The Egypt Game
I will be out of the office (re: away from the internet) until Saturday night as I am going up to our cottage for the first time this year. I had wanted to lay in hammocks and read murder mysteries, but I will probably end up working on an Edith Wharton book review for WORN and the final column for my Ryerson class. That’s the plan anyways. I just wanted to let you know so you didn’t think I had thrown in the towel already and you’d hopefully return at the end of the weekend. To help me get in the mood for Lake Simcoe I thought I’d share a story from my childhood at our cottage.
I don’t want to sound like a crusty old curmudgeon. I really don’t. There are already too many people complaining about how “kids today” don’t read, don’t go to the ol’ fishing hole, don’t go on raft adventures with escaped slaves down the Mississippi. Don’t do anything good or fun at all, actually. A lot of it is bullshit spewed by people whose kids are grown-up and who have mythologized their own pre-digital childhoods. I completely agree with Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad is Good for You that many of today’s technologies, like computers and video games, are actually making kids smarter rather than dumber. That all being said, there’s still a benefit to being unplugged.
Our cottage, on an island on Lake Simcoe, is not rustic by any standards. There is electricity and plumbing and even a TV, without cable so mostly used for old movies. There’s no dish-washer, so manually cleaning up after dinner is one of our few rituals which recreates the not-so-distant past. But even so, as a child, left without TV channels to flip through and before I got into devouring every Agatha Christie, I had time to kill. So I played ‘make-believe’, going down to the lake and imagining stories, characters, entire movie productions. I never associated my playing with the “imagination” games that the Sesame Street characters were always plugging, in which you would apparently be transported to an animated landscape and meet talking sheep and cookies, but now I realize that’s what it is.
One memorable summer, my Dad read a little paperback we had bought at the shop on the mainland, The Egypt Game by the fantastically-named Zilpha Kealtey Snyder. It was about a group of children who invent a whole ancient Egyptian world in the backyard and shed of an abandoned house in their run-down neighbourhood. The older children become obsessed with its authenticity and become experts on spiritual rituals to re-enact. There was also an exciting subplot about a potential child-murderer in the neighbourhood, which some of the online reviewers thought was too scary (people really are no fun anymore!) but it gives the story its edge.
I, of course, needed my own Egypt, and the timing worked out perfectly as we were just building a brand new shed behind the cottage. My Grandpa Ralph built a little, thin room, with a child-sized door and a window on the far wall. It looked like an musty ancient tomb, and opening the little door I felt like Howard Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s resting place. Being the Egypt-obsessive that I was, I decorated the scratchy plywood walls with Egypt-themed stickers, pages from a ‘Sesame Street goes to the Museum’ colouring book, and my own magic-marker interpretations of hieroglyphics.
I don’t remember much what we did in ‘Egypt’. My friend Alyssa was in on the game, as were the required younger siblings. There was one time when I wanted to do a ceremony, like the kids had in the book, and I came up with the idea of lighting some paper on fire in a bowl. Alyssa being a more practical child then I said she didn’t feel comfortable about it, and we got in a big fight, and it didn’t happen. This event may have been in the early autumn, or perhaps I just remember it that way as it signalled the beginning of the Decline of ‘Egypt’, and the end of that part of my childhood.
The smell of plywood dust continues to make me think of the Nile. The little door is still there and maybe I’ll open it up this weekend.