Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Top Ten Films I Am Excited To Share With My Children

Parenting is often described as a selfless act; it is defined by unconditional love, as well as the many ways a parent can put their children’s needs ahead of their own.  My children have been around for nearly a decade now, and I have certainly sacrificed to give them what they need in life, whether it meant skipping parties to stay at home and play board games, or spending the last of my money to buy a dress shirt for a school event.  These things aren’t always fun, but I do them because it is what needs to be done.  To people without children, these responsibilities can often seem overwhelming, and many of my friends who don’t have kids don’t want them.  It’s OK; with the global population threatening to consume all of the world’s resources, I’m not going to bend over backwards trying to convince them that what’s missing in their life is a child.  But they’re wrong if they think parenting is all duty and sacrifice. 
                There’s a lot of upside to being a parent, and I don’t just mean in an “adorable little tax-deduction” sort of way.  For instance, children keep holidays interesting.  I’m sure my wife and I will have lovely Christmases even after our kids have grown up and moved in with families of their own, but buying a tree will just be buying a tree, not an event with mandatory hot chocolate and singing in the car.  The Fourth of July will just be a day my neighbors are all too loud, and not eager, smiling faces fighting over the best tanks to play tank wars with, a game the kids learned from our old neighbor Chelsea when they were little.  Being a parent means taking vicarious enjoyment out of things at the fair, even though I don’t like riding rides and I’ve long ceased to be excited by the sight of a goat.  Being a parent means that the ghost stories I hastily plagiarize from Skeleton Crew as we sit by the campfire will actually scare the listeners, and that I can bring the dogs to an off-leash park without having to worry about having enough energy to keep up with them on my own.  These are all great things about being a parent, but there is one selfish act that rises above all of these; I’m speaking, of course, about indoctrination. 
                No, please don’t leave.  I don’t mean politics or theology.  When it comes to belief, I think parents are better off showing than telling.  I’m referring to something far less serious, but just as important—cultural indoctrination.
                One of the greatest joys of my life has been introducing my children to the things that hold value to me.  This includes music, games, family traditions, and books, but few things have proven to hold as much nostalgic resonance in this regard as movies.  I was a voracious reader growing up, and there is something special about having to work to help create the world you are escaping to, but as my children age I find it is film more so than books that I wish to share with them.  Perhaps it was because I grew up during the Eighties, which was a golden age of children’s films.  Perhaps it is simply because the sensations delivered by a film are easier to revisit.  Either way, I find myself getting giddy every time I prepare to share a treasured piece of my past with the kids.  Below are the ten films I was or am most excited to share with my kids; I would love to hear what movies (or books, albums, video games—in the end it’s all the same) you are planning to pass along to the next generation in the comments below. 

It was awkward when the Netflix envelope arrived, a DVD copy of Stand by Me inside.  On the outer sleeve were a brief plot synopsis, and all the pertinent information to the film:  release date, cast, and rating.  The awkward part was the last; I had never realized as a child that Stand by Me was rated R.  This was one of my favorite movies as a kid.  It shared space on a VHS tape with two Returns; one involving Jedi, the other to a place called Oz.  (Quick, guess which one doesn’t make this list.)  I watched the whole of that tape over and over again, and as my kids became school aged, this tale of friendship entered my mind often as we searched for something to watch on movie night.  Based on the Stephen King short story The Body, the film tells the tale of a group of friends who set out to find the corpse of a child hit by a train.  On the way, they have to deal with angry dogs, leeches, 50’s era hoodlums, and their own fear of mortality.  I decided to err against caution, and let my little ones watch the film anyway.  The R rating mainly stems from a constant stream of F-bombs, and there are far worse things happening in movies marketed at children today than profanity.   The themes of the film seemed lost on them (although the classic pie eating contest still got the appropriate reaction,) and I will probably rent the movie again when they are a little older. 

9.  Big
There are a few story elements that seem to occur again and again in kid’s fiction.  Children in peril is perhaps the most popular, and underdog stories are as popular with kids as they are with adults, but another popular one is the wish-fulfillment fantasy embodied by Big.  Long before anyone could imagine Tom Hanks as an Oscar winner, he played Josh Baskin, a boy who (after being embarrassed in front of a girl because he was too short to ride the roller coaster at the state fair) wishes he was big.  Waking up a fully grown man, he has to try and fit into adult society while learning a lesson about the need for childhood.  It’s a bittersweet film, since the funny scenes of Hanks’ character trying to integrate himself into the working world are offset by the fact that his mom believes him to have been kidnapped, and when he decides to reclaim his youth he does it knowing he will break the heart of the woman who has fallen in love with him because, for once, she has met someone who isn’t jaded and dishonest, but despite these melancholy elements the film never loses its sense of fun.  Big would have made the list regardless, but it has been on my mind to show the children as of late since my son is learning the tune from this famous scene during his piano lessons. 

