Read an Excerpt
Sons as Teachers: An Introduction
It is the late 1980s, an unseasonably hot Saturday afternoon in May, with only a few weeks left in the school year. A water war is about to erupt in my backyard. Six boys ranging in age from ten to thirteen are dividing into two opposing groups. My sons, one on each side, will use their own personal rivalry to keep the battles escalating.
Before the first shot is fired, however, the boys sit in a shady spot on the grass and draw up the rules of conduct. They choose weapons. Each side has access to two battery-powered plastic Uzi's that can shoot a stream of water for a distance of twenty feet or more. They have a few ordinary water pistols and these, they decide, are acceptable weapons, though for a conflict of this magnitude, nearly obsolete.
Sitting at the dining room table near the open window that faces the backyard, I can hear their entire operating plan as I write out checks to pay the bills. Soon, my older son appears inside the house and begins rooting around in both of our junk drawers. "Do we have any balloons?" he asks. But before I can answer, he has opened the hall closet and is rummaging through a box on the floor.
"No balloons in there," I say.
"Advertiser bags," he says excitedly. Though his younger brother no longer delivers the free weekly paper filled with classifieds to every house in the neighborhood, we still have a large cache of the very thin clear plastic bags that had been an essential part of the paper route. My son runs into the bathroom, half fills one of the bags, and ties off the open end. Yes! It holds water but is thin enough to break on contact. Once he isoutside again, another arms control agreement is carefully negotiated. Each side is limited to a specific number of preloaded Advertiser water bombs, but all combatants can refill their Uzi's and water pistols from strategically placed buckets at any time. There are also boundaries: our entire front and back yard; another boy's yard, which is two doors down; the unpaved alley that runs behind the houses on our side of the street.
After the boys fill the buckets and all their weapons from the hose in the backyard, they go off to their separate bases of operation, where they spend another fifteen minutes planning strategy. Then the war begins the shouting, running, hiding, shrieking, and the splattering of water bombs and soon all six boys are wearing soppy shorts, clinging T-shirts, and dripping hair. By this time I am at the window taking in as much of the war as I can. I feel the joy of seeing them completely delighted and absorbed by child's play on this perfect day, but I also feel more than just a physical distance as I stand back and watch this world of boys. A water war was something that I had clearly missed as a child. If my older brother's friends had tried to organize such a match, I would have either been excluded from it or quickly overpowered. If there were battles in our girl world, my friends and I fought them either with words or calculated silence. If we squabbled too long or if someone ended up in tears, my mother would use her dictatorial powers to call off the war and send the other girls home. It never occurred to my friends and me that we might fight for fun, that we would admit to a battle of any kind.
* * *
That day in May marked the first of several backyard water wars, but it was also the first time I had consciously envied my sons' obvious "otherness." Although before that time I had certainly admired what I saw as their boyness both sons at two and three fearlessly racing their Big Wheels down our steep driveway; Jeremy at nine building a tree fort completely without adult interference; Jordan spending hours each day after school fishing for crawdads in the creek I had little experience with, or interest in, any of these activities myself. Although I am certain there were girls from my generation who enjoyed digging in the mud, racing their bicycles, or collecting slimy, fat night crawlers to skewer on the end of a fishing hook, I was not one of them. Content with my girl world of jump rope and jacks, paper dolls and playing house, I saw no need to cross a gender boundary and had little reason to believe I might be missing something on the "other side." As an adult, however, this particular inexperience often left me puzzled over the habits of my sons and their friends, particularly their methods for satisfying a need for physical contact. Why, when more than two boys were together in my living room, did they have to spend so much time wrestling and rolling around on the floor? This behavior always left me in a state of agitation: Can't you stop that for just one minute?
