Chapter 6: Particularly rude mechanicals.

Little Miss appeared in the library on her usual morning schedule, as I was just waking up on the couch, doing a quick morning crawl through the world news on my tablet, and unceremoniously plopped Foxy next to me. I am not fond of Foxy, a toy seemingly designed by someone with both a desire to make me unhappy and an uncanny understanding of exactly how to produce this feeling, and I turned back, still bleary from sleep, to see the threadbare robot fox perched beside me and Little Miss staring down at me.

“Good morning, Little Miss,” I said. She said nothing, but reached for the spot on the back of Foxy that spurs it into a terrifying display of dysfunction. The mechanism that once tipped a threadbare, floor-grimy head in a grim impersonation of life is long since broken, so it just grinds, horribly, and clatters as broken plastic gears clash deep in its little body. Then, firing up ancient silicon, it plays back random strings of low-fi, distorted sounds.

“Wow! Wow! Wow!” it shrills, followed by “Wocka! Wocka! Wocka! AY-ow! AY-ow!” in the kind of bad human beatboxing beloved of the kind of annoying people who believe their brand of annoying to be clever and ironic instead of, well—

“That’s nice, hon, but wouldn’t you prefer to play a game instead?”

Little Miss furrows her brow. The internal and the external are still diffuse concepts for her, so any suspicion that one does not approve of her externalized self as represented in mechanical proxy risks a frown.

“I want us to play with Foxy.”

“That’s nice, but I think I’m not entirely in the mood for Foxy.”

“What’s wrong with Foxy?” the furrow is spreading into a pout.

“I do not particularly care for the sounds Foxy makes.”

The pout turns into a jutting lower lip. Like the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief, conspicuous displays of youthful outrage follow fairly precise patterns.

“You don’t like Foxy?” comes the retort, with the last vowel drawn out into an eeeeeee that’s intended as the anchor for angry tears.

“Foxy is lovely. I don’t care for Foxy’s voice.”

In my head, I want to say that I hate the lame cultural appropriation of human beatboxing as a ironic form too often deployed by the kind of people who buy those giant novelty plastic margarita cups at dreary drunken beach outings, and I don’t care for sound digitized at 6-bit resolution and delivered over scratchy, screeching speakers the size of a chickpea, or for toys that make everything so literal and pre-interpreted that there’s no room for a kid to use their own imagination to give them life, but honestly, I am content enough that she’ll understand when she’s presented with the same thing by her own Little Miss or Little Mister one day. Patience is a key skill in interacting with children.

The angry tears come, briefly, but I have the Uno game out and set up before they can metastasize into a full-fledged tantrum.

I’ve been on her side of things, too.


I sat there, with my lower lip slightly out but not in a pout as much as in the signifier of earnest concentration, with a string and a tab in one hand and my filthy blue-gray Mrs. Beasley doll in the other. With perfect calm, I slow-w-w-wly released the cord, regulating its retreat as my schoolmarmish plastic pal croaked out a word as I thrust her at my father in a kind of demonstrative fervor.

“GRAAAAAAAAACIOUUUUUUUUUUUS,” she growled, in a low, saurian crackle.

I pulled the string back and let it slowly play out again.

“GRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAACIOUUUUUUSSSSSSS MEEEEEEEEE, YOOOOOOOUUURRRRR GEEEEE–”

I let it go and the rest of the sentence blipped by at high speed, like parakeet gossip. My father wrinkled his nose, looking up from the paper.

“Son, why don’t you just let your mother get that fixed?”

I pulled the string and she shrilled out another phrase, which was “Idothinkyou’rethenicestlittlefriendIeverhad,” though you’d have to be a mosquito or someone on a spaceship nearing the speed of light to understand. The newspaper came back up again, a momentary defense against the alternating sounds of squeaky voice and growly voice.

“Mom didn’t get Mrs. Beasley fixed,” I said. “She took her back to Sears Surplus and exchanged her. I like this one.”

“Well, I don’t like this one.”

With grim determination, I pulled the string again to play another phrase, regulating it as best I could this time. With proper control, it sounded almost like it was meant to, albeit with an unearthly warble.

“Lo-o-ong ago, Iwasalittle gi-i-irl, just like you,” she said.

My father huffed.

“That damn doll is broken.”

I shrugged, then slowly pulled the string again. My father folded up the paper and left the room with his coffee cup, looking for a fresh charge of caffeine.

“Do you want to hear a secret?” asked the mock-grandmotherly voice of some anonymous voice actress doing piece work at the doll factory. “I know one.”

“What’s the secret, Mrs. Beasley?”

I pulled the string, but let it out too fast.

“Bbbepllthpht!”

Before it could skip to the next phrase, I pulled it back, and let it play out properly.

“If you were a little smaller,” she said, “I could rock you to sleep.”

I just smirked back at her.

“You’re silly, Mrs. Beasley,” I said, and dumped her on the couch to run outside, in search of something new.

My tiny stuffed panda talked, too, but I did the talking, in what my family refers to as “the time when Joe talked in a falsetto for a whole year.”

Of course, Teddy was fairly opinionated on seemingly every subject and had a patrician bearing that Julia Child would have thought was a bit over the top, but I could hardly silence my tiny friend when there were factual errors to correct.

“Son, do you have to talk like that?”

“Like what?”

“All high and sing-song.”

“That’s just Teddy, Dad.”

“You don’t…think he’s actually talking, do you?”

I rolled my eyes and giggled at him.

“Teddy is a stuffed animal, Dad. He’s made of mohair, wire, articulated limbs, and a genuine authentic sterling silver tab in his ear.”