8.  Karate Kid
I have to imagine this was a relatively easy film to sell to the studio; the tournament aspect of karate probably allowed someone to walk into a pitch meeting and say that the film would be like “Rocky for teenagers.”  Karate itself was a relatively new (in regards to America) subculture that could be exploited by Hollywood, much like surfing, motorcycles, and disco.  Throw in a love story, and you have a perfectly packaged movie.  But just because I can see the smoke and mirrors and cynically dissect how the film was made doesn’t mean it didn’t work.  When I saw the film in the Eighties, I thought it hit me closer than most; I was frequently beaten up at school, and I would have loved for a karate teacher to walk out of the shadows and teach me the secrets of kicking ass (albeit only when necessary.)  I didn’t know that it would hold up for my kids.  Yet during each of the film’s key scenes, I could see them responding.  I should have known.  Just because you don’t get punched during the course of a school day doesn’t mean that you aren’t bullied.  Just because you aren’t bruised doesn’t mean that you don’t hurt.  Karate Kid speaks to the inherent desire in all of us to find the strength to stand up for ourselves, and it doesn’t take an actual fight for that to strike a chord. 

I know what you’re thinking.  Conan isn’t a kids’ movie.  Fair enough.  I haven’t actually shown it to my kids yet, either, although I’m pretty sure I had seen it by this age.  The R-rating is mostly justified; although the violence would probably earn a PG-13 by today’s standards, the point is moot.  This is a bloody film.  So why do I want my kids to see it?   Well, because it’s probably one of the best action/adventure films ever made.   I’m not rushing out to put this on for them; twelve or thirteen seems like a better age than nine.  But I just watched this movie recently (after suffering through the abysmal remake,) and it thrilled me just as much as it did when I was young.  Conan—on a quest for revenge after his village is murdered and he is sold into slavery—teams up with a woman warrior, a rogue, and a mysterious wizard.  Sound familiar?  Conan the Barbarian is perhaps the ultimate Dungeons and Dragons movie, and while Robert E. Howard’s writings were considered pulp trash next to such luminaries as Tolkien, I would say that the movie version of Conan is on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy as far as world building and the epic scale of adventure are concerned.  You are more than welcome to debate me; those movies were awesome in every way, and I know I’m picking a fight with somebody, somewhere.  Just do me a favor and re-watch Conan first. 

6. Legend
Speaking of picking fights, I know that invoking this fantasy movie starring a young Tom Cruise is bound to raise a few eyebrows.  It’s not just that the film has its detractors, although it certainly does.  It’s that this is the obligatory children’s fantasy spot on the list.  So I know that while some small percentage of you read Legend and thought “right on!,” everyone else is looking for The Princess Bride, Willow, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, or perhaps even The Never-Ending Story.  (Just don’t say The Pagemaster.  You have been warned.)  Willow probably would have held this spot if I had actually seen it as a child, or Conan’s.  It is suitably epic.  But one of the reasons Legend stood out to me as something I needed to show my children was because it has perhaps the greatest villain in all movies around this time, Darkness.  Darkness is clearly the devil, with red skin and cloven hooves for feet, and gigantic horns extending from his head.  The costume design on this film is one of the reasons why I dress up each Halloween, it is that well done.  But (with apologies to Darth Maul) a villain is more than just looking evil.  Darkness is played by Tim Curry, whose voice always drips with equal measures of honey and venom.  Honestly, Tom Cruise’s hero is rather forgettable; it is Darkness’ attempts to recruit the hero’s love interest that stay with me—good wins, of course, and the unicorns are saved (spoilers!) but Darkness’ temptations are a force to be reckoned with.   

5.  UHF
UHF is a stupid movie for stupid sensibilities, which is precisely why it is on this list.  Sure, the bulk of the movies I am eager to share with my children are coming of age tales, movies that relate directly to the sense children have of growing up into a world much bigger than them.  There is conflict, heroism, love….the things of magic.  Children gravitate naturally to fantasy; it is the language of imagination.  But children also repeat corny jokes that have long lost their humor, if indeed they ever had it.  They like to be silly, to say the word “butt,” and make strange sounds.  That is why, when my son was sick with a bad cold that kept him home from school, I cuddled up beside him on the couch and put on UHF.  This is more a guilty pleasure than anything; I won’t lie to you and say that Weird Al is as talented an actor as he is a musical chameleon.  He’s not.  And a lot of the jokes don’t hold up to younger viewers; parodies of movies that were old when I was little were often lost on Elijah.  But once the plot (our hero—a well meaning day dreamer who can’t hold down a job--inherits a failing UHF station when his uncle wins it in a poker game) is established, the laughs began.  While a child of the 00’s might not get a Close Encounters reference, my son was more than amused by the thought of a store that sold nothing but spatulas, and an Animal Planet style TV show that aims to teach poodles to fly produced a gigantic giggle fit even with a fever. 

This is a bit of a cheat; when I say Back to the Future I am actually referring to the entire trilogy, even the silly western one at the end.   It is only in seeing all three phases of Marty McFly’s journey that I really came to think of time travel as something that was awesome.  Luckily, I have already shown my kids all three movies, as the boxed set is available for checkout at my local public library.  These are some of the most seminal family films of their time, and so won’t go on too long about them, except to note that the recurring theme of Tannens and horse manure goes over just as well with new viewers as it did when the films were released.

