Archive for February, 2012

What’s the Big Shpeil About Purim?

February 29, 2012

Rabbi Nathanson gives his sermon

So it’s funny that a very secular Jew like me has ended up becoming something of a go-to guy at Gus and Gunnar’s elementary school to help give kids a taste of Jewish tradition.

For the past few years, this has centered around Chanukkah, as it’s the most recognized Jewish holiday in America despite being a bit of an afterthought in Israel (I’m guessing that’s due to its proximity to some little holiday that has to do with some chubby dude in a red suit). Back when Gus was in first grade, his fantastic teacher Ms. Slavin asked if I’d do something for the class on Chanukkah.

Sweet PowerPoint goodness--it actually flies off the screen!

At the time,  Gus was single-mindedly obsessed with Star Wars, and I quickly realized that the story of a small group of rebels attempting to free itself from the yoke of an evil empire was pretty much spot on for the telling of the Chanukkah story.  Stick a robe and a horrible English accent on “The Evil Emperor Alexander” and stick a Darth Vader mask and heavy breathing onto “Antiochus, Lord of the Selucids” and you’ve got yourself “Chanukkah Wars!”

Of course, I have patted myself on the back many a time for my ingenuity, but this year, I found out that I am not so original after all.  A few weeks back, our PTA president said that the usual family who did the Israel table for our elementary school Multicultural Night would not be able to do it, and asked if I could throw something together based on Chanukkah Wars.  Multicultural Night is a fantastic school tradition, as kids get passports that are stamped as they visit tables run by parents and teachers, each representing a different country.

A little ironic that we got placed by the "Let it Snow" art project

This year, the theme of the night was “Carnivàle!” so we were supposed to focus on holidays and games.  While my first instinct was to default to dreidel, my Jewish guilt (well, proxy-Israeli guilt, to be more specific) got to me.  As I noted, Chanukkah really isn’t a big deal in Israel, so if we were really going to represent the country, that holiday really didn’t fit the bill.  And a number of other big Israeli holidays really aren’t overly game-oriented.  I’m not sure if the kids would have really gotten into a rousing game of “Who’s More Sorry for their Sins?!?” – a Yom Kippur classic…

Kid has good taste--the prune filling is horrible

However, the next big Jewish holiday—and perhaps the biggest one that most folks in America don’t know about—is about as much Party Central as it gets.  Care to guess which one?  Ten Hamantaschen to the nice gentile in the corner there who said Purim!

You can read up on the story if you’re not familiar with it, but in a nutshell it’s a 4th Century b.c.e. tale of a mean dude (Haman) who wanted to kill all the Jews in Persia, and two Jewish heroes (Mordechai and Esther) who are able to uncover his evil plan and ensure he gets his just deserts.

For my money, however, there are three really interesting things about this particular holiday:

  1. The Megillah of Esther is the only story of the Jewish liturgy that has absolutely no mention of God.  It is a purely cultural and human tale of bravery, hatred, intrigue, and survival.  Quite interesting for a major religious holiday.
  2. It is a mitzvah to get loaded.  Indeed, while the kids all dress in costumes and use their graggers (noisemakers) to drown out the name Haman any time it’s uttered, the rabbis said that the grown ups should get so drunk as to no longer be able to make the distinction between Haman and Mordechai.  Now, many religious holidays are often twisted into giant drinking games, but how many actually have getting sauced be a commandment?
  3. The Purim Shpeil.  This is a tradition where each year you find a different way to tell the Purim story every year, oft based on a well known tale.  I’ve seen everything from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to the Wizard of Oz.

It was with my research for #3 that I realized that my Chanukkah Wars story was nothing more than a Shpeil for that holiday—I had been taking credit for something that I had simply adapted from my own tradition.  But while I have used the Shpeil technique to help put a familiar face on a less familiar subject, I actually think there’s a deeper and more interesting teaching tool to be used here, and that’s the power of perspective.

For telling a story in a different way can really help a child understand that there are often different, and sometimes conflicting ways to see the same story: a kiddie version of Rashomon, if you will (and if you haven’t seen Rashomon, I highly, highly recommend it).  Now, the Purim Shpeil is still a pretty rudimentary form of this, as most of the time the heroes and villains stay pretty constant, but for young kids, I believe this still helps, if reinforced by the parent or teacher, to give kids the sense that there is always an opportunity to see something through a fresh and different lens.

Great Seussian stuff (from Babaganewz)

For my Israel table, I adapted a resource I found on a great site, Behrman House’s Babaganewz.  On their Purim Page had a great Seussian Shpeil called “The Rat in the Hat.”  For some reason their version seems not to be available right now, and I made some changes to it (the idea was great, but I felt the prose needed a bit of work).  So here’s my version of The Rat in the Hat.  But for anyone interested in fun, creative Jewish holiday resources, Babaganewz is highly recommended (though they seem to be converting the site, so it seems to be in a bit of transition).

For another great pop-culture example, perhaps one even more tailored to the specific lesson of understanding perspective, I turn to the good folks at Disney.  I always liked, but did not love the classic Lion King (though I must admit I thought it was one of the better 3D adaptations I’ve seen, far better than the new Star Wars, which to my mind is a giant waste of money).

Now with more flatulence!

I thought that their quasi-sequel, Lion King 1½, however, was far more than just draining the blood from the turnip as some have suggested.  Instead, I think it’s a great way to relive a family favorite while giving kids a great lesson in perspective.  If you watch those two with your kids, think about asking them about how their view of the story changed by seeing things more from Timon and Pumba’s POV.

So that’s my Shpeil on Purim and perspective.  I’ll follow this up with a post on the specific game we played, Haman Hangman, but want to get feedback from Gunnar’s Hebrew School teacher as she’s going to give it a try on Sunday.

Yep, Fox attacks Lorax, but Arrietty, too?

February 23, 2012

Beware the Red Lorax! (From October Surprise)

Oy, this one goes under the “not sure it’s worth given them the exposure” but yes, like The Muppets before them, my friend Elizabeth let me know that Lou Dobbs and a trio of conservative radio show talking heads did indeed attempt to savage The Lorax, and, stunningly, The Secret World of Arrietty, as part of the liberal Hollywood establishment’s intention to indoctrinate our children.

I cannot bring myself to embed the four minutes of word vomit on my site, but head over to this Think Progress article  if you’re game to endure it.

I’m all for contrary points of view.  Indeed as you see in my own take on the Lorax book, I have some unkind words for the hero.  But if you are going to do a story about two movies and their “agenda” – do me a favor and at least see them.

A dollhouse Reagan could love

It was incredibly obvious that these guys (and their research staff) did not see the movies, or even read the books of which they were based (the 10 minutes to read The Lorax probably would have quintupled the total research time for that day’s news).  If they had, they could have done far more of a service to their conservative viewers, helping parents with interested kids pull messages that might help to reinforce their world view.  There are a number there, from the largess of the humans actually building a whole home for the Borrowers (“trickle down” anyone?) to the fact that the Lorax could be used to parallel those “know it all environmentalists” who contribute to our problems with their intransigence.

Of course you actually have to know what you’re talking about to do something like that.

I found it especially hilarious that they attempted to tie Arrietty to some anti-rich diatribe when, in actuality, the film exacted all of the class-based issues that were in the book as I noted in my review.  Also amusing was their using Arrietty as example of Hollywood’s efforts to create “Occutoddlers” when the movie was conceived, produced, and animated in Japan.

