Perhaps, like me, you recall “Smokey the Bear” from your childhood along with his famous slogan, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” In English, we seem to have stuck with the completely unmarked and ambiguous second person pronoun. “You” could refer to one single individual or to two people or to everyone on the planet! And, at least in English, the verb form doesn’t help you much either. Of course, verb forms don’t typically help much in English in any case, but you would think, since the pronoun is ambiguous, there would be some other clue in the syntax, but there isn’t. “I can, you can, he/she/it can; we can, you can, they can.” Brilliant. Although many verbs do mark for singular third person with an “s” for the verb which, come to think of it, also makes little sense. If anything, “s” on an English verb should mark for plural. Whatever. I am not bringing this up to criticize English syntax to start a revolution in order to make it more consistent and logical. I learned my lesson from George Bernard Shaw who left his fortune to at least make English spelling phonetic. He sponsored a contest resulting in a beautiful “Shavian alphabet” but his will was contested. He died in 1950 and now, 67 years later, English is just as difficult to spell as ever. Sigh.
So, no, I am not going to try to convince you to start saying, “you can” for singular you and “you cans” for the plural. In the South, some feel that “y’all” or “you-all” marks for plural but that is not a universally held belief. In any case, when I first heard, “Only you can prevent forest fires” I thought Smokey the Bear was talking about me personally. This was no doubt reinforced by the posters which clearly showed Smokey pointing his “fingers” at me. He wasn’t gesturing to a crowd. He was pointing at me. I had already seen the Disney movie Bambi which graphically portrays the flaming horror of a forest fire so I really did want to prevent them. But how? Smokey went on to offer some helpful rules such as not dropping my cigarettes carelessly on the ground and putting out my campfires completely. I was only about five so I didn’t have much of a nicotine habit. And, several more years would pass before I went to YMCA camp or Boy Scout camp. At five, I didn’t really have much chance to make sure my campfires were out because I didn’t have any campfires. My parents didn’t let me play with matches. Yet, forest fires persisted. Smokey must have been leaving out some crucial steps as to how I was supposed to prevent forest fires.
I generally tried to work out such puzzles for myself, but eventually I gave up and asked my grandpa how I could prevent forest fires. He patiently explained that Smokey was talking about people in general, not just me in particular. I don’t think I totally “bought” this explanation, but it did assuage my guilt somewhat. “People in general” is an odd concept anyway. It was weird for a five year old, but it remains weird to this day. People are very diverse in their abilities, motives, goals, backgrounds — so how can you possibly make sure “people in general” do anything at all? It wasn’t till many years later that I learned that some people set fires intentionally while a larger number are criminally careless.
Of course, it isn’t just forest fires that need to be prevented. Parents caution kids in a thousand ways and perhaps 900 of those are actually valid concerns. “Don’t run with scissors!” “Look both ways before crossing!” “Don’t stick anything in your nose!” “Don’t stick anything in your ears!” You may have heard the expression, “It takes all kinds.” It basically means that our world needs different kinds of people in it. I agree! But I must confess, I had no understanding of why my parents would say to me, “Don’t stick anything up your nose!” “Don’t stick anything in your ear!” What!? By this time in my life, I had experienced things stuck in my nose and ears (to name two places doctors like to jam things into you). Every doctor’s visit required that Dr. Miller jam some ice cold metal thing up my nose and when that was done, into my ears! I hated it! But apparently, some kids loved that so much that they wanted to recreate the experience. A few times, playing, hiking or just hanging out a bug flew into my eyes, nose, or ears. I hated that. True, they weren’t ice cold but they moved and buzzed making it even more terrifying. So, now my parents caution me not to stick something up my nose? Of course, once the idea is planted….No, I did not partake. Once they cautioned me, of course, I did consider it for the first time. But I couldn’t get over the horror. I actually seriously considered two possibilities as to why they would give such advice. 1. They were insane. 2. They knew something I didn’t. Hidden just beyond my view loomed an alternate universe in which things behaved quite differently. And, apparently, a person — even a five year old person like me — could accidentally slip into this alternative universe. In this alternative “up is down” “left is right” universe, it actually would be totally cool to stuff a crayon up your nose and not be able to breathe out of one side of your nose like you had the worst most disgusting bugger ever invented stuck and you could not sneeze it out. And, then, you would have a horde of grown ups hovering around you in a panic like you were going to die, and very soon, unless extreme measures were taken. So, off you went to the “Emergency Room” and some sleep-deprived intern whose mind swam with images of the cute nurse in pediatrics, stuck some cold instrument up your nose and spread your nose tissue like it was going to explode. Whether she needed to do that or enjoyed the movie about the nurse in pediatrics so much, she wasn’t paying attention, I don’t know. But either way, horrible is horrible. So, yeah, I considered it. And I considered it stupid to stick a crayon up my nose.
