Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Disney Re-encountered

            About two years ago, we instituted regular movie nights in our household. Ava and I decided that every two weeks or so we’d select a movie that the entire family could enjoy and spend an evening watching it. This was a big deal for both the kids and us. While we do have a television, we keep it closed up in a cabinet while the kids are awake. Until we started movie nights, we had never sat and watched a television show with Polly and Pip, much less a full-length movie.
            Our decision to break the seal on the television was driven by two major factors. First, Pip was getting exposed to learning through audio-visual presentations at school, and we wanted an opportunity to shape how he and Polly managed this. There’s often so much going on in a television clip that it can be difficult to quickly process all that stimuli if you haven’t learned how. Second, we thought it would be nice to have a break every once in a while where we didn’t have to figure out what we were all going to do together on a dull winter evening.
            We dipped our toes in carefully, starting with Mary Poppins and leaning heavily on the Pixar staples ever since – Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, the Cars and Toy Story franchises. This has largely kept us happy. The stories are imaginative and well-conceived. The violence is pretty tame. What few romantic moments they have are subtle and handled with discretion. Pixar movies create worlds that work for us.
            Two weekends ago, however, we strayed from this a touch. A couple of weeks back, some of Ava’s students brought up the Disney film Frozen during a class discussion and insisted that she had to see it. Ava has a soft spot for Disney. She grew up surrounded by Tigger, Pooh, Mickey, and others. Her family also spent over a decade making twice annual trips to Walt Disney World in Florida. To have her college students excited about a Disney film – particularly after the company’s miserable productions of the late 1990s and beyond - piqued her curiosity. So, we checked out a copy of Frozen from the library and put it on the schedule for movie night.

In many respects the film is a classic Disney production. It’s got princesses, castles, magic, romantic entanglements, and big musical numbers. It feels like an amalgam of the classic princess films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella overlaid with the musical sensibilities of the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Lion King. The kids liked it for all the reasons kids like animated films – the characters bounce quickly from place to place, they sing and dance in fun ways, they make strange faces and funny sounds. Even in the scariest scene - when a big snow monster rises from the drifts to chase the heroes - there is an element of slapstick involved that makes the whole thing feel silly and relatively safe.
And they liked the songs.
So, a couple days after watching the movie, Ava brought home a copy of the soundtrack from the library. Polly and Pip have been playing it ever since. They have sat together with the liner notes and learned all the lyrics. They have squabbled over which song to play next. They have developed their own set of shorthand codes around the track numbers.
I remember my sister doing a similar thing with the Little Mermaid. For what seemed like two years, whenever she had the opportunity to watch something on TV, she would pop in that movie. She must have watched it fifty or sixty times, learning all the dialogue and the songs in the process. I never really understood why she was obsessed with this movie, and this lack of understanding made me wary of the whole thing. It seemed crazy to be that enthralled with a cartoon.
Of course, this kind of obsessive attachment to a film or its characters is Disney’s bread and butter. Once people make that connection, they will buy just about anything Disney can put the characters on. They could put have put the Little Mermaid on toilet paper and my sister would have been thrilled to wipe herself with it.
The power of all this had made me incredibly cautious about exposing my children to the Disney machine, and as the Frozen soundtrack spun its way through its twentieth iteration over the weekend, I cursed my slippage. Disney had gotten in under my shields, and now my children were singing the songs and talking about the characters and re-enacting this scene or the other. I felt like I’d failed a fundamental test.
But then, once I settled down and watched Pip and Polly work, I began to see something else. Their minds were working. First they got familiar with the rhythms and how the music flowed. Then they started learning the lyrics in earnest, slowly building an understanding of not only what the words were but what they were trying to say. Later, Pip started trying to identify different instruments and categorize the kinds of sounds they make. They were undertaking a deep archaeology of the songs.
This archaeology has taken them far beyond just liking the music or the characters. They know the music now and with that knowledge they are able to ask interesting questions about how it works and what it is trying to do. They talk about the emotional intent of different passages and how the music communicates ideas that can’t be put into words. They are thinking about how the music works in the film itself, how it augments the scenes and supports the emotional foundation of the visual story.
All this analysis hasn’t come systematically. It has emerged through constant repetition and the very human impulse to keep digging at something until its well of interest has been exhausted. The result of this is that Polly and Pip are not droning out in some drug-like daze as the songs circle over and over around them. They have been undertaking a project of deep listening that I would never have appreciated had I not lived through the constant cycling of the last few days.
So, obsessing over a Disney film is not the end of the world. With time and a little direction, it can even be something that helps kids come to understand some parts of the many ways the world is put together. The kids are even getting a copy of the movie for Christmas. I look forward to seeing how they break that down as it becomes part of our regular movie night rotation.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sticky Webs of Belief

