Archive for March, 2010

Kermit Goes to Kabul

March 26, 2010

My Hero

The power of inventive children’s programming has never been, and I hesitate to add never will be topped by Jim Henson’s Muppet miracle.  While I must say that the more cutsey recent additions to the Sesame Street stable, Baby Bear, Abby Cacabby and Elmo have, to me, blunted the subversive edge to The Street that made it so much fun to watch for adults and kids alike, even the post-Henson era Muppets have maintained a wonderful wit with a focus on cooperative learning.

Okay, have to nerd out with a couple of recent examples of must watch.  First is their very recent Mad Men takeoff to help explain emotions—any children’s programming that uses the words “sycophants” is gold, as far as I’m concerned.

Next, on the too-soon-forgotten Muppets Tonight, they play on both the monkeys typing Shakespeare and 2001: A Space Odyssey for this absolutely classic gag.

Don't shoot the frog!

But the Muppets have always been about much more than just ABCs and 123s and arcane pop-culture crossovers.  What has made the Muppets stand out was their ability to, though their own goofy prism, teach really amazing values.  My first inkling toward vegetarianism came as a kid, as I watched an episode that had little Robin singing a rendition of the anti-war classic “Stop, Listen, What’s That Sound” but instead of soldiers, the man with a gun over there were hunters.  A brilliant use of the Muppets to give animals voice on this issue, whatever your take on it.

Of course, the most ingenious moral teaching of the Muppet gang is the acceptance of differences.  Sesame Street used birds, monsters, grouches, human form Muppets, and real humans of all backgrounds to really show that people should not be judged by the color (or relative furriness) of their skin, but the content of their character.

That brings me to this must-read article in the Washington Post about efforts to bring Sesame Street to Afghanistan.  A few points that really struck me:

At least it ain't Itchy and Scratchy, I guess

“Afghan television is filled with U.S. imports featuring characters searching for ever more elaborate ways to pummel one another, such as the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons and World Wrestling Entertainment matches.”

“The childhood classic has been adapted in about 140 countries, from India to Israel.”

“The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind “Sesame Street,” produced a 2004 Afghan “Sesame Street” test video series shown in schools and women’s centers. Grover wore a sparkly kurta (a long shirt), pajamas (baggy cotton pants) and an Islamic prayer cap. It also had a playful hot-pink female Muppet who couldn’t decide whether to be a pilot or a doctor. That was a controversial message in a country where girls had been forbidden to go to school under Taliban rule.”

“In South Africa, an orange Muppet named Kami is HIV-positive. Her appearance sparked controversy in that country, where AIDS is rampant but too socially taboo for its leaders to discuss publicly.”

“The great thing is the Sesame model does not club you over the head. It’s subtle and often humorous,” said Michael Davis, a former preschool teacher and the author of “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.” He added: “Jim Henson had a theory of sublime silliness as a way of getting a lot of serious business done.”

There’s much more in that article, so do go give it a read.  That last line from Michael Davis about Jim Henson, however, does say it all.

Miss you Jim, but glad your amazing work lives on to touch more lives.

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Of Spring and Squirt Guns

March 19, 2010

Time for shorts, t-shirts, and Presidents suffering from Gigantism

Ah, Spring.  Today, we’re reaching 70 degrees for the first time since mid-November.  Long time coming with 3 blizzard snows over the winter.  The blessings of warming weather and my impending trip down south to Atlanta and the Keys has me thinking about some fun-in-the-sun activities.

One of those kid fun activities when the weather gets warm is to break out the water pistols.  Now as a parent who spent much of his career in the peace community, I’ve caught my fair share of flack for letting my fellas run around with those liquid-loaded weapons.  Indeed, when giving a keynote speech at University of Iowa at an alternatives to violence conference, the major topic of discussion was not on the need to ban landmines or curb the arms trade, but why someone like me would find it okay to allow children to engage in play that had any violent connotations.