With perhaps the exception of UHF, all of the other films on my list are pretty well known.  Their stars have gone on to be incredibly famous and wealthy; they have been remade, commemorated, given a retrospective, or any other number of honors.  Return to Oz is an odd duck.  It is an unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz, but many people have never even heard of it.  The story is simple enough—Dorothy longs to return to Oz and see her friends; she is worried about them.  When she finally makes it, she finds the place in peril, and (with a new cast of characters) she has to save the day once more—but while the original Oz had some creepy elements (to which I can personally attest, as a cardboard cutout of the Wicked Witch of the West sent me screaming out into a Safeway parking lot when I was a toddler) Return is pretty much a children’s horror movie.  Instead of a teacher who wants to kill Dorothy’s dog doubling as a witch, the villain here is a nurse who is planning on giving young Ms. Gale electroshock therapy, and her witchy counterpart has a removable head which she can switch out as necessary.  Even Oz itself is frightening, with a desert that turns anyone who touches it to dust, and an oppressive gloom that covers everything.  My kids have seen the original Oz, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a copy of Return for them to view.  When I do, it will be interesting to see if they are as strongly drawn to this reinterpretation as I was. 

I’ve addressed silly humor once on this list, but it still wouldn’t be complete without silly British humor.  I could go into a long explanation of why I want my children to see this film, but I think I will let the Pythons speak for themselves. 

'Nuff Said.

1.   Gremlins
Each year I would ask my wife, “Do you think they are ready?”  And each year she would say no.    The question was referring to whether or not we could watch my favorite Christmas movie—Gremlins.  And she was right.  After all, the PG-13 rating was invented because of Gremlins.  (Well, Gremlins and this movie.)  But after years of waiting, I finally procured a copy in time for this last year.  We snuggled up in the cozy light of our Christmas tree and watched as the little monsters terrorized Kingston Falls.  Both kids shrieked, covered their eyes, and cheered as the adorable Gizmo eventually conquered the evil Stripe.  Sitting there beside them, I was a kid all over again, amazed at how a movie can just take you away.  Afterwards, both kids commented that they had been given nightmares by the film’s monsters, which would have made me feel bad, but before I could apologize they were already asking to see the movie again next year. 
Honorable Mentions:
Of course, I could keep naming the great movies of my childhood all day long, but that would lessen the strength of the above selections.  However (in addition to the films referenced in my discussion of Legend,) Jurassic Park and Home Alone stand out as important films of my childhood to share with the kids.  We’ve already watched the latter, and my kids loved seeing burglars thwarted by someone their age and traps just as much as I did.  The dinosaurs will be coming shortly, as soon as I can make it out to Hastings, as Red Box has eaten all the rental stores in my area. 
So that's my story.  What's yours? 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I am King Conan, or, Embrace your Inner Geek

