Discovering the appeal of the Force

Posted Aug. 30, 2009, at 11:01 p.m.

I’m living with ominous, grotesque creatures. Some of them wear capes. Others have turtlelike armor. A few have bulbous foreheads with long, fleshy stalactites hanging from their ears. Almost all of them carry a weapon, many of which I don’t understand. However, the ones armed with lightsabers are so familiar and abundant on the floor of my boys’ bedroom that I often forget there is no such thing, outside the sci-fi world, as a sword made entirely of light.

More times than I can count in a day I pick these creatures off the floor and put them back where they belong on the shelf. I lift some of them between my thumb and forefinger, as if picking up a soiled diaper, because their faces are so revolting. One, whose name is Darth Maul, repulses me so much I won’t pick him up at all. And all the while, for as long as I’ve been picking up these toys or stepping around them, I’ve listened to my boys discuss their histories.

“Obi-Wan was trained by Qui-Gon Jinn,” Ford tells his younger brother Owen. “Later, Qui-Gon Jinn comes back as a ghost.”

Owen, picking up the lost limb of a wookie: “And we knocked this arm off during the Battle of Kashyyyk, right?”

“Right.”

The only names I recognized from the boys’ talk were “Yoda,” “Darth Vader” and “Luke Skywalker.” I had vague memories of my older brothers, Van and Will, talking about the same people when I was a kid. But General Grievous, Count Dooku and the rest were all but Greek to me.

It bothered me that my boys pretended to have “epic battles” with these characters. It bothered me even more when one morning I awoke to Ford telling Owen, “Let’s pretend our whole house is the Death Star.” (“You know the fate of the Death Star, right?” a friend asked me upon hearing my boys’ plans.)

All this talk of the dark side was getting under my skin. Why did the boys have to wield lightsabers and pretend to use Jedi mind tricks on clones? Why did they have battles to defeat the Sith? And why, 100 times a day, did they make moaning sounds like wookies?

“It’s classic good-versus-evil stuff,” Dustin assured me. “Maybe you should watch the movies so you understand.”

Reluctantly, I sat down to watch all six episodes of “Star Wars.” On-screen I saw the familiar creatures, which until now had lived in my mind only as miniature and plastic, come to life. I saw the AT-AT walkers, which are top-heavy and flexible and never stand up on a shelf. I saw Jango Fett and Anakin as real characters, not just costumes. And finally, I saw what a pod race is and why the boys pretend to have one on the sidewalk with their Big Wheels.

But I also saw something else, something completely unexpected: a compelling story about love, sacrifice and good versus evil. After seeing Vader’s helmet come off and noting the tears in his eyes as he looked at his son, I admit I discovered a lump in my throat. Later, on my way upstairs to bed, I passed by a toy Darth Vader on the ledge, his plastic cape folded back as if blowing in the wind and his red lightsaber held high above Luke’s head, and a little tear sneaked out of the corner of my eye. For the first time, I understood the complexities that Ford and Owen had wrestled with day after day on the floor of their bedroom. This revelation gave me newfound respect for my boys’ play. I was hooked. Unable to stop thinking about the story, I asked my husband and children questions (“What is the meaning of Luke looking at his father’s robotic hand, then looking at his own and lowering his lightsaber?” “How did Darth Vader know about Leia?”) until even they lost interest.

The next day at the gym, Mike, who is 30, saw Ford carrying a toy lightsaber to the child care room.

“Is he a Trekkie or something?” Mike asked.

Two weeks ago, I would have rolled my eyes and sighed. But two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have just purchased a handmade knit hat that looks like Princess Leia’s hairstyle. I wouldn’t have downloaded the lightsaber app on my iPhone. Indeed, two weeks ago, I might have called my sons Trekkies, too.

“Trekkie? Really?” I said to Mike. I walked away shaking my head in disbelief. I had always thought the Force was strong in him. Then I channeled Yoda: “Mmmm, Power of the Force, he must not know. Mysterious are the ways of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise. Strong powers of PR machine Mike has resisted.”

May the Force be with him.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book “I’m Just Saying …” is available at bookstores. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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