Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2023 Nat Segaloff
When do kids learn to distinguish fantasy from reality? Many psychologists say that, by the age of 4, a child should be able to tell, although I suspect that TV advertisers try to blur the line by merchandising their series aimed at children. (Although it’s supposedly taboo these days to base a TV series on a toy, nothing seems to stop toy manufacturers from going in the other direction, as if there’s enforcement any more anyway.)
We have a somewhat different situation in our home that I suspect also exists in the homes of other families connected with the entertainment industry. When my nephews, Adam (age 9) and JB (age 7.5) ask me if something they see in a live-action TV show is real, I tell them that the story is make-believe but that the people in it really do exist. They are called “actors.” They play characters. The characters are not real, even though the actors are.
This creates some interesting confusion. If I happen to know one of the actors, I carefully explain that the actor is just playing a part. “But he does it so well,” they’ll say. “Yes,” I answer, “That’s because his training as an actor allows him to make it seem real.” I immediately realize that I’ve stepped into a swamp.
“So it’s real when he does it?” JB will ask.
“No,” I try to back-peddle, “it’s make-believe.”
“But you said he’s real.”
“It’s real to him.”
“Then why can’t it be real to me too?”
“It isn’t really real,” I stammer, “he just fools himself into thinking it’s real.”
“So then actors are stupid?”
“Let’s not go there,” I say. “But the actor is real. He’s a human being. But the person he plays isn’t real.”
“Then how can I be looking at him?”
I imagine this is what it must be like to be caught between Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers. “You know when you and your friends play-act?” I begin. “If you do ninjas and samurai, you do know that you’re not really ninjas and samurai, don’t you?”
“Well, it’s the same thing with actors. They’re just play-acting. Their job is to make it look real.”
“Does that mean that they can only run that fast and fly when they’re acting, but not when they get home?” (The boys have been watching super-hero shows.)
“No,” I say suppressing a chuckle, “That’s special visual effects. That’s a whole ‘nother bag.”
When it comes to holes, I seem to be digging a deeper one ever time I simply try to ensure that my nephews don’t tie a blanket around their necks and jump off the roof thinking they’re Superman like Kevin Moran did in my neighborhood when I was a kid. He broke his leg and spent the next three months at home, no doubt reading the same comic books that drove him up to the roof in the first place.
When it comes to knowing fact from fiction, adults routinely underestimate the sophistication of children. But when you add the layer of families whose profession is illusion, I have to wonder. For example, ventriloquist Shari Lewis, whose puppet Lamb Chop helped raise three generations of children, was also an expert magician. She learned from her father. Abraham “Doc” Hurwitz, who was the Official Magician of New York City. Doc taught hundreds of kids how to do tricks, and I’m sure that none of them thought that they were calling upon the spirit world to create the effect. For this reason, I like to think that the children of actors know that their mother or father is just pretending.
There can, of course, be unusual exceptions. I recall that a friend of mine who appeared on “Star Trek” was setting out with his family on a road trip when his younger son, who must have been four or five at the time, suddenly called out in panic from the back seat, “Wait, we have to go back, I forgot Dad.”
“I’m right here,” his father said from behind the wheel.
“No, no,” his son said, “I forgot to bring Dad.”
Nothing would calm the boy, so the family pulled back into the driveway and unlocked the house. A minute later, the lad emerged holding his father’s “Star Trek” action figure. “Here’s Dad!” he said proudly, and they were off again.
When Adam and JB watch “The Flash” or “Green Arrow” I encourage them to go out for track or archery, but I am careful to make sure they know that they’re watching a TV show where the actors are real but the characters are not. And I am awaiting the day when I can describe to them the biggest fantasy of all: net profits.