Connor the Unicorn is missing. It's freakin' annoying.

My daughter has a whole host of imaginary friends, who she calls "pretend friends." We hear about them a lot less than we did a couple years ago, but they are still around, and from time to time, we will hear her talking to them. 

Audrey. Elizabeth. Anna. The list goes on and on. 

Most of these pretend friends are related to one another in some complex family tree that is set in stone in her mind. She expects me to have this family tree memorized as well, and she becomes angry when it's not (which it never is). 

Amongst these human pretend friends is Connor, the Unicorn.

Connor went missing about a week ago. The first indication of his absence were the signs that started going up around the house.

Lost unicorn signs. 

Then she began talking about his absence. Lamenting it. Looking genuinely sad. 

The other day I walked into the living room and found Clara sitting on the couch, head in hands, looking as sad as I have ever seen her. 

"What's wrong?" I asked. "Are you sick?"

She answered with one word: "Connor."

This has happened a few times since then. I walk into a room, find her sitting quietly, looking sad, and when I ask what's wrong, she says, "Connor."

You would think that a guy who wrote an entire novel about imaginary friends (and almost finished a sequel) would love this imaginary world that my little girl has created for herself.

You'd think that a guy who had an imaginary friend of his own as a boy (and thought that imaginary friend was real for years and years) would understand his daughter's emotional attachment to her mythical, imaginary friend.

But no. Not if the damn thing is going to make her sad.

Someone please find this stupid unicorn and make my daughter happy again.

My daughter has an imaginary friend.

My daughter has an imaginary friend named Aubrey. She calls Aubrey her “pretend friend.”

Needless to say this thrills me. Not only did I write a novel about an imaginary friend, but I had a long-term imaginary friend when I was a child, too.

So far I have learned that Aubrey:

  • Sleeps late and needs to be awakened by a pretend trumpet.
  • Goes everywhere with Clara, even if Clara doesn’t mention her.
  • Likes puzzles.

I’m so excited.


There is always a reason for an imaginary friend

Someone invented Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend. Whether he was the victim of an elaborate hoax or the perpetrator of the scheme, the fact remains: Te’o professed to loving a woman who did not exist. He had never held her hand, kissed her on the lips, or assured her that she was the best looking woman in the room. How could he? He had never laid eyes on her. Yet Manti Te’o had called Lennay Kekua “the love of my life.” She was an imaginary girlfriend in an imaginary world.

Only in an imaginary world would Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend die within five hours of each other at the onset of a possible Heisman Trophy winning season. Only in an imaginary world would a star football player skip his girlfriend’s funeral, defeat an arch rival, and dedicate the game ball to her memory. And only in an imaginary world would the captain of a football team use the death of his grandmother and girlfriend to lead his team to an undefeated season and a shot at the national title.

This is the stuff of fiction, the stuff of invention. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is always a reason for an imaginary friend.

I had an imaginary friend as a child. His name was Johnson Johnson. A friend and confidant, Johnson Johnson spent hours riding on my back, whipping his cowboy hat into the air and firing his pistols at traitorous Indians, the Lone Ranger to my loyal Silver. When my parents fought (which happened a lot), Johnson Johnson hid in the basement with me, keeping me company, keeping me safe.

It wasn’t until I was ten that I discovered that he wasn’t real. My parents occasionally took in foster children and I had made what I considered to be a natural assumption—that Johnson Johnson was just another temporary sibling. My mind had created Johnson Johnson and conveniently bestowed upon him all of the attributes that my younger brothers and sisters were lacking. Johnson Johnson didn’t depend on me. He didn’t insist that I wear a house key around my neck every day or that I make sure my siblings boarded the school bus safely. Johnson Johnson was the one person in my life who gave me what I wanted: the opportunity to be a kid. I wanted to ignore my parents’ battles and my siblings’ needs and just think of myself. Johnson Johnson allowed me to be irresponsible, unkind and selfish, and I loved him for it.

There is always a reason for an imaginary friend.

Twenty years ago, I knew a woman I’ll call Nancy. Nancy was a small in stature, high energy, uncommonly tolerant woman who called everyone she met “Honey.” Nancy was also gay and very much in the closet. In order to avoid the inevitable questions about boyfriends and marriage, Nancy invented an imaginary fiancée who had died in a car accident years before. This imaginary, deceased fiancée silenced nosy aunts and well-meaning acquaintances, and gave her a graceful excuse when it came to occasional offers of set-ups and blind dates. Her tragic loss kept the curious at bay.

There is always a reason.

As an elementary school teacher, I’ve known many children with imaginary friends. Some children possess an overactive imagination that requires an outlet. Others have a difficult time making friends and require close companionship. Imaginary friends fit the bill Always present, always supportive, they are allies and accomplices, that safe person to whom a child can always turn.

Imaginary friends serve many needs and they take many forms: small animals, paper dolls, ghosts, spots on the wall. Real children, too. Some of kids have adult-sized imaginary friends. These imaginary adults typically fill the roles of absent fathers and mothers. They’re often dressed in formal wear and carry umbrellas, handbags and briefcases. They’re called Mr. Bruno and Mrs. May—names that suggest authority and a certain order.

Imaginary friend exist for a reason, and it’s often a good one. But not always.

In September of last year, American voters watched Clint Eastwood invent an imaginary version of President Obama in order to debate him at the Republican Convention. Speaking to a chair, Eastwood created a stir by posing questions that Imaginary Obama could not answer. Like any good imaginary friend, Imaginary Obama served his master well, refusing to refute any of Eastwood’s claims. He just sat there, invisible and agreeable.

