Theater, Workshop, and Factory of the Mind

“Engineering the Ultimate Toy,” was the title of an article in Popular Science this month. The thesis was what toys would creative inventors build if money, safety, and the very laws of physics were no objects? My favorite toy idea was an augmented reality system imagined by Joshua Garrett, a computer game developer. It would understand voice commands and comments and instantly change the child’s environment. If he or she sat up in bed and said “spaceship” the bed and its environs would instantly become a rocket ship, and the space around it would be, well space. If the child then said, “This looks scary,” little green monsters would ooze out from under the former closet door now become a spaceship portal. The child could then imagine whether to fire up his fingertip laser and zap them into non existence, or imagine peanut butter sandwiches for everybody while they all settle down and make friends.

It’s a wild concept, stretching our minds, creativity, and believability to their outer limits. “Impossible” to the digital development geniuses is like “no” to a high pressure salesman—not in their vocabulary. They have made such strides the past few decades that the system may be on shelves at Toys R Us not many Christmases hence.

There is only one drawback to this mind warping stocking stuffer. It has already been done by the children themselves. From time immemorial children have turned sticks into fiery steeds, corn cobs into cuddly dolls, nighttime shadows into monsters under the bed.

When I was a child money was so tight that we couldn’t afford to imagine space ships, but my brother Gordon and I won the battle for the skies against the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese warlords by flying dogfights in our family’s 1928 Chevrolet box on wheels. My friend Monte Montague and I freed Europe with tanks, ships and planes fashioned from railroad parts we found in the train repair yard across the street from our house.

On the home front we tamed the great American west, pulled out last second miracle victories on imaginary grid irons, and captured outlaw gangs with our bare knuckles and lightening draw index finger six shooters.

The social experts tell us we slough off that genius for creating instant worlds to live in. As we mature it’s undignified to have make believe war games around the office water cooler and ride stick horses down the city sidewalks. But I have found we can tease back our latent genius of imagination through such magic carpets as theater of the mind. For decades I have invited audiences to ride with me and my guitar chasing outlaws with the Mormon cowboy law man Porter Rockwell, saving the Union with Abraham Lincoln, following the Old Testament prophets, or swinging away with Casey at the bat.

I supply the suggestions with voice characterizations, songs and strums on the guitar, and occasional sound effects. The audience takes it from there. We can travel anywhere and any when on the wings of our minds. It’s a stimulating and refreshing way to learn by living for awhile in a world of our own creation. And unlike even the greatest movie or digital production, each person creates his own version of heroes, villains, romantic scenes, and goofy comedy. Our imaginations can create monsters that would petrify even the little green aliens oozing out from under the closet door.

This childlike ability to create the mental, and emotional world we choose to live in has great practical potential in our adult worlds as well. Environment and events give us the raw materials, but we can and do fashion them into the world we choose to inhabit. Certainly that is true of our inner world. Most of us know rich people who are miserable and people of much lesser means who picture themselves as enjoying a rich and full existence. Both are in large measure correct. And speaking large measure, Albert Einstein reconstructed our view of the universe by framing one mental question, “What would the world look like if I were riding on a light beam?”

By applying time, energy, tools, and materials to the image in our imagination, we can often replicate our inner vision in our outer world. The theater then becomes a workshop or even a factory of the mind.

In her last years my mother was still in the little house she had lived in almost all her married life. She said, “I’m so glad my house is small. I get dizzy often lately and if I start to fall there is always a wall nearby.”

Her mind turned her cramped quarters into a comfortable cocoon. I’m quite sure if she had wanted to she could have turned it into a space ship. She already knew how to create great peanut butter sandwiches.