Next technology breakthrough for 24 hour news

What makes me most sad from this piece is that there are some universal messages for kids in these movies that, at least to me, transcend political boundaries.  Sharing, not judging a book by its cover, and truly listening to others’ points of view are at the core of both these stories.  Of course, if take the reverse these three messages, you have the Fox News operating ethos…So there you go.

That made me realize something about Fox News.  Progressive person that I admittedly am, I really don’t dislike its coverage because of its point of view.  It’s because Fox News presents its point of view from a callous, mean-spirited, and ignorant standpoint.  They really started the death of dialogue in the 24 hour news industry, which is why I personally cannot stand any of those channels, from Fox to MSNBC.

All I can say is that occasions like this help me understand why John Stewart and Stephen Colbert love their jobs.  Fish in a barrel.

Read It Then See It: The Lorax

February 22, 2012

Dr. Seuss is one of my absolute favorites.  His unabashed sense of activism, which came from his history as a political cartoonist (check out the book Dr. Seuss Goes to War for more on that—here are a lot of the cartoons you could find in the book courtesy of UCSD as well).  Combine that sensibility with a willingness to be silly and creative with rhyme, meter, and language itself—not to mention the iconic artwork—and you have a recipe for something timeless.  And The Lorax is about as timeless as it gets, not to mention as timely as ever.

Let’s get to it.

The Movie
The Lorax, Universal. Release Date, Mar. 7.  UPDATE: You can find my review of The Lorax film here.

The Book
The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Giesel).  Originally published in 1971.

Children’s Fable

Age Appropriate
Two months to the two thousand year old man.  Those with early readers, do beware, however.  Seuss has no issue with reinventing grammar and language.  Some of his made up words may be confusing, and this is by no means “Hop on Pop” or one of his early reader books.  I would say this is a read-to-child book until roughly the 2nd to 3rd grade reading level.

Book Availability
An interactive version of the book available as an app on iTunes for $3.99.  There’s a great dramatic reading, complete with the artwork on YouTube.  The book goes for between $5-10 and is available from multiple sources.  I got mine as part of the “Six by Seuss” collection which runs in the $10-20 range.  .

Quickie Plot Synopsis
This may be your child’s first introduction to the concept of “dystopian” as an unnamed boy heads to the gray and decaying outskirts of town to speak with a faceless shut in known as the “Once-ler.”

Iconic, but hardly idyllic

After paying the requisite fee in coins, nails, and snails, the Once-ler tells a story of a time when the town wasn’t filled with tufts of black Grickle Grass, but instead filled with the pink, red, yellow, orange and lavender tufts of the Truffula Trees.  Where Swomee-Swans sang, Brown Bar-ba-loots frisked, and Humming fish hummed in harmony with nature.

The soft, silky tufts of the Truffulas were perfect for the Once-ler to make Theeds (think Snuggie), but when he started to chop them down, up pops the little Lorax—he speaks for the trees.  The Once-ler refuses to listen, and expands his business as the Lorax protests.

Money rolls in, and so does the pollution from the expanding Thneed factory.  Finally, after cutting down the very last Truffula, the Lorax dejectedly leaves the husk of this town, now devoid of all the life that made it wonderful.  He leaves only a stone circle marked with the word “Unless.”  The Once-ler only learns in telling the story to the boy that “Unless” means that the town is doomed unless there is someone who cares enough to try and save it, and in seeing the boy standing on that stone circle, gives him the very last Truffula seed, urging him to begin again.

Quickie Review
If Mary Norton used a chisel to craft an allegorical tale of class in English society with The Borrowers, Seuss uses an atomic-powered sledge hammer to tell his cautionary tale of corporate greed and environmental destruction.  Indeed, given Fox News lambasted The Muppets film of being in league with the communists for daring to use an oil company as the bad guy (check out the great Muppet reaction here), I can only imagine what they’ll do when this movie comes out.

What I love about this book is some of the conventions it uses.  First is the fact that it is truly a dystopian tale.  Not many children’s books are willing to start in a dark and dreary world, seemingly without hope.  Then the use of flashback to contrast the drab present with the idyllic past is wonderful in both language and, especially, artwork.

I found it interesting that the Lorax is not painted as an especially kind, tolerant, or forgiving person.  And, for the most part, the Lorax does not hold any physical power.  And, what I especially adore is that the Lorax is not always right, especially about what people might really want.

He who grouches and runs away...

Of course, this is a cautionary tale, which leads to something you don’t often see in children’s books—the hero of the story loses.  While we leave the book with a kernel of hope provided by the seed, and the boy representing the next generation, we simply do not know at the end whether everything will turn out all right.

As for the writing, I love the Seussian style.  It’s not for everyone, however, and can be confusing as the poetic style leads to odd grammatical pauses.  I tend to think that the more advanced Seuss books are better read to younger children than them reading to us, simply because his style makes it harder for early readers to really inculcate while he messes with the conventions they are learning to obey.

That said, I am currently having Gunnar, my first grader read this, and he’s doing a great job.  We are, however, pausing on each page to ask questions about what went on, which invariably leads us to read things over again as he was working so hard with the words that he often didn’t get the meaning the first go round.

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
I am not going to go much into all the wonderful environmental discussions you can have with your children on The Lorax.  This is well covered elsewhere, and I’d lead you first and foremost to the official Seussville site’s The Loax Project.  It has a great resource guide with discussion points related activities.

Instead, let me focus on what I believe are two points that are topical to this blog, and more tuned into some of the subtleties that are dancing between the Lorax’s more sledge-hammer analogies.

“Why does the Lorax lose?”: While I think most people look at how bad that mean ole’ Once-ler is, I find it more interesting to look at the Lorax’s feet of clay.  Please forgive me if you are one who loves the little guy, but I find the Lorax a jerk.  He is rude, presumptuous, and while he may speak for the trees, he does not really do one little bit of listening in the book.

Horton >Lorax

The Lorax is immediately dismissive of the Once-ler’s pride-and-joy product, the Thneed, putting him immediately on the defensive.  And when it turns at that lo-and-behold, people actually want Thneeds, it gives the Once-ler pretext to think of the Lorax as being nothing more of a crackpot.  The Lorax continues in an “all-or-nothing” fashion, demanding that Once-ler simply stops.  In the end, though he gets nothing but the privlege of saying “I told you so.”

The Lorax takes the opposite of a conflict partnership model, attempting to push his perceptions on Once-ler entirely.  The results speak for themselves.  Now, put the Lorax in juxtoposition to anothe Seuss hero, Horton from the classic Horton Hears a Who.  Horton, with his big ole’ ears, is all about listening.  While they have a similar arc about providing voice to the voiceless, Horton’s goal is to get the two sides to communicate with each other—he spends his time trying to get each side to understand the larger (or smaller) world view of the other.  And in that, Horton succeeds where the Lorax fails.

So while certainly the Once-ler deserves the lion’s share of the tisk-tisks in this story, I think the “cautionary tale” part extends to the Lorax equally.  The great question is—is it more important to be right, or to actually make a difference?  I know I have these conversations all the time with my two boys, who get so caught up when they’re arguing with their teachers, friends (or parents) in the fact that they are right, that they lose sight of the larger issue.

Greed isn’t good: Gunnar really didn’t understand the concept of “greed” before we read this book together.  This books is a wonderful tale of the downside of thinking that enough is never enough.  And I don’t think it’s because the Once-ler ends up a green-armed shut-in rotting in a ramshackle house, but instead because throughout the book, the Once-ler seems to actually feel some pangs of guilt for what his expanding business is doing to his surroundings.

