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Thursday, February 24, 2011

A CALL FOR IGNORANCE -- and the Gap Between Observation and Reality

From chapter 3 of Summerland, by Michael Chabon:

Jennifer T. Rideout had spent more time at the ruins of the Summerland Hotel than any other child of her generation.  It was a thirty-seven-minute hike, through woods, fields and the parking lot of the county dump, from the Rideout place to the beach.  There was no road you could take to get you there; there had never been a road to the hotel.  That was something she had always liked about the place.  In the old days, her uncle Mo had told her, everything came to the hotel by steamship: food, linens, fine ladies and gentlemen, mail, musicians, fireworks on the Fourth of July.  Though nowadays it was a popular spot for teenagers in the summer, on gray winter afternoons Hotel Beach could be pretty forlorn.  As if in payment for the miracle of its summer sunshine, in the winter it was tormented by rain and fog, hailstorms, icy rain.  Green stuff grew all over everything, this weird cross between algae and fungus and slime that settled like snow over the piles of drift and anything else that was made out of wood.  On a damp, chilly winter afternoon she often found herself to be the only human being on the whole Tooth.
Another thing she liked, besides the solitude, were the stories.  A boy from up by Kiwanis Beach wandered into one of the abandoned beach cabins at dusk and came out stark raving mad, having seen something he could never afterward describe.  Ghosts of the hotel dead, ghostly orchestras playing, phantoms doing the Lindy Hop in the light of the full moon.  Sometimes people felt someone touching their cheek, pinching their arm, even giving them a kick in the seat of the pants.  Girls had their skirts lifted, or found their hair tied in intractable knots.  Jennifer T. didn’t necessarily believe these legends.  But they gave Hotel Beach an atmosphere that she enjoyed.  Jennifer T. Rideout believed in magic, maybe even more than Ethan did—otherwise she could not have been a part of this story.  But she also believed that she had been born a hundred years too late to get even the faintest taste of it.  Long ago there had been animals that talked, and strange little Indians who haunted the birch wood, while other Indians lived in villages on the bottom of the Sound.  Now that world had all but vanished.  Except on the ball field of Summerland, that is, and here at Hotel Beach.

My typical cycle of audiobooks has brought me back to Summerland.  I don't have very many audiobooks, and we haven't been back to the library anytime recently to get one I haven't already listened to a dozen times.  I don't mind.  This is a fantastic--and a fantastical--book, which, like so many of the best books, yields something new with each pass.

I listened to this passage (quoted above) about my favorite character from the book, Jennifer T., while driving home from work yesterday, and it got me thinking (fear not: I didn't hurt myself!) --not that my thoughts generally, much less these particularly, brought anything revolutionary.  Really this is all pretty old stuff, but borne upon something more poignant, less abstract.

We all know, of course, that superstition comes from ignorance.  The more educated you are, generally, the less superstitious you are.  Generally.  Along these same lines, and with far less connoted negativity, so the ability to live, to exist, and from within the very substance of one's imagination--to miss the fuzzy borders that divide personal fantasy from reality (and as only the recklessly preoccupied and gleefully distracted kid can do) --is reliant on ignorance.  Education and wisdom (conventional wisdom) de-fuzz that border.  This is not to say the educated can't imagine, but their (dare I say "our"?) imaginations must be lived out and delivered packaged neatly within the strictures of contrivance--the story, the picture, the movie, etcetera.

I watch my children, whose imaginations are just as real as reality, and I weakly relive, vicariously, the days when I was so ignorant (back before I'd burdened myself with the inconvenience of all this cumbersome knowledge, which, far from anything to boast of, so often translates merely to feeble pragmatism), and likely to trip, literally, into real fantasy, as they.

Maybe I'm irresponsible:  is the desperate speed with which we educate our children, and in effort to keep up with all the international and unimaginative Joneses, really so necessary?  More favorably and locally:  I wish I could be less responsible; and, even less likely and more selfishly, I wish I could be both.  I wish, often, that I could backtrack, wash away, as does Ethan in Summerland's finale (vague spoiler in the next phrase), where, by the mighty force of his childish faith and desperation, he returns the magic, eradicates Coyote's mischief, and the galls between the several worlds are remade.  But I can't.  No one can.  Once the magic is lost, it's gone, only to be had second-hand or through the machine--organic or calculated--of art and entertainment.  The less we know, the greater the gap between our observations and reality, and the more space there is for our imaginations to fill.  That gap shrinks as our life, within the real world, jades us.

Not that education is so bad.  Learning about this world and the reality of distant others--which learning is so often just as mysterious and mystifying as that childish magic in the gap--for me, an adult (more or less), carries, as far as I can tell, a very similar, and often as powerful, a bliss as those bygone fantasies and space-aliens and lands where I could speak the languages of all the prolix beasts, all so tangibly "real."

Dreams are insufficient proxies for the waking reality of childhood magic that lives and breathes around them, wheezes and coughs under their beds, in the vacant spaces away from knowledgeable adults, within the stuffed heads of teddy bears and rayon tigers--in the Lego box, the coloring book, or building blocks.  That empty air that crackles with life between the ecstatic faces of my 6- and 3-year-olds.

I love my books.  I love my "academic" discussions.  I love watching Jeopardy or playing Trivial Pursuit and knowing stuff.  I love being an English teacher and yet find that I can fairly fluently teach 7th and 8th grade science (not that this is so impressive, I know, but you get the idea).  And when it comes right down to it, the loss of magic--the narrowing of that gap--is inevitable.  'Tis the world we live in.  Responsibility erases the freedom of childhood.  Stuffed animals and Legos are no longer any more than stuffing and plastic.  That electric air loses its charge, as stress of bills, work, and family mount.  For this, then, to preserve what does yet remains of the gap, or even just fabricate a little more of it every once in while, I am eternally grateful for books, for movies, for stories, and  the ever-childish interest I have in creating/writing, and maybe, flimsily, even inhabiting my own.


  1. Very well done. Definitely a reason why books are so great. Last night, I spent a couple hours applying to seminaries, maybe not stressful, but not a lot of fun, but then when I was able to relax with my Nook for a half-hour, it took my mind off filling in annoying forms. It's the best part of every evening.

    Also, I read "Summerland" a few years ago. It combined fantasy literature and baseball, so definitely a win for me.

  2. Also, it is with deep regret that I note that "James and the Giant Peach" is winning. I'll wake up tomorrow, and the world will be flat and the Beltway won't be an ungodly traffic jam.

  3. Well, at least something good will come of your disillusion! (Enlist some voters over there. I'm actually surprised by the results so far, as Charlie is so much more popular.)


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