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A child’s history of time

Sometimes when I drive the boys around town I take intentionally circuitous routes, thinking they won’t notice an extra five minutes tacked on to their journey. It’s an extra five minutes of peace for me, keeping them in their car seats, contained, controlled, unable to leap out and run away or start smacking each other about the head.

But lately, C has been on to me. We are taking the long way home from an after-school trip to the supermarket.

“You’re taking the long way! You’re doing it on purpose, to make me tired!” He knows a few extra minutes in the car will push him into nap territory, which is fine with me. “We live the other way! Turn around!”

But sometimes he is in the mood to relent, to relax, to stare out the window for a while, only to be interrupted by T screaming when he sees a bus or a fire truck. Amid the yelling, C waxes philosophical:

“The first people who ever lived,” he starts, “who were their mommies and daddies? If they were the first people, whose tummy were they in?”

That’s a hard one. “It’s a mystery,” I tell him. “We can’t know for sure, because none of us were there. But scientists can look at clues they find in nature and guess.”

The back seat is quiet. There are no buses around. I can almost feel C thinking back there, trying to unravel time. Another thought:

“So, how did all of this get here?” He flaps a hand toward the window. “Who put the trees here, and the houses? Did the first people do that?”

A lot to wrap my head around while I’m wheel-to-wheel with lunatic Boston drivers. “When the world was new, many many years ago,” I begin, “none of this was here. There were no streets, no houses, just nature. Trees, and rivers, and animals. And when humans came around they slowly started adding things to the land, like farms, then streets, and buildings, so over a long time, things began to look how they look now. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” he said. And he nodded off.

C, Kindergartener, is really ramping up on a lot of crucial topics that are set to become his everyday schoolboy occupations. He’s getting the hang of writing, a bit of math, and stringing letters together to begin to read. But he is still trying to grasp the the concept of time. Even the true length of five minutes is hard for him to comprehend. When he needs to wait for me to do something for him, like get him a snack or put on his favorite show, five minutes, by his reckoning, is just a count to five. But when he’s only got five minutes to play before we leave for school, those brief counts turn into hours. “That wasn’t five minutes!” He’s admant. “That was five seconds!”

So it’s no wonder that history, stretching back into the fog of time, is something he has a lot of questions about. That’s a lot of seconds, minutes, and hours for him to hold in his head. And so many of his fascinations are in the realm of long ago. So in C’s personal timeline, history looks like this:

First: Dinosaurs, of course. Then pyramids, and mummies.

Immediately followed by: Pompeii. His favorite.

Up next: Castles and Playmobil knights.

Which brings us straight to: The Revolutionary War.

Then: Papa is born. Poor Papa.

My own childhood fascination timeline looked something like this: Trilobites. Mummies. Ancient Rome. Barbarians and the Dark Ages. The 1950’s. And then you’re Back to the Future.

I must have also asked my parents constant questions about time, because on a trip to the Smithsonian, they bought me a book called Life Story, by the great Virginia Lee Burton (most famous for The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel). I still have the book, and when C asks his questions about the Earth, and what came first then next, and how we got here, we read it together. I still love reading it.

My copy.

It has my name in fourth-grade handwriting inside the front cover, and it’s worn. Published in 1962, it presents the history of the earth as a theatre production, set on a stage, in acts and scenes, beginning with a time when the earth was a “red-hot fiery ball of matter,” and ending in the present, as the seasons change on Burton’s family farm in Massachusetts.

The book beautifully unwinds the tight coil of time into a long, gently turning ribbon; it’s a perfect metaphor. At the beginning of the ribbon is a tiny question mark – the very dawn of everything. The ribbon uncoils, introducing our Sun, and Solar System, and then the book zeroes in on Earth, our home, that fiery ball which cooled and shrank, making mountains like wrinkles. A Geologist on the stage hands over narrator duties to a Paleontologist, who announces the Rains, and the tiny creatures that lived in the great seas that washed over the entire surface of the planet.

Image from childrensbookalmanac.com

Page by page, new players are continually added to the theatre of Life on Earth, from trilobites and cephalopods, to the plants of the ancient forests. I remember, as a child, my favorite page was Act I, Scene 4: Life on the Devonian Shores. From about 350,000,000 years ago, to about 315,000,000 years ago.

“Land plants flourished, clothing our once bare Earth in green…The long Age of Invertebrates had come to an end. Seas, lakes, rivers, and streams swarmed with fish — big fish, little fish, and medium-sized. A few even developed lungs and crawled from puddle to puddle on land.”