Sorry, Gordon, still not cool

Again and again, he apologizes to the Lorax for the environmental havoc, but he notes that he NEEDS to grow.  Here’s the best passage, from when the Lorax is sending the Bar-ba-loots away:

“They loved living here.  But I can’t let them stay.
They’ll have to find food.  And I hop that they may.
Good luck, boys,” he cried.  And he Send them away.

I, the Once-ler felt sad
As I watched them all go.
business is business!
And business must grow
Regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

I meant no harm.  I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger.  So bigger I got.

Business must grow.  I had to grow bigger.  This is about the ultimate example of “power over” that I can think of.  The only way I can get more is at the others’ expense.  The Once-ler only sees a “I win, you lose” world where he must have more, and it can only come at the expense of others.  And while it’s good for a while, he ends up, well, a green-armed shut-in rotting in a ramshackle house.

Having your kids think about the different places and ways Lorax and Once-ler might have worked out their differences is a great point of discussion throughout the book.  From looking at the whole tree (there was fruit that could have been sold, and did Once-ler really need to cut down the whole tree to get the tuft on top?) to not disparaging ideas you might think are silly are all wonderful lessons for kids to learn about outside-the-box problem-solving.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, like all things Seuss, the challenge is to take a short story and stretch it into a feature film.  Here, it looks like the boy (now Ted, voiced by Zac Efron) will be our hero, living in an entirely artificial post-Theed town, with a love interest (Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift) who dreams of real, live trees.  This sets him on a quest that brings him to the Once-ler, where some kind of retelling of the actual story ensues.

I have to say that while I understand their new setup, it seems to really change the dark feel that bookends the story in the original text.  The “artificial vs natural” argument is an interesting layer, but takes away that sense of global doom implied in the book.

Seuss’ tale was an unabashedly anti-corporate rant.  I wonder what, if any steps have been taken to make it a little more business friendly given the mainstream, big-budget release.  I think part of it might be more of a humanization of Once-ler, as he’ll be a human character in the flashbacks voiced by Ed Harris.  I definitely get the sense that he will be a far more sympathetic character, perhaps influenced by other, more selfish folk to continue down a destructive path.

The Lorax’s voice is perfectly cast with Danny DeVito playing the titular role.  His gruff and dismissive attitude is likely to be fully on display.  I’ll be very curious to see if this, as well, softens the environmental message by playing up the Lorax’s flaws, or ends up making him more sympathetic in relation to the other characters in the story.

And, in the end, the Lorax is a tale of the possibility of a brighter tomorrow if people truly care to make a difference.  I’m guessing that will not be lost here as it’s such a universal, uplifting, (and safe) point to make.

I really enjoyed the Horton Hears a Who movie, not so much for the live action Grinch.  I’m going to be very interested to see how this very anti-establishment story plays out when produced and distributed by the establishment.  Both boys are excited to go see this one (couldn’t drag Gunnar to Arrietty) so expect a full review as soon as it’s released.

Next in this series: Winter’s Bone meets The Running Man.

The Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

February 20, 2012

My father was in town this weekend so three generations of Nathansons took in this movie yesterday. Let me parallel the structure of my “Read It Then See It” post on the book version of this film, with a few extra twists to focus on the film.

The Movie
The Secret World of Arrietty, Disney (Ghibli).

Based on a  Book?
Yes: The Borrowers, (first in a series of five books), by Mary Norton.  Originally published in 1952.


Age Appropriate
Four years old and up, but you’ll have to decide whether your child can handle a languidly-paced film. Very little to scare younger kids.  The action that is there is wonderfully animated, but is very sporadic.  Really the definition of a “lovely” film.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  It is a simple, but engaging story and the animation is .lush and at some times stunning.  Not an obnoxious kiddie movie by any means.

Spoilers for Younger Kids

The crazy crow could get a little scary, but a gentle spoiler can be just the remedy

I am a huge fan of giving young kids spoilers before particularly tense scenes to give them the power over their fear and allow them to experience things that might otherwise overwhelm them.  Here are a few occasions in this film where you can lean over to your child and help them through what little tension there is:

  • Near the beginning, the cat is stalking what turns out to be Arrietty.  A crow comes and attacks the cat in competition for the prize.  You can let them know that no one ends up getting hurt or getting Arrietty.
  • On Arrietty’s first borrowing mission, she sees some rats with shining red eyes.  That can be a little scary for younger kids, but don’t worry, the rats just stay where they are.
  • When Arrietty and Shawn have a conversation after she returns the sugar cube to him, that darned crow comes to get her.  It’s actually the most action-packed scene in the whole film, and the crow’s struggles can certainly be a little scary for some little ones.  Even though it looks like Arrietty may fall, she never does, and is saved by Shawn.  Hara, the caretaker, takes care of the crow in very comical fashion, so all ends up well (and funny!).
  • On two occasions do humans “invade” Arrietty’s home.  The first time seems quite scary, and everything shakes and the roof seems to be falling in.  It’s only Shawn coming to give a new kitchen to the Clocks.
  • The second time, it’s a little more menacing, as Hara discovers them and takes the mother, Homily, and puts her in a jar.  You can note that Hara obviously does not want to harm Homily as she takes the time to put air holes in the jar to make sure she can breathe.  Rest assured that Shawn and Arrietty come to her rescue shortly thereafter.
  • When the Borrowers leave the house for the forest, Arrietty is out alone and is shocked to find a pair of menacing yellow eyes staring at her from behind a bush.  It ends up being the old fat cat, who winds up being her friend and helping she and Shawn have one last time together.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Outside of Modern Day Tokyo, gentle young teen Shawn is taken to the family country home to rest and prepare for serious surgery to try and repair his heart.  In that same house lives a family of Borrowers—tiny human-like creatures that inhabit the nooks and crannies of the house, living off “borrowed” items the “Beans” (human beings) won’t miss.

Small packages

Shawn “sees” Arrietty, the beautiful 14-year-old Borrower on her first mission, and gains bravery himself from learning about the Borrower world and the courage to survive Arrietty has in the huge and dangerous world.

But once the house caretaker Hara, always suspicious that little people had lived in her home, discovers Arrietty and her family’s secret world, she and Shawn must race against her determination to capture and/or exterminate the Borrowers to ensure their survival.

My Review

Better bug battle than most Starship Troopers flicks

Miyazaki andYonebayashi have created a simple love story of courage, survival, and understanding. The animation is a treat, especially the interactions between the Borrowers and the massive world around them.  I loved the way liquids interacted in this world, as when our drop is their filled-to-overflowing, the physical properties are themselves going to change (see this post from Geek Dad as to an experiment you can do based on this very property).  Also the Borrowers’ interactions with the insect world was tremendously fun to watch, from crickets to beetles to rollie-pollies.

I have to say that as compared to other Ghibli movies like Ponyo (my review here) or Howl’s Moving Castle, this film felt awfully thin.  In those movies, the characters felt like they had real depth and conflict.  Here each felt more like a caricature.  Hara, our erstwhile villain, was developed poorly, and her antipathy toward the Borrowers seemed almost tacked on in the end to help move the plot rather than as something organic to her character.  Indeed, like in Ponyo, there was ample opportunity to not make Hara a “bad guy” at all, but they did anyway, and it seemed like a plot device rather than a character, despite Carol Burnett’s wonderful turn voicing her.

I was also quite sorry that some of the most interesting facets of The Borrowers book weren’t included.  I understand why Miyazaki decided to pretty much expunge any of the allegory of the book to the English class society, as that is a pretty complex allegory, but I still really missed it.  There is such a wonderful story of what does or does not make someone “better” than the other in the book, and that’s really gone here.  Instead, it is a more simple “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story, which is okay, but not nearly as rich or interesting.

