Archive for August, 2012

CoachN No More

August 13, 2012

No fair

Okay, Pandora, that’s no fair.  I know I might have tempted fate by putting on my Peter Gabriel station while I crafted my farewell note to the parents of the couple of dozen kids I’ve coached over the past six years.  But “I Grieve”?  Perhaps the most heart-wrenching song ever written?  I mean, I cry when I hear that one even when I’m not feeling wistful. Jeez.

But there I was, arrow hovering over the “Send” button, mouse in one hand, napkin in the other (tissues were too far away).  Gus made the fall travel team, and, having already committed to coaching Gunnar’s team, it was finally time to cut my big boys loose.  The sentiment that I wrestled into tear-free hugs, smiles, and manly pats on the back at our spring season farewell party now had a choke hold on me, as the lump in my throat evidenced.  This was it—CoachN no more.

All the “nutrishin” a growing boy needs!

Resisting the flood of memories was akin to stopping the ocean with a chain-link fence.  There flashed a dozen 5-year-olds with chocolate smeared all over their faces after I had given them Wonka DoNutz—a short-lived doughnut-shaped treat covered in sprinkles—having survived their first base-running adventure with the tickle monster.  While healthier snacks were quickly requested by the parents, I will never be able to get the mental photo of pure sugar-fueled joy out of my head.

These players may have not been my children, but they were my boys.  First hits.  First, catches.  First pitches.  Those memories belong to me.  High fives for a big play.  A hand on the shoulder after an error brings tears.  Slapping each one of them with my cap until they giggled into submission when I handed them their championship trophy.  All of these events are carved into my heart and etched into the person I’ve become.

Yes, yes, I knew this day was coming.  Yes, yes, I am still coaching my younger son’s team.  But as my index finger wavered, I knew that the relationship I had forged with these bumbling kindergarteners, these earnest 2nd graders, these hard-working 4th graders, these middle schoolers fighting to become men; it would never be the same again.  I was saying farewell to those who helped me find a calling in life.  Who had helped me see the game I loved in ways I never imagined or expected.  They had all given me a gift that they may only truly understand when they arrive here at my middle-aged station.



And CoachN, at least in this iteration, is at an end.

But I have learned a couple of valuable lessons.  One is that all the standard claptrap that teachers say about “them learning as much as they taught” isn’t claptrap at all.  It’s not that a teacher or coach learns new things about what she or he is teaching (though that certainly happens), but in the practice of imparting what you know and value to children, you learn things about yourself.  Sometimes it’s things you don’t like very much, but you’re glad you know them because it’s a chance to change for the better.  Sometimes its good things you never thought you had in you—a most pleasant surprise indeed.  Mostly, though, it’s that you learn that your capacity to take others into your heart truly knows no limits or bounds.  And that truly is the greatest gift that comes from being a coach.

Oh, and the other lesson that I learned is that Gus and Gunnar will never be allowed to leave home.

Okay, that might just be the Peter Gabriel talking.


Making Brain Candy TV a Healthy Treat

August 8, 2012


Gus and Gunnar are now blissfully past the little kids’ TV phase.  I remember the horrors of Oobi, a group of talking hands with eyes on a finger ring speaking only in the 3rd person.  Of course, it was Gunnar’s absolute favorite, so much so that I was not only forced to listen to the cavity-inducing dialogue every day, but he insisted on playing Oobi games online as well.  The games did help him with rudimentary counting, so I was okay with that, but the choice of “baby talk” grammar is, I have no doubt, responsible for every gray hair in my head today.

In this age where networks and PBS compete with cable channels like Sprout, Nick Jr., and Disney Junior compete not only for viewers, but more important to their bottom lines, for merchandise customers, my mind normally goes to the worst case scenario as TV executives look to maximize the “Mom, I want one!” by appealing to the most base and vacuous instincts of our kids.

Disney: We even know how to make a bloody bandage cute!