                I think everyone was a little bit skeptical when I decided I would dress as Conan for Free Comic Book Day.  In fact, I know they were.  When I told my wife that I planned to wear a short tartan made out of faux fur, boots, bracers, and little else to a public place, her response was less than enthusiastic.  In fact, the direct quote was as follows; “I don’t have to go with you, do I?”
                Her reaction, I think, was due less to the fact that I’m probably not the first person that comes to mind when you think of barbarian warriors—I am appropriately dense and hairy, but fairly lacking in the muscle department—and more that I am a grown man who could think of no better way to spend their Saturday than by dressing as a fictional character.  The irony here is that the woman I married is just as enamored with Halloween as I am, perhaps even more so considering that she is already making plans for this year’s costume.  She even accompanies me to the yearly zombie walk downtown, which is essentially a very narrow second Halloween.  Yet dressing up as a literary/comic book character?  That was just silly. 
                Of course, she wasn’t alone in this line of thought.  There were plenty of people lining up to tell me I was being crazy, and while some of them have moved beyond celebrating Halloween, the majority still get dressed up each October.  I have to assume it’s a matter of ratio.  If you go downtown on October 31st, almost everyone you see will have some sort of costume on.  In fact, if you were to show up at a bar in your street clothes, you’d clearly be marked an outsider.  But at Free Comic Book day, those of us who take the time to get dressed up are in the minority; furthermore, the bulk of people who do show up in costume go the safe route, donning some sort of prepared Captain America mask or a bright red cape, something that can easily be removed and forgotten.  I can tell from the Internet that America has a vibrant culture dedicated to dressing up as the heroes and heroines of comic books, but that culture is still very much a minority in Boise, Idaho. 
                Luckily, if this sort of behavior really is crazy, at least I’m not alone.  My co-worker Michelle was the one who first proposed dressing up, actually.  We’d been swapping comics at work for a couple of years when I first mentioned Free Comic Book Day, and we made plans to go to the 2011 edition when her mom unexpectedly arrived in town.  I went with my children in civilian attire, and quickly noticed two things.  One was that a few people had bothered to dress up (I saw no costumes in 2010.)  The other was that the costumes themselves left a lot to be desired.  When I told Michelle about the out of shape Wonder Woman and the legions of store-bought Batmen, it was decided.  We would go this year, and we would be the coolest people there. 
                It wasn’t hard to decide on who we’d be.  Conan was one of the main books I was reading when we discovered our mutual love of comics, and she’d been providing me with Red Sonja books all winter.  It was only a matter of making the costumes work.  She got started right away, using her considerable art skills to make a Red Sonja outfit that is on par with any of the cosplay out there, in my opinion.  I bought fur and stared at it uncertainly until, with barely a month until the big day, I just begged her to do my sewing for me.  After a price was agreed upon, she accepted the challenge to make my costume as well, despite being in the process both of moving and of taking finals. 
                The day itself turned out to be less than ideal; it has been an unseasonably cold spring, and as we joined the long line wrapping around Captain Comics the decision to wear such revealing outfits was constantly called into question.  A strong breeze would occasionally hit the side of the store and cause our teeth to chatter.  Both of us had goose pimples running the length of our bodies, and both of us (for entirely different reasons) were terrified of encountering a wardrobe malfunction.  Meanwhile, my children (who went as the decidedly un-comic Bilbo Baggins and a vampire princess that Trysta made up that morning just so she could be something,) were bored.  They were cold.  Even the fact that I had brought chocolate and pepper jack cheese did little to improve their spirits.  And yet, I was having a great time.  Even as I shivered and counted the minutes until the store would open its doors, I felt proud to be here, clearly (short of my partner in crime,) the coolest person there.  Though I heard rumors of a Dead Pool hidden somewhere further down the line, we were more elaborately dressed than anyone else there.  People stared at us, and asked for pictures.  I can see why some people might be more comfortable dressing up in the anonymity of an event like Halloween, but I enjoyed being the star of the show.  We finally gathered our comics an hour and a half after we arrived, and then retreated to the warmth of the indoors.  It was almost time to rejoin the real world, with its bills and jobs and other complications.  But first, we had to take some pictures to commemorate the day.
                Even still, there are a few people that think I was foolish to go out in public (in May, no less,) as a half naked barbarian.  But I think there are more who, upon reflection, realize that as silly as it seems moments like this keep us young.  I might not be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Mamoa, but for several hours I got to stop being a custodian and be King Conan instead.  How cool is that?  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gathering Remnants: A Photo Essay

               When my English 102 class was given the assignment of writing a photo analysis, it would have been easy to go with the option that was presented as a default within the syllabus and write about the urban squalor depicted in the photography of Linh Dinh.  His work tells a story, and while Boise, Idaho is a far cry from Baltimore or “Killedelphia,” the time I spent living on the streets makes me feel like it is partially my story.  Viewing the pictures at the start of the semester, I had found myself looking forward to this assignment specifically because of those photos.  In the end, though, it just didn’t feel right.  Sleeping outside, digging in dumpsters for food, and asking strangers for change is part of my story, but a small one.  I have been a husband, a father, a college student, and a janitor among many other things, but before all of that, the bulk of my life was spent being a ranch kid. 
                That is why I was drawn to the work of Kendall Nelson.  Her 2000 book Gathering Remnants-a Tribute to the Working Cowboy set out to highlight a dying way of life, the cowboy on small scale ranches throughout the West.  While Linh Dinh’s views of homelessness felt like my story, Nelson’s photos literally are my story.  The Jackson family—my parent’s employers—figure prominently in her book.  In the 2005 documentary of the same name, my father can be seen working in the background as Ruth Jackson tells the cameraman about life on the ranch. 
                Nelson’s lens viewed the ranch experience as an outsider; she had come from California to Idaho because she liked the skiing, and only started researching ranching when attempts to film commercials in Idaho proved fruitless.  I too, see these pictures with the eye of an outsider, but of a completely different nature.  While she was a stranger, I was on the periphery.  My parents aren’t cowboys.  My dad is your run of the mill ranch hand, fixing fences, driving tractors, and doing odd jobs.  My mom is the ranch cook.  Nelson sees things reverently, as if in a living museum.  She is chronicling the death of a way of life.  My own feelings are a bit more complicated.

