Posts Tagged ‘sib1’

lighthouse

This weekend I went Down East to see my family, and on Friday afternoon it struck me that it was precisely the sort of experience that Virginia Woolf would write about.

In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.

After having spent so much time away, I was a little apprehensive about seeing them all again: my oldest brother, who is getting ready to go back to school for a degree in divinity; the older brother I was very close to fifteen or twenty years ago, but whom I now seldom think about from one year to the next; the younger sister who has been reaching out to me more in the last year or so; and my mother, whose affection is linked to how much we fit her ideals for us. I got a flat tire Friday morning, so the public interactions of going to three different tire places (one closed for renovation, one made me wait an hour before discovering they didn’t carry the right size of tire, the third was great) and delaying my trip for a few hours would be a better fit for Mrs Dalloway than To the Lighthouse, but put me in the proper Woolf frame of mind nonetheless. The way I get self-conscious about how others perceive me, whether strangers or family members, and analyze past interactions to prepare me for the evening, is all very similar to one of her characters. To the Lighthouse is about a gathering of academics and artists, staying with the Ramsays in Scotland for the summer. I forget which island group, Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, one of those.

At last they had shoved her off, they had launched the lifeboat, and they had got her out past the point – Macalister told the story; and though they only caught a word here and there, they were conscious all the time of their father – how he leant forward, how he brought his voice into tune with Macalister’s voice; how, puffing at his pipe, and looking there and there where Macalister pointed, he relished the thought of the storm and the dark night and the fishermen striving there. He liked that men should labour and sweat on the windy beach at night; pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind; he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors, while men were drowned, out there in a storm. So James could tell, so Cam could tell (they looked at him, they looked at each other), from his toss and his vigilance and the ring in his voice, and the little tinge of Scottish accent which came into his voice, making him seem like a peasant himself, as he questioned Macalister about the eleven ships that had been driven into the bay in a storm. Three had sunk.

I do get irritated with the archetype of the Angry Academic. Mr Ramsay is insecure about his professional success, so he’s overly critical of his children. Byatt picks up this archetype as well, which got me thinking that there must be something wrong with British academics, but then I remembered Albee as well, and then I thought that since his play is called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’s probably influenced by her, as I’m sure Byatt is as well. The thing that bothers me about it is that I have spent most of my life around academics without finding these Angry White Men. In thinking about this anger, it seems like these men question their masculinity because they work with the mind instead of the hand. The men I’ve met feel no such contradiction. They don’t seem bothered with the question of whether teaching is a gendered activity or whether reading in a library is less inherently masculine than shooting rabbits or repairing cars. I’m not saying we don’t have sexism in academia, but the friends I’ve made are comfortable being who they are and not haunted by their perceived inadequacies. Which frees them up to be genuinely kind to their partners and children, unlike Mr Ramsay.

The first part of this book focuses a lot on the relationship between the Ramsays, and what they mean when they think that they love each other. It makes me think about that idea of chivalry that so many people claim to feel the lack of in our modern society, and the way that chivalry is a two-way street. These days people discuss it as a condescending attitude that men used to have for women, but this separateness goes both ways. Chivalry demands that each person have an ideal for the opposite sex, and that when persons of opposite sexes interact they each treat the other as if they see the ideal inside of them. It was a matter of kindness and respecting femininity and masculinity as concepts, doing honour to the Goddess in every woman and the God in every man. Of course there were abuses, on both sides, and even in Woolf’s novel we can see that traditional pattern of etiquette breaking down. Seven-year-old Cam dashes about and never sits still in a “properly feminine” way; Lily Briscoe doesn’t marry and feels no shame or lack in this; Charles Tansley openly expresses his belief in women’s inferiority because as a poor man he needs to put down someone to make himself seem higher and there is no racial diversity to give the opportunity for racism. Chivalry breaks down because people don’t live up to each other’s ideals, and we lose the sense that other people’s ideals matter. In the twentieth century we learned to embrace our own ideals – I live according to my own sense of what it means to be a man, not my mother’s or my ex-wife’s or my sisters’ or any of my female friends’. Chivalry seems to have been about this shared construction of gender identity, and it passed away because we stopped sharing in identity construction. After all, this is in many ways a book about the inability to communicate.

But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them.

My two oldest brothers have never much liked each other, so it was genuinely odd to see them talking and laughing apart from everyone else. I joined them (all the men in one group together, women in the other room), and they were bonding over videos of standup comedians they both enjoy. I did my best to participate, but not enjoying videos of standup comedians, I didn’t have much to say. It was strange to see how little my brother and I have in common now, when we once shared so much that we even took the same classes at uni. He studied English alongside me, but now he speaks disparagingly of working in a library, as if what I find exciting would bore him to death. I was always the most serious of us, but in isolation I have become more so, and he (who was once enraptured with reading Thucydides and Beowulf) has joined the mass culture in devaluing academic pursuits. There was some overlap in his behavior throughout the weekend – a discomfort with silence, a compulsion to keep everyone laughing and happy, as if he were carefully avoiding talking about something and equally carefully avoiding letting anyone know there was a topic to be avoided. While he was there in front of me, I was glad to see him, but on reflection I’m concerned. He and I have never even mentioned the fact of my being gay, so I wonder if that’s what he can’t talk about, but it could also be something in his home life that isn’t what it could be. Both of my brothers were performing The Hen-Pecked Husband, which is a posture that always makes me uneasy but enabled them to bond with each other (while excluding me, the no-longer-hen-pecked). I didn’t get to talk with the oldest, but the other one and I got to spend some time watching The Crimson Pirate and laughing at the poor costume choices and other ludicrosities. I sent him home with a flash drive of older movies that he and his wife could enjoy, because at least we have that one interest still in common.

