Thursday, January 29, 2015

Dear Baby Girl,

Hi. Nice to meet you. My name is Dan and I'll be your great-uncle this lifetime. That was the first line I used when Maddie was born (though I substituted "father") and she turned out pretty awesome so there you go.

Anyway, I don't know your name and you aren't telling me what it is, mostly because you are 4 days old but partially because you might not know it either. I will capitalize on your inability to talk and take your silence for rapt attention and interest in my words of wisdom. I'd like to tell you about this world as it is and as it used to be so that you can say "I remember when..." even if you don't, just because your bestest uncle is feeding you bits of info about the olden days.

We used to have this thing called a "map." We still use the word, but back in the day, it was printed on paper and you had to fold it all crazy-like. Let me take a step back. Back in the old days, we had this stuff called paper. It was awesome, trust me. You could write on it (writing is like printing with a printer only with your actual hand and something called a pen or pencil and the printer can't actually make a thing, it just transferred "ink" onto "paper") or you could fold it into the shape of an airplane and throw it at someone's head, or you could get a nasty cut. That last part you should not be nostalgic about.

In earlier times, we used to send information to each other by putting it in a paper conveyance and paying to have someone walk it, or drive it to another person or place after you licked a little piece of paper and stuck it on the conveyance. Pretty old-school, right? Oh, "old school" is an old way of saying "old." I'm not sure why we added "school" in there. This process of sending stuff was called "mailing" it and the stuff was called "mail." I know, like 'email' but without the "e." Actually, the "e" used to stand for "electronic" and was added on to the word "mail" relatively recently.

When I was a boy, sometimes I was actually alone. We didn't carry phones and tablets and devices or have whatever it is you will have when you are a teenager (some sort of neural implant, if television has been telling me the truth). We had to sit around with nothing to do except look at the world. I recommend that. Your great aunt Naomi used to do that a lot. She did it because she is a student of her world. I did it because I had no friends. Friends were actual humans you interacted with in "RL" (that's slang for "real life"). We did have television but (and this will be shocking) there were times when there was nothing on or at least nothing remotely interesting, and we were limited by the schedule of when things were put on to watch -- we couldn't choose to watch them whenever we wanted. Crazy, right?

In school (a few years away, but still...) we often had to memorize facts and learn little things that now you can call up on one of the ubiquitous devices. We had to use our brains to store information. Definitely keep up that tradition. And when I say school, I mean a building we had to go to to meet with human teachers and pay attention at certain times and for certain times. Maybe that's why we say "old school." You can ask your online robot-teacher when you get the chance. Cars? They didn't drive themselves. You had to read a book, take a test, then learn to drive a car and take another test. And it was still scary.

Bottom line is you are going to be growing up in a magical time and you won't be able to appreciate how wonderful it is because it will simply be all you know. The same way that I can't fully appreciate indoor plumbing without reading a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder (recommended and available on a digital platform near you), you can't really understand how fortunate you are, not having to practice cursive handwriting.

Also, practice peace. We haven't really got that down pat just yet and I hope you and your friends (be they virtual or actual) are more successful in celebrating each other and accepting each other for who you are than we have been. Try new things and remember the old things, except Barney. Don't remember Barney. Cherish history and rush blindly into the future. Learn from failure and teach others how to avoid the mistakes you made so that their failures are new and different. Work hard. There is nothing worth doing that isn't worth working at and trying really hard to perfect. There is nothing you care about that isn't worth your time and there is nothing worth your time which you can't succeed at.

Grow up slowly. Enjoy being little so you can look forward to being big because once you get big, you are going to miss being little. Soak it all in. Every moment is a teachable moment and a chance to learn something. Stop looking down at your device (or, to translate into future-speak) take off the immersive VR glasses and be a part of your actual world. Be a link in lots of different chains. Love people. They love you and the more joy and love you bring into the world, the more you get back. Appreciate who you are and who the people around you are trying to lead you to become. I know your parents. They have noble goals. Your grandparents, treat like the wackadoodles they are, and your great grandparents, like royalty. You come from really good stock on both sides so don't waste a bit of the potential you have.

