Shrink Rap

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

“Magic words of poof, poof piffles make me just as small as Sniffles.” (“Mary Jane and [her mouse friend] Sniffles,” a comic book series from my long lost childhood)

We are all drawn to the miniature. Ships (in or out of bottles), toy poodles (and then teacup poodles!), doll houses, model airplanes that can actually fly, Matchbook cars, toy soldiers. Our folklore is rife with tiny human-like creatures: pixies, fairies, elves, leprechauns. Before there was P. T. Barnum’s Tom Thumb there was the little fellow so named that Merlin bestowed on a childless couple. He actually was no bigger than one’s thumb, and always getting into mischief. (Most of these little creatures are mischievous but rarely evil, which tells us something: little is good, big—the giant at the top of the bean stalk—is often bad.)

Lemuel Gulliver could tell you about miniatures. In Jonathan Swift’s classic he lived among Lilliputians—who were about 1/12 his size—on Lilliput and Blefuscu. (I think we have all seen that illustration where he is bound helpless on the beach.) Escaping the land of the Lilliputians, he winds up in Brobdingnag, where the inhabitant are twelve times his size, so he is effectively lilliputian. Lilliputian has become a synonym for tiny, brobingnagian for gigantic.

Maps are of necessity abstract miniatures. I can rest the whole state of New Mexico on my lap. I also have one of those plastic maps that actually do mimic elevation, mountains and valleys bumping up and down. Were you sub-atomically tiny, I suppose you could hike up Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point, right here in my study.

Speaking of the sub-atomic, the classic model of the atom looks like a really, really, really tiny solar system, electrons zooming around the nucleus like planets. I am told that we should not take this too literally, but the temptation to imagine that atoms really ARE solar systems, and could be inhabited, speaks to a very profound whimsy in us.

A best seller in the 1950s was Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, quickly made into an equally successful movie (they upped the ante and titled it The Incredible Shrinking Man). I remember reading the book when I was in high school. Scott Carey is sunning himself on his cabin cruiser off California when a wave out of nowhere washes over him. Turns out, the wave carried radioactive insecticides (!) and poor Carey’s cells begin to shrink, slowly at first but inexorably. I forget the time span covered in the book, but there are some wonderful scaled down scenes. One movie poster shows him in a fight for his life with the family cat, armed with a sewing needle (clearly this is not Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). In an even more horrifying later scene he fights off a spider. So how do you wrap up a plot like that? You don’t. As I remember the ending, Scott is so minuscule that he can easily pass through a window screen’s interstices. Off he wanders in despair, and we know that he will…just…keep…shrinking. We are left with the tantalizing question: what infinitesimally small worlds are out there for Scott Carey to explore? Is it possible to shrink to nothing, or will death be his only deliverance?

This probably belongs in a different wonk, but I feel obliged to point out that children—or the young of any species—are not miniature adults. You can see at a glance the physiological differences. Yet we sometimes want to make them so (or we allow them to make themselves so). This is what makes us queasy, and should, when we see a twelve-year-old tarted up like a streetwalker. When I was a kid you still dressed up for church and that usually meant not just a somber little suit from Sears, but a little fedora just like Dad’s. Ugh. I remember having to play the groom in a Tom Thumb Wedding when I was about five years old. Forgive them.

What to make of all this miniature stuff? Are there profundities lurking here? One bald observation would be that miniatures make us feel bigger—an old ad for VW was captioned “Buy a Volkswagen. It will make your house look bigger.” Toys, especially, do this. With that mint patch and that little canoe I was not just an old voyageur. I was, at the same time, a god looking down at the scene, arranging things, commanding things. Miniatures empower us bigger people, an especially heady feeling when you are only four years old and maybe three feet tall. And miniatures—like your nephew with the cheap construction equipment—can fuel our imaginations for hours. Beyond that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I’d give (miniature) worlds to know.

I have to quit now anyway. Chup, my miniature Bengal tiger, just bounded up onto this computer desk, demanding his dinner.

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