Somewhere in the annals of my family history, I have an Uncle Wirt. This is about a hundred years ago, the time that Woolf set the earlier part of the novel. Wirt took himself very seriously, while all his brothers were fond of joking and playing and taking life easily. As a result, Wirt was the butt of all the jokes, and he never really got on with his brothers. When it came to courting, Wirt found it easier to make love in writing than in speaking, so he corresponded with an English girl and eventually invited her out to the Finger Lakes to marry him. When he introduced her to his brothers, they could not stop laughing they thought she was so ugly. He quietly and seriously cut them out of his life. In this iteration of those genetics, I’m Uncle Wirt, but I don’t get picked on like I used to. When our parents split up, my older siblings lost interest in casual cruelty, and as adults most of us try to be kind to each other.

Always, Mrs Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much to her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

Sunday morning I woke up early and came downstairs, and read my book until I was sleepy again. I nodded off for half an hour or so, and in that time I saw/felt someone come over and kiss me on the cheek. I reached up and pulled him in closer, for a real kiss, the type that tells the other just how much I care about him, but it was just a dream. It’s like when I’m dancing to the music in the kitchen and I wrap my arm around No One’s waist and pull him close and rest my head on the air where his shoulder would be. It seems sometimes like life is preparing me for this great romance that hasn’t happened yet, and other times it seems like life is teaching me to be content with fantasy because I’m never going to have a love that satisfies me.

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

Typically when I read this book I see it as being primarily about Mrs Ramsay, what she means to the people around her, how they react when they lose her. This time I think that the protagonist is actually Lily Briscoe, the marriage-resisting painter. The difficulty she has with her art feels a bit like Woolf peeking out through the character and talking about writing. It does seem indicative of what happens to me when I sit down to write.

The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs Ramsay! she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flouring round a centre of complete emptiness.

In thinking about this loss, I don’t really have this continuity of memory and essence of the dead. The people I miss are still alive, but far away, and no longer the people I knew. Seeing my brother makes me wonder if I had been lying to myself before, if he had always been this frantic entertainer hiding ‘a centre of complete emptiness,’ but that thought goes against one of my most important beliefs, in the mutability of mankind. People grow and change; he and I grew in opposite directions. I saw some other friends this weekend too – in Brazil, I would call her my concunhada, but in English we don’t have a good word for the friend whose sister is married to my brother – but without this sense of loss. The things I have always loved about them are still true, even after three kids and thyroid cancer. Yes, they grow and change, but I guess we’re moving in a similar direction. Whatever the cause of it, I can return to them after years away and feel as natural as if I had seen them last week. I always feel loved and welcomed, even though they still embrace that church that denies my right to a romantic relationship. [I was looking through the hymnal and realized that with their emphasis on right behavior and embracing truth, a great many of their hymns are still meaningful to me.] I may get back to them in a few weeks, or it may be a few years, but no matter how we grow, I am certain that they will always love me.

I love this book. I will be the first to admit that nothing happens, that this book takes place inside the mind and not in the outward world, but it is no less beautiful for all that. I love my family too, not for their beauty or poetry, but because they are mine, including the fact that I don’t get close because I know the ways their love falls short. I also love my friends, the family I choose, because their love never does.

 

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My room is full of books that I’ve read three or four chapters of, half-completed job applications, and knitting projects I’m a third of the way into. I felt it to be a victory that I finished this book, because it means that I’m making some progress somewhere.

This is a novel written by a professional magician and narrated by a stuffed animal. That makes it sound much more infantile than it actually is.

Lumberjack sock stuffed with a woman’s nylons. Yeah, the old lady washed them. She washed me all. I was created clean, but that smell is deep. Deep. Deep. It’s a smell of the soul, and my soul is a lumberjack’s sole. I’ve been worn. My soul has walked miles of barbed wire to smell the nylons of my innards.

Hustler eyes, lumberjack skin, the heart of a woman’s legs, and a grandmother’s spoiling love. I got it all, baby. I got it all, my little baby boy. Drool on me. Grab me. Carry me. Rip me apart. I’m a bad monkey.

The Little Fool calls me “Dickie.” That’s my name.

“Why do you call him ‘Dickie’?” the parents ask.

“Because he’s dickie colored,” the Little Fool answers.

They laugh. They laugh at how cute the Little Fool is.