“A genuine authentic sterling silver tab, you say?”

“He’s from Western Germany,” I said, with the obvious pride of someone who owned something from Western Germany, back when things were still labeled as being from Western Germany.

Ja wohl.”

“What?”

“Never mind. As long as you’re clear on who’s talking.”

“The bear.”

“Of course,” he said, and went back to the Accent section of the Baltimore Evening Sun.

I tucked Teddy into my pocket and ran outside.


I play a color change card and look over at Foxy, who stands silent on the other side of the room.

“I think I’m going to change to green,” I say. Little Miss smirks, because she’s got a handful of green. I smirk, because I know.

Foxy sits, motionless, and I give him those prison-yard eyes. You can be more broken, you know.

“Four!” Little Miss says, and places a card on the stack.

“Very good, darlin’.”

“Your turn!”


© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 5: The snowflake in the blizzard.

“What do you want to do?” I asked Little Miss. It was our first time on our own, after a long stretch of getting to know each other in the company of The Troubadour, and it’d been a good while since I’d had a child in single-digit years in my jurisdiction, so I had a little bit of mental recalibration to do. I caught the little glint in her eye presaging an expression of interest in tiresome pre-processed media, and preemptively added “…that’s not TV.”

Little Miss made a brief harumph face, but it passed quickly.

“Tag?”

“I think it’s a bit chilly for that.”

“Scribble drawings?”

“That sounds good.”

We retrieved the art box and set up, but after a few meandering sketches, she let out a sigh.

“I’m bored of scribbling.”

“Want to color?”

“I’m bored of coloring.”

“Want to paint?”

“I’m bored of painting.”

Um.

“TV?”

“Fortunately, no such device exists in this house.”

“On your computer.”

“I think not. How ’bout snowflakes? When was the last time you made snowflakes?”

“What do you mean, ‘made snowflakes’?”

“You know–folded up paper and cut them out.”

“Wha wha wha?” she said, with the particular tip of the head and exaggerated “huh?” face that she puts on when I’ve somehow momentarily astounded her.

“You know,” I said, fetching a piece of paper and scissors. I folded it in half, in quarters, cut off the extra bit, and folded it again, then cut notches into the sides, “…Like this. Open that up.”

She took the jagged triangle of folded paper in her hand, reminding me again how small those hands are, and carefully pried it open until it unfurled into a lovely starburst of paper and light, and I watched her face bloom at the same time, lit with the realization that there are, at least for a child, more miracles to find in every day.


“Mommy,” I asked my mother, after we watched Mr. Rogers methodically preparing French toast in his kitchen, stepping through the process on our old black & white television with the glacial, gentle pace that marks his work, right to the point where he added a dash of vanilla at the end, explaining that he liked to add that because that’s how his mother used to do it. “Can we make French toast?”

My mother looked up and smiled.

“Of course, Joebie.”

She gathered up the materials for breakfast—basic utensils, the milk, eggs, bread, cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla extract, arranging them so that everything fell to hand on the Formica surface of the counter next to our Harvest Gold stove, and preheated the copper-bottomed skillet that featured in most morning meals. I slowly worked my way to recipe as she’d transcribed it from TV to an index card in her precise, but airy, script, feeling like I was the architect of the first meal I’d ever propose and execute from instructions to a stack of perfectly-tanned cracked wheat bread in a cloak of egg batter.

As I added ingredients, mixed, stirred, soaked, and transferred each slice of bread to the sizzling pan, I felt like I’d done it all by myself, a delusion we allow children in the process of becoming, and a thing I realize now, as I’ve been in the adult role with Little Miss, is a delusion borne out of a great deal of gentle guidance and invisible oversight. The small hand reaches for the wrong ingredient, or begins to shake too much cinnamon into the batter and the large hand corrects without making itself known. A subtle blocking movement here, an extra hand on the bowl there, and a pair of hands reaching over the pan as a guide and a guard, and soon the ritual is complete and the child is enriched, their face blooming, lit by the realization about the joy in processes and in what can be accomplished in action.

“This is good,” I said, digging into the French toast that my mother dusted with a light snowfall of powdered sugar before settling in for her own plate and a cup of tea.

“It certainly is, Joebie. You’re a very good cook.”

I beamed back, over a forkful of perfect toast.


I figured out fairly quickly that the scissors that fit Little Miss perfectly were having a hard time, largely because my spur-of-the-moment art project hadn’t come with the anticipatory preparation of purchasing the tissue paper that makes it easier to cut through the thick layers, so I gave her a pencil and the official title of Snowflake Construction Manager, and we proceeded this way for a solid hour. I’d cut and fold squares of paper, hand them to her, then take back the marked wedges, which I’d cut, with her focused supervision, and hand them back for the unfurling.

Before long, a heavy snow fell over the breakfast nook, with a growing pile of snowflakes taking shape and no hint of youthful boredom in the air.

“Can we paint them?” asked Little Miss. My mug took on that pondering look for a moment, as I wondered if watercolors would just melt the paper right away.

“I’m not sure how it’ll turn out, but we can give it a try,” I said, and I set up the paints and a piece of cardboard salvaged from a box to soak up the stray paints. On the stove, I warmed up the big cast iron skillet, just enough, and turned it over on the stovetop to serve as our accelerated drying rack. She painted, I painted, we collaborated, and we figured out that we could get a sort of ombre spread of color by spraying the snowflakes with water in a spray bottle, and the pile drying in the warmth radiating from the upturned skillet grew.

