EPISODE EIGHT: PRACTICAL MAGIC
You never know what your children will drag home from the playground. A few weeks ago, my six-year-old son was waving a twig at me while muttering what sounded like an incantation. Worried that he was hallucinating after eating one of Daddy's little white cartons of MSG-laced, Kung Pao happiness that congeals in the back of the fridge, I asked Nicholas whether he was feeling OK.
"Expelliarmus," he commanded in a loud voice, and then explained to me in a soft one, "Dad, just so you know, that is a great way to block someone from putting a spell on you."
Damn, I thought to myself. He's discovered Harry Potter.
I could have put the breaks on the Hogwarts Express right then and there, but our nanny pulled me aside and explained that Nicholas' friends really like the books and the movies, and he just wants to be one of the guys.
"You don't want him to be out of it," she said, pushing one of my parenting buttons. On the following Saturday, I went to our neighbourhood bookstore and asked the clerk behind the register which was the first book in the Harry Potter series. He looked at me as if I had been cryogenically frozen for 20 years. I brought it home, and after dinner, Nicholas and I began to experience a classic together, in real time.
I come to the stories as purely as my son. JK Rowling and I have never hooked up before - more because of bad timing than any dislike on my part. When her first book came out in 1997, I was single, living in LA but not interested. More into non-fiction. In November 2001, when the first movie came out, my wife and I had just moved home to New York. In the weeks after the Twin Towers fell, city life was eerie enough; the last thing I wanted to see at the movies was a schoolboy flying around on a broomstick. Last summer, the intellectual snob in me even had a twinge of satisfaction as I walked through the Times Square subway station. "It All Ends" read the posters advertising the final movie in the saga, and all I could think was, "Who are these freaks?"
So I opened the first page of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with some trepidation because, in my experience, there is a fine line between having an active imagination and growing up to be a loser. In the interest of full disclosure, I enjoyed my fair share of recreational fantasy as a boy - a few hits of JRR Tolkien here, copious doses of Star Trek there, to get me through the night - but as I grew up I noticed that fantasy had a crippling side. The guys in high school who played Dungeons and Dragons were not exactly the cool kids. Aspiring magicians did not get to sleep with the pretty girls (trust me the David Copperfield/Claudia Schiffer hook-up is a statistical anomaly).
Fantasy has its place. The best of it can help us understand the big issues: honour and disgrace, fealty and treachery, good versus evil. The worst of it strikes me as socially awkward authors creating alternative realms where socially awkward readers can hide. To put it in style terms, a lot of guys look great in winklepickers (the style of boot I imagine Hogwarts' potions master Severus Snape to favour), but few men can pull off a full wizard's mufti. The Rolling Stones on the cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request? Yes. Me at the office? Not so much. I don't mind the fact that at age six Nicholas walks around the house with a magic wand, but if in ten years' time he is taking a broom to Central Park for a quidditch match, I'll be upset. If he comes home from college looking like The Cure's Robert Smith, this boy will cry.
So after Nicholas has finished his homework and brushed his teeth, I'll usually read a chapter aloud to him. One problem with not knowing the plot is that my son will often ask a question that I'm not prepared for.
"Why is Draco Malfoy so mean?" Nicholas will ask about Harry's fair-haired nemesis.
"Because that's how people who value ancestry over ability usually are," is what comes out of my mouth - maybe not the best answer for a six-year-old.
"Who your mom and dad are and who your grandparents were..."
"Why does Draco care about that?"
"Because he's a tool, and he's jealous of Harry. Shall we continue?"
The books do have their parenting benefits: they reinforce my son's love of his school - one with its own heraldry, Latin motto and eccentric teachers. Giants, centaurs, trolls and even the murderous villains do not scare him half as much as those moments when Harry bends the rules and risks being expelled. Nicholas will yelp in terror and dig his nails into my arm whenever the aspiring wizard ventures out of his dorm after hours.
One of the great early scenes in the first book happens when the new students arrive at Hogwarts and are divided into their respective dormitories. A magical hat that divines their personality is placed on their heads and proclaims whether they are headed for Slytherin (home to Draco Malfoy) or Gryffindor (Harry's house). My wife and I knew a few days before school began which of the three homeroom teachers Nicholas would have for first grade. He, however, did not know, and was very anxious about being with his friends and not having his own personal Malfoy in his section. Rather than tell him, we thought it would be fun for him to undergo his own version of the Sorting Hat.
"I think 1-F is kind of like Gryffindor, and 1-B is more like Slytherin," I whispered to my wife one night, while making sure Nicholas could overhear the conversation.
"What did you say, Dad? That 1-F is like Gryffindor?"
"Nothing, I didn't say anything."
Nicholas and his classmates found out what class they were in as they walked in the front door on a cool September morning. In lieu of a hat, there was instead the head of the junior school holding a clipboard. Nicholas held my hand as she scanned the class assignments before announcing, "1-F".
He cheered, gave me a quick hug and said, "Dad, I'm in Gryffindor."
So far it has been a magical year - even though, in our front hall closet, a wizard's robe left over from Halloween now shares a hanger with my covert coat.
To read Mr Brodie's previous columns, click here