A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, July 12, 2013


“Please, Mama, just one more chapter?”

I flipped ahead, glancing at the pages.  Well… it wasn’t such a long chapter, I thought, and we were at such a tense juncture!  Mrs. Frisby had dared to step right into the owl’s hollow tree, so desperate was she to find a way to help little Timothy that she was willing to risk everything.  Everything, that is, that a cinderblock-dwelling mother field-mouse with a sick child has to risk.   

Molly and Lizzy were clutching at my arms, obviously at a point-of-no-return: until we know whether the mouse makes it out of the tree alive, there’s no way you’re gonna get us to sleep, Mama. 

Well… the twins might be having a bit of trouble here with separating reality from fantasy, but at least, for once, they hadn’t deemed the story “too scary” to be tolerated.  For months, I’ve been itching to delve further into Harry Potter with my children, but no such luck. Even supposedly kid-friendly films such as Finding Nemo and The Wizard of Oz were out of the running until quite recently, along with seemingly benign books such as The Borrowers. 

In fact, as a result of the children’s tender sensibilities, we suffered a bit of a summer camp debacle a few weeks ago.  Molly and Lizzy were happily engaged at art camp; it was Clay Sculpture week, and what could be better than that?  But when the temperature rose well into the nineties, the elderly camp director didn’t much feel like chasing kids around outside during their lunch hour, and instead opted to let them watch a movie.  The movie was Star Wars.

Star Wars, as I could easily have guessed, was a disaster.  My kids were ok with R2-D2 and C3PO, but they were not-so-ok with Sand People.  They were decidedly un-psyched about witnessing a teenaged boy have his home obliterated and aunt and uncle slaughtered.  And they were Definitely Not Cool about Darth Vader. Really, nothing at all about Darth Vader was conducive to the kids sleeping that night.  They only saw about 40 minutes of the film -- but it was easily 39 minutes too many.  And they were slated to see more the next day.  Thus, I found myself in the position of being the pathetic, whiny, high-maintenance parent who has to send an email that says something like, “I’m sorry, but my delicate little flower-children are too sensitive for all-American entertainment…” 

Nor did the trouble end with that single, embarrassing, “my kids are wimps” email.  The other kids at camp (almost all of them much older than my shrinking violets) were justifiably annoyed about no more Star Wars.  And the camp director wasn’t savvy enough to keep the names of the scapegoats under wraps.  Thus, the following night, the bedtime not-sleeping woes were all about Peer Pressure.

Isn’t parenting great?  Everything is a “learning moment”!

“Just a few more pages?”

Well… how long was this chapter?  As I flipped ahead in the story, glancing at the long-ago-familiar chapter headings and line drawings, it all came rushing back to me.  Rats in cages.  The terrifying proportions of the feline Dragon from a mouse’s-eye perspective.  A miniature engineering project to relocate the Frisby family home. A utopian dream of sustainability and autonomy, all hinging on tiny, paw-crafted plows. 

It wouldn’t hurt to read just a bit more, would it?  Just to be nice to the kids, of course… I couldn’t possibly be obsessed with the story myself.  Obviously not.  I could not, as a practical, middle-aged sort of person, be heart-poundingly empathizing with a bunch of fictional rodents that I’d last rubbed paws with back in the ‘80s.  Wise, thoughtful Nicodemus.  Sweet, awkward young Brutus.  Justin… oh, Justin…

I remembered, then, the depths of my seven-year-old mourning for a charismatic, heroic, genetically-altered-genius who just happened to be entirely imaginary – and a rat.  Differentiate fantasy from fiction?  At that age, I often disappeared into books to such a degree that I was deaf to parental requests, oblivious to pins-and-needles, and confused by the necessity of mealtimes.  I was lucky if I managed to correctly recall what species I was.

When I was still too young to even walk the mile to town on my own, books transported me out of my living room, out of my safe suburban town, and out of my scrawny, scab-kneed little body.  Their protagonists were my allies, my friends, my heart and soul.  The O’Brien classic was one of my all-time favorites, but my misplaced empathy went far beyond that NIMH-related emotional rollercoaster.  That book represented merely one chapter in my childhood over-attachment to characters who were blatantly and unequivocally… not real.  In many cases, not even possibly real.  I spent hours pondering the philosophical choices of a child offered immortality in Tuck Everlasting.  I learned the religious mythology of a group of rabbits who chose freedom – and danger – in Watership Down.   I protested gender injustice by running off to the Scottish highlands with a fierce girl named Fiona, and sailing a pirate ship named the Amazon in England’s Lake District. 

The downside of my over-connectedness was that I faced fictional losses and fictional terrors as if they were honest-to-goodness calamities.  I cried for Charlotte (yes, the eloquent arachnid).  I sobbed when Terebithia’s bridge proved ephemeral and deadly. I recall being breathless with fear in the face of It, the disembodied and insidiously powerful brain dreamed up by Madeleine L’Engle.  I didn’t just read books, I lived them -- and, as a result, I sometimes had more than a little trouble sleeping.

“Justin, taking the thread with him as a guide-line, went back to search for the other six. He explored shaft after shaft to the end of the spool, calling softly as he went, but it was futile. To this day we don't know what became of those six mice. They may have found their way out eventually, or they may have died in there. We left an opening in the screen for them, just in case.”

