Thursday, July 28, 2011

GoofBoy, Pining for Art

The little Goofs are artists, they did not get this talent from me. They draw and love to "make stuff." GoofBoy insisted I take him to the art supply store to buy "gimp."

"So your sister will have something to do while she is home sick," I asked.

"She can use it too, but it is for me, I like making stuff."

This point was really driven home to me several years ago, one afternoon when I picked up GoofBoy from an after-school art-class at the JCC. Some local artists were displaying and selling their wares in one of the community rooms. GoofBoy insisted we go in and check it out. A five year old boy, who really wants to look at art - cool! Nothing could have been further from my mind when I was his age.

We chatted with the artists, who critiqued GoofBoy's work. Since I couldn't drag him out of there, I thought I'd get a little something for Mama Goof. I really have a very limited aesthetic sense, but I am pretty good at buying jewelry for my wife. (As it happens we attend shul with one of the artists and a week later Mama Goof went to synagogue wearing a necklace the artist had made - it looked great. I actually made two women happy that Shabbat!)

GoofBoy picked up a pin that he really liked.

"I want this!"

"Yeah, yeah. You don't need this. Come on," I began moving him towards the exit.

GoofBoy burst into tears. I've seen this temper tantrum before, but then he said something that surprised me.

"You always buy mommy beautiful things! Why can't I get beautiful things too?"

I turned this one over in my mind. My son was asking me to buy him art. This wasn't another cheap toy, this was different and really special. The price was modest, it wasn't made with precious stones or metals.
"Buddy, you are right. If I get if for you, can you share it with mommy?"

He nodded, tears flying off of his cheeks, and true to his word, he has shared it nicely.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thomas the Tank Engine: Agent of Hegemony

I enjoyed Jessica Roake’s recent piece in Slate that argued that beloved children’s show Thomas the Tank Engine not only espouses a conservative message, but even an imperialist one.

I am not going to defend Thomas as actually being democratic, or (like most of Slate’s commenters) argue that she he hasn’t carefully watched the show or applied critical theory correctly. No I will defend Thomas for being conservative and imperialist. Not conservative in any narrow political sense. Sir Topham Hat must believe in government interventionism so that his railway can maintain its monopoly over Sodor Island transit.

First, let me express my bias, I believe that educational television is an oxymoron and that television is the equivalent of junk food or ice cream. It may have some modest nutritional value, but that is beside the point. None of this is to say I am a puritan, I watch lots of TV – but I have no illusions that this is anything but relaxation and amusement.

For my children, the point of TV is not to educate them in any way. There may be studies indicating that educational shows help children to read, write, and do trigonometry. My wife and I have advanced degrees, I am not worried that the little Goofs will master reading and be reasonably functional adults (that move out of my house shortly after they enter their third decade!) The purpose of letting my kids watch TV is to buy me an hour or so of peace so I can make dinner, go to the bathroom in peace, or write a blog entry about their TV viewing habits. As long as what they are watching achieves that purpose and is not age-inappropriate (which eliminates most prime-time network programming) I don’t care what they watch.

(Digression: Back in the early 1980s when my parents first got cable, I remember Arthur (starring Dudley Moore being broadcast all the time. My then six-year old brother was watching afterschool when my mother walked in and asked him what was happening. He cheerfully responded, “Arthur is picking up a hooker.”

That was the end of cable in our house.)

That being said, I like Thomas the Tank Engine. Most children’s shows are insipid in their efforts to send messages of cooperation. Because conflict is so limited these programs struggle to show even a faint pulse of dramatic tension. The fact that in Thomas the trains pick on each other is in the show’s favor because in real life children are mean to each other. There is something at stake in Thomas the Tank Engine. True, the big reward is being “useful” and getting to make special cargo runs – but it is after all a show about anthropomorphized trains.

Roake’s big problem is that the trains are discouraged from showing any initiative or ambition and instead live for Sir Topham Hatt’s faint praise of being “useful.” Roake illustrates this with the episode “Hiro Helps Out:"
In an effort to assist Sir Topham Hatt, the "controller of the rails," who is oddly discombobulated, Hiro decides to give the other trains their orders himself. But initiative is not a virtue on the Island of Sodor, and stepping above one's station is a serious offense. When Sir Topham Hatt finds that Hiro has appointed himself middle-manager, he is furious ("I am controller of the railway!").