And that would seem to be exactly the tradition that the new Disney Show Doc McStuffins would be in.  Aimed at the 2-5 set that the American Academy of Pediatrics says is better off without TV anyway, McStuffins is about a little girl who plays doctor on her stuffed animals.  From my understanding of the show, there is no real discussion of biology or anatomy, and none of the problem-solving or language-building skills you find in a show like Dora the Explorer.  It was intended as pure, unadulterated fluff.

That is, until a TV executive got hold of it.

In this article in the New York Times, the story of what changed Doc McStuffins is told:

Chris Nee, who created “Doc McStuffins,” said, “Disney, to its complete credit, looked at my pitch and suggested that we make the characters African-American.” Her original Doc McStuffins was a little white girl.

Gary Marsh, the president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, said “Doc McStuffins” reflects a type of hypersensitivity to the power of television on young viewers. “What we put on TV can change how kids see the world, and that is a responsibility that I take very seriously,” he said. “By showcasing different role models and different kinds of families we can positively influence sociological dynamics for the next 20 years.”

In addition to the fact that the characters are predominantly black, it is the Mother who is the role-model doctor, and the Dad is a stay-at-home who is the primary caretaker to the star (something near-and-dear to this Dad’s heart).  This formula has won Doc McStuffins huge kudos in the online community, including a “We Are Doc McStuffins” Facebook page with the faces of female doctors around the country.  And, more importantly to Disney, sales of Doc McStuffins toys are selling briskly.

You never know who a silly little show might influence.

What I find most interesting about this is that, like Martin Luther King Jr. expressly telling Nichelle Nichols to stay on the bridge of the Enterprise even though she was often no more than a glorified secretary in the original Star Trek, true meaning and importance from television can come from more than just words.  From Uhura to Doc McStuffins, our entertainment can, perhaps more than any other medium, help to carry the kind of color-blind messaging that our culture needs to move beyond ignorant bias.

McStuffins itself also shows that such moves are in no way a sacrifice for a corporation, but instead a potential boon.  It seems the show’s merchandise is selling well across cultural lines, just as that little Latina, Dora the Explorer has.  So not only is multiculturalism a way to teach King’s timeless lesson about not the color of the skin, but content of character, but it is a way to create brand differentiation that can actually help build a commercial market.  In conflict partnership terms, that’s a “win-win.”

Hopefully this success will breed more and more copycats, lending more significance to the saccharine of toddler TV.  So long as they don’t try to stick eye-rings on a rainbow of talking hands, that is.

The Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

August 7, 2012

A weekend trip to West Virginia and the splendor of Coal Country Mini Golf kept us from seeing this opening weekend, but the G-men and I checked out the third installment of the DoWK film series yesterday.  You can check out my take on the two books this film was based on, The Last Straw and Dog Days, in my Read It Then See It post here.

The Movie
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Fox.

The Book(s)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, by Jeff Kinney.  Originally published in 2009.

(Very) Juvenile Fiction

Age Appropriate
6 and up, but with one very important spoiler that will save your younger child a potential scream and cry.  See my Spoilers for Younger Kids section below.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Don’t expect Shakespeare, but some very solid physical comedy with an increased focus on Greg’s Dad, played by most excellent comedic actor Steve Zahn, makes this a perfectly fun ride for we who are growing out rather than up.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Everything in this movie is just fine for all ages.  A little rude language and a scene of the Heffley family’s new dog staring at Greg while he’s sitting on the can is about a close as it comes…save one scene.  When Greg and the gang are on a camping trip, the hilariously strange Fregley decides to tell a scary story about the “Muddy Hand.”  Totally classic, but I didn’t realize until half way in that my little guy had never heard a ghost story before.  And when the inevitable hand came out of the tent (ended up being one of the grown ups just exiting the tent), Gunnar jumped in his seat, screamed in a tone of abject terror I had never heard before, and went fetal.

This would be about the time to shut those little ones’ eyes.

