Saturday, November 12, 2011

Okay, Let's Go!

As I walking home this afternoon from the public library, reading as I went, I became aware of movement on my left. I glanced up from my book and saw a man getting into the passenger side of an old van parked there (somewhere between a panel truck and an SUV, actually). He said cheerfully, "Okay -- let's go!" I looked again and saw a very little kid, two or three years old, sitting on the driver's side with his hands on the wheel and grinning joyously at his dad. (The father, in his late twenties, unshaven, dressed in work clothes, reminded me of my own father, fifty years ago and more.) I remembered that feeling well, even though it's more than half a century behind me now: laying my hands on grownups' things, their instruments of power, the magical monsters they controlled so casually and easily. For just a second I could believe that someday I'd be big enough to do it myself.

It's the reverse of what Laura Miller wrote about in The Magician's Book (Little, Brown, 2008), her wonderful meditation on fantasy and reading:
Animals seemed like relatives left behind in the Old Country, except that the growing expanse that separated us wasn’t a physical ocean but a cognitive one. They stood on the dock, getting ever smaller, while we children watched from the deck, on the way to a new, supposedly better way of being in the world, haunted by the image of what we were losing.

Animals, like infants, belong to the vast nation of those who communicate without words, through gesture, expression, scent, sound, and touch. Children are immigrants from that nation and, like most recent immigrants, still have a mental foothold on the abandoned shore. I believed, probably correctly, that I understood animals better and cared for them more than the adults around me. I could still faintly remember what it was like to be a beast, before language complicated things. But I didn’t appreciate the inverse relationship between the individual self I was building out of the new words I acquired every day and the inarticulate world that moved away from me as my identity gained definition [28].
It's not just through machines, of course, that grownups show their power and freedom. On the most basic level, there's freedom of movement. Almost every day I see (and hear) some little kid in the public library fighting with a parent, not wanting to leave yet (or maybe wanting to leave already, but I don't think that would produce as much screaming indignation). They see grownups walking to and fro, just as they please, not asking anyone for permission. They cross the street just like that! (On the other hand, as Miller points out, "being able to navigate traffic on your own doesn’t keep you from wanting to hold somebody’s hand once in a while, if for different reasons" [34].) I don't blame the parents, naturally, but I don't blame the children either.

Being allowed to play Driver, being allowed to be Daddy or Mommy for a moment, is a taste and a promise of the power and the freedom that will come. Children don't realize -- how could they? -- that adults don't enjoy perfect freedom and power. But sometimes I think that we forget how much we do have. Little scenes like the one I just saw remind me.