Fear the turtle

Last fall two baby turtles, about the size of pickle chips, reached our doorstep in a Styrofoam hamburger box. They were the fruit of long family deliberations over what pet to get. Fur makes me sneeze, and my wife has a thing about the snakes and lizards my son wants.

The turtles belong to my daughter, who played the tortoise earlier this year in a skit based on Aesop’s “The Hare and the Tortoise.” She got to say Aesop’s punch line: “Slow but steady wins the race!”

Bethany was well cast for the role. She has accommodations at school that permit her to complete tests in another room after the other students have turned their tests in. The school also allows her to cut corners through some of her homework because it takes her so long to complete it. But she usually gets straight A’s.

I tried to be positive about her speed when she was three and four years old. “You’re fast!” I would tell her, hoping to build her self-esteem. She would stare at me, weighing my words. The last time I said it, she responded, “No, I’m slow.” She was smiling.

Bethany’s quiet persistence beat out my wife’s objection that turtles stink. Plus, the turtles at the old Virginia Living Museum building we’d visit usually made us laugh. The male turtles there would wiggle their claws against the females’ cheeks and the females would start avoiding them. I’ve tried this at home with similar results.

The museum turtles also were speedy under water, and we loved to watch them zip around. Scientists may one day explain that Aesop’s race had been under water. Or we’ll find a lost fragment from the fable: “‘You choose the contest, and I’ll choose the location,’ said the Tortoise, quietly.”

Until recently I would have accepted an underwater theory over Aesop’s explanation for the race results. After all, Aesop would have us believe that the Hare would choose to sleep during a race. The Hare’s sleep doesn’t seem to be from weariness, either. The Hare sleeps with swagger, perhaps the original power nap. Despite this obvious fiction, the fable persists as one of Aesop’s most frequently cited, and it resonates in our cultural subconscious. Why?

Turtles were not always associated with slowness. In ancient times, they were considered infernal creatures, and the word “turtle” probably derives from the Greek word for underworld. Maybe the expression “inexorable as death” makes the connection from the Greeks to Aesop’s view of the turtle.

There are all kinds of slow. A turtle won’t shut down on you, insisting on some insupportable point, like a dog with your pocketbook clamped between his teeth. The turtle’s slowness has something more to do with patience.

Our pickle-chip sized turtles presently require a 25-gallon aquarium. Slowly, they will grow to be six to twelve inches in diameter. The last time we went, the Virginia Living Museum had just moved into a new building with “four times the exhibit space” as its old one. And its turtles were growing. Our turtles will win in the end, too, and I’ll be buying museum-size tanks.

I risk a friendship with a hasty word, and I lose my equanimity if the checkout lady says more than, “Debit or credit?” to the person in front of me, daring to waste my precious time with a conversation, with a touch of humanity. But I could not conceive of the Hare risking the race for a nap.

No Hare can conceive of it, and so no Hare can relate to the Hare. The Turtles know, though, that the Hares will always make time to sleep during a race. The Turtles start the race with a deeper conviction, which the Hares usually mistake for starting from a deeper hole. The Hares make pronouncements at the start of a race, and time disproves them. The Turtles know that time is always on their side.

Posted April 2004