However, a few years later, I learned that there really were kids who stuck crayons up their nose. What!? This meant that my parents weren’t insane after all. Instead, there really hovered some alternative universe in which it made perfect sense to stick a crayon up your nose. Yeah, sure. Good times. But it isn’t a universe I particularly want to slip into. At least not ahead of schedule. I figure, if I’m lucky enough to live long enough, I may end up with quite a few tubes stuck in me various places. I might not, but I might. In that case, I guess I will have to change my attitude. I wonder whether kids who did stick crayons up their noses have an easier time with this? In any case, please remember: “Don’t stick crayons up your nose.”
Well, okay, I can think of a scenario where it would make sense to stick crayons up your nose. Let’s say that you’re James Bond and have been issued a very special crayon; when snuffed up your nose, it provides an instant antidote to the poison you are about to release by clicking your heels together three times. BANG. Fog. Your assailants all crumble to the ground. You remove their weapons, tie them together, and waltz back to the hotel to order a double martini, two olives, shaken not stirred. Under those circumstances, I probably would do the nasty.
Sadly, a much more common set of circumstances also exist. In my real life, I had the luck to be born into a loving family. From birth on, like most kids, I was surrounded by love. And, although I wasn’t always the center of attention, as I secretly knew I should be, I had plenty of attention. My parents had their times they didn’t want me to butt in but I also had plenty of time that I wanted to be alone or with my own friends. Live and let live. But what if, instead, I had been unlucky enough to be born into a family that provided very little if any love or attention? Under those circumstances, I might have been desperate enough to try putting a crayon up my nose or even playing with fire.
Just as I never felt compelled to stick crayons up my nose, I never understood kids who enjoyed “playing with fire.” I personally don’t like getting burned, not even a little bit. I recall accidentally touching my thumb to a hot soldering iron my dad was using. Oh, my god that hurt! I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I had burned myself. How I discovered this, I have no idea, but I discovered that if I lay down on the living room rug and vigorously rubbed the burned part back and forth on the rug, the pain went away. But when I stopped, the pain returned even worse than before. So, naturally, I did the only sensible thing a six year old would do. I resumed rubbing the burn on the rug. Ah. Relief. Of course, from today’s perspective, rubbing the burned part screams of stupidity. At the time though, I eventually confessed when my parents asked me why I kept making persistent thumb love to the rug. Whatever they did to treat the pain, I can tell you it wasn’t as effective in the short term as rubbing it on the rug. But they were adults. They were interested in what is best in the long run. And, I just bring that up because it seems somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten that.
In the universe where I grew up, the adults had responsibilities. Top most among all those responsibilities was to provide for future generations. At least most parents are overjoyed when their kids are born. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch of the imagination to realize that your kids will also be overjoyed when they have kids and so on down the line. If adults are collectively unable to put off their own pleasures for the good of future generations, this particular branch of the tree of life is about to be pruned.
The idea that we adults should squeeze every ounce of earth’s resources and leave future generations far worse off in terms of the beauty of the earth, the healthfulness of the air, water, and food supply — no way! That’s what little kids might do. And, lying about it to avoid any consequences? That’s what you expect a little kid to do. Not an adult. Only a child would play with fire. It might burn far far beyond any original intention. You know, Smokey was right:
“Only you can prevent forest fires!”