My sons were born during the 1970s, a time when a large part of my self-image was in the process of being torn down and reconstructed under the light of the feminist movement. For a time I belonged to a consciousness-raising group, and the members of this association all believed in the same basic tenet: with regard to nature versus nurture, the scales tipped substantially on the side of nurture. As we sat around one another's living rooms on Wednesday nights (after cooking dinner, doing dishes, and getting the kids into their pajamas), we talked about two issues: our bodies and how to take care of them, and our men and how to get them to be more like us. There were six of us; we were close in age, from twenty-nine to thirty-five; and each of us had at least one young son, a toddler or preschooler, whom we were raising in our own image. It was the adult men who were the "other" or so we wanted to believe.
Despite the obvious physical differences between them and us, when our sons were small, we believed that everything was environment. After all, we were in the middle of a revolution; we were finally asserting our power; and as we fought out the gender war, we were seizing control blazing the trail for ourselves, our sons, and the future women in our sons' lives. The boys we were parenting would be cooks, housekeepers, caretakers, and good listeners; we would train them well to be just like us. And even though most of us climbed into bed with one every night, an adult male was the enemy, and we would do whatever it took to stop our little boys from ever straying into the enemy camp.
At the co-op nursery school my sons attended, parents were required to work three hours a week. Except for the last year I was there, those parents were all women who thought of themselves as "enlightened" moms: We were raising our preschoolers by the unisex method. The girls (by God) would be doctors, astronauts, chemical engineers, and gourmet cooks; the boys would be gourmet cooks and doctors, astronauts, and chemical engineers. There was only one problem with this ideology: at the co-op nursery school, most of the boys stayed clear of the play kitchen, and most of the girls avoided the Tonka trucks. After much discussion among the parents, Barbara, the school's director, decided that each child should be encouraged at "free time" to become engaged in an activity that she or he did not ordinarily participate in. Parent helpers would usher the girls, who spent most of their time at the dress-up corner pretending to be princesses and brides, over to the Legos and send the boys, who always gravitated to digging outside in the sand, over to the dollhouse. This plan failed miserably, of course, as the three- and four-year-olds could not be persuaded to alter their daily routines, but no mother would dare to suggest that the cause of the failure might be some inherent gender...differences.
* * *
As time passed, and I could see that my sons, despite me, were developing a number of stereotypical masculine interests, my rigid ideology gave way. Getting older, getting divorced, and acquiring more life experience helped in this process, but I credit my sons with moving me toward a more humanistic view. Each of my sons, in his own way, made me see that by trying to create a dream child in my own image, I was also creating mile-high hurdles and asking him to jump over them. It took many years and a great deal of painful conflict to learn to be aware of, to respect, and to honor my sons' unique and separate identities. The challenge for mothers of sons is to realize that because we do not share a sexual identity, that because we have not grown up in a male body, we cannot presume to understand everything there is to know about our sons' world. There is as much to learn from the experience of rasing young men as there is to teach young men about what it is to be female.
The idea for this anthology came to me one quiet Sunday afternoon when, with both of my sons in college, I decided to tackle a project I'd been avoiding for years. From a dusty storage room, I brought two large cardboard cartons filled to overflowing with the boys' old schoolwork down to my living room and began sorting. I planned to end up with two much smaller boxes, one for each son, that would be representative of his school years. I saved only a small portion of the worksheets and timed math tests (the ones with the perfect scores, of course), but I lingered over each piece of art and writing: my older son's second-grade journal, illustrated to show that his father no longer lived with us; a bound collection of fifth-grade empathy cards expressing concern over the accident in the school yard that resulted in my younger son's broken arm; cartoon drawings of warplanes dropping their bombs on a company of stick figures below; construction-paper Mother's Day cards, complete with white-paste-encrusted paper doilies.
Behind each item was a story, and in the days and weeks after I had finished this project, I began to think more and more about how my life over a period of twenty years (thirteen of those as a single parent) had been shaped by these two male children. While they were at home and I was completely occupied getting through each food-shopping cycle, each soccer or baseball season, each school year, I did not have time to step back and see what these boys had taught me. My focus was always on how much I had to prepare, advise, and instruct them. As I sent each son off to college, I lamented, If only I could have one more year, I could get through all the lessons I didn't have time for.
