On Calvin and Hobbes

Far and away my favorite t-shirt right now makes a joke that’s only funny if you’ve read Calvin and Hobbes.

It’s actually only funny if you’re considerably more than a casual fan. It’s a drawing of Swiss Calvinist theologian John Calvin and English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the inimitable Bill Watterson style, with the two eminent dead white dudes making funny faces for the camera. It cracks me up. Occasionally it cracks someone else up, and we get along. Even if we just passed each other on the street and we never see each other again. If you get why that t-shirt is funny, you and I are friends.

I first discovered Calvin and his imaginary friend when he and I were the exact same age. My parents had just bought a ski chalet in Collingwood, Ontario, and I was checking the place out. On a bottom shelf in the living room, just about where a six year old child would find it, was a copy of the first-ever treasury of daily funnies. It was already there, in a place where I was about to make a great deal of memories. Whoever lived there before us had left it behind. I pulled it out and started reading, sprawled on the carpet in the late afternoon winter sunshine, as dust motes rose and danced in the air all around me. It’s one of those moments I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Because I was totally hooked. I didn’t get all the jokes, and I actually didn’t laugh out loud all that often. But I completely devoured it, and within a few weeks I had asked my parents to buy me another.

I wasn’t alone. In primary school those books were currency. I remember once seriously arguing with a fellow fourth grader about whether or not he should trade me his Lazy Sunday Collection for my Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes. He didn’t think it was the same value, because it had black and white short strips along with the full page color spreads. I remember being vaguely confused and frustrated because I thought the little black and white daily strips were actually more valuable. But the details are a little blurry through the rose-tinted glass of childhood memory.

They never stopped being great. I used to go to high school debating tournaments with one under my arm. Once a senior joked that he had glanced over to see me reading one during a debate with an expression of such intense concentration that you’d think I was reading Shakespeare, or a text on higher mathematics. But I was reading Calvin and Hobbes. A comic strip.

The thing is, Calvin and Hobbes may actually be on that level. Those comics weren’t just little laughs at the back of the paper. They were pearls of eternal wisdom served up in a manner that even a small child can comprehend. They could be completely frivolous, and they could be deeply, deeply profound. Sometimes they made no sense at all. One in particular, where Calvin’s dinner suddenly bursts into Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ monologue, for absolutely no discernible reason, can still make me belly laugh because I have absolutely no idea what that was supposed to mean, all these years later. Another one, where Calvin and Hobbes find a dead bird, and don’t do anything at all but briefly ruminate on how unbearably tragic life can be, and then sit under a tree and stare at the sky, haunts me more profoundly than a lot of serious classical poetry ever will. When they were at their most philosophical, they were also usually driving a wagon or a sled down a hill at subatomic speeds, which made for cool drawings.

Perhaps the most profound and hilarious one of them all is one of Calvin’s completely ludicrous show and tells, He gets up with a snowflake in a box, and points out that it’s spectacularly, completely unique, until you bring it in the classroom. Then it’s just another boring drop of water. Then he drops the mic, and goes back to recess.

That is profound shit. I don’t know anything about Bill Watterson as a person, and I kind of want to keep it that way now. I used to want to know, but I no longer do. It would ruin the mystery. Because the kind of guy who could write that is the kind of guy who exists beyond his mortal shell. Like pretty much everything Calvin says and does, that’s both something totally unbelievable for a six year old to say and do, and par for the course. Because the truth is six year-olds say and do stuff like that all the time, every day, around the world. We’re just not always paying attention when they do.

Hobbes doesn’t exist. Whenever you see him from an adult’s or a stranger’s perspective, he’s just a stuffed animal. But in the mind of Calvin, and so the mind of the reader, he’s as real as Pierre Bezuhov or Vladimir and Estragon. My own childhood best friend stopped responding when I asked him questions a long time ago. But I still keep him on a shelf, because that’s a part of me I hope I never let go. My capacity to make believe is my capacity to be human. And Calvin and Hobbes helps me remember that that’s totally OK. A TV show called Robot Chicken once made a joke about Calvin’s being schizophrenic, and it was funny for five seconds but also never funny again. Robot Chicken has been completely forgotten, and I think it’s still on TV. Bill Watterson stopped making Calvin and Hobbes cartoons around 1995, but those things will still be in print a century from now, if the human race still is too. And there’s nothing remotely controversial about that statement.

Because Calvin and Hobbes’ world is both innocent and wise, simple yet sophisticated, fragile yet unbreakable. It’s rooted in a time and place, but also completely eternal. It’s one of the few completely wonderful things to come out of the Reagan era, and it never mentions his name or acknowledges his existence. Those two things may be related. I once read a serious academic book that illustrated the tenets of Daoism through AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I’m pretty sure that someone could do the same thing for Zen Buddhism using nothing but Calvin and Hobbes. I hope someone has already done it.

