Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Blind Side

When you see as many movies as I do, you learn to avoid entire categories, either because you don't like them or because you're just flat out tired of 'em. For example, I skipped last year's "The Class" and "The History Boys", just because I'm tired of the whole Blackboard Jungle thing.

Even when I like a movie, if I'm acutely aware of the formula, it can be hard to really get into it. (I liked "The Last Samurai" but I couldn't keep from thinking "Oh, look, a white guy's gonna show the Japanese how to be better Japanese.")

Rarely, however, you end up missing something that approaches a well-worn storyline in a refreshing way, as I almost did with the new Great Expectations-ish The Blind Side.

In this movie, Michael Oher, a ginormous black orphan who has lucked into a place in a fancy Christian private school, ends up being adopted by Leigh Ann Tuohy (a MILFed-up Sandra Bullock). Over the next two hours, they change each others' lives.

You can understand my dread. "Based on a true story!" even.

In what constitutes a Thanksgiving miracle—yeah, it's been out for a while—this actually works. Why?

Well, first of all, the characters are well-defined and interesting, the story is lively with lots of barriers impeding the characters' desires, the dialogue is funny and touching, and the resolution is satisfying. It all sounds so easy when you put it that way. But really, there are a ton of pitfalls t this kind of movie, and the movie avoids almost all of them neatly.

For example, there's a tendency (to put it mildly) in a movie like this to wallow in racism. There is racism in this film, but it goes both ways and mostly comes across as one of many forms of xenophobia. There's no temptation to make it the central point of the film.

This can lead to the related pitfall of viewing the world as a unrelentingly cruel place where selfishness is the sole motivator, and the righteous protagonists are the only beacon of hope, sacrificing all in the process. Now, the Tuohys are definitely good folk, but there's no real hardship for them. It's not about them "sacrificing"; the movie shows a convincing case that (as said in the movie's most wince-worthy moment) Michael is changing their lives.

Their "sacrifices" are shown in contrast to what their charge has endured, but rather through their understanding of those things, instead of through graphic flashbacks. Really, the only serious discussion about whether they should be doing what they're doing revolves around their kids. And even then, it's not like there's a question that they should help.

It's kind of refreshing. And it feels true, too, in the characters' reactions to what is, essentially, Leigh Ann's rather powerful sense of responsibility.

The tertiary characters are a rich assortment. There's a lot of naked self-interest. There's some altruism. There's a veneer of altruism masking healthy doses of self-interest. At the same time, the movie doesn't try to portray self-interest as evil. It comes across as natural: There is an "I"; there is also an "us" (as in our team or family). In other words, it seems very realistic.

This movie avoids The biggest pitfall of all—mawkishness. This is charmingly reflected in Leigh Ann's tendency to leave the room rather than have anyone see her get emotional. But the whole film does that: It shows us the projects, the poverty, the bureaucracy, the politics, the opulence, the desperation, the kindness, the bravery—all without the high melodrama or glib politics these sorts of movies are prey to. It allows you to feel what you'll feel from the circumstances, not from having characters overact.

I can't say I viewed it entirely apolitically. The Tuohys are Republican. So Republican, apparently, they don't know any Democrats. But this is more of a cute point, only significant because I can't recall any film ever where the main characters are both kind, generous and explicitly Republican. The real (political) thought that occurred to me, as I was watching this poor kid wander around The Projects was, "Gosh, everyone wants to go to public school and live in public housing! Why wouldn't they be crazy about public health care?"

So, yeah, I brought my own snark. The movie doesn't address the issue at all. (Which is fitting, I think.)

Anyway, the Boy (my 14-year-old movie companion) enjoyed it quite a bit. I attribute that to the lack of gross sentimentality and the general liveliness of the whole movie.

Anyway, if you're like me and you've been waffling on seeing it, give it a shot: There's a reason it's still playing. And stay for the closing credits to see pictures of the real Tuohys with Michael Oher.

(Previously posted at Ace of Spades HQ.)

