Saturday, February 17, 2007

What, we ask, is life / Without a touch of poetry in it?

One of the challenges in raising a kid is in knowing when to put the brakes on and when to just let go. It's a constant struggle. F'r'instance: do I let her keep walking along that wall? It's only a few feet high. But she could slip at a weird angle and seriously hurt herself. But she's pretty surefooted, and has walked along there many times before. Yes, but the wall is covered with wet leaves and is therefore very dangerous. But if you constantly hover over her, she's gonna grow up afraid of everything. Hmmm. Bach had a million kids. What would he have done in this situation?

I'll admit that when it comes to the physical stuff I really have to fight the urge to say "Be careful!" every few minutes. I'm getting better, but it takes a conscious effort for me to bite my tongue. When it comes to exposing Thandie to art, however, I tend to go all out. I listen to a lot of music around the house, and haven't yet felt the urge to shield the kid from anything that other parents might deem (for themselves, let alone for their young 'uns) too dissonant, too rhythmically complex, too texturally weird, or whatever. It's all fair game, even the occasional Zappa tune with a raunchy lyric (after all, who better than a kid to appreciate the humor in a song about yellow snow?).

So yes, in my bombastically self-appointed job as the Durkin-Robinson "Minister of Culture," I have a hard time figuring out where the boundary line for a two-and-a-half-year old should be. But I feel that it's better to err on the side of a bit "too much," rather than opting for the total bowdlerization that seems to characterize "kids' culture" nowadays. And so things like the very PG ending to The Iron Giant tend to get through.

And so do things like Joseph Papp's 1980 production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Not that that one is terribly violent or inappropriate, though there is a fair amount of swashbuckling to be had. Still, it's a far cry from some of the monumentally bland stuff that has recently been passing as art-for-tots (I'm lookin' at you, Dan Zanes). When I finally got my hands on the DVD of the Central Park performance, it was more to satisfy a fond yearning for a specific childhood musical experience -- Pirates was the first "show" I ever saw, and, I believe, the first recording I ever owned -- rather than from any expectation that Thandie would be walking through our house singing songs from the score (which she is).

Halloween 2006.

(Lest you think Pirates is some sort of half-baked Broadway crap -- well, it isn't. I look at Gilbert and Sullivan as older siblings to Oscar Wilde, and as great grandfathers to Monty Python. In any case, there are few other places in the annals of musical theater where you will find as wicked a parody of the human proclivity (developed into an art by the Victorians) for kowtowing before vague and stupid abstractions like "nationalism" and "social convention." The irreverence inherent in the work makes it all the more ironic that there is such a thing as a Gilbert and Sullivan "purist," and that a bunch of 'em protested Papp's version, which included wonderful re-arrangements by the mysterious William Elliott. Elliott -- who died young and whose web presence is frustratingly thin -- gave the music the punch of a rock opera, without (I think) detracting from any of the charm of Arthur Sullivan's original score.)

Ah, parenthood. We have good friends who seem positively addicted to the latest genre of reality TV, which usually comes embedded in a "news" broadcast of some kind: you know, the voyeuristic and creepy "To Catch a Predator" phenomenon. At the same time they seem hell-bent on bathing their own kid in an ocean of baby talk and impossibly happy music. I see these two things as connected somehow: it may be that my generation had such a conflicted experience of childhood (we were the first postwar "latchkey kids," after all), and have become so attuned to all of the horrible things that can (supposedly) happen to shorties (Hey, would you like a razor blade with that apple?), that we have overcompensated by attempting to put our own children into some sort of emotional mylar. And to make matters worse we seem compelled to go on feeding our anxieties, instead of overcoming them.

Anna Quindlen really nailed this problem in a recent essay. One of the more relevant quotes from that piece: "A life of unremitting caution, without the carefree -- or even, occasionally, the careless -- may turn out to be half a life, like the Bible with the Ten Commandments but no Song of Solomon or Sermon on the Mount." I suppose one could paraphrase that insightful statement with the Gilbert lyric quoted in the title of this post. Or, as Quindlen, quoting Oscar Wilde, puts it later in the same essay: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

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Incidentally, the always-entertaining Jeff Knapp recently posted a hilarious parody of the parody: Gilbert and Sullivan's "Baby Got Back."

1 comment:

Kris Tiner said...

I'm with you man. Kim and I just got the first season of The Muppet Show on DVD, and I'll be danged if it isn't some of the most sophisticated made-for-children-but-funny-for-big-people-too humor. We've been watching it non-stop... Brings back all kinds of fuzzy (sic) childhood memories for us, and it's still just as hilarious on a grown-up level, but in a different, smarter way. And Henson actually brought real artists on the show as special guests - dancers, theater actors, singers, jazz musicians... and the references range from classical mythology to Fats Waller. What children's programming today can be appreciated on so many levels? The fluff that seems to pass for childrens' TV now is so much sound effects and spectacle - or just a watered-down version of what's playing on MTV for the older kids, completely disengaged from reality. If we don't give them the opportunity to experience culture when they're little, what hope is there when they grow up?