September 18, 2011
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
from Moby-Duck, or the Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood, by Donovan Hahn
On January 10, 1992, a boat traveling from a factory in China to Tacoma, Washington, lost twelve boxes of cargo. Twenty-eight thousand plastic toys began bobbing to the surface, and circumnavigating the globe. Hundreds reached various parts of Alaska within months of the spill. Eleven years later, some of the plastic toys arrived in Kennebunk (Maine). They have continued to wash up on shores around the world. Donovan Hahn’s book is about the meaning of these plastic toys, and how their fate is tied in with our own. My reading is excerpted from a variety of different sections of Hahn’s work.
“Why do precisely these objects we behold make a world?” Thoreau wonders in Walden. “Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors?” All animals, he writes, are “beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts.”
The word “synthetic” appeared in 1874, twenty years after the publication of Walden. In its 137-year history, the synthetic world has itself grown into a kind of wilderness. With the exceptions of our fellow human beings and our domestic pets, the objects that make the worlds we behold today are almost entirely man-made. Consider the following: In nature, there are 142 known species of Anatidae, the family to which ducks, swans, and geese belong. Of those species only one, the white Pekin duck, a domesticated breed of mallard, produces spotless yellow ducklings. Since the invention of plastic, four known species of Anatidae have gone extinct; several others survive only in sanctuaries created to save them. Meanwhile, more than 5,000 different varieties of plastic duck have been created, nearly all of which are yellow. Why has man just these species of things for his neighbors, a latter-day Thoreau might ask, as if nothing but a yellow duck could perch on the rim of a tub?
Let’s draw a bath. Let’s set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there. What misanthrope, what damp, misty November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart? Graphically, the rubber duck’s closest relative is not a bird or a toy but the yellow happy face of Wal-Mart commercials. A rubber duck is in effect a happy face with a body and lips. Both the happy face and the rubber duck reduce facial expressions to a kind of pictogram. They are both emoticons. A rubber duck is not burdened with thought. It is thought, the immaterial made material, a subjective object, a fantasy in 3-D.
Three thousand years ago in Persia, someone carved a porcupine out of limestone and attached it to a little chassis on wheels. Four thousand years ago in Egypt, someone sculpted a mouse and glazed it blue. Why blue? Whoever heard of a blue mouse? Is this the forebear of the yellow duck? In fact, many of the figurines that look to us like toys turn out to have been totemic gods or demigods, used in religious ceremonies…. Sometimes, in some cultures, they were given to children as playthings once the festivities had ended. One thing is clear: animals held an exalted position in the lives of both children and adults. Even after the missionaries came and cleansed them from the temples, the animistic gods survived, and adapted. In Europe of the Middle Ages, one of the most popular books after the Bible was the Bestiary, a kind of illustrated field guide to the medieval imagination, wherein the animals of fable and myth were reborn as vehicles of Christian allegory…
Gradually, as allegory gave way to zoology and farming to industry, we decided that animals were for kids. Animals became decorative themes, and then a selling tool, as industrialization increasingly marginalized real animals. They were either incarcerated as living spectacles at the public zoo, treated as raw material to be exploited, processed as commodities on factory farms, or domesticated as family pets. Meanwhile, “animals of the mind”—which since the dawn of human consciousness had been central to our cosmologies—were sent without supper to the nursery. Animals both living and imaginary no longer seemed like mysterious gods. They seemed, increasingly, like toys.
Soon Teddy bears and other stuffed animals arrived. These animals liberated adults: they enabled children to be left alone to play, and helped guard against unduly fervent emotional attachments to mothers. Bright yellow plastic floating toys that smile as the child splashes away are part of the vision.
Here, then, is one of the meanings of the duck. It represents this vision of childhood—the hygienic childhood, the safe childhood, the brightly colored childhood, in which everything, even bathtub articles, have been designed to please the childish mind, much as the golden fruit in that most famous origin myth of paradise “was pleasant to the eyes” of childish Eve.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, begins a famous line from Paul. He of course goes on to admonish us to put away childish things. Well, he doesn’t really say we have to, he just says “When I became a man, I put childish things behind me.” As a child, he saw through a glass, darkly, but now face to face
Then he only knew in part, but now is fully known.
When I was a child, I was standing in line at a Friendly’s ice cream shop. We were curiously possessive of that shop, and thought of it as ours for many years; I think because it stood upon what had been a kind of marsh where we poked around with sticks and occasionally found frogs, and different kinds of prickly grasses to attack one another with. When the building went up and the pavement sealed out nature, we started hanging out inside. One day, as I waited to order a cone, the woman in front of me turned and confessed, half apologetically and half puzzled, “I starve myself all week so I can have this.” It is one of those moments that has always stayed with me. I remember feeling bad; sorry for the denial she had to live with all week, which tinged her ice cream with regret before she even ate it. I also felt a little honored and a little helpless that she told me this. I did not know how to make her enjoy the ice cream more, and I wasn’t sure why she confessed to me. What did she know about me that let her know I was safe?
