Families and art
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question, courtesy of readerChris Monette: Here’s a Q&A suggestion in two parts—what piece of pop culture will you insist on sharing with your children, and what piece of pop culture was passed down to you from your parents?
Sad to say, Chris, I’m really not planning on having kids. Which is a pity, because I think pretty much the only aspect of parenthood I pine for is the ability to impress upon some naïve little innocents the books I most loved as a kid, from the fantasy novels of Dianne Wynne Jones (starting with Dogsbody, Charmed Life, and The Nine Lives Of Christopher Chant) to E.B. White’s The Trumpet Of The Swan, Stuart Little, and Charlotte’s Web. And then there’s Roald Dahl: The BFG, Danny The Champion Of The World, the Charlie books, and so many more. (I still own my childhood copies of those novels, and of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, which would be a staple of any kid library I curated.)And then there are the modern movies I’d want to have the pleasure of exposing them to, most particularly Hayao Miyazaki’s films (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, etc.) and one Scott just wrote about: The Iron Giant, which I wish every kid owned and watched regularly. I suspect I may have to borrow my friends’ kids when they get old enough to process art, and see what I can do about guiding them toward becoming miniature bookworm hipster douchebags, picky enough about their intake that they don’t think Alvin And The Chipmunks is the be-all and end-all of entertainment.
As to what I got from my folks, while they read to me early and often and took me to plays and films on a regular basis, we lived close enough to the library and I was a precocious enough kid that I was self-directing my own entertainment by first grade or so. But I have my mother to thank for one of my favorite books of all time: Watership Down, which I struggled several times to finish as a kid and couldn’t. Mom gave me a copy, encouraged me without pressuring me to read it, and finally took me to see the film version when it hit theaters, so I realized what a vast and rich story was there beyond that slow bit at the beginning. I still have the copy she gave me, and I still re-read it every few years. Thanks, mom.
I have a 4-year-old, and I’ve made him listen to or watch plenty of dad’s pop-culture favorites. But I’ve found that we have the most fun when we discover something together. We rented Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle In The Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service together, and discovered the awesome and un-PC kid singer Barry Louis Polisar together. His viewing habits led me to Nickelodeon’s Backyardigans, who it turns out have hired some of my favorite downtown NYC jazzbos. If it weren’t for my kid, I never would have caught Marc Ribot and Jenny Scheinman playing hot jazz over a kid’s show.
I would’ve seen Wall-E once, tops, if that. And I never would have listened so closely or so appreciatively to John Fahey’s “America”—which I grabbed for $6 in a bargain bin, and forgot about—if we hadn’t listened to it at nighttime, again and again, while I was rocking him to sleep.
But I’ll admit, I had the most fun right after he turned 4 and I showed him Star Wars for the first time. (The ’77 theatrical release, of course. We’re raising him original-trilogy.) In that nail-biting scene where the Skywalkers almost leave R2-D2 behind with the Jawas, and then, when R4-D5 blows up, decide to buy him after all, my kid just started clapping. He was hooked. And I couldn’t have been prouder.
The odds of my having kids of my own are only slightly greater than the odds of my spending my second term as president of the United States pitching a 30-win season, but I once dated a girl with a toddler, and I introduced her to the Warner Brothers Justice League cartoon. She learned the names of all the team members (something I didn’t master until I was, like, 11) and used the action figures I got her on Christmas to enact Hawkwoman/Flash slash fiction. If this is all I ever accomplish in life, I’ll be happy.
As to what I got from my folks, my mom and I certainly don’t share any tastes in literature, but she taught me to read, for which I’ll be forever grateful, even if the books I like make her eyes glaze over and vice versa. My dad listened to a lot of great country music when I was a kid, and even though my house was a rock-music-free zone until my teenage years, I later learned to appreciate having grown up in a house where Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, and Porter Wagoner could always be heard.
For about three consecutive birthdays in my early teens, my mother gave me tickets to touring productions of Broadway shows. I was never as excited about the gifts as she was, though once we got to the theater, I found I enjoyed the shows more than I thought I would. I wasn’t properly grateful to my mom back then, though I’ve since told her that these are some of my fondest memories of childhood: seeing Yul Brynner in The King & I or watching the revival of 42nd Street. A few years later, when I took a drama class in high school, I discovered that my home city hosted all kinds of cheap live-theater experiences in coffeehouses and warehouse spaces. I was hooked.
With my own kids, I’ve tried to adjust whatever I’d like to pass along to what seems to interest them. My 4-year-old daughter loves going to the movies, so I’m working to hook her on Pixar; but my 7-year-old son finds movies overstimulating and he doesn’t want to go. I’ve also been showing my daughter Warner Brothers cartoons, and before she could read, I was leaving Archie comics in her room, which she now devours at bedtime along with collections of Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes. My son prefers math books and videogames, neither of which are really my forte, but I’m trying to convert his love of numbers into an interest in sports—especially baseball. The last minor-league game we went to, my wife and I taught him to keep score. He loved it.