Hardly surprising.

After all, imaginary friends serve their imaginers at all times. That’s their job. They fill the gaps in our lives. The spaces of discomfort. In Eastwood’s case, Imaginary Obama served as the mute prop that he required. Lacking the courage to debate the real President Obama. Eastwood chose a straw man over the real one.

An imaginary president.

In the coming days and weeks, the reason behind the creation of Manti Te’o’s imaginary friend will likely be revealed. For Te’o’s sake, and for the sake of an American public that does not need another sports villain, I am hoping that Manti Te’o was naïve and gullible rather than nefarious and calculating. As tragic and mystifying as it may seem to fall in love with an imaginary girlfriend, at least there is innocence behind this idea. An understanding that we all want to believe in something. Perhaps Manti Te’o simply needed this more than most of us. Perhaps he needed something else.

There is always a reason.

Clint Eastwood’s Imaginary Friend was really his convenient friend

I wonder if Clinton will speak to an imaginary Clint Eastwood tonight at the Democratic National Convention. 

I doubt it.

I’m guessing that Clinton knows the first rule of Imaginary Friends:

Keep them to yourself. Don’t talk to them in public. (People will think you’re strange.) Don’t set a place for them at the dinner table. (People will think you’re strange.) And whatever you do, don’t talk to them on stage at the Republication National Convention. (People will think you’re really strange.)

Imaginary Friends (or foes, in this case) have their purpose. They serve as the ideal confidante: always available, always willing to lend a hand . . . and an ear. I had an imaginary friend when I was a child—his name was Johnson Johnson. He was a boy about my age, conveniently shorter and smaller than me with ice blue eyes perpetually focused in my direction. Johnson Johnson was my best friend for several years, and for a time, he may have been my only friend. When I was feeling lonely or faced with a difficult decision, it was Johnson Johnson I turned to.

I thought a lot about my imaginary friend while watching Clint Eastwood speak to his imaginary version of President Obama. It was an interesting rhetorical device—our nation’s quintessential tough guy literally talking down to an empty chair. But I wasn’t thinking of rhetoric last Thursday night. I was thinking of how similar Eastwood’s imaginary president was to the imaginary friends of millions of children across the country.

As an elementary school teacher for the past fifteen years, I’ve come across my fair share of imaginary friends. I know their world and I understand their purpose. Imaginary friends are convenient, agreeable, and above all, there when you need them.

Rather like Imaginary Obama. The empty chair to which Eastwood directed his words was remarkably agreeable. When a smirking Eastwood turned to Imaginary Obama and posed his first question about the promises that the President had made to the American people, Imaginary Obama ignored the fact that the question made no sense and had no possible answer.

And it didn’t matter in the least.

Like any good imaginary friend, Imaginary Obama did not refute Eastwood’s claims or even attempt to answer him. He just sat there: invisible, imaginary, irrefutable.

Hardly surprising.

After all, imaginary friends serve their imaginers at all times. It’s their job. They fill the gaps in a child’s life, serving roles unfilled by parents, teachers, and even real life friends. In Eastwood’s case, Imaginary Obama served as the agreeable prop that he required.

Eastwood’s first question showed his apparent lack of concern with coherence while speaking to Imaginary Obama, which is common with children and their imaginary friends. In some cases, children begin babbling to imaginary friends before they are capable of speech, but even older children with rich vocabularies develop their own special languages—languages that are full of meaning and nuance and often indiscernible to outsiders. Eastwood did his share of babbling on Thursday night as well, often straying into unintelligibility. While it may have been uncomfortable for the audience and presumably for Mitt Romney and his campaign team, Imaginary Obama didn’t seem to care one bit.

Imaginary Obama had no say over where Eastwood brought him. The real President Obama would never consider being seated off-mic to the right of Eastwood at the Republican National Convention (particularly if he was expected to answer questions), but imaginary friends are excellent companions in this regard. When I brought Johnson Johnson to school, he often had to wait in the boys room for me, regardless of the persistent bathroom smells. When I brought Johnson Johnson to the park, he was required to wait by the chain link fence rather than joining me on the swings. When we rode in the car, he was often forced to sit in the trunk. It’s nice to have a friend who is willing to accompany you at every turn, regardless of how unwelcomed he or she may feel. Johnson Johnson never complained about being my trusted sidekick, but I have to wonder if how much Imaginary Obama enjoyed the stage at the Republican National Convention. He may have preferred to wait by the fence.

Imaginary friends are convenient. And even imaginary foes have their purpose. But I have to wonder if Eastwood had wanted to debate Obama so badly, did he ever consider inviting the real President Obama as opposed to his imaginary counterpart? Something tells me that had the real President been invited to debate Clint Eastwood on the stage of the Republican National Convention, he might have accepted.

But Eastwood didn’t ask, and on Thursday night a man known in his films for toughness, grit, and unwavering courage chose to bring his imaginary friend to the party because Imaginary Obama was convenient. He was guaranteed to show up, certain to offer no rebuttal, and assured to understand every word of Eastwood’s speech, regardless of how indiscernible and crazy it seemed to the rest of us.

Eastwood also chose convenience over challenge on Thursday night. Rather than debating a man who would have likely spoken rings around him, Dirty Harry chose to chat with a chair. I’m sure that even Imaginary Obama was a little disappointed in his lack of courage.