Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wrapping the Windows, Turning the Tables (+ Puppy Cam!)

Here I am performing one of the northland's Rituals of Winter, covering the windows with plastic to keep the wolves out.

I'm hearing from people who liked Old Yeller. Each to her own, and I don't want to pick on any books anyone loves.
But I guess I'm going to. [Option: skip this, and scroll to the end for a live streaming Puppy Cam link!]

Other people feel as I do, that these dead-pet stories violated us as children--especially the ones that that weren't stories at all, but sermons-in-disguise. These are the stories that manipulate feelings to teach a moral lesson, "for your own good."

Here's a test for authenticity:
Ask yourself if the same message about cruel necessity could be applied to the Donner Party. That is, swap "I had to kill my dog" with "I had to eat Dad." If the story still works, it's an honest story.

I. Belloc
Modern sermonizing stories are the inheritors of Victorian morally improving tales for children, deliciously mocked by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) in his Cautionary Tales for Children. "Matilda; Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death" is a famous one, but ever better is Jim; Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion.
Jim, as promised, runs away from his nurse...

He hadn't gone a yard when--Bang!
With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!

II. Gorey
My favorite table-turner, however, has got to be Edward Gorey.

Bink sent me these examples from Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies--an abcderian poem that dispatches little children in gruesome, nonsensical ways.

Why do these delight me?
I suppose because they playfully depict how life does not make moral sense: dreadful things happen all the time, to nobody's benefit. "Goodness"--loving kindness, courage, humor--has to be freestanding, despite the way life works, not because of it.

Most of Edward Gorey's books aren't for children.
My favorite children's books along these lines are Joan Aiken's Dido Twite series. (Gorey even illustrated some of them.) Starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Aiken takes London urchin Dido through all sorts of nonsensical horrors. Dido is a brave girl with an inherent sense of compassion and justice, but the books are never preachy.

Alice in Wonderland is another favorite. Moral, what moral? Don't talk to rabbits?
Just like life. What moral tidiness is there to be found in Congo?

III. Puppies!
Oh, dear.
When I start mentioning Congo, I know I've slipped into the heart of darkness....

Let me pull back and offer you this live streaming link to real PUPPIES!!!
Puppy Cam: Shiba Inu Puppies in Real Time. (Shiba Inus are those orange foxy Japanese dogs.) Warning: They are lethally cute. They're sleeping fattly while making little squeaky snuffling noises as I post this.

Photo of Shiba Inu puppy from Drop That Sock.


bink said...

Great post...but I can't remember any of it now because the PUPPIES sucked me in and stole my mind!

I clicked on the Shiba Inus puppies just as one of them woke up and tried to awaken others by chewing on their ears, etc. Needless to say, I was completely riveted until baby bright eyes also conked out.

Thanks for the puppy giggle.

Krista said...


This post is at least 6 kinds of awesome at once, but Bink's right: PUPPIES.

And pictures of Fresca and plastic. And PUPPIES.

fresca said...

I'm supposed to be working on a ms. about Myanmar, but...hmmm... read about dicatorship or watch puppies sleep?
No contest.

Rudyinparis said...

We used to have that Gorey alphabet as a poster in our old apartment--I always thought it was The Coolest Thing. We still have it, in the basement somewhere, I couldn't bear to throw it away. And "B is for Basil" is the best one.

I've been thinking about this topic since you first posted, started to write something yesterday and was called away, so I guess will try again--I think of this phenomenon as the "throw your kid under the bus" child-rearing philosophy. As in--is your kid attached to a blankie? Throw it away! Scared your kid will be a wussy? Encourage them to get into fist fights! Want them to learn to swim? Guess how to do it! I personally don't think it is the role of the parent to throw obstacles up in the way of happiness, or creat difficulties and pain on behalf of the good of the child. I feel I can rest assured that life will take care of that well enough, without my help. (That said, I think it was Deanna? who made quite a good argument for the subtext of the book)--anyway--I think that's what you were responding to, with the movie? The idea that this kind of traumatic experience is "good" for a kid. Builds character, doncha know.

deanna said...