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 26: Why I Hate "Go Diego Go"

Me: "Old McDonald had a farm."
Me & The Barb: "Ee-Eye-Ee-Eye-Oh!"
Me: "And on this farm he had a ..."
The Barb: "..."
Me: "..."
The Barb: "Leatherback Sea Turtle."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cargo Cult Christmas

The great visionary Alan Kay once compared the dot-Com goldrush (while it was still going on) to a cargo cult. This was one of those big "a-ha" moments in this moron's life. I'd heard of cargo cults but had just thought of it as an amusing story. If you follow that Wikipedia link, you can see a sort of apologetic tone about how "an isolated society's first contact with the outside world...can be a shock".

But what the dot-Com mania showed was that there's nothing about the mentality that's exclusive to primitive societies. People figured if they bought a clever domain name, wealth would follow. Some had worked out an extra step, of course:

1. Buy Domain Name
2. Attract Investor Dollars
3. ???
4. Profit!

And, of course, some of them never thought past step 2. After all, once investors give you lots of money, you're done, right?

In short, the fundamental issue is a lack of understanding of relationship between cause and effect. Hell, forget about airplanes, a small island culture would probably have a harder time imagining the logistics—the massive industrial and social machinery—behind a military supply drop. You'd first have to get them to grasp the concept of millions of people.

While the dot-Com bubble was doubtless motivated by the same burning desire for unearned material wealth as the island chief's, the dot-Com guys had no comparable excuse. Regardless of the medium, the basics of trade don't change: You have to offer people something they want before they give you money; and if it's something they can already get, you have to offer more, like a lower price, higher quality, greater convenience or better service.

These are not mysterious things, yet if you were watching the madness ten years ago, you saw a 10-year-old company whose increasingly commoditized product was losing market share hand-over-fist buy out a media powerhouse that made its 75-year fortune on essentially unique product—and you also saw this hailed as a great move for the media powerhouse.

Once my eyes were opened to this parallel, I began seeing cargo cults everywhere. Because they are everywhere. And we're probably all guilty of cause-effect confusion to some degree, in some areas of our lives.

As a rather bizarre example, in our culture you can see cargo cult religions (of all denominations), where people mimic the practices of religion while eschewing anything not immediately gratifying, anything that requires sacrifice, or anything that would actually bind people together, as religion is supposed to do. (Then they're surprised when there's nothing there in their time of need.)

But sometimes it's harmless and even kind of cute, when done with awareness. Sports fans, for example, will be very superstitious when rooting for their teams, wearing same clothes or eating the same food or performing some ritual because that's what happened the last time the team made a big score. This is more a knowing game of pretending to have a power (in a situation where you really can't) than a genuine cargo cult mentality. Or so one hopes. (Athletes themselves will have such superstitions, but they don't forgo training for them.)

Oftentimes it's pernicious and destructive, and completely backwards. The idea, for example, of focusing on building self-esteem by giving a child the rewards associated with self-esteem. This creates a sense of entitlement combined with a very fragile ego—a less functional combination hard to imagine.

You can probably see where I'm headed with this.

We have before us this Christmas the most astounding example of a cargo cult I can recall in my lifetime: We have a government that doesn't even understand their own flawed philosophy, mimicking the destructive actions (which had observably bad ends) without even grasping the logic behind them.

For example, the current administration has reduced Keynesian theory (which Keynes himself didn't fully accept) to "throw money all over the place, especially to our friends and good things will happen."

Same with health care: "Pass some laws—any laws—and health care will be 'solved'." The very passage of the laws themselves seems to have been backwards "Let's talk about how we've won and celebrate the passing of these laws, then we'll work on getting them passed. " (Consider the number of times Harry Reid proclaimed he had reached a consensus.)

Even the compromises emerged not from the idea of giving-and-taking on substance so that ultimately everyone could vote for something that was good enough, but by cajoling the "yeas" through any means necessary, no matter how bad a bill was created.

There's no grasp of cause-and-effect.

The frosting on this Christmas cookie being the philosophies that are being aped were never very successful either. FDR's "stimulus" may have been neutral, but the regulatory atmosphere—the atmosphere of wild experimentation, was demonstrably harmful. And even as real job creators today say they're reluctant to hire in such an unpredictable environment, it's not enough to spread money around, the administration has to show that it's willing to stick its fingers everywhere.

