A Postcard From Dystopia



A vignette...


A couple of times a year, Jamie's grandparents would brace themselves to take him on a trip to a theme park or adventure playground and made a great show of having fun. He couldn’t make out where they were coming from because they were normally quite humourless. Above Jamie’s head, they would bicker about what children liked and what disciplines were called for, each claiming a superior interpretation of scriptural wisdom.

After these outings, he’d have bizarre dreams in which his grandparents were cast as 2-D comic Disney characters, pulling and twisting with the immanent velocity of the plot. It was funny, but sort of scary too, like those supermarket promotions where a big, furry cereal monster greeted you at the door looking friendly and benign, but you knew there was an unknowable being inside the costume.

On one occasion, they’d taken him to a Safari Park and monkeys had clambered all over Grandpa’s newly waxed Vauxhall and torn off the windscreen wipers as if they were stripping bamboo. He had made believe they were mischievous tykes and grunted with grisly laughter, but Grandma’s face was menacing with indignation. All day, even over their corned beef picnic, she talked of recompense, insurance. It was no use Grandpa pointing out the notice disclaiming indemnity against such risks. She didn’t blench at the sight of the lions and tigers lunching on blood-smeared carcasses, but turned pale and uptight when he depressed the accelerator hard to show Jamie how the car could whizz along ‘to give the pipes a good blow’.

“Edwin! You’re over the limit! Don’t expect to be kept safe! It’s not me speaking, it’s God!

With the penetrating and uncluttered intuition of a child, Jamie knew that his Grandpa’s mastery of the machine was the one aspect of performance in which he could excel and have Grandma at his mercy.

When she went off to the Ladies, Grandpa told Jamie about an awful dream he kept having.

He was riding a tiger. He was sitting precariously upon its bare back and could see the muscles rippling through the striped sheen of its fur. The tiger repeatedly turned its head and snarled. A hollow rumble was coming from its jaws. Every time hanging foliage whipped against Grandpa's face, he had to concentrate hard to keep his balance. If he fell off, he would be devoured in seconds.

Jamie listened agog. Disappointment at the open ending of the story was stilled by a dull relief.

Then Grandpa said: “You know, don’t you, James, that Grandma’s got native blood? Pirates from the Barbary coast!"

Jamie had only the haziest grasp of what this might mean. He was inherently blind to shades of skin. His best chum's father was from Nairobi. It was not a good time to probe such matters because Grandma was coming back wearing her usual sour expression. She appeared for all the world to be sucking lemons.

“Right then!” said Grandpa. “There’s enough wind to fly a kite today! What do you say, James?”

Evermore, James was to associate kite-flying with the dream. The trouble with kites was that if you let go, they took off in a demented whirl, up and away, before a nosedive over some entangling wood, or plumb into the middle of dark, deep waters where they sank without trace.



Images courtesy of Nancy Tillman, children's illustrator.


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Weird Boy

Back in elementary school, I began establishing myself as a weird boy.  

My sixth grade class was a small one for some reason.  We were like the remnants from the other two huge classes.   Looking back, it seemed to be about classroom space;  we had enough large classrooms for all but about twenty-four so they took us and put us into a smaller classroom.  

Mrs Fogle, a top five teacher on my list, perhaps even my number one preference if I needed to select one, was in charge of us.  She's the one that really launched my interest in reading.  Mrs Huber triggered my math interest a year later while Mrs Rubenstein launched my history interests when she instructed me in eight grade.  English didn't arrive until two years later, with Mrs Massey, which probably underlies my weak English skills.  

Mrs Fogle, a middle aged widow, was also responsible for triggering my weirdness.  It may have also had something to do with girls.  They'd been noticing me and flirting, and I was beginning to reciprocate.  I was already dressing in bell bottoms, which were then considered edgy because that's what the hippies were wearing, and my hair was long because The Who and the Stones had long hair.  To that I added eating Jello.  

See, to cope with her small class size and her status as a solitary teacher, usually without an intern or aide, Mrs Fogle began a practice of leaving us alone for an hour.  A monitor was assigned to watch us.  We could read, study draw or nap but we could not get up or speak.  We could also have a snack.  

My snack was Jello.  Not the finished dessert but the packaged stuff awaiting preparation.  

I think it came about because Mrs Fogle told us we could have a snack.  I didn't bring anything and here was everyone else, breaking out a snack.  That had to be fixed.  I rode it out for a few days because I didn't deviate easily from being different and this was just another way I was different but eventually, I wanted to bring a snack and snack like the others, you know, conform and belong.  There may have also been some repercussions that perhaps I didn't have a snack because I was poor.  We weren't poor but low, low, low, low, low working middle class.  I needed to dispel the perception we were poor.

We weren't a snacking family.  Want a snack, eat a banana or some other fruits.  Snacks were for holidays and special occasions.  Mom called them treats.  She would sometimes bake cookies, pie or cake, but it was always in accordance with Mom's schemes.  We didn't take these things to school.  So I asked Mom for a snack and explained the situation and she told me I could take fruit or anything I found in the cupboard or refrigerator (then known as the frig).  So I looked...and found the Jello and packed it away for my morning snack.  

The Jello was a hit at school, both unusual and bizarre, that striking balance that causes envy, jealousy, confusion and dismissal.  Mrs Fogle didn't know because she left the room and then we pulled out our treats.  I pulled out my Jello and began eating it.  

I don't know what Jello is like now but back then, these were solid colored sugars squares.  I learned that biting into them caused them to crumble.  Licking them caused them to hydrate and ooze, becoming a huge mess.  All of that fascinated, delighted and repulsed my class mates.  Jimmy Flowers immediately imitated it the next day but he'd taken it one step.  Jimmy had figured out that if you freeze it, it made for a better snack.  

The whole Jello thing didn't last too long.  Mrs Fogle became worried about the mess that glared at her on her return - Jello was passed around and covered almost everyone's face and fingertips - and needed to revise the rules, which she did with her usual aplomb, intelligence and humor.  Besides which, Mom had noticed her depleted Jello stock and changed the rules, too.  Either take fruit or nothing, delivered with her usual impatient sharpness.

The Jello incidents marked my trend toward weirdness.  I followed up with the apples because I didn't eat them the usual way - nor the oranges that I sometimes brought, although I did eat the raw potatoes I sometimes brought as you would an apple.

But those are tales about how to be weird that must be left for another day.

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