If you go to my dusty, ill-used YouTube page, you’ll see the products of a life long infatuation with puppets. Whether it was the Muppets, ventriloquists like Jeff Dunham, or just small hand puppets like Mr.'s Rogers and Dressup. It didn’t matter; when I was a kid, if you could animate it yourself right there in the moment, I was into it. When Curt would come to town, we would always quote Dunham’s puppet Peanut, and when Rod came into my life, he would show me the Muppet show and silly things from Sesame Street that even he got a kick out of.
The trend continued when I started reading. Like most kids, I got into the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. The series that captivated me most was Night of the Living Dummy, and the central dummy, Spanky, became an object of fear, obsession and love. He scared the hell out of me, but also made me laugh. I loved the corny jokes he’d tell. I loved it so much that took my favorite teddy bear, the one I slept with every night—my best friend, and opened the seam in his lil’ bum so I could put my hand all up in his snout. It was one of many horrifying acts done with innocent purposes in my life.
I practiced the routine from the book. There was a lot of wood-based jokes, as Spanky was wooden himself, but my cotton and polyester bear told them anyways. I believe he was material-fluid. My one and only performance as a ventriloquist was at a family Christmas party in front of about twenty-five of my cousins, aunts and uncles. It went well, but since it wasn’t the life changing event I wanted it to be, I fell away from the actual want to perform like that and just applied it to my toys. I went through a phase of playing with stuffed animals exclusively because I could articulate them in ways that I couldn’t with action figures. Since then, I’ve been drawn to cool and interesting stuffed animals, but I’ve battled the desire to acquire more ever since I was twelve.
Everyone who has loved a teddy bear knows the phase of life where you have to break up with your bears, with your lions, with your dinosaurs, with Fluffy, with Mr. Rabbit. There comes the day, heartbreakingly portrayed in the Toy Story movies, where the kid moves on from their childhood. Harry Potter helped me out of mine.
In Grade Five my teacher Mr. Lees had a TA who would read to us during the day. On a recommendation from my buddy Devin, Mr. Lees got her to read us Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. None of us had heard about these books yet, other than Devin—his mother was a second-grade teacher and had the inside line, and we were all instantly gripped. Books have always been able to put the big pictures in my head, and Harry Potter became the biggest of all up until that point. Over the course of maybe a month, we finished the book and I begged my mother for more. We moved onto the Chamber of Secrets as a class, and after one fateful trip to Edmonton, my mother returned home with crisp, hardcover copies of the first three novels.
In Grade Six, we were on the cusp of the Goblet of Fire's release. A huge portion of the kids, like me, were ecstatic about their pre-orders. That evening, our mothers and fathers would return home with a book, hot out of the box and waiting to be devoured.
A very small part of that book is Ron Weasley’s owl, Pig. Replacing Scabbers as his pet, this little owl (if I remember correctly) was described as a small, round, ugly and sporadic little thing that could barely function. I loved him, he sounded just like me.
Before doing anything I loved back then, I had the fat-boy habit of going to the local IGA and getting snacks for my reading sessions, and later my video game and recording sessions. It was my spot, south-side G.P.; only ten minutes from my house—my prize was a bag of peanut M&Ms, and still is. On one of those snack runs, I came across a bin filled with rubber balls dressed up like various animals in the freezer isle. They filled my pubescent hand and bounced erratically because of the hoofs, wings, snouts and beaks protruding from the layer of polyester skin. On top of the pile, was a small, round owl. He looked pathetic and reminded me of Pig so much that I thought that it was my mental picture come to life. I looked at his price tag—$9.99, and rued the lack of money in my pocket.
From that moment on, I became a master thief--I did what I felt necessary. Rod had an old Texas mickey of Canadian Club from his drinking days that he used as a change collector, it was hidden at the back of his closet and he emptied his pockets into it every night—classic Dad maneuver. When no one was home, I’d steal toonies here, loonies there; always making sure there was a deposit happening between my thefts. Before long, I had the $15 I felt I needed because I didn’t understand what 7% tax meant at the time.