I did not set out to talk about childhood today. I wanted to write a sermon about ice cream. The reason was this: I was reading the paper, and there was an interview with Jon Olinto, who co-owns a restaurant called b. good. He and his partner had decided to start using a food truck for the business, and then, as a marketing strategy or as a personal philosophy, started giving away fruit shakes. This wasn’t what interested me. I liked why Olinto did it. He said, “Growing up, the ice cream man was my hero.” Then he went on to describe the hot summer day he was eight years old and an ice cream truck broke down in front of his house, on a crowded Quincy street. His parents helped out the driver, which involved cramming their freezer full of all the special frozen treats that would otherwise melt. “It was,” said Olinto, “the greatest day of my life.”
Well, I just loved that story, and the image it created for me. All those different kinds of ice creams – cherry bombs, creamsicles, hot shots, aliens on a stick – stockpiled in his basement freezer like contraband. An embarrassment of unbelievable riches, and certainly something to both attract friends and inspire awe. It made me remember one of the more surreal experiences of my life. About 25 years ago, I arrived in Kathmandu after a fairly harrowing two day bus journey, part of which was on the path of a dried out river bed and which included a distinctly unpleasant border crossing. I had shared the bus with huge cheese wheels, scrawny goats and even scrawnier chickens and with many, many people – some of whom rode clinging to grates on the top, back and sides of the bus. In a 24 hour period, I saw one building and no other vehicles. The only food I ate was grilled corn, which sounds okay, but it isn’t. Then we arrived in Kathmandu, and there was a Baskin Robbins ice cream store, with little Volkswagen Beetles parked in front. It felt like a mirage. I could not (and still can’t) fathom how any of it got there.
So I was thinking about ice cream, and miracles, and spreading happiness – but when I went to read poems or listen to songs about ice cream, I was puzzled to discover that almost all references to ice cream are emotionally charged in pretty negative ways. They tend to be about lost innocence, broken trust. Or how foolish we would be to believe in the simple joy of a frozen confection on a stick. On Labor Day, we had an experience that encapsulated the whole issue: We went into Boston to walk along the harbor. It was hot and sunny, and we saw ads for a boating adventure billed as “Codzilla” – which looked like it would cool us off and entertain those who did not believe walking counted as fun. So, we bought tickets, but had an hour’s wait. What better thing to do than get an ice cream? So, we were sitting in a park with our ice cream, when this clean cut and tidy young man appears out of nowhere, unfolds a small stepstool, and asks for everyone’s attention. I foolishly thought he was going to do magic tricks, or acrobatics, or something fun; but instead he started telling us about hell and our need to repent. “Dad,” the kids started saying, “Dad, you should tell him about Unitarian Universalism.” For once I was glad that our kids don’t think I am really a minister. Asher moved up to listen better, and was trying to figure out how to do battle with the preacher when a man who is most likely living on the street got involved. He was an older black man, and he put down his pack and sleeping bag, and walked up to the guy, who was elevated on his stool, and challenged him. “Why are you telling me I’m gonna go to hell? I’ve made mistakes; everybody has. But I pay for ‘em and I ask God’s forgiveness and I ask for help.” The young guy, who really did have a preacher’s voice, said, “You have to repent; the Bible says.. and Jesus demands..” Our ice creams were all melting and some friends of the challenger, all of whom were African American and bore the scars of hard living, appeared to support their friend. “You tell ‘em” they said. And finally, when the contender said “what kind of God is that, who would damn me to hell when I’ve asked for help?”, the preacher repeated his line about the Bible demanding that we repent, folded up his stool, and went on his way. We congratulated the victor, and said we agreed with him, and his friends slapped him on the back, and we went on our way. They were still homeless, and we were still hot; as, I imagine, were they. So much for ice cream and simple pleasure. And then, we went on Codzilla, which, despite the name, was really based on Moby-Dick – we were pursuing a great white cod. The story had been turned into a joke and a source of entertainment. We had a blast, got soaked, cooled down, and all was well. Then I came home to look for some happy ice cream readings to prove that the world really is sweet and enjoyable, and was finally done in by Wallace Stevens’ The Emporer of Ice Cream. The first line seemed promising: “Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” Somehow this conjured up an image of God to me—probably the “big cigar” line, echoing George Burns in those 1970’s movies. But it is a great God – simultaneously domestic and a strong armed classical figure, like Zeus or Hercules, who would not have to rest as he hand cranked the ice cream, in individual dishes, which might mean that we each get our own favorite flavor. But the poem goes on to depict a body laid out as a family gets ready for a wake. It’s a fine poem – actually, pretty interesting theologically. But it is not a happy satisfied ode to ice cream, or strong gods.