You don't need a litany of what the tax, regulate, redistribute process has done to the American economy. The War on Poverty created a permanent underclass, and the War on Drugs created a massive criminal class. The current War on Health (as I suggest we christen it) will have similarly dubious effects. (Even if the current mess doesn't pass, would you, as a young person, be eager to go into medicine in this environment?)

At some point, one has to wonder if the actual cause-and-effect of freedom and stability leading to prosperity isn't very well understood by a lot of those working to undermine it.

At least that's what I'm wondering as I sit under my Christmas tree, singing carols, waiting for presents to appear.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Ah, that great holiday tradition, the dysfunctional family film. I don't know when it started, but the modern form seems to stem from Ordinary People, that Oscar-winning depress-fest that made us miss Mary Tyler Moore's spunk.

This season's dysfunction starts off with Kirk Jones' (Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned) Everybody's Fine and Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore. And, as might be expected from a director with such a gentle pedigree, this isn't your hard-core "you ruined my life and now I'm a drug-addicted suicidal crack whore!" type family dysfunctional movie.

Actually, the dysfunction's pretty mild. De Niro's character is a decent guy, a blue collar wire-insulation man who worked hard to make sure his kids have plenty of opportunities. And his kids, for the most part, aren't screwed up—they're just worried about disappointing him.

On top of that, the one kid who is really screwed up, well, that's not laid at his father's feet.

Kind of refreshing, really. It's less about soul-crushing guilt and despair, and more about communicating to improve relationships. (Sort of an anti-About Schmidt, if you will.)

De Niro is pleasing as the recently widowed father whose kids all cancel a long-planned weekend home, and so decides to embark on a medically ill-advised cross-country journey to see them instead. (The opening scene where he prepares for their arrival is rather touching, with nice touches, such as when he pulls out, inflates and fills the old wading pool.)

The movie flirts with a lot of clichés, reminding me quite a bit of Waking Ned Devine, as it toys a bit with your expectations, but eschews melodrama for something a little less over-the-top and an ultimately less predictable and more satisfying ending.

I rather enjoyed it. We were actually standing there debating whether or not to go see this or The Road, but I've made my opinion on the book rather clear, and the movie is apparently quite faithful to it. So, even without having seen it, I'm pretty sure I picked the more pleasant of experiences available.

It didn't knock The Boy's socks off, of course, but it reminded me, many years ago of having seen Peggy Sue Got Married with my dad. For him, a very emotional movie. (His grandparents were long dead, and so he was deeply touched by Kathleen Turner's trip to the past to see them.) For me, not so much.

One device used here is to show the kids as kids, through De Niro's eyes, and that got to me in a way I wouldn't expect to get to him. Overall, though, I was pleased by the relatively low-level of dysfunction; I think it's a little more realistic than the high dramatics we usually get.

I'm sure the actors love the scene chewing stuff, but there was a lot of nice, low-key drama here. Each of the children lies to their father, trying to protect him from bad news (and also trying to avoid confrontation), but they're not all comfortable with it—or good at it.

So, while the cool, professional Beckinsale puts De Niro off rather mechanically, expressing regrets but not exhibiting a lot of warmth in her attempt to keep news away from him, the bubbly Barrymore is much more facile in her lying, and still very affectionate to him. The more morose Rockwell is an abysmal liar and knows it.

I'm not particularly a De Niro fan (more a matter of the sorts of movies he's in) but he was excellent here as a guy who's trying his best to understand his kids, while his kids are busy hiding from him.

As the man says, you could do worse, and probably will.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Education

"She was a young maiden in the full bloom of youth," or so could have started An Education, the movie based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. The story concerns 16-year-old Jenny, whose middle-class father controls her life tightly, forcing her to concentrate on education and building the appropriate resume to get into Oxford.

But Jenny finds herself the object of David's attention. David is a roguish 30-something of the sort of mysterious (but copious) means that seem to signal "gentleman" to the English. He's cultured, smooth and charming, and proceeds to seduce the family with his wiles.

What? Well, obviously he has to seduce the mother and father or they're not going to be letting their 16-year-old daughter go out with him. I mean, it's 1961 England, after all.

