Unless and until

Or, Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make

The coyote looks down. There’s nothing beneath him but the warm tones of the desert far below the top of the mesa he neglected to keep underfoot. He realizes he’s going to fall. He holds up a sign to us, or he unfolds a well-used parasol. Maybe he waves good-bye. At all events, he falls.

My eight-year-old son and I have watched this Looney Toones gag over and over on DVD together, and we laugh every time. I always thought we were both laughing at the foolish coyote because he carelessly steps (or rockets or bicycles) over the mesa’s edge. But it turns out Warren has been laughing because the foolish coyote foolishly looks down. Now I understand my son better.

I discovered Warren’s point of view last night, halfway through Warren’s bedtime routine. Warren’s routine includes our adaptation of the coyote gag. Warren’s stuffed snake loses control of his tail and it becomes a helicopter blade. The snake screams as he takes off from the bed, but things get worse for him: his tail sputters and droops when it runs out of gas. The snake looks Warren in the face, the snake’s eyes bigger than usual, if that is possible. “Oh, no,” he says, softly; then he falls.

Warren laughed, as always, but last night he was not completely satisfied.

“Pause the game. Next time, have the snake look down before he falls.”

Huh? Oh.

The difference between the truths we extrapolate from the coyote’s fall is precisely the difference between Warren and me. Examine the competing laws, stated succinctly here.

My Law: The coyote won’t fall until he looks down.

Warren’s Law: The coyote won’t fall unless he looks down.

Get the distinction? I understand that the gag works because the coyote will fall. Warren, on the other hand, sees the possibilities.

It comes down to the difference between unless and until.

Until is a preposition, inexorable as its object. Prepositions let you know things about the world, things you have to know to get along. Your job is to adjust, to understand your limitations, and to show as much individuality as conformity will permit. Your medicine fell under the table. You’re driving on the wrong side of the road. You came after your sister. That remark was over the top, Warren.

Unless is a conjunction, a grammatical contrivance evincing a far different human impulse than a preposition. Conjunctions put pieces of life together, and you have a lot of latitude there. Stick an “and” in for an “or,” and maybe you have two cookies instead of one. (Warren, in fact, often holds up his index finger and says, with a slow detective-like voice, “Unless…”) Life is not preset. Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make.

Until has its soft side, too, when it also serves as a conjunction. I can relate to until’s ambivalence. After all, many of my fixed stances have fallen before Warren’s conjunctive assault. Here’s a discussion we had two weeks ago:

W: [Holding up two of my screwdrivers.] If you were going to give me one of your screwdrivers, would you give me the big one or the small one?

P: Warren, I’m not giving you any of my screwdrivers.

W: I know…

P: You may use my screwdrivers, but they remain mine.

W: I know, but if you were going to give me one, I think I know which one you would give me.

P: Okay, which one?

W: The small one. [Grins.]

A week later, it was his screwdriver.

I hasten to add that I’m not the only authority figure bending. When Warren was about five, he discovered prayer. He applied it by his bed each month on the night before his children’s church program held its drawing. He won the drawing and took home nice toys four months in a row as children more needy than he looked on.

Warren got so confident of his hotline to God that he tried to whip up a little unscheduled vacation for us that winter. One morning when I woke him up for school, Warren closed his eyes and mumbled for a moment, then gave me a knowing grin and rolled up the window shade. He was surprised not to see two feet of snow.

I thought Warren was in for a crisis of faith that morning. Instead, he took the bungled snowstorm in stride and walked down to breakfast. But he doesn’t pray much anymore, as far as I know.

Sometimes I wonder how Warren can have lived on this planet for eight years without assimilating more of the rules required for life down here. Victoria and I struggle to make sure Warren is aware of some certainties, expectations, and conditions precedent. But our work doesn’t often seem to have much effect. Maybe Warren showed up on the planet just yesterday, after all. How long have any of us been here?

Or maybe Warren never got here, and never will. Unless he looks down.