Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Full-color Cross Section

I must be a mother's nightmare. I think the reason that my sister waited so long to come down here is because my parents needed a break. Is there anything worse than seeing the light fade from a child's eyes, his belief in fantasy and his hope for the world shattered?

I was blessed and cursed with a very analytic brand of thought, one that strives for coorelation and causation. It was not important that the VCR played videos, or that my red remote control car zoomed all over my mother's now not-so-spotless tile. What I so desired to find out was HOW these things happened. How in the world could a hunk of molded petroleum derivative hooked up to a metallic cylinder filled with electrons bring my mother such agony? How did the big black plastic box produce cute monster-shaped fabric with hands inside them? Why did they so cheerily recite the ABC's? Why didn't they blink? My room was littered with the remnants of tv remotes and flashlights long since forgotten. No toy escaped my greedy clutches. I still pull small gears out of unmentionable places.

This frame of thought led me to exploration of every aspect of the world around me. I spent hours cooped up in my room reading instruction manuals. Legos, Tinkertoys, and K'nex (yeah, remember those?) were my best friends, for only then could I exercise absolute control of my environment and know exactly how everything worked.

I watched water go down the drain, then dug canals in the sandbox whenever it rained. The mail man soon tired of my constant inquiries. ("I don't know how it works, kid, I just drive the truck!") My poor teachers' only hope for a moment's peace was to place me in a corner with a "Math for Smarty Pants" book.

Soon my young mind happened across a seemingly insurmountable clash of logic. My friends and parents testified of a fat jolly elf who came down the chimney in winter, bearing gifts for the well-behaved. I trusted my parents, for they had never led me astray. My rudimentary knowledge of physics, however, led me to a host of unresolved cognitive dissonances.

"Mom, Santa isn't real, is he." My chin was thrust out in intellectual defiance. My hands, strategically placed upon my hips, demanded a prompt answer. Had there been any pin to drop that was not currently holding my stuffed animals (who were scrupulously organized, not by height or color, but by the type of animal, a precursor to my later zoology studies) together, it would have resonated like an out-of-tune tuba. "'Cause there's no way he could visit all of the children of the world in one night."

My mother is an honest woman. She told me the truth.

It logically followed that the elves, reindeer, and other such mythical winter characters were nothing in my eyes but a two sided ploy. One goal was to get children to behave, the other to get parents to spend money. Both seemed to work surprisingly well, I thought. I chose not to divulge my hallowed secret to the weaker minded among my peers. I deduced that the Easter bunny was also a farce, along with his partner-in-crime, the Tooth Fairy. I insisted that my parents continue the income-producing ritual, with the condition that they leave the teeth, because "Those are cool!". I stashed them in a plastic cylinder, which I still have to this day. Years later, I would regret that my oral surgeon would not be able to complete the collection with my wisdom teeth.

Despite the obvious repercussions of my discoveries, my parents fostered my curious intellect, even going so far as to purchase a set of childrens' encyclopedias. These encyclopedias were my Red Rider BB gun. My eyes swelled when I first saw them. "Finally!" I thought, "Someone has figured everything out! They even put it in book form . . . I must descend upon this fountain of knowledge and devour it immediately!"

"Mom . . . what's this?" My poor mother's eyes followed my forearm down to my finger and then widened in horror at recognition of the full color cross section. How could her sweet young child be asking such questions? Why did a so-called children's encyclopedia even have such images? These questions had little relevance at this point. Pandora's box had been opened, and my mother knew that no half-baked explanations would do. Were she to attempt some sort of feigned explanation, the bombardment of questions that soon followed would completely overwhelm her defenses.

And thus my innocence fell. I knew where Christmas presents came from. I knew where babies came from. Since then, I have longed to return to a world of fantasy. Books and movies do little to quench my thirst. Whenever I try to believe, a voice nags me until I give in to logical explanations. I am doomed to languish in a world of hard facts and cold figures. Instead of being utterly enlightening, as I had hoped, I find it to be rather dull.

I will not buy my son an encyclopedia.