The last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I ever read was also the last page of the last treasury ever published. It was called It’s a Magical World, and that was a deliberate decision on my part. Like putting down your old dog at home in his favorite window rather than on a cold metal table in the veterinarian’s office. The cartoon was simple, almost snow white, and didn’t make a joke. It was just two old friends riding off together into the winter twilight of a childhood that was never going to end. I cried when I read that. It can still make me tear up now.

It’s been 18 years since I first picked up Calvin and Hobbes. An incredible amount has changed in my life, and in the world around me. If nothing else about them were true, it would be enough that they are one of the only things in my life, apart from my immediate family, that mean exactly the same things to me at age 24 as they did at age 6. The relationship has complicated and changed, but it has only strengthened with time. I’ll never forget those two, and they’ll always have a big place on my shelf.

It’s a scary world. It’s a mean world. It’s a world where stupid, cruel, terrible stuff happens every day for no reason to people who don’t deserve it. But it’s also a magical world, and so far none of the awful stuff that has happened to me and the people I care about has put so much as a dent in that basic conviction. And that’s at least a tiny bit thanks to Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes. I pray that I can be there for the people I love when that stuff does happen, because it will, and no bones about it. But so far nothing has shaken that inescapable feeling that something deep at the very core of things is good. And I also pray that nothing ever does.

Let’s go exploring.

The White Trash Oedipus: Rob Ford and Toronto’s Long, Slow Descent into Madness

“The genius of comedy is the same as the genius of tragedy, and the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also.”

So says the character of Socrates towards the end of Plato’s classic work Symposium. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of pretentious crap aristocrats say to each other at parties as the waiters are clearing away the champagne flutes at two in the morning. But on the other hand, it’s something the Ancient Greeks were acutely conscious of, and the reason that a well-staged production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex still has the power to chill the soul thousands of years later, and a badly-staged one can have you rolling in the aisles long before Eddy claws out his own eyes to atone for unwittingly banging his mother.

Rob Ford has probably never read Oedipus Rex. Even if he heard the name bandied during his two terms at Carlton, I’d still bet good money that he’s totally unable to spell it. And yes, this is a good encapsulation of why he makes a lot of snooty pricks like me so very, very angry. But it’s also a fairly good parable about why he’s totally unfit to be mayor of Canada’s largest city. And yet so far, despite the crack scandal, despite rehab, despite the goddamn cancer he’s being diagnosed with as I write these words, he’s still running for public office. And there are an awful lot of people who are going to vote for him no matter what else happens. At this point he could publicly sodomize a puppy and still probably garner a respectable ten to fifteen percent of the vote.

Welcome to Toronto’s municipal politics in the waning days of the Ford era: a masterclass in insane contradictions more infuriating than the most impenetrable zen koans.

It hasn’t all been a joke. As he’s been barreling his way back and forth across the invisible line between tragedy and comedy, leaving it bleeding under his hooves like Pam McConnell on the floor of city council chambers, he’s been exposing some dark stuff about Toronto that we don’t often tell the rest of the world about, because we don’t necessarily always see it ourselves.

He’s completely blown the lid off of Canada’s strange, invisible class system, for one. I spent five years of my life in Britain, where class infuses everything people do, and they’re all acutely aware of it, conscious of their place in its intricate hierarchy, and don’t have to think very hard about how in any given situation they should relate to other people within its parameters. By the end of my first year there I was obsessively, unhealthily obsessed with the whole concept. Both because I hadn’t ever really thought about it before, and because my own place as a colonial within it was totally uncertain, oscillating wildly between its upper reaches and its nether depths. Coming back to Canada, I did start to dimly perceive that we have one too, even if we don’t often think about it. But it took the blazing white light of Rob Ford’s spectacular self-immolation to really bring its contradictions into stark, glaring light.

His blue collar fans think he’s one of them, and his wealthy detractors find this risible because he’s never had to work a day in his life. But he’s also relatively new money, and the grit of industrial Etobicoke hasn’t yet rubbed off the family name. So he’s got a foot in both worlds, but somehow belongs to neither. He’s exposed some of the worst elements of both camps. Their unwavering support perfectly illustrates the crass, boorish pettiness and self-perpetuating proud ignorance of the working suburban poor. And the undying hatred of the chattering downtown elite illustrates both their totally unbearable snobbery and their nauseating but completely shallow pretensions and compexes about Toronto’s emerging status as a genuine world city. We’re growing up, sure. But we’re also starting to turn into the Eloi and the Morlocks from H.G Wells’ time machine, and it’s getting super creepy.