And appreciate indoor plumbing. Trust me.

Let's have a chat when you learn to talk and I learn to listen. I'm fascinating.


Your greatest uncle, Dan

Monday, January 19, 2015

Vacated Brains

Ah, vacation. That blessed time when everyone else goes away and leaves me the hell alone. I can sit and star at piles of essays and wonder "why haven't those graded themselves yet" then I can open the refrigerator and consider eating food, performing the calculus necessary to compute the self-loathing which will follow a binge. Then, back to the pile of papers and the shock when I discover that they are not yet graded.

I love vacation.

Also on vacation, I have the chance to catch up on all the shows my kids watch and which should be disgusting me more often. Sadly, I don't always have time to mock their taste in TV because of the pressures of the school year. But on vacation, I can hover over them and ask "whatcha watching?" over and over and then, no matter the response, spit back, "that's stupid." Because it is. To call shows today a "vast wasteland" is to insult the word "vast." And I don't confine my derision for TV/cable -- the ones produced for online venues or other streaming services are no better. I do watch TV but because I watch the shows I watch, they are therefore good. What the children watch is garbage. The only exceptions are if I happen to watch the same thing but that rarely happens (the exceptions exist on the Food Network).

Today's crap du jour was a show called something like "Child Genius." It was about children who are touted as geniuses. Hence the name. Their genius at age 10 is determined by their ability to memorize random bits of information and do math in their heads. Can they change a tire? Can they discuss a sonnet? No. But if you ever need someone to memorize a deck of cards, look one of them up. They're brilliant like that. As I was trying not to watch this show (it was on in the next room and I was working very hard at not grading a stack of 10th grade essays) I couldn't help but hear and get angry. This show was not so much about how "smart" these prodigies are. Granted, they have the odd brain cells to rub together in those years before they are beaten down by the harsh reality of a life which doesn't care that they took college classes before puberty. Surely these children are prepping their poses for the "Calendar of Mal-adjusted Kids who have No Friends" in order to pay their way through therapy. But the show was more about their parents -- those hyper-driven projecting narcissists who push their children on to a stage and who deprive their kids of love if the child, God forbid, forgets the "femoral artery."

Now, before I go any further, please, understand, I am not railing against this practice because I am incapable. I am pretty darned sharp and could hold my own against any random group of 10 year-olds, especially when the questions revolve around music from the 60's or how many shirts I own (hint, the answer is "a bunch"). I have known the thrill of the presentation. I was involved in a spelling bee in third grade. I won, and earned myself the book "101 Pickle Jokes." It was the sequel to "101 Hamburger Jokes" but lacked some of the punch of the original. I also am not angry because my own children have, in some way, disappointed me. My kids are plenty smart and they have a smarts that allows them to hold intelligent conversations, make sharp jokes, and wheedle another 20 bucks out of me. I just never saw the need to trot them out in front of strangers to brag about how unbelievable they are now and how desolate and depressed they will be in about 10 years. So, back to the show.

I wanted to believe that this show was a cut above the others. I wanted to think that because this show focused on the intellectual pursuits, it was redemptive, pulling the popular taste up the culture ladder. But it isn't about the brain. It is about the spectacle, and in that way, it is no better than the Dance Moms shows, the Toddlers in Tiaras shows and Real Housewives of Somewheresville. In a way, it is worse because it dresses itself up in the sheep's clothing of IQ points. But don't be fooled! The parents are serial abusers, the children are playthings and pawns and the voyeurs should be ashamed. This was the type of show that makes vacation a special bonding time when a father looks at his daughter and says those magic words, "I can't believe you are watching this junk." And she responds with "Based on this show, I guess you aren't the worst father in the world."

Bring back Tom and Jerry. At least that made sense.