“I want to tape these up for Daddy!” she said, and I agreed. I gave her a roll of tape, helped her when she pointed out locations above her reach, and suggested a few places that I thought might be just right, and we stirred up our pile of polychromatic snowflakes, every one unique in all the world, into a blizzard that soon filled up the kitchen, the dining room, and the downstairs windows.

When The Troubadour returned, after a long difficult meeting elsewhere, looking tired and frustrated, Little Miss greeted him at the door in a flurry of wild pride, and before he could even put his things down or kick off his shoes, she was pointing out each of what seemed like hundreds of flakes, giving her artist’s statement for each one.

“What’s this?” asked The Troubadour, pointing to a little constellation of pointed starbursts on the wall by the breakfast nook.

“That’s a family of snowflake people!”

And they’re all family, these distinct things that emerge from the moment. All distinct in form, all distinct in color and shape and texture, but all of a kind, all united by their own kinds of beauty—it’s how we all come into the world and fall into place, or get blown into new ones.


Every day, I find something else in the blizzard, in the swirling clouds of new moments.

It’s easy to tell stories about my father, and about the oversized, theatrical character that he was, a man with a hundred voices and a thousand faces, who was bright and overtly present as fireworks, but my mother was the quieter, more subtle presence. In the days when gender was more rigidly enforced, more tightly bound, and more inviolable as a prescriptive force, so many mothers’ stories faded into the background of the triumphant, self-reinforcing narratives of masculinity, in the way that Ursula Le Guin so deftly described in her “Carrier Bag Theory Of Fiction,” written in 1986, and I’m reminded by something as small and delicate as a paper snowflake of the place in which I find myself.

I watch the way we take a blank sheet of paper, fold it, simply, and let our intuition guide us, gently, and make the little nicks and cuts and changes that seem so small at the time, and so unremarkable, and yet the snowflake unfolds out of blankness into a play of light and space, instinct and intention, until it is a whole thing, as beautiful and unique in the world as a child, and I am overwhelmed by how free I am in adulthood in this particular year that I can both be as dramatic and energetic as my father, and as quietly constructive and gently masterful in the process of shaping a life as my mother. These are halcyon days, and I revel in how I can still run to my mother for help in such things, even when she has to pause to laugh as I confront, unexpectedly and well into middle age, the disasters and dilemmas that fell into order so completely in the face of her forbearance.

I am the child of all who reared me, from my family of biology and my family of love, and I am overwhelmed, sometimes, by all that’s meant. It is a blizzard of modes of upbringing, a barrage of influence, and yet every element is distinct unto itself.


“Oh my,” my mother sighed, her voice still clear on the old cassettes that we used to send back and forth between my grandmother in Georgia, back when it was easier to put a tape in the mail than pay the astonishingly high long-distance charges to talk on the phone. “Joebie has been on a tear lately. We just bought the kids a new plastic wading pool for the kids and the little stinker managed to throw big rocks into it and break the bottom out.” In the recording, you can hear the spoon in her teacup as she stirs a little sugar into her usual cup of Constant Comment.

I’ve never found the tape with my grandmother’s reply on it, but I imagine she’d have suggested I be made to cut a switch, but that was never my mother’s way. A nudge here, a quiet moment of listening there, a guiding or guarding hand there, and the narrative of origin just disappears into the long story, told over time with only the highest and lowest points clearly seen, and yet, I feel those moments in-between a bit more every day in my role in the story of Little Miss.

It is all important, from the triumphs to the tiniest little snip that brings out the light in the right places in a paper snowflake. Taken as a whole, it’s easy to lose sight of the individual in a blizzard, but focus reveals all.


If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.

—Fred Rogers


© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 4: The product being sold.

I had a mean mommy.

My friends had virtually unrestricted, unregulated, non-stop access to the television back then, even to the point where some families would eat dinner with the TV on, suffocating any possibility of conversation under a blanket of blah.

“Did you see Charlie’s Angels last night?” my schoolmates asked, in a clutch of morning chatter as the class was taking shape, and I stood there, utterly clueless, hoping to successfully fake my way through a breathless revisitation of what Jaclyn Smith’s breasts had been up to the night prior, but my father’s advice on how to fake an interest in sports was not particularly effective in the context of media critique.

“Umm…yeah, that was some episode, right?” I said, and the kids went straight to scoff face.

“What was your favorite part?” asked one particularly virulent boy who lived down the dirt road, where the well water always came out ruddy.

“Uh—” I started. “The part with the gun.”

All the parts have a gun, dork.”

“No, uh, you know, the part with the special gun…umm…that they found…and then they were chasing that guy.”

Exposed.

Pssht,” hissed the virulent boy. “You were prob’ly reading the Bible all night, dipstick.”

It was a peculiar thing to say, but I think it was informed largely by the fact that the only other kids who were perpetually in the dark about the latest and greatest light entertainment to pour from the screens of the deluxe Mediterranean-style 25-inch-diagonal console sets into paneled, shag-rugged dens of the cooler kids’ suburban split-levels were the kids of the dour Bible-beaters and the neighborhood Mormons, who shockingly preferred a nice evening of family board games to the panoply of seventies jiggle-TV that was the standard primetime fare of my youth.

“Was not. I was reading Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke,” I quipped, pronouncing “rendezvous” as “ren-dez-vus” in a literary repudiation of my attempt at erudition, “which is a very amazing book about a giant spaceship.”

Eyes rolled. I was really not good at the comebacks then.

Damn my mom and her stupid thing about TV.

The group drifted away, snickering at me.