If there’s one argument against my beloved Kindle that has traction with me, it’s the claim that a house full of physical books is essential to raising a new generation of readers. My parents subscribed to a club that sent us classic books month after month—big, clothbound, slipcovered, embossed volumes. Those books were irresistible to me. I snuck them into my room and devoured them: The Three Musketeers, Gulliver’s Travels, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, 1001 Arabian Nights. To this day, any mention of those books calls unbidden to my memory the feel of the creamy pages with their irregular tinted edges, the look of the custom pen illustrations, and the perfect satisfaction of sliding each oversized rectangle into its color-coordinated cardboard box. Inseparable from this mail-order cultural infusion was the light classical music my father enjoyed so much—itself stored in slipcovers that housed sets of records from Time-Life. Perhaps my enduring affection for the middlebrow can be explained by those evenings in our suburban shag-carpeted living room, listening to Suppe’s Light Calvary Overture and turning the pages of the Heritage Library edition of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Those very same volumes of Grimm’s Fairy Tales now sit on the shelf in my son’s room, and every once in a while when I’m picking up the math books strewn across the floor, I see that he’s had one of them out to look at. Much as I love those classic adventure stories, I really want my kids to find a genre of literature that they make their own, as I latched onto science fiction and fantasy in my childhood (neither of which were represented on my parents’ bookshelves). What would be of most use to them in that quest, I think, is a taste for the fundamentals of cultural literacy—classical mythology and the stories of the Bible. If they have those ancient tropes in their heads, their enjoyment of any artistic genre, be it fiction, film, comics, or musical theater, will be immeasurably deepened. I acquired the former through obsessive re-reading of my mother’s college mythology textbook, and the latter through a rigorous Southern Baptist upbringing. But I probably need different strategies for encouraging my children to know their Psyches from their Pontius Pilates, so I’d love to hear ideas from readers on the subject.
Do books by Roald Dahl count as pop culture? Because the nights when my mom read to my brother and me when we were kids were some of my favorite ever. I loved Dahl’s unsentimental, sophisticated treatment of the children in his books—and in his audience as well. He wasn’t afraid to horrify children with terrifying tales and imagery (like in The Witches) and titillate their brains with big chewy words (like in The BFG, maybe my favorite). I recently listened to the audiobook of Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and it reminded me of how wonderful it is to be told a frightening, beautiful story about a brave little girl, so I intend to pass that and Dahl’s stories on to my kids, should they ever exist.
When I think, though, of what my parents made sure to pass on to my brother and me, even though we’re all big readers, I think first of old movies. My parents are both sentimental when it comes to old cinema, so I thank them for being sure that I’ve seen and appreciated movies like The Best Years of Our Lives and Alfred Hitchcock’s films. It may not sound like a big deal, but I know a lot of young people who can’t sit still through a black-and-white movie, and thanks to my parents, I not only appreciate what they’ve already shown me, but feel a willingness to try more new old things.
When I was 11, my family rented a cabin on a lake for a week in the summer. I did a lot of swimming, some water skiing, and a bit of fishing, and two things happened that changed my life: 1) I cut my knee when I fell off my bike—I still have the scar—and 2) my dad read The Stand, by Stephen King. Original paperback edition, edited, with this cool black-and-blue cover of a weird face in an evening sky. Most anything my dad read, I wanted to read, because it was the easiest way to get us to hang out and talk, so I asked him if I could have the book when he was done. He said he’d have to finish it first and see if it was “appropriate”; King being the Master of Horror, and me being frightened by… Well, even the word “horror” is a little nuts, right? Like something growling in the dark in the back of its throat. Dad finished the book and told me I wasn’t ready for it. Which sucked, but whatever. A couple months later, I started junior high, which also sucked, but in a much more thorough and horrifyingly pornographic way, the bad kind of pornographic, like if Lynch had put sex scenes into Eraserhead. I borrowed a copy of the Poltergeist 2 novelization from one of my teachers, because it was the next best thing to actually watching the movie, which I couldn’t do because, again, wuss. Dad saw me reading it, and he said, “If you can read that, you’re ready for The Stand,” and—my memory is very clear on this point—we went to my parents’ bedroom and he got the paperback out of the nightstand.
Next few years, it seemed like the only things I read were books with King’s name on them. And for most of that time, if I read it, Dad had read it first. Because of The Stand (and the copy of Misery that followed soon after), I decided I was a writer. Or maybe I just realized it, I dunno. If Dad hadn’t read as much as he did, if he wasn’t willing to check things out for me in advance—maybe I would’ve got here eventually. But… Look, my parents gave me a lot of things, and not all those things were good, but this thing meant the world to me. You could say my dad giving me that paperback (the back was silver, and he’d already broken the spine in a bunch of places, which bugged me) saved my life. Change the timing, and I might have committed suicide before I hit 15. Maybe even before that.
