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Cultivating Pippi Longstocking

One warm spring afternoon in 1990 I was walking across the Williamsburg Bridge on my way to Manhattan, as I’d done countless times during my years in Brooklyn. A recent, tumultuous breakup was still fresh in my mind, but I was beginning to feel somewhat liberated, enjoying the freedom of finally living alone, and learning to have fun again. The bridge scene from Pippi On The Run flashed into my mind, and in a split second I knew what I had to do.

In this movie, the heroine Pippi Longstocking’s indomitable approach to life achieves its peak expression, centering around her ability to achieve anything she wants, often by refusing to accept the impossible. The scene in my mind has Pippi and her two friends Tommy and Annika looking down from a bridge at a steam-engine train chugging along the tracks below. Pippi suggests all three of them jump off the bridge onto the roof of the moving train. Uptight Annika begs her not to do it, but Pippi, ever the optimist, replies, “Why be scared? Everyone knows trains are a perfectly safe way to travel anywhere!” The three of them jump off the bridge onto the moving train car, and their magical adventure begins …

Pippi Longstocking, the little, freckled, pigtailed redhead in mismatched socks, originated in 1945 with Astrid Lindgren’s series of children’s books, about the wild tomboy daughter of an absentee sea captain, the strongest girl in the world who makes all her dreams come true. In the mid-’80s my good friends Howie and Andrea pulled me into their VHS viewing marathons, and made a point of sitting me down to watch the Pippi movies made for Swedish kids in the late ’60s. I was instantly seduced by the primordial charm of these enchanting masterpieces of children’s cinema, which contain a wealth of revolutionary ideas and imagery suitable for any age. I did substantial research into the Pippi mythos and wrote an authoritative cover story about her for the first issue of my own Proof: The Magazine of Virtuous Reality. In my essay, I described how the being of Pippi presents a multifold mythic ideal, manifesting by turns as a valiant heroine with superhuman strength and abilities, a mischievous Pagan sprite, and a forthright pragmatic anarchist who recruits other youngsters to defy grownups’ authority and conformism. In Pippi’s own words: “Grown-ups never have any fun. They only wear silly looking clothes and have boring work and corns and municipal taxes.” If you’ve never read the books or seen the movies, do yourself a favor!

Near to the end of the Williamsburg Bridge walkway, you could look over the balustrade and see the cars and trucks below heading west onto Delancey Street. About ten or fifteen feet below me, at the end of a line of traffic waiting for the light to turn green, sat a stationary truck, a huge rig with an open-top semi-trailer filled with several bulky metallic cubes, which upon closer inspection turned out to be industrially crushed automobiles.

Momentarily possessed by the spirit of Pippi, I vaulted over the railing, and landed atop one of the neatly mangled cars. Apparently the truck driver hadn’t noticed me land, or else didn’t care, because off we went. As the breeze blew in my hair, I made myself reasonably comfortable, cautious not to dangle my legs where they might get crushed in the event of a sudden stop or sharp turn, and watched Delancey Street roll by. Eventually we turned north and headed up the Westside Highway. Although deeply invigorated by my leap into the unknown, I felt it wise to disembark before reaching Harlem, rather than end up in Nyack or somewhere, with no idea how to get home. Was I worried about getting arrested? Pippi’s immortal words reminded me: “Policemen are the bestest fun — next to rhubarb pie!”

Shortly before seeing my first Pippi movie a few years earlier, I had started dating a bubbly redhaired girl named Karen. She was not my first redhead, but she was the first girl I had ever lived with (in a little apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn). We were both twenty-one, and our relationship lasted the better part of a year. Howie and Andrea had remarked how much Karen resembled Inger Nilsson, the child actress who played Pippi.

I met Karen in the East Village one day, and was immediately taken with her shocking good looks and lively, rambunctious personality. She taught me how to dance, and inspired me to become a vegetarian (which lasted nearly twenty years) and overall a more compassionate person. Her strawberry blonde hair, freckles, rosy cheeks, gigantic smile, and mischievous sense of humor were all quite Pippi-ish — and as my spiritual love for Pippi grew, so increased my affection for Karen, or vice versa.

But Karen was also the product of a broken home, and suffered from serious depression. Although a reasonably well adjusted and highly sympathetic kid, I was not equipped to deal with her mood swings, and found myself regretting that we’d moved in together so soon. It seemed she would get herself worked up into a crying jag three to five nights a week, almost always in a particular corner of our living room, and the exhausting task of soothing her jangled nerves naturally fell to me. On such nights I’d usually hold and caress her, gently intone encouraging words, take her to bed and make love to her. She would often wake up in a cheerful mood, which lasted a day or two, until she‘d get depressed again — almost always in the evening, in the same corner of our living room.

Most nights, I strived to be nurturing and supportive, but sometimes we’d descend to yelling at each other. This pattern continued for the better part of the several months we shared a roof, until one night I’d simply had enough. I grumbled that I was just too tired to deal with her and stormed off to bed. Our bedroom didn’t have a door, but if it did I would’ve slammed it behind me.