Still, Rendezvous With Rama was a hell of a book for a ten-year-old. Long after the missed potential reward of having seen Farrah Fawcett Majors in a wobbling run, fighting the inertial complexities of running with two unsynchronized and braless breasts and a drawn pistol, faded from mind, I’d lie in bed, drifting off thinking about what it would be like living in a future where a thirty-four mile long spaceship drifted into our solar system unannounced, and if I was going to be forever in the company of the church mice and my Mormon friends in social isolation, I would not be short for stories.


“Joebie?”

“Yes, darlin’?”

“Can we watch TV?”

I looked at at Little Miss, still rubbing her eyes as I lined up the materials for breakfast and ground a batch of coffee for The Troubadour. Her hair was a mess, more Valley of the Dolls than young princess, but I loved watching her booting up in the morning, when she’d come down to the library, where I sleep on her nights, to stand by the couch there, silently, waiting for me to wake up and usually losing patience and starting to repeatedly whisper my name in wake-up mantra. We are the early risers in the house, and both grasp the gift of those hours just before the sun washes over the world.

“I’m afraid not, hon,” I said, happily ending the dental-tool whine of the grinder. “We occupy a home undiminished by the ghastly presence of a distraction machine.”

“A dist-whaa machine?”

“A distraction machine. Pancakes or French toast?”

“Pancakes.”

“But I want to watch TV.”

“I’m sorry.”

She pulled the pout face, and I waited for a moment to see if she’d actually go for arms-akimbo defiance to complete the gesture, but she was countering without much conviction that morning. I added the ingredients to the bowl for pancakes, got a fork from the drawer, and handed everything to Little Miss for sous chef duties. She climbed up on the yellow step stool at the center island, took the fork, and flailed it in the bowl.

“Why can’t we watch TV? Can we watch something on the big screen?” she continued, alluding to the nice projector and pull-down screen in the library where we watch films together.

“We’ve only got an hour to get ready for school, sweet pea, and I suspect a substantial fraction of that is going to be spent in the eternal debate about brushing your hair,” I said, and asked her if I could hold the fork for a moment. “If you hold the bowl like this, and hold the fork this way, it’ll be easier to get the right consistency.” She nodded, and took the fork back, approximating what I’d shown her.

“What’s ‘consistency?'”

“That means if it’s thick or thin, smooth or lumpy.”

“What’s it for?”

“When the consistency is right, we know the pancakes will come out right.”

“Is this consistency right?”

I peered into the bowl and found it mostly about right. “Looks good. You wanna help me set the table for you, me, and Daddy?”

“I’m going to make napkin swans!”

In truth, her napkin swans were yet in a primordial stage of evolution, but there is something to her enthusiasm for learning such things that just reaches way, way back into my history and makes me smile. I have been telling stories about my father for so long, and I’ve struggled, sometimes, to figure out how to tell the stories in which my mother is the heroine, but in these moments, I think of my mean mommy and how long it was that I thought of her as being an impediment, when what she really was was the gatekeeper to a world in which I was invited in to the joy and wonder of doing instead of just plunked in front of a television set as a default. I never knew how much effort it was to stay engaged, and to somehow shoehorn my own responsibilities in around the whirling chaos of a child for whom the world is unfolding and expanding so swiftly, and it’s an education both in supernatural patience and the reward we get from staying present when it’s so much easier to surrender to distraction.

TV is a great babysitter, in a strictly mercenary sense, but in the words of Andrew Lewis, writing on Metafilter, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”


The hair brushed, the pancakes cooked, presented, consumed, the bag lunch prepared and backpack packed, we find an open moment.

“Know what, sweet pea?”

“What?”

“I think we have just enough time for a game.”

“Sneaky Squirrel?”

“That might be too involved. How ’bout Uno?”

“Yeah, yeah!”

It’s strange to think I ever got so immersed in the world beyond the edge of youth, where we start dividing everything into chores we hate and escapes we need, still reaching into those voids of distraction and entertainment as tools for conquering the fear of just being right where we are, doing what we’re doing, in the moment and as connected to the indescribable sense of life as a thing that flows through a landscape that’s beyond us as we’re likely to get. Sometimes, it just takes a few subtle moments of mean, when we can decide to pick the channel that feeds a broad, shallow, sluggish stretch where nothing happens or take the route with rocks and pools and unexpected discoveries just around the bend.

“Color change!”

“What color are we changing to?” I ask.

“Green!”

Good, I think. I’ve got some green. I’m reminded of my friend Leland, and his family playing board games every night, and what we shared in common.

For a moment, I let worry cross my brow, and ponder the chores of the day, and drift away, but I play my card and let it go.

The cold never bothered me anyway.


© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 3: The Butlerian jihad.

I am a fan of Wodehouse, and there’s a lightness of touch and delight in service in his work that has informed much of the way I’ve dealt with the popularly disliked chores of day-to-day existence. The inevitability of sinks full of dishes and our ultimate and possibly final death are on a similar par, and there’s something in accepting this as part of the fabric of the world and developing a comfort with all that I’ve since found incorporated in many of the best works of eastern philosophy. We all serve something, whether it is our worst instincts or the missions of our clumsily attempted states of transcendence.

There’s something about the butler’s calm, though. Even as a child, I was oddly fascinated by the composure of Mr. French on the long-forgotten TV series Family Affair, who seemed perpetually irritated by his young charges, even as he dealt with them with love and patience even as they committed crimes against domestic order. Back then, I had no idea that I was watching with an eye towards understanding, or that a blunt-force trope of literary and cinematic storytelling would eventually be a useful posture of self-understanding in the way that the poses of yoga serve as somatic markers for emotional and intellectual states, but we seldom know where we’re going until we’re there.