               This first picture is my favorite of the bunch.  It shows a cowboy pressed up against a fence, shielding himself from the snow.  Even looking at this still image I can feel the cold.  Winter on a ranch isn’t like winter in the city.  There aren’t enough buildings to tame the wind.  It cuts right through you.  The rough wooden fence has been exposed to temperatures below freezing, probably for days, and still the cowboy huddles up against it—this frigid piece of wood is still warmer than the ranch air in the winter.  On the ranch, the cowboys are at the complete mercy of the elements. There are no snow days when the herd needs fed.  You just bundle up as best as you can and tell the cook to keep the coffee ready.  I will never know exactly what it is like to be a cowboy, but I know this cold.  I know being sent to the barn to run water into the troughs and having the hair in my nose freeze before I got five feet from my front door, and icy blasts of air so strong that the heaviest coat feels like a jacket.  Nelson’s image displays this perfectly; you just have to look at him to know that the weather has become a literal manifestation of despair. 
                The same openness that makes winter such an oppressive force on ranches also creates what might be their biggest asset.  There is nothing quite like the sky on a ranch.  While Nelson is primarily focused on the story—a cow boss trying to catch the best horses he can for his men—her camera captures the back story perfectly.  A cloud drifts into the wide open sky, a patchwork of light and shadow.  It is not clearly a storm cloud, and yet it isn’t clear—will they be able to work at a steady pace today, or will the cowboys be fighting the elements to get their work done?  No matter the time of day or the season, to look at the sky on a ranch is to know wonder.  Nelson thinks of the cowboys themselves as the dying object of nostalgia, but it is the ranch whose absence I fear.  There aren’t many habitable places left where one can look to the sky and see it stretch for miles, unblemished.  Riddle—the ranch where I grew up—has recently allowed companies to build towers so that they might have cell phone reception.  Generators are being replaced with power lines.  Look at the picture above and imagine wooden poles extending from the ground, linked by wires.  Somehow, without the magnificence of an untainted sky, the story of the cowboy and his horses loses most of its meaning. 
                Here we have the prototypical ranch family.  These aren’t my parent’s employers, but they may as well be.  Peter Jackson has the same moustache.  Ruth wears the same clothes.  The children match, down to the disinterested expression.  Even the dogs look like our ranch dogs; it’s odd how life in the middle of nowhere can create the same monotone look on people, places, and things.  Everything is coated with a layer of dust that washes out color.  It really takes a special sort of person to choose this life, where nothing comes easily.  Unlike companies where the CEOs are so far removed from the work their businesses do, the ranch boss typically works side by side with the other cowboys to rope and brand cattle, drive the herd, and do many of the other daily tasks required.  These aren’t struggling outfits either, at least not all of them.  While the average cowboy doesn’t make much money (agriculture is exempt from the rules of minimum wage,) the Jacksons and many of their peers are quite wealthy.  They could spend one week out at cow camp without running water or electricity, and the next at a thousand-dollar a plate fundraiser for whichever conservative politician seemed to give the most credence to agriculture.  It’s a mindset that few people have.  I sure didn’t. 
                Again I look at one of Nelson’s pictures and see the story behind the story.  The cowboys and their herd may as well not be here; some of the most vivid memories of my childhood are of sagebrush (which is nearly as ubiquitous as asphalt in the city) and dust.  Growing up on a ranch you get used to the taste of dust.  Even as a child at play, it was everywhere.  The wind stirred it up in the summer just as it drove home winter’s cold.  Trucks and tractors filled the air with it.  Everything is so dry and barren that the dirt itself almost seems eager to leave the ground.  I can only imagine what it must be like to go on a cattle drive, with a hundred head of cattle kicking up a constant cloud of the stuff.  Whenever it was particularly windy, we would get dust devils—little baby tornadoes—which my neighbor and I would try to hit head on with our bikes.  Just a few seconds exposure would leave us filthy.  To sit in that air for hours, breathing in soil until your mouth and nose are caked with grit—I doubt many city people could handle it.  The ranch life is a thing of beauty; the wide open sky, the fresh air still untainted by pollution, the profound silences—these are little miracles that cannot be bought.  But they have to be fought for, and life has conditioned us not to fight.  Some people, my father among them, are willing to see their skin turn to leather under the heat of the sun, and work from before the sun comes up to long after it sets every day of the week just for the ability to see a baby deer and its mother drinking from a stream at dawn, to look to the heavens each night and see every constellation.  But it isn’t easy. 
                This man, a Texas cowboy, is a perfect reflection of what I am talking about.  The photographer does a good job of letting his hands tell the story.  You don’t get hands like that working in an air-conditioned office.  You have to go to battle with the elements.  Without even seeing the rider’s face, you can tell that he is a living embodiment of the word “weathered.”  His hands, his coat, and his lasso are all creased and faded, the result of giving his body to the ranch year after year.  Cowboys have no retirement plan, and most of them are paid poorly—when this man’s body goes he will likely be left with nothing except his stories.  So, what keeps him returning to the ranch?  I think he knows that those stories, gained in a life unfettered with the constant chase for material things, are worth a little bit more.  He may be hot or cold, tired, sore, and worn to the bone, but he has lived more in a day than most do in a week. 