He recovered quickly and showed no ill effects after the movie, but I would HIGHLY recommend either covering your younger kids’ eyes for this scene or spoiling it for them (“Watch, a hand is going to come out of the tent, but it’s only one of the grown ups.  Silly, huh?”) rather than give your child a trial by fire (literally) as I did.  If I can save one nightmare, then I feel like I’ve done my job…

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Rising 8th grader Gregg Heffley’s idea of a great summer includes two things, playing video games and getting a chance to hang out with the girl of his dreams, Holly Hills—preferably at the same time.  But when Holly misses out on giving him the last two digits of her phone number, Gregg embarks on a wild ride from taking him from hairy backs at the public pool to terror on the country club tennis court in an effort to win Holly over.

Patti’s scenes are getting smaller but are always memorable

At the same time, Gregg is running into more and more of a problem with his Dad, whose efforts to get him out of the house causes him consternation until Gregg lies about getting a summer job at the country club.  When Gregg is caught in the lie, he learns an important lesson in the difference between having people angry with you and disappointed in you.  A trip to the woods, defending his father’s honor against the block bully, and one spectacularly horrific concert by his brother’s band Loaded Diaper, and Gregg ends up with even more than he could have ever expected for his summer break.

My Review
I have to say I continue to be impressed with the creative team, especially director David Bowers and screenwriter Maya Forbes, for taking what I believe is the incredibly thin and somewhat mean-spirited material in Jeff Kinney’s books and turning it into fun, family fare with some heart, all while not abandoning many of the slapstick gags that make the books so popular.

Much of what I enjoy about the book is what is NOT there.  Gone are the scenes of Gregg really abusing Rowley’s friendship, from the “time machine” to their attempt to do a lawn service together.  These were the kind of antics that Gregg did in the first film, and while in the book he just continues on the same path, in the movies Gregg is actually growing and changing.  Even though his continues to make (hilarious) mistakes, the movie Gregg is, at his heart, a good kid.

SO much more sense than the book

Also gone was Gregg’s mysterious choice to essentially drop Holly Hills in favor of attempting to woo his big sister, Heather.  Instead, the film wisely continues to grow the Gregg/Holly relationship, and includes Heather as a super-spoiled teenage antagonist.  The puppy-love relationship for Heather is instead put on Rodrick (who Gregg actually helps get an opportunity to “land” Heather—another example of Gregg growing in the movie in a way entirely absent from the books), which makes far more sense.

While it was a bit harder to see Zachary Gordon as a wimpy kid given he’s grown about a foot since the last film, and has a lanky but muscular young swimmer’s build, he managed to win me over as a goofy kid just not comfortable in his own rapidly growing body.  The tennis scene, where Rowley and Gregg get clobbered by Holly and Gregg’s continued physical nemesis Patti has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and is good example of the broad, physical comedy that actually plays well in this film throughout.

Zahn and Gordon really play well of each other in this one.

The best choice in this movie, however, was to heavily play up something that was more of a side story in the books, and that’s the relationship between Gregg and his Dad Frank.  Partly, playing this up gave the movie more of a soul, as it became a morality play about responsibility, deception, consequences, and redemption.  But, really, it was a great choice because it allowed more screen time for Steve Zahn, who plays Frank.  I think Zahn is an undervalued commodity in Hollywood, as his physical acting, from body use to facial expressions, is one of the best in modern comedy.  The “dinner scene” where the dog gets hold of the family roast, is hilarious only because of how Zahn and Gordon play it.  Zahn’s performance, to me, makes this movie even more than the sum of its parts, and the best yet in the series.

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
See the movie.  Skip the book.  If for some reason the movie inspires a desire to read the series, do check out my Read It Then See It post as I think I’ve come up with some ideas about how to make a very thin book into something you can actually have a good talk about with your kids.

Oh, and one other plus for the movie is that it has a great trailer to The Hobbit in front of it.  That happens to be next up for the Read It Then See It series, so stay tuned for that one coming soon.