Sunday, July 01, 2007

Don't Touch the Boat

Jarrah has been enjoying movies lately. We went to see Shrek the Third earlier this summer, and today we joined the Rupperts for Ratatouille, which was clever and even incorporated some fun "foodie" references.

One movie that's made a big impression on her in recent months is Finding Nemo (though she calls him "Meemo.") For anyone who hasn't seen this colorful classic, it's about a little clownfish who gets captured off the Great Barrier Reef and ends up in an aquarium inside a dentist's office in Sydney. His father, Marlin, sets out to rescue him, at various times aided and hindered by a forgetful but adorable blue fish named Dory.

The film, in the manner of responsible kiddie movies, has a number of messages to impart, including "Love will find a way" and "Friendship can be found in unexpected places." A more subtle theme explores what we forfeit and what we gain by facing our fears.

And it's on the subject of the latter that Finding Nemo has the greatest impact on Jarrah. Nemo gets into trouble, indeed, the entire plot is driven, by a single instance of flagrant disobedience on his part. Not that Marlin, his doting but overprotective father, isn't also to blame. It's his overzealous warnings that provoke Nemo, embarrassed in front of his new school friends, to do the thing that Marlin commands him not to do: Nemo touches the boat.

A simple act, but one with swift consequences. Nemo places his little fin against what looks like a fishing boat, and seconds later, a masked diver appears out of nowhere to scoop him up in a net. "Never to be seen again" might apply, except that the diver drops his mask and Dory is able to read his address on it.

The scene is full of anticipation and dread. Marlin shouts to his son with increasing desperation, reminding Nemo of his limitations, and Nemo--stubborn, contrary--continues to swim past "the drop-off," defiantly heading for open water where he is an easy target for any predator. Nemo doesn't say anything during this stand-off, but the look on his face is familiar to anyone with a two-year-old. The look says: Make me. Go on, make me.

So much of my days with Jarrah is spent warning her about the perils of the world. Don't open the front door--someone might take you away. Don't wander off in the parking lot--a car might smoosh you. Don't stand on that chair--you might fall off and crack your head open. Don't eat any more raisins--you'll get a tummy ache. I warn and warn and warn and then I threaten and I warn some more. Does she listen? It depends. Sometimes she complies with nary a fuss; other times she seems not to hear me. Sometimes she looks right at me and does what she wants to do anyway, just like a certain orange fish.

"Don't touch the boat" is the one moment from Finding Nemo that Jarrah quotes exactly, and she quotes it often. "Don't touch the boat," she tells us, and then she adds something important. "Listen to Daddy." Then she'll reinforce it a few times: "Listen to Daddy; I no touching the boat."

It seems to me that the central message of toddlerhood is "Don't touch the boat." Don't touch the boat, my child. You have no idea what could happen, but I do, so listen to me. It's for your own good. Someday you'll understand.

In some primal way, this has got to be comforting to a two-year-old. If you just listen to Daddy, everything will be fine. The rest of the crap won't even happen. I can see wanting to believe this.

But the rest of the crap has to happen, or there's no movie--and there's no life. Someday she's going to touch that boat--who knows why?--maybe we won't even be there to tell her not to. And then she'll have to rescue herself. Notice that the movie isn't called Rescuing Nemo. Ultimately, Nemo comes up with his own plan to get out of the aquarium and back to the ocean.

Sometimes it scares me how little I can truly protect Jarrah. Telling her not to touch the boat may not be enough, or (as in Marlin's case) it might be too much. We just have to hope she knows that we'll always try to find her.


Jenn said...

Ok... I LOVE that movie (as I do with most kids movies) but I could never have seen the parallels like you! You are a gifted writer. We do spend our lives warning our children. But at some point they will make their own choices. We have to believe that our guidance thus far will help them make choices that will not be so dramatic as Nemo's!

Anonymous said...

It may not have been enjoyable, but I think your chasing her down in the airport taught her you'd always try and find her.

Best, Gail

Mary and Paul said...

I love "I no touching the boat".

I love this post, too!!



Jennifer said...

I have been reading your blog for a while now...I found it through a friend of a friend that adopted from China. I can't even remember if I've ever posted before, but wanted to after reading this post. I LOVED it! You are such an amazing writer. You see things that many of us would not see in the little things in life. I check your blog every now and then and am always so thrilled to read what you've got to say. I don't have children yet....all of my friends do so I see many things from that point of view. I'm also an elementary provide great material!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam,
Vincent and I re-read The Runaway Bunny tonight ... "I will run after you. For you are my little bunny." How sweet it is!