Hiro apologizes profusely, almost tearfully ("I thought I was master of the rails, but I am only master of the muddle"), but that is not enough…. He apologizes to each train for giving them instruction, saying "I was wrong. Sir Topham Hatt didn't want that at all." Once he has completed his shame tour… Hiro chugs back to Sir Topham Hatt's side, where the benevolent master tells him he is "helpful," which in turn makes Hiro "happier than he had ever been."
Squelching of initiative is one interpretation, but another interpretation is possible. Is Sir Topham Hatt's primary responsibility to make sure the engines are happy, or is it to (for lack of a better phrase) make the trains run on time? Hiro may have made matters worse and made Sir Topham Hatt’s difficult day even more difficult. Was Hiro taking charge, or being bossy?

Oddly, as I was writing this, this very scenario played itself out at Goof Manor. Home sick from camp, GoofGirl was amusing herself making things with “gimp.” However, she didn’t quite have the dexterity to manage, but she didn’t want to bother daddy (who was furiously blogging) so she did it herself and accidentally unwound a few dozen yards of the stuff. I am pleased she wanted to be a big girl and do things herself, but her efforts to do so end up costing Mama Goof and I a lot of energy (and really cut into my blogging time!)

Just as I am not worried that modest exposure to television will rot the little Goofs’ brains, I am also not worried that a few hours of Thomas the Tank Engine will so infiltrate my children’s being and worldview that they will be reduced to virtual invertebrates aspiring to be valets. And besides, wouldn’t it be nice if children actually were helpful and useful – maybe Thomas is on to something?

Thomas for our Time
In The River War, Winston Churchill (who knew a thing or two about British imperialism) wrote, “…every vigorous impulse that a community may feel, become[s] perverted and distorted as time passes… A wide humanitarian sympathy in a nation easily degenerates into hysteria. A military spirit tends towards brutality. Liberty leads to licence, restraint to tyranny.”

I mention this, because it appears that Thomas the Tank Engine, where the highest praise is to be “useful” celebrates duty and pride in doing it. This value can be over-emphasized of course. But in our time and place where children are raised to be creative and told they can be anything, Thomas could be a much-needed antidote to license. After all, not everyone will lead lives devoted to self-actualization. In the real world, most people work for inscrutable bosses who are not interested in their ideas and need them to shut up and do the work. Sometimes orders have to be obeyed and taking satisfaction from doing one’s duty is not the worst thing.

I could wax philosophic about the self, which seeks variety and enlargement vs. soul, which pursues consistency. But instead I will reveal my blatant self-interest here. Children raised to be creative and seek their place in the world may very well become self-actualized and wise. However, this quest may interfere with their moving out of my house because they are too busy producing documentary films, writing poetry, or playing

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Night with King Kong

On a recent evening one of the cable channels broadcast the original King Kong. Mama Goof had fond memories of watching monster movies with her father and King Kong had been the first. She remembered it being awesome. So she and GoofGirl curled up to watch it together. This was the uncut version, where the gorilla-dinosaur combat was pretty harrowing. I was not 100% percent on Mama Goof’s judgment here. I still have nightmares about the flying monkeys from Wizard of Oz, and they weren’t the size of grain silos. But who am I say – I watch The Ten Commandments with the little Goofs, which is borderline child abuse.

Maybe Mama Goof was hoping to scare her a little and take her down a peg.

I wandered in and out (because I get scared) as they were watching and was pretty impressed. This was the first great monster movie and there were so many visual images and plot elements that were later adopted in its successors. And, in a post-9/11 world the final scenes take on a new resonance. Monsters did attack the tallest building in New York.

GoofGirl was completely underwhelmed. She thought King Kong “looked like play-doh.”

She was, however, pretty perturbed with Fay Wray’s “heroine.”

“Why does she just scream and fall-down? Why doesn’t she do anything?” Goof Girl demanded, “If that thing came after me, WA-POW!

Mama Goof smiled and said to me, “A couple generations of feminism has had some effect.”

Of course GoofGirl isn’t completely fearless. While watching another show she saw a commercial for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Her eyes got wide with concern and she asked, “Is that real?”

I guess it isn’t the size of the monkey, but the number of them – after all GoofGirl only has two fists.

