Normally at bedtime Jackson wants me to read him books with lots of pictures and not a whole lot of text. Lately, though, I've really felt the need to push him out of that comfort zone -- god forbid he should have a seamless and neurosis-free childhood -- and say, "Hey! You can read! Why don't you read Pete's a Pizza to me for a change?" Then I cough a little to show him that my vocal chords are dry with the strain of entertaining him with the sort of classic children's literature that I myself never enjoyed as a girl, because why not throw a little guilt on the fire as well. He is always adamant in his refusal to switch roles with me, though, and taking a page from my Great Big Book of How to Fake Shit to Get Sympathy, he limply and whinily exaggerates the exhaustion that reading out loud will inevitably exact on his delicate brainular mechanisms.
I play the game, I heave a giant sigh and the status quo remains unbroken. Wasn't it Erma Bombeck who said that her needs came after her husband's, and children's, and the dog's? So Jackson snuggles up against my arm and stealthily follows along as I do all the laborious speaking and page turning. It's my theory that he's afraid that if he actually shows me how well he can read I'll go, "Great! That means I don't have to do it anymore!" and abandon him with a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon and a flashlight. In actuality, I still can't get over the fact he can walk upright and flush a toilet, and that this formerly walnut-sized chunk of cells and cartilage can now parse a whole strip of Calvin and Hobbes and the boxed set of Little Bear. Seriously, though, I get a little teary. Put "crying about my son's achievements" on the list of Things I Never Thought I'd Do, right after "get married" and "make a serious effort to get my foot behind my head."
Anyway, whatever it is, by last week I'd had enough of it -- not the doing all the reading, just the elementary storylines we were always strapped with -- so I very cruelly suggested that we set aside whatever Caldecott winner was at the top of the pile and move on to Charlotte's Web. Which very cruelly has not many pictures, just several heartbreaking Garth Williams illustration of a small pig bawling his eyes out.
I withstood the usual fit of floppy protestations, and I prevailed with the steely will of my German ancestresses. It doesn't hurt that the story starts out with a bang:
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.
"Well," said her mother,"one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it?"
And that was all it took. You forget what bloodthirsty little heathens kids really are, but all that Grimm stuff? They really do want to hear about other children facing the horrors of life and death. At least my kid does.
So with that in mind, once I found that he could stand to follow a more complex story, I started reading him bits of my bedtime reading, Bill Bryson's wonderful A Short History of Nearly Everything. This is the most educational book I've read since Diary of Indignities and that's saying something. For instance, there's an enormous, live "supervolcano" underneath Yellowstone Park, did you know that? Those geysers aren't just there to keep the tourists entertained, they're heated by a reservoir of molten rock, a magma chamber forty-five miles across and eight miles thick. Guess how often the volcano beneath Yellowstone blows? About once every 600,000 years. Guess when was the last time Yellowstone blew? About 630,000 years ago. How far are you from Yellowstone right now? You better hope it's far enough.
This isn't the sort of information that seeds sweet dreams, however, so I moved on to a racy bit in the chapter about oceans, where a father and son team were experimenting with the effects of extreme pressure on the human body.
In the days of diving suits--the sort that were connected to the surface by long hoses--divers sometimes experienced a dreaded phenomenon known as "the squeeze." This occurred when the surface pumps failed, leading to a catastrophic loss of pressure in the suit. The air would leave the suit with such violence that the hapless diver would be, all too literally, sucked up into the helmet and hosepipe. When hauled to the surface, "all that is left in the suit are his bones and some rags of flesh," the biologist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1947, adding for the benefit of doubters, "This has happened."
Still not something you want your six-year-old to be meditating on as he drifts off, probably. So let's end with a nice little fact about crustaceans. You know all that carbon we release into the atmosphere? It falls into the oceans and little, tiny marine organisms use it to make their little, tiny shells. DID YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT? WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME? I find this absolutely incredible.
By locking the carbon up in their shells, they keep it from being reevaporated into the atmosphere, where it would build up dangerously as a greenhouse gas. Eventually all the tiny foraminiferans and coccoliths and so on die and fall to the bottom of the sea, where they are compressed into limestone. It is remarkable, when you behold an extraordinary natural feature like the White Cliffs of Dover in England, to reflect that it is made up of nothing but tiny deceased marine organisms, but even more remarkable when you realize how much carbon they cumulatively sequester.
And the limestone ends up feeding . . . volcanoes! And Disney has the nerve to sell us a bunch of stuffed animals and call it the circle of life. Despite the fact that we're now dumping far more carbon into the atmosphere than the tiny sea creatures can keep up with, nature is marvelous at rebalancing itself, even if it takes a few million years to do it. I recall about fifteen years ago, in the middle of a family dinner at my then-boyfriend's house, realizing loudly and fun-dampeningly that, hearty as our planet appears to be, it will do whatever it has to do to save itself, even if that means killing us off.
But I haven't told Jackson that yet.