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29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Too-ticky’s Guide to Life: Wisdom on Uncertainty, Presence, and Self-Reliance from Beloved Children’s Book Author Tove Jansson

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“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is among the most imaginative, important, and influential children’s book creators of all time, an artist and writer of unparalleled creative vision and great sensitivity to life’s ineffable nuances. A recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, she had the courage to turn down Walt Disney and build her own creative empire. From her beloved Moomins characters to her spectacular vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, her stories exude the metaphorical magic of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, the fanciful whimsy of Baum’s Oz world, the contemplative introspection of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the enchanting symbolism of Carroll’s Wonderland. Philip Pullman has aptly called her “a genius of a very subtle kind” and Neil Gaiman considers her work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

Jansson’s singular sensibility springs from her own unusual life. Born to an artistic and rather eccentric family from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, young Tove was raised by wildly creative parents — her father was one of Finland’s greatest sculptors and her mother designed books and postage stamps, illustrated book jackets, and created punchy political cartoons. Jansson completed her formal training in art and graphic design in various institutions across Sweden, Finland, and France, but the origin of her iconic Moomin characters was rooted in an affectionate family joke rather than in her formal training — while studying in Stockholm in her late teens and living with relatives there, Jansson would regularly sneak into the kitchen for treats; her uncle would tease her that a “Moomintroll” lived in the kitchen pantry, ready to breathe cold air down stealthy snackers’ necks.

Tove Jansson: self-portrait © Moomin Characters™

Moominvalley’s main protagonist, Moomintroll, is thus a self-portrait of sorts, but perhaps Jansson’s most interesting character is also the one based on the most intimate part of her life. Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.

Jansson and Pietilä crafting characters for the television adaptation of the Moomin series.

Although Too-ticky, clad in her signature red-and-white sweater, appears in a number of the Moomin books, her spirit blossoms most vibrantly in the 1957 gem Moominland Midwinter (public library), where “her common sense often restores order in the valley.” More than mere common sense, however, Too-ticky’s laconic sagacity and aphoristic reflections are full of invaluable wisdom on life.

The book tells the story of Moomintroll who, unlike his family that hibernated from November to April every year, wakes up early and decides to stay up through the harsh Scandinavian winter. He grows angry at the sun’s absence, angry at the raging blizzards, angry at those who seem able to enjoy rather than resent the season of snow and ice. It is a tale of learning to live with the vital discomfort of uncertainty, to get lost in order to find oneself, to surrender to the rhythms of life rather than agonizing in resistance.

Lost in the forest, Moomintroll comes upon a warm light emanating from a cozy hole someone had dug for shelter — “someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.” It is, of course, Too-ticky. When Moomintroll inquires about the song she is whistling, she replies, Whitman-like, with a wonderfully metaphorical answer:

It’s a song of myself… The refrain is about the things one can’t understand. I’m thinking about the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

This theme of uncertainty and of finding joy in questioning reality is a recurring one for Too-ticky. Echoing the first of Bertrand Russell’s ten famous commandments of teaching, learning, and life“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” — she offers comforting solidarity in Moomintroll’s lament that he doesn’t understand the snow:

I don’t either… You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.

In many ways, Too-ticky’s wisdom seems almost Zen Buddhist in nature. In addition to championing the ability to be at peace with uncertainty, she also advocates a minimalist approach to material possessions — when Moomintroll discovers, distraught and indignant, that someone is secretly smuggling things out of his sleeping family’s house, Too-ticky responds:

That’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve got too many things about you. As well as things you remember, and things you’re dreaming about.

Too-ticky is also a sage of the “slow churn” and wise champion of the idea that “anything worthwhile takes a long time.” (Janssen would certainly know — she wrote her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1939 and published it in 1945, but it was not a success; her first critical acclaim arrived in 1946, nearly a decade after she had created the Moomins, with the publication of Comet in Moominland.) When Moomintroll grows angry and impatient with the sun’s refusal to rise, Too-ticky reminds him that hurrying is a toxic way of trying to resist the present:

Don’t be in such a hurry… Soon now. Sit down and wait.

