My daughter sits at the edge of the pool. She's grown more shy in the last year. She no longer holds herself with the unshakeable confidence of an indestructible five-year-old. She's far from alone. She's surrounded by kids her age, and she occasionally chats up a neighboring girl. But mostly she's not alone because she's brought her imagination with her. She's holding an elaborate conversation with the handful of fairies who follow her everywhere.
Her belief in fairies remains unshakeable, even when her own self-confidence fails. While her certainty of Santa Claus' improbably buffoonish belly and beard was wavering this year, and her belief in God is ever evolving but mixed with wonder and skepticism that will carry her the rest of her life, fairies simply are. It's impossible for her to imagine a world in which fairies aren't real.
Oh that this were me.
Some of her surety comes from living in the woods. Every day she is surrounded by incontrovertible evidence: the mole-tracks under the surface of the snow, the mysterious overnight appearance of eight-inch-tall toadstools, the dew hanging off the pine needles, the tiny dents on the surface of crusted snow. She will admit that her fairies (whose names have evolved since Disney got into the fairy business) are pretend. But she has no difficulty reconciling her pretend fairies with the very real ones around her. After all, she pretends to be a pioneer girl all the time, and they were real.
Children are -- at least for a while -- unselfconsciously imaginative. They're born able to hold two contradictory thoughts in their head at the same time. Both real and pretend. Both happy and sad. Both tired and manic.
It was with some surprise during our trip here to the happiest place on earth that she evidenced no fear of the rides. On entrance to the Magic Kingdom, she ran like a recently restrained cheetah towards Space Mountain, that rocket-in-the-dark that represented the height of 1970s terror. It's dark, it's loud, it's violent, and for a timid 7-year-old girl, one would think terrifying. Later in the week, every thrill ride and roller coaster already conquered, we approached Frozen Walt's latest opus, "Everest." This insanely-great spectacle sends riders in search of the (animatronic) Yeti, deep in the heart of ersatz Tibet. It's easily the best roller coaster I've ever been on, and it has more theme and feel than any movie-ride I've been on as well. It tells a brief, violent, and completely believable tale, written in perfect styrene sculpture, light, sound and motion.
She rode it with her eyes shut. Except the parts where she could tell we were in the dark. I, on the other hand, wanted to ride it again to see the story that's told in the 90 seconds of insanity.
Her imagination needs no stimulus. In fact, it's rebelling against it.
Increasingly, my imagination needs more. Until recently, books were my preferred form of imaginative play. I'd take the words from the page and paint the pictures in my head. I can tell you exactly what Frodo and Rincewind look like, and it has nothing to do with illustrations or movies. I played Dungeons and Dragons with nothing but pen, paper, and dice. Where friends drew pictures of their characters in adolescent scribbles, I left my character sheets pure and abstract.
But as I get older, busier, and my time to focus on myself becomes compressed and shorter, I need immersion. I need someone to take the decisions of imagination -- what color is Doc Savage's hair, how tall is Podkayne -- and simply feed them too me.
About 4 months ago I stopped watching most TV. Some of this was driven by a tide of work drowning my evenings, but mostly, I had grown numb to the endless parade of violence and adrenaline from crime-TV, even most non-crime-TV. It wasn't that I was morally repulsed, far from it. I was simply no longer getting that minor thrill from watching other people's imaginary lives. I needed to get closer to the bone. Even my interest in movies and those few TV shows that do grab my attention has waned.
Instead I play more games. It's a paradox I can't quite get my head around. On the one hand, with my hands on a controller, a keyboard, or a plastic pyramid or a chess piece, I am more involved; more is required of me. It is far from a passive experience. But on the other hand the rules, the structure, and the story are more intense and controlling than they are when reading a book or watching a movie. Perhaps it's the illusion of freedom that actually makes the force-fed imagination that much more palatable.
Usually my gaming leanings have tended to the abstract -- Lumines, Bookworm, Poker, Chess, Icehouse. But even in my game play I'm finding myself demanding more complete self-abandonment. I want both involvement and immersion. Perhaps this is what's made me enjoy the hyper-realism of Gears of War so much. Perhaps it's why my brain has kicked back into a zone where flight sim actually seems exciting, and why the stories of the Lord of the Rings Online have grabbed me. None of these require much from me in the way of imagination because of their very immersion.
I've long thought (perhaps conditioned by the gaming press) of TV and Film and Books as a "passive" medium, and games an "active" one. But I think I've made a false distinction. The difference between a good game and a good book isn't so much the participation level -- I've become very involved with many books. No, it's the level of immersion. I can become more immersed -- and thus imaginatively passive -- in a well made game where I have the illusion of free will.
And this is what I seem to need more of. I know that biologically, as I grow older my senses actually change. My eyesight and hearing will get worse, my sense of taste will morph to where the hot sauce and bitter coffee seem pleasant. My intellectual capacity and my muscle tone will require more and more effort to maintain. But none of this scares me as much as the thought that I have so outgrown my childhood ability to create something out of nothing that the lizard part of my brain has taken over, making me nothing more than a vessel for reaction.
I console myself with the idea that like so many things in my life, this will pass. I've lived a roller coaster of obsessions and delights and depressions and worries my whole life. Not bipolar, merely serially deranged. Perhaps my own children will, as the cliches run, make me feel more like a child myself. But as much as I do genuinely relive childhood joys and sorrows through my children's eyes, I know that I can never, truly go back.