            This week in Polly’s kindergarten class the kids are learning about Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and the idea of different cultures coming together to share a common space. To prepare for this activity, Polly’s teacher asked each student to create a small poster displaying what she called a ‘culture web.’ The culture web was to contain several general categories – food, language, music, etc – and the kids were to list specific examples of these things from their own lives. They were then instructed to decorate the poster with pictures of some of their examples. 
            Polly, as is her wont, dove into the exercise immediately, laying out a web structure with a box for each of the general categories at the end of each strand. Then she went about populating the web. She put pizza and hamburgers down for Food, English down for Language, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf and BNL’s Snacktime down for Music. But then she came to a category that stumped her. Bringing her paper to me, she asked,
            “Daddy, what’s our religion?”
            When I didn’t immediately reply, she quickly pivoted.
            “Daddy, do we have a religion?”
            She asked this question simply, in much the same way she’d asked earlier if I’d ever seen a whale before.
            The straight-forward answer to this question is no. Neither Ava nor I have felt drawn to a religious environment and thus our family adheres to no specific creed. In part this is a matter of history. Ava went to Catholic schools from kindergarten until she graduated from college and remains skeptical about some of the priorities these schools taught her. I grew up going to church in sporadic bursts that led me to feel more like an outsider observing things than a participant in the rites. Our separate inclinations towards skepticism were later augmented by similar graduate educations that taught us to be wary of grand existential claims.
            That said, we do have some pretty well-established, universal beliefs regarding our place in the world. Most of these are grounded in the temporal relativism of the Golden Rule. In other words, we want to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. It is a simple dictate devoid of ritual and pomp, but I think it captures the best of what people of different beliefs can do for one another.
            This perspective, however, doesn’t fit within the standard set of possibilities when it comes to religion, so I told Polly to just leave that category off her web. It would be better, I figured, to say nothing than to put something like ‘none’ on there and have her subjected to the questions this might raise.