The love for learning in the book is entirely missing in the movie

My beef with the film is actually what they decided to do with its star, Arrietty.  The character in the book had been cloistered all her life, and had lived inside of books. This gave her a connection with the boy (Shawn in the movie) who because of his being weak, also lived his life in the pages of books.  They bonded not just over the physical world, but of an exploration of knowledge.  I simply do not understand why that wonderful and universal part of the book was entirely omitted.

I think some of the omissions contributed to the film dragging at times, as some of the conflict and humor that infused the book through Arrietty’s breaking the chains of both her mental and physical cages could have helped fill in some gaps when at times the characters just kind of felt like they were sitting around waiting for something to happen.

But despite those flaws, all the Nathanson boys felt it was still a lovely little story and a visual treat.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
I’ll not say much here as there’s more than enough in my post on The Borrowers.  As you’ve probably surmised, I found the book in many ways superior to the movie, and I’m hoping I can convince Gus to read it as I’d love to discuss his impressions about why the movie changed as much as it did from the book.

Just to note that if your child does express enough interest in the movie to be intrigued by the book, it is a very quick read.  I read the whole book in about 5 hours, and I would think one could read it to/with a 1st through 4th grader in 3 weeks to a month doing a half-hour or so of reading per day.  The illustrations are very detailed and add to both the interest and whimsy of the book.

Because of all the changes, I think there is a lot of potential for great discussions with your kids if you do them both, so I do recommend the “double-double” here.

Through our Looking Glass: Peter Gabriel “New Blood”

February 19, 2012

“You don’t choose the music, the music chooses you.”

I’ve hear that somewhere over time, and I just Googled it as I wanted to attribute that particular bit of wisdom to someone, but I couldn’t find any specific reference.  So I guess I’ll just call it my own brilliant insight until I’m told otherwise.

So here’s little something off of the parenting course, and more toward a feel of how we parents view ourselves as the residuals of our youth is coated by the actual youth of our children.

Where's my lighter?

This evening before I went out to dinner with my wonderful wife and friends, she was primping herself for our night out with her iPod warbling with the sounds of her teenage years—“Happy girl music” as I call it.  Mostly 80s hymns such as “Walking on Sunshine” and some of the assorted pop favorites that permeated my youth as I fought my sister for control of the car radio and tape deck (“Enough of the Bangles, I want the Star Trek II soundtrack!”).  As you can see, it brought back memories, as I’m sure the anthems of your youth do you.

When I finally emerged out of my uber-nerd soundtrack phase, the first artist I found on my own (The Police and David Bowie introduced to me by my lifelong friend Ted) was a gentleman who just happened to be playing at the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour back in 1986 (that Ted dragged me to)—Peter Gabriel.  One bar of the straining chorus of “Biko” was enough—his music chose me, and I have never found its equal.

I know I’m probably one of the few that put Gabriel at the absolute pinnacle of their pop icon list, but I’m writing this as a 40-something because I think what he has done over the past couple of years is well worth a listen to all of our generation who have any connection whatsoever with his material.

Starting with his 2010 Scratch My Back where he reinterpreted some both vintage and modern music with a dream-like, classical sensibility, to his 2011 New Blood where he went back and gave a similar treatment to his own classics, Gabriel has done something that to my admittedly limited musical experience is somewhat unique.  He has given us a view of our own past, as interpreted through our present.

More rich, more complex, and with a sense of joyful melancholy for things gone by, I find it moving and fascinating to get a sense of the music that shaped me, reinterpreted by that very same artist, with the perspective that only time can bring.  In so many cases when I hear the artists from the 80s come back, it is an attempt to relive the memories of the past.  Here, Gabriel instead chooses to view them again through the eyes of our current selves—like looking at an old photo album of our wedding, or our infant children with the wistful, yet jubilant emotion that only experience can bring.

I had the boom box, and the sublime stupidity of youth, both at the ready

Perhaps I’m too much of a musical neophyte to understand that a number of other artists have done this.  But as I write this with a lump in my throat as he wails “Blood of Eden” I would highly recommend to any who have a soft spot for Gabriel, and for looking back at the wonder that is our life not to recapture what we were, but to remember those keynote moments as tiles in the path to what we have become, to find their favorite song and experience it in the modern Gabriel’s form.  I would guess for many people the anthem of the movie Say Anything – In Your Eyes would be at the top of the list.  I must say I can remember considering doing the Lloyd Dobler outside the window of my freshman year girlfriend.

I’d be curious to hear about other artists who have done this, as I’m sure Gabriel is not the first, and will certainly not be the last.  Anyway, apologies for the blogging diversion, but thought I’d share a little something different that moved me as a person moving along in life.

The Recommendation: Wired Geek Dad

February 17, 2012

My knowledge of warp speed technology can be summed up as such: "It's pretty."

Amongst we Star Trek devotees, there are two kinds of fans.  There are those who love the technology, and spend time thinking about how warp engines might work (as opposed to that whole silly hyperspace thing), and whether you could capture photons in a way that would allow you to weaponize them.  On the other hand, there are the folks who just accept the technobabble and instead fixate on the vision of the future itself.  It is there you find what I would term the “Geek-Nerd Spectrum.”

And while my needle is tilted heavily toward nerd, we do have much in common with our geeky brethren.  That is why I’m so glad that Flipboard turned me onto Geek Dad, a fabulous resource center from Wired Magazine with a cadre of very thoughtful, funny, and, yes, geeky authors posting with a common thread—how to get your children really thinking.  I highly recommend taking a tour and even signing up for some of your favorite writers’ Twitter feeds.

There are lots of tech, game, and pop-culture reviews that I have found helpful.  Here is a smattering of some of my favorite Geek Dad finds of late:

9 Things To Know About The Secret Life of Arrietty
While I’m going to see it and post on it as follow up to my blog on the book, here’s a very nice piece that breaks down what to expect out of the movie, including a small section that compares it to The Borrowers.  There’s also a nice link back to a review of the book if you’re looking for a different POV.

I liked how author Matt Blum broke things down into discernable parts that can help parents get a good sense of what to expect from the film without too many spoilers.  Also check out the other neat link that gives you a nanoscience experiment you can do based on what happens in the film.  Fun stuff!

Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong
I put a link to this in my post about the Matter of App blog, but I really wanted to give this a larger shout-out as it is a fascinating piece that really made me think about my boys’ work habits, as well as my own.

Author Garth Sundem got a chance to interview Robert Bjork, the director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab (love the name for the lab!) about how we cram our brains with knowledge—both the physical and cerebral.  His theory of “interleaving” – that we’re better off working on learning different, but related chunks of information in small bits rather than our more traditional attempt to learn things in blocks was very eye-opening to me, and made a lot of sense.  The notion that more knowledge retention happens in smaller, less preceptable bits over time rather than the more satisfying “get it all out of the way” method is counter-intuitive at first glance, but does really make sense to me when I thought about it from a coaching standpoint.

The concept of “learning by forgetting” and the idea of taking notes only after a lecture to cement what was said in your brain were very interesting ways of thinking about, well, thinking.

Minute Physics

Poop, puke, and physics? What's not to love?

I learned about this on Geek Dad, but I’m taking you right to their site on YouTube.  Learning about force mass by testing the reality of a superhero that vomits milk as a power?  Yes, please!  Some pieces can be a little complicated for young children, but the “hand drawn” style, engaging language, and, of course, puking super heroes is a great way to quickly get your kids a taste of how physicists and engineers break down how the world actually works.  A great, quick way of interspersing a little learning in the mix with those games of Doodle Jump.