In the accompanying picture, strange, curling ferns stretched toward a huge sun, while undersea fish with wide eyes and blunt teeth hunted smaller ones. After I got the book, I was fascinated by the sight of ferns. I tried to imagine that plants very much like the ferns I saw around my town lived millions of years ago, and if I looked at them, and tried to block out everything modern surrounding them, I could take myself back to that long-gone time. I felt like I was trying to recoil all of those ribbons, and hold all of time in my head in a little ball, trying to grasp it all at once, and feel its enormity. It was a great feeling; like a mysterious trance.

[C’s current favorite page is Prologue, Scene 4: Introducing first rocks, Igneous rocks. Featuring the world as one giant Vesuvius]

I decorated the inside cover of the book with Pterodactyl ink stamps that my parents bought me on another trip, also when I was about nine. We rented a house in Watkins Glen, on Lake Seneca, in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. When we got to the house, the yard and every tree in it was covered in black caterpillar-like things, about an inch-and-a-half long. A plague of gypsy moths. They were everywhere. And they were inside the house, too. Knowing my mother, I am shocked we did not get back in the blue station wagon and go immediately back to Long Island to spend the week in the sprinker on our smooth, concrete driveway. But we stayed.

We went to Watkins Glen State Park, where we bought the stamper in a gift shop at the end of a gorge trail. I don’t know if it’s still there, but at the beginning of the trail, I remember a railing with a timeline on it that took you further and further back into history with every step: past the fifties, the birth of Papa, Lexington and Concord, the plague, and the pyramids. To 350,000,000 years ago. And at the end of the railing, you emerged onto the trail, in the gorge, and back at the dawn of time.

This wasn’t like looking at a backyard fern and blocking out the garage and the concrete and the chain-link fence. The primordial world was all around us, without interruption, unbound. There were fossils in the huge walls of Devonian shale that formed the sides of the gorge, which was cut into the earth by a gentle creek flowing on and on over eons. There were plants – huge trees, as well as ferns and mosses, that had been growing there always. And the sounds – rushing water, wind in leaves – were the same sounds the first people must have heard as they walked through that same place thousands of years ago. All that was new were the railings that contained us, stopped us from falling down below, to a bottom I couldn’t see. And the gift shop, that was new too.

English: Watkins Glen, New York

Watkins Glen, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was enrapt, there in the gorge. I felt like I was actually winding back the clock, seeing what life was like before there were streets, and towns, or even foot-beaten trails in the woods. It was amazing. And now, as I listen to his questions, his car-ride conversations, I see C trying to to get to that same place, trying to wrap his head around history, or rather, wrap up history in his head, just like I used to do. I can sense him entering that wonderful trancelike state, playing with the ribbon of time between his fingers.

I need to take him to that gorge. And Pompeii. And a million other places.

As an adult, how do you get that back? How do you let your mind become unbound, unconstrained, uncoiled? How do you allow yourself to imagine the hugeness of the earth, of time, of everything? How can you keep that nerve that lets you believe you can hold it all in your head? Can we do this, can we thread it between traffic jams, and to-do lists, our grown-up cares?  Or do we need to achieve this through our children, let them out of their restraints, watch them as they try understand the world into which they were dropped?

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An Ode to the Dreamcrusher

[This post was featured on Freshly Pressed as part of the Daily Post Challenge!]

It’s funny that I should be writing a tribute to my car. I have never cared about cars, nor found any romance in them. I didn’t even bother to learn to drive until I was 19, which sounds like sacrilege for an American teenager, but back then I went to school in New York and never intended to leave. I thought I would take the M4, and then the F, and work my way through the alphabet for the rest of my days. Now I live in the Boston suburbs with two children, and when I told my five-year-old that his Manhattan cousin takes the bus and the subway everywhere, he said, “What is he, French?” I don’t know what happened.

Now, too far from the diminutive Boston T, with its colonial-sounding stop names (like Alewife and Quincy Adams, and don’t forget Wonderland), we all ride around in another bit of alphabet soup, our Honda CR-V, and it is in praise of this car, which we call the Dreamcrusher, that I write.

The Dreamcrusher.

Half the people in this town must drive CR-Vs. The other half drive Subaru Outbacks (one of which we also own). Though I try not to meet the gaze of a passing driver in an identical navy blue car, I don’t really mind this type of conformity. For me, car choice is not where I choose to express my individuality. I don’t want to turn any heads as I drive down the street; I don’t put on bumper stickers (COEXIST!); I don’t even fix all the dings I’ve received in the nursery school parking lot (none of which were my fault, in case any insurers or my husband is reading this).

We chose the car to get from place to place safely; to have enough trunk space to tote groceries and a stroller; and not have to worry about a temperamental engine that might require service in the middle of any given hectic week. Which is what I guess every CR-V driver wants. They are probably, like me, in their thirties, with young children, and care that the passenger door opens to 90 degrees so you can haul a car seat out more than that it only has four cylinders. I don’t even know what I’d do with two extra cylinders. Route 2 is not the Nurburgring, though people drive as though it is.