And kissing, she runs out of the room whenever there is kissing. That’s okay with me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Money Troubles

GoofBoy is an awesome kid with endless virtues. But it does not appear that one of them is financial acumen. His only effort to make money was inspired when Carpool Buddy got into some sort of financial difficulty. This was a few years ago and I have no idea what kind of dire straits a seven year old could possibly have gotten into. But GoofBoy and Carpool Buddy’s discussions made it sound as though some fourth graders might break his kneecaps with whiffle ball bats

It speaks volumes about my son that he was really worried about Carpool Buddy’s precarious financial position. They discussed it endlessly in carpool, examining different options. Could Carpool Buddy assume a different identity until middle school? They discussed the mechanics of disguise – perhaps a fake moustache would allow him to slide through elementary school unnoticed?

GoofBoy didn’t discuss it directly with us, but he kept asking us if he could get an allowance and he had trouble sleeping. When we demanded an explanation, it all came out. Carpool Buddy owed someone big money. GoofBoy’s explanation was not completely clear, the “who, what, where, when, why & how” were vague. The nature of the debt may have been a lost library book, but it could have been a bad bet on the Vancouver Canucks, or he might have killed a guy and had to pay restitution. The amount involved was also unclear, but it appeared that it might have been the massive sum of $15. GoofBoy in fact had a $20 bill in his possession, but $15 required at least two separate bills (possibly three) and the acquisition of this many notes flummoxed him.

Finally, the consequences weren’t clear. Did this debt go on Carpool Buddy’s permanent record and mean that he might not be allowed to leave elementary school. Regardless, we tried to comfort GoofBoy and told him that Carpool Buddy had his own parents and that this was their problem. This only made things worse, since apparently Carpool Buddy didn’t want to tell his parents how much trouble he was in. I did not point out that there was no secret, since they had been discussing this predicament in carpool for weeks quite loudly (as though little boys can discuss things in any other way).

Somehow we calmed him down and sent him to bed and hoped that was the end of the matter. But a few days later the issue re-surfaced. GoofBoy and yet another of his friends were so concerned about Carpool Buddy’s fate that they went into business to raise money and bail him out. The problem was that their business model was poorly conceived. They were drawing hockey cards and planned to sell them from the front of our house. We live in the suburbs and our street doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic – and I did not want a pair of seven year olds flagging down cars. Also, while a fitting gesture for Carpool Buddy (who is Canadian) we aren’t a hockey heavy community.

I tried to point out these flaws, but they boys responded by pointing and waving every time someone walked down our street. I should have let them go ahead, since failure is the best teacher, but instead I ordered them inside.

Financial Genes or Genius
I’ve always felt that the ability to “get” money (not just acquire it, but understand how it works and how one gets a hold of a great deal of it) is genetic. At one point I thought it had to do with hard work, but my brother seems to get it and he is my match in sloth.

As a teenager, my brother had his allowance cut off for some infraction. As the weeks went by, he never asked to have it re-instated. But he always had money. Finally, my parents asked where his funds were coming from. He attended a Quaker Friends School where everyone participated in daily meetings. Non-denominational, these meetings were an opportunity to discuss moral and spiritual issues – which of course is exactly what teenagers love to do. So the sullen “friends” would sit in a circle and glare at each other. But someone had to talk, or the meeting wouldn’t end.

My brother was staying flush by running a ring betting on who would talk first. Clever. Cleverer was that he made certain arrangements so he had a pretty good idea of who would be speaking first. Most clever, was that he really made his money on the vig…

Based on his first foray into business, I am betting GoofBoy doesn’t have this aptitude. Fortunately he is cute, that’s almost as good.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Jewish Question on Vacation

I have tried to inform the little Goofs that Jews are a very small minority of the population, but going to Jewish day school they don't really get it. On our recent trip to the beach this contained some potential for awkwardness.

GoofGirl, who is heading into 2nd grade, made friends with a little girl next door who was heading into kindergarten. She asked GoofGirl about school and what she learned there and GoofGirl began by showing her the alphabet - the Hebrew alphabet. The little girl, who only had a modest hold on the English alphabet couldn't make sense of the "scribble-scrabble."

Time and age go hand in hand, I firmly believe we have attention spans equal in seconds to the years we have lived. (I also believe that "just a minute" equals one minute for every year we have lived.) So, GoofGirl's buddy, being a typical five-year old, had completely forgotten all about Hebrew and my daughter's explanations in about five seconds. Still, this needed to be addressed.

