MAUS

I don’t censor myself much around my kids. I mean, sure, I don’t talk about hardcore porn or tell the really, really awful jokes I know, but I say “fuck” a fair amount. Ryder is eleven, and he knows that swear words have a time, a place, and a use, and he’s already well-versed in what each of those means. And he’s fairly adept at using them correctly. I don’t believe there are bad words, there’s just bad intention and use of words. “Fuck” shows up in Duncan’s current favorite song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day, and he sings it in the song and races on to the next line. We were considering having him audition for the school talent show and sing that song, but of course we were gonna leave out the second verse, because of course. But we discussed changing the word when singing the full song, and when we told him why, he simply said, “Okay”, and that was that. But the word has no real meaning to him yet at six – it’s just something in his favorite song. Kids really don’t worry too much about the four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, not nearly as much as their parents do. And, lemme tell you, the best way to get a kid to use those words is to tell them not to do it. Forbidden fruit is the best. As Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman say in Good Omens, there never was an apple that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.

And then I saw this morning that a school district in Tennessee is banning Art Spiegelman’s brilliant graphic novel Maus for its use of “objectionable language” and an instance of female nudity. As usual, my home state is leading the way in ignorance, doing everything it can to slow the inevitable passage of time and evolution away from the institutionalized racism of this country. I’m posting a link to a CNBC article about this event here:

https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/26/tennessee-school-board-bans-holocaust-comic-maus-by-art-spiegelman.html?fbclid=IwAR0zZzRjdP_OT-F0o10VKXHAXh0coWZtd18NNJ06l-fVj3PWdblJ-Q8TktE

For those of you who haven’t had the chance to read it, Maus is an autobiographical graphic novel written by cartoonist Art Spiegelman. It’s the story of young Art’s father, really, as the senior Spiegelman tells his young son about his escape from Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. It’s about the sytematic persecution, torture, and attempted extinction of European Jews by the Nazis. And yes, it’s a comic book. While the names of every character in the book are those of real-life people who were a part of Spiegelman’s story, the characters themselves are drawn as anthorpomorphic animals. The Jews in the book are mice, and the Nazis are cats. The metaphor is apt, blunt, and powerful. You get exactly what Spiegelman is going for, and it rings true, especially if you know anything at all about what happened in the German concentration camps. Cats terrorize and play with mice before they kill them, indifferent to their suffering because they don’t see them as anything other than prey, beneath them. It could very well be one of the reasons I’ve never been much of a cat lover; they simply display little to no empathy, and that bothers me.

But it’s exactly how the Nazis treated their prisoners. Like animals, like toys, like prey. And Maus rams this point home with alarming clarity and, surprisingly, not as much violence as you would think. I haven’t read the books in a very long time, so I won’t try to summarize, but the impression it left on me is still there. And, as a student of the German language and a fair amount of German history, especially about World War II, I’m very familiar with the context. I’ve been to Dachau. I’ve felt the eerie stillness of that place. I’ve felt the stain that all that blood has left on the ground, visible or not. And it’s not a good feeling at all.

So why is a school district in Tennessee banning this book? The presented reasons ring false. Let’s talk about the nudity objection first: it’s a comic book. This literally means that a naked mouse was drawn on the page, and somehow teens are expected to be sexually aroused by this. I will say that I remember my teens pretty well, and to be fair, everything turned me on. It didn’t take much for me to get worked up, because the hormones flooding my body kept me ten seconds away from a boner at any given moment. The phone book could give a kid a hard-on. But context is important here. Think about the context: a cartoon mouse is going into the gas chamber in a concentration camp. While the hormones are strong indeed, there is no sexual context in that situation at all. Unless you’re into to something that you’re not willing to talk about with your therapist, that is, and maybe that’s a part of it: the people who want to ban it are turned on by it because it’s something they want to see happen. So put a pin in this and come back to it.