But he’s lying. He learned how to lie from my button eyes. He calls me “Dickie” because it’s the baddest word he knows. And I’m the baddest wammerjammer monkey he will ever love.

He will rip me apart with his love. And he will grow big. He will be very big. And he will never forget me.

And I’ll love him forever like a bad monkey. Like a very bad monkey.

The self-aware sock monkey starts off with himself, but after the first couple of chapters he gets out of the way and lets the story happen. Mostly. You see, the Little Fool (aka protagonist) left his radio on all the time, so the monkey’s head is full of song lyrics. The blurb on the back of the book says that he “references a treasure trove of 1970s and 1980s pop culture,” but those two decades are just a starting point. The Beatles, the Gershwins, Marcy Playground, and September 11, 2001, all get referenced as well. Sometimes it’s kind of obvious, as with the sex and candy references, but sometimes you have to work for it, as in “silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells” – I was rather proud of myself for recognizing Simon and Garfunkel in that one. Honestly, I didn’t catch probably more than half of his references, but that’s okay. I studied literature in school to develop the habit of letting the confusion wash over me and constructing meaning from the driftwood of sense that stays on the beach of consciousness.  Dickie mentions his name here in the first chapter, but it’s not really important. He usually calls himself “his monkey,” because he has no consciousness independent of the Little Fool, and because he was serious about loving him.

The Little Fool is not little. I don’t think he’s really a fool either. And as for The, well, there are so many little fools in the world that the determinate article can hardly be appropriate either. Nevertheless.

When you see the Little Fool, when you love the Little Fool, you want to call him something like the Little Fool. “Callow Youth” was what Irving chose. He was so close to the real sock monkey name. One quick consultation with the Sock and he would have changed to “the Little Fool.” He’s not little and he’s not a fool, but he thinks of himself that way, and those who love him should use that true name.

We’re not dealing with a child here, just a man who hung onto his favourite childhood toy. The Little Fool is all grown up, six to eight inches taller than I am, and significantly stronger because he’s a diver for the New York Police Department. He lives by diving into rivers of shit and chemical waste to drag up dead bodies. It’s not a total waste because it gives him a perfectly delightful body, and his mentor during his teen years gave him some useful advice about what to do with it. Irving’s not important to the story, but his advice is, and I think it’s good advice for straight men and lesbians.

Irving had said, “Ask the smart girls out. The mousey ones in the sweaters. The ones with glasses. The ones who are always reading. Get yourself into the advanced study groups and act like a punk. Check out what they’re reading. It’s Henry Miller and Anais Nin. The seduction has already been done by the best. Just go in and collect. The cheerleaders have to negotiate with the only commodity they’ll ever have. The smart girls, they’re waiting for you. Be a smart bad boy. And then just ask them. Make sure your looks will scare their parents, and then ask the smart girls. Don’t play games. Just ask.” How could all these others have won those Nobel Prizes and not Irving the year he had given that advice? It had changed the Little Fool’s life. The popular kids had been dating; the Little Fool had been working his way through the Kama Sutra.

I wish that someone would send this message through the community of people who are attracted to men. I’ve got glasses, sweaters, mousey hair, and the right reading material.

Irving’s advice led the Little Fool to Nell, whom we meet as a corpse he fishes out of the river. That’s right, we may begin with the childhood stuff, but this is actually a murder mystery. But it’s a sock monkey’s murder mystery, so there’s just the one dead body the Little Fool really cares about; the others are strangers. In a city the size of New York, it doesn’t really make sense for the protagonist to know the killer and more than one of the victims, but this is a novel. Tommy and the Little Fool solve the murder mystery, but they skip the genre’s less realistic conventions. Instead of using the bodies as pawns in a sick game between detective and murderer, our sock monkey focuses on the grief of the people left behind. There’s a lot about grieving for a book narrated by a sarcastic Freddie-Mercury-quoting sock monkey.

The Little Fool had been telling Stank stories about the Little Fool’s Mom and Dad. Wonderful stories. Funny stories. Stank didn’t laugh. He had kept wincing and looking away. Stank explained that he couldn’t bear to hear people with living, loving parents tell stories of that love. Stank could look into the eyes of filial love and see the future pain the parents’ deaths would cause his friends. Stank said it with a lot of carny ejaculations and slang, but that’s what he said. The Little Fool believed Stank was crazy and, well, Stank was indeed crazy, but he hadn’t been wrong. After Mom and Dad died, the Little Fool felt the same way. The Little Fool couldn’t stand people who had their parents, and loved them, talking about them. The embryonic pain living right below the surface, waiting to cause pain, was too much to take. Future bereavement for a loved one is a benign tumor that grows with love and gets malignant with death. Since Nell’s death, the Little Fool could see those tumors growing everywhere, in every couple. Every happy couple, laughing, nuzzling, holding hands, was just a few stopped heartbeats from pain bursting through one of their skulls. Bone-hard tumors of woe ready to burst through like the Elephant Man. The Little Fool looked at beautiful young women and knew that when they lost their biker boys in motorcycle accidents, those girls would be disfigured and drooling.