But when I finally had the house to myself and had accepted the reality that there were some lessons that would never be taught, I began to see how much my children had influenced me. The best times for the three of us together, I recalled, were extended car trips where we drove halfway across the country and camped along the way. I remembered that even when they were thirteen and fifteen, before either of them had a license to drive, I felt in many ways protected by these budding young men, who by then had already begun to tower over me. They taught me to be more adventurous (Let's see where this unpaved road leads us), to face fear head-on (Bears are as afraid of people as people are of them), to be less uptight when things don't go as planned (So what if we've forgotten the tarp that goes over the tent roof and the rain is coming in through the net ceiling). They taught me to respect and admire differences, showed me that I can marvel at the intensity of their interest in fly-fishing or rebuilding car engines when I have no inclination to take up either of those myself. Or, as Deborah Galyan says in "Watching Star Trek with Dylan," "I want to honor all that he is, without denying his essential architecture, the structures and circuitry that shape his dreams." I also learned from my sons that it was not necessary to compromise their maleness when promoting my feminist leanings. In "Soldier Son," Janet Burroway puts it this way: "I'm forced to be aware of my own contradictions in his presence: a feminist often charmed by his machismo."
* * *
When I began this anthology, I wanted to put together the book that I had so often looked for when my sons were growing up. Throughout the child-rearing years, I craved the stories I heard from other mothers, particularly mothers of sons. Although there seemed to be an extensive literature on mother-daughter relationships and another growing body of work on fathers and daughters, I could find few printed stories about the mother-son relationship the very foundation of all female-male connections.
* * *
This silence, I discovered, could be broken. In response to my letter inviting the writers in this anthology to contribute an essay, I received only the most enthusiastic responses. I had asked these writers to commit to the collection by sending me only a brief description of their proposed essays. The proposals came back to me quickly, the writers thanking me for giving them the opportunity to write about their sons.
This anthology, I believe, questions the current mythology about mothers of sons as controlling, meddling, overly protective, smothering, punitive, or emotionally distant. By diffusing these cultural myths, the narratives in this collection also create new metaphors for this intense attachment. These are personal stories by mothers who have all come to acknowledge and celebrate their sons' individuality. They have also acknowledged the struggle they face in coming to understand their sons' "otherness." (Who is this male child who came out of my female body?) My hope is that this book will break the silence surrounding this powerful relationship.
Iowa City, Iowa
Copyright © 1999 by Patricia Stevens
Watching Star Trek with Dylan
Upstairs on the bridge my husband, the first officer, is at his station cooking up that brand of boxed macaroni and cheese inexplicably yet consistently preferred by the human young, and slicing bananas under the steady gaze of his commanding officer. The captain has friendly brown eyes and a deep dimple that appears like a Cracker Jack prize each time he smiles. He is guzzling a cup of apple juice and jiggling both feet. He is five and one half Earth years old. The captain is, in my opinion, exceedingly handsome in a big-cheeked, humanoid way. One sock on. One unaccounted for. He is Captain Dylan Walker, commander of our starship, whom I sometimes still think of as my son.
"More juice, Number One," he says to the first officer. (It is a tradition for the commander of a Starfleet vessel to address his first officer affectionately as "Number One.")
"One moment, sir," Number One says. "I'm receiving a macaroni signal."
Number One has earned his position between the cutting board and the range in this, the high command center of our ship. His macaroni-boil-over training has served him well. He performs the chemical bonding flawlessly, blending the secretions of lactating mammals with the garish orange powder our young perceives as cheese sauce. I slouch in the doorway between the bridge and Sector I, waiting for my cue.
"What species are those bananas?" the captain inquires.
The first officer regards the sliced bananas with uncertainty. "Sir, I am inclined to say they are of Vulcan origin. I am uncertain of the species."
"If you don't know, ask Data," the captain prompts.
"Data!" my husband shouts. "What species are these bananas I'm slicing for the captain?"