All that, of course, was when I was a little kid.  Immature.  Credulous.  Sure, I still enjoy fiction – even children’s fiction, if it’s well-written – but I don’t get all worked up about imaginary rodents any more.  Of course not.  That would be ridiculous.  Now, I assure myself, it’s just my kids who have trouble with the whole “reality” concept.  And if they’re ready to push the envelope a bit with this story, that’s a good thing, right?  It might help them out next time someone pulls a light saber on them.

The thing is, I couldn’t fault Molly and Lizzy for having heart palpitations over the Imperial Army, because I knew (and therein lies the peril of a too-clear and too-long memory) that there’s no way I could have handled an evil Jedi-gone-bad at age seven.  I saw those movies when I was nine or ten, and just barely held myself together. 

Even at that age, I was still keeping myself awake at night with books.  Animal Farm.  Good Night, Mr. Tom.  Brave New World.  The World without Women.  This Star Shall Abide.  I read about space travel, alien encounters, perilous quests, and all manner of psychological torment – none of it real, but all of it real to me.

Thus, when the Star Wars Incident occurred, I tried to quell my embarrassment and impatience, and be as understanding as possible.  The kids and I talked about the power of stories, and about the separation between truth and fiction.  We talked about how just because some kids their age watch this kind of stuff, not wanting to watch it doesn’t make the twins “babies.”  

Somewhere in the midst of it all, Lizzy looked up at me, big-eyed-young but also righteously indignant.  “Mama,” she asserted, “the other kids say we shouldn’t care about the killing. They make it seem like nothing.  But they shouldn’t do that.  Killing isn’t like nothing!”

No.  No, it isn’t, and I told her so.  But it was only now, holding a well-worn copy of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and reacquainting myself with the friends on its pages – small furry friends, fictional friends, but friends nonetheless – that I fully digested Lizzy’s remark.  As adults, we’re used to the abstraction of death.  We even giggle about it: “those Storm Troopers sure don’t know how to aim…”  or “mmmm braaaaaaains…”  or, “whoops, there goes another redshirt…”  But when Lizzy saw the Imperial Death Star destroy an entire planet, it really wasas if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”  Aldebaran was peaceful.  And so are my kids.  

All at once, I felt a bit better about my own tendency – even now, even as a Big Bad Grownup – to take stories to heart.  Really to heart.  Why would we tell stories, if they didn’t have power?  If they didn’t grab us, twist us, teach us, leave us aching and breathless?  If they weren’t, in a purposeful, meaningful, beautiful, terrible way, real?

People have told stories since long before humans picked up pen and paper, or put quill to papyrus, or – in all likelihood – scraped ochre onto a cave wall.  Some of our stories are a week old, and some are thousands of years old.  Some are built around a kernel of truth or a piece of history; others are built around the human imagination and our shared capacity to dream. What they all have in common is the ability to expand our mental world – the joys, the beauty, the tough choices, the heroism, and the heartbreak -- far beyond the bounds of our own experience.

I’ll never wield a light saber, travel inside a mitochondrion, or battle an interplanetary menace from the back of a flying dragon, and I’m unlikely to be the unwilling subject of a genetic experiment conducted by NIMH.  But the fact that I’ve done all those things via a scattering of words across pages is not something I want to cheapen, or emotionally distance myself from.  Not even as a real-life grownup.

"But you should know that the danger is great. It was in the same kitchen yesterday, running from Dragon's bowl, that Mr. Ages got his leg broken. And it was doing the same thing, last year, that your husband died."

“Mama!  Don’t stop!  Keep reading!”

Oh, yes.  I’ll keep reading.  I can’t help myself.  The end of the story will come rushing up at Lizzy and Molly – and at me too -- inevitable in black-on-white.  And when we reach the last few pages, Justin will die.  But, just as inevitably, he will rescue sweet, bumbling, kind-hearted Brutus.  Little Timothy will be safe, and so will the rest of the community, along with their Plan: the utopian rat-dream of those uber-intellectual, philosophical, never human but always humane rats.  Who are, of course, not real – except inasmuch as they are very real indeed.


  1. I'm amazed that the camp showed a PG movie to 7 year olds. I think that was irresponsible on the counselor/director's part. There are plenty of good G rated movies for that age. I'm always amazed at how young some of the kids are at PG-13 movies now a day. Your kids are normal! Montana still hates to see anything with violence in it. I don't think that is a bad way to be. There is too much violence in the world already, we don't have to have it in our make believe worlds, too. And I still find the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz scary!!

    1. Thanks,Corrine. I agree -- although introducing the difficult parts of life through stories can be important, that doesn't mean that first graders need to see wholesale slaughter!I'll have to tell the kids that you don't like the flying monkeys either, since they are totally impressed by you.

  2. I didn't watch Star Wars until I was eleven? Twelve maybe? It still terrified me the first time I saw it. I love reading books with kids and your post really brought back a lot of nice memories of my own time growing up and reading-- scary parts included. I remember reading Little House in the Prairie in second grade and being convinced that I was going to get scarlet fever and go blind just like Mary. That one kept me awake at night for quite awhile.

    1. Oh, yikes... I forgot about that. Which book does that occur in, I wonder? Maybe I should steer Lizzy to another series. Or give her reassuring lectures about modern medicine.