Walter Possum’s Apprenticeship

If our fathers are around, we learn from them.  That’s pretty much how it goes.  We learn good things and bad things.  We learn character and settled habits and gestures and verbal tics the father himself doesn’t even know about.

Today is an appreciation of a Russell Hoban book I have discovered only recently.[1]  I knew his stories about Frances the little badger, but apparently he warmed up on possums and Walter is a kind of early Frances.  The same wise father and nurturing mother and obnoxious younger sister are all there, but they are all possums.[2]

Here is the line I am aiming for: Listen, Charlotte, I have something for you.”  How did we get to that line?

Charlotte is Walter’s obnoxious little sister.  On this day, she has been following Walter and his buddy Kenneth around and complaining that she is not allowed to join in the activities.  What Walter has for her is a very special stick.  It is special because Walter has decided it is special.  He decided that because he knew the trick he had in mind wouldn’t work unless Charlotte had some reason to believe it would work.

Here’s how the stick works.  It is a play-right-here stick.

 “What does it do?” says Charlotte.

 “Look,” said Walter, “you stick it in the dirt and then you look all around it and you find all kinds of things to look at so you can[3]play right here.” [Italics in the original]

Walter demonstrates.  He plants the stick in the ground, lies on the ground, and looks at the grass and dirt around the stick.  He sees an ant carrying a really huge bread crumb.  Charlotte tries it.  She sees a grasshopper.  She plays right here and Walter and Kenneth go off by themselves and play in an apple tree.

That may seem like a simple con job, but it is not.  It is a con job, certainly, but it is not simple.  That act is the first positive action Walter has taken toward anyone unless you count his tussling with Kenneth.  “Listen, Charlotte, I have something for you” is a new direction in Walter’s life.  It is proactive, imaginative, and generous.  Walter’s life is truly launched.  He is acting on the world and making it better.  And just a few pages ago, he was a bored little possum.

Today’s question is: How did Walter get to that place?  He learned from a master.  That is, after all, what apprentices do.[4]    In the story up to this point, Walter has been exactly the kind of nuisance to his father that Charlotte is to Walter.  Walter has “Nothing to Do” and believes, for reasons Hoban does not explain, but that will not be mysterious to any parent, that his father ought to do something about that.  But being a father, the father’s problem is not just to get Walter off his back for a little while, but to make Walter a master of the “Something to Do” skills.  That is what masters do for apprentices and, occasionally, fathers for sons.

How does he do that?  There are three steps.  In the first, he refused to own Walter’s problem.  The problem is never, of course, that there is nothing to do.  The problem is always that you are not interested in what there is to do.  Father gave Walter the task of raking leaves, in response of one of Walter’s complaints, but Walter discovered that “raking leaves is not really something to do.”

In the second, he gives Walter a magic stone that he found in the river the previous night.  It is magic for precisely the same reasons that Walter’s stick is magic: it won’t work if it isn’t magic.  It’s a “something to do” stone.  It always works if you use it correctly, but the stone, unlike the “play right here” stick, requires a little training.  The crucial aspect of the training is ruling out other explanations. 

The training in the use of the stone is step three.  Here’s what I mean.  When the stone doesn’t work, the reason is not to be sought in the intentions and desires of the user.  Nor is it to be sought in the inappropriate character of the activity itself.  That means that both “You shouldn’t want to do that” and “That’s not a good thing to do” are out.

We do not want to talk about things you want to do that you should not want to do.  You can’t focus on the stone and do that at the same time.  We do not want to talk about the inappropriateness of the activity.  You can’t focus on the stone and do that at the same time.  So the “right answer” is always something to do with the use of the stone.

I confess that this section of the story is the one I loved first.  The point Hoban makes here was the point I was trying to make in my doctoral dissertation, which was a good deal longer than Nothing to Do.  Look at how this gets done.

“Listen, Walter,” he said, “I have something for you.”

“What is it?” said Walter.

“It’s a something-to-do stone” said Father.

Everybody recognize the quote?  This act of Father’s is proactive, imaginative, and generous.  Sound familiar?  Here’s the training.  “You keep it in your pocket and when you have nothing to do, you rub it.  You have to look around and think while you’re rubbing it, and then the stone give you something to do.”