You know, as uptight as things were in England in 1961, I have a hard time imagining a stolid middle-class family today being cool with—well, let's be honest, the guy isn't even a young 30, the actor is 37!—sending their 16-year-old daughter out with an unknown man old enough to be her father.

And then sending her away for the weekend, even if it is to Oxford, and even if he has convinced them he's connected.

Forget about Paris.

But, like I said, this is a memoir, and if I'm going to believe that Cameron Crowe lost his virginity in foursome with three groupies while on the road with a rock band (Almost Live), I suppose I can believe this.

Actually, it's a testament to the movie's execution that this comes off far less creepy than it should. Indeed, the movie only works at all because the audience is also seduced by David. He keeps a respectful distance from Jenny, and she's ultimately in control of how their physical relationship progresses.

And as the cracks in David's veneer begin to show, the movie does a good job of rationalizing. In particular, the defenders of the traditional path—work hard, do lots of boring, irrelevant stuff so that you can go to a good school, so that you can then become a teacher and teach boring, irrelevant stuff—are particularly weak at defending it.

Her teacher, her principal, her father really can't explain why she should dedicate herself to study rather than run around with the roguish David and hang out in nightclubs, eat fine food, and explore Europe.

Beside the excellent handling by director Lone Scherfig, and nuanced performances by Peter Saarsgard (as David), and Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour (as mom and dad), the movie is largely powered by the charming Carey Mulligan. (She's 23, but like Ellen Page, she can play much younger convincingly.)

The actresses in this movie are especially strong, as they all seem to reflect the various choices available to the young Jenny. Mom is tired with an unextraordinary life, and we see both hints of danger and jealousy in Cara Seymour's performance. Rosamund Pike (of Doom and Pride and Prejudice) plays Helen, who is the paramour of David's partner in crime Danny, and in her we see—besides a shocking level of ignorance—wistfulness toward Jenny's naiveté, jealousy of her sparkling youth, and the kinship of one who knows the man she loves is not as noble a character as she might like.

Olivia Williams (late of "Dollhouse") plays Miss Stubbs, the teacher Jenny most highly respects (and ultimately gravely insults) as a buttoned-up disciplinarian, and Emma Thompson is the imperious and vengeful headmistress who sternly reminds Jenny that non-virgins are not allowed in her school. Heh.

Oh, and there's also Matthew Beard, who plays Jenny's age-appropriate suitor, Graham. He's awkward and unsophisticated and also sweet and sincere, but wholly unable to compete against the urbane David. In his few short scenes, he has to deal with going from a likely successful suitor to being snubbed mysteriously to realizing what he's up against.

Solid acting, solid writing, solid direction. Ultimately, though, I did find the whole exercise oddly Victorian and almost melodramatic. Will Jenny lose her virtue to the handsome rogue? Will her life be ruined? Will anyone care in five years, when the world so radically changes?

The Boy thought it could've been worse, but as remote as the whole thing felt to me—I could, at least, relate to the larger parental issues of making sure your kids know why they have to do things that aren't fun—it's ancient history to him.

Just as an addendum, Roger Ebert has put this on his top 10 list of mainstream movies of the year. I probably wouldn't put it in the top ten or on the mainstream list. Heh. (But Ebert's a contemporary so that might be part of the appeal for him.)

Blog Wars

Hello, everyone!

Sorry for the long absence. I've been hard at work looking for work to be hard at work at. I'm going to be part-time at the current job (which didn't stop them from giving me two new, huge projects to do) which is a mixed bag. On the one hand, if I get another PT job or consulting gig, that's a kind of security and potentially more money. On the other hand, if I get a FT gig, that can mean things like going into an office and wearing clothes and stuff. (Shudder.)

I've got two other projects with potential going, so I'm working on those as well. It's just busy.

Which is my whiny excuse for not posting reviews on An Education and Everybody's Fine yet. I will, though, soon. Promise.

Meanwhile, I've been watching the Goldstein/Patterico wars, which I hate. I actually unfollowed Patterico on Twitter because his attacks strike me as both petty and strident.

To summarize, Patterico said that Stacy McCain had made a racist statement (over ten years ago!) but may or may not be actually racist himself. Goldstein, on a pretty straightforward point of logic says, no, there cannot be racism without intent. You can't say someone made a racist comment but may or may not be racist. Patterico then talks about "unconscious" racism, etc. etc. etc.

