Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Problem with Pirates

The following is an old anecdote, but a favorite. Let me set the scene: It’s 2004. I have a five-year-old and three-year-old. Oh, and I’m pregnant. So add sleep deprivation to the equation. And, as most of my better stories begin, I'm behind the wheel of a car.

It's the daily preschool drop-off, and I’m in a hurry for some forgotten reason. I leave Nate in the capable hands of the school traffic monitor at the preschool entrance, then, with Calvin still securely strapped into his car seat, I pull swiftly back out into traffic. Perhaps too swiftly. The light is green, so I take the right-hand turn onto a one-way street without so much as a glance. I know, I know. Next thing I remember, a human form materializes directly in front of my car, and I screech to a halt. And I do mean screech, complete with skid marks and that lurching thing cars do when stopped suddenly. It’s a man. Directly in front of me. Now that I’m close enough to see the whites of his eyes--or eye I should say, because he’s wearing an eye patch, which strikes me as completely, absurdly random--I can see it’s an older man, dressed in a manner that would suggest homelessness, trying to cross the street. Slowly. Using the crosswalk.

Shit. He pauses in place for just a moment--still upright, perfectly fine--one hand actually bracing himself on the hood of my car (I kid you not) and stares at me while I stare at him. I wait for him to start screaming at me, as would be his absolute right, but instead, he simply meanders on. In hindsight, he may have been drunk.

I exhale very, very sharply. I say nothing. I’m shaking. I wait for the man to completely cross the street, and then very cautiously, I take my foot off the brake and continue on my way. After a few blocks, I chance a glance in the rear-view mirror; Calvin is staring absently out his window, munching on a goldfish cracker. We drive at least a mile in absolute silence and then, in a tone of thoughtful observation and nothing more, Calvin muses, “Mommy, you almost hit that pirate.”

And then he turns his attention back to his goldfish crackers while I begin to laugh in a frightening hysterical way.

Moral of the story? Well, don’t drive like a crazed maniac, obviously. But also? I love how kids live in a reality where everything is taken at face value. They’re 100%in the here and now, and they don’t question…they accept. Guy’s walking across the street in front of preschool in an eye patch? Must be a pirate. Mom almost hits him with the car? These things happen.

In their world.

How great is that? How lucky are they, with such a broad definition of practicality to guide them? Not to mention their loose interpretations of history, time and space: their minds are places where there’s no discernment between two hundred million years ago and two years ago, so sure, a triceratops could cross their path. Whooping Indians could jump out of the trees. Care Bears could be alive. Why not? When they ask this, I think they genuinely want to know. Calvin and I were sitting in the same car that day, but our duel realities were being carried out on completely different planes.

It’s a sort of altered state, isn’t it, which we all eventually--unfortunately--outgrow. No wonder Disney used to pepper their feature films with those odd dream sequences starring pink elephants marching to polka music and psychedelic colors morphing into clouds and puffs of smoke across the screen. It probably made sense to kids…and, you know, the likes of Lewis Carroll or anyone else chemically returning to childhood, living in an opium haze in which every rabbit hole led somewhere bizarre yet strangely…

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