Some times I get tired of everything being challenging, or disagreeable, or tragic; and my solution to that feeling is not always to save the world or make things better. And turning ice cream into a meditation on loss and death or a god who eternally punishes seemed to me to make things worse, not better. It doesn’t seem like something we would want to teach our children – hey, don’t believe in pleasure, however small – so why would we burden ourselves in that way? Last spring a colleague was telling me about a member of his congregation he admired for his work negotiating peace treaties between the U.S. and foreign powers during the turbulent decades that closed the last century. My friend was newly settled and went to call on this parishioner, who told him he didn’t go to church very often because he felt guilty – there was always so much to do, so many problems in the world, and he wasn’t doing enough to help. Something seems wrong with this picture — a person who actually was instrumental in saving the planet avoids church because when he goes, he feels guilty. The message he got was that it is never safe to relax. . I think more orthodox religions may have an advantage here – they inspire guilt for NOT attending services, and there is some measure of inner peace granted simply by showing up. Maybe we need to practice acknowledging the sorry state of affairs in the world, or with our health, or our finances, or our relationships – and then learn to also say, “even so, there is still ice cream” – or blueberries, or baseball games, or whatever it is that brings you joy.
When I was young I never understood that line attributed to Jesus – “the poor you will always have with you.” I thought we were supposed to both help those who were poor, and also work to eradicate poverty by changing the system. In my mind, that’s what church was for. But Jesus says there will always be poor people, no matter what – and he says it to explain why it was fine to pour a bottle of very expensive perfume over his head. Other people protest the waste – they wanted to sell the perfume and use the money to save starving children, and Jesus says – well, I’m only here for a little while, and that problem is intractable. Let’s just enjoy ourselves a bit.
It isn’t that we don’t care about the problems that plague our world and the creatures in it. It’s that we sometimes can’t do anything. We need beauty, or joy, or a peaceful moment. We need them whether we “deserve” them or not. And those little moments of bliss can actually come when there are plenty of problems. A broken down ice cream truck on a hot summer day was probably a pretty rotten experience for at least one guy – but one little boy was changed because of it. He grew up and got a truck, and named it Harvey – in honor of Harvey Milk, the pioneer gay rights activist. Harvey the truck is painted black with orange flames on the sides, and inside are people who hand free strawberry shakes out the window, because they believe in spreading joy.
Donovan Hahn asks what makes the world we inhabit. He is talking primarily about things – objects, and whether they are natural or synthetic – but the physical world we create reveals a lot about our unseen universe of values and emotions. Like Melville in Moby-Dick, the model for his story, Hahn explores memory and loss, childhood and parenthood. But the villain isn’t the great whale, it is the toy plastic duck; and it is us – the people who buy not only the duck, but the vision it represents: a childhood that is safe and clean and happy and free of all pain. The plastic duck represents a desire to protect, which is exactly what good parents do. But by modeling his story on Moby Dick, Hahn is saying that perhaps we are also all like Ahab – father to a child he has never even met, because he is too busy trying to kill the wild beast he feels threatened by. It is anxious parenting in the extreme; risking everything – including time with the people you love – in order to rid the world of one perceived danger. Everything is sacrificed – the lives of sailors and deckhands, the finances, families; even peoples’ ways of being in the world; the way they relate to the weather and the sea. Instead of saving or protecting anyone, Ahab puts everyone at risk. Moby-Duck does not offer quite as much high drama as Moby Dick. One great white whale is dispersed, broken down into 28,000 plastic animals, accumulating in our oceans and washing up on our shores, and slowly, slowly, one molecule at a time, eclipsing life as we know it.
One response to this story is, of course, to reduce how much we participate in this plastic universe; to not buy so much; to work against the giant corporations and the exploitation of the environment. But we need to also stop ourselves from participating in synthetic emotions; from manufactured feelings. The ducks we playfully place in the tub end up symbolizing anxiety, not joy, because we offer them as security and companionship when what we mean to be offering is ourselves. We don’t want to acknowledge that we can feel lonely and afraid, so we hand out toys that send the message for us. I think one reason I like the image of the ice cream passed through the windows of this truck so much is because it turns our expectations upside down, and disarms us a little. We are not buying anything; a treat is being offered – and our response to that surprise lets us see how cynical and well-defended we normally are. John Olinto was inspired to make others as happy as an eight year old with a limitless supply of ice cream on a hot summer day, and his actions let us see that we all may be that vulnerable cargo, threatened by circumstances beyond our control. We are all at sea, bobbing up and down, washing up where we will – and when we can see that about ourselves and each other, it’s a little less scary and a lot more fun.
What are the childish things to be put away, and what are the things we should keep, and carry with us? Anxiety, fear, false security –those are things we can leave behind, as we try to live in faith, hope and love. I close with a poem, The Ice Cream People: It is by Charles Bukowski, so it had to be cleaned up a little for church:
we drive to Baskin-Robbins,…
we park outside and look at ice cream
a very healthy and satisfied people,
nary a potential suicide in sight
(they probably even vote)
and I tell her
“what if the boys saw me go in there? suppose they
find out I’m going in for a walnut peach sundae?”
“come on, chicken,” she laughs and we go in
and stand with the ice cream people.
none of them are cursing or threatening
there seem to be no hangovers or
I am alarmed at the placid and calm wave
that flows about. I feel like a leper in a
beauty contest. we finally get our sundaes and
sit in the car and eat them.
I must admit they are quite good. a curious new
Closing Words – from “Miracle Ice Cream” by Adrienne Rich
Miracle’s truck comes down the little avenue,
Scott Joplin ragtime strewn behind it like pearls,
and, yes, you can feel happy with one piece of your heart.