Second, the language. The school board says (and I’m paraphrasing, but it’s in the article), in effect, that while kids undoubtedly hear worse at home on TV all the time, this language has no place in the classroom. That, somehow, hearing these words in an educational institution, a place of learning, where history is supposed to be examined and understood, reading a handful of “dirty” words will somehow damage them. The same logic has been used in the past to remove dozens of books from school libraries all across America, the most famous example of which is arguably Mark Twain’s seminal Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, removed for its repeated use of the word “nigger” in reference to the runaway slave Jim who becomes Huck’s best friend and who unequivocally humanizes Huck. (Side note: I wonder if this post will get flagged for using that word.) Here again, the context is what gives any word its power, not simply its definition. The N-Word is used upwards of a hundred times or more in the book, and this offends people, but the word is used daily with a bile on the tongue by white people all over this country to debase and dehumanize black Americans of African descent. And you can say, “Well, black people call each other that all the time!” You’re right. And do you know why? Again, context. Think about who is saying it, and to whom, and why.

But whether the book is removed from libraries all over the country, the word remains, and at some point, a child will hear it, and they will ask what it means. It’s up to their parents to give them an honest, responsible answer, and teach them why it shouldn’t be said. Because think about whom it will hurt. (I feel like this topic deserves its own post, to really lay out what this all means, so maybe I’ll do that someday.)

So back to Maus, and its objectionable language. The article never states explicitly which words are objectionable, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that they don’t mean the word “Jew”. They probably mean one or more of the good ol’ four-letter variety, probably our fond old friend “fuck”, and it’s the presence of such unwholesome words in a school setting that’s causing all this kerfuffle.

Or is it, really? Let’s talk once more about context. It seems to me, given the recent attempts in schools across the nation to ban the nebulous but somehow oh-so-dangerous-to-society-as-we-know-it Critical Race Theory, what’s really happening is that White America is suddenly being forced to confront its virulently racist past, and it’s very butthurt about it. So, with its last dregs of power and its dying breath, it will try to do what it has always done and bury any material that illuminates just how shitty white people have acted for centuries, especially beneath the noble measure of “Protecting the Children”. Meanwhile, lunatics with guns, primarily white and male, are free to walk into schools anywhere with machine guns and open fire on the children we’re trying so hard to protect. Obviously. I can go on and on with examples of just how little children actually mean to the powers that be in this country, but I’m sure you see what I mean.

Maus is an historical document, and it openly, honestly discusses ugly facts about humanity, and the reason it bothers some people is that they recognize themselves in its pages. The dark side of them that wants “Those People” to know their place, the greedy side that wants to keep all of its power, refusing to relinquish it even in the face of death, the blind side that refuses to admit that we may have done some horrible things in the past, and the selfish side that wants to continue doing all of these things just because we like it that way.

But the Nazis lost. Thankfully, they got smacked down, hard. Not without cost: six million Jews died in the labor camps, and another five million Europeans designated “undesirable” – gypsies, homosexuals, dissidents, whomever they disagreed with or whomever disagreed with them – all rounded up and destroyed. But the scars remain. And scars are excellent reminders. Germany has never forgotten the lessons of World War II because they put their history right out in the open where everyone can see it, feel it. Many of the camps are historical sites. You can tour them, feel the psychic scars of all that pain and suffering for yourself, so that it is never forgotten.

Remember the Americans who fought in World War II? The Greatest Generation? They were appalled at what they found in the camps. But, years before, boatloads of Jewish refugees were turned away from American shores because that same generation didn’t want to deal with the rising horror in Europe, and most of them didn’t like Jews much either. Plus, their ancestors has owned black slaves and treated them just as evilly as the Nazis were treating Jews in Europe, and maybe we just didn’t want to be reminded of that at the time. And there were plenty of Nazi sympathizers in America. Rallies were held all over the country. Japanese internment camps spread across the country like a rash. Both of these events happened in the area of Los Angeles where I used to live. America has yet to reckon with its past, but that day is coming. And there are still Nazis in America, make no mistake about it. The last administration normalized hating out loud, but it had been happening in living rooms for decades. I saw it with my own eyes so many times growing up in the South, and it appalls me to this day. I still see it, even out here on the Left Coast, every single day.

