Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

The heroine of the book I am currently reading out loud to my nine year-old daughter finds herself in an enormous outdoor arena with 23 other teenagers. She is part of a televised fight to the death, with the sole survivor winning food for his or her province for a year. It is a brutal story set in a brutal world. And my daughter can’t get enough. (Hunger Games)

The book I have just finished reading to my class of sixth graders features global flooding, the near-extinction of humanity, and a fight to survive against overwhelming odds. Many sympathetic characters die horrible deaths. It is certainly NOT the feel-good book of the year. And my students loved it. (Exodus)

The current debate about Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic Where The Wild Things Are has got me thinking about kids and just what is appropriate for them. Online message boards and stories on CNN and Yahoo News feature quotes from many parents who are shocked and horrified by the tantrums, tears, destruction, and just-plain emotional messiness of the film. Their reactions boil down to one complaint: This is NOT a kids’ movie.

I have no memory of any specific books I read before the age of twelve. The first book I can clearly remember reading is Richard Wright’s Native Son. It begins with a desperately poor family cowering in their apartment as the oldest son tries to kill a rat with a frying pan. This one scene opened my eyes, my brain, and my heart to books. It was harsh. It was violent. And it was real. Much more real and much more vital than any book I had read before Native Son.

Before reading Richard Wright’s novel I could not have told you what most books were lacking because I didn’t know. After those first 20 pages, it was immediately clear what was lacking in those other books: complexity.

The world is certainly not a simple place. And humans are certainly not simple creatures. We are a complex jumble of contradictory thoughts, wants, and emotions, and these competing forces can leave us roiling. Children are not exempt from the complexity that comes with having such large brains and such complicated and obscure motivations. Books and movies that reflect some of the messy truth of being human talk to me much more directly than books and movies that ignore or deny this truth.

And I am happy to find out that the same is true of my daughter. The books we read together now interest me as much as they interest her. Of course, there are some caveats. Children are different. They are individuals. Some children are deeply affected by images of cruelty, violence, cold-heartedness, and anger and the parents of these children need to exercise the “G” part of the PG movie rating. As parents, we know our own children far better than any movie- or video game- rating board.

I hope the release of, (and accompanying debate about), Where the Wild Things Are, motivates parents to take a more active role in guiding their children to books, movies, tv shows, and video games that are right for their kids. I will not be showing my daughter Pulp Fiction, (or even episodes of The Office), but if she wants to read a challenging work like To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, I will be right there with her, helping her make sense of some of the harder, darker elements.

In a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze, and writer Dave Eggers talked about the idea that some things are too scary for kids:

What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?Sendak: I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate.

Because kids can handle it?Sendak: If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered.

Jonze: Dave, you want to field that one?

Eggers: The part about kids wetting their pants? Should kids wear diapers when they go to the movies? I think adults should wear diapers going to it, too. I think everyone should be prepared for any eventuality.

Sendak: I think you're right. This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can't be scared. Of course we're scared. I'm scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can't fall asleep. It never stops. We're grown-ups; we know better, but we're afraid.

Why is that important in art?Sendak: Because it's truth…

And with our guidance, kids can handle the truth.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What is a Team?

I went to a friend’s house yesterday to watch the Baltimore Ravens play the New England Patriots.  My friend “Joe” is a rabid Ravens fan and his reactions to the action on the screen certainly made the game that much more enjoyable for me.  In the end, the Ravens lost when one of their receivers, Mark Clayton, dropped a pass he should have caught at the eight-yard line with 30 seconds left in the game.  “Joe”, though not inconsolable, was somewhat distraught.

 Another friend asked him why he is so committed to his Ravens and “Joe” owned up to the fact that it was simply a matter of geography.  He happened to be born in the city where the Ravens play.  When pressed even just a little he will readily admit that proximity is not a rational reason to support a professional sports team. 

 I chose my favorite sports teams differently.  Way back in the early-mid 1970s I made a short list on a piece of paper.  The list consisted of four professional sports teams, all of them from Philadelphia.






 I asked my dad to name the rivals of the four teams on the list.  He told me the following:

 Los Angeles Dodgers

 Washington Redskins

 Boston Celtics

 New York Rangers

 That very day I adopted the four rivals as my new favorite teams.  And, 35 years later, three of the four are still my favorite teams.  (I have since stopped following professional hockey due to its over-resemblance to professional wrestling.)  When pressed even just a little I will readily admit that opposition to my family is also not a rational way to pick my favorite sports teams.

 I have lately been thinking about just what a sports team is.  The Dodgers, Redskins, and Celtics I like today are not the same Dodgers, Redskins, and Celtics I rooted for in 1977.  They have different owners, different coaches, and different players.  The only things the same are the names and Dodger stadium.  Yet, something of the teams I chose to like all those years ago is still there, somewhere, still keeping my loyalty.  What is it?  What is a sports team?

 What brought these thoughts on is a discussion I had with my wife, Erica, last week.  For the past three years Erica has captained a long-distance relay team called the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club.  The team was originally four people running the New Jersey Marathon as a team in May of 2007.  In its latest incarnation, it was twelve people running the 207-mile Reach the Beach long distance relay in New Hampshire.  In any given year the membership has little overlap with the year before.  Still, the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club is a team.  Even when it lies dormant for eight or nine or even ten months between races, the spirit of Rosie lives.

 My experience this year running for Rosie in New Hampshire has helped focus my answer to this “what is a team?” question.  It is not an answer I am fully satisfied with yet, but I am working on it.

 Here is what I got so far:  A team is a living feeling rooted in history, traditions, personal experiences, and commitment.  The Celtics, Dodgers, and Redskins have long, storied histories reaching back much farther than my memory.  I stepped into the story of each of these teams when I decided to follow them.  I earned my stripes as a fan of these teams when Larry Bird left and John Riggins retired and Steve Garvey stopped playing.  My teams all got bad for a while.  In some cases, very bad.  Yet, they are still my teams.  I didn’t pick new teams to follow; I suffered though with the old ones.

 New teams don’t have the history, traditions, and allegiances of established franchises.  New teams create them over time, game by game and season by season.   The Ravens are an interesting case in point to consider when asking this question, what is a team?  The Ravens moved to Baltimore from Cleveland.  Yet the owner who relocated his team was forced by the NFL to leave his team’s history and nickname behind to be used by an expansion team in 1999.

 Many of the very same personnel who comprised the Cleveland Browns in 1995 were the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, yet somehow they were not the same team.  The intangibles of history, traditions, memories, and allegiances were all left behind in Cleveland, to be assumed by an expansion team a few years later.  So, did the Cleveland Browns exist in the four-year period when there was no group of men playing under the mantle of the Browns?  To the fans of the Browns the answer is an obvious yes.

 It is an odd thing people do, choosing to give their hearts to a thing that is so hard to define.  Yet many of us do it willingly.  (Of course, many of us do it at an age when we are too young to really know what we are getting ourselves into.)  Still, I would bet a million dollars that if I were to ask “Joe” seconds after Mark Clayton dropped that pass yesterday on the eight-yard line if he ever once thought about dropping the Ravens and following another team he would laugh in my face.  The Ravens are his team.  Whatever that means.