Friday, March 25, 2011

Ruminations on Input

Woo, three blog entries in the same month. Haven't done that in awhile. Anyhow.

This blog may be a bit more philosophical and consideratory (it's a word now, sod off) than most. Be ye warned. Oh, second warning on re-reading what I've wrote. There's a very good chance I'll offend or insult most people at some point in here. Yes, that really does mean and include you. Be ye twice warned.

So over Spring Break - which sadly, is past - I had a fairly significant mental difficulty. One thing that you'll find about parenting: you make all kinds of promises on the day the kid's born, and prior to, that you later find yourself grappling with in the cold stark realities of living your own life and guiding an entity with a mind of its own.

One of these for me: television. Now, it's no secret to anyone who has ever heard me rail on that I consider television the new "opiate of the masses." (And dork cred points to anyone who knows what the old "opiate of the masses" is and who said it.) People turn it on, turn off their brain, stare like drooling zombies at whatever is forced down their throats by a scandal-hungry, drama-inducing media, and waste their entire lunch period the following day talking about it. Ye gods save me from becoming one of the gibbering masses of morons. I mean, seriously - you people who "like turning off your brain" every night - what the hell is wrong with you? Does this not tell you something is wrong with your world that you need to change when you don't want to be a part of it? I've never understood any mentality that genuinely seeks to not think or question, but obviously the world's full of them. Poor bastards.

Anyhow. So Lucas, like most kids his age, was introduced to something that stuck and did so in a big way: the movie "Cars." You know the one, Lightning McQueen, Mater-the-Cable-Guy, etc, etc. Fine. And like most toddlers, he likes watching it a lot. He also, like most toddlers, will sit staring, absolutely mesmerized, for a very large portion of the film - coming out only briefly at parts he is less interested in - to disappear again for the rest of the film. This makes for a suddenly tremendously easy-to-control toddler. It also triggers a HUGE, HUUUUGE, possibly HUGEST daddy reflex:

My son will not, repeat not, under any circumstances become a television zombie. He will be better than that. (Elitist? Absolutely. If you're not elitist about your child, you're a fool and aren't fit to raise offspring. Why would you NOT seek to make your child the best person who could ever walk the earth? Your job as a parent is to better the human race and raise the best human being you can. If you don't view your child as, in some fashion, potentially the best human being EVER, go cut off your organs. I'm not kidding. Elitism is nothing to be ashamed of when it drives motivation.)

...but here's Lucas, and he's pretty clearly in zombie mode. You can wave a hand in front of his face. Nada. Hell, half the time he doesn't even follow your fingers or blink. For a kid who spends most of his time watching every detail of the day and bouncing off every wall, it's deeply disturbing to see such a dramatic, radical shift in his behavior. Think about your favorite puppy suddenly stopping everything else it did to stare at a wall for an hour. It's downright creepy. People have no problem with this?

Well. One person whose opinion I respect - Amy - clearly does not have a problem with this; she puts the movie on, after all. It would be easy for me to scowl at her, holler about parental-evasion-of-duty and so on, but rather than immediately climb even higher on my egotistical-better-than-thou pedestal, I decided to give the matter some more serious consideration.

What is it I don't like about television, that drives me so intensely?

1. It causes one to sit, largely inert, for long periods of time, with no interaction with the outside world.
2. The stories passed through the television are, for the most part, utter garbage. Highly predictable laugh-track rubbish that we've all seen in other forms a dozen times before, or, far worse, "realism" television in which largely imbalanced people with bizarre personality quirks are thrown together for a gladiator-spectacle, vicarious-vampiric, visual feast. We either watch stupid, tired story tropes that haven't changed in the last hundred years, or we watch other people's suffering, and take sick joy in the fact that it's not our own, and that we can gossip about their stupidity. Because of course, we're better than that. Once in awhile, for true enjoyment, we watch overpaid, overglorified, over-chemical-ed men hurl around small objects and strut about in the mind-boggling confidence that their skill with this small object makes them a pinnacle of humanity, despite the fact that most can't pay their own bills, take care of their own children, or live a sane, stable, LEGAL life.
3. It takes up significant quantities of time in an uninterruptable fashion - you watch when they want you to watch, so shut up and take your garbage with a smile.

Well, fine, that set of reasons to hate television works great for me. I'm also aware, though, that most of society finds the above set of reasons inapplicable to them (excuse-seeking idiots) or unimportant (priority-blind morons.) So at what point do I balance my own desire to raise Lucas above, with the fact that he will have to interact with the television-drugged masses? Or do I accept that I'm saddling him, before he's made a choice himself, with the advantages and disadvantages and social challenges of my deliberately chosen heavily-anti-television lifestyle? (Before you claim I'm overdramatizing here, consider how many societal inputs come through that thing that affect your daily life - now imagine if you got NONE of them.)

There's also a good chance that any such dramatic cutoff in Lucas's life would bring me into direct conflict with my wife and my child's daycare, both of whom use television both to entertain and to assist in controlling the kiddo. The notion of conflict with my wife always makes me think, in advance, of what would occur (Plan your attack, fellows! Never go in against a woman unprepared, they think quicker on their feet - estrogen does that, I suspect) and so the question legitimately springs forth: What would you rather Lucas do?

And the answer, of course, springs forth from my head: read books! Play games!

Being not a complete fool (in theory), though, I held my own suggestions up to my own critical lens.

"Insert inane rambling about sitting lifeless for periods of time. "
Well, I certainly can't claim that books lack the ability to make one lose touch with the world around you. I had a friend in college who could lose an entire weekend with a good book. I've seen people lose track of hours, and I once stood on my chair in my classroom and waved my arms around while students were reading a good book - and no one noticed. So it would seem that getting "sucked in" can certainly happen in a book.

Video games score a little better here, though. You do have to interact with them, and thus you're still doing more than just staring blankly forward. In fact, video games actually require a pretty intensive amount of brain power most of the time - at least the ones I play. I don't have any great desire to introduce Lucas to mindless shooting games like "Call of Mercenary Duty Medal of Pacific Black Ocean Op XIV...with Halos." Many games these days are played online, and require very large amounts of interaction, cooperation, and teamwork. Heck, online games offer such a variety of weirdo personalities that if you want to be successful, you have to learn diplomacy and how to work with people that really need to be smacked. In television, they just smack each other; points to video games for life skills that matter.

"Insert obnoxious ranting about rubbish stories that are totally predictable."
This, obviously, is where books tend to do a bit better - good ones, anyhow. The variety of tales to be had in between two hard covers can boggle the mind; far more so than television can offer, because books don't require anywhere near as large an audience to be successful. If you don't need to make as many people happy to make a buck, you can write the weird. (A lot of book readers like the weird anyhow.)

Video games tend to fall badly short here, though there's a trend of change in that. In terms of storyline, video games seem to be taking their cue from the television world and even the best story-telling games (Bioware's games being the obvious leader here) still follow predictable tracks.

By the by, anyone who throws out "violence in video games" as an objection to their inclusion with a child's possible input diet needs to take a real good, hard look at what they're watching in the evenings and then shut it. Reality TV may not - generally - have a lot of shootings, but the amount of backstabbing and maneuvering going on there would make any digitized hero blush.

Conclude with arm-waving ragepoast about uninterrupted blocks of time being required.
Books obviously rock out pretty hard here. While we may not wish to put down a book, it's always doable. Video games are a wash; some are pausible, others, particularly those that require interaction with others, frequently are not. It's also worth noting that with the rise of TiVo, Netflix, etc, that television is becoming more pausible as well.

I dunno. My case against television isn't as sound as I would like it to be. All three are equally as addictive. All three have their good points and bad ones. I think the reason that children prefer games over the other two, if I were so bold as to guess (and let's face it, I am), is because of the interactivity. The child gets to control the character on the screen. Television tends to get the next nod because it requires less mental work to get the input you're after, as opposed to a book requiring one's imagination - the most work at all. Thus only children with the best imaginations tend to prefer that medium, since it - for them - requires not so much work. (And that's why some kids who won't read WILL read if it's a certain kind of book - they get to enjoy the "mental picture" without much effort, since it's easier for them to imagine.)

So where does that leave me? I still strongly dislike television - it requires no interaction, no mental work for the imagination, and I still find it deeply creepy to see my normally ultra-active child staring into space for even twenty or thirty minutes at a time. I'm willing to admit, though, that he is - at least for now - too young to really get into books (at least without sitting on a lap and watching the pages), and too young to play most video games that he'd get anything out of.

I guess ultimately, the takeaway is the old parenting advice: know what your child is watching/reading/doing. If what they're watching has a decent message, I guess some TV is okay. If there is a $divinebeing$ (that's quasi-programmer-code for "insert the name of a divine being here" for those who may not know) watching, Lucas will grow over time to recognize that 99% of television is the same tired story being retread with different faces on it and he'll reject it. I'll have to hope that I can offer up things that will be more engaging for him in time; good books, thought-provoking games. And, alas, I guess I'll have to endure hearing Chick Hicks holler "Kuh-chigga, kuh-chigga" a few hundred more times. There are worse movies with worse concluding morals (or is it morales? I can never remember..) than "Sometimes it's better not to win and show respect than win at all costs."

...but you still won't see me putting the movie on when Amy's not home. I'm stubborn, and him watching TV means not playing with me. I'd rather Lucas sit on my knee while I demonstrate the best series of strategies to bring down an orc any day.

MT out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Of Apples, Trees, and Very Silly Festivals

I've noticed that all parents - myself certainly included - have a habit of trying to discern as much as they can about El Minimunchie as early as they can. "Oh, the child has this tendency, that comes from you, oh, the child has that tendency, that comes from me." Dude's habit of sleeping one foot out from the blanket at night when he was teeny looked very suspiciously like his dad's full-grown habit of same, for example. Whether or not there's any sanity to this practice - particularly when the child is not yet old enough to be mobile - is a question I prefer to avoid.

It's true that as a child ages, though, these comparisons may be a bit more legitimate. I'm no child developmental specialist and I think the whole "Nature vs Nurture" thing is bunk anyhow; kids inherit