A few minutes later, I heard a rhythmic pounding from the other side of our small apartment. I got out of bed and hurried to the bathroom, where I found Karen in tears, kneeling on the floor and banging her head repeatedly against the door. Overwhelmed with compassion, I picked her up off the floor, carried her to bed, made love to her, and we fell asleep.

Not long after this, we broke up. I kept the apartment and the cat, while Karen married a guy she’d known before meeting me. Despite all this, we have remained good friends.

About a year later, I started dating another redhead, named Kelly. Tall and glamorous in a grungy, broken-doll way, Kelly also resembled Inger Nilsson, but in the latter two Pippi movies made a year later when the actress had grown about a half-foot taller and lost much of the chub in her cheeks — still cute, if a bit stork-like. (I once joked asininely that my taste in women had clearly matured …)

When we first met, Kelly’s natural orange hair was an unruly mane of matted dreads. We’d caught each other’s gaze in passing on Saint Marks Place one summer evening and by sheer coincidence magnetized later that night on the dance floor at the Pyramid Club.

In many ways, Kelly was the polar opposite of Karen, being rather sallow, confrontational, and generally misanthropic, and many of my friends found her … challenging. Her affection for me seemed to alternate with a snotty contempt that was pure punk angst, and I felt proud that such a stridently tortured soul had found any favor in me at all. I really liked her colorful and disturbing pastel drawings of demented creatures, and encouraged her to put together a portfolio. She had a tender scar on one cheek, which caused her to smile on the other side. In one night, she could both be the life of the party and utterly ruin the fun with a hostile energy that seemed to emanate directly from her forehead — a perception likely influenced by the LSD we sometimes took together. A powerful entity who inspired in me equal amounts of awe and antipathy! When her grumpy vibes threatened to douse my spirit, I would sometimes remind myself of Pippi’s approach to seemingly hostile citizens: “Nah, I think she’s crazy about me!”

After we’d been dating for a few months, Kelly took a trip to New Orleans, and returned sporting a Chelsea (the partially shaved hairstyle favored by skinhead girls). Our sex life grew increasingly hot and kinky, as we kept upping the ante, trying to scare or freak each other out in bed. After a few months, I invited her to live with me in the same apartment I’d shared with Karen. Big mistake.

I’m not sure if it was depression Kelly suffered from, but she got upset and angry an awful lot. A few mutual friends considered her psychotic, but I’m not really one to diagnose others. Suffice it to say, we fought often, and, eerily, her nighttime crying jags tended to erupt in the very same corner of our living room as had Karen’s.

Usually, I would try to cheer her up, bring her to bed, have sex with her, and hope she fell asleep. But one exceptionally wearying night, I simply couldn’t deal with her morose tantrum. I told her I was going to bed, and did so.

A few minutes later, I heard a rhythmic pounding from the other side of our apartment … Dumbstruck, I ran to the bathroom and found Kelly kneeling on the floor, pounding her head against the door — exactly as I had found Karen just over a year earlier.

My mind was awhirl. I had never mentioned Karen’s head-pounding hijinx to Kelly, nor to anyone for that matter. What in hell was going on? I felt myself in the middle of something unreal, dreamlike … Was a possessing spirit or headbanger demon lurking in the apartment? Or was it me? Had my penchant for redheads somehow led to this bizarre existential impasse? Here, I thought I was using my free will, but it seemed I’d stepped into some living tape loop or moebius strip, like a Twilight Zone episode in my own home. What was the universe trying to tell me?!

I would like to have stayed friends with Kelly, but I ended up breaking her heart, and she proceeded to screw (or try and screw) many of my friends. We eventually made peace, though I doubt we’ll ever be close again, as I gather she still holds me in a certain contempt. I suppose I should be flattered …

I spent the following year (my twenty-fourth) in a somewhat altered state, still reeling from this enigmatic pairing of events. I needed to at least try and understand what had happened, and since it was, in part, my sex drive that had gotten us into this conundrum in the first place, I decided a bout of abstinence was in order. Although I did make out with a few girls, I got through the year without having intercourse. I also took a break from working which led to an enduring habit of living on next to nothing. When people express wonder about how I get along, I quote Pippi: “The whole world is full of people with no money, and you ask if it can be done!”

On the subway ride back from my slightly mad, truck-jumping sojourn, the thought came to me that I had been living a vicarious existence, seeking the spirit of Pippi outside myself. Karen and Kelly were both amazing women, and the relationships had been exciting, instructive, and fulfilling in many regards. But I needed to find my own personal Pippi and cultivate Her light and power from within.

Over the following decades, I’ve strived to internalize Pippi: to stand by my ideals, maintain a fresh and healthy outlook on life, defend my friends and the vulnerable, always accomplish what I’ve thought of, and never let anyone hold me back or get me down. Of course I don’t always succeed, and a few friends have suffered through my failings. But when I run into trouble, I just keep asking myself, “What would Pippi do or say?”

And when someone tries to convince me something I want to do is impossible, my immediate Pippi response is “Sure, but is it fun?”

–Neil Martinson


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2 thoughts on “Cultivating Pippi Longstocking

  1. You write with a rare honesty… that cleanses in some way as I am aware of a certain inner coldness that comes after I have been able to touch one of those complicated moments… I know only the name of the books that inspired you …

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