Now, having recently put my teddy bear away for good, the feeling of compulsion towards this little owl was troublesome to me. It was the year 2000 and I was no longer a stuffy kid; I had graduated to the land of articulate giant robots and stories of boy wizards. The shame I felt for my want of this thing was almost crippling, but I used it to create a completely unnecessary plan.
I usually walked to IGA with my headphones on, riding my bike with music on always felt unsafe, and it always cut down the time I had to listen to my tape. (It’s to be noted that at this time, “my tape” was a weird mix of New Kids on the Block, Hansen and the Backstreet Boys that played from my mother’s neon yellow sport-edition Sony Walkman). But, the morning I was going to get my owl, I chose to go at eight a.m., after my parents had gone to work and I could blast down the street on my bike so no one would see me. The entire journey was mired in shame, I thought I felt the world’s eyes on me, judging me for being a stupid little boy when he was supposed to be a man. I was eleven, and convinced that I had to be a man.
To hide my prize and my shame, I brought a spare sock with me. My brain told me that it’s less weird to be an eleven-year-old riding his bike with a ball in a sock swinging from the handlebars than it was to be an eleven-year-old buying a stuffed animal. As soon as I was out of the store, into the sock he went, and I was away. I almost believed I was home free, until a group of girls, aged maybe 13 to 15, rounded the corner of the Crown & Anchor pub.
They were laughing and giggling. They were pretty and they were older than me. Already plagued with shame and embarrassment, my blood ran cold. These creatures were the judges of everything and I was the only thing around, and headed straight for them. When I’m nervous, I have a very stern face that lacks warmth in any real meaning, and I must have been wearing that face when I rode past them.
From their giggling tripod, they all turned to me as I passed and one of them shouted, “Smile!”
I was taken aback, but luckily already at a speed that carried me across the parking lot to freedom. Her voice echoed between my ears and I began to have an imagined argument with the girls, I was defensive and full of confusion—they didn’t fucking know me. I argued with the imaginary girl in my head all the way home, and in the short time that it took me to arrive, I had began to seethe.
This is an incident that I credit with at lot of things in my life, but only in hindsight. I’ve never told a woman, one that I wasn’t genuinely trying to cheer up, to smile because of this event. But, it always seemed weird that the issue has always been black and white for me, especially when you consider the men I was raised around; that is, until I remembered the whole owl incident.
Steph and I were watching the Harry Potter movies and I got talking about my relationship to the books, which led to the story of the stuffed owl—the thought about the girls was like a memory-tag, lost in the fabric of the story but revealed when you laid things out. Steph laughed and laughed as my eyes went completely wide and I gasped at the glass barrier breaking around my perception. All I could do was stare at her with my mouth open as she nodded and said, “Yeah, it fucking sucks,” before telling me about her years as a server. Her years spent dealing with men old enough to be her father, or even grandfather telling her to “smile,” and “how beautiful she is when she smiled,” implying, or even straight out telling her that that’s how they prefer it, as if it’s a condition on their comfort.
When I think about the headspace I was in at that moment; scared, embarrassed to be myself, uncomfortable in my own skin, and how that single word suggestion completely extinguished the small flame of self-esteem for me that day, I think of young girls in general. I think about the guidelines the media gives them, how even the things they come to love whisper false-truths of inadequacy to them and how the world views treating women as human beings as a revolution.
It’s 2017 and we have headlines like “Lena Waithe Makes Emmy History as First Black Woman to Win for Comedy Writing,” which is amazing, and I love her as an artist—but when I read these things I can’t help but feel the heavy weight of the white male supremacy that laces our water. My stomach turns at the things we've missed out on throughout history because of prejudice. Have we killed the person that could reverse dementia? Are the people that will take this civilization to the stars currently showing their magnificent butts on instagram because "girls aren't good at math?" What have we robbed ourselves of by allowing our world to be narrowed by the inherent marginalization propagated by imperialism, capitalism and colonialism?
The young girls that yelled at me were rebelling against their experience in that moment. They were just as scared and uncomfortable in themselves as I was, but my privilege came from the fact that my feelings were brought on by a stuffed owl that I’d come to terms with very quickly. They had to, and have to live in that because it wasn’t self imposed—it’s the world they were born into.
Writer, performer, producer and musician from Alberta.