When the sun does appear, it flits across the horizon for a fleeting moment, only to set back down. Moomintroll is even more frustrated, but Too-ticky assures him that the sun, like the myth of the overnight success, follows an incremental rise to brilliance:

He’ll return tomorrow… And then he’ll be a tiny bit bigger, about like a piece of cheese rind. Take it easy.

The story is also a gentle primer on evolution. When Moomintroll, against Too-ticky’s instruction, opens her secret cabinet and finds a strange creature living there, he tells her it was “only a sort of old rat,” but she corrects him:

That was no rat. It was a troll. A troll of the kind you were yourself before you became a Moomin. That was how you looked a thousand years ago.

Moomintroll is so unsettled by the notion that he is related to a mere rat — an elegant allegory for why some people are drawn to such defensive fancies as Young Earth creationism — he storms into the attic to look for an old family album. Janssen writes:

Page after page of dignified Moomins, most often reproduced standing in front of porcelain stoves, or on fret-worked verandahs. Not a single one of them resembled the cupboard troll. “Must be a mistake,” Moomintroll thought. “He can’t be any relation of mine.”

Slowly, Moomintroll makes peace with Too-ticky’s knowledge:

He went down and looked at his sleeping Pappa. Only the nose bore some resemblance to the troll’s. But possibly, a thousand years ago.

There is almost a cosmology element to this undercurrent — a reminder that, however discomfiting this too may be to most humans, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Janssen traces the evolution of Moomintroll’s understanding:

Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. And it cheered him no little to think that Little My [Moomintroll's sister] had no pedigree at all, but rather had come into the world by chance.

But perhaps her most profound wisdom deals with our quintessential struggle to make peace with death, which stems from an inability to recognize the comforting interconnectedness of life. When the Lady of the Cold — the beautiful but formidable priestess of the Great Cold, capable of turning into an icicle any fool so bewitched as to look straight into her eyes — freezes the cheerful little squirrel Moomintroll had befriended, Too-ticky sighs:

It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead.

Death, too, is part of nature’s necessary cycles of growth and decay. When Moomintroll and Little My remonstrate the very mention of death, Too-ticky responds:

When one’s dead, then one’s dead. This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And later on still there’ll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?

Too-ticky’s greatest gift, it appears, is a certain quality of presence — the kind she cultivated in “her own private winter world that had followed its own strange rules year after year” — that allows her to feel one with the world. It is from that standpoint that, when spring finally arrives, she responds to Moomintroll’s accusation that she hadn’t comforted him during the long winter by offering assurance that spring will come, but instead focused on what the world had to offer right there and then. Too-ticky’s answer, emanating a kind of Emerson-like ideal of self-reliance, rings with extraordinary, if uncomfortable, poignancy:

One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.

Moomintroll imbibes Too-ticky’s existential lesson. Soon, when his friend the Snork Maiden comes across “the first brave nose-tip of a crocus” shyly trying to push through snow, she suggests they put a glass over it to protect it from the frost at night. But Moomintroll objects:

No, don’t do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it’s going to do still better if things aren’t so easy.

Decades before the groundbreaking research on why cultivating grit is the greatest key to success, Jansson made the same point with great subtlety and wisdom.

Moominland Midwinter is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety, as are all of Jansson’s Moomin books. For another taste, see my favorite one.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Walt Whitman, Bohemian Dandy: The Story of America’s First Gay Bar and Its Creative Coterie

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“A failed romance. A restless sense of longing… These are raw ingredients that get mulled, weighed, processed — and ultimately transformed into art.”

Beneath 647 Broadway in Manhattan, now occupied by a Soho shoe boutique, was once Pfaff’s famous saloon, both a literal basement and a figurative cultural underground. Pfaff’s, pronounced fafs, was the favorite hangout of New York’s Bohemian artists and was later anointed as America’s first gay bar. Its token denizen was none other than Walt Whitman, for whom the Pfaff’s coterie became the fertile personal micro-culture that fueled the lifelong rewriting of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, which he had self-published three years before he arrived at Pfaff’s. In his old age, Whitman lamented to his biographer: “Pfaff’s ‘Bohemia’ was never reported, and more the sorrow.”

In Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians (public library), writer Justin Martin sets out to mend that sorrow and assuage his own lament that “history is not a meritocracy,” shedding light on the untold story of the Pfaff’s set and its ample reverberations through the last 150 years of creative culture.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from 'Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself.' Click image for more.