                And so finally we arrive at cow camp.  Cow camp is a place off in the wilderness where cows are branded, and the young male calves are separated into bulls and steers.  It is usually held far from the ranch proper, so that the alfalfa fields and other areas are not destroyed by the collective mass of the whole herd, which is rarely gathered together at the same time, spending most of the year divided into different feeding areas.  This is where I feel most like an outsider; I have never actually been to a cow camp while it was up and running.  The cowboys cook for themselves over the fire, just like in older times.  They keep only each other’s company.  I get the feeling that as much as they might claim cow camp is to keep the animals from overrunning things; it is also kept as a traditional bonding experience.  Cowboys are always a class above the other workers on a ranch, whether they are cook or mechanic, but cow camp gives them a chance to truly connect in a way that none of the other workers do, because they actually live together.  This photo, however, doesn’t convey the bonding that will happen later around a fire.  It is a final reflection on the quiet that still exists in the world.  As I write this, in addition to the clacking of my keyboard, I can hear cars moving up and down the street, the hum of electricity (all the appliances performing in stereo,) and a far off TV.  The cowboy pictured hears none of those errata.  There are the sounds being generated by whatever it is he is working on, and then just nature itself.  A slight breeze, perhaps, or an insect going about its own work; the clamor and clatter that pervades city life is mercifully silent. 
                I left the ranch for a variety of reasons.  There aren’t many opportunities to date in the middle of nowhere, and my teenage hormones were racing much too fast to spend my days in the company of leather-skinned men, chain smoking cigarettes over pitch-black coffee.  I don’t function well in the early morning, and I burn easily in the summer, neither of which jibes with the hard life these men and women have chosen.  I never wanted to be a cowboy, and I don’t feel nostalgia for the riders themselves, but these pictures bring out a much deeper sorrow for me than the passing of a way of life.  It is the open spaces themselves that are dying.  Already the owners are cutting deals to bring big city utilities out to the desert.  The house of my childhood home sports a satellite dish, and while the deer still come to drink from the same pond they always have they are sometimes obscured behind the flood of three hundred channels (some in HD!) that now stream into the house.  As our global population continues to surge, places of solitude—whether they are home to cowboy or camper—will gradually disappear.  These pictures are a reminder to me to appreciate still moments, and the smell of sagebrush that fills the air after a rain; to admire animals living their lives undisturbed by cities and fully experience the power of the elements.  I’ve built a nice life in the city, with a comfortable home, a loving family, geeky friends, and all the portable electronics I could ever need, but Kendall Nelson’s photos are a call to remember the magnificence of the world outside the walls we have built to keep us safe from each other. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Consumers from Birth

There we were; my wife, my mother-in-law and I, standing in 104° degree heat on a strip of asphalt within eye-shot of the Hood River, wondering how we had gotten ourselves into this.  Directly in front of us was a garish white tent with plastic windows; our children had already run inside.  This tent was an altar to the star of the show, a lovable blue train named Thomas the Tank Engine.  His friends were there, of course.  James, the "splendid" train that hates to see his paint get dirty; Harold the helicopter, who comes to the rescue in times of need; even the train station's manager, Sir Topham Hatt.   Train toys were stacked in pyramids on elaborate wooden train station sets like those on display at Barnes and Noble.  But the adults in the party couldn't care less about toys at this moment.  We (and our children) needed water.  We had stopped by the drinking fountain on our way to this so-called mercantile after exiting a small camper trailer that was showing Thomas films over a projector to a group of disinterested and overheated children, but found it mysteriously off.  Thomas' friends had us covered though--flimsy twelve ounce bottles of Arrowhead water, lukewarm from the heat, for a premium of five dollars apiece.  We had driven--in a rented SUV--three-hundred and sixty-eight miles to be here.  Bought gas; bought snack foods; bought a room at a nice hotel within walking distance, and now the place we had bought at ticket to enter was going to charge us five dollars to give our children a moment's respite from the blistering heat.  It was tempting to say "no" to the outrageous price, but others had tried to resist and the ambulance had come to this mock Sodor twice to treat children for dehydration.  It was less than ten minutes until "Thomas" (a real train with Thomas' face glued to its rear) arrived.  There was no time to dash somewhere else, so we compromised as best as we could.  We bought one bottle and then commandeered a hose (which, to add insult to injury, was just running out onto the dirt) to make sure everyone got something to drink and something to take on the ride. 

Why would we face the threat of dehydration to take our children--not even three at the time--to visit a fictional character?  I’m sure the consensus would be love.  We love our children, and in turn they "loved" Thomas.  They loved the kindly characters with their big eyes and shiny paint, loved their adventures (filled with just the slightest hint of non-offensive danger,) and Elijah especially loved trains themselves.  But the truth is we were just participating in another link of the cradle-to-grave marketing strategy. 

Prior to the nineties, it was in bad taste to market directly to babies.  Babies were used in advertising to lure in mothers, and they had elementary school children in their palms since Star Wars, but children under two were taboo, and worse yet many advertisers considered children this young to be bad business. What was the event that changed all of this?  An educational conference held at the White House in nineteen-ninety seven.  Due to new brain research, a group of well meaning people began to stress the importance of educating children under the age of three, and the market responded with a slew of products aimed at creating "genius babies."  There were compact discs, and mock computers made of hard plastic, and dozens of other toys that stressed learning, but none of them captured this infant learning zeitgeist quite like Baby Einstein.