I’m sometimes amazed by how little death has affected my life. I have more family than anyone has a right to, but they just keep living, on and on. A hundred years ago, a thirty-five-year-old man would not still have three living parents, one grandparent, a couple dozen aunts and uncles, plus a few dozen cousins, six siblings, their spouses, and thirteen nieces and nephews, plus my own three children. Half of us at least would be dead. I’d probably be in the dead half of the family. I am not as grateful as I should be that we’re all still here. I don’t understand this grief. A good friend of mine just lost her father, and I feel helpless when I think of what she must be going through. Giving her the space to work through this with her partner seems to be the right approach, so I’m leaving them alone right now. The Little Fool, though, goes right up to the families of the dead women and joins with them. He’s dealing with Nell’s death, so it’s easy for him to empathize with them, and he needs to be with people who are feeling the same things that he is. Hence Tommy.

Tommy doesn’t fit with the current political narrative about gender and sexuality. Nowadays we’re all “born this way,” because the most effective way for us to be accepted by mainstream society is to tell them the lie that gender and sexual orientation are fixed binary positions. Sometimes I think that it actually harms us to focus so much on Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re the ‘good gays,’ and the rest of us are only good and only gay inasmuch as we reflect EDG and NPH. Well, the reality is, we’re not all fabulous. We don’t fart glitter or sneeze rainbows. We’re normal people. And sometimes we make conscious choices about things that the mainstream narrative says are genetically determined.

Tommy is a gay man. Okay, we can accept that. However, for several years in his youth, Tommy took hormone-replacement therapy because he wanted to improve his drag act. He didn’t feel like a woman trapped in a dick-ridden body; he never seems to have felt that the penis didn’t belong there. But his job was to make people think he was female, so he got all estrogened up without ever really insisting on a transgender identity. Once his popularity faded and it became clear that he had been replaced with younger queens, he got off the stage and quit taking the hormones. Now he’s a gay man, because he chose to be. Which is fine. He is a grown fucking man and can make his own choices about his body and sex partners. The Little Fool is a heterosexual man, again because he made a conscious choice to be so.

In high school, when the Little Fool had been a dietary aid (dishwasher) at the hospital, he worked with a cook who was very gay. The Little Fool talked to the cook about music. The cook, Charles, had given him Bette Midler and Yma Sumac records. Charles and the Little Fool became very close. Charles cooked special lunches for them to eat together in the walk-in refrigerator just to be wild. They talked about everything together. The Little Fool finally got up the nerve and asked Charles what homosexuals do. The Little Fool knew what heterosexuals do. He believed that homos had some real perversions. Charles went down the list of everything gays do, and there was nothing on the list the Little Fool couldn’t do some version of with a girl. Nothing. That was when the Little Fool decided not to be gay. If anything, gays had one less option. It was depressing.

So, this isn’t just a murder mystery. It’s also a gay romance. Again, it’s a sock monkey gay romance, so there’s no sex involved (that we can see). Tommy and the Little Fool meet because the Little Fool is investigating Nell’s death and Tommy was her best friend. They start working at solving the crime themselves, and they become more physically affectionate over time. The Little Fool starts taking his shirt off when he’s over at Tommy’s. He kisses Tommy sometimes. The sock monkey refers frequently to the love between them, and eventually the Little Fool starts dreaming about having anal sex with a girl who looks an awfully lot like Tommy. If they hadn’t solved the mystery, who knows what would have happened? But, for a book that thinks about sex almost as much as I do, there’s none actually going on. Just like me.

This is also an atheist novel. Belief isn’t so much mocked (most of the time) as it is shown to be completely insane. It reminds me of going to see my oldest brother. He went to the local Christian school for his business degree, so he ended up with a shit-ton of religion classes. He wanted to get an MDiv and become a pastor; that didn’t work out, but he still feels called to preach to everyone who gets close enough to listen. I end up nodding and going “uh-huh” a lot, because responding honestly would be like slapping him in the face, and the strength of his belief already crushes me. It feels like a weight he’s pressing on me that I can’t get out from under; in other words, it’s a bit like unexpected choke sex. You don’t know how you ended up in this position, it scares you, and there’s no way out, so you do what you can to survive until he’s done and leaves you alone.

The buddhist wasn’t a real buddhist – he was a college student buddhist. If it’s stupid to believe in a religion with a god who looks out for you, how stupid is it to believe in a religion that has no god watching over you? Buddhism is the slowest competitor in the Special Olympics that is religion.

The killer is religious, but he’s not one of those cartoonish religious people you see so often in fiction by atheists who have no idea what it’s all about – he gets it. He understands the stakes. And he lives accordingly. Of course there’s murder involved.

Imagine that as we sit here there’s a truck coming at me. And you see the truck. And you hear the truck. And you smell the truck. And you taste the smoke of the truck. And you feel the truck rumble the ground under your feet. And you know the truck is real. And it’s coming right at us. And you move out of the way, and you’re okay. And I look at you and say, “I don’t see the truck.” Do you say, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion?” Remember you can feel the fucking truck. Do you smile and nod? No. You mention the truck again. You say, “Get out of the way.” You preach the gospel of getting out of the way of the truck. And if I still don’t listen, and if you love me like you should love all men, do you shrug and say, “Well, it takes all kinds”? At some point, if you’re a good person, you grab me and knock me out of the way of the truck. You hit me and you drag me and if you have a baseball bat you use it and you get me out of the way of that truck.

