2009ish, as memory serves. Joseph, my youngest, is 7, and hosting a sleepover.
Joseph’s best friend is Liam. Age 6. Liam has the best laugh in the history of time.
Liam’s overnight backpack doesn’t even make it into the house. When you’re a little boy, play is a serious, urgent business. No, seriously, he drops it on the sidewalk patio and runs into the yard.
First, there’s Smash The Papa. Then there’s Stab Papa To Death With Swords. Then there’s Throw Me On The Trampoline. Yep. I pick the boys up in turn and hurl them onto the trampoline like rag dolls. They bounce. They squeal. They giggle.
Then there’s The Animal Game, where I’m a series of animals increasingly more ferocious, dangerous, and difficult to kill. I begin as a fragile, floating butterfly. Then we move on to the mouse, the kitty, the puppy, the frog, the frog with teeth, the swarm of bees, the wolf, the mean pig, the jaguar, the bull, the elephant, the golden eagle, King Kong, and, finally, the raptor. Imaginary injuries sustained by the hunters are immediately and miraculously treated by the “gorilla fixer.”
Yeah. I know. I didn’t get it at first, either. But somewhere during the game, the boys shape-shifted from hunters with guns to gorillas with swords.
Finally I retire to the back porch, exhausted, resuming my duties as Old Guy who can’t keep up with the endless, breathless energy of little boys. But I eavesdrop. Filled with wonder, I can’t stop eavesdropping. I watch and listen as the two buddies lose themselves in a great drama of play and imagination.
They write the drama literally as they go along. In fact, the ratio between narration and action has to be 2:1 at least, in favor of the great genius of innocent little boys: Future Speak.
Future Speak has a ‘song.’ It comes out in short, choppy bursts and phrases, each ending as a question seeking agreement from the playmate:
Liam: “So, let’s say you’re dead? But it turns out you’re not really dead? So, when I walk by you, you grab my leg, and I grab my sword just in time …?”
Joseph: “Yes, but, this time? When you stab me? I dodge the sword and run away? But I’m a magic jaguar who sheds his skin as he runs away …?”
On and on and on. Imagine. Narrate. Then a few moments of activity.
And suddenly I start laughing, because I wonder what would become of us crusty grownups if we were armed with Future Speak. I mean, what would happen to a husband and wife, suffering from marital malaise and habituated distance, if they could talk in Future Speak?
The Husband comes home from work: “So, what if I come in from the garage, and, I was like, not aloof and grouchy? And, remember when you were mean to me last night? Well, let’s say I was a magic husband who could shed his skin? And I wasn’t still mad at you …?
Wife: “… and, you didn’t know why? But, suddenly you were present to the kids and homework while I made dinner? And then, you were filled with love for me and cleaned the kitchen? While I did the baths and put the kids to bed …”
Husband: “… and then I seduced you? And you remembered that you really LIKE having sex with me …?”
I’m thinking this could really work.
Or how about Future Speak in the hands of someone agonizing in guilt?
“So, what if the way I behaved was really ugly and inexcusable? But, let’s say I was forgivable? And let’s say I decided that despising myself wasn’t helping anyone? And was generally a waste of my time? And, I had a magic wand? And I waved it? And I gave myself another chance to live with love and faithfulness …?”
Yikes, what about Future Speak in the hands of a journalist at a White House press conference:
“So, let’s pretend I stand up and ask a question? But, my question contains fairy dust? And the fairy dust makes you, like, completely candid and honest? And the fairy dust prevents you from talking to me as if I was stupid? And suddenly, you were, like, using nouns, verbs and direct objects in sane, logical and meaningful ways?”
Peter Yarrow’s song Puff, the Magic Dragon is a tragedy, though folks forget that because the melody is so delightful. Nope; the song is about what becomes of a boy in world that requires the sacrifice of imagination as the necessary price for achieving the status of “grownup.” Here, today, on my back porch, watching two innocents, I’m reminded that idea … is wrong. It’s a lie.
If you love someone, remind them to imagine. Remind yourself, too.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at email@example.com.)