A Google A Day Puzzles
Learning how to use a search engine effectively is now a must for today’s students (not to mention humans).  Google has found a way to make it fun by making a game out of it.  Each day they ask a question and time your ability to find the answer by Googling it.  They’ll give you hints if you need them, and some tips with the answers to help you refine your skills.  If you like it enough, you might even want to put the Google A Day gadget on your homepage.  Really, a great modern learning tool.

That’s just a small taste of the fun they have to offer, so go check out Geek Dad for yourself.

Read It Then See It: The Secret World of Arrietty (aka The Borrowers)

February 16, 2012

Okay, I lied about The Lorax.  Actually I was planning on posting on that book today, but then I discovered that this film is coming out Friday.  So I’m bumping the trees for a few days.

I’m very curious about this movie, as it’s the latest from Studio Ghibli, the fantastic Japanese Animation studio that has brought the brilliant works of Hayao Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Ponyo, among others) to the screen.

You can check out my review of Ponyo here—it’s a wonderful film.  Miyazaki is involved in this one, as he’s given screenwriting and production credit, but this one is the debut film for Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

Let’s get to it:

The Movie
The Secret World of Arrietty, Disney (Ghibli).  Release Date, Feb. 17. UPDATE: You can find my review of the film here.

The Book
The Borrowers, (first in a series of five books), by Mary Norton.  Originally published in 1952.


Age Appropriate
Ages five and up to be read to (some suspense and complex language could be too much for a four-year-old).  Assisted reading at about the 3rd grade level (a little more challenging  but in the same ballpark as the Magic Treehouse series), and read-on-your-own around the 4th grade.

Book Availability
$1.99 on Google Books and iTunes (sequels are running $4.99). Widespread print copies availability elsewhere for as little as 50 cents online (though be warned, I didn’t check out shipping costs).

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Like John Carter, we return to the late 19th century.  And like A Princess of Mars, this story is told by flashback as the little girl Kate pries a story from family friend Ms. May.  She provides an answer to one of the great mysteries of life: why do all those little things around the house, from safety pins to stray socks, seem to just vanish into thin air?

I've been looking for that!

The story takes place in the  English countryside as a nine-year-old boy (Ms. May’s little brother) convalesces at his Great-Aunt Sophy’s aging manor after becoming ill upon the family’s return from India.  It is here that we meet Pod, Homily, and Arrietty Clock, a family of human-like creatures no larger than mice.  They, as do many of these self-anointed “Borrowers” live inside the walls, attics, and “spaces between” of the human world.

Pod, the father, is the “Borrower” of the family, risking life and limb to get the fish bone sewing pins and blotting cloth carpet that keep the family running.  In one expedition to secure a toy teacup, he is “seen” by the boy.  But rather than scream in fear, the boy actually helps him accomplish his mission and allows him to go.

Rather than run away as all the other Borrowers in the house had done, Pod instead begins to take the clever, curious, and creative fourteen-year-old Arrietty to begin borrowing with him.  Finally freed from the caged existence of her youth, she experiences the outside world for the first time, and inadvertently runs into the boy and they begin a friendship—something they both desperately need to alleviate their mutual isolation.

Put our roof back on! You, you, uh, what did you say your name was again?

At first a clandestine relationship, the boy deduces the location of the Clock’s dwelling, and abruptly introduces himself to the whole family.  After earning their trust, he becomes a borrower for them, first finding pieces from a long forgotten dollhouse, then upgrading to precious knick-knacks from all over his great-aunt’s home.

The latter move alerts Mrs. Driver, the stern caretaker of the home, who in turn uncovers the Clock residence, and quickly becomes determined to rid the house of these pests.  She turns to the cruel exterminator Mr. Firth, who proceeds to flush the house out with poison gas.  Just before the boy is forced to leave the house, he is able to escape Mrs. Driver and break open a grate on the side of the house, allowing the Pod, Homily, and Arrietty to escape.

Ms. May tells Kate that she seemed to have some proof that the Clocks made a new life for themselves in the wild, as some years later, she went to Sophy’s house and brought a number of borrowed items out to the field where her brother said they made their escape.  But the diary she found which seems to have the full accounting of the Borrowers’ world, supposedly written by Arrietty, is penned in a hand suspiciously similar to her brother’s.

Quickie Review
This is a very English tale.  Kind of an Downton Abbey meets Peter Pan.  It is lushly written with a wonderful detail of The Borrower existence.  As Pod and Homily speak of the Borrowers who once inhabited the house, a pecking order of aristocracy and working class (the Cooks being the latter) is obviously “borrowed” from the human world they inhabit.  That analogy is extended to their relationship with humans, seeing them as servants and rationalizing their theft of human things as akin to picking the apples off a tree.

A different kind of "little people"

This is really the story of Arrietty’s coming-of-age.  Instead of a gradual process, it happens in a more compressed fashion because of her fourteen years of being clostered under the kitchen.  As she awakens to the actual realities of the world around her, from the genuine feelings of these humans, to the fact that the world itself does not revolve around her and The Borrowers, both hers and her family’s world is entirely transformed.

But while her world is transformed, I’m not quite as sure that Arrietty is.  While I loved a number of the themes working in this book, I was a little disappointed in the fact that I didn’t feel like the main characters actually grew.  Norton does an expert job setting up the conflicts—class, race, captivty and freedom, and even some pretty complicated ideas like the relative notion of property.  But in my opinion, she really does not pay them off by truly having the characters come to terms with their own biases.

The boy remains “the boy” throughout the book, and unnamed entity to the Clocks right through the end.  Hominy and Pod accept him more because of what he brings than who he is.  And while there is a little more depth to his relationship with Arrietty, neither of them seem to have gained a genuine new perspective on their world through each other.  Perhaps this is something saved for later books (though it would seem that this is the last Borrowers book with the boy), but I have to say I was left a little flat in what I felt was the most important element in the story.

That aside, this is a well spun tale that I believe both boys and girls alike would enjoy, though I would expect some might become bored in the early stages of the book as real conflict really doesn’t begin until about half-way in.

Overall Read Score: 3 out of 5 stars

Opportunites for Discussion

Also a big fan of "Borrowing"

Giving and Recieving: This is simply a fantastic book at any reading level to be able to discuss what “sharing” means.  The different layers of this book are all about the relative nature of posessing things, as the Borrowers take from humans, but don’t see it as stealing.  When the boy enters their lives, he begins to “borrow,” but does it not for his own sake, but for the Clock clan.  What is the difference, if any, between how the Pod and Arrietty borrow, and how the boy does?  Where is the line between taking things and sharing things?

As importantly, the lack of appreciation that the Clocks, most notably Hominy has for the boy’s efforts can bring up a very important discussion about the importance of appreciation for the giver.  I’m personally a stickler on manners, and the Borrower clan really have none for the boy.  Indeed, they become so self-involved in the posessions they are getting, that they really seem to have little thought for the effort he is putting in.  And when that effort turns to danger, they again can only think about their plight.  Until the end, they see the boy as a means to an end (indeed, the fact that they never know the boy’s name is quite telling).  Their lack of growth is a great leaping off point about the importance of truly appreciating that others do for you, which I think is a vital conflict partnership lesson.

The Importance of Knowledge: Arrietty’s journey is one from cloistered ignorance to a world of knowledge.  Her views of humans change as she is exposed to a larger world and her rather teeny place in it.  This is a great example of the value of knowledge to battle prejudice, as so much of that is born from ignorance.  Indeed, this book might be a nice gateway into other fantastic books that deal more concretely with the subject, such as the classic Huckleberry Finn (can you tell I’m a Twain fan?).