Created by Julie Aigner-Clark, the Baby Einstein films combine images of babies at play with classical music, disembodied voices speaking a variety of languages, and all manner of numbers, letters, and shapes.  By making two simple promises, (that busy moms could sneak off for a shower without having to worry what their child was up to; and that junior would be smarter because of it,) Ainger-Clark created a ten-million dollar business that was quickly bought up by Disney.  The only problem with this Capitalist success story is that it was built on half-truths.  While it is true that many mothers (my own wife included) were able to use the videos to catch a moment's respite from keeping up with baby, the science just isn't there when it comes to the film's ability to educate.  Part of Ainger-Clark's inspiration, a presentation delivered at the aforementioned Clinton conference, demonstrated how exposure to foreign languages as a child increased the ability to learn them, but specifically stated that this had to be live exposure.  Research had shown videos incapable of transferring the benefit.  The "Mozart Effect" (a mid-nineties study stating children learned better immediately after exposure to Mozart's music) was never replicated and consequently debunked.  It didn't matter, of course; the damage was done.  Now that Disney had control of Baby Einstein, new mothers were greeted with copies of the films attached to cribs in maternity wards.  Despite the fact that the American Psychiatric Association advises against children under the age of two watching television of any kind, Disney's money allowed hospitals to accept the lie that these products were an essential part of early-childhood education.

Of course, once "Baby Einstein" got through the gate other baby and toddler themed programming followed.  In the years following the educational conference, the 0-3 age group came to be worth an estimated twenty-billion dollars a year.  PBS launched the Teletubbies, and began to skew the beloved Sesame Street younger with the introduction of Elmo.  Due to the Republican-led attacks on its funding in nineteen-ninety five, Public Television (although still ad-free in a traditional sense) had begun to tout its corporate underwriters before and after shows, and so infants were told of the virtues of McDonalds and Juicy Juice by their animated “friends.”  Nickelodeon went so far as to create an entire network devoted to this age group, Noggin, which purported to be "like preschool on TV."  In the past, babies that ended up watching television were watching it alongside their parents, but things had changed.  Busy moms continued to follow the example of Baby Einstein and duck out for a shower, leaving their infants alone in a room off brightly colored salespeople.   Marketers had children right where they wanted them.  New research had begun to show that children recognized brands as early as eighteen months, and started to ask for them around their second birthday, so rather than focusing on individual products, advertisers set out to make the characters the brands.  Stores were rearranged to put familiar faces (Elmo, Dora, Tony the Tiger) at cart level so that children's recognition would signal their parents to buy whatever it was they were selling.  And it worked.

Although the focus on babies was relatively new, advertisers had been through this before.  Ever since Mickey Mouse--in Steamboat Willie attire--appeared on a notebook cover in the nineteen-thirties, there have been products that aimed to sell themselves solely based on the character attached to them.  Still, advertisements that targeted children were considered to be a lesser part of the equation until my generation.  Shortly before I was born, Star Wars changed everything.  The film's success sold millions of toys, but that was only part of it.  A Star Wars logo could sell practically anything.  Trading cards, lunchboxes, pencils, bed sheets--if it had to do with Star Wars people were buying it.  This changed the rules so drastically that by the time I was born in nineteen-eighty, advertisers had stopped trying to look for the new Star Wars and were attempting to reverse engineer it.  They had a name for the cartoons--He-Man, Transformers, and GI Joe, to name a few--that I got up to watch each Saturday morning.  They were PLCs, or "program-length commercials."  It's no surprise now, going back to watch an episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on Netflix, that the whole thing is an unintelligible mess.  The toys had come first, and the show was nothing more than cobbled together set pieces.  But again, it worked.  I, and many children like me, got our parents to spend millions of dollars so we could recreate the battles of Saturday's shows while enjoying the snacks selected for us by the cartoons' sponsors. 

One thing I didn't have to contend with in the eighties was the advertising following me to school.  It was starting to happen, that's true.  But Pizza Hut's Book It! program and the one lonely Pepsi machine by the principal's office of my elementary school have nothing on what kids see today.  Cash-strapped schools, denied funding by taxpayers again and again, have had little choice but to turn to corporations for funding.  Nike and Reebok, once satisfied with placing their logos on professional athletes, now brand high school gymnasiums.  The fast food restaurants that kids once had to sneak off of campus for have set up shop in the cafeterias. 

If the ads were limited to the public grounds of the schools, it would be bad enough, but the corporations have managed to get them into the classrooms as well.  Starting in nineteen-ninety, Channel One--a twelve minute news program for kids--debuted in classrooms across America.  Claiming to offer an educational way to get students to pay attention to current events, it has worked its way into some eight thousand schools.  Whittle Communication--which founded Channel One--and its subsequent owners offer schools invaluable equipment such as TVs and satellite dishes, and in return offer their corporate sponsors a captive audience, a strategy which has earned them up to twenty thousand dollars for a thirty second spot on their show.  To make matters worse, the news itself--Channel One’s justification for being allowed into our children’s lives--is often filled with celebrity gossip and more product placements.  Other companies have provided sleek covers for textbooks which sport even more advertisements, replacing the grocery bag and crayon covers of my childhood.  Worst of all, at the schools where money is most desperately needed, the corporations have started developing curriculum.  YMI (Young Minds Inspired,)   is a company that promises advertisers an “in-school, curriculum-based program where children will interact with your brand in a meaningful way for hours,” and that said brand will gain credibility with students and parents due to its delivery by teachers they trust and respect. 

