Toffel digs in
Illustrations by Andrew Rewfoe Foerster, from the upcoming book – “Stymie and Toffel”
This is a weird and difficult time to be a kid. Childhood has actually been increasingly weird and difficult for several generations now, but the truly shocking thing about this is how thoroughly we have all ignored this clear signal that our society is profoundly spiritually unhealthy. Some will snicker and say “Capitalism is a bully” and some will say “Atheism is a denial of responsibility” – but those are themselves snarky excuses, not the sound of a responsible person who wants to contribute, to be sure that conditions for everyone improve.
The left and right both fulminate endlessly about how the ideas of the other side do harm to children, but there is not just objective but overwhelming evidence that it is not ideas but individual humans who do harm to kids on both sides – and often even consider it their right.
I lived an extreme early example myself – my life as part of a family ended when I was 12 years old, and the royalty of the cult my parents were in, took an interest in me and several other young children – destroying all of our families in the process. But though my direct experience was couched in the language of progressive psychology, I met a lot of other kids in my teens, who had gone through similar horrors thanks to equally hypocritical versions of religion in their communities (mormons and catholics especially well represented).
This is why I have always seen the question of how we treat kids as separate from grand political ideas – and the longer I’ve watched, the more certain I am that I’m right to do this. Words are easy, weigh nothing, require no work or sacrifice. Kids need all of those things, and when these are withheld by people so immature they shouldn’t ever have had kids, the text of the excuse is quite irrelevant.
For a person who was so thoroughly uprooted, I got very very lucky. I met Catherine when I was just seventeen years old, and though we spent a good deal of time building a rock solid friendship first, before becoming romantic and then united, we have been nurturing each other and also creating our own restorative family warmth every since. A world of mutual playful imagination and fun, also.
It will probably sound corny to say it so simply – but though Catherine and I were ‘new wave’ kids – with funny costumes, hair and makeup which would come to be known as “Goth” about a decade later, the reason we clicked so well was simple – we both believed in NICE and FAIR and FUN – all of which were already very rare as personal priorities compared to GIMME, SCREW THEM and WHERE’S MINE?
Catherine’s creative comedy patter really took off soon after we married, as our stuffed animals and several pieces of funky sculpture gained voices, personalities and increasingly complex stories as they interacted with our lives and each other – and ‘our kids’ kept the both of us building on the intertwined narrative and laughing for many years.
To be clear, though we never had the option of having kids, we weren’t just keeping our warmth and playful creative spirit to ourselves – we’ve always had friends who were much older and much younger than us – and believe in learning from everyone and sharing what we’ve learned freely. Tried hard to put our principles to work, and once or twice helped a friend out of a very dark crisis, into survivable light.
In our early marriage, when we had better health and vigour to offer, we even had a Christmas eve tradition – a waif’s banquet – for all of our many friends who didn’t have family warmth to look forward to, in that especially lonely time of year. Not only tons of food – savoury and sweet, some wine and single malt, but also well-stuffed stockings for every guest – with candies, books, toys and novelties selected carefully for each.
Stymie covers the waterfront
As Catherine’s health has become more challenging, we haven’t been able to host our friends, but our theatrical in-house family is more vital than ever. Most especially our (technically imaginary) human kids, Stymie and Toffel. They entered our life a few years ago, needed a bit of family warmth – and we had extra to share. Toffel first, (it took awhile for him to convince his tougher friend Stymie that we were okay).
They sleep in hammocks (their preference – because it reminds them of pirates) and both have quite a few eccentric habits, thanks to a long period of self-reliance at a very early age. Stymie’s guile and street-smarts often exceed my own, just as Toffel surprises continually, with his effortless and unselfconscious creativity. They’ve even brought another friend, Tarquin, who does have a nice family, into our family, because they insist (and Tarquin agrees) we’re cooler – but Catherine takes great pains not to make his mom unduly jealous, despite her vastly superior cooking (and listening) skills.
A couple of years ago I decided that I really ought to write a story about Stymie and Toffel – their presence (a shared performance invocation, in a way – and a never-ending vaudeville duo act, in another) really does enrich our lives, and as funny as it might sound, we learn a lot by running the things we are thinking about, through the lens of a couple of unusually self-reliant twelve year old kids. I had already been using gratitude as my writing fuel-source for some time, to great effect, so gratitude to our own offstage affection construct seemed viable.