No plans for kids, but if they come, I’ll make sure they can read. (Oh, and they’ll watch Ghostbusters at some point, because, hey, I’m not a monster.)
My tastes significantly differ from my family’s, but if I had to pick, I’d say my mom’s abiding love of Neil Diamond (minus his totally cheeseball shit from the ’80s and ’90s) and Blazing Saddles, and one of my dad’s favorite films, Kelly’s Heroes. (If I dug old Westerns, I’d probably have more to share with him.) For my own chilluns, it’s also hard to say. I half-expect that, if I have a son, he’ll be some kind of asshole jock fratboy, much like Patton Oswalt worries on Werewolves And Lollipops. But chances are I’ll annoy my kids by insisting they have a working knowledge of punk rock and hip-hop, whose cultural impact extends far beyond music. Here’s my hypothetical future child’s list of Boring Crap My Dad Likes: Public Enemy, Jawbreaker, A Tribe Called Quest, J Church, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, The Roots, blah blah blah. Hey, don’t you take that tone with me, you little shit.
Let me answer the second part first, may I? My parents never foisted anything on me, which I appreciate, and I think it’s probably the way to go. It’s actually a little strange in my case, though, because my parents are both musicians—they met while in the Dallas Symphony. My dad eventually went on to a career in jazz education, and he ended up with lots of famous friends in that world. Here comes some irony, though: Even though there are old home movies of Dizzy Gillespie making that Dizzy Gillespie face at me and my siblings (yes, it was just like an episode of The Cosby Show), I have pretty much zero appreciation for jazz. Same goes for classical music; even though I spent a good deal of time at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concerts (where my mom played violin for 25 years), I don’t know much about classical music. But I guess they both instilled the idea in me that music was something to appreciate and love, and to take seriously. Oh, my mom also listened to the soundtrack to Heavy Metal a lot, and she let me read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick in fourth grade.
For my potential children—they’re just little sperms now—I think rather than insisting that they watch or listen or read a particular thing, I’ll just keep my house stocked with great DVDs, music, and books, then let them discover things on their own. If they’re anything like me, they won’t want to be told what to do anyway.
This is pretty much like asking me why I shouldn’t have kids. Both my parents are immigrants who had no use for 90 percent of American pop culture; the most I got from my dad (who pretty much despised every cultural product post-World War I, and said so repeatedly) was a fondness for Agatha Christie (which didn’t last into adulthood) and P.G. Wodehouse (a love which will not die), neither of which exactly helped me win friends on the playground. Pop culture-wise, I’m self-educated. If I ever have kids, I’ll have to stop myself from my immediate temptation, which is to scare the crap out of them with Return To Oz and Gremlins in the hopes that a little mild childhood trauma will cause them, once they’ve processed it and decided it’s interesting, to quickly get over the stage where I have to take them to Madagascar XIV: The Greenland Tour or whatever. Yeah, I’m probably not having kids; that sounds like a terrible thing to do. I’d probably make them listen to a lot of Pavement, though; it’s my personal mission to make sure ’90s college rock never dies, and if they get that, they can discover the Merge back catalogue on their own or whatever.
My mom didn’t exactly pass this down to me, since she experienced it at the same time I did, but I would never be the Simpsons fan I am today without her. I was 6 when The Simpsons premièred, the age when kids’ TV viewing is pretty much dictated by their parents, and I was no exception. My mom never let me watch The Smurfs (though I suspect that was more due to the fact that the show annoyed her than anything else), but The Simpsons was scheduled weekly viewing in our household from the very first season. We even recorded every episode on VHS (I was in charge of getting up to hit “pause” during commercials so we could have an ad-free copy) so we could re-watch on rainy weekends, which became a longtime ritual in the Koski household. At one point we had somewhere around 30 VHS tapes filled with Simpsons episodes.
I vaguely remember the fracas surrounding the show during those first few years, when the PTA got their panties in a twist about the show’s profanity and Bart’s disrespect for authority. While other suburban parents were getting Simpsons T-shirts banned from the elementary school, my mom bought 7-year-old me my very own to wear under a sweatshirt (it had Bart writing “I will not waste chalk” on the chalkboard) and spent hours making 9-year-old me a Maggie Simpson costume to wear in the Halloween parade. The Simpsons was a HUGE part of my childhood and had a formative effect on my sense of humor—and, admittedly, probably my raging potty mouth—and that’s all thanks to mom. Thanks, mom!