I feel for Patterico because he's parroting what we've all learned, isn't he? We've all learned over the years that white people, in particular, are racist (even if only unconsciously so) and their willingness to use words that others deem racist is proof of that. I mean, we've all lived through the kabuki of constantly changing names/titles/designations to prove the purity of our intentions. And we've all lived through (and accepted) the gradual loss of our freedoms to do the same.

Volokh himself talks about this in the terms of the First Amendment here. Like Volokh, I want people to be free to express their prejudices. I don't want them cloaked in PC talk. I don't want a ritual that is used to demonstrate the right thinking; I want what people think to be right out there in their speech and associations. Then I can choose whom I want to associate with. (And you know what? A lot of racism and other faulty -isms actually do yield to logic, but you never learn that when people just know it's taboo to discuss certain things.)

But despite the simple truth of Goldstein's argument—I mean, really, to argue that racism doesn't need to be intended by the racist is to argue that it's an actual substance with physical properties that can be identified by climate scientistsproperly annointed clergyright thinking people—Patterico has instead doubled-down, defending the most heinous corruption of our ability to communicate.

It's not the first time he's done this, and it's a shame, because he does really good work calling out the L.A. Times on their biases, errors and general buffoonery. But as Goldstein points out (again and again): if you accede the ability to decide what you meant to another agency, you lose if ever you decide to go against that agency. (Said agencies, not remarkably, are always statists, and these days, they're on the left. It wasn't so long ago they were establishment Christians and other social conservatives who wanted the state to interfere on behalf of their causes—the whole problem with the old order, when you think of it.)

Anyway, Goldstein absolutely skewers him with a two part demonstration on exactly how Frey's logic can be used against him. But Patterico seems to have a hard time with being wrong. Either that, or far worse, he doesn't want to let intention get in the way of his own ability to exercise power over others by misconstruing their speech.

Nah, he's probably just being pigheaded.

Meanwhile, I'm going to get back to reviewing stuff.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Which I Suspect The Free Market Of Not Being Entirely Free

Interesting anecdote from Reason on how Canadian health care treated one woman, or rather failed to treat her, along with a doctor who puts up a price list on his website about what things cost. I tracked the website down and noted an interesting thing.

Some of you know that my dad was in the hospital a month ago. As it turns out, they gave him angioplasty (through the femoral artery, yeow!). If you go to that site, you'll see angioplasty costs $12,500.

That's expensive, but not unmanageable. Presumably, one wouldn't need a lot of angioplasty. And catastrophic coverage well, wouldn't need to be all that huge to cover it.

Now, my dad's two days in the hospital cost $140,000.

Frankly, that seems unpossible to me. Who could possibly afford that? How can something exist in a market that nobody could afford?

I suspect there may be market distortions at work.

If one wanted to fix the health care market, one might start by locating the distortions and removing them.

Just a thought.

Today Is Not That Day, Part 7: Sex, Lies and Videotape

Yeah. No. I don't think so. This will not be the day I mourn for the children who are not in schools.

Miz Malkin, the first. You know, I heard so much about how great Catcher In The Rye was in my teens. I remember Rossi from "The Lou Grant Show" talking about how it got him through high school. I also remember being singularly unimpressed by it when I read it. I still don't know why it's an assigned book.

Miz Malkin, the second. Yeah! Let's get our Zinns on, people! You always know you're in for a treat when reading a book supposedly about facts, where the author openly disdains objectivity. Remember, people, you're too stupid to take in the facts of history and weigh them appropriately. You need someone like Zinn to tell you what's important, and leave out all the flashy, superficial stuff like technological progress, philosophies that promote the welfare of all men, and so on.

I sometimes think you could lock a kid in a closet for eight hours and have them be better off than they'd be in school.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Games and Life

"Nice civilization you're building for someone else there."

Freeman Hunt forwarded me this (somewhat hard to read) set of notes from the G4C conference. (There's an interesting story about Zynga and real-life donations on that G4C link. I've been studying Zynga for a while and have a post brewing about it.)