By coincidence this week, the school board in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb around Washington, DC, voted to remove all religious references from its published school calendar. This decision would have been a pretty routine and uneventful act – plenty of county school systems, including the one Polly and Pip attend, have done this over the years – except that the vote was taken in reaction to requests by members of the local Muslim community that the Eid-al-Adha holiday be included on the calendar with Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur, Hannakuh, and the like. As such, the context of the school board’s decision made it look like board members would rather cut off their nose than include a Muslim holiday on their calendar.
I understand why the board voted the way they did. One of the fundamental ideas behind a secularism that protects the freedom of religious practice is that the state does not have any specific religion of its own. The easiest way to do this is to draw clear lines between individual and community practices which can be religious and state ones that cannot. When these overlap, the state version should take on secular, nondescript identities – Winter Break instead of Christmas Break – in order to avoid violating the principle.
There are two fundamental challenges to negotiate when taking this approach. First, the United States was created by Christians and many of the social patterns around which the institutions of government were built incorporated those cultural expectations. So, we wound up with ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency. We also ended up with government holidays taking place on Christmas and Good Friday. While efforts have been made to downplay the importance of these things given the diverse beliefs held by Americans, these efforts sometimes feel sly and hypocritical. People aren’t stupid. If you just change the name, it’s still Christmas break.
The second challenge created by this kind of secularism is that it posits that the only common ground to be found among different religious beliefs is an erasure of their beliefs whenever they come together. This negative approach to religious identity immediately puts people of different faiths at odds with one another. It implies that we cannot trust religious belief to exist in a world with other religious beliefs so all beliefs must be expunged from public practices. It is a very depressing view of the world and one that seems to exacerbate the very hostilities it seeks to overcome.
With that in mind, there is another route to secularism that the Montgomery County school board could have tried. This posits that a government can make all religious practice safe by engaging religious identities and taking the lead in spreading an understanding of them. This route would not be particularly easy. Given the reality of limited time and resources choices would have to be made about what practices or holidays merit recognition, and I imagine all sorts of odd competitions and compromises would come out of it. But this kind of negotiation becomes a significant force for education in itself. In talking about it, more people would learn that Eid-al-Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismail to God and the ultimate substitution by God of a sacrificial ram in Ismail's place, and this kind of knowledge could go a long way to normalizing the presence of the broad variety of beliefs that exist in the world around us. Plus, it would challenge the state to seek common ground in good faith among those differences by accepting their value instead of denying their importance.


Living with difference is hard work. It requires a constant awareness that others around may not agree with our basic understandings of the world and a constant labor to figure out how to navigate among these conflicting beliefs. I don’t like that my first impulse when Polly asked about our religion was to tell her to skip it. I’d love to feel like she could go to school and talk about whatever convoluted beliefs our family holds dear without encountering a certain amount of consternation. I wonder if more institutions of state – school boards, county governments, state courts – looked toward the second route of secularism as a goal, if we would all know a bit more about each other and in turn be a bit more comfortable with all our differences. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A brief reprieve in a long week