He’s also blown the lid off some simmering, perhaps even really dangerous ethnic tensions that are too often obscured by the downtown elite’s pious cooing about the glories of multiculturalism. The fact that Ford Nation almost certainly contains at least one urbane, well-educated Pakistani doctor who’s been driving a taxi for the last thirty years because of Ontario’s byzantine, unexaminedly racist system of credential recognition, and who is totally getting off watching the WASPy journalistic elite completely lose their minds is terrifying, if you stop and think about it. That there are people who rude people can call any number of horrifying ethnic slurs, who cheerfully going to vote this October for a person who calls them stuff like that to their faces isn’t just weird, it’s totally fucking insane.

The masks are falling to the floor. The elephant in the room is trumpeting in heat, and shitting all over grandma’s Persian carpet. There is a great disturbance in the force. Our noses are a bit out of joint. The old joke about Toronto being New York run by the Swiss is getting both more and less true. Less because the Swiss wouldn’t put up with this shit for two seconds, and more because the Swiss are also nowhere near as perfect as the rest of the world sometimes thinks they are. There’s still a lot of Nazi loot in the vaults of Zurich.

Honestly? I can’t. I can’t even. I just. Can’t. Even. Deal. Anymore. And while there’s a slim chance that the end is in sight, and this is the last time I’ll ever feel compelled to write something about Rob Ford? Two things are true:

First, how I feel about that reminds me of the scene in the Dark Knight where Batman asks the Joker why he wants to kill him, and Heath Ledger laughs and says “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? You complete me.” And when you start seeing where the Joker was coming from, it’s possible you went round the twist a long time ago and just don’t know it yet. So that thought is festering.

Second, I honestly don’t know anymore. This is 21st century Toronto. Not Rome during a Borgia papacy. But suddenly, and I’m still not totally sure how it happened, municipal politics in my hometown has become better TV than Game of Thrones. And while it’s possible that John Tory or Olivia Chow will win in October, and everything will start to go back to normal, it’s also possible that Doug Ford will pull off an upset victory, and then Rob Ford will burst out of his stomach like Alien and declare himself King of the Andals, the Royhnar and the First Men. And if that happens, and it’s then followed by former mayor Barbara Hall bursting out of the sky riding a dragon and reducing City Hall and the financial district to a smoking ruin in vengeance for our repealing the plastic bag tax, then the truly weird thing about all of it will be this:

I will be completely unfazed. And Jon Stewart will put it in a segment, and the world will move on. Because no one, anywhere, can even deal with this shit anymore. Jihadis in Syria will see it today on the internet, and feel bad for two seconds about OUR problems.

I’m both totally losing my shit about this, and so bored with it that I could yawn. At exactly the same time. It’s either an earth-shattering drama with world-historical significance, or it’s of less importance than Kim and Kanye’s pillow talk. Or both. Or neither.

I need a muffin. And a hot towel. And possibly a nap.

Somewhere in Robyn Dolittle’s book Crazy Town, which to my shame I still haven’t found the time to read, she points out that Rob Ford and his family really do think of themselves as Toronto’s Kennedys. This is funny not because it’s a lot easier to picture Doug Ford on the set of Jerry Springer than it is Bobby Kennedy, nor because JFK’s supposed breeding was a total sham, and actual Boston Brahmin society loathed Joe Kennedy as a parvenu, new-money Nazi-sympathizer without a shred of basic human decency. This is funny because it is totally, completely, one hundred percent true.

They are the trailer park Kennedys. The blue collar Medicis. And Rob Ford is the white trash Oedipus. By wishing it, they have made it so.

I’ve never met Diane Ford, nor do I particularly want to, but I can’t shake the terrifying suspicion that I would much rather hang out with Jocasta. By comparison, the suicidal mother of Oedipus seems generally much more grounded and sensible, and we’d probably get along better. RoFo and DoFo may be schoolyard bullies writ large, but I don’t doubt for a second that they come by their demons honestly.

As Rob Ford copes with his cancer diagnosis, and Doug Ford rushes to city hall to file papers to register in his place, and the extraneous tabloid bullshit piles higher and higher around them both, maybe this is as good a time as any to try and take sensible stock about what exactly this all means. And we can’t do that until we stop indulging the narcissistic wankfest that is Furd Nayshun.

This became spectacularly clear to me yesterday when I realized that the health and sanity of some fatass rotarian gasbag who doesn’t even know my name had the power to totally ruin my whole day. That’s completely insane.

Seriously, it’s been spectacular to watch. It’s not every day you get to watch a world city completely lose it’s collective mind, and have a four year nervous breakdown live on late-night TV. But it’s jumping the shark now. It’s time for us all to stop indulging the lunatic pretensions of a gang of feral children, and let the grown-ups start cleaning up the mess they’ve made.

That’s really all. Let’s all go home.