Thing is, when you’re an off-the-beaten-path kind of kid trying to make your way in a school system designed to be a factory for willing labor, you develop modes of interacting that suit the situations around you, and for me, a little formality was always a nice language of deportment when maintaining social connections with those who didn’t always understand your ways, and I was always fascinated by how Mr. French would interact with the kids with a sort of combination of exasperated indignance and kindhearted indulgence.

It seemed…familiar, somehow, and there’s a reason for that.

In a world of parents and adults who babytalked their children through their toddler years, dumbing language down to an imaginary appropriate level of primary colored false youth, I was surrounded by adults who didn’t change their tune or tone to reach to my presumed low station in conversation, but rather offered up the possibility that, yes, some words and concepts would confuse me, but that the answer to that was not to erase the contours and complexity of things to ease my uncertainty, but rather to answer all questions as directly and concisely as possible. From my father, I learned the luxury of metaphor, of rich Southern similes oozing with layers, and from my mother, I learned the joy of dignity in presentation, as well as accuracy in terminology. Older women would ask me complicated questions, and listen with the patience of saints, while our next door neighbor, Mr. Joe, would sit with me in the basement workshop and explain detailed processes in radio electronics with great forbearance, knowing that only a trickle of ideas would make it through to my brain and the rest would need to be repeated, often in appallingly close succession.

The best of all was the one teacher I had in the entirety of my years in early schooling who had a perfect, glorious patrician way of being in the world that was cast in sharp relief by her easy laugh and occasional exclamation, in the face of surprise, delight, or utter frustration, of “Good Godfrey!” which stood as one of those minced oaths that fell easily to hand with a respectable Catholic lady of her years and was somehow both free and formal at once. In her presence, I felt safe and celebrated, and the lesson set in, deep in my bones.

My tendency towards formality as a diplomatic tool was a problem in school, where the slouchiest attitudes of eye-rolling dismissive imperious cooler-than-thou were shifting into cultural dominance, and my complaint that the boys surrounding my seat on the bus were bothering me with their filthy humor was noted by our bus driver with a long sigh.

“They’re telling vulgar and vile stories back there,” I tattled, having not yet learned the practice of being able to disappear into my thoughts that would mark my days as middle school wore on. “Would you please instruct those children to refrain?”

The bus driver looked back at me as I stood there, the other kids having left the bus.

“I’m gonna start calling you ‘Vulgar and Vile,’ with as much as you complain about that,” he said, and shooed me off the bus.

“But, but—”

“No but. School’s starting, kiddo.”

“Kiddo!” How daaare he!


In time, my inner butler would give up, and I became more or less as vulgar and vile as my classmates when I discovered the dirty joys of trashy jokes, cretinous allusions, and sworn invective, though my interior Jeeves just disappeared into his room to wait out the horrors of high school, reemerging decades later when my first niece was born. From the first day I was offered the chance to awkwardly hold the fragile, bubbling, odd-smelling parcel that a baby was to me, I knew both that I was not naturally given to such things and that the formal distancing of a faithful family retainer was the most brilliant possible way to interact with children.

When my niece, and then, along the way, my later niece, were in my company, I’d deal with my anxiety about their limited communication skills by speaking to them with the tone and timbre of a long-suffering Reginald Jeeves in service to an out-of-control specimen of the entitled classes, as children tend to behave, embracing the importance of service and a continuing education in how to interact with the future of the species with as much grace and patience as I’d have in my twenties, but it was a chore that became easier as time progressed. I aimed to be as patient and useful as Jeeves, as amusingly gruff and adoring as Mr. French, even as I hoped that I would, in my way, offer to the girls some of what I imagined was my inner Auntie Mame—the embrace of joy and the evangelical zeal to give the next generation access to the best things I’d had within my grasp in my own tender years.

When my father died, with one niece four and the other just arrived, and with my brother living in the midwest, I felt a responsibility to be something of a standard bearer of the male side of the family, even though I was still mired in the mistaken belief that I really didn’t care much for children. Like all the best of the grown-ups I remember from long ago, it’s become entirely natural to engage Little Miss with a mixture of play and vocabulary instruction well beyond her age, because children deserve nothing less than to be considered fully human.


“Hon, would you please take three and a half big bites of your quesadilla and eat one more piece of your turkey ‘sausage’ before you go play with Madison and Ashley in the pavilion?”

“The ‘sausage’ is too spicy.”

“If your mouth catches fire, I will retrieve a fire hose and heroically extinguish the conflagration.”

“The confla-whaaa?

“Conflagration. It means an out-of-control and thoroughly dramatic collaboration of flames.”

A petite head tilts, accompanied by the semiotics of “huh?” It is a similar display to when Little Miss’s new friend pointed to The Troubadour and asked, innocently, if that was Daddy, did that mean was I her grandfather, but I am nothing if not a master of restraint.

“Big fire, sweetpea.”

“Ah.”

“You need to eat that so you’ll have energy to play. Also, if you leave food behind, a bear may wander into the camp and eat the rest of your breakfast.”

A small eyebrow lifted gently in a way that made me happy for all mankind.

“I know you’re the actual bear, Joebie.”

“Do you, now?”

“Yes. Joebie?”

“Yes?”

“How do I eat three and a half bites? What’s a half bite?”

No part of a thing goes entirely without notice.

“An interrupted bite. Like you started and then were distracted by a sudden insight into Wittgenstein.”

The tilt returns, then levels out.

“I like when you make jokes, Joebie.”

“I’m absolutely one hundred and eleven percent serious at all time, sweetpea.”