My rationale is this—boys will be boys.  My wife Kirsten came up with a great idea the other day now that we have Netflix streaming through our Blu-ray player.  Rather than having the boys watch Spongebob and the like 24-7, they should watch something educational once-and-a-while.  Lately we’ve been watching (and the boys enjoying!) the Life of Mammals series hosted by David Attenborough.  In it, we’ve seen that from lions to polar bears to kangaroos, young males play fight as a way to ready themselves for a life as adults.  I believe that male humans certainly have that kind of hard-wired instinct.  If they didn’t, then I wouldn’t be able to name my blog what I named it.

My problem is that people use natural instinct toward play fighting as an “it’s our nature, why fight it?” excuse.  Our society, and to my mind, humanity itself is evolving.  Why don’t we poop anywhere we want when we have to go?—that’s in our instinct as well.  Well, over the past few thousand years, we’ve acculturated ourselves against that instinct—but we haven’t attempted to stop pooping because it’s bad.

Don't forget the sunscreen

That to me is where squirt guns come into the equation.  If kids are going to want to play fight sometimes no matter how many “power with” alternatives we give them, find a way to make it point toward something that’s non-destructive.  The Nerf guns, while harmless, are projectiles, and when the imagination is activated, it’s hard to channel that missle hitting the target anywhere except toward, “I killed you!”  Fake swords have the same issue.  But a squirt gun has a negative consequence that the others do not—you get wet.  And while that’s not the worst thing in the world, it gives a kid something other than “I killed you!” to focus on.

Indeed, I have seen this in action in my own life.  For my 13th birthday, I had a sleepover party war-game.  Everyone wore “disposable” clothes, and we put red dye in the water and had a squirt gun battle of “capture the flag.”  At first, if you got hit, you were supposed to come back to me to be “healed.”  After the first 15 minutes, everyone just went, “let’s stop doing that” because getting pelted by water grenades and guns was enough to have fun without the “death” thing thrown in.

For kids, a parent can help direct this action by playing up the silly/negative consequence of getting wet.  When you get squirted, don’t pretend to be wounded.  Instead, pretend that being wet really stinks.  The kids will love that they gotcha without having it be, “I killed you!”

While there’s no doubt that at some point, your kids may run around “killing” each other with squirt guns, if you make the game as focus as possible on the wet, my feeling is it’s a great way of turning what could be a violent activity into one that’s just silly and fun.  And as Susan Sarandon says in Bull Durham, “I’m all for rechanneling.”  And on a hot day, a little squirt gun can go a long way.  There’s your win-win scenario!

The Recommendation: Wii Super Mario Brothers

March 12, 2010

Super Mario Brothers has been around since my childhood.  In its original version, it was a pretty simple two player game, where you and a buddy simultaneously played those master plumbers, Mario and Luigi.  Fairly simple fare, as were all the arcade games of the era, bumping heads against the ceiling taking out creepy-crawlies in the sewers to save, well, who-knows-what.

As the game progressed, it became much more complex.  Super Mario Brothers was a breakthrough that really made Nintendo into the company to beat for home video game systems.  I remember my buddy Dan Plotnick and I spending many and hour and beer during College attempting to uncover all of its hidden layers and secret entrances.

The vast majority of Super Mario games after the first had one thing in common, they traded the massive complexity of the game itself for single player only action.  Instead of working together, you took turns to see who could get farther in the game.

You've come a long way, baby

Wii Super Mario Brothers goes back to its roots, and for the first time, allows Mario and Luigi (and up to two more of their pals) to play in the same world at the same time.  This is the first game we have on Wii that isn’t head-to-head in some way.  Even the games on Wii Fit are made so you attempt to break the other’s record.

Having burned many a quarter in the arcade, I’m still a bit better at Mario than Gus.  But when we finish a level—we finish a level.  We fist bump, and each time we make progress, Gus says to me, “hey Dad, I think we make a pretty good team.”  And while there are the occasions we get in each other’s way, those are fleeting.  But when one of us makes a good move to save the other, we compliment each other and, yes, fist bump once again.