I walk in stiffly, regard the bananas with androidlike curiosity, I hope. "Sir," I say. "These bananas are genus Overripus, species Chiquitum. A Romulan variety, grown only on the twin planets Norzac and Prozac."
Number One winces. "Now he won't touch them. Romulans are bad guys. And that makes these bad-guy bananas."
I'm prone to such mistakes. I feel miscast as Data, the opal-eyed android who is basically a super-computer in pants. I'm reduced to scatting gibberish spattered with malapropisms, changing the Ferengis into Ferraris, reaching for Cardassian but landing short on Cardamom.
We turn and face the captain, who scowls at us.
"Romulan bananas are against Starfleet regulations, I want Betazoid raisins with my lunch."
Number One hesitates. The evil Romulan bananas are already arranged in a pleasing spherical pattern on the rim of the captain's plate. But, wisely, he concedes.
"As you wish, Captain."
"Make it so," the captain says.
Dylan is having his first love affair with Star Trek. I am having my second. I watched the original series when it aired in 1966. I was eleven that year. I remember praying after each episode for NASA to somehow accelerate its timetable, so that I could have Lieutenant Uhura's job in real life, and hopefully her uniform and mod dangle earrings, the likes of which had never been seen before in the vast midwestern interior. Three decades later I haven't a clue what Star Trek meant to me back then, beyond the fact that it was immensely pleasing to spend an hour each week in a world where no person or alien life-form dressed or talked or behaved like my parents or teachers.
This time around, watching Star Trek is a more urgent experience. To watch it with Dylan is to watch someone in the throes of intense epiphany. I am not so much watching Star Trek myself as I am watching Dylan watch Star Trek, and I see in him a kind of deep recognition that suggests the presence of a paradigm encoded in the brain before birth. He sees something he recognizes, something he has been waiting to see for most of the two thousand days he has lived thus far on Earth. A world where life, as far as he is concerned, has recovered its one true objective, and therefore, its majesty and worth.
As every TV-acculturated American knows, Star Trek is a drama about people who navigate magnificent starships through our galaxy's outback, and possess cool technology and wear, as Dylan once put it, "excellent uniforms." In Star Trek, a person can be blasted with a laser and brought back to consciousness with another laser that looks eerily like the laser that blasted him in the first place. The crew go about their business with weird nonchalance, seemingly oblivious that they are hurtling through space at unfathomable speeds toward God knows what. The point is, after all, to go, and boldly, where no one has gone before, to explore new worlds, to discover new civilizations, perhaps though this part is apparently too bold to include in the series's prologue to map the shape of creation itself.
I hope I never forget the expression on Dylan's face the first time he saw the opening frames of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was a late fall evening in 1996, toward the end of a busy work and school week. Tired, we had abandoned our dinnertime decorum for plates in our laps in front of the tube. Dylan, sensing acquiescence in his weakened elders, commandeered the forbidden remote and clicked it only once. And there it was, the good ship U.S.S. Enterprise, cruising majestically past an orange planet with lavender moons. Until that night, I had harbored a sort of high-minded idea of the countenance of rapture. I thought it must resemble a painting by Gustav Klimt or a poem by Rilke, but as it turns out, it looks like a little boy in baggy overalls, a half-eaten cheese sandwich in his fist, watching Captain Jean-Luc Picard command the bridge of the Enterprise.
That night I watched Dylan maneuver, in openmouthed awe, one limb at a time around the coffee table and across the floor, until he was in immediate danger of bumping his nose against the screen. If it were possible, he would have passed through it and taken his adventure inside, like Alice through her glass.
"What is this show?" he asked.
"Star Trek," I answered. "I'm not sure we should watch it."
"I need to watch it," he said.
My husband and I commenced secret communication, as all parents forced to negotiate in the presence of their children must, using a highly evolved series of shoulder shrugs and facial twitches. My twitches indicated that I wasn't sure what to do, since, technically, Star Trek qualifies as a "shooting show."