Of course as soon as I started writing I remembered my own feelings – the aching loneliness, but also just how powerful and restorative the patches of warmth which were shared with me felt, in that time of cold and darkness. I also thought a lot about the frightening burden of worry, kids have placed upon them in the modern world. The boomers were the last generation who got to believe in a future that would be better – my cohort became cynics watching the “all you need is love” generation turn into sociopathically hungry individualists. Locusts with idealistic rationalizations. But kids nowadays are just plain utterly doomed – and they don’t even get a few innocent years of happiness before that fact is rammed down their throat with both emotional and evidentiary force. This system can’t go on, we’re too greedy, competing downward, it WILL hit the wall. True, sure – but why don’t we ever ask the question – is this message said this way to this group of people helpful?
The afterward – the breakdown-point that no one over forty ever has the nerve even to talk about honestly, is the part of history that all of our kids will have to somehow find a way to live in – and they know it more surely than we as kids knew anything. Some insist we must not discuss such things, because that is in some way authorizing them as possibilities. I say Bolshoi! What makes the collapse certain is our refusal to restrain our appetites – our pretence that thermodynamics is less important than desire. Ecologists who keep driving and flying, war supporters who don’t want to pay more taxes – irrational infants.
You remember that old (and very important) distinction between childish and child-like? One is about rejecting responsibility in favour of rationalizations and tantrums – the other is about noticing how easily we can enchant every moment of life, with a bit of shared and sustained effort.
Most adults now are being childish – and this is why most children are not getting the chance they all deserve to enjoy and develop their childhood spirit fully. Missing out on this phase, or having it rushed and truncated, means less impetus for pleasure in life, and less caring for others. Because it results in less imaginative ability to step outside of ourself and take another very different side of things just as seriously.
What I realized, when I thought about how few people were talking honestly about life, post-collapse (the world we are forcing into being, and leaving for our kids to inhabit), was that the most important thing we aren’t saying is that we are (mostly) still going to be here, and even without our fanciest stuff, we are still going to have our knowledge, talents and spirit.
The Band Parade
The collapse event itself is entirely offstage in my narrative, something that happened years ago, and is just the way things are now. Unremarkable. What are front and centre in “Stymie and Toffel” are loyalty and friendship, creativity and cooperation, and finding families that suit, respect, and nourish our spirit, even if we didn’t happen to get one of those at the outset.
All of the love inside us will still be there also – even with the fear, sorrow, regret, and frustration of dashed hopes. Some people think kids need to hear “hard honesty” from adults – and they use this as an excuse to burden them with emotional weights they cannot bear. Kids don’t need our fear, our sorrow, our regret or frustration. Those things are toxins, share them only with adults who are strong and have knowingly agreed to help you make the burden lighter. But do make sure and get every bit of that love, honesty, principle, wit, humour and sacrifice working for kids. We all owe them every last bit of these, along with quite a lot more that we’ve already foolishly squandered on ephemeral vanity.
Just so I don’t give anyone the wrong idea – this is a fun upbeat story book. Something I might have thought just a bit light, in my youthful Bradbury and Wyndham phase, were it not for the post-collapse setting. But that setting is crucial. Kids absolutely need to know that humane beings will persist, when all the gadgets fail. Not only that, but good luck and outright fun will still happen too!
The universe often conspires with us when we’re on the right track, in this case I had especially good fortune – a few days after finishing my rollicking yarn about future kids with full agency, I ran into my dear friend Andrew (rewfoe) Foerster – who already has his own well developed, cool, and super-charming visual take on post-collapse dystopia (see my story on him and his fantastic animations – and also his Vokunji project) and he was instantly excited to join his pen and line to my manuscript – which has not only multiplied the total warmth of the book, but also makes it front and centre, even before you start reading. Hooray!
Smart kids, loyalty, the contagion of a creative spark, and the solace of found family. Yes, the aftermath of apocalypse Toronto-style contains a crisis, a concert, a good breakfast and a warm refuge, where the water glass you set next to your bed before sleep isn’t frozen when you wake up the next morning!
I did have the first part of the story posted, read aloud (the way I used to read storybooks to Catherine before bed, when we were first married). But I was forced to take this down because of limits on my podcast host – I will get it up again on Youtube soon, along with another post about the upcoming “Stymie and Toffel” book – so you can have a taste of the resultant fun yourself (cocoa and PJs recommended). We’ll probably have the initial test prints of the final book itself back as our Christmas present this year. And we hope to put the book on a lot of reader’s shelves before next year, when you’ll be able to wrap it with a charming Stymie and Toffel T-shirt, and tuck them both under the tree for your favourite reader!
Hope isn’t about lying. But truth isn’t about being mean, either. Got to think about the kids – we’ll badly need their hope and heart, when ours runs out!
(Scheduled tentatively for next Thursday, isn’t it? Or am I still on the wrong calendar?)