As I was reading it, I thought of the above quote, which I read on the Apolyton forums years ago, regarding the game Civilization. Some poor sap had developed this gorgeous civilization powered by art and culture (Civ 3 introduced the ability to conquer cities via culture) and was fretting because the cretins around him—with their pathetic attempts at art—had instead built up massive armies of guys with pointed sticks.

He was dismayed that all his culture and education was threatened by some barely literate clods still in the Stupid Ages.

And what I wondered at that point is whether or not the popularity of the computer strategy game might not have a profound impact on people's philosophies regarding the nature of war.

As noted in the pseudo-transcript above, games are models, and they have some limited value in their real-life application. Civ 3 was very good at emulating historical trends (at least as we perceive them from here, which is very skewed, but that's another story) such that industrialism, nationalism and treaties would almost always lead to massive world wars.

This, by the way, feeds into my prejudice about computer climate models. Civilization does a better job "predicting" the past than climate models do (but an awful job predicting the future).

But whatever the limitations, there is one thing that is true in every strategy game: The surest way to invite war is to not develop militarily.

The motivations are (one would hope) not exactly the same: Strategy games tend to be zero sum. If you conquer the world in Civ with a bunch of rock-wielding cavemen, well, you've still conquered the world. The game ends at that point, with you victoriously ruling the stone ages.

Nonetheless, it only takes one guy—one Attila or Genghis or Napoleon—to convince his people that, yeah, they pretty much should be running the show, to turn a bunch of weakly defended countries into fuel for a war machine.

Peace (for you) is only assured by being substantially stronger than the other guys.

Another interesting evolution in the Civ games is that while you may be hated if you're very powerful, people will act nice to your face. If you're weak, you'll be openly loathed, extorted and eventually conquered.

It's not just Civilization, though: Every 4x game I can think of (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) has the same basic rule. If you want peace, you have to make war an unpleasant prospect for others.

The modern 4X game is only about 15 years old, and Civilization not quite 20, but it's not hard to imagine that the lessons they teach might have an impact in coming years.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rape vs. Cuckoldry

In what seems to me to be a shining example of "us vs. them" syndrome, a debate is going on about which is worse being raped, or being cuckolded (in the biological sense of raising another man's child). Via Instapundit. Arguments are being made based on financial costs, emotional damage, etc.

But the only point in having this debate is to try to score a point against the opposite sex. Just as men and women are different, they have different ways of hurting each other. Even if one is "worse" than the other by some standard, it doesn't really say anything by itself about the conflicts between men and women.

Just as I think collectivism makes for bad government, I think it also makes for a bad way to try to resolve interpersonal issues. One should worry materially less about what "men" do and what "women" do than what the particular men and women in one's life do.

The kids have been on a real "King of the Hill" kick lately. That show, if you've never seen it, features a character, Dale, whose son Joseph is clearly not his. Dale is a comical character, cowardly and stupid, and his cuckolding by his wife played for laughs in both his and others' inability to see the obvious. (Joseph is around 14 through most of the series, and Dale's wife's affair is still going on when the series starts.)

But from the start, Dale's devotion to his son (such as it is) is the bedrock of the family. And as the series progresses and his wife rededicates herself to him, it turns out to be Joseph's real father who ends up lonely and isolated, watching his son grow up to admire and emulate another man.

It's a very funny show, but I don't think I've seen the topic handled more thoroughly and sensitively anywhere else. And I think it's more interesting than trying to figure out who hurts who more, men or women. Because I think we all do a pretty good job of that—and keeping score is probably just going to make us all look bad.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Idiot With A Pencil 2: Faeries

When The Boy was young, he invented a game called "Paper Wars", whereby we would draw an assortment of monsters on paper and then engage them in battle. The Boy's mind was such that he was always making games. However, his explanation of the (always lengthy, convoluted) rules was enough to render people (literally!) unconscious.

The Flower dabbled in such complex rules for a bit, but lacked the somnolent powers of her elder brother. In any case, when we draw, I quite naturally draw things I think will interest her.

So, a session or two ago, I drew a faerie. This is sort of uncharacteristic of me. I usually go for the goofy, or the weird or the comical. I don't have the discipline, most of the time, to really clearly envision something and hold that image in my mind long enough to draw it.