A shooting show is our private nomenclature for any television show in which people (morphed or otherwise), animals, robots, aliens, or mutant turtles engage in the use of weapons, no matter how poignant their reasons might be, or any show in which the accoutrements of violence or engagement therein is made to look awesome or cool. Shooting shows are not watched in our house, and the rule is so strictly observed that one need merely shout "shooting show!" once to justify a change of channel.
But that night, my husband's facial muscles argued, Oh, what the hell. Nobody is shooting right this minute. Let it go, at least for tonight.
So it was, on a night of lax parental discipline, that Dylan discovered the ultimate metaphor for his five-year-old boy life. What else had we deprived him of, I wondered, in our fevered efforts to make him a peaceable creature?
There is a great movement in contemporary parenting to prevent children from watching violence on television. This means millions of parents must deny their children access to approximately half of all network programs and nearly all cable television programs, according to the National Television Violence Study. There is something oddly omissive about this strategy, for it amounts to withholding from our children an ugly truth about their culture: that it equates violence with entertainment. I'm not sure that this collective effort will save them from it, particularly the boys, who, in my observation, are plenty capable of generating entertainment violence without the assistance of television.
My son has, thus far, been sheltered from television violence and seems no more or less aggressive than other boys his age. Yet he thrives on rough-and-tumble engagement with other boys, a karate contest or a round of sword fighting with sticks. As a toddler he astonished us with his compulsion to hit, which continued long after he developed the verbal skills to mediate conflict, and now it's his demented genius for transforming the most benign playthings into dangerous weapons. And so, we remind him constantly that playing at fighting is a rehearsal for the real thing. He listens and clearly understands and goes off somberly to his room, where, we later discover, he has quietly fashioned a laser gun from a fistful of Legos and is blasting everything in sight. It's something buried deep in his bones. A thing he must do.
As luck might have it, of all the action-adventure shows Dylan might have fallen in love with, Star Trek: The Next Generation is the least likely to resort to entertainment violence. Starfleet officers of the United Federation of Planets take great pains to avoid war in intergalactic relations. There is a great deal of talk about conflict resolution, many peace conferences, much counseling of prudence. But every other episode or so, and much to Dylan's delight, diplomacy breaks down, and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves with no other recourse but to destroy a Klingon Bird of Prey, or to blast away at some murderous crystalline entity or other. When that point of crisis finally comes, they make it look both awesome and cool with phasers, improvised warp weapons, and the ultimate: photon torpedoes. And to this day, on our particular starship, whoever engages the garbage disposal must first shout: "Firing photon torpedoes!" We have learned to wash dishes in the shadow of war.
I used to worry that our decision to let Dylan watch Star Trek would unravel everything he learned during his days at a Montessori preschool run by a goddess-worshiping, multiracial women's collective on Cape Cod. The school was a place of peace and wonder, a liberal parent's dream come true, where the children began their day sitting on a huge canvas floor cloth of Mother Earth, saying a pledge to protect and nurture Her and each other. The children baked whole wheat bread for their daily snack, made sculpture from recycled junk, composted with earthworms, and took turns feeding Sappho, the school guinea pig. Each child had a designated task of the week, one of which was peacemaker. And while Dylan benefited from these lessons and applied them where he could, he clearly loved the school less than I loved the idea of the school.
Something about it did not honor his boy soul. I think it was the absence of physical competition. Boys who clashed or tussled with each other were separated and counseled by the peacemaker. Sticks were confiscated and turned into tomato stakes in the school garden. And much to the dismay of their benevolent guardian-teachers, the boys worked out ingenious loopholes to bypass the ban on competition. They organized a daily tournament of extreme playground sports, including ant races and digging contests in the sand pit. It finally came to me that the school was a kind of utopia, based on a dream I harbored for Dylan. I wanted him sheltered from a competitive, narcissistic culture that teaches the wrong lessons to children, but more than that, I wanted to protect him from the dangerous excesses of his gender. I thought if I could keep him long enough in a place inhabited by a feminist guinea pig and a peacemaker, he would never develop the behaviors for which boys are often maligned and often guilty: excessive aggression and competitiveness and arrogance. And, until I saw him there, day after day, thigh-deep in wet sand, furiously digging a hole that would soon strike the water table, I didn't completely realize what I had done: I had sent him there to protect him from the very circuitry and compulsions and desires that make him what he is. I had sent him there to protect him from himself.