As far as what I’ll force-feed my own kids, I’ll admit I haven’t given it much serious thought—the first sign of many signs that I’m not ready to spawn just yet. When it does happen though, I’ll make sure books, especially the ones that hooked me on the written word—Charlotte’s Web, Roald Dahl, Little Women—are prominently displayed next to the Simpsons DVDs. Oh, and I’ll make sure the little buggers can play pinochle, because you can’t be a member of the Koski clan if you can’t play pinochle.
As a child, my father actually introduced me to a lot of crap. He loved/loves The Lockhorns and Married With Children because he feels they depict marriage as it actually is: a poisonous institution built on a foundation of lies and deceit. (In a completely unrelated development, my father has been divorced three times.) I have much fonder memories of going to The Oriental to see the latest Woody Allen movies. My childhood conception of great cinematic art was very much informed by early viewings of Zelig and Hannah And Her Sisters and Radio Days. Around the same time, my dad gave me Woody Allen’s humor collections Side Effects and Without Feathers. That ended up having a pretty huge effect on my burgeoning sense of humor, as did my father’s love for Rodney Dangerfield.
So when I have children, I very much plan to share Woody Allen with them, and Looney Tunes, and all those wonderfully traumatic early Disney movies, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. And if they don’t like The Simpsons, well, that alone is enough to earn them a one-way trip to the nearest Orphanarium. There is some shit my future self simply will not tolerate.
Having been a father for just over a year, I’ve thought a lot about how to get our ridiculously adorable 14-month-old daughter into the movies, music, television, and books that have so enriched/wasted my own time on Earth. For example, how do I start laying the breadcrumbs now that will eventually lead her to The Replacements? And when’s the proper age to start getting her into the dread-soaked torture porn her papa holds so dear to his pitiless, coal-black heart? (Okay, strike that last one.) But I consider good parenting more about being the guardrails than the guide: Every child has to find his/her own way, and my intention is to give my daughter the encouragement she needs while actively keeping her away from things that will harm her. For now, that means no Shrek ever! I want her to experience the power and enchantment of actual fairytales before her childhood is ruined by some snarky, product-hawking “fractured” fairytale with pop-culture references that she’s too young to get and I’m too old to remember. Other than that, our place is packed to the gills with pop-culture detritus of all kinds, and it’s my sincere hope that she’ll have the curiosity one day to go exploring. (Based on a sampling of DVDs she keeps pulling from shelves over our protestations, she’s very interested in the Criterion editions of Videodrome and Yi Yi. A good sign.) But I’d be a fool to believe that I could dictate my own tastes to her, and I’m not sure it’s possible anyway. After all, my parents exposed me at an early age to the Beatles cartoon, Barry Manilow on eight-track, and great plumes of second-hand smoke. And look how I turned out.
As my wife points out repeatedly, the reason why the first five minutes of Idiocracy ring so true for us is that we’re such selfish brats that we refuse to spawn for fear of it intruding on our “me time,” and one day that attitude will be responsible for the complete devolution of our culture. Judging by some of my coworkers’ answers, a lot of us will probably be buried with our amazing collections of albums, books, and DVDs, with all our brilliant thoughts on them desiccating in the dirt without ever having been properly passed on. That’s why I think of you as our children, A.V. Club readers. Every day, I’m planting my seed in you and watching it grow, and while most of the time you’ve got a serious case of sass-mouth, I have faith that someday everything we’ve tried so hard to impart will help you grow into a better, smarter person. Excuse me while I bust out a song from Fiddler On The Roof.
But if something ever goes horribly, horribly wrong, and one of my actual seeds slips the surly bonds of our chosen method of birth control and fucks up my party forever, I’m not going to share anything with that kid. You know why? Not to reference Patton Oswalt again, but no matter what I try to make my kid like, he’s probably going to think it’s totally fucking lame. At least, that was my experience with my own parents. While there was a brief period where I aped their tastes (The Beatles, Billy Joel, Genesis, Stephen King novels, and, uh, Andrew Lloyd Webber), as soon as I hit puberty, I did everything I could to actively ignore anything they enjoyed, and to seek out things I knew they hated. My dad thinks The Doors blow? I’m gonna start worshipping Jim Morrison. My mom thinks Goodfellas is just an excuse to say “fuck” 256 times? I’m watching it every night. As a result, it wasn’t until I was nearly 17 that I discovered that my parents actually had some decent taste in things: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who on my dad’s side; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Fawlty Towers, and Monty Python on my mom’s side. Those are all things I absolutely love now, but only because I set about digging them out of their collections on my own, once my parents had finally given up on trying to share anything with me. So should I ever accidentally spawn, I’m going to skip right to that, give that thing plenty of space to make its own mistakes, and stay secure in the knowledge that it will eventually come around and realize how awesome its dad is. And if it doesn’t, who cares? I never wanted you in the first place.