Gunnar’s not adept enough with the controller yet to really have mastered it, but he’ll sit on my lap sometimes and play “with” me.  A fun, challenging game that’s not overly violent, and cartoonishly so when it does happen.  But bringing back the team play option really makes all the difference, as, win or lose, you do it together.

Scott’s Top 10 tips for telling a good story

March 12, 2010
  1.  Use your kids’ interest as a leaping off point.
  2. Borrow heavily from your favorite stories, especially ones your kids may not have seen.
  3. Pass the story back-and-forth with your kids—allow them to take over and direct the action.
  4. Make your kids characters in the story, be it central or supporting.
  5. Use cliffhangers—if you’re running out of ideas, end the story for the night with your heroes in peril.  If your kids are scared of that, you can reassure them that they’ll be all right, but I’ll tell you how they get out of that pickle tomorrow.
  6. Be silly—even a great adventure needs some comic relief.
  7. Be nonsensical—The beauty of oral improv stories is that they don’t always have to make sense.  So don’t get too caught up in making sure the storyline works.
  8. Remember that improv audiences are far more tolerant.  Think of what you’ll laugh at for improv vs. scripted comedy.  Even kids will give you points for coming up with something on the fly.
  9. Don’t be afraid of failure.  Not every story is going to be a masterpiece.  So what?
  10. If you think of it, record it.  There’s something magical about a voice-only story, as it allows you to capture the moment in a way that’s more personal than the written word, but like the written word, allows the mind to paint the picture.  Many computers and digital cameras can do this, so you’ll have it saved for the ages.

Got more?  Feel free to chime in!

An Amateur’s Story on Storytelling

March 12, 2010

You know what makes your kid look like this--other than tickling

Creating a story from whole cloth can be a pretty daunting thing.  I mean, people make a career out of trying to come up with engaging stories for kids, right?  Well, you’ve got the jump on any of those pros for one big reason—you know your kid(s).  Those pros are working in the dark, trying to appeal to a mass audience.  You have the advantage of already knowing what your kid likes, what makes her laugh, and what him squeal with delight.

Another advantage you have as a storyteller is that you’re not going to get sued for copyright infringement.  The Incredible Hulk can come and lift Thomas the Tank Engine out of the bowels of Mt. Doom in your story, and there’s nary a thing that Stan Lee, Britt Allroft, or the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien can do to stop you.  And remember that your child has likely not seen about 1000 or so movies you’ve seen, 1000 or so books you’ve read, etc.  If you’re struggling to find your own voice, borrow someone else’s.

DC and Marvel had to involve the lawyers to make this crossover happen, you can do it on the fly

My one memorable jaunt into improv story-land involved the adventures of “Uncle Lammykin.”  This was actually a pre-parent experience, dating back to the early 1990s.  My cousin Richard married a woman with a 5-year-old boy named Keith Lamb.  Keith loved imagination play, mostly involving a monster chasing after him that he was able to stop by flinging “peas and carrots in your face” as a magical weapon.

After chasing Keith around for an hour, I was exhausted.  He, of course, was not, and begged for more.  I sighed, and in my old Jewish man voice that flows so naturally, I kvetched, “Give your old uncle a break, would ya sonny boy?”  Keith thought that voice was hilarious, and asked “Who are you?”  Seeing a chance to do something with him that didn’t involve mythical vegetables flung in my face, I improvised.

I once was blind but now I kiwi

The character I made is now family legend, but let me break it down to show you how very derivative it was.  The old man I created was Keith’s Uncle Lammykin (I’m the uncle, and Lamb is his last name).  And boy was he old—indeed some 1000-years-old (Mel Brooks’ 1000-year-old-man).  The secret to his longevity?  The world’s most versatile fruit—the Kiwi (again Mel Brooks, though his routine was plum-based, but my aunt had Kiwis on the table, so there you go).  I then regaled Keith with stories about how Uncle Lammykin saved civilization as we know it armed with only his wits and a furry brown fruit (borrowed heavily from the World of Commander McBragg of Tennessee Tuxedo fame).  The legend of Uncle Lammykin extended to my young cousin Helaina, who got her first U.L. story to calm her after she hit her head.  In that one, Lammykin enabled her favorite character, Little Orphan Annie, the power if sight but filling in those hollow white eyes with Kiwi seeds—a miracle!