Monday, January 26, 2009



Near the top of the list of Worst Phrases in the English Language, ahead of "Eat Less and Exercise" and "Batteries Not Included," and running nearly parallel with "He Thinks We're Dating Exclusively, But We're Not" is the beastly phrase "Over-Active Imagination."
This is the phrase that gets kids thrown outside for an entire Saturday, that drives the Christmas video game industry, that keeps Ritalin manufacturers in Porsches.
Scientists should be working harder to find a way to harness the raw energy lying dormant inside the brain of the 9-year old boy. Anyone who can prod for four hours straight under the same rock must know something the rest of us don't. And the knock-knock jokes! Oh, the knock-knock jokes. Nonsensical punchlines turn crystalline in pure hilarity.
Nothing is as cliched as a child's boundless imagination, but heck, nothing is as boundless as a child's imagination. Sadly, though, one day, I found my fairyland's iron gates. And they were wired with 20,000 volts.
I was, I guess, bright for a growing boy, though this is not saying much; various documented scientific studies show that boys ages 6-24 are ranked on an intellectual scale somewhere between "dryer lint" and "t.v. blender salesmen." Tests were done comparing a group of fifth-grade males to a random selection of border collies, but the tests had to be cancelled due to "...our dignity being severely wounded in the comparison," said the spokesman for the border collie group, Patches (lawsuits are pending).
My point is, for a male child, I was sailing fairly smoothly. I could make it through an entire day without getting an object lodged in any of my facial orifices, which is more than I could say for some of my friends. I remember pulling half a pencil out of my friend Richard's nose. I assumed, of course, that only half of the pencil was originally inserted into his nostril. Even now, he could still be walking around, smelling rubber eraser everywhere he goes.
Richard Ellis had maybe 15 brothers. No one has documented the exact number, since they are all born at the same height and all wore the same buzzed hair cut. Expeditions of biologists have been sent in to classify their species, and not one has come out, though one Dr. Stimpson was last seen streaking down their road, screaming in fear and covered in a thick layer of spitballs and spaghettios. Though fierce and untamed, this Ellis clan was a creative bunch. Invention's overflow spilled copiously from their ears. They could be entertained for years with the same 2-foot square of plywood, with a sack of pipe cleaners, with a roll of masking tape.
One thing they all had were imaginary friends. The number of fantasy buddies this family employed exceeded the known number of Gods in all combined Eastern religions. Richard's best "friend" was this hep cat named Leo. Leo was the Fonz's cooler older brother. Leo taught Jerry Seinfeld how to be funny, and gave Brad Pitt fashion tips. Leo was also completely bogus.
I, of course, knew this, and pointed it out frequently and eloquently to my friend. "You're faking it, stupid!"
"Nuh uh! No I'm not. Leo's standing right here, and he's totally making fun of you right now."
"No, he's not!" And I would jump liberally on the area that was Leo, punching wildly. "I.....DON'T.......FEEL.......ANYTHING! He's not here! There is no Leo!"
"He doesn't get hurt by people like us. He doesn't have a body. You just can't see him, because he only appears to people he likes who are cool."
Well, I didn't buy it, but I had to admire Richard's stoic dedication to this charade. He would hold lengthy conversations with him in my presence when I became tiresome, and would even elect to pass me over for an afternoon just with Leo. I would watch him, my face pushed up against the cold metal of the chain links separating our backyards, talking to his fake, not real, he's-a-big-dumb-liar friend which I didn't believe in at all. Obviously, Leo was made up as a way for Richard to have something that I didn't. There was no way he could be real. Things like imaginary friends just didn't exist. Right? Obviously?
But I began to become jealous. I didn't know why. How could I be jealous of an IMAGINARY friend? I could walk up to Richard and do the exact same thing, and it would make just as much sense. I could pretend to talk to my doppelganger and share cookies with him and dissect bugs with him just like Richard did with Leo.
That's when I decided I would play his little game. I could make up the best playmate ever. Way better than stupid diaper-head Richard's. So, slamming the fence with my palms, I sprinted away, the clanging chain links beating a cadence to my exit. I had decided to fake it.
Now, this lack of sincerity can be seen in most situations as an adult. The man who comes to church every week and professes faith, but never makes time to read his scriptures. The basketball player who tells reporters that he's working hard to just give his all, but hasn't shot a free throw in practice since he was 12.
I discovered quickly that sincerity is a hard thing to replicate, and that it was far more difficult than anticipated to fudge a friend.
"Hey, Richard. Guess who I brought with me?"
"Who? Is it yo momma? Ha ha chortle ha ha SNORT ha ha ha."
".........No, it...... It's my friend.....Leo.....Le.....Leon....Yeah, Leon! He's really cool. And he has a motorcycle, and, eh, he is a doctor already. And he can jump over buildings."
"Awesome! He seems cool. Do you wanna go dig in the compost heap?"
"Cool. C'mon, Leo. You too, Leon. You can operate on any bugs we find. Let's go dig out some potato bugs, and we can sacrifice them on that anthill over by the basketball hoop."
As his stubbly head bounced off between the two transparent figures, I stood shocked. I don't believe it! He bought it! He thought I had an actual imaginary friend! Not only that, he was embracing the idea. What a sap. This was too easy.
It was a hard act to keep up, though. While Richard and Leo's conversation flowed effortlessly, I felt that Leon's silence made for an awful, one-sided prattling that I just couldn't fully invest in. It was like the three of them had been handed a script, and I never got one. I eventually gave up trying to plumb the depths of Leon's character and focused more on the maggots I had found in a blackened banana peel.
"Hey, do you mind if Leon comes over and stays the night with me and Leo?"
The question caught me off guard, and I had to say I was a little worried for the sanity of my friend. I mean, it was fun, but he knew that this was a game, right? I didn't believe for a second that Leon was sitting at my side, moping and ignored, drawing circles in the muck with a discarded spade. He was not a real person.
"I mean," said Richard, "I figured you probably get to talk to him all the time, so he could come play with us tonight. Is that ok?"
"I....yeah, sure! That'd be great! I'll tell you what, Leon makes a German chocolate cake that will make your head melt, it's so good. You...you kids have fun, I guess." And I hopped the fence and went home.
From my window, I continued to watch as my creation was poached. Their conversation appeared to be quite stimulating. Richard started laughing raucously at one point, rolling back and forth on the ground, unknowingly monitored and, again, envied.
The next day, I went back to reclaim my brainchild.
"OK, Leon needs to come home, now. He, eh, has to do a transplant today, or something."
"Leon doesn't want to come home. He thinks you're boring."
"............My.........imaginary friend..........that I made up yesterday...thinks.......I'm boring......."
"Hey, I'm not saying it, ok? He was just saying that last night, and I figured I'd say something for him."
"I.....why doesn't he tell me himself?" I stared blankly. "Huh? Leon? Go ahead, tell me you want to stay here."
Richard looked at me suspiciously. "Uh......He's not out here. Can't you tell that? He's inside playing chutes and ladders with Leo."
I stood there, flabbergasted. My imaginary friend, the seed of my gray matter, thought I was annoying. And my friend Richard had stolen him from me.
This was to begin a pattern of rejection in my life with which I would soon become accustomed.
I found myself that night in my room, staring blankly at the patterns on my ceiling.
I bored things that didn't exist. I bored things that not only didn't exist, but that I had control over.
I realized that day that I lacked sincerity. I lacked the key component in the normal fantasies of a child.
I did not believe them.
All those times I had dressed up in superhero outfits and set up chairs in the backyard and run around with my brothers, kicking the be-whats'-it out of those chairs, my brothers had truly been masked crusaders exacting justice on a crime-ridden backyard. I had been a boy with a two-holed piece of Styrofoam taped to my face and a cape made out of a ratty beach towel adorning my weak shoulders, and I was running around punting lawn chairs and yelling.
Every time I had thrown a G.I. Joe off the deck in my back yard, I was not actually executing an evil foreign spy. I was throwing a G.I. Joe off a deck in my back yard.
I'd like to say that I was re-born that day, but I wasn't. My childlike Belief had been dragged into the alley by Cynicism and Disappointment and Evidence and they had broken his kneecaps.
So, now I'm making up for lost time. I'm trying to be as illogically happy as I can everyday. I try to find the humor in everyday things. I laugh when someone says "poop." I tell stories about my bike. I believe most things that people tell me have been scientifically proven, because a) like it matters if they actually have, and b) I wouldn't know it if they hadn't.
To date, I have never had another imaginary friend, though sometimes I wish I did, because when you forget their birthdays you can just tell them they have a different one and they have to accept it.
Remember to go ahead and believe in stupid things. Introduce a little childlike sincerity into your life. Make a stupid joke. The best part about and imaginary friend is that they think everything you say is funny.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