Help!: This book is replete with examples of places where the characters really need help, but refuse to admit it.  From the boy helping Pod get the teacup, to Arrietty and the boy’s reading sessions, the notion that each person can bring something to the table to help the other, and that both asking for help, and volunteering help can “lift all boats” is a great thing to point out throughout the book.  And while I noted in this post what a fan I am of people needing to try the “mad dash” alone from time-to-time, I think kids, especially independent-minded ones, can use reminders of the value of asking for, recieving, and giving help to others.

“You’re Not Better Than Me!”: Being a very British book, Norton peppers in examples from top-to-bottom about people seeing themselves in different “classes.”  Some of the Borrower families considered themselves above the Clocks, and Hominy really bought into those distinctions.  You can have a great conversation with your kids about what might make people think they are better than others, and how that concept might be different from those like smarter, richer, bigger, or stronger.

Science, Myth, and Theories: Okay, here comes the nerdist POV. One really neat point of interest in the book is when Ms. May explains that the Borrowers were as a species continuing to grow smaller over generations, as their fear of the humans literally transformed their bodies.  This is a potentially neat gateway into a couple of different subjcts.  One is Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and how the environment actually changes species over time to help best fit their environment.  One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this in action is the Hedylepta, a butterfly that has adapted to eat only bananas in Hawaii even though bananas are non-native to the islands.  I first saw it as part of this fantastic debate back in 1997 on PBS.

At least their toes got less hairy as they evolved

On an even more nerdy level, the evolution of the Borrowers brings to mind a fantastic exercise in creative logic.  As when Ms. May described the notion of the Borrowers continuing to shrink, I thought, “Oh, so that’s what happened to Hobbits!” They didn’t go away, they just got so small that they essentially vanished.  This led me to think about the more modern theory about the dinosaurs, that they did not become extinct, but instead evolved into birds.

So from Norton’s “that’s where all the lost stuff goes!” to Hobbits to banana butterflies, I think the book opens up all sorts of wonderful ways to open up creative conversations with your kids about how theories and stories are developed, and the similarities in that happen in the scientific and the creative processes.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
The Secret World of Arrietty is going to be interesting, given the book was so very Brittish.  Indeed, there is a live action version of The Borrowers that came out in 1997 (an Americanized version starring John Goodman that bombed).  But this movie is set in Japan, so while there is certainly no lack of class system in that culture, I’ll be very curious to see how the plot and feel changes, and how those changes in turn are translated for an American audience.

From what I read on the website, the plot looks somewhat similar, but it looks to me like they have really looked to pump up the relationship between the boy (who now also seems a teenager, and has a name, Shawn) and Arrietty to something more akin to a love story—we’ll see about that.

Also it looks like they have changed the plot to really create a tension throughout the movie between the Borrowers and the Mrs. Driver character, which for a movie is likely a good choice as you don’t really feel that in the book until about two-thirds of the way through.

The voice cast includes Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett.  I have to say I loved Burnett’s turn as The Sour Kangaroo in the Horton Hears a Who film (of which Poehler was also a part), so I’m excited to see what she does with this role.  The animation looks lovely, though from the preview I have to say it doesn’t seem to have quite as much of the dreamlike quality that other Ghibli films do.  The subject matter being a little more real—a fantasy, but not in the realm of the fantastic) might account for that.

This might be the first of this series where I do a post-movie review as well, as both my boys are interested in seeing it so we’ll probably go take it in this weekend, so keep an eye out for that.

Next in this series: Really, truly, of Truffulas, Thneeds, and greed.

A 5th Grade War Party

February 13, 2012

Recently I took a dipped a pinky toe into the ocean of education, trying to actually teach kids that are not my children about something other than how to catch a pop fly.  Following on my concerns about the way Social Studies is being presented to our kids, I started working with the absolutely fantastic staff at my boys’ elementary school to see if there was a way we could test out something to help bring the past more to life.

Give peace a chance?

After discussing potential avenues, we settled on a moment in Virginia’s history that I felt would really challenge the students perspective, as their challenge was to inhabit the world of the Powhatan Indians during the crucial moment of the first permanent English colony in America at Jamestown.  Even though our sessions were done before school started (no way I would have volunteered for that as a 10-year-old, let me tell ya), I ended up with a group of eight bright, eager, and really fun kids to play with.

I posed to them that the reason historians love the subject is not because they love learning facts, but instead history is a mystery.  But it’s not “whodunit?” or “where is the treasure?” as the who, what, when, and where are there for you to see.  Instead, history is the mystery of “why?”  Historians use the facts as clues, and then develop their own theories as to why things happen the way they did, and what might have happened had they gone differently.

Tie me kangaroo down, sport!

With that, each student became a weroance or weroansquah (Algonquian for “chief”) of one of the tribes of the Powhatan confederation, preparing for a great Pow-Wow to decide if the would attempt to make peace with the Jamestown settlers, or go to war.  Each week, we would go through another step of those crucial years, leading up to the “Starving Time” in 1609-1610 when Jamestown was at its weakest.  I even entertained them with perhaps the very worst English accent they will ever hear, as I channeled Jamestown leader John Smith through a pretty rough interrogation by the tribal leaders.

My guy with a well-dressed Weroansquah

The kids, each and every one of them, were fantastic.  They invested in their characters, asking questions about what their tribe’s perspective might be, and really seemed to “get” the process of using facts to form their perspectives, not just their own opinions.  By the time we got to academic night with our debate in front of an audience of parents and teachers, our Chief Powhatan spelled out his historic position of peace.  He noted that their people, too were facing famine, and how the English had tools that made harvesting crops more efficient.  Live together, or die alone.

Big-mouthed peacemonger that I am, I could not help but throw in a few supportive “clues” about the fact that at the time the Powhatan place a much higher value on an individual life than did the English, and the prolific power of English weapons, especially in their well-fortified city.  Given the English were starving anyway, why risk losing so many men to their weapons?  Wasn’t there a better way?

The kids didn't take too kindly to Smith's "Gentleman of Virginia" routine

But in the end, to a Chieftain, the others were having none of it.  They threw the callous attitude of John Smith, and his holding of Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough at gunpoint and stealing their precious corn.  They threw this “Christianity” that the settlers brought, believing it to be the one true religion that all must submit to.  And their efforts to cultivate tobacco rather than corn—expecting to be fed by the people native to this land they have usurped?  They were incredulous.  By our final vote, only Powhatan himself favored peace.

Afterwards as we devoured corn cakes and my engaged in pecan milk chugging contests (“disgusting” in the kids’ words—I actually thought it wasn’t bad), the young man playing Powhatan said to me “Man, trying to make peace is really hard.”

He was absolutely right, and I have to say I wondered why that was.

Certainly there was the actual history of the thing.  We know what was to happen to the Powhatan if they were not to attack—we’re living in it.  The English also did not exactly comport themselves with fantastic conflict partnership skills, most notably John Smith, who before he took control of the colony was himself almost hung on the way to the New World.  Perhaps I played my part there a little too well.

No fear for the "boom sticks"

But I was struck throughout our prep sessions by how difficult it was to really convince these kids of the inherent dangers of going to war.  The cost in lives, the power of the weapons, the presence of other, seemingly greater enemies—none of these were enough to sway them.

It was war.

From a pure historical perspective, I absolutely cannot argue with them—there was ample evidence to justify their march to war even in the presence of all the risks.  Indeed Opechancanough would indeed attempt to wipe Jamestown out a decade later, though by then the English “Strangers” were too well fortified—and here we sit.

But I have to say I wonder whether if we had done this simulation on September 10, 2001, whether it would have been different.  These kids have lived in a country that has been at war essentially since their birth—and that war has in many ways been sold as a war of an ideology where the “enemy” (that being radical Islam—not Islam itself) believes that everyone can and should adopt only their religious ideology.

Not a "boy thing" (and like our digital campfire?)

Oh, and before you say “Oh, no, Scott, boys just default to things that go boom,” let me reveal that three-quarters of the students participating were girls.

Overall, I think this foray into history was a really successful one.  I’m hoping to try it again, do it better, and perhaps try and expand it.  But a key lesson it taught me is that if we are looking for ways to find ways to get our kids to understand the values of cooperation and teamwork, it’s vital for we as parents and educators to understand their world as it is, not just the one as we’d like it to be.

Read It Then See It: A Princess of Mars (aka John Carter)

February 10, 2012

Okay, I’m going to try to start something new today.  Intended as a good resource for parents, though perhaps just an excuse for me to read lots of children’s books, I’m setting out on a mission to read and give you what I hope will be helpful feedback on books that will soon become kid/family oriented motion pictures.

I thought this could prove useful to parent either as a tool to help provide incentive for reading (“If you read the book, I’ll take you to the movie and let you bury yourself in candy and popcorn.”),  or as a reference for seeing what qualities these books have from an educational and conflict partnership perspective, along with assorted nerdy stuff I can’t help but throw in.

Mars Needs Togas

And so without further ado, let me introduce you to John Carter, Gentleman of Virgina.

The Movie
John Carter, Disney.  Release date March 9.  UPDATE: See my review of the movie here.

The Book
A Princess of Mars (first in the “John Carter of Mars” series), by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Yep, he’s the Tarzan guy).  Originally published in serial form in 1912 in All Story Magazine, and as a full book in 1917.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Ages 9 and up for content (suspense, lots of violence, but all cartoonish in nature, and some kissy-kissy but nothing more than that).  Language is surprisingly complex for a pulp fiction novel, so will challenge younger readers.

Book Availability
Absolutely free on Google Books! Widespread availability elsewhere (especially now that the movie is coming out).

Quickie Plot Synopsis
The year is 1887. Civil War veteran (on the losing side) and gunslinger (and self-denoted Gentleman of Virginia) John Carter has gone west to seek his fortune. We find him having run afoul of a group of Apache Indians, and after being forced into a strange cavern, he finds himself pulled from his corporal frame and transported to what he immediately, though shockingly recognizes as the planet Mars: a world barely clinging to life after a million years of civilization.

Not so little green men

The light gravity of the planet gives him essentially super-powers of strength and agility, which he needs pretty much immediately as he encounters the massive, green creatures called Tharks; a race apparently unbound by emotions or sense of community other than waging war.  After defeating several chieftains in combat and taking on an adorably ugly animal companion, he then finds out that there are also humanoid life forms, as the Tharks ambush their airship fleet and capture their princess, the most desired, kind, wonderful, yadda-yadda-yadda woman on Barsoom (what they call Mars).

Carter and the princess fall in love, as you’d expect, and he enlists the help of a Thark who does not agree with her people’s unfeeling ways and they are able to make an escape.  What follows is a montage of chase, stealth, and combat against many different alien species.  Carter learns that the red humanoids and Tharks are not all alike, loses the princess as she’s taken hostage and forced to marry a nasty red prince, and eventually arranges for the father of the Thark who helped him escape to become a king.  Together they wage one last grand battle to free the princess.

Finally united with the princess, they marry and await their baby to hatch (yes, hatch), but the machine keeping the planet alive goes on the fritz as someone murders the only guy who runs it and can get access.  Carter uses his superior power of telepathy (yep, he gets that, too) and saves the planet in the nick of time, but sacrifices everything in the process, as he is jettisoned back to Earth.

Quickie Review
This is not high art, as you might expect from something that was a pulp serial before it was a book.  That said, it’s a relatively entertaining ride and a solid fish-out-of-water story.  One thing I would say is that like many of the stories of its age, be it the old Flash Gordon or the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, you really never get the sense that Carter is in any kind of real danger, which could be a bit of a turnoff to young readers who might not be able to connect with Carter because he’s just a little too perfect.

I was actually a bit disappointed that Burroughs did not bring Carter’s southern notions a bit more into play.  There is certainly a feeling to his moral superiority over these more “base races” of Barsoom, but there was a lot of potential there for this to have more of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (highly, highly recommended for your kids, by the way) than what was really executed.  But the Barsoomian world that he creates is a very interesting and rich one, one where in the end the development and changes in the Tharks and the relationship Carter has with them is quite intriguing, and leads to a very satisfying and somewhat surprising payoff.

There are two literary conventions in this book that I think are great for young readers.  The first is the “found journal” aspect of this, something akin to the “found footage” craze for movies these days, now on display with the current top grossing film Chronicle.  Burroughs makes Carter his Uncle, and explains that his story is nothing more than a revealing of his Uncle John’s journal.  It’s not a literary convention I see in a lot of kids’ books these days, and that blurring of the line between fantasy and reality as the author actually makes himself a character is one that I think is valuable for young readers to experience.

Also, unlike most rock-‘em, sock-‘em books, even comparing to those of the era, A Princess of Mars is actually quite sophisticated, as Burroughs uses the tone of a plantation-educated gentleman to contribute to the story’s authenticity.  But because of that language, it may be less of a page-turner for a younger reader, especially if she or he is not immediately captivated by the story’s premise.

Overall Read Score: 2.5/5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion

That word you say, I do not think it means what you think it means

“A Gentleman of Virginia”: While more subdued than I would have liked, the notion of race still plays a huge role in this book.  There is an overt “don’t judge a book by its cover” as the Tharks become friend and ally to John Carter and the good guy red people by the end.  But I think there’s even more to note by looking at Carter’s often holier-than-thou attitude toward the people on the planet.  There is some change, but even by the end he is still that “Gentleman of Virginia.”  What does that say about his ability to truly tolerate others?  Are there lessons he could have learned, but didn’t?  And how might his views have changed if the Martian atmosphere not given him super powers?

A View of The Past’s Future: Looking at the way people who did not have the technological sophistication of our modern times is a very interesting lesson for both the evolution of science, and of seeing things out of the prism of others.  Burroughs based his concept of the dying Martian world based on the discoveries in the late 19th century of what appeared to be canals on the surface of Mars that seemed very likely caused by the flow of water.  Indeed, many scientists still believe that, but as the Mars rovers have confirmed, no water is there today.

Also looking at some of the devices that Burroughs dreamed up, from airships to high-resolution telescopes that could see blades of grass on Earth, to rifles that could shoot straight for miles, it’s fun to look at how much he dreamed up is actually around on Earth in some form today.  Much as my beloved Star Trek influenced many of today’s astronomers and engineers, great scientists and authors such as Arthur C. Clarke (a favorite author of mine) and Carl Sagan were influenced by reading John Carter as a child.

Science Fiction as Metaphor—1913: Another tip to my Trekker roots here, as there are two kids of Trek fans, essentially: the ones who think the technology is cool, and the ones who dig it for the stories.  And Star Trek at its best was all about using the future as a safer platform for talking about the conflicts of the day (here’s a post on one of my favorite examples).

A Princess of Mars has some really interesting examples of this, first and foremost being the Tharks unfeeling, communal, and warrior lifestyle.  There are two really fascinating levels to this, as for John Carter, these creatures seemed similar to his view of the savage Indians he was escaping from on Earth—remember that in both Carter and Burrough’s time, the tragic fate of the American Indian was not yet as sealed within the tight boundaries of American civilization (The Battle of Little Bighorn having happened just a decade before the events in the book).  So the concept of the great Earthling bringing their values and changing the Thark culture for the better seems an obvious analogy to that issue.