            In the wake of reading and writing about Amy Chua, I’ve been thinking a good deal about why people have children. I wrote about this before in a post a couple of years ago, and the basic tenor of those thoughts still feel right: in this day and age, raising children is an expensive, time-consuming, and largely irrational project. We don’t need to sustain our tribe. We don’t need laborers to gather wood, pick berries, or feed the livestock. We don’t necessarily need a cadre of children to care for us when we get old (though if Social Security eventually collapses, this might change). And, with the various methods of effective birth control now available, we can fulfill and enjoy our sexual drives without the side effect of producing children.
All of this means that having children is more than ever a choice that people make (sure, in some cases that choice is made through carelessness or indifference, but that’s something of a choice nonetheless) and that this choice is largely not based on any kind of needs-based logic or economically rational thinking. Instead it is a manifestation of a will and irrational desire for experiences that cannot be economically valued. People have children in the hope of taking part in something ineffable, in something magic, as they go about the work of raising – of creating – a person. They have children in the hope that they get to have moments like one that happened for me on Thursday night.
All last week, Polly and Pip were sick. Polly stayed home from school on Monday with a fever and a cough. Pip was sent home on Thursday and spent all day Friday on the couch. We spent the whole week pumping them full of medicine and coaxing them to eat a little something at each meal. It wasn’t a horrible time – they weren’t puking and when the medicine was working they both felt okay - but it did create some extra work for us to keep everything together.
On Thursday evening after dinner, Polly and Ava went upstairs to read together in our bed while I finished up the dishes. Pip, who was feeling a touch better after being fed and medicated, drifted about the dining room and kitchen for a bit before deciding to sit down at the piano. He’s been doing some rudimentary piano lessons at school and with nothing else to do, I thought he was going to run through his practice pieces for a couple of minutes. Instead, he started idly tapping keys and playing around with the damper peddle, striking some notes and listening to them ring for a few moments before shutting them down and doing it again. I turned back toward the sink to wash the soap off some pots, just happy that he wasn’t coughing too much. I got out a towel on which to lay out the frying pan and the big cook pot so they could drip dry then scoured some cooked-on potatoes off a casserole dish.
As I pulled that dish out of the rinse water, I noticed that Pip had started playing something new. Still holding down the damper peddle, he was stringing together a series of notes with a kind of wary, walking rhythm. It was all one-handed playing, one note at a time, but the absence of the damper allowed the echo from his previous notes to build an atmosphere around the notes to come. This gave them a full, rounded, musical quality that sounded much bigger than what he was playing before.
After a few phrases using this walking rhythm, Pip increased both his pace and his volume. He started breaking the rhythm every four to six beats with a nicely timed syncopation. The notes rose and fell harder and harder, stepping up and falling back and stepping up again. Again it was very simple, but it was real. He was not just banging at the keys. He was playing something that he heard in his head and it was running on without a break or a hiccup. He was feeling the music. And it was beautiful to hear.
When he finally tapered off, slipping back down the volume while keeping the rhythm in place until the final note, I put down the last of the dishes and walked around the corner to where he sat.
“That was really nice,” I said, trying not to show too much excitement and scare him off.
He looked over and smiled in a dreamy kind of way.
“What were you imagining as you played,” I asked.
 “That was Harriet Tubman helping people escape,” he said.
“Oh,” I chuckled in surprise. Pip has had a long-running interest in Harriet Tubman and other famous African-Americans, but I had been expecting some vague response about running water or butterflies or ants crawling about.
“Did you hear them walking through the woods?” he said.
“I did.”
“Good. I’m going to play another one now.”
I went back into the kitchen to tidy things up and let him play in peace. This time he again depressed the damper peddle and began playing very softly around middle C. The result was a collection of slow, twinkling sounds, like fairy dust slowly drifting through an enchanted grove. When he finished, I went back in.
“What did you play this time?” I asked.
“That was Martin Luther King dreaming before his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
I had to keep myself from laughing at this. That Pip - tired, slightly feverish, a touch loopy from the fever reducer and cough medicine - had taken a such an idea, constructed the scene in his mind, and used it to build such an incredibly evocative soundscape was far beyond anything I would ever have expected from him at that moment. It was more than I would have really expected at any moment. In the quiet of that evening with the darkness outside barely held at bay by the lamp over the piano, it felt downright mysterious.

Pip played two more pieces before getting tired, one about Rosa Parks and the other about George Washington crossing the Delaware. While he played, I found a chair in a corner and just sat down to listen. It was a very bright spot in what was an otherwise long week. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hunting the Tiger - part two

Note: This is the second part of a two-part reflection on Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The first part can be found here.