To: Everyone From: Justin

A few months ago, my friend and I were talking after class and he said, "You know, this is the first election I can remember where I've been embarassed or afraid to ask people who they support. It's like it's you're asking how much they weigh or something".

Barack Obama was sworn in today as the 44th president of the United States of America. There are plenty of strong opinions percolating among us. This is absolutely a good thing. I know a lot of you are, let's say, less than excited about what happened in this election. Others of you are apathetic, and some of you feel like he couldn't get into office fast enough.

There's a few things I hope all of us can remember today.

Firstly, take a look at how far this country has come. 200 years ago we were trapped in the mire of slavery and oppression. I say "we" because slavery is detrimental not only to those enslaved, but to the entire society. My parents were born when we were a segregated society. Now a man who would have been denied a seat on a bus is the leader of the free world.

Secondly, I believe that debate is healthy. That is the beauty of America. Checks and balances are an essential part of our government. They were instated in order to prevent suffering under the kind of tyranny that the colonies experienced under the rule of Britain. Everyone is welcome to disagree. I'm afraid; however, that our opinions, although often justified, blind us from the truth and the things that are most important.

I believe that we are all children of the same God. You're welcome to disagree with me on this, but whether you believe we're children of God, the latest version of the homo genus, or that we were planted here by extra-terrestrials, it is hard to make a case that we're not all the same. We all love, cry, want, sweat, work, play, live, and hope. That we may all have the unhindered opportunity to do so is the purest form of the American dream.

I hope that we all take the opportunity to hope for a better world. I know President Obama has used this word a lot. Couldn't we all use a little more hope? Hope that your children grow up violence free. Hope that the economy will get better. Hope that your neighbor will come home safely from Iraq. Hope that you do okay on your finals. Hope for the best your life can be.

Today is a day of hope. Come together. Take a step back from your routine. Make a new beginning. Work to make your life and those of your loved ones a little better. Smell a flower, play with the dog. Read Dr. King's "I Have Dream Speech". Tickle your little siblings, neices, or nephews. Get to know your neighbors. Volunteer. Reach out to those whose heads hang down. Read a book to a child. Do whatever you can to improve your community. Smile at total strangers.

Coming together and working for a better tomorrow is what this day is all about. Celebrate your freedom. Keep in mind those who don't have it. Celebrate the peaceful transfer of power. Be grateful. Pursue your happiness. If you don't do it now, who will?

Today is a new beginning. There's a rough road ahead. Won't it be better if we all go down it together?