But what made Pfaff’s invaluable to Whitman wasn’t only that it provided an extraordinary creative environment and much-needed support for the aspiring writer, as his grand ambitions to become the era’s greatest poet were deflated by an initial critical reception of derision and dismissal when Leaves of Grass was first published. The saloon was also a safe haven for him to explore his identity as a queer man in mid-19th-century America — a place whose patronage consisted of “assorted rebels and societal outliers, including plenty of gay men.” Whitman, as Martin describes him, was somewhat of an endearing dandy:

When he started frequenting the saloon, Whitman was thirty-nine years old. He stood roughly six feet, tall for the era, but weighed less than two hundred pounds. He wasn’t yet the beefy, shaggy poet of legend. His hair was cut short, a salt-and-pepper mix of brown and gray. His beard was trimmed. Only later would he put on weight, the wages of stress and illness and advancing age. Only later would he grow his hair long and let his beard go thick and bushy.

But he was already an eccentric dresser. Whitman favored workingmen’s garb, such as his wideawake, a type of broad-brimmed felt sombrero. He liked to wear it well back on his head, tilted at a rakish angle. His trousers were always tucked into cowhide boots. He wore rough-hewn shirts of unbleached linen, open at the collar, revealing a shock of chest hair. Whitman had a rosy complexion, almost baby-like, and quite incongruous for a big man. Because he was meticulous about hygiene, he always smelled of soap and cologne. His manner of dress often struck people as more like a costume. Or maybe it was a kind of armor, protecting the vulnerable man underneath.

Walt Whitman c. 1852 (Photograph courtesy of the Walt Whitman Archives)

Indeed, Whitman’s shell was decidedly deliberate — both in his personal and literary styles. Martin finds a similar stylistic “costume” in Whitman’s use of language:

As a poet, Whitman is celebrated for language that moves — soaring, swooping, singing — but his manner of speaking offered such a contrast: slow . . . deliberate . . . earthbound. He pronounced “poems” as “pomes,” drawling it out, his eyelids drooping. That was another of his characteristics—those drooping eyelids, which lent a kind of impassivity to many of his facial expressions.

It wasn’t as if his mind were slow; clearly, it was quite the opposite, but maybe all the connections and contradictions lighting up his synapses were best worked out on the page. At any rate, he steered clear of the “rubbing and drubbing,” as he called those infamous verbal battles. “My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s was to look on — to see, talk little, absorb,” he would recall. “I never was a great discusser, anyway — never.”

But perhaps what most mesmerized Whitman’s gaze at Pfaff’s, a place full of “quick, quirk, and queer conceit” per one patron’s account, was the undeniable sense of having found his tribe. Of course, as Martin points out, the actual term gay meant “lighthearted” and “cheerful” in the 1850s, and the word homosexual was still three decades from entering the popular lexicon. So while the saloon wasn’t a “gay bar” in the linguistic sense, it very much was semantically — it had two separate rooms to cater to its diverse clientele, one of which was occupied by a standby circle of gay men.

In that regard, rather than calling it a “semi-gay bar,” Martin proposes “semi-adhesive” — “adhesiveness” being a term from phrenology, that popular 19th-century pseudoscience that enchanted Whitman at least as much as it did George Eliot. Symbolized by two women embracing, “adhesiveness” — as opposed to “amativeness,” romantic love between a man and a woman — connotes, as Martin explains, a “capacity for intense and meaningful same-sex relationships.”

When Whitman first began visiting Pfaff’s, Martin writes, he was in an “adhesive,” serious relationship with a young man named Fred Vaughan, nearly two decades the poet’s junior. The two lived together on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn and would often sit at the same table in Pfaff’s larger room. Vaughan was among the first people Whitman showed his coveted, now-famous letter of encouragement from Emerson.

Their romance, however, met its end shortly after the two started frequenting Pfaff’s. Martin considers the likeliest reason — a heartbreaking notion that makes one appreciate anew today’s triumph of equality in the dignity of love:

Vaughan had reached an age when he was expected to find a proper mate, that is, a woman.