After much discussion, we all agreed that Dylan should attend public kindergarten the following fall, and I set about to answer certain questions. How could I be a good feminist, a good pacifist, and a good mother to a stick-wielding, weapon-generating boy? And, what, exactly, is a five-year-old boy?
A five-year-old boy, I learned from reading summaries of various neurological studies, is a thing that has a lot more wiring on the fight side of the brain than on the left. This condition develops during a crucial stage of fetal brain growth, during which the brain is busy sending out nerve bundles that connect the right and left hemispheres. It turns out that girl fetuses get busy right away making lots of these connections, equipping themselves to access both right- and left-side functions equally well. For some mysterious reason, boy brains aren't quite up to speed when this process begins. When the nerves venture out from a boy's right brain hemisphere to connect with the left, they discover that there's not much there to hook up with, so they turn back and connect with one another on the right side of his brain. Upon learning this, I had to resist the temptation to suspect that the boy fetus is somehow already goofing off in utero, already not listening, not even to his own biological imperatives, while the girl fetus gets the job done and earns a star for neatness, too.
That boys have more elaborate neural networks on the right side of the brain accounts for their propensity for spatial relationships and problem solving. Girl brain functions are more generalized; boy brain functions, more specific. A boy's big, lopsided brain sends him one clear message: "Your job is to explore the world by Moving Objects Through Space." Of course, some of the neural fibers in a boy fetus do eventually cross over, connecting the right hemisphere with the left. This explains why boys are sometimes capable of answering a question or performing a simple task of personal hygiene before returning to their primary mission.
For a five-year-old boy, moving objects through space could mean playing with blocks, working puzzles, drawing pictures, playing soccer, mixing cookie dough, riding a bike, playing a computer game, making a bed. But because of that other biologically determined gender marker, testosterone, it also frequently means moving Power Ranger/Batman/Hercules/Masked Rider/Beetle Borg/Beast Wars/Star Wars and/or Star Trek action figures through space, or moving the self through space while performing excellent karate moves on parents and/or cringing siblings, or, even more gratifying, the combination platter: hurtling Power Ranger et al. action figures toward cringing siblings while performing excellent karate moves on parents.
This is what a boy is: he is a beautiful, fierce, testosterone-drenched, cerebrally asymmetrical humanoid carefully engineered to move objects through space, or at very least, to watch others do so.
Just to make sure the theory had depth, even in the most abstract of circumstances, I once asked my husband how the proclivities of right-brain dominance assert themselves in his not-exactly-action-packed life as an academic administrator. What could his job possibly have to do with the mission to move objects through space?
"I move degree programs through vast, uncharted stretches of bureaucracy," he said without a moment's hesitation. "And e-mail enables me to shoot dozens of information missiles through cyberspace each day."
So, what can I do to nurture my son, this practically alien being?
One thing I can do is let him watch Star Trek, for what he recognizes in it, I am now sure, is the plain truth about his destiny. Whether I let him watch it or not, he has already pledged himself to the mission. For these are biologically predetermined voyages not even a mother can halt.
A few weeks after Dylan watched his first Star Trek, we sat him down and told him that we would be moving in a month from our home on Cape Cod to Bloomington, Indiana. My husband had been offered a good job at Indiana University. The move meant a better work environment for him, one less fraught with political treachery, and more cultural opportunities for us all. Dylan took the news badly, looking glum at first, then stricken. To him, moving meant abandoning his two best friends: the fair, implacable Ardis, with whom he played a passable, if reluctant, John Smith to her emotionally commanding Pocahontas, and Robin, possessor of an extraordinary collection of Batman action figures, as well as interesting plastic weaponry, with which they joyously whaled away at each other at every opportunity.
"Why?" he wanted to know.
We explained. The new job is better, more opportunity, more money. We would have a new house in a lively college town, good schools, museums, closer to grandparents and cousins. We even went so far as to say that we would have a happier life.
"Okay," he said. "But do we have to?"
Every evening for the next three weeks, we sorted through piles of stuff, packed dozens of boxes, and made phone calls to Realtors and mortgage bankers. Dylan bounced around disconsolately amid the chaos of open boxes and empty cupboards. One night he approached me, wearing the missing packing tape like a Roman warrior's arm cuff, and threatened to bonk me with a cardboard mailing tube. "I'm not moving," he said. "So don't pack any of my stuff."
Each night we explained again why the move was necessary, and even a good idea, perhaps most of all for Dylan. Each night, our explanation sounded more like a big, fat indulgence cooked up by insensitive grown-ups. Each night for diversion, Dylan begged to watch the 7 P.M. rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation and, each night, lacking a better idea, we consented.
One evening he traipsed into the dining room, which we had turned into a mini-warehouse for dish packs and huge, unwieldy clothing wardrobes, and said, "Dad, I know why you quit your job."
"Yeah. The people at your office are all Ferengis."
"Ferengis are opportunists with pointed teeth. They trick people."
"Opportunists?" My husband looked at me. We commenced twitching facial muscles.
"Yeah. That's what the people at your office are, right?"
"Right," his father said. "A bunch of Ferengis."
"You don't want to fight them, so you have to get another job, right?"
"That's exactly right."
"Let's pretend I'm Captain Picard, and I order you to transfer to a ship without Ferengis, okay?" Dylan said.
"Okay. But before I go, I have one final request."
"I want you to transfer with me. You can be the commander of our new vessel."
Dylan's face opened itself up to wonder for the first time in weeks. Light shone in his eyes, his mouth was open in the throes of concentration. He had made the decision, finally, on his own terms. "Okay, I'll be the commander. But we can't go yet. I have to pack my equipment!"
Stunned, we listened to his sneakers pound on the wooden stairs.
"Star Trek is cool," my husband said.
A week later, Dylan and I are stuck in the Detroit airport, waiting for a connection to Indianapolis that does not seem to want to connect. Various parts of various planes, including ours and the one that should have departed before us, are being checked and replaced by freezing men in coveralls outside in the brittle, minus-three December evening. This I learn by listening to wisps of private conversation between tight-lipped gate agents who say, officially, only "delay, delay, delay." I try not to dwell on the combination of broken parts and impatient, freezing men as we sit on the cold floor near the drafty Jetway. Every last seat has been taken by members of a large youth orchestra and their instrument cases and various Mickey Mouse duffel bags. Their plane is even more delayed than ours. An hour passes, then two. We read every book, color every picture, and eat every snack contained in Dylan's travel pack. I think of my husband, somewhere out on the road in western Massachusetts or Connecticut by now, driving our little car toward Indiana through sheets of rain, while Dylan and I travel in comfort, or so we had planned.
"Why aren't we going?" Dylan asks once, twice, three times in twenty minutes.
I explain, explain, explain.
Suddenly Dylan stands up and looks around. "Data," he announces, "I want a full report from engineering." He points at two uniformed pilots who have paused to greet each other on the concourse. "Why aren't those men at their stations?" he demands.
I try to calm him, order him to stay put, but he is five and trapped like a rat in the Detroit airport. My command has been relinquished, and perhaps rightfully so. From Star Trek, Dylan has learned to know a crisis when he sees one, and to take command if no one else will.
He strides up to the check-in desk and locks eyes with the lone gate agent, who sits nervously amid the baleful hordes.
"You?" Dylan commands him. "I want you in the Transporter Room now!" He sweeps his arm in the direction of the sleepy youth orchestra, curled up in their coveted chairs with their little computer games and teen novels. "I want these people beamed out of here, and I want them beamed out now!"
