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The Poets Down Here Don't Write Nothin' At All
Published on Sunday, April 23, 2006 by
The Poets Down Here Don't Write Nothin' At All
by Christopher Cooper

Kathy: Don't push that chair, Karter.

Karter: [pushes chair]

Kathy: Karter, if you push the chair again, you'll have to have Time Out in your bed.

Karter: [smiles; pushes chair a considerable distance further]

Kathy: Karter. No! Don't do it. No.

Karter: No.

Kathy: Leave the chair alone. No chair. No chair.

Karter: No chair. No.

Kathy: Good boy; leave it alone.

Karter: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! [smiles; pushes chair]

Karter is sixteen months old. Kathy is six hundred and seventy-seven months. The boy is charged by nature with getting bigger, getting smarter, exploring and mastering the world he was born into. His grandmother is bound by convention, by duty and by love to keep him safe and healthy and to teach him what she can of what she has learned through trial and error, instruction, experience, luck and fate. He has a vocabulary of a few dozen words and a score of signs, considerable babbling, several happy and as many annoying noises, and an assortment of variously modulated shrieks. She knows and uses effectively an above-average number of words in a language rich to excess with words, subtle and nuanced, bold and forthright, stolen from every conqueror and subject people met in the several centuries since Old and Middle English began bumping up against the other tongues.

She says no. He says no. She means, “That behavior is unacceptable to me, and by extension to others in modern, civilized, middle-class, Western society.” He means, “I want to do this. I will do it.” Grandma has enforcement power. She sets the rules (mostly, if I may take her mature, adult, responsible side here, fair and reasonable and lovingly and humanely administered). The toddler, though, owns the power of insurgency. A guerrilla operative, he determines the time, the place, the nature and duration of conflict. One is wise to fight about only the most necessary issues with a child, because he who has more time to invest and the will to persevere will usually prevail. The British and the Russians learned this in Afghanistan. We learned it in Vietnam, forced the lesson from our minds, and are learning it again in Iraq. We may try our luck in Iran.

Karter is a bright, personable, happy boy. He has figured out the worth of words on at least three counts. Clearly, it's in his interest to be able to make his needs and desires known, to say “milk” or “chocolate” or “broccoli” when he's hungry. He understands taxonomy. By naming things we know something of them; we sort them by nature or purpose. Thus, seeing a dog and saying “dog” (and having grandpa agree, “Yes. Dog. A good looking yellow dog.) makes the moment both immediate (the dog before us) and theoretical, general, predictive of many dogs yet to be met. And he feels words as music, poetry, meter and maybe even, already, rhyme. Some words just make him laugh. Others bear repeating, apparently, but who knows why? He will spell his name as I say the letters and write them, even though he knows nothing yet of letters, although he makes the connection between words and pictures and our reading to him from his books.

He won't say yes. Affirmation is “unh huh”, accompanied by a head bob and a smile. But he will say no, forcefully, unequivocally, repeatedly, even though he knows it may well lead to the threatened Time Out (one minute per year of age per transgression, according to current recommendation).

Early and continuing use of no must have roots deep in our evolution. It must confer a survival advantage, however much it pushes caretakers toward fantasizing abusive reactions. A kid who figures out where he will go and what he will do, to whom and for what he might submit, has taken control of some part of his own life. Certainly he or she must also get increasingly clever about when it is unwise in this rough world to reject the authority of experience and the advice or demands of family or community. Some make poor choices. The jails and graveyards are full of those who guessed poorly or whose luck ran out But most of us survive our early years and reach accommodation with our universe of cops and traffic lights and tax laws and conventions and restrictions. We are no longer wild things; we do not so often say no.

And that's mostly probably a good thing. Why fight city hall when all they're asking you to do is license your dog, pay your taxes and separate your trash? But sometimes city hall hops into bed with a real estate developer. Sometimes the governor (in Massachusetts today, coming to your state soon) tries to force you to buy health insurance you can't afford because he can't or won't resist the insurance lobbyists. And every three or four years the religious nuts and corporate whores who've lied and stolen their way into control of our national government try to scare us into offering up our children and our money and our decency in invading or bombing yet another country most of us can't find on a map. Sometimes No! is necessary and proper, our right and our duty to proclaim.

Six retired generals have asked the Secretary of Defense to resign. This is a hard thing for generals to do; they have careers; they have pensions. It is generally agreed that many in the military are as disgusted with the Rumsfeld-Cheney plan as those who have spoken out, but fearing reprisals or marginalization or humiliation, they have chosen silence, at least until they too retire. There are many ways a man may be a coward.

Americans are great revolters against taxation. We didn't like the tea tax or the liquor tax or the stamp tax. Lately we're excited about Taxpayers' Bills of Rights. I have seen millionaires stand up in an Alna town meeting and complain they were being treated “unfairly” by being assessed a real estate tax of a few thousand dollars. I wish we were as quick to oppose those actions of our government, our collective selves, that ruin peoples lives, that wreck the very planet under our feet, as we are quick to say no to the taking of some of our money.

It's hard being a toddler. It's hard being grown up. It's not surprising that the lesson many of us take from our decades of struggle is that if we keep quiet all week we can play on the weekend. In better, quieter, simpler times, this might have been a workable way to fashion a society. But sometimes it's all just too far wrong. People see it, they feel it; they oppose evil or they ignore it. What is required of a good soldier, a good citizen, a good human being? When does the peasant rise up against the tyrant, the worker against the bosses? To which excesses, what abuses, how many corruptions, tortures, lies or wars will we acquiesce, and to how many, how soon, how loudly shall we cry No. No more. Not in my name.

Six generals have reached their limit, have found their voices. Where is Congress? Where the press? Where are you?

Defiance wears thin when its use is selfish or shallow or shortsighted. This is why that wonderful little boy of ours needs both grandparents—he is our shared burden as well as our co-equal joy. I'm glad he loves language so much, is as eager a seeker as his father was. He'll be reading in a few years. His arguments will grow more complex and will require better answers than he might now accept. Time Out will not make his demands disappear.

I'll try to teach him how good it can feel to stand before his neighbors and to loudly say no when the conventional wisdom says yes, or when the mass of men confronted with great error or injustice, says nothing at all.

Chris Cooper lives in Alna, Maine. He is just returned to his woodlot after moderating the Alna town meeting, a forum in which ordinary, average persons, mostly well-intentioned, direct their public affairs openly, forthrightly and humanely. Contrasts between such government and that practiced in higher jurisdictions may be made at the reader's leisure and discretion. Cooper reads all messages sent to him at; he answers those that seem to him to need whatever personal contact such a meeting provides, as well as those that he finds engaging or provocative.


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