Every so often -okay, frequently– I come across things I’d never noticed before. The frayed cuff of a beloved sweat shirt, perhaps, or maybe the fact that if I ever chanced to peek inside the electric kettle I would see how green it had become. My world is full of surprises that only the unfolding of Retirement has disclosed to me sotto voce.
Some things I am not required to notice, of course -I have kept my one and only suit in the closet in one of those black plastic bags, and even if I happen to see it sulking in the far corner, I convince myself that I’ll probably never need it again anyway. The same with the shirt I’m supposed to wear with it. Oh, and also the shoes gathering dust-bunnies under the shelf where I keep the spare, lumpy pillows. I’d be embarrassed to take any of them to the Salvation Army in case they tsk-tsked me, though; I’m sensitive about things like that.
But there are other things -more important things- to which I really should have paid more attention over the course of what some have called my surfeit of years: children’s stories, to offer one glaring example. Not so much the stories, you understand, more the environs in which they are usually set. The memorable ones -the ones with cute little ducklings, bleating lambs or loveable mewing kittens- all seem to take place in bucolia amongst tidy little bushes or lush flowered meadows, ringed by forests with big doe-eyes peering out between the leaves, and floppy-eared rabbits hiding behind flowers…
It’s all as it should be, of course -it’s just that unless someone points out the neighbourhood, it usually goes as unremarked as the good time everybody in it seems to be enjoying -or will be by the end of the story. I mean, it’s a children’s story.
I have to admit that I seldom thought much about this -well, never, actually- until, on one of my frequent perambulations through my apps, I bumped into an essay by Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo. He notices things, fortunately. https://psyche.co/ideas/why-you-wont-find-many-childrens-books-set-in-the-suburbs
But, I gather he doesn’t have much use for suburbs: ‘the tales that most grip the imagination of children (and adults), with few exceptions, require rural or urban locations for their drama and vitality. To simplify, the antithesis of North American suburbia is walkability, and picture books with literary merit love walkability. Compelling children’s stories require that their characters are able to navigate their setting at a pedestrian scale and pace… Walkable environments preserve independence for the young, who are often the main characters in children’s stories.’
Even city-based stories can work. ‘In urban settings, walkability is closely linked to public transport, which is another narrative avenue for rich engagement with one’s environment.’ The characters can also meet and have adventures in ways that don’t involve serendipitous encounters in strip malls or the toy-aisles of big box stores: ‘urban settings give other ample opportunities for their characters to explore their immediate environment. Cities are where we’re more likely to find civic places, such as zoos, libraries or concert venues… When the automobile dominates the setting, the narrative dies faster than a trip down a cul-de-sac. Even when there are private modes of transportation in children’s literature, they are ships, bicycles or hot-air balloons, where the transported are engaged with the world around them and the adventure or mystery that this world brings.’
As an ex-child who has studiously avoided partaking in suburbia except in extremis and who, as a result, has filled his now-grown children with a subliminal bucolophilia, I feel a phenotypic kinship with Reed, albeit hitherto undeclared.
The closest I have come to the purlieux, if I may be forgiven the candied term, might be my sojourn in a house near the south dike of Fraser River -and therefore, technically at least, it might be considered the metastatic edge of Vancouver. I had two sheep in the backyard there -illegal, I suppose, although one of the civic employees who lived next door used to throw apple cores and bits of grass from his lawnmower over the fence for them. I’m not sure who ate the apples, but I thought the gesture was a sign of good will nonetheless.
It was a yard that Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter would have loved I think, because there was an enormous cedar tree at the very back with lots of space underneath its very accommodating roots. And there were garter snakes, and butterflies, and rats -lots of rats- some of whom built a nest in the motor of my car in the garage. This was all very pastoral stuff, right? Full of adventure and intrigue… full of stories.
And to add to the plot, I decided I needed a dog to round it all out, so I went to the local dog pound to find a rescue dog to be my friend. I stipulated that I didn’t want a big dog, or one that would attack the sheep, although I kind of hoped it would Pied Piper the rats away.
“You want a Jack Russel,” the lady at the pound said, leading me to a kennel containing a small dog that wagged its tail when it saw me.
The wagging tail was enough for me, of course, and I drove away with it without asking anything about its history. But Jack, as I figured I’d better call it, seemed to like the sheep and settled in beautifully. It showed no signs of wandering, and soon I felt I could trust it alone in the yard when I went to work.
Jack quickly learned when I’d be getting home, and started to wait for me in the garage.
One day, however, there was a message -an angry message- on my phone; it was something about a chicken missing from down the street. Something, in fact, about shooting the dog if the caller ever saw it again.
I called the number back and offered to pay for the chicken, denying, of course, that Jack had been anywhere near the crime scene. But the man still seemed angry when I visited his house. He was much bigger than me, and kept looking behind me in case I’d actually brought the felon with me. I assured him I’d take care of it.
What to do with a bucolic dog who lies to his owner? I thought I’d better take him back to the pound, which I did that very afternoon after profusely apologizing to Jack.
The pound was noisy, but apart from the lady keeper, there was only one other person looking at dogs. He was about 6’4”, 300 or so pounds, with a scraggly beard. He was wearing a bandana and a leather jacket with a three piece Harley Davidson patch on the back. What do I know? He seemed friendly enough, until he saw Jack cowering in the corner of his old cage.
I must have looked upset, because the man sauntered over to me and told me he used to be a dog trainer in ‘the pen’. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I smiled and nodded at the information. He was getting a little close to me, though, so I started backing up.
“That dog looks abused, dude,” he said with a little suspicious snarl. “I can tell, eh?”
I shook my head, and told him I’d just picked up the dog a few days before and it had eaten a chicken from down the street. “He’s probably feeling guilty,” I said, “But the chicken guy said he was gonna kill him, so…”
The motorcycle guy looked down at the top of my head and shook his head slowly. Then he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. “He gives you any trouble, let me know, eh? Me and the boys’ll pay him a visit.” He winked at me. “Just ask Ruby here,” he said nodding to the woman who had helped me. “She knows how to find me…”
I left as quickly as I could, but dogless, this time. I was beginning to feel there was a definite trick to surviving the challenges of country life… well, semi-country life… Okay, semi-suburban, then. But, anyway I figured that kids might enjoy hearing about my adventures. Maybe I’ll write about it some day… I could draw some bunnies and fawns in the yard.