While Channel One--for the time being--is limited to middle and high schools, as are the fast food dining options, Cover Concepts--the company responsible for producing the book covers dotted with ads--has taken the lead in bringing advertising based curricula to a younger audience.  Trading product samples to daycares for demographic information, Cover Concepts created a newsletter that center directors could place in the children’s cubbies, offering parenting tips and coloring sheets alongside ads for McDonalds and Mott’s applesauce.  Each center’s newsletter is custom designed to reflect advertisers in the area, as well as the income and ethnicity of the parents.  YMI creates Pre-K worksheets that feature Dora the Explorer shilling for Yoplait and science lessons by way of Bubblicious bubble gum.   Teachers and school administrators know better than to allow these pitchmen and adwomen in, and it has been proven that young children don’t have the mental capacity to evaluate whether or not an ad is presenting the truth, but it is one thing to know that the advertisers don’t have our children’s best interests in mind and another to turn them away when allowing them to spackle the blank spaces means funding for music, art, and anything else that doesn’t fit on the standardized tests ushered in by No Child Left Behind.  My son’s school, which is relatively free of overt advertising, went as far as to conduct a fundraiser that didn’t sell any actual products, instead sending children home to collect e-mail addresses of adults; each was worth a ten-dollar donation to the school’s budget, a pittance until you consider the damage years of funding cuts have caused.

The advertisers would like to argue that they are doing no wrong.  They would like you to think that anyone who doesn’t like their methods can just tune them out, that the schools who accept their wares do so out of anything other than desperation.  They’re just selling another half-truth.  We can shut off the TV at home, shop conscientiously, and do our best to educate our children about the way that advertisers work, but we are still competing against a billion-dollar industry.  Our children will still go to school and see other kids wearing the latest fashions and using the latest high tech gadgets, and all that our work will have done, should we limit our focus to our own kids, is keep them from fitting in. The only way to get advertising out of our schools and away from our children is through political action at the grassroots level, and even then it won’t be easy.  Politicians who are up for reelection are ripe targets for lobbyists who will argue that removing advertising from schools is an assault on freedom of speech and free enterprise.  We have to ask ourselves--how much do we care?

Which takes me back to Hood River; there is no doubt in my mind I was manipulated into getting there.  Ever since an executive at a British toy company realized that placing as-of-yet unavailable toys into the children’s sections of book stores would appeal to middle-class, liberal-leaning parents by giving the high quality wooden trains (which were based on books from the forties) a certain literary appeal, and launching the ensuing show and product line in response to “customer demand,” the seed was planted.  Just as he envisioned, whenever my wife and I (or my in-laws) headed out to browse books, the kids would run, enchanted, to the wondrous train set and the other children at play there.    Thomas and friends were incredibly toyetic (the industry’s word for characters that make the best toys,) with big eyes and vivid colors that were as bright as their smiles.  Our house was soon filled not only with Thomas toys, but Thomas books, coloring books, and videos.  We printed out pictures and let the kids play games on the official website.  It’s a story that happens over and over again with other parents and their children, whether the salesperson is Dora or Elmo--advertisers know that while young children might not associate with the name of their products, they respond to characters, and so the characters themselves have become the brand.  I have never fought the crowds on Black Friday to get a hot action figure.  I haven’t bought my children the giant play sets that go with their action figures.  But by following the cult of Thomas to Oregon that summer, I played my part in the advertiser’s game.  I would be lying if I said that I regretted the trip to Hood River; it was a valuable chance to bond with my mother-in-law, and we had a lot of fun whenever we weren’t following Thomas’ script.  We traveled to farmer’s markets, visited my wife’s extended family, and ate at new and interesting restaurants.  Outside of the reason we had come, it was a lovely vacation.  Yet looking back, it feels somehow tainted by the two hours dedicated to what turned out to be little more than a conditioned response to a product, no matter how friendly that product may have been.  That, to me, is the sinister part of child targeted advertising; not just that marketers will sell sex and violence to even the youngest demographic if they feel like they can earn a buck, not just that every attempt to teach proper nutrition is drowned in a flood of promotion for the worst sorts of food, but that it is so overwhelming and pervasive that until I read the marketing strategy used by Thomas’ manufacturers in the research for this paper, I felt like the choice to go to the “Day with Thomas” event was my own.  Now, however, when I look behind the curtain I see a straight line from maternity wards giving Teletubbies toys and matching branded diapers to babies to the college students receiving their diplomas in buildings named after Taco Bell or Wells Fargo, and I know that it is nearly impossible to see the world without at least part of my perception having been defined by the corporations who hunger for my money. 

Since I have had this realization, I have spent almost as much time trying to tell my friends and family what I have learned as I have writing about it.  I have tried to promote the local school funding initiative at work so that my children’s schools can buy new books without having to look for corporate partners.  I have shared my research with my children over dinner so that when they are exposed to advertising they will at least have the chance to think about the message behind it.  I have no idea if any of this will make any difference, but at least I know what the marketers are up to, and as GI Joe always taught me, “knowing is half the battle.”