Eyes roll. It’s a new skill, but she shows promise. Her middle school years are going to be terrifying.

“Umm, Joebie?”

“Yep.”

“Did a bear wander into camp and eat the rest of my cotton candy?”

“I’m afraid so. We’re all lucky to have survived!”

“Hmph.”

“I think I see your young associates getting on their scooters, sugarhoof. Perhaps you should join their entourage.”

“Entour-whaaa?” she starts to say, but takes off instead to join a scooter gang.

Every day is renewed, and renewing.


© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 2: The ABCs of immunity.

It’s true. I used to call kids of a certain age, even the ones I loved best, “little disease vectors.”

It was not without empirical evidence, of course. When my nieces were still at the hands-are-always-appallingly-sticky age, it wouldn’t take more than a gentle brush of an adorably tiny and pink fingertip to convey the entire biome of the elementary school around the corner, and I’d wake within days with that almost unnoticeable feeling in the back of my throat that meant I was destined for another cycle through the sore-throat-to-cough-to-head-cold circus. I’m finicky about sanitation, not a full-fledged mysophobe, but I’d grown accustomed to maintaining a no-man’s-land when it came to diplomatic relations with the wee ones.

Naturally, in the same way that cats and dogs seek out those most uncomfortable with their attention, tots would target me like a modern-day missile system, their longing for my return hug proportional to the dangling string of snot hanging from a half-clotted nostril, and in my day, I’d duck behind furniture to give them an enthusiastic wave as my family would snicker at the frantic dances of my escape attempts.

“She’s just trying to give you a kiss,” my father would say, with a low, hearty laugh as my niece that he called “Miss Sophie,” would careen my way, her snot string swinging like the more objectionable parts of a farm animal.

“Let me blow you one, hon,” I’d say, and mime the act.


“What are we having for breakfast, Joebie?”

“Processed food paste from a factory?”

Little Miss gave me the perfect Alex de Large look from the old yellow stepstool that is her throne from which to oversee the goings-on in the kitchen.

“I don’t want processed food paste from a factory!”

“So no packet of oatmeal?”

“Paaaaaancakes!”

In truth, I was a little tired of pancakes, as I’m more prone to elaborate savories at daybreak, but I’d set a precedent, and continued to advance the art. Besides, how do you say no when yes is comparatively easy and comes with a smiling return that’s just…hard to describe.

“Silver dollars or face pancakes?”

“Face.”

I was well ahead of her, pulling out the little diner-style ketchup squirt bottle employed in such pursuits.

“I wanna help make it!”

Again, I’d assembled the dry ingredients in the big bowl, having learned that flour in the hands of a small child is a weapon of domestic destruction, and I’d assembled the wet ones into a measuring cup for her to assemble. She successfully dumped most in, then wiped up a spill with the side of her hand and shook it into the bowl.

Ohgodohgodohgod. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

I handed her the big fork for mixing, and she floppily commenced to mix. I interrupt only to show her now and then how, when you grip the fork like this and hold the edge of the bowl like this, everything goes more smoothly, always seeking that balance of allowing natural discovery in her experimental process of becoming and avoiding tragedies ending in a dog fighting you for batter as you pick up broken bits of bowl. She mixed it up, I finished it off, filled the squirt bottle, and we set up to make faces. She dragged the yellow stepstool to the stove’s edge, I gave her my standard lecture on stove safety, and she used the bottle to draw a face, framed by a heart, on the cast iron pan.

I hover, in these moments, carefully keeping my hand between her arm and anything hot on the stove while yet allowing her freedom of design, and this often gets me curious welts in the shape of an arc when her enthusiastic painting pushes the back of my against against the rim of the skillet.

“Oh, hon, you gotta hold it up a bit, so you don’t burn me,” I said, short of even uttering an “ow.” She raised her arms, sketched out a smile on the sputtering black surface of the skillet with the bottle clutched tightly in both hands.

“Is that enough?” she asked, and I grinned at her, adding only a little parenthesis of a nose to the face right as she found the perfect moment to sneeze, filling the air with a cloud of fine particulates.

“Uh, bless you, darlin’,” I said, and kept on.


And the thing is, I stopped getting sick when I found myself with kids. Maybe Little Miss was slowly acclimating me to the local biome when she’d hand me the generous gift of her last cookie, a cookie I’d seen her drop on the floor at least once, with grime under her fingernails and stand there for a moment, feeling like a kid who’d somehow ended up on the highest diving board with a line of kids waiting behind me, wondering, do I have the nerve?

“Thank you, Little Miss,” I’d say, and she would watch me until I’d take a bite.

Sometimes, it’s just time to face into the fears you’ve been subject to since you can remember, almost like you’re strapped to the mast of a ship sailing into heavy seas, and keep on.


The waitress started collecting plates from the table where The Troubadour and Little Miss and I had shared a happy meal. Little Miss focused on her well-colored man with a red crayon, and as her plate was in line to be collected, I reached for the three homemade bread-and-butter pickles on the edge of her plate with my fork.

“Hon, do you mind if I take your pickles? I’d hate to waste them while people are starving in Detroit, Michigan.”

She looked up from her coloring, shrugged, and said, “Okay, Joebie.”

I speared the pickles, smiled at the waitress as she took the last plate, and was happily crunching through a mouthful of sweet, vinegary goodness when Little Miss offered an addendum.

“Yeah, I licked ’em all over, but they were tooo sour,” she said, casually.

