One of my favorite TV shows during the early ‘90s was “Barney and Friends”. (Actually, the addition of a baby sister gave me an excuse to spend a good bit of time with the dinosaur sensation in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, too. I’ve never been in any hurry to grow up.) Nowadays, my list of gripes against the show is rather lengthy – in a nutshell, the quality of the production rolled steadily downhill, over the seasons – but early on, I had only two. Firstly, Barney was not my idea of purple; according to my extensive collection of colored pencils, Barney was, at best, magenta. Secondly, I felt that there was some false advertising going on when it came to the powers of imagination.
The premise of the show was stated for all to hear in the theme song: “Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination…” A bunch of kids hanging around after school could make their little stuffed dinosaur come to life just by pretending that he did, and the gang would then go on to have approximately half-an-hour’s worth of imagination-centric fun. One of the videos that I recollect viewing with some frequency involved Barney and the kids transporting to a castle where, among other plot points I’ve since forgotten, they held a race in costumes that made it look like they were mounted on horses. I was all for castles and horses, but I found it incredulous that a brief incantation of the phrase “Shimboree, shimborah!” could actually bring about such an adventure. Wasn’t it a bit unethical of Barney to get people’s hopes up like that?
Well, it took me a few years, but I’ve finally figured out what was going on: The program was not, in fact, showing what the characters were literally experiencing – it was letting the kids watching at home see what was presumably going on inside the characters’ heads. No, Little Danielle, no one was really racing around a castle, or making it cycle though spring all the way to winter in a single afternoon, or making a jungle appear on the playground. They were only pretending. Extra-visually.
This seems like a non-secret I ought to have understood a little better. My “ability or tendency to form a mental image of something that is neither perceived as real nor present to the senses” (if I may splice definitions 1a and 1c of the word) has ever been enormously active. The games I loved best were made up of me, the sister three years my junior, the few dozen people each that we pretended to be, and the usually impossible escapades of these aforementioned people and their talking cats and space alien fathers. Were sister and I really splitting off into all these different bodies, harboring orphans in our backyards, filming movies with Scooby-Doo, and playing gigs with the Backstreet Boys? Obviously not. But it sure did look like it through our eyes, didn’t it?
In one sense, the power of imagination is not particularly impressive. It does not cause actual cities to materialize out of thin air, or literally teleport you halfway around the world, or otherwise allow you to legitimately act as some sort of regional god. But in another sense, it’s absolutely astounding. It gives architects the visions which, after much time and money and labor, become everything from a one-story ranch house to a multi-level skyscraper. It inspires explorers to want to see what’s beyond the horizon, which spawns the invention of ways to get there – sailing ships, steam engines, space shuttles. No, you still don’t get to be God; the creator of the world gets deity rights, that’s the rule. But with a little imagination, you can create worlds of your own. As many of them as you like. You can even make a career of sharing those worlds with the habitants of this one, a la my personal goal.
He may not have known purple from magenta, but when it came to imagination, Barney had the right idea.