Maus is a testament to the courage, perseverance, and sacrifice of the Jews in Europe during World War II as well as those who risked everything to help them. And there were many. I cannot recommend it enough, and I’m finally going to buy a copy as soon as I get the chance. Because it’s a story that needs to be told, that should never be forgotten. And schools can ban it, but it’s readily available on bookshelves all over this country, and putting it on the list of banned books just makes it all the more interesting to children who are hungry to have their questions answered.

Nazis banned books. It didn’t work. They continue to try, even now, even here, in this country. It won’t work.

And remember this: “Nazi” is a four-letter word. A dirty one, too. And there are plenty of people who don’t want you to say it. But like any dirty word, it has a time, a place, and a purpose. Use it wisely, when it is accurate and correct. And always punch Nazis. Because fuck them.

Calvin, Pt. 2

I’m trying to rebuild the habit of writing on a regular basis – every day is still a ways off, but I’m hoping at the very least to post on this blog every 1-2 weeks. The ideas aren’t flowing freely out of the tap yet either, so I have to flex the muscle to keep it flexing. But I’m in my chair, the headphones are on, and the soundtrack to Braveheart just started rolling. That’s always been good chill-out writing music for me, ever since college when I first bought the CD. Still works. So here we go.

I thought I’d follow up last week’s post with a little more about Duncan, since coping with his autism is a big part of what this blog is now about. Specifically, I want to go back to Calvin & Hobbes and dig into his love for that again. My therapist asked me last week why I thought Duncan was so drawn to Calvin, and, being the deep thinker that I am, I already had an answer ready to go. I saw similarities in Duncan’s personality and Calvin, and that sent me down a path to an interesting revelation: I think it’s entirely possible that Calvin is autistic.

The parallels are strong: wicked high intellect, trouble staying focused in school. A powerful imagination, a focus on one’s inner life to the exclusion of the world. Difficulty communicating, especially on subjects outside of one’s own interests. I mean, Calvin’s best friend is his stuffed tiger, and the life they live inside his little, expansive head is the stuff of legends. I don’t think for a second that Bill Watterson intended Calvin to be autistic – the strip was written for adults to reminisce in their own childhoods with the knowledge they have as adults. It ain’t really for kids. Plus, Watterson is notoriously private (there’s a documentary about just how reclusive he is), so if that was his intent, we’ll probably never know. But the parallels are fascinating, and these days you can see just about anything in hindsight, thanks to the miracle of post-modernism.

I gave my therapist this answer, and he agreed with me that a case could be made, for sure. I felt like I’d somehow Made A Contribution To The World. I was, for a moment, proud of myself and my own obviously prodigious intellect. And then, right after our session, the therapist sent me a link to a reddit thread about the subject, just to keep me in my place.

So yeah, someone else has noticed it, too. I followed the thread he sent me for a few lines, and the poster had some support, and then someone dropped this comment:

“Or maybe he’s a fucking kid.”

This wasn’t the first comment to disagree and to posit that, most likely, Calvin is just a six-year-old, prone to wildly imaginative play, love of his stuffies, and trouble controlling himself. Absolutely. I even said this about Duncan in my last post: he’s five, but amplified. It’s been an ongoing challenge for us to try to suss out exactly where Duncan’s autism blends in with his age and level of maturity, and it’s damn hard to do. Neurotypical children are often short-tempered, have trouble communicating, especially when upset, and can display a lack of empathy for others. All absolutely true.

But the sneer I read into this comment really lit me up. Again, I don’t pretend that I know what Watterson intended when he created Calvin, I just know I see a reflection of my son in him, and that makes me love both Calvin and Duncan that much more. but there is an implied negativity to this particular comment that I can’t overlook. And you can say that all parents love their children, and of course this is also absolutely true. And (hopefully) no one will deny that raising a child on the spectrum can be extremely challenging – just wait til I tell you about dinner Friday night, or Duncan’s first day back in school – and it is this love, this overwhelming, almost frightening, powerful love, that gives you the strength to get up every morning and keep trying to raise that child, and it gives you a perspective on kids that parents of neurotypical children just don’t have.