I stopped chewing, my eyebrows tented with panic, looking to The Troubadour, who fought a smirk for supremacy and failed. I would be told later, as I related this moment to the friends and family who have been my counselors in late-in-life quasi-parenting, that this moment of discovery is officially called “ABC,” or “already been chewed,” and is a rite of passage in parenting. Without a further beat, I finished the pickles, which were, in fact, delicious.

Vinegar is an antibiotic of sorts, right?


© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 1: Bad with children.

It’s a funny thing. You hit 48, well into that territory at which you can be definitively described as “pushing” fifty, and you’re gay, you’re content with an ordered, adventurous, artistic life of one new challenge after another, and suddenly—everything’s new, and different.

It was a rough start.

It wasn’t rough with Little Miss, of course, who regarded me from the first day she met me with the combination of curiosity, enthusiasm, and occasional disbelief that particularly canny children exhibit. She invited me straight into her games, into her artist’s salon where she painted a figure in extra-wet watercolors, then handed me a brush, and said “Now you scribble.”

“There?”

“No. There.”

I started with the watercolor brush, but she reached over.

“No. Not that color. This color.”

I paused and looked her in the eye. This kid is something.

“What’s your favorite color?” I asked.

She pursed her lips, pondering, then said “Black.”

Oh my. Here’s a mind I can fathom.

It all caught me off guard—the new gentleman in my life, The Troubadour, was sweet and earnest and playful and man, I was warming up to that guy more quickly than I expected, and suddenly, here was his daughter, Little Miss, too. Here was Little Miss and here was her dad and here was I, a nicely settled guy with a long history of exemplary uncling skills, but a nice, comfortable separation from parenting, and soon it was an adventure, and soon we were together more and more, and—


[_] asked me, by means of trying to ascertain my fitness for being around children, “Do you have kids of your own?” We sat in her little shop, hemmed in by the few customers there for a special event, with her giving me the once-over through a pair of too-large glasses.

It was a loaded question, asked more as an opportunity to punctuate her own presumptive authority on the subject, given she already knew the answer, but I was there, meeting with her as a good faith gesture that I, at least, was prepared to be open and civil in an effort to attempt to forge a harmonious relationship with a third party who’d been demonstrating that such things are not within her spectrum of interests.

“None of my ‘own,’ no,” I said. There was no pause between my “no” and her answer, which presupposes the reply had been carefully considered in advance.

“—Oh, you don’t know, then,” she said, referencing an earlier claim in the conversation to sole authority on how things are done, the imperious look of self-satisfaction blooming on her face like a sudden outbreak of rosacea. I sensed it, and knew what to expect from the never-ending barrage of angry, bizarre texts that crossed the smartphone of The Troubadour despite my core belief that everyone, no matter how difficult, has a point at which they can be reached.

I just moved beyond it in spite of the dig, because civility in the face of assaultive, bullying personalities requires that we ignore the bait that’s dangled there like a limp, unwashed carrot in search of teeth, but I have to smirk about it even now, even after all that’s happened. Manipulative people trying to force their narratives are seldom as convincing as they think, and I’ve known my share.


I’m working with a group of autistic kids in my workplace again, as part of a school training program, and it is something that doubles my workload at times, and yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the kids, in between tasks, left the seat where the student aide asked him to wait while the other kid was doing a task that required a little more supervision, and I could hear him approach with a series of verbal tics that let me locate him in my workplace like human echolocation.

He stood in the doorway of my office, swaying, one arm tucked awkwardly up in a loop of gestures, with a sound like a periodic grunt capped with a cough.

“Hello, Rodney,” I said, with a smile. “Lovely morning, isn’t it?”

He looked up, then down, then up, then down. In decades past, I probably would have been uncomfortable with this gap in language, but I’m a grown man and I’ve had a long, action-packed expense account of a life, and we are all separated by some gulf or another that requires forbearance. Rodney turned to my bookshelf and let a hand trail across the trophies there, all honors my employer earned over the years. He looked at his hand, made a little noise, looked at his hand, made a little noise, and cycled through the loop several times before holding up a dusty hand and saying “Ah, ah!”

“Yeah, they are a little dusty,” I said, with a weak smile. Rodney picked up the clear acrylic obelisk that was an industry award we’d gotten, and shook it at me.

“Ra-ra-ra.”

I dug in my desk drawer for the little cloth I keep to polish the screen on the wretched computer that holds unwarranted pride of place in my small office and handed it to him. He took it, flapped it in the air sixteen times, then intently focused on the plastic obelisk, which he showed me with a grunt when he’d gotten it just-so.

“That’s beautiful.”

He carried on with the other trophies, making his way methodically through the books and knick-knacks while I carried on with the tedious work of designing a theater program on the computer. From moment to moment, he would request my attention, then pull back to his task, and I knew that the distraction would keep me at work late that day, but some things are more important.

“Wha-wha-wha?

“That’s a belt pack for a wireless microphone,” I explained, then paused to show him the whole rig, with headset and everything.

“Sing sing,” he said, in a rare flourish of complete words.

“That’s right.”

“I sing sing.”

“You should.”

His smile was brief and tempered, filtered through the gestures that are Rodney’s own, but I had to smile, too.


The branch of my genetic line in which I find myself is likely to end with me, but there’s something amazing about love and care—these things make family, and make bonds, and make it possible that the things that are good about us will carry on and add to the things that are good about other people, too.

Even so, were I quicker on my feet or more inclined to challenge the contention, I’d have told the questioning woman about my nieces, who have never lived more than a block from me since the day either was born, giving me the gift of being a part of parenting two little girls from infancy to their brilliant lives as amazing, talented, distinct young adults. Unlike my questioner, who had the sum total of four years into the project of parenting a girl child, I had six times as much experience, complete with the joy of watching them and our immediate and extended family in the glorious, exasperating, surprising, terrifying, expansive, mind-opening process of working to build lives, but we’re all still trained in the heterosexist, narrow-minded notion that only parents count, or that, in her mind, at least, only mothers count.