Yes, I'm back, can't help it. But like you seem to, Fresca, I enjoy good dialogue. How else can people begin to understand one another? Fear of offense drives so much of the non-dialogue out there - and why? Makes me nuts. Any view I hold has to stand up to scrutiny, be it belief in an ultimate being, or appreciation for a yeller dog story (and yet stuff like that's said so many places disingenuously, I understand you or anyone rolling their eyes).

So, sure, emotion grabs me. I've found I can't get a story if there's no emotional connection. And shame on every throwback to Victorian morality (where they invented Corn Flakes to help keep people's thoughts pure - ?!). What you describe about manipulative sermons in disguise, I'm with you on that. I found Roald Dahl's stories a good antidote when my kids were little. Plus classics like Lord of the Rings, that just tell a good tale. Then my daughter got into fantasy, and off she went, but that's another story.

Anyway, your issue is authenticity versus the lack thereof, I think, rather than that presenting morality to kids is wrong. Am I right? We seem to be inherently moral (just watch hearings against cigarette corporations); we seem to care that kids learn to treat others right and so on. But as you express so well, being moral doesn't make life work or come out right. There's no gimmick for thwarting futility, no matter how many small-minded tales get written.

The only real help for living, maybe, is truth, authenticity. So I guess I judge a story on how it treats me right off the bat. Page one, paragraph two of Old Yeller, the narrator (young Travis) tells you he had to kill his dog, and it felt like shooting one of his own family (like eating Dad, possibly). The necessity was real; the tale laid the foundation fully, in my view. "Hydrophoby" was a real issue back then. I'll stop there; you're quite patient with me!

My point is this seems similar from my young days to the question people would ask about what my minister dad said when he got hurt (wondering how he swore), and all I knew at the time was grownups who exclaimed without cursing. Perhaps they were stilted in holding back swear words, but for me their method was my only experience. Kids who were regularly fed morality pills wrapped in sappy stories naturally must have been confused, somewhat strangled by having their emotions toyed with. Then there was Disney, making money off the venture, twisting the authors' original intentions where it suited them. I can imagine all this, but I still encourage judging an individual book by its own merits. Pick apart Yeller from the text where you will and I'll consider the argument.

Rudyinparis said...

I can't see the puppies. I was told there would be live puppy action, DAMMIT I want to see cute puppies.

fresca said...

Rudy: PLEASE try the pup-pup-puppehs again! They are enough to make you want to throw yourself in front of a bus!

Yes, yes, yes--that's it--the "throw your kid in the deep end of the pool" school of child-rearing horrifies me.
And I've seen the results (Bad Boyfriend)--if it doesn't kill you, it makes you f---ing neurotic.

Deanna: I love you! Thank you for not going away when I maligned your beloved book!
You totally see what I mean, though, yes indeed:
I'm not fundamentally talking about the book "Ol' Yeller" per se (which I have only read once, when I was about nine-- I accept your pov--probably if I reread it I would agree, I just can't bring myself too)--but, yes, you totally got it that fundamentally I'm concerned with authenticity.

The thing is, I didn't write that post to express a literary point of view, it was a "message" that came to me from my subconscious as I sat meditating on this past Sunday morning.
So I hereby rescind my reference to Ol' Yeller, but keep the larger point, which it sounds like we totally agree upon:
Don't--metaphorically-- throw your kid in front of a bus and tell them it's for their own good.

Thanks, everybody, for writing. I thought this was a throw-away post, but I've gotten into good discussions here and elsewhere about it.

fresca said...

P.S. No, wait--actually, my main point always was that I don't have to be unhappy to prove I'm a smart, sophisticated adult.

I grew up with a mother who, rather like Charles De Gaulle, equated happiness with idiocy. I haven't noticed that unhappy people are any smarter.

deanna said...

Rudy's comments helped me get the distinction better. Somehow I escaped being thrown in front of buses, and so it is hard for me to relate to that.

My childhood confusion stemmed from having parents a lot like Scout's in To Kill a Mockingbird, but who thought it imperative to follow certain social conventions (school, church, etc.) that didn't make sense to me. Guess I'll have to ponder and post about that sometime.

Thanks again for the stimulating "throw-away" post. :o)