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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 12/27/1999
Column 33

Not A Creature Was Stirring, Not Even A Mouse?

My present home isn't easy to find. It's in a rural area on a gravel road just north of the village of Chesterville, population 1400. There are grain fields on three sides of the house. My nearest neighbor is about a quarter of a mile away, too far for his two constantly barking dogs to disturb me. And my door bell, which is really one of those chime things, doesn't chime very often. When it does, it's usually someone local, collecting contributions for the regional hospital in nearby Winchester, or some nomadic repair service offering to turn my pleasant gravel driveway into a black slab of asphalt. Other visitors come from far away and I usually expect them. So there are very few surprises. But this week, I got one--starting with the door chime.

Usually, before I get to the door, I have a view from the window so I can determine from the car in the driveway who my visitor might be. But this time, there was no car. Whoever it was must have walked, and quite a distance at that. Even my nearest neighbor would have used his car. A quarter mile through the icy wind at this time of year is no pleasant walk. Besides, that neighbor practically never visits me. So who was it?

I opened up and saw a man I'd never seen before. He dressed in a grey balmacan coat rather than the bulging but light down jackets most locals wear around here in winter. On his head, he wore a standard navy-type woolen watch cap that didn't seem to go with his balmacan but was a lot more practical for the climate. He looked kind of gray, but that was partly because there was a a light snow falling and he was already dusted with it.

"Schwartz?" he said in a low quiet voice that seemed like an echo of dry rustling leaves.

"Yes?" I said, standing in the doorway, watching him.

He splayed out his hands in a kind of diffident gesture. "You've got to be him," he said.

"What him?" I asked.

"The one that talks to tulpas. You're the one wrote that book, aren't you?"

"Oh, that book. An Unlikely Prophet. Yes, I wrote that book." I remained in the doorway, watching him a little uncertainly. The cold air was drifting into the house, so I held the door wider and stepped back, wordlessly inviting him to step into the small vestibule. He ventured across the door sill and pulled off his watch cap to release a shock of thick white hair. He stood about six inches taller than me-- a little over six feet. A burly man, I could see now as, without a by-your-leave he began to slip out of his balmacan. Under it, he was wearing a plain grey business suit. I could tell from the way it hung around the neck and shoulders that it hadn't come off any rack. In the viscous extended silence as we faced each other, I took his coat and slipped it over a hanger I pulled from the vestibule closet. The coat was very light-weight. Cashmere. This guy dressed with money by Chesterville standards. I hung up his coat and faced him.

"Call me Nick," he said affably.

I'm still pretty sharp despite my advanced years. "Next you're going to tell me you're Santa Claus," I said.

Unperturbed, he added: "But I use Nicholas de Sanctis when I'm not working."

"But you're Santa Claus, and you're here because only a guy like me who has dealings with tulpas would let you in, is that it?"

"Something like that." He shrugged. "It's that time of year again. But it's not the same anymore. That's why I needed someone to talk to. Aren't you going to ask me to sit down somewhere?"

I half raised my hands in a gesture of apology and led him into the living room. He took a seat on the couch near the fireplace. I settled across from him in the big padded rocker. "I can offer you coffee. It's already made. My wife is out shopping. We ran out of tea."

He shook his head. "I'm sure now that I've come to the right place."

"Why is that?"

"Because you seem to--well-- take it in stride about who I am. I don't have to go through a big song and dance to convince you."

"I wouldn't say--convinced. But experience tells me-- well-- anything is possible.. Once you accept that premise," I explained, "all sorts of things turn up. Including some very strange people."

He clasped his hands and leaned forward on the couch so that the light from the big casement doors leading to the rear deck spilled over him. Suddenly, I saw a face that seemed ancient. Not lined so much. He was rather smooth faced for what he claimed to be. Maybe it was in his eyes. The irises seemed to spill over with grays and hazels and add a depth to his pupils that only centuries of looking out on the world could have created. I again experienced that shiver of recognition in the presence of sheer mystery, reminding me of my first meeting with Thongden some years ago.

