The Peter Pan Principle

By Chuck Sigars | Apr 25, 2012

By the time my daughter was 3 years old, she pretty much had a handle on the important things. Electrical outlets were to be avoided. Teddy bears do not dry off easily. If you wave at people, most times they will wave back. Your daddy will do anything you ask him to. Stuff like that.

And she knew about the world, or at least the part she could see (she was pretty short at the time). Pain, fear, love, joy, laughter, sugar, light, dark, Muppets: These all naturally fell into their places in her life, and she was rarely surprised.

She was also a little stubborn in her world view, I discovered one day, when I decided to show her “Peter Pan.” It was the filmed version of the stage play with Mary Martin, a television production from back in the dark ages when I first watched it on our black-and-white set in the early 1960s, and here we were, in the futuristic late-1980s. All I had to do was put in a videotape and sit back, waiting for her to be mesmerized.

To her credit, her willingness to suspend disbelief seemed intact (then again, she still was a fan of Santa Claus), and she never raised an eyebrow at the sight of Peter Pan being played by an obviously middle-aged woman, or the fact that there was a person in a dog suit. Or the visible wires and harness that allowed Ms. Martin to fly.

This is part of the experience, after all. You pretend to pretend.

After 20 minutes or so, though, she suddenly turned off the TV, and gave her best 3-year-old impression of a sneer (pretty good; she can do it better now).

“Nobody can lose his shadow,” she said, and that was that. In the world according to my daughter, there were certain existential lines that could never be crossed.

This explains a lot about the adult woman she is now, why she’s so much more organized than her parents, and maybe why she always tries to get me to dress better.

It’s my favorite story about her, I think. I love that she had a threshold for fantasy that couldn’t be crossed, a sense of physics and humanity that ruined an otherwise fun story. As a young parent, I just thought it was totally cute.

As an aging human, I’m also pretty sure that she was wrong.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks traveling backward in time, no special harnesses needed. As I’ve mentioned in this column, I attended a college reunion of sorts in mid-April. This was an ad hoc group, from several graduating (and non-graduating) classes, our common thread being that at some point in the 1970s or ‘80s we were active in the theater department at Northern Arizona University.

As I also mentioned a couple of weeks ago, after many years of educating and waiting, my wife added a resume notation this past weekend, being ordained as an associate pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian in Renton.

For a few years now, as I’ve watched the social media explosion from my desk, as I’ve seen an entire generation (and more, now) remain cohesive, stay in touch with classmates from first grade after they graduate from college, I’m wondered about the need for reunions.

Oh, it’s always going to be nice to be around family, and certain old friends. Pictures and videos are fun, but sometimes you need to touch actual human beings.

But keeping up on the news that used to be reserved for Christmas cards and letters? No problem these days. I see pictures of children (and grandchildren) almost as soon as they shuffle on stage.

I hear about trivia on a daily basis, about career moves, shifting tastes in movies and television, political viewpoints. I know an awful lot about what certain friends eat for lunch. More than necessary, actually.

At both of these events, though, as I tried to reconcile present-day people with my shaky memory, I became aware that they were doing the same thing. And I was tempted to look over my shoulder, to see if something was missing, although I was pretty sure it was.

I’m not really talking about youth, although surely that’s gone (I’ve seen pictures; it appears obvious). I just became aware of people who knew me when, what they remembered, what I do, and what I don’t.

I’m the last person to gripe about technology contributing to a society of trivia and depersonalization; I have no crystal ball, first of all, and also? I like to see pictures of grandchildren.

But seeing old friends in person, after years, after decades, and knowing that, as I did, they retained the images of me from another time, moved me immensely. I don’t want that shadow back; it wouldn’t fit anyway, it would be awkward, I’m a different person.

I’m awfully glad they have it, though, and that I have theirs. And that I can touch them, now, and know what I miss and what I still have.

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