EPISODE FOUR: THE CULTURE VULTURE
This is the first summer that my six-year-old son has identified a movie that he wants to see as soon as it hits the theatres. And his excitement for Kung Fu Panda 2 has gotten me thinking about the role I'm playing in guiding not just Nicholas' stylistic choices but his cultural tastes.
In my experience, there are two extremes of parenting when it comes to kids and culture. There are those parents who treat their offspring the way East Germany treated its athletes. These Type-A moms and dads are raising Übermensch-es. You've been to their houses - smugly minimalist affairs. The toys are artisanal. The snacks are healthy and gas-producing ("Mmmm, Craisins!"). The music is Bach "because that helps build mathematical thinking". Then there are the rest of us - parents who for lack of imagination and energy just allow our offspring to be abducted by the McDisney-Nintendo-Gagaplex.
My wife, Honor, and I probably fall somewhere between the Edamame Eaters and the Bieberites. With our kids we act as recommendation engines and arbiters - skipping over scenes that are likely to provoke nightmares and ruin our sleep (and sex life) thanks to unscheduled nocturnal visits. So as far as Nicholas knows, there is no descent into a fiery furnace in Toy Story 3 and Bambi's mother was at the nail salon getting a mani-pedi on her hooves when the hunters arrived.
"Why are you fast-forwarding, Dad? What happened to the mommy deer?"
"She's retired in Florida now. Let's just focus on Bambi."
He's a lot more sensitive than I was at his age. In part because my parents got divorced when I was very young, so there was no central authority. When my dad had me for the weekend, we would see whatever movie he felt like - which
back when I was Nicholas' age was a steady diet of R-rated cop dramas like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and anything starring Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds. When I was 10, I remember one theatre owner whispering in my dad's ear, my dad nodding his assent, and the next thing I knew I was sitting through a movie called Rancho Deluxe which featured a topless Charlene Dallas, a former Miss California. I'm not complaining. When I was 12, the man took me to Star Wars on the first day of its theatrical release.
When Nicholas was young, I tended to view his mind like the hard drive of a brand new MacBook. So leery was I of some strange virus wrecking permanent havoc with his cerebral hardware that I can remember the first time I let him watch TV. Honor had gone to LA for Oscar weekend, leaving me in charge of a two-year-old for a 72-hour hitch. By Saturday night, I was losing it. With a few clicks of the remote, I had located an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. I performed a quick mental calculation (the source material was written by an Anglican minister + toys are charming = daddy needs to go mix a martini). I pressed play on the remote. It is not every parent who gets to light the match for his son's first cultural crack pipe.
Soon the 7pm Thomas episodes became part of the fabric of our lives, and I liked how Thomas and his friends subtly reinforced all my petty bourgeois hang-ups. The largest and sleekest steam engines spoke with plummy accents, while the working diesels were Cockney louts. The engines obeyed, feared and adored their industrial overlord who in the earliest episodes, was merely called by the sobriquet "The Fat Controller". As much as Nicholas related to cheeky, true-hearted Thomas, I found myself relating to his porcine and follically-challenged boss. Who didn't want to wear a morning coat to the office and have his trains run on time?
Once Nicholas was off at school, the outside world had a way of shaping his sensibility beyond the reach of my anti-virus software. All I could do was observe and occasionally channel the rushing river of his latest enthusiasm. Last July, my wife convinced me that Nicholas should attend a day camp for kids who love the theatre. Each week, my son's group would rehearse a few numbers and then perform a showcase on Friday for their parents. I could have done what most typical guys would do after watching their son sing 'Luck Be A Lady Tonight' from Guys & Dolls or 'My Favourite Things' from The Sound of Music. I could have demanded that August be spent at Pub Camp, where Nicholas would watch sports, shoot pool and consume lager.
Instead, I bought him the DVD for The Sound of Music. And each night, he would sit, freshly bathed and in his pajamas, and watch a different 30-minute chunk of Fräulein Maria worming her way into the hearts of the von Trapp family children. As far as Nicholas knows, though, the movie ends with the
The Sound of Music
marriage of Maria and Captain von Trapp, whose ability to lay down the law while wearing a Tyrolean jacket gave me fits of envy. In our house, Rolfe will forever remain the nice telegraph messenger who sings, "You are sixteen going on seventeen." There's no need for him to join the Hitler Youth.
When our descent into musical kitsch finally hit rock bottom after Nicholas and his nanny went to a matinee of Mary Poppins, I realized a course correction was in order. I'm trying to get my son interested in taking a martial arts class this summer. All the experts tell me it is good for boys because it builds focus, teaches discipline and empowers those kids who are more likely to be bullied (rather than bully others). Besides, I like the idea of a dandy who can kick some ass à la Alain Delon in Le Samouraï or Edward Fox in The Day of The Jackal. So when Nicholas and I were at Best Buy a few weekends back, I was thrilled when he expressed an interest in getting the DVD of Kung Fu Panda because "Teddy* says it is awesome." Teddy* is the kid in Nicholas' kindergarten class with a Nintendo Wii, an awe-inspiring collection of Pokemon cards, and an older brother.
When we got home, we popped the DVD in.
"Dad, this is Japan."
"No, it is China. Kung fu is Chinese."
"Well, pandas live in Japan."
"Trust me, they don't. When I was your age The People's Republic of China gave the US our first pandas. They lived at the Washington Zoo."
"Do they know kung fu?"
"No. Watch the movie."
On first viewing, the chop-socky fight sequences were a bit overwhelming for a kid who a week before was singing "A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down", but he has come to love the Jack Black-voiced panda's efforts to become a kung fu master. Thankfully, the villain, a Snow Leopard skilled in the dark side of the martial arts, does not kill the Yoda-esque Master Shifu because Nicholas looked like he was about to burst into tears when the Snow Leopard was pummelling Shifu.
So we are now counting the days until the sequel opens. And we might even bring some Craisins to snack on.
*I have changed the name of the boy because his parents look litigious