My husband and I started calling the car Dreamcrusher after watching the CR-V’s latest the ad campaign. Open any Real Simple magazine, and you’ll see a pleasing two-page spread, featuring a little vignette about some guy who’s about to get married wants to tick x, y, and z off his bucket list (in the ad they call it a “leap list” – ie, things to do before you make the leap to marriage or children). There’s also one about some nice young lady who wants to do ever so much before she has children. These hopeful types dream of backpacking in Yosemite, learning to fly, starting a garage band…the usual prosaic stuff that marks youthful accomplishment prior to settling down. The ads are meant to say: “There’s so much in life yet to do! This car will take you there!”

But anyone who is seriously contemplating buying a CR-V can read the subtext:

“It’s too late to buy that Mini, or the Jeep with no doors. It’s not practical now. I’m about to make the leap from the corner bar to my couch every night, so I might as well get it over with and get the boring family car. I can tell myself I can always throw a drum kit in the back, but I’d have to move all those reusable grocery bags I keep forgetting to reuse and the portable potty. The garage will house a Cozy Coupe now, not a band. Let’s face it; if I haven’t done it yet, it’s not going to happen in these last months of pregnancy. My dreams are officially crushed.”

Your new roadie van.

Why do you think Honda chose Matthew Broderick to front their new ads? An actor who, even in squidgy middle age, is still Ferris Bueller, still embodies that young American vigor, the spirit that tells you you can do anything, and then you do. Just take the Ferrari keys and go. But look at him now. He’s not that guy anymore, and neither are you. But I see him, with salt-and-pepper hair, and his shirttails hanging out hopelessly, and I think, I’m OK with that. Where do I sign? No, I don’t need a moonroof.

Matthew Broderick

The Ferrari’s been crashed. (Photo credit: nick step)

I like the ads. They’re not lying to me. They are letting me down easy. They’re giving me a little wink toward my past, and a reminder that my present and future is not about me, it’s about my boys, and their dreams. The places I’ll take them. In a car with five-star crash test whatever and side airbags. So Honda, for that, danke schoen.

And now, in spite of the CR-V’s ubiquitity, the Dreamcrusher has become a microcosm for our own particular family life. There are the scrapes where the two-year-old threw a rock at the bumper (now you know, Dad), the Wiggles and the Guided by Voices discs that alternate in the CD player, and the Matchbox cars tucked into every available pocket. The sippy cup of sour milk under the seat. The Saint Anthony card from my grandmother’s funeral watching over us from the dash. Fourteen half-full wipe containers, and just as many empty sunscreen and Purell bottles. Sand from five different beaches. A Star Wars book I held out the window, threatening to chuck it if a certain someone didn’t calm down. A world of lost Lego.

Well, actually, not anymore. Somehow I felt that if I cleaned up our dirty family car, and organized it with color-coded pouches for every eventual necessity, that my whole life would feel more orderly and calm as well. So a week or so ago I took the car to be professionally cleaned. In the cool morning, with fall in the air, I pulled out the car seats. It was like when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault. Remember all that dirt that fell out of that thing? That’s how many Goldfish crumbs were under those seats. I hoped that saint card on the dash wasn’t a secret portal to my late Italian grandmother‘s soul, because if she could have seen the carpet of bright orange nightmare that was under there, any protection she might have sent me from on high would be revoked. Oh, the shame.

Now, it’s September. We’ve said goodbye to the beach, we’re getting ready for school (which we can walk to, thankfully). As I take the Dreamcrusher to the car wash to vacuum out the last bits of summer, I think back to when I was little, when my Dad drove us in his red 1966 Corvette down the causeway to the beach near where we lived in Long Island. I, the oldest, sat between the seats, with one sister on the floor, the other in my mother’s lap. He’d point out rabbits on the roadside as we sped along to the oceanfront, the salty wind whipping our hair. Those days we’ll never see again. Mainly because my parents would be arrested if they put all those kids in a car without restraints.

But thinking of those days reminded me how much romance there is in our cars after all. They don’t have to be red and screaming, but whatever they are, our cars do more than drive us from the supermarket to the playground to karate and home again. They represent the open road, the conveyance of our dreams, all the things we want for our families: vacations we’ll never forget, graduations, visits to friends and family, unexpected adventures. The Dreamcrusher will take us there. And when our kids grow up, God willing, we’ll take out the car seats and the potty and have room again for the drum kit, or the camping gear, or a Metrocard – all those silly youthful dreams that took a backseat to what would be our best dreams. But hopefully we’ll have a new car by then.

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