Caleb wants to build things: robots and rockets and bug traps. I can barely build a sandwich. Thankfully our friend Lyndal will be able to teach him how to weld when the time comes. For now he's content to make things out of construction paper and tape, or use whatever else he can find in creative ways. A few weeks ago he buried his plastic bucket in our front yard, up to its lip, and then positioned three rocks over it like a little carport. His theory was that an unsuspecting bug would toddle under the rocks for shade and fall into the bucket.
That didn't work out, but something nice about Caleb is that he is not easily daunted. His latest quest is to catch a cricket. He hears them through his open window at night, and he's decided he should have one as a pet. Around nine o'clock last night, as the last sunlight was fading, he put on his froggy boots and went outside with his little plastic terrarium. He was going cricket hunting, he said.
There are precious few times in a parent's life when even the dullest of us understands that we should grab this experience or that moment with our child. This was one of those moments, and so I put on my shoes and followed him out. He had intended to go it alone, but I could tell he was glad for the company. We held hands and traipsed through the dark, and I whispered to him that the crickets always seem far away because they're hiding from us. Caleb was certain that somewhere there must be a guidebook on how to catch a cricket. "Maybe you could look it up on How to Catch A Bug dot com," he offered. "Or maybe Bug Trapping dot com." We don't let the boy surf the Internet, but somehow he's gathered that it has everything you want to know, so long as you remember to put a "dot com" on the end of your question.
(I wish this were so. I'd start with www.HowDoIKeepFromScrewingThisFatherhoodThingUp.com and work my way over to www.SurvivingWhenYourPregnantWifeCan'tHaveChocolate.com.)
We couldn't find any crickets, but as we returned to the front porch, we spied two Junebugs (I think) clasping the stone wall beside our door. "Do you want a Junebug?" I asked him.
"Sure," Caleb said. He shivered as he looked closer. "It might get you."
"I don't think it can," I said. I steered him over to the bug, until his terrarium was positioned just beneath it. Then I lightly flicked at the bug. It wouldn't let go of the wall. Then I noticed it had little pincers, and was trying to bite me with them. "Whoa," I said, "it's trying to get me."
"Be careful Dad!"
I flicked it again, and it bounced off the top of the terrarium and onto the ground. Caleb and I jumped back. We carefully approached it again and tried to coax it into the terrarium. "Pick it up," the Wife goaded me, having ventured out onto the front step to observe her two brave men.
"I'm trying," I groused. I attempted to nab it by a back leg, and then by the rear of its shell, to no avail.
"Ooo! Dad, be careful." I tried again. I hate bugs. They're so . . . crawly and creepy.
Finally the Wife stepped in, scooped it up, and dropped it in the terrarium. That's probably just as well; I might have hurt it with my kung-fu grip.
A poem, because I'm in that kind of mood, and because if you've not read Louise Glück, you ought to:
Lord, You may not recognize me
speaking for someone else.
I have a son. He is
so little, so ignorant.
He likes to stand
at the screen door, calling oggie, oggie, entering
language, and sometimes
a dog will stop and come up
the walk, perhaps
accidentally. May he believe
this is not an accident?
At the screen
welcoming each beast
in love's name, Your emissary.
There's a widespread discussion in my city about what to do with the sixth-grade boy who murdered a mother duck and two ducklings with a pencil. Some observe that this is what serial killers do when they are young. Others question what his home life must be like. There are calls for counseling and mental-health evaluations. The animal rights nuts want him prosecuted. The teachers want him watched. His parents probably want all this to go away.
I don't know how to respond to this except with sadness. I remember something David Gelernter wrote: "A society too squeamish to call evil by its right name has destroyed its first best defense against cutthroats." We recoil, of course, at calling a sixth-grade child evil, but that's what this boy is. That doesn't mean counseling and therapy and the host of interventions modern society would unleash on him might not do some good. It doesn't mean we shouldn't show him mercy and forgiveness. But I wonder how we can ever really heal the sickness in such a child if we can't allow ourselves to talk about it in its fullness. This is more than a chemical imbalance, or a lack of training. It is moral vacancy, which is the animal in us unchecked, which is evil.
I wonder if he can sense, somewhere deep down, that something in him is broken, or perhaps dead. I wonder if all this clinical attention will help, or if it will marginalize him further. I wonder if he will respond with more twisted acts, or if he will learn to suppress the animal. And if the latter, will it remain in check, or will it surface five or ten or twenty years from now?
Shocking news from The New York Times: it turns out that high-school students were using their school-provided laptops to play games, download porn, hack into computer systems, and cheat on tests. This suggests an inversion of the old programming rule: what goes into garbage becomes garbage. I'm sure the parents of the guilty students will redouble their efforts to produce moral human beings.
So, now that we've begun to show that computers won't fix what ails schools, what will be the next panacea?