate the goonish youth fashion of displaying the top several inches of underwear, although happily the untucked ends of his shirt concealed whatever might have been peeking over the waistband.  The shirt was a wonder– on a tan background, strips of rainbow fabric ran from shoulder to wrist on each arm, and down the full length of the front on either side of the buttons .  From my seat at the cash table by the door, I also noticed some sort of red paper sticking up out of one of the jeans pockets.

He greeted me and my brother when he passed, asked a few questions about our astonishing pricing policy (“It’s all twenty-five cents?”), and circulated about the place amiably before stopping at the desk to give me a dollar and get his quarter in change.  He also, as he was getting the dollar out, made a bit of a production of dropping his keys, inviting me to join in his merry self-directed chastisement at nearly losing this important clump of metal.  He then bade us a good day and departed, smiling.

About five minutes passed, and that surge of customers was ebbing, when a lone person entered.  An older fellow, wearing a cap emblazoned with the device of a local energy exploration company.  He wore thick, square-framed glasses, and a remarkably untidy beard.  From where I sat at the cash desk, I saw piece of red paper peeping out of the pocket of his alarmingly low-slung jeans.  Happily, the waistband of the jeans was concealed under the untucked tails of his entirely plain tan shirt… which he was closing the buttons of as he entered.

He paused at the door, scowling about.  My brother was distracted explaining a chafing dish to one of the other shoppers, so I was alone in greeting the old chap.  He grunted, as one who is not quite moved to anger by an impertinence.  He then stomped through our wares, hands clenched by his sides, peering about in what I can only say was a deeply mistrustful way, before departing without a word.

This is not a story, because it does not conclude properly.  There’s no explanation, nor any sort of sting.  It simply ends with the odd little man’s departure.  Was he a frustrated criminal mastermind, practicing for a major score by trying his clever disguise and watching for signs that he was detected as that guy who looked almost exactly the same and just left at a succession of garage sales?  Was his anger in the second run a result of me somehow giving the away my realization that it was, in fact, the same chap?  Perhaps he is burdened with multiple personalities, Mr. Friendly with the colourful shirt out for a day of attending sales with Mr. Cranky in the plain shirt.

My brother provides the only closure we might usefully apply to this tale.  Reflecting on the man’s purchases, he said, “Whatever his story is, with a ruler, an old cowboy hat, and a sheet of unfinished chain-mail, he’s all set for a party!”