Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: Calvin, Hobbes, and Me

I met Calvin and Hobbes when I was six, in the waiting room of my therapist’s office. (Do *not* look so shocked.) The therapist and my mother were in some long private conversation, and the radio was tuned to the easy listening station, so I was literally bored to tears. I searched the office for something, anything to read. I found, left under a chair by some previous visitor, a square little book of comic strips. The cover depicted a boy and a tiger in mid-fall over a small lake; the boy was holding an umbrella and yelling with exuberant glee; the tiger was looking down at the wagon that had preceded them into the water with a look that said, “Here we go again.”

Calvin, I quickly learned, was a lot like me. He was precocious, and unusually smart for his age, but unfocused. He didn’t think things through. He got in trouble a lot at school, and at home. He lived near a large forest, which he loved to go exploring in. He had a treehouse, and made grandiose plans with it that never quite got off the ground. He didn’t quite fit in with his peers, preferring the company of his own thoughts to the company of others. We differed in some respects (mostly on the subject of enjoying and doing well in school; I was something of a teacher’s pet), but the similarities were stark enough to grab me from the start. I’d felt a degree of kinship with Charlie Brown, but his world was still very much a thing of the Baby Boom generation; here, in this Calvin, was a manic, wildly expressive Charlie Brown for the MTV era, a kid who really would know what it was like to be me.

So, I identified with Calvin a lot. I took to playing Spaceman Spiff at recess, coming up with my own hardboiled Tracer Bullet monologues on the way to the bus stop. I confined this psychological Calvinball to my play hours, but the notion that the world didn’t necessarily have to be as I saw it took hold, and probably was partly responsible for my seeking out science fiction and fantasy books at a young age.

I also identified with Hobbes a bit. I was a solipsistic little tyke, and a bit narcissistic, and Hobbes’s knowing sarcasm (which often went right over Calvin’s head) felt like an in-joke between the two of us. I could imagine him winking at me, going “We know better, don’t we?” Hobbes could see the disaster in Calvin’s future as surely as I could predict which words certain of my classmates would stumble over in open reading time. This made me a bit of an asshole, now that I think of it, but it also made the day get-through-able. I also enjoyed Hobbes’s sense of the absurd; whether he was saying “smock smock smock” just because he liked the sound of it, or nullifying Calvin’s humanistic musings with an animal perspective, I liked how he personified nonsense in a way.

The Calvin strip assumed a primacy in my daily routine; it and The Far Side were the first thing I read with my cereal every morning. We got two papers, the Tulsa World in the morning and the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise in the evening, and I’d read Calvin in both, using the second reading to check for something I might have missed. The phrase “Calvin is good today” became a stock greeting between myself and my father, who surprisingly supported my interest in what was, for a reader as young as myself, a fairly subversive strip.

Calvin’s parents themselves helped me understand my own parents a bit. My dad was and is a goofball, and Calvin’s dad’s silly explanations for natural phenomena and good-natured pranks illuminated the sense of fun that adults have in dealing with kids. Then there was Calvin’s mom, a woman who deserved a medal if ever one did. She impressed upon me the consequences of my actions, the weight of the little (and not-so-little) messes I made that my folks had to clean up after. I tried my best not to give my parents too many Calvin-scale headaches, but didn’t always succeed.

Perhaps the greatest influence Calvin had on my relationship with my parents came from the Little Raccoon story. One of the first storylines in C&H to extend beyond a single week, it was also the moment where the strip began to break out of its simple boundaries really say something about life and experience. The story is simple, but touching at the same time: While exploring, Calvin and Hobbes find a little raccoon wounded in a field. Calvin drafts his mom and dad into his efforts to save the little guy, putting him in a shoebox in the garage and giving him food and water. Sadly, in the morning, the raccoon is dead, and Calvin is inconsolable. Left with many questions, he and Hobbes ponder questions of mortality and religion, wondering why such a bad thing would happen to a small, defenseless creature, what kind of God kills baby raccoons, and so on. The story doesn’t answer these questions, of course, but it does show that even the smallest life has meaning, as Calvin visits the little raccoon’s grave and promises never to forget him. But the moment that hits me hardest comes soonest in the story, when Calvin finds the raccoon and rushes off to get his mom to help. Hobbes asks him, “Will she be able to do anything?” and Calvin replies, with the certainty of a six-year-old, “Of course. You don’t get to be Mom unless you can fix everything just right.” The punchline is a little jab at this kind of faith, but as the story progresses, it morphs into something else. In the end, Calvin’s mom or dad couldn’t fix everything just right, but they tried. That effort makes all the difference; they couldn’t save the little raccoon, and didn’t see much hope to begin with, but they tried anyway, because it meant so much to their son. And when the little raccoon died, they comforted Calvin in their grief. Those small gestures of love, laid out for me on the page, made me appreciate the love my parents showed me in supporting and helping me in the things I wanted to do. They also made me hope that, if I become a parent myself someday, I’ll be able to live up to their example. (Similar influences are the reason I still tear up at the Brad Paisley song “He Didn’t Have To Be.”)

Bill Watterson ended Calvin and Hobbes in 1996. I wrote one of my first feature stories for the junior high newspaper about it. Ten years later, I’m still writing about it, thinking about it. There’s just so much there. Thanks to Calvin and Hobbes, I never quite jettisoned some of my more childish traits; I still think helicopters are cool for no reason, I still comment to myself on my surroundings, I still take a moment to savor a beautiful view or scintillating smell (I can recognize a barbecue grill being operated at five hundred paces, which is a bit of a willpower problem whenever I walk past Virgil’s on 44th Street). I would go so far to say that Calvin is the reason I have not become an insufferable cynic, rejecting any place for whimsy and wonder in the world. It’s really no choice at all: which do I want, an asphalt imagination and a cigarette addiction, or cardboard box-duplicators and Tyrannosaurs in F-14’s?

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