"I don't suppose you mind being used as a sounding board," he began.

"About what?"

He waved his hands about. "The changes--the big changes. Especially in notions of reality."

"You mean--people don't believe in you anymore?"

"Oh no-- just the reverse. Science has so overdone things that people find life almost meaningless unless they allow room for their imaginations. Imagine explaining everything in terms of a dance of atoms-- or loops of string. You've probably heard about super string theory? We're back to vibrations again. But impersonal. The high IQ types, they go in for science and measurement without realizing that value lies in the immeasurable. IQ doesn't measure that. It doesn't measure significances. It measures a narrow rationality. But, of course, kids still have their imaginations and up until now, I felt things were all right. I still had my essential following."

He broke off, sighed and looked at me somewhat, I thought, forlornly.

"Am I overwhelming you?" he said suddenly.

"No-- just confounding me. What you say is interesting. But--where's your problem then?"

To my surprise he changed the subject on me. "Don't you ever wonder why comics are losing so much ground?"

"Comics? Well-- I noticed they're fading some. Probably competition from other media-- film, TV-- why? Is there anything else?"

"Sure--it's the accreditation system. The high IQ kids get to the best schools, make the most money, their kids can afford lots of comics. But these are the kind of people, these IQ types, that have the least imagination. Over-rational. Minds tied in knots, filled with barriers. This isn't real. This isn't possible. Comics are absurd. And Santa doesn't exist. You see?"

I nodded. "I suppose you've got a point." For a moment, I considered him silently. Finally, I had an intuition. "You've seen this happening for a while. But you're not telling me what's bothering you now."

He looked at me. For an instant, I saw a twinkle in eyes that were once celebrated for that quality. "You're a sharp one. I knew I was right to come here."

"So what's the problem?" I pressed.

He studied me for some seconds and seemed to swallow before he spoke. "A mouse," he said.

"A mouse?"

"Don't look so surprised. You must have heard about it. It's been on the news. It's been on TV. The smart mouse."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Of course you know. They've added these genes to a batch of mice, and suddenly the mice are smarter. Super smart. You've heard of that, of course?"

"Oh that--sure. But why's that a problem for you?"

"Can't you see? Next thing you know, they'll be doing the same thing with human babies. Making them smarter."

"Not likely," I said. "Parents wouldn't--"

"Oh no? If you were a parent and the doctor said to you, we can make your kid twice as smart, are you trying to tell me any parent anywhere would be able to refuse?"

"Well," I admitted. "When you put it that way, I guess so. But-- I still don't see where that's a problem for you."

"You surprise me, Schwartz. I think I'll call you Alvin. I'm four times your age and--"

"Sure--call me Alvin."

"Or Al. Don't you see, Al-- these smart kids are going to be your standard high IQ kids. Because that's what the high IQ scientists use to measure intelligence. To them intelligence is about knowing what you can't do. What's impossible. You understand? There'll be a whole new generation without imagination. They won't read comics--that's for sure. And as for believing in Santa-- forget it. That's what worries me. I haven't got a future."

He dropped his hands on his knees and stared at me.

"You've got a problem," I admitted, after a while.

He stood up suddenly. "Well--that's it. I just had to talk to someone about it. To someone like you."

I nodded. "In fact, maybe we've all got problems."

"So I guess I'll be leaving," he said, starting for the vestibule. "I'll get my coat."

I rushed after him. "Wait-- not yet. I've got some questions too, you know."

He already had his coat off the hanger and was slipping it on. "Like what? Like how come I'm not running around in a red suit-- and how did I get here? And what do I really do the rest of the year?"

"Well, I confessed. "--stuff like that. Yeah--sure."

"Come on, Al," he chided me. He already had the front door half open. "Not from you. Use your imagination. But be prepared for things going downhill in a few years. Thanks for listening."

And then he was gone. I stepped across the threshold into the frigid winter day and looked around. I couldn't see him anywhere.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 12/20/1999 | 12/27/1999 | 01/03/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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