And this isn’t a slam on those parents – fuck me, raising ANY decent child these days is a goddamn marathon – but this asshole made it pretty clear in his reddit comment that there was something wrong with assuming Calvin could be autistic. And that pissed me off. And it’s the implied use of the word “normal”. More accurately, Normal. Capital N. Granted, the commenter didn’t say that, and he even qualifies later by saying he’s not trying to be aggressive, but it’s there. Normal.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still new at this, I’m learning to cope with my son’s outbursts and intractability, I’m learning when to hold boundaries firm and when to let some things slide. I’m still learning to love him because of what his condition could give him, and I’m still hoping that he can have a happy, productive life. And I know it’s gonna take a lot more work to get him to some of those places that it would for a neurotypical kid – a kid like his older brother, for instance – and it’s up to me to help him with that. I’m learning to let go of anger when he does something that I don’t want him to do, how to cope with my own fears and disappointments, and how to appreciate his uniqueness, and how to revel in whatever gifts his condition eventually bestow on him.

I DO know that I won’t be ashamed of him, nor will I hide it or treat it like a disease. I know that I don’t ever expect him to be Normal. Fuck that. Looking at the state of the world, Normal was only working for a few people, so then it really wasn’t that normal, then, was it? I’ve always been drawn to misfits, outcasts, weirdos, iconoclasts – these were the kids I was friends with in school, because I didn’t feel exactly Normal myself, either. I questioned things when a lot of my peers didn’t. I called out absurdities when I saw them, I could see when people were in pain. I was just drawn to people who saw the world differently. Normal has never been a thing for me.

As a parent, some of that changes. There are things that have to happen – toilet training, learning to read, tie your shoes, go to school, cooperate – valid, useful, important skills that everyone in the world needs, and a large number of us don’t seem to have, I might add. So maybe Normal doesn’t mean anything at all, and in fact, what we consider Normal might be the exact opposite of what truly IS normal. So I won’t use that word. And most parents of spectrum kids don’t use that word when referring to neurotypical kids, and I totally get it. I slip up every now and then, but, like so many other labels these days, I’m trying to use better ones. I’ll just call him Duncan, because that’s what he says is his name, and I will protect and defend him from anything or anyone who tries to hurt him.

Is Calvin autistic? Actually, like another guy says in another thread, he’s ink on paper. 100% true. Plenty of people have also said he could be a poster child for any number of disorders. Throw open the DSM-IV manual, close your eyes, and point to a word on the page, and he can probably satisfy some of the criteria for whatever you land on. ADHD, sociopathy, you name it. Armchair psychologize the shit out of that and make yourself happy.

But, Calvin gives me a window of understanding and empathy into my son’s condition, and that, for me, is also absolutely true. I loved Calvin a lot when I read the strips in the paper every day, and I loved him when I bought all the collected strips from the bookstore. I loved him when I gave them to my older son, Ryder, to read and to cackle over. And now I love Calvin even more, because he reminds me of Duncan. And Calvin is most definitely NOT Normal. Thank Christ.

POSTSCRIPT: I have to say that we recently hid the C&H books from Duncan for a while, because among Calvin’s vast and impressive vocabulary are a ton of creative insults, and Duncan became very good very fast at using them on us when he gets upset. Not his fault, it’s mine for not thinking about that when I let him have the books, so it’s on me if he ever calls me or anyone else stupid. I’ll own that, and I’ll try to fix that mistake. But I hope he can read them again someday soon. Because I was enjoying reading them again, too.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: I should also add that for the last three days he has insisted that his new name is “Zombie”. it hasn’t stuck yet, but you never can tell…. Thanks, Parry Gripp.

POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT: My older son, Ryder, the main reason I started this blog almost a decade ago, turns eleven tomorrow. I’ll try to write about him next time. Some of the people that follow this blog must be curious about how he’s doing.