Still, she maintained her tightly-wound illusion of equanimity and grace, and we casually talked about my work, my history, my interests, and I presented more than enough data for any sane person to work out that I come from a place of kindness and care, and she said the kind of progressive, supportive, “oh, it’s good that [The Troubadour] is getting more comfortable with who he is” stuff that people recognize as the preferred language of grown-ups in the 21st century, even if they don’t have full faith in it. I mean—honestly, I’m a 48-year-old gay man who’s lips have literally never touched a woman in anything but cartoonish chivalry, and you’re concerned that I’m a threat to your four-year-old daughter? What’s the risk? Costumes? Engaged educational play with art supplies? The mind boggles. Can people really be this uneducated in 2016?

But we reached the end of a seemingly reasonable conversation, she proffered a hug in parting and I accepted, because a hug is always a good thing, and I left feeling like maybe, just maybe, I’d made an impression.

Of course, optimism is often dashed, and not twenty minutes had passed before [_] had gone on a wild homophobic rampage via whatever communications medium necessary, contacting neighbors, people in the community, and even The Troubadour’s former girlfriend with a bizarre narrative of abuse and danger and sleaze and even, absurdly, contacted The Troubadour’s divorce lawyer, who called up, amused, and asked him what the insane message was all about. Thing is—[_] had known about The Troubadour’s formerly worrying realization, the one that led me into his life, and had used it as a threat, as a tool of blackmail, and had frequently threatened often to call his family out in the mountains to tell them his dirty little secret.

Of course, this was a strange thing for me.

I have no dirty little secrets, other than the recipes I’ll never share, my quiet places that are quiet because they’re unknown, and my most practiced techniques of the arts. I’ve never smoked, don’t do drugs, don’t drink, and am such a meticulously cautious and law-abiding driver that my passengers will often roll their eyes and growl at me to just pass, already, and I’ve been paying taxes on freelance income I could have gotten away with leaving unreported since I’ve been doing my own taxes.

I’ve never known shame over who I am, and what I am, from those who raised me, but I was raised by giants among parents—the kind of people who taught me to love and to be honest and ethical and kind, and to value myself as what I am, what Fred Rogers best described when he looked to us from the television and said “Remember—of all the people in the whole world, there is only one person just like you.”

How the heck did I end up with [_], too?

Fortunately, despite her continuing, keening, desperate attempts to generate a narrative in which she is the victim, there are enough turncoats in her circle to let us know what the newest hysterical onslaught of nonsense is.

Such a sadness, that, but that’s out of my control. I can only be the best person that I am, and when you’re genuine and open and decent, the right people will know you by the content of your character. The rest? Well, they make trouble, because they thrive on drama, and every good adventure needs challenges to meet and overcome.

I will not be bullied. This is the 21st century.


Do I have kids of my own? Oh yes.

I have my adventurous, energetic, insightful nephew, Cleve, living just twenty minutes away after his midwestern youth, and I have my brilliant, thoughtful, playful philosopher, Rainey, living next door, and my can-do, focused, sensible and yet delightful Cora has moved south with the gentleman in her life, on her way to new adventures, but she’ll never be far from my heart. I have my niece from another bloodline, Maggie, who lives far from me now, but who will always be my lucky treasure, and I have kids from my sister’s now-ex-in-laws who call me “Uncle Joe,” and I have the kids I counseled as an LGBT peer counselor for the NCCJ and the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission, and the at-first sullen, society-beat kids I worked with in a year-long community art project for at-risk youth, and the kids I’ve taught art and music in school programs throughout Baltimore, and the list goes on and on.

So why would I ever think, even for a moment, to answer anything but “yes?”

Besides, my people have a grand tradition of dealing with a world that’s designed to give control to bigots and mean-spirited people with ugly hearts, and we are strong. The world told us that we were not good enough, or decent enough, or selfless enough, and we proved them wrong, time after time. They cried “molester” and “pervert” and made up the most vile, disgusting lies to justify their bigotry, but the tide’s turned, and the cockroaches are scattering in the daylight.

Yet there’s that old feeling, the feeling I remember from being a kid, from being bullied, and I know how bullies work, and how they pull your strings and push your buttons and work their little conversational conjuring tricks in making themselves out to be the victim, even when they’re doing the most wretched, ugly things to other people. I remember that feeling well, even after all these years, and I remember what I wanted then—just leave me alone. Just live your life the way you want, and be whatever you need to be, but leave me out of your games.

I sat with the feeling, and remembered, and practiced some tonglen meditation, taking in a breath, doing my best to pause and understand where the ugliness was coming from so that I could respond with compassion when I am faced with aggression, even as I know I will fail more than once. The prize, though, is an intact heart, even in the face of the worst kind of vindictive, senseless, obsessive pursuit of getting one over.

Each passing moment is another chance to turn things around.


“Joebie?”

“Yes, hon?”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Green.”

Little Miss tilted her head.

“What else?”

“Brown.”

“Brown? Nobody’s favorite color is brown.”

“Maybe not, but my second favorite color is brown.”

“Do you wanna scribble brown over here?”

“Yes, hon. I think that region would love to be luxuriously brown.”

“Luck sure your whaa?”

“Luxurious. Meaning lush, vibrant, and saturated with gorgeousness.”

“You are very silly, Joebie.”

Maybe a little.


© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall