Threescore and ten

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
— Ps. 90:10

It’s a hard world for little things. — The Night of the Hunter

Some people like to talk about how subversive children’s books are. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do see a lot of harsh reality in them–even in picture books. We’re all laughing and having a good time, but don’t kid yourself. …

Take for example, Mini Grey’s terrific new book, Ginger Bear.

Ginger Bear

For the past week, I’ve been forcing all my colleagues to read it. And while I’ve seen one reviewer who enjoyed its “barkingmad originality,” I‘ve yet to see anyone praise its gritty realism and dark humor—let me be the first.

Through a series of fortunate events, Ginger Bear, a cookie, escapes being eaten. When he wakes up in the night after all the humans are asleep, he creates an entire circus of cookie friends who gleefully engage in some very risky behavior. (Carpe noctem?) Enter: Bongo the dog (who loves cookies, but not in a way that is necessarily good for cookies) and it’s cookie carnage all over the kitchen floor. Ginger Bear escapes and finds a way he can live happily, and safely, ever after. Whew!

I love the way this story and its wild illustrations make you laugh and force you to confront the harsh truth we all must learn, “a cookie’s life is usually short and sweet.” The message is just as in-your-face as any of the old versions of the Three Little Pigs, but avoids being mean or bitter. There’s good with the bad. There’s joy. There’s hope. Life is short and sweet. And a clever cookie can live a long and happy life.

Too scary for storytime? I don’t think so. We start kids out with tales of cookie mortality like the Gingerbread Man, and before you know it, the dog dies, and Charlotte the spider and Bambi’s mother, and then it’s the grandfather and the girl who’s your best friend. It’s a hard world for little things, right from the start. And while I’m not advocating a steady stream of tear-jerkers (I’m pretty much done done with the dead dog books)—and I’m definitely a fan of zaniness like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Whales on Stilts— would you really want to come to King Lear without first knowing what can happen to a cookie in a harsh world?

A little late for Christmas in July

They’re putting out the Christmas things at my local Stuff-Mart, and I confess this makes me cranky. Not just because the Back-to-School items are barely on the clearance aisle, and no one has even thought about their Halloween costumes yet (tho’ I suppose I do know what’s on the menu for Thanksgiving), but because now I am pitted against my fellow consumers in a battle I had hoped to delay.

It’s a true fact—as they say—that there is only a certain quantity of stock that will be set out for Christmas. “Shop early for best selection!” Cheery words if we’re all feeling the holiday spirit, but in September?! In September the only spirit that can possibly motivate serious Christmas shopping is fear and greed:  somebody else will get the good stuff for cheap if I don’t get busy.

I’ve always hated being put in this sort of relationship unnecessarily. We’re all getting along quite nicely, thank you, when someone decides to turn it into a competition. Like the cook for the pizza buffet who, after 45 minutes, when it’s clear that no one in the dining room is interested in the dried-out spinach and pineapple pizza puts out a single pepperoni pie. Everyone rushes to the buffet—but how many pieces should you take? Should you let the little kids go first? And who is this cook who has turned my lunch hour into a moral dilemma?

I understand “creating demand.” I’ve lived through Power Rangers and Pokemon, and I’m not opposed to profit or the desire to sell everything you have out on the floor. Just don’t expect me to cut people off at the knees in response to some faux desperation you’re forcing on me for your economic convenience. I only do that for that last Red Ranger on Christmas Eve.


If you haven’t seen parkour, or its cousin free running, then you really ought to get yourself on over to YouTube and take a look.  Or check out the opening to “Casino Royale” for some x-treme parkour (firearms and international intrigue are a movie extra). 

For me, watching an accomplished parkour athlete feels like riding a roller coaster—my internal organs are in freefall, my body wants to launch itself over the nearest railing.  I can only imagine that actually moving this way must be like flying.   And after seeing a few of these videos, I find the urban landscape starts to look a little different.  I’m thinking:  over, under, through.  What used to look like an obstacle becomes a jumping off point.  Things I never noticed now command attention.  (Do skaters’ moms see the world in terms of ramps and rails?   Certainly, when my children were toddlers every sharp corner in the world suddenly appeared to be painted caution yellow.)

Learning feels like parkour to me.  Someone shows you something new and imagination lets you see the world in a different way.  Let go of your fear, give it a try, stick with it, and you may get to fly.   And whether I’m trying to understand a human activity or trying to do it myself, it often starts with an imaginative shift.  Mastery, if it comes, comes much later.  But even if I never get beyond the novice stage, I’m grateful for the chance to try out those lenses.

One more thing:  Kerry Folan had an interesting article in the Washington Post about training sessions at a parkour gym.  Here’s the final paragraph:

After class, no one seems quite ready to leave: Several people linger to rehydrate and rehash the day’s exploits; others continue to mess around on the equipment. Toorock encourages this: “Fun and community are so much more connected to successful training than you could imagine,” he says. “That’s why our program works. I tell people to forget exercise and go play.”

Fun, community, play—the stuff that keeps you going, keeps you engaged, keeps you creative while you sweat.  No matter what hurdle you’re trying to jump.