  1. So with all that is right with the intellectual structure of Chua’s parenting ideology, where is the “horrible” moment? Where is the failure to learn from? At a visceral level, it comes from the meanness with which she pursues these principles. It just feels wrong to yell at and insult your children in the way she describes doing. It’s abusive. It’s inhuman. It’s an exercise of power and domination that is uncomfortable to witness and debilitating to be a part of.
  2. One of the things that is frustrating to me about Chua’s book is that we don’t get to see what her rough treatment really does to her children. We get some glimpse of how they feel near the end of Chua’s narrative - both when her younger daughter finally revolts, giving up the instrument she loves playing and with it her hard won positions as concert master in the youth orchestra and as a pupil with a prestigious teacher, in order to get out from under her mother’s pressure and when Chua’s older daughter describes how isolated and lonely she feels because she literally runs home from school each day to practice so as not to anger her mother. But I want to know more about what Chua’s treatment has meant to their lives. Do they lash out at others the way their mother does at them? Do they have any close friends? Are they sullen when they are out of the house or happy? Who else is important in shaping their lives? Chua only really talks about them in two places – at practice and on stage. Maybe that’s the only place we really see our children once they are school-aged, but I still want to know what’s happening out of her sight. What kind of work is taking place when Chua is not around?
  3. The second failure of Chua’s parenting comes from her competitiveness. Chua’s drive her ambition, overwhelms everything else when it comes to her children. In this she is a Tragic figure in the grand literary sense where a character epitomizes a principle and cannot relinquish that principle regardless of the human consequences. She is like Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables, both of whom cause themselves incredible misery rather than admit that their principle does not always hold true. They would rather be right than happy. Or they don’t know how to be anything else. Chua’s description of herself follows the same prescription. She talks about how hard it is to keep her children going, how miserable she feels, how she’s come to love the dogs that she has stopped trying to train and how she can’t do this with her children. She is stuck in the kind of tragic condition that Sophocles and Euripides use to write plays about.
  4. This may be part of my fascination with her as well. The Tragic figure usually ends the story miserable, alone, and/or dead. There is a catharsis in that resolution, one that allows the audience to see the consequences of the character’s idealism. Either that or the character finally has a change of heart and everyone lives happily ever after. Chua doesn’t really give us either. She tells the story as if, following her sister’s medical difficulties and her younger daughter’s revolt, she has experienced a change of heart. But after she tells of all the surreptitious effort she’s putting in to guide and coach her younger daughter’s efforts at tennis, that change remains uncertain. The final conclusion of the story remains up in the air.
  5. I wonder what effect Chua’s intellectual environment has had in creating her attitude toward her children. She was educated in, and continues to exist in, the world of elite business schools. In that world, competition – the scoreboard of profit and loss – is the one axiomatic truth. Everything is judged according that scoreboard. Every action contributes to winning or losing, adding value or reducing it. It has to be hard for someone engulfed in such an environment to imagine a world where that scoreboard doesn’t exist or to see the ineffable value in things that cannot be scored.
  6. Chua demonstrates her difficulty with this in the way she approaches musical choices for her children. When a piano teacher suggests a delicate piece by Prokofiev, Chua cannot see its value. It doesn’t look hard enough to her. It doesn’t possess enough technical difficulty for her taste. That it is an excellent piece for her daughter to perform is something she only comes to understand later.
  7. I don’t know what this perspective on the world means for her children. Chua is pushing her daughters to figure out all the technical edges to a piece and practice them until they are honed to a razor sharpness. This is all well and good, but there is an absence of humanity in her training that makes it feel empty. They are not working to create things that make the world a better place. They are not learning to use these talents to help people or bring life to new ideas. Chua’s goal isn’t even perfection. It’s impressing others.  It’s winning the competition. It’s beating everyone else.
  8. From time to time I listen to how professional athletes talk about what it feels like to play a sport at the highest level and what drives them to continue in the face of injuries, losses, and disappointments. What has always been interesting to me about these is they tend to talk about motivation in terms of fear, fear of failure, fear of losing, fear of letting others down, fear of losing their place. Winning is not really a celebration. It’s a relief. It is the temporary release from fear.
  9. It feels to me like this is the fear Chua lives with and is the fear she is teaching her children. It pervades every endeavor of her life and seems to warp her interactions with the rest of the world.
  10. Perhaps this is the trade-off that comes with pursuing the peak of the mountain. You may get the view but only while suffering through a tremendous amount of fear. It seems like a miserable way to live a life.
  11. I think this is the lesson I’m willing to draw from Chua’s account. So much of what we think of as achievement is built upon extended misery and dysfunction. This is not the world I want my children to live in. I want them to be happy. I want them to feel good about their world and their place in it. I certainly want them to know how to work hard for something, but I also want them to know how to appreciate where they are and who they are with. I want them to value people as more than opponents to be beaten. Chua’s Tiger mothering does not do that. She practices parental love as an input of time and effort, a matter of sacrifice and discipline. But it is also a matter of showing children how to respect and appreciate the beauty of their world. Without a balance amongst all these factors, I don’t see how our children can grow up to be the adults we want them to be.