I scanned this one in—and this is another area where I'm weak, trying to figure out how to transfer something to digital form—and it came out overly light:

Then I sharpend it, which made the colors a little truer, but which also exaggerated all the minor shadings:

Anyway, The Flower liked it, which is all that matters.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Fearless Tooth Fairy Vampire Killer

I was at my mom's not too long ago listening to a debate between The Flower and her cousin, wherein The Flower vigorously defended the existence of such non-corporeal creatures as Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and so on.

The Cousin, who is quite opinionated on, well, everything, was raised for most of her life in some sort of Mennonite sect. 19th century clothing, little exposure to any sort of electronic media, and The Man In The Red Suit.

Let me step back a bit: I have been, in my life, quite strident on the matter of honesty between parents and children. At least, I'm pretty sure I have. I've been strident on a lot of things, so this was probably one of them. At the same time, I've always been a big fan of letting kids work things out for themselves.

So, when The Boy started talking Santa, I dealt with it the same way I dealt with other things, "People say..." or "That's what they tell me." Also, "I don't know" and "How could that be?" have been useful.

But, but, but—factually speaking, Blake, factually, you do know.

And yet, I never even gave some things a thought. The Boy used to be concerned about vampires, so I told him I had killed them all. It wasn't like he was going to believe there weren't vampires, so I told him what he could believe: That I had removed the threats he was worried about. (Which I had, when you think about it.)

In fact, I used to see monsters. The Boy loved monsters, so I'd suddenly look to one side and put on a big show of having seen on running across the yard. When I crawled under the house to network it, I called up in the voices of different monsters.

The Boy, who has had problems with his health and energy his whole life, would light up like a million watt light bulb when I did this.

The Flower, on the other hand, boxed us into an even more interesting corner: She wrote to the Tooth Fairy. Well, really, what could I do? The Tooth Fairy had to write back! The two have exchanged forty letters over the course of a couple of years.

When I was a child, I'm told that I was very upset on discovering the factual nature of Santa Claus, but my dad claims to have this discussion with me about it. I was beating on him and yelling "You lied to me!" And he said, "Well, okay, but you had fun, didn't you?"

Yeah. I had fun.

And I'm still having fun. The Boy gets what we do and why, and the Flower will, too. (That time is nearing, and I'm already missing it.) When The Barb's preferences become clear, be they the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin, I'll be there quietly encouraging her to enjoy it.

I'm much less interested in a semantic debate over whether this can and should be called "lying" versus the impact it can have on children.

I adore my niece but she's a joyless child. Her emotions are muted and flat, and she often strikes me as being an old person in a tiny body. I've never seen her get excited over anything. She's a know-it-all who does poorly in school, despite the service paid to "truth". And I don't attribute this to Santa, one way or the other, but creation is joy, and frankly, few things are more traditional than for parents to try to crush out that joy by burdening a child with "reality", when "reality" is all too often the same tired notions about the world that have been crushing joy from the beginning of time.

"Put away those foolish notions," says the parent, and so shuts the door on a better and more interesting future.

And (as I say with my niece) it's not just Santa: Parents who are so convinced they have the one and only grasp on reality aren't just taking that from their kids; they're taking the kid's right to create his own reality, mistakes and all. You could foster a love for all things fantastic (or not yet real) without Santa; people have and do.

But your reasons shouldn't be "because it's a lie". When you tell a kid a story, he's going to internalize it, whether you tell him it's true or not. Nobody told me superheroes were real, but that didn't stop me from wanting to be one. Nobody tells kids that their toys are "real", yet kids imbue them with life and personality and character conflicts, with more conviction than the average adult believes that the person standing in front of him has a real life and personality.

I mean, do you feel the need to go around and remind the kid that her Barbie Dream House isn't real, and anyway, Barbie couldn't possibly afford it unless Ken's her sugar daddy? I mean, realistically.

Kids have their own realities. As a parent, you can hardly help but squash them, but it's nothing to be proud of. And in service to what? A reality you're so convinced is true and worthwhile, it merits cutting off an entire avenue of joy for your child?

Shame on you.

And I just add this last part to prove that I can be strident in the service of something I was previously very strident against.