Vaughan ended up getting married and settled into a rather conventional life. He worked a series of jobs such as insurance salesman and elevator operator and with his wife raised four sons. He also became a terrible alcoholic. In the early 1870s, after roughly a decade of silence, Vaughan reconnected with Whitman, writing him several letters, one of which includes the following heart-rending passage: “I never stole, robbed, cheated, nor defrauded any person out of anything, and yet I feel that I have not been honest to myself — my family nor my friends.” In the letters, Vaughan never spells out the source of his anguish. Perhaps it was the result of living in a state that felt unnatural to him. One letter includes, “My love my Walt is with you always.”

Walt Whitman with Peter Doyle, a streetcar conductor Whitman met in 1865, embarking upon a decades-long romance that lasted until the poet's death in 1892. (Photograph courtesy of Ohio Wesleyan University, Bayley Collection)

Pfaff’s offered Whitman a stage for exploring other romantic possibilities. He began spending more time in the company of young men, whom he called “my darlings and gossips” and “my darling, dearest boys.” Martin reflects on the relationship between language and identity:

It’s striking how different Whitman’s manner was with this group of men. One can scarcely imagine him using words such as darling or gossip at the long table in that vaulted room. As everyone does, Whitman revealed different sides of himself to different kinds of people. The two sections of Pfaff’s appear to have served separate social needs for Whitman — as a poet and as a gay man.

This integration was precisely what rendered Pfaff’s so instrumental in Whitman’s evolution as an artist — more than a mere playground for desire, the saloon became a laboratory for exorcising the emotional excess central to all great art. Martin captures this beautifully:

A failed romance. A restless sense of longing. As it’s always been, these are raw ingredients that get mulled, weighed, processed — and ultimately transformed into art.

Rebel Souls is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, exploring the blossoming of Whitman’s literary legacy, the tantalizing group of artists, writers, and performers who populated Pfaff’s and influenced one another, and how they made their way West to meet Mark Twain’s Bohemians of Silicon Valley. Complement it with Allen Crawford’s exquisite, obsessive word-by-word illustrations for Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Whitman’s own raunchy ode to New York.

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The World’s First Children’s Book about a Two-Mom Family

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A pioneering picture-book with an enduring message of equality.

“Many homosexuals live together in stable relationships. The time will come when homosexual marriages are recognized,” two Danish psychologists predicted in their honest, controversial, and now-iconic guide to teenage sexuality in 1969. But decades would pass before their prognosis would slowly, painfully begin to come true. In the meantime, those “stable relationships” were denied the dignity of being called a family and forced to conform to the mainstream-normative narratives of what a family actually is.

In the 1980s, writer Lesléa Newman began noticing that same-sex couples were having kids like everybody else, but had no children’s books to read to them portraying non-traditional family units. At that point, women had been “marrying” one another for ages, but true marriage equality in the eyes of the law and the general public was still two decades away, as were children’s books offering alternate narratives on what makes a family. So Newman enacted the idea that the best way to complain is to make things and penned Heather Has Two Mommies (public library) — a sweet, straightforward picture-book illustrated by Diana Souza, telling the story of a warm and accepting playground discussion of little Heather’s life with Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter.

Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet. She also has two pets: a ginger-colored cat named Gingersnap and a big black dog named Midnight.

Heather also has two mommies: Mama Jane and Mama Kate.

The book, which predated even Maurice Sendak’s controversial children’s story grazing the subject, was unflinchingly pioneering — with the proper social outrage to attest to this status. Not only did it rank number 11 on the American Library Association’s chart of America’s most frequently challenged books in the 1990s, but its impact continued for decades — comedian Bill Hicks, an eloquent champion of free speech, paid homage to it in his final act on Letterman in October of 1993 and it was even parodied in a 2006 episode of The Simpsons titled “Bart Has Two Mommies.”

Despite that, or perhaps precisely because of it, the book lives on as a bold embodiment of Bertrand Russell’s famous proclamation: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

Twenty years later, Newman followed up with the board books Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me, affectionately illustrated by artist Carol Thompson.

Complement Heather Has Two Mommies with Andrew Solomon’s remarkable Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a moving meditation on how love both changes us and makes us more ourselves, and the impossibly charming And Tango Makes Three, an allegorical marriage quality primer telling the true story of Central Park Zoo’s gay penguin family.

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