But that’s just to save my life from a truck. Life doesn’t matter. But the religious, those who know there’s a God, those who can see God, and smell God, and taste God, and hear God and feel God, know that it’s not just the loss of life they have to stop; it’s the loss of eternal life. If you would pull someone you didn’t really know out of the way of the truck, how could you not pull a person out of the way of the Atheism that would snuff out eternal life?

This is what religion is really about. Especially in America, today. Especially in the communities I’ve lived in. Damnation is hurtling at us all like an out-of-control tractor trailer coming down Cowee, and we’ve got to pull everyone out of the way before they die and go to hell. It has that urgency, that conviction, that fear. In some ways my brother scares me more than IS, even when I lived in the Kingdom of the Two Sacred Mosques. He’s not the only Christian who would kill for Christ.

Despite the fact that crazy religionists share a book with gender-ambiguous homosexuals, there’s no sex-shaming going on.

I’m speaking now of sane people. There are insane people who need to hate the people the insane people are sexually attracted to. Men and women who go to topless clubs feel the sexuality and believe the people who provide it are evil. We won’t be dealing with that level of wrong in this story. We’ll be dealing with decomposed dead bodies in raw sewage, huge puncture wounds, rage, pain and murder, but we won’t touch upon the kind of hate that’s contained in even the slightest anti-sex position. There are certain things a sock monkey can’t stomach. In my story, there is no one sick enough to have negative thoughts towards a stripper. We’re going to keep it clean and happy. Everything is beautiful.

So. It’s a sexy atheist gay romance murder mystery told by a sock monkey obsessed with the pop music of the entire previous century. There are all sorts of asides and seeming non sequiturs, but it all comes together beautifully. It’s a real shame that Penn Jillette doesn’t write fiction more often, but his very active professional life probably keeps him busy.

One of those nearly-finished knitting projects is a sock monkey that I started five or so years ago. Maybe I’ll finish it to remind me not to rely on imaginary friends. If faith is really like a drug (Jillette’s comparison), I’d like to stay clean.

Last week I had a conversation with an old coworker about being rehired at a former place of employment (different position, different supervisors, so it feels like a step forward, not back). She told me that the person I had been before would not do well in this position, and I told her that I’m not who I was four years ago. Apparently, I impressed her with that fact enough that she commented on it with a few other people. In thinking about it, the difference is in the way I understand who I am. Four years ago I had several props that I substituted for my own identity – my marriage, my faith community, my career – I don’t think I’m unique in having relied on those things to tell me who I am. But I could see how precarious it all was, and as my awareness of my homosexuality became more pressing, I could foresee the imminent collapse of my life and self. I lived in perpetual fear of ceasing to exist. I thought that without those things I would no longer be. Not death so much as disappearance, like in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ when Prince Prospero unmasks the death figure and finds only an empty robe that falls to the ground. I would lose all my social masks and be revealed as nothing at all. And that was how this potential employer knew me before, as the consciousness on the verge of extinction, the damaged and endangered psyche. And then everything did collapse. I lost all of those crutches that my injured identity was leaning on. But I didn’t die (getting rid of the sleeping pills helped with that one), and I didn’t disappear. I came through it all just fine. It took a few years, but I’m better now than I have ever been in my entire life. I have fewer labels, but I don’t need them. I can’t describe myself as easily, but I know more accurately who I am. And if the paradigm shift called coming out didn’t destroy me, I know that nothing else can.

Milan Kundera’s Identity is about a similar issue: how we derive our identity from the people who love us. Chantal and Jean-Marc don’t split up as the ex and I did, but there are many elements of their relationship that remind me of ours. The relationship is marked by insecurity: they’re excessively afraid of losing each other, possibly through death, possibly through indifference, possibly through forgetting.

I see their two heads, in profile, lit by the light of a little bedside lamp: Jean-Marc’s head, its nape on a pillow; Chantal’s head leaning close above him.

She said: “I’ll never let you out of my sight again. I’m going to keep on looking at you and never stop.”

And after a pause: “I get scared when my eye blinks. Scared that during that second when my gaze is switched off, a snake or a rat or another man could slip into your place.”

He tried to raise himself a little to touch her with his lips.

She shook her head: “No, I just want to look at you.”

And then: “I’m going to leave the lamp on all night. Every night.”

This is what we had, and it’s what I don’t want to have again. I don’t want to be an enthralled captive; I want to be in love with someone who makes me feel free. I want to be with someone who wants me because he likes me, not because he needs me. Love shouldn’t make me feel trapped or afraid.

Part of the insecurity comes from inequality.

All at once he knows that the assertion he often made to Chantal is finally about to be confirmed: that his deepest vocation is to be a marginal person, a marginal person who has lived comfortably, true, but only under completely uncertain and temporary circumstances. Now suddenly here is his true self, thrown back among those he belongs with: among the poor who have no roof to shelter their destitution.

Chantal makes four or five times as much money as Jean-Marc, so he is maintaining a standard of living that he feels he doesn’t have a right to. She’s also a few years older than he is, and with an ex-husband and a dead child, she seems to have a world of experience beyond him. He seems to need her much more than she needs him. In the early days of my marriage, we relied pretty heavily on the ex’s parents for things like rent. We had known that neither of us would ever have money, majoring in literature and music as we did, but the reality of that didn’t hit until we were on the wrong side of the country in jobs that would never pay our bills. Then I went to graduate school and she got a good job, but she didn’t see my studying as work, so she had very little respect for what I was doing. When I finished school, though, I went to work and she stayed home. I’m not sure how much of this was conscious, but she felt all the insecurity of being dependent on another human being for the necessities of life. When she worked, she felt independent enough that she looked into divorcing me, and she was afraid I’d do the same. So she bound me to her with insults, reminding me how lucky I was to be with her, making me feel like no one else could ever want me. I worked at The Home Depot for a year and a half, and I was physically stronger than I had ever been, and I was the happiest with my body I’d ever been, but my muscles get flat instead of rounded, so I was also thinner than I had been in ages, and she’d tell me I looked like a Holocaust survivor and threaten to buy my clothes in the kids’ section. After our third child was born I wanted to go back for a doctorate so I could get a better-paying job, and she told me repeatedly that I was too old, too poor, and had too many children to chase after dreams. What I needed to do was get a shit government job for the next thirty years, give up ever being happy with my life, and content myself with what satisfaction there is in knowing that my abject misery provided the basic needs of my family. That’s what real men did. This is the kind of poison that comes from an insecure person in an unequal relationship. She tended to get between me and family or friends, interpreting and packaging me for them so that I felt like I couldn’t interact socially without her. I felt like Jean-Marc, even after I was the one bringing home the organic preservative-free bacon. And at first I did feel homeless and marginal; Kundera’s novel doesn’t show how it gets better. As I reflect on it now, I don’t wonder that I survived the divorce; I wonder that I survived eight years with her.

Y’know, my parents thought that it was important never to fight in front of us, so when they divorced it sort of came out of nowhere. At the time, I didn’t see it as a conflict between them so much as the natural state of things. People ran away from time to time; my brother did it, every teenager in a 1980s sitcom did it, it’s just what people do. The ex also thought it was important not to fight in front of other people, so we didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t. When she started yelling at me in front of the kids, I knew things were bad. But even when she only yelled at me in private, I felt like everything was ending because I had never seen people who love each other fighting. Right now I’m staying with some friends who have been together for more than thirty years, and they have their disagreements as people do, not in front of me though I can hear when they raise their voices, but I’m finally learning that not every fight ends in divorce, not every disagreement is final, not every frustration is the end of the world two people have built together.

One of the things that frustrates Chantal (and my ex) is what has become of the men in their lives.

Chantal thinks: men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority. She imagines trying to flirt with a daddy pushing a stroller with one baby inside it and carrying another two babies on his back and belly. Taking advantage of a moment when the wife stopped at a shop window, she would whisper an invitation to the husband. What would he do? Could the man transformed into a baby-tree still turn to look at a strange woman? Wouldn’t the babies hanging off his back and his belly start howling about their carrier’s disturbing movement? The idea strikes Chantal funny and puts her in a good mood. She thinks to herself: I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.

Then, along with a few morning strollers, she found herself on the seawall: the tide was out; before her the sandy plain stretched away over a kilometer. It was a long time since she had come to the Normandy coast, and she was unfamiliar with the activities in fashion there now: kites and sail-cars. The kite: a colored fabric stretched over a formidably tough frame, let loose into the wind; with the help of two lines, one in each hand, a person forces different directions on it, so that it climbs and drops, twists, emits a dreadful noise like a gigantic horsefly and, from time to time, nose first, falls into the sand like an airplane crashing. She was surprised to see that the owners were neither children nor adolescents but always men. In fact, they were the daddies! The daddies without their children, the daddies who had managed to escape their wives! They didn’t run off to mistresses, they ran off to the beach, to play!

Again the notion of a treacherous seduction struck her: she would come up behind the man holding the two lines and watching the noisy flight of his toy with his head thrown back; into his ear she would whisper an erotic invitation in the lewdest words. His reaction? She hadn’t a doubt: without glancing at her, he would hiss: “Leave me alone, I’m busy!”

Ah, no, men will never turn to look at her again.

Chantal seems to value the old days when Sean Connery was James Bond, when men would drop whatever was happening for a quick lay with whichever objectified female happened to be closest. There’s this weird equation of promiscuity with adult masculinity and paternal authority which seems to run counter to today’s accepted model of male behavior. As if authority can only be exercised at a distance, or as if he’s only a man if his cock is actually inside a woman at the moment. Well, there’s a price to be paid for gender equality – I know we haven’t succeeded in that goal yet, but it’s a useful touchstone just now – we all like to feel physically attractive (regardless of gender), but men have been taught that James Bond is just a fantasy, that real life is not a nonstop sexual buffet, so we don’t act like it is. In general, we’re more guarded in expressing the pleasure we take in the sight of people we find attractive, so attractive people get less external validation. Most guys don’t like to be thought of as rape-y, so we go in the other direction. [I wonder how sexual orientation affects self-esteem in this area. I can look at myself in the mirror and think, yeah, I’d fuck me, without feeling like there’s anything weird about that. Can straight people do the same?] When the ex and I got together, we were both really into changing traditional gender roles, but over time she became more religious, and she felt more strongly that she needed to submit to me (at least superficially), but I never wanted a fuckable child-care worker who has to resort to manipulation to get what she wants. I’ve always wanted to be with someone I felt was my equal, and I’m still not sure how the powerful feminist I loved became a resentful housewife, or why she chose that.

But I can say that the kids strapped to their daddies won’t care if they turn to look at a strange woman. I could use a urinal without waking the baby strapped to my chest; they can handle a slight turn of the torso. Yeah, I was a baby-tree for a while at first, but as I started working full-time, the ex trusted me less and less with the boys. I don’t have any strong memories of carrying my youngest through shops or down the street, though I’m sure I must have done it.

I spent eight years expecting my life to end at any second. Every day I’d wake up and wonder, is it today? Whenever the phone rang unexpectedly, I’d think, is this the call? For a while I thought she was going to kill herself before I got home from work. Then I thought she was going to die in a car crash or some other accident. Then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a worthless shit, and then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a gay worthless shit. Then she did. It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it; in many ways it was worse. I really want to be in love again, but I don’t want to go back to that constant fear of loss.

He was thinking not of her death but of something subtler, something elusive that has been haunting him lately: that one day he wouldn’t recognize her; that one day he would notice that Chantal was not the Chantal he lived with but that woman on the beach he mistook for her; that the certainty Chantal represented for him would turn out to be illusory, and that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.

Certainty is illusory, full stop. The only thing I’m really certain of now is that no matter what, I’m going to be okay. Even when I die, that’ll be okay too. But relationships end. Sometimes not until death, but death parts us all. When Chantal’s lamp goes out one night, what will become of Jean-Marc? He’ll rediscover himself, as I did. All the things that he didn’t do because she hated them will come back. He’ll seek out all the friends she didn’t like. He’ll watch the movies and listen to the music she hated. He’ll read the books she didn’t approve of and eat at the restaurants where she felt snubbed. But being fictional, he will never face that. There’s a losing that he won’t have to live with.

In the last three years, I’ve realized that the ex didn’t know herself very well when we got together. I was pretty unaware of myself too, so I’m not judging her for that. But when you don’t know yourself, you can’t present yourself to another person accurately. The person I fell in love with never really existed. Part of her was there, of course, but part of her was the person the ex thought she ought to have been and not who she was, and part was who I wanted to believe her to be. Part reality, part fantasy. It was hard when she left me and I lost her physical presence, but it was also hard when I realized just how much I had blinded myself to. She’s still beautiful and the type of person I can respect, but I cannot imagine being in love with her, let alone making her the mainstay of my own identity. If I passed her on the street as a stranger, I wouldn’t look at her twice. I’d forget her almost immediately. She’s an important part of my past, but as we are in the present, I don’t find anything special about her. Jean-Marc is afraid of this state of things, but I welcome it. Yes, it represents a loss, but it’s healthy to let go of the things that hurt you.

Kundera’s work often resonates with me on some deep levels, and this short novel clearly brings up a lot of things for me. It’s a little love story, and I suppose it could be read allegorically, but I hope not all love is like this. I want to be complemented, not possessed. I want a love that feels secure, without fear. And I have faith that there are other men who want the same thing. I just have to find them.

 

According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.

This novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story for children. It reads very quickly, and seems to have affected the people at Walt Disney to an extraordinary extent. Their Pirates franchise draws a lot from this book. It’s been memorialized in films more frequently than that, though; there have been a number of adaptations. Despite its great popularity, when it first came out, someone bet H Rider Haggard that he could write a better novel without much effort, and because of that we now have King Solomon’s Mines and the other Allan Quatermain novels.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I couldn’t remember my childhood. I hadn’t thought of it in years. The ex had had a very happy childhood, despite the drawbacks of loneliness and poor income, so she kept asking me about when I was a child, and I started to remember things, and after a short time she asked me to stop telling her about my childhood. Apparently, it’s rather depressing, no matter how normal I find it to be. [Of course I think it’s normal; it’s the only childhood I’ve got.]

My parents split up when I was eight years old. Nowadays I think it was a very good idea; my mom likes babies and my dad likes sex, which seems like a good fit, but my mom didn’t like having sex and my dad didn’t like having quite so many babies. He tried talking her into various methods of birth control, but after conceiving the seventh time he got a vasectomy. My mom started sleeping on the couch, because there’s no point sleeping together if you’re not going to get pregnant. They never had much in common, and neither was having their needs met in the relationship. My dad also had bipolar disorder without having that word for it, so he was depressed almost all the time. When he realized that he was faced with either divorce or suicide, he chose life separated over faking a car accident so we could get the life insurance money.

What I remember is that my dad worked all the time; when he came home, he went out to his shed and worked on cars. We saw him very little, and when I did see him, I was petrified. I spent most of my childhood afraid. My mother had her own anger management issues, which she dealt with by emotionally distancing herself from her children. She only ever disciplined me herself once, and it was so horrifying that I resolved never to give her reason to spank me again. Never is always a strong word, but in the heart of a five-year-old it can set the course of his entire life. As for my siblings, I don’t know if there was a reason for it or not, but we were never kind to each other. We were never united against common obstacles. We suffered alone, in close proximity.

The divorce was not the big shock that these things sometimes are, even to a kid who didn’t see his parents fight. My dad faded slowly until he vanished completely. I understood it as running away; my oldest brother had already done that several times, as had the protagonist of nearly every sitcom we watched regularly. So it was completely normal to me, though perhaps my idea of normal isn’t quite standard.

As I think on it, I think that I must have read Treasure Island shortly after the divorce. [As mentioned, this period of my life is a little hazy.] I read it a few more times over the next couple of years, until I got out of elementary school. I hadn’t read it again until this week. Analyzing it as an adult/teacher/father, I can see the appeal for a kid in the situation I was in. Jim Hawkins, the first-person narrator, is growing up in his parents’ pub, when this pirate guy shows up. Hawkins Senior dies, pirate gets killed, and Mrs Hawkins digs through the pirate’s stuff to get the payment due to her when she finds a treasure map. Jim takes the map to the local squire and doctor/magistrate, and they decide to sail on off to find all that money. Unfortunately, the dumbass squire hires a huge gang of pirates to man the ship. They get to the island and somehow the pirates are even dumber than the squire and just about everyone dies.

The point is, Jim is unrealistically badass. He doesn’t kill everyone, but the adults place undue emphasis on keeping him alive. How is this kid so valuable? It doesn’t make sense. Also, he kills a pirate. Yeah, the guy is really old and drunk, but why have the little kid kill him at all? And how is he not traumatized after killing someone? It’s a kids’ book because no one else would believe it. On the other hand, for a kid, it’s really empowering. Jim Hawkins can be a badass almost-pirate, being brave and clever and all, so maybe I can too. I understand a lot of kids had this reaction to The Parent Trap. Not the Lindsay Lohan, the Hayley Mills – apparently kids’ movies in the ‘50s involved submission, obedience, and Father Knowing Best.

So maybe when I was reading Jim Hawkins, I could be him for a little while. I didn’t have to be stuck in this weird and awkward family situation where I didn’t feel that people cared about me; they kept leaving me instead. I mean, I lived with my mom, but she’d . . . forget me. Sometimes at home. Sometimes in public. She’d start counting kids in the rearview mirror when she was halfway home, then turn the van around. Así es la vida. These days she doesn’t forget me in public any more, but she still reminds me that the cats live at her house and I don’t. [Some people have sibling rivalry; I’m more jealous of the pets. I’d be happy if my mom could express affection for human beings.]

What I do remember about reading Treasure Island is that it made me feel grownup. It was a big fat book (by nine-year-old standards), with big words and long sentences and it includes real danger. It’s not the fluff that was targeted to my age group and gender in the 1980s; now I know it’s the fluff targeted to my age group and gender in the 1880s. I think the age of the book fed the mystique of maturity I was trying to access by reading it. In the years after the divorce, some of us went drinking, some of us dove into work or college, and I drowned myself in the library. I got to be all sorts of people; as long as I was reading, I didn’t have to be myself. I hid in books for a long time. A very long time. Eventually it was books that got me out of hiding – they helped me label my childhood as abusive (from neglect, not violence), and they helped me realize that I’m gay. They’ve helped me work though a lot of issues. They protected me when I needed it, and they brought me out when I needed it. I still feel safest with a book in my hand.

I’ve been taking stock of my life lately; not only am I quitting my job and moving to a different country, I’ve also very recently turned thirty-five. Back when I was young, thirty-five was the age limit after which I thought a person was no longer young. Now that I’m there, I’m not sure if that’s true. I always thought that when I grew up, I would be taller, balder, more responsible. Instead, most days I still feel like an emotionally tempestuous teenager with inexplicably grey hair and child support payments. I thought I’d be better at being a grownup. But then, when I hear people describe what they think youth is for, I wasn’t that good at being a kid. I wasted my salad days being overly religious (ploy for my mother’s approval; worked for a while, until I realized I was lying about having faith in all that), so maybe I’ll carry on feeling young until I do ‘being young’ correctly. Or maybe approaching middle age really is about being a little kid whose face is finally getting stuck being all liney. I knew I shouldn’t have made so many faces in the mirror, all these years. Oh well; too late to stop now.