The man grins at Dylan. "Yes, sir. At once, sir!"
The youth orchestra is giggling, punching one another and pointing. I slip up behind him and wink at the agent, who gives Dylan a set of plastic pilot wings before I haul him back to our spot on the floor. Dylan examines his wings. "This is not a Federation insignia," he mutters. "But I like it anyway."
Star Trek purports to be a lot of things. A voyage, a mission, a human drama, a myth about our future. The fact that it takes place far in the future is reassuring. It answers the question: With our destructive capabilities advancing faster than our consciousness, will we survive much longer? Star Trek assures us the answer is yes. The very idea of Star Trek invites us to imagine that humans have survived because they have somehow gotten better, that they might be capable of evolving beyond biology, beyond the culture of conflict and war. Yet the series never allows us to linger in that fantasy for long. A friend of ours teaches a course at the university on Star Trek entitled "The History of the Future," and I suspect his students discover in short order how much the history of the future resembles the history of the past. Like Earth in our time, the Star Trek galaxy is a dangerous place held together by fragile alliances that sometimes crumble into war. Individuals and entire species, human and otherwise, struggle with the ageless conflicts of territory and tribe. Hate, avarice, jealousy, love, narcissism, and compassion still prevail over logic, and the biology of species still rules the day. Star Trek reminds us who we are no matter where we are, in the midwestern corn belt or on the far edge of an unmapped galaxy. It doesn't deny our destructive qualities; it shows us how much can be accomplished when we opt to use our constructive ones instead. And it doesn't shelter us from the solemn consequences of our many inhumanities; these loom even larger against the backdrop of deep space.
If I ask Dylan why he loves Star Trek, he will not say: "Because it is an elaborate metaphor describing my biological mission to explore the universe by moving objects through space." He might say, "I like the uniforms" or "Captain Picard is cool." Typically, he will just shrug and roll his eyes, indicating what a dumb, parent question it is indeed, for how can a boy describe a love so elemental it dwells in the very shape of his brain?
Some might argue that, by reducing my son to his biological groundwork, I haven't understood him so much as diminished him. But that is not what I intend. I want to honor all that he is, without denying his essential architecture, the structures and circuitry that shape his dreams. He has already earned my deepest respect, having passed upon his birth through the gates of oblivion, down into the darkness of our arms. He is already on the voyage. At the age of five, he has already had to endure fear. He arrived mute, unable to speak the simplest of needs. He has survived thus far our well-intentioned ignorance. He has entrusted himself to us in the faith that we would turn out to be benevolent, even compassionate beings.
Having given up his celestial consciousness for Earth, his cord to the universe frayed, then severed, he soon set about the task of learning everything there is to learn. He has learned hunger, love, attachment, rage, disappointment, ambivalence, indulgence, and deprivation. He has learned trees. He has learned wet. He has learned ancient. He knows about Darwin. He can tell you about tectonic plates. He knows the power politics at his father's workplace. He can explain that his attachment to a stuffed lavender dog with a sparkling pink secret compartment that locks and unlocks with a key is a gender violation that he has chosen willfully to commit. He already knows that materialism is an addiction with a buzz to it like nothing else. He already knows the alphabet. He already knows that the alphabet he knows isn't the only alphabet. He can define "compassion." He knows that gamblers lose more than they win. He has already asked what are probably the most brilliant questions of his childhood.
He is five and goes to sleep each night clutching a stuffed penguin, knowing all this, and, I suspect, feeling vulnerable about how much more he needs to know.
If you ask him what he wants to do, he'll say he wants to watch Star Trek.
He is already on the voyage. We go about our business as mother and son with weird nonchalance, mostly oblivious that we are hurtling through space at unfathomable speeds. I'm under orders to go with him, as far as I can.
Copyright © 1999 by Patricia Stevens
"Watching Star Trek with Dylan" copyright © 1999 by Deborah Galyan