Thursday, March 1, 2007


By Lisa G.

It probably won’t shock a lot of people if I say I was a loner as a child. A huge majority of writers and creative types spent a lot of time alone as children. Hell, a lot of us spend as much time as we can alone as adults. I don’t think that necessarily makes us weirdos or anything. At least I hope not. I can say this, at least I don’t go driving cross-country sporting a diaper and planning to murder anyone with a butcher knife. You can say what you want about us writer types, but I think THAT’S what’s wacko. A little alone time has nothing on that.

Looking back now, I realize I spent the majority of my childhood in or around my house. My mother didn’t drive until I was in junior high, and since she was the one home with me all day that meant I really didn’t go too many places. Luckily for her, that never really bothered me all that much. I was pretty much an aspiring couch potato from the get-go. TV and books were entertainment enough a lot of the time, and when the yen to play struck me I had two friends who lived across the street.

One of my friends was a boy named Scotty. Scotty’s big distinction was he owned a Hippity Hop. I didn’t own a Hippity Hop, but I knew where I could get my hands on one. I think I must have loved Scotty in that “you have really cool toys” kind of way, but at the time that I knew him, I was too young to even know what a crush was. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. I had a sort of crush on David Cassidy. And Davy Jones. What the big attraction was to the name David I really don’t know. I think it may have been just coincidence. I have to wonder, if Scotty had been Davy, would I have wound up marrying him, living happily ever after bouncing away on his Hippity Hop? Scotty, if you’re out there, I’m so sorry your name wasn’t Davy. But I’m more sorry about losing that Hippity Hop.

Across the street and slightly kitty-corner from me lived my friend Lisa Mayor. Lisa was much cooler than I could ever hope to be. She had long, straight blonde hair and was, I know now, popular. Popularity at that stage of my life didn’t mean much to me. After all, Lisa was a decent enough friend, and she played with me on occasion. She had birthday parties and invited me. She came over to my house, and I went over to hers, with a fair degree of regularity. But what made Lisa really cool was that she once split her head open on her driveway, after falling off her bike. She split her head open and LIVED! That was pretty neat, to a six year old. I can remember my friend Scotty coming to my house soon after it happened. Scotty heard about it first, I guess because he lived on the same side of the street she did so the gossip traveled better. After he came to fetch me, we went over to see if we could find the blood on the driveway. To our dismay, we couldn’t. Lisa had split her head open, lived, and miraculously her blood had disappeared. Until a few years later when a tornado ripped through the block behind Scotty and Lisa’s houses, this was the highlight of our respective childhoods. Well, maybe not as much to Lisa, who had to do the actual suffering so that Scotty and I could reap the benefits.

On days when Scotty was busy showing someone else his toys, and Lisa was with her other friends (or taking aspirin for her throbbing head), I pretty much spent all my spare time reading. Even with friends right across the street (and friends with really neat toys at that), I really did manage to read a lot during those years. Don’t let all the excitement fool you.

Along with all the picture books I read really early on, I also inherited a set of Children’s Classics. These books came down to me through my two older brothers, one of whom was also a rabid reader. As for my other brother, well, he owned a mini-bike. He had a lot of serious exploring to do. He never was much for reading.

The books in this particular set consisted of ten or so abridged, illustrated classics, all in different colored cloth covers. It included books like Treasure Island, Tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood. The only really girlie book in the set was Alice in Wonderland. I went through several of these books with help from my oldest brother, who had the patience to sit down and help me with the really tough words, but Alice in Wonderland was probably the first “chapter” book I sampled on my own. After I graduated from Richard Scarry and his wonderful world of animals who wore pants, it was Alice who transfixed me. She was English, she spoke very formally, and she was adventurous. She was also saucy. The girl didn’t take any crap from anyone, even when that someone was a queen with the power to cut off her head. Alice ruled! She was essentially everything I wanted to be but wasn’t.

The illustrations in Alice also mesmerized me. Most of them were half-page line drawings, but a very few of them were full-color, full-page illustrations. They depicted a skewed, surreal world in which menacing cats grinned down at you from branches, appearing and disappearing randomly. A group of manic animals and a Mad Hatter (obviously, I can see now, high as a kite) held ridiculous tea parties in which they hurled abuse at each other and then just fell asleep, and a grotesque Red Queen blubbered on threateningly. Alice, through it all, kept her head, stood her ground, and was the coolest girl on earth.

Fantastical worlds in which everything is possible and nothing happens as expected allow a child’s mind to soar. It’s hard to imagine any book besides Alice in Wonderland setting the tone for my personality, mostly because I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having met her. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that. Lewis Carroll taught me it was okay to be unusual. He taught me it’s okay if things don’t always make sense. Ultimately, he taught me fantasy is a whole hell of a lot more interesting than reality, and weird, twisted people have much more going for them than boring, predictable types. In a way, he taught me how to cope with what was a pretty crappy childhood. He didn’t solve my problems, but the ability to lean on the absurd and surreal went a long way toward making it all a little more bearable.

When I was reading and re-reading Alice in Wonderland I had no idea Lewis Carroll was a creepy weirdo interested in little girls in an inappropriate way. Learning that later made me less comfortable with the book, and that felt like a real loss to me. Knowing Carroll took and was in possession of photos of little girls in various states of undress is upsetting. It’s destabilizing when you find out a major childhood influence was, at best, one step removed from being a pedophile. Still, I believe Alice herself, and her adventurous spirit, are still good models for a life philosophy. I can still grant Carroll that, though I wish like anything the reality of his intentions could have been far different. Being unable to change that, the best I can do is separate Carroll the man from his work as a writer, granting him enough benefit of the doubt to still be able to appreciate the world he created.

Ironically enough, it turns out a pedophile helped ease some of my most difficult early years, and even with the tarnish that’s on it I still consider Alice in Wonderland to be a true gem of a book. Through all the decades I’ve weathered since I first discovered it, this novel continues to cast a heartening gleam for me, helping me remember it’s essential to be preposterous now and then. When I think back on that time, wondering whatever happened to Scotty and Lisa (and, more importantly, to Scotty’s Hippity Hop), I also think about all the hours I spent curled up with Alice, wrapped up in fantasy and oblivious to the world. That image is a rare, sweet memory in what was an overwhelmingly challenging time. For that I’ll always be grateful to the legacy of Lewis Carroll.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” indeed.

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