Direct exposure to anti-Semitism has not been a big part of my life, thankfully. Far more frequently I have encountered curiosity and even admiration (although a little time with me, and any admiration for reputed Jewish genius quickly fades). I am not worried that our vacation will devolve into a made-for-TV movie.

Also, I am rarely in a situation where people don't know that I am Jewish. I look it and sound it (although I don't dress it.) On a trip to Mexico I met one of my future wife's uncles who asked her if I was Jewish. Mexico has a tiny Jewish community and it is unlikely he would have any interaction with them. But I was Jewish, because the Walter Cronkite of Mexico is Jewish and I looked enough like him that it was obvious...

My big worry is that our neighbors could be evangelicals or worse, they could be very curious. Sometimes the devout feel an obligation to share their joy. I understand this, but I am pretty happy with my beliefs and am not in the market for a new set. The curious pose an even greater danger. I frequently meet people for whom Judaism is a fascinating and exotic thing that they wish to learn more about. Understandable and, when I can, I have done my best to inform. But I'm on vacation and don't particularly want to run a comparative religions seminar.

So, we sit the children down and explain to them that one does not just talk about their religion first thing when you meet someone new. Also, many of the people in condo complex where we were staying may be from towns where there aren't any Jews. That doesn't mean they don't like Jews, but they may not know much about them and will have lots of questions. If asked, be honest, there is nothing to hide, but for most people religion is a personal matter and doesn't need to be discussed.

The kids got it, especially when we made it clear that they weren't in trouble.

GoofBoy went off and caught crabs (that line doesn't read well, he is only 10.) GoofBoy went crabbing with the neighbors, but most of this was for sport so that people caught the crabs and released them. Also, lots of people just don't eat crabs so GoofBoy's catching them for fun was understandable. GoofBoy and a pair of step-brothers chased each other around with toy guns. The complex dumpster made a terrific hideout, but condo management declared it off limits.

GoofGirl could not help but loudly express that we don't eat crabs or bacon when discussions of food came up. One of the brothers wanted to know why and GoofGirl - entrapped like the crabs - hedged, "We just don't."

"Are you vegetarian?"


"So why don't you eat bacon?"

I was close by so I came along and told him that we were Jewish, the problem was off GoofGirl's shoulders. The boy replied, "I'm Catholic, and that's the best."


"We can eat bacon and we celebrate birthdays!"

"I can see that being pretty important," I answered noncommittally.

"Sure, cause I used to be a Witness. They don't do birthdays. But my grandma still sends me money on birthday anyway."

Some crabs had come up from the depths and the boy went off to check on them. GoofGirl looked at me and said, "What kind of religion doesn't have birthdays. That's ridiculous!"

"You can think that sweetheart. But you need to learn to keep it to yourself."

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Canadian Way on Canada Day

Canada Day is a special day at GoofManor, the Carpool Clan are Canadians (their father is at least) so the Goofs have learned a lot about our neighbors in the Great White North.

Learn is a strong word, most of what they know are lies I have told them.

I told the little Goofs that Canada is America’s most devious enemy and they should watch carefully when they are at the Carpool Clan house (igloo?) in case they observe anything of national security interest.

I also told the little Goofs that Canadians have maple syrup in their veins. This led to some embarrassing biting incidents (not by the little Goofs who know better then to bite or listen to their father.) Naturally all of my lessons about Canadian history, politics, and anthropology are quickly shared with the Carpool Clan 4 (Carpool Buddy, Carpool Gal, 3C, and their youngest – we’ll call him CD for Carpool Destroyer). CD bit Carpool Gal, when their mom asked why he responded, “He told me that their blood was maple syrup and I was hungry.”

(Carpool Mom was not amused, she spends the first 20 minutes of every evening undoing the damage I have done to her children. Maybe I am really the Carpool Destroyer.)

I had a particularly proud moment when, discussing some complicated afterschool transit arrangement with our kids, Carpool Clan, and not enough car seats GoofGirl proposed eating one of Carpool Clan because, “It’s the Canadian way.”

Still, in the endless North-South conflict, I fear I am losing the cultural battle, my son is showing an inordinate interest in hockey. GoofGirl will really like hockey, it combines two of her favorite things, ice-skating and hitting people with sticks.

Go Canada!