Walter rubs the stone and gets an idea.  He’s going to go into the living room and play with his erector set.  He knows very well that the reason he and Father and Charlotte are outside is that Mother is cleaning the house and no one is allowed to be there.  But, following the training rules, playing in the living room cannot be a bad thing to do and Walter cannot be a bad little possum for wanting to do it.  Those are, in my line of work, “causal attributions” and if you don’t block off the bad ones, you lose access to the good ones.

“You were too close to the house when you rubbed the stone,” says Father.  “Let’s try it again, further away.”  If Walter is to become a master in using the stone[5] bad choices need to be explained by how the stone works.  They cannot be explained by how bad the idea is or how perverse the chooser is.  IT’S ABOUT THE STONE, STUPID!

On his second try, Walter tries, “I want to go to the store and get a rubber ball so I can bounce it.”  That’s not good either, as Father explains, because it is a “costs money” thing to do.[6]  Again, there is nothing wrong with Walter’s intention and there is nothing wrong with the activity.  What is wrong is an improper use of the stone.

“That’s a costs-money thing to do,” said Father.  “You were standing too close to the pocket where I keep my money when you rubbed the stone.” IT’S ABOUT THE STONE, STUPID!

On Walter’s third try, he says, “I think I know where to find an old ball that I lost. I’ll go look for it.”  The stone works, you see.  He found the ball and played with it for a while.  When he got tired of bouncing the ball, he rubbed the stone again.  When you have nothing to do, remember, you rub the stone and look around and “it gives you something to do.”  That’s what makes it such a wonderful gift.  You don’t have to find something to do yourself.  It’s not bad to have nothing to do if you have a stone that will give you something to do.  You are not a bad little boy if you have nothing to do—if you have a stone that will give you something.  And if you use it properly—not too close the wallet, not too close to the house—it always works.

Those are the three steps.  Refuse to own the problem.  Give the magic stone.  Train the apprentice in the proper use of the stone.  That is how Walter came to learn how to use the stone and to trust the stone.

There is one other event, however.  Even when he can use the stone and can benefit from that use, Walter is still only a learner.  Father wants him to be a master, but to do that, Walter woulod have to see the process whole, the way Father saw it.  He would have to refuse to own someone else’s problem.  He would have to devise a magic gift.  He would have to train someone in the proper use of that gift.  He would have to do just what we saw him do when he saw the need, invented the play-right-here stick, and taught Charlotte how to use it.  Walter is going to have to say, “What was it that caused Father to invent the something-to-do stone and to endow it with magic properties?  Oh yeah.  It was me.  I kept pestering him.  Hey, I know what….”

I do have a private fantasy, though.  I don’t know anything at all about Charlotte.  I don’t know if she can get the hang of giving the magic gift.  But somewhere in her future, I want to hear her say to one of her friends, “Helen, I have something for you.”



[1] I’m thinking about his children’s books. This one is Nothing to Do. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1964.   When he started writing adult fiction, he wrote some very hard-edged things, especially a post-apocalyptic novel called Ridley Walker.

[2] Opossum, actually. It is an Algonquin word meaning “white beast.”

[3] Note the verb.  With the stick, Charlotte CAN do this.  It is a newly opened ability.  The verb Walter chooses shows no interest in whether Charlotte wants to do this.

[4] Or disciples, if you want to follow the “learning” route rather than the “conquest” route.  Our word apprentice came mean “learner” only by means of a metaphorical extension..  The root is prehendere, “to seize.”  It came to mean “to seize with the mind,” i.e., to apprehend.  We can still see that in comprehend.  Disciple comes directly from discere, “to learn.”

[5] I’m thinking, maybe, lithotect.

[6] Giving kids money so they can “entertain themselves” is a common—probably an increasingly common—tactic of parenthood.  It carries several problems with it however.  If you are the source of the money, you are still the solver of the problem.  The child comes to you for money rather than for ideas.  That’s not much of an improvement.  The second is that it teaches the child that he is never short of imagination and resourcefulness, only of money.  That is not a useful lesson either.  If you teach those lessons, you are not a master and do not deserve an apprentice.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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