There’s one thing I didn’t do in the ole’ Uncle Lammykin tales that gives the parent-storyteller a distinct advantage, especially when stuck.  You can simply turn the story over to your child.  “And then what happened?” can come out of your mouth, not just theirs.  Even if all they is, “The dragon was thirsty” that gives you a direction in your story, and they’ll feel like it’s not just your story, but our story.

As horrible as the movie Bedtime Stories was, it did have a really good idea in itself—make the kids characters in the story.  My post-film stab at the oral tradition involved the Grand Gustavio and Gunnarus Maximus.  If you put them in the story, it will really engage the imagination in a way that being a simple voyeur cannot.

That’s the long of it.  Next, I’ll save you some time and actually sum this up, and a little more, in a succinct tips list.

The Recommendation: Bedtime Stories

March 5, 2010

I know, if you’re one of the unfortunate parents who had to sit through the 2008 crapfest with Adam Sandler, you’re already saying, “Scott, are you insane?  That movie was chew-my-foot-off-to-escape bad.”  Not to worry, I haven’t fully lost my taste in movies (though I still believe Ishtar was underrated).  I in no way recommend this film to anyone.  Indeed, even Gus and Gunnar gave that one a thumbs down.

Tell one, don't see this. Really, don't.

After we waded through the flaccid storytelling and made our way home, however, something interesting happened.  When I tucked Gus into bed, he asked me to tell him a bedtime story.  In that moment, I realized that, at least in our family, storytelling had become something of a lost art.  And with a bunch of parents I’ve spoken to on the subject, that seems to be a pretty consistent theme.

From my empirical study (chatting with a couple of dads), storytelling seems to have been squeezed out from both edges.  The one more openly lamented is, of course, television.  The need to tell our own stories have been neatly replaced by TV, DVDs, Blu-rays, video games, and the DVR.  The collective imagination of our society at our fingertips, how is a simple “Once upon a time…” going to compete.  The immersive interactivity of video games certainly ups the ante (I’ll have a video game recommendation based on this later). 

I got bounced faster than the Pants on the Ground guy

The portability of video has definitely contributed to this in my life.  When I was a kid, my Dad Alan was a storytelling master in one particular location—the car.  He spun many a side-splitting yarn, but his trademark was a cranky old sorceress named Wanda the Witch.  Wild tales, the one I remember most distinctly was Wanda saving her own skin from cannibals by magically creating a Burger King franchise in the jungle.  But most of our interactive road tales revolve around the decision item of which DVD we pop in next (though to give our fam a little credit, we did a rousing rendition of “Car Idol” recently—I was the first eliminated).

I think the other assault on storytelling comes from another place that may be a little more controversial to those reading this—reading.  Yes, I think that the rightful place that reading has taken as an educational and parenting imperative has in our society has had a secondary consequence in a tremendous diminishment of storytelling.  We as parents are conditioned to get our children reading—getting them comfortable with books as an integral part of their lives has been preached to us by celebrities, educators, parents and presidents.  Read to your child, read to your child, READ TO YOUR CHILD! 

Nothing wrong with that, but those opportunities to interact with your child in a creative, free-form, way, challenging their imagination and yours by creating a story from whole cloth is lost when that interactivity is always channeled through the prism of someone else’s story.  I believe there are natural advantages to the oral tradition that neither book nor movie nor video game can match—and independence and personal interactivity that is still, to this day, unmatched.

Next, I’ll delve a little more deeply into the power and potential of storytelling with a couple of tips to make such an undertaking a little less daunting for those who might be thinking, “well, that’s nice, but what in the world would I say?”