by Nick Twemlow
I have a three-year-old son. He loves to pretend he’s a fireman. So we dress up together as firefighters and put out fires, rescue people stranded on rooftops, and deliver medical attention to victims of various emergencies. What do I make of his play? He’s clearly in the moment when he dons his firefighter coat and hat, grabs his “shout horn,” and rushes from one room to the next, holding in his other hand an old cellphone into which he dispatches an emergency team and requests backup.
When he and I are tucked inside his cardboard playhouse, which is now a fire station, barking orders to other emergency workers while busily flipping switches and occasionally breaking for a “firefighter meal,” what is really going on? For me, time and the erosion of my imagination have made it impossible to get inside the moment that I imagine my son inhabits. I spend a good deal of our playtime imagining what he might be imagining.
Would it be naive to think that artists could simply make stuff and then their audiences could just experience that stuff, unfettered? I understand the need to order the world, to give a name to something, and to place it somewhere. Ordering makes way for understanding. But when I interrupt my son’s play with some damaged question about his metaphysics, I am only serving myself. He is at it, he is mindful, in these moments of play. I have no business bringing my baggage into his world.
Inevitably I break the fourth wall, by asking my son if the fire is real. His responses vary—sometimes just a quick sideways glance, as if to say, “Of course, you bum.” At other times he will say to me, “No, it’s not real. It’s pretend. But we still have to put out the fire.”