Remember when they were scary?

But I think there’s a less obvious metaphor here at play that really brings out the history nerd in me.  Burroughs makes it a point that the green Martians hold almost everything, inclusive of their children, as community property.  Imagine no possessions, eh?  While we are still half-a-decade away from the Russian Revolution, the philosophy of communism was fully on the rise worldwide, including in America where the Robber Baron industrialists had made the concept of communism far more appealing to an extremely trod upon working class in the days before the rise of the American labor movement.  So while the obvious historical metaphor is “replace red Indians with green Tharks” with a little history on our side, something really cool about that time period, and a popular author’s feelings toward it, are uncovered like an Easter Egg in a DVD.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

What to Expect from the Movie

It's coming right at us!

Well, I have to say there’s an interesting team involved, and you can get a better sense of the motivation in this neat two-part series on  Some of the guys behind Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and the Incredibles?  Nice.  Add one of my favorite modern authors Michael Chabon to the mix—very promising.

One of the interesting things director Andrew Stanton said in the article is something I agree with—the least interesting character in the John Carter books is…John Carter.  He’s kind of unlikeable and wholly pompous, though given we’re reading his journal one would expect some self-aggrandizement from our southern gentleman.  And they also sense the fact that you never really feel Carter is down-and-out.  It seems like they changed that and are really trying to give the character more of an arc, and make him more likeable.  If they pull that off, that’s a change for the better.

Ash Williams as John Carter? Groovy.

Perhaps because I have less reverence for the source material, I think I would have gone in another direction with Carter.  He was a proud son of the confederacy, and I would have made him more that way—a bit of a jerk anti-hero with feet of clay.  Indeed, as I became tired of Carter’s bragging about his moral superiority and how good he was in battle, what made me start to enjoy it was to imagine these lines being said by Bruce Campbell as if he were Ash from the Evil Dead series.  Rather than toning down his biases, by playing them up the character could have been fun and interesting on a deeper, more interesting level, and could have played off some of the prejudices that I think Burroughs exhibited within the pages that instead look like they will be airbrushed out.  Anyway, just a thought for the inevitable reboot in the next decade…

It certainly looks like it will be a phantasmagorical festival, as the combination of location shots with CG overlay look pretty stunning, as do the CG Tharks—though they definitely look less imposing in the film than they did in my mind’s eye.

One small fear I have is that I believe I saw in some preview that the film might make some threat toward Earth itself, which is in no way a part of the book, and from what I understand the series.  I find the “Oh, people won’t care what happens on Mars, so let’s add a threat to Earth!” to be a hackneyed Hollywood convention.  I’m hoping that I just missed something there, because if they went in that direction, I really think it will not only violate the spirit of the original, but it removes a great lesson in empathy–connection to someone else’s pain even if it has nothing to do with you.

Anyway, I’ll be curious to see this next month, as with the creative team they assembled, I do believe it actually has the potential to be better than the book.

Next in this series, I speak for the trees…

Introverts, French Parents, and the Power of Playing by Yourself

February 7, 2012

These kids had better balance than I did. Reprinted from http://www.edgeatmasoncom/

When I was in college, my professor Dudley Weeks took our conflict resolution class out to a neat team-building outdoor course at George Mason University called The Edge.  There our class had to figure out how to navigate a number of obstacles from giant rope spider webs to criss-crossing tightropes in ways that strengthened our ability to work together.

When we were on the tightropes, I lost hold of my partner and was now in a position where either some of the group needed to go back for me, or I could make a mad dash and try to get across on my own.  Those in my group immediately wanted to go back, as it was, of course, all about the team.

Me, I wanted none of it.  I saw getting across that shaky rope as a challenge that I wanted to take on—alone.  I shook my classmates off and told them to move along, I could handle it.  They grudgingly accepted, and I looked across the wavering rope, focused myself, and made the leap forward.  I landed promptly on my keester about two seconds later.

...and Scott dashed

When we finished, our trainer was talking about lessons learned, and immediately one person in our group particularly frustrated with me piped up. “I learned that we’re only strong as long as we are working together,” she said, her unblinking eyes boring straight into me.  I fumed, as I had expected that in this “There is no “I” in TEAM” kind of format that Mr. Ayn Rand over here would get ostracized, especially by the trainers attempting to make a point about the value of cooperation.

Instead, what I got is a lesson that I will never forget.  The trainer responded, “Huh.  I actually got something very different out of that.  Scott tried and failed to make that mad dash to the other side, but you could tell he really wanted to try it.  Sometimes, we need to allow people the space to make the mad dash.”

It was with this in mind that I ran into an opinion piece in the New York Times called The Rise of the New Groupthink.  Excerpted from her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain makes a very provocative argument against what she thinks is the trend-turned-fad of collaboration and cooperation.  While she notes that both those skills are undoubtedly useful, they should not, yet indeed are increasingly being promoted at the expense of individual creativity.

Citing Newton to Picasso to the man who actually built the first Apple computer, Steve Wozniak (not Jobs), Cain notes that they all required solitude to help them focus their creative energies; only bringing their work to others only when they themselves were satisfied with it.

I definitely agree with the premise that our world has shifted away significantly from that model, as reality television, social networking, and the Google-style corporate model have put an increasing societal imperative on the talent to succeed in a group dynamic. But I’m not sure it’s as lamentable as Ms. Cain asserts, especially in the case of our kids.

Indeed, I had rather mixed feelings about her seeming assertion that the change in the classroom environment, one where individual seats facing front have been replaced with “pods” of desks or circles for more interactivity is a bridge-too-far, forcing unneeded social interactivity on thoughtful, yet more shy students.

Because for every example of that sort, I can name you a number of opportunities students have during the day for individual choices, to play or to read or to study, at least at my boys’ elementary school.  And given a classroom environment was always intended to be a time of interactive learning, the trend toward more group work in the classroom seems a good one.  Essentially the classroom is the academic equivalent of a business meeting, and we ALL know how boring meetings are when it’s just one person droning on and on—even if she’s the smartest person in the room.

I know he had plenty of time to get his thoughts together.

However, I do agree that if you do not foster the ability to think individually along side the cooperative ethos, creativity can suffer.  Cain’s argument on the creatively stifling effects of the very popular “brainstorm” technique in the professional world is, I believe, a very compelling one.  When ideas have to be consistently vetted through the prism of others, many are nipped in their infancy as the individual does not have the time or space, to fully form that idea.


And this brings me to the French and their, oh-so-superior parenting.

Okay, I kid (a bit), but this article, Why French Parents are Superior, in the Wall Street Journal relates back to Cain’s commentary about how we relate to each other.  Well worth a read for yourself, the essential point being made there is that French parents are far better than we are in teaching our kids the value of delayed gratification.  And because les enfants know that Mama and Papa will not always be catering to a heirt desires, they develop more of a capacity for patience, and a greater ability to entertain themselves.

Some good points, but let's not get carried away here. From Family Edge

I do believe that the philosophy, be it French, American, Martian, or whatever, that kids should be given both limitations in what they get from their parents, and encouragement to entertain themselves is a critical component of fostering creativity in our kids.  And, indeed, learning and respecting the fact that people actually want time to themselves—that it is not a vacuum that must be filled, is a key area of conflict partnership for a company, a school, or a family.

For one of the most essential parts of working together is knowing when to stand back and let the other person make the mad dash alone.