• Otter Views: Imaginary Line

    by Tom Stevens

    A recent swing through the “Bermuda Triangle” of Carmel thrift stores sent me home with an L.L. Bean shirt, some jazz CDs and a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon book titled “There’s Treasure Everywhere.”

    Donning the shirt and cueing up the music, I sat on the couch and started leafing through the book. An hour later, I was still laughing.

    Starting in 1985, the spiky-haired imp Calvin and his urbane stuffed tiger Hobbes animated the comic pages of 2,400 newspapers worldwide. But after ten years of format battles with publishers, the strip’s creator Bill Watterson folded his easel and retired. It was a sad day for comics fans.

    The books are still out there, though. Watterson published 18 collections of Calvin and Hobbes strips. They show up from time to time in thrift stores and on remainder tables, and I usually take one home.

    What I’d say distinguished “Calvin and Hobbes” from other strips was Watterson’s understanding of the vividness of childhood imagination. While adult society sternly walls reality off from fantasy, little kids inhabit a permeable joy zone where they can pop effortlessly among various worlds.

    One of Watterson’s metaphors for this was a big cardboard box. By simply labeling it and rolling it onto a particular side, Calvin could create a Calvin Cloner, an all-powerful “transmographier” machine or a secret meeting room for the “G.R.O.S.S.” (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS) club. The box could also transport him and Hobbes to other galaxies, into the future, or back to the age of dinosaurs, always returning before dinner.

    Unlike Calvin’s long-suffering and nameless parents, I missed the bus on parenthood. But I did spend enough years working in various day care and primary school situations to appreciate the aptness of Watterson’s whimsies. On any playground, simple squares of fabric transmogrified little boys into superheroes and little girls into superstars.

    At one day care in Terra Linda, the pre-schoolers invented a game they called “Crash 911.” On a stone patio beneath a big oak tree, they staged elaborately choreographed tricycle pile-ups replete with paramedics and a red wagon ambulance. Calvin would have loved it.

    After each highway disaster, the kids would shout “911!” to summon the paramedics with their rescue wagon. The chosen victim would then be lifted gingerly into the wagon and wheeled to an emergency room at the foot of the oak tree.

    There the game’s inventor, a four-year-old girl radiologist, would pass an inverted sand bucket over the crash victim’s inert body. The “X-rays” thus obtained would be recorded in crayon on sheets of paper and clipped to easels. After surveying these charts, the victim’s worried loved ones would fall silent for the doctor’s diagnosis.

    “Her brain,” the doctor would announce solemnly, “is cracked.”

    Those seeking cheerier diversions at the Terra Linda center could enjoy daily wedding ceremonies performed without benefit of clergy. These were held each morning in the dress-up area by little girls who clomped about happily in high heels, beaded satin dresses, and assorted table cloths.

    The most important item of apparel at these rites was the Marry Hat, a slightly crushed straw bonnet retrieved from the tangle of the toy box. This was placed with greatest dignity upon any person who wished to be married. Adult life should be so simple.

    In another toy box at a Sonoma day care called Gingerbread House lived “the witch,” a nondescript blonde doll always taken first at nap time. To my eye, the doll looked nothing whatsoever like a witch – no warts, no craggy greenish features, no protruding chin. But a dozen kids had given her that title by consensus. When I asked why, I was told it was a secret.

    Because his imagination was so vivid, the cartoon Calvin rarely needed much in the way of costuming. He might don a cape or set a colander atop his head and attach wires to it for “cerebral enhancement.” But generally he simply morphed into a dinner time T. Rex, a bathtub shark, the intrepid galactic explorer Spaceman Spiff, or the noirish private eye Tracer Bullet (“I have eight slugs in me – one’s lead, and the rest are bourbon”).

    The real-life day care kids I supervised plundered the costume trunk regularly. But Halloween posed a transcendental dilemma for the younger ones, who worried that a costume might permanently change them. At Gingerbread House, a boy named William was the test. His mother had made him a wonderful cow costume, but when the cow head was lowered over William’s, everyone fell silent with fear and wonder.

    Finally, William’s best friend, Tony, stepped bravely up to the cow and gazed into the eye holes.

    “William,” he said, his voice trembly. “Are you in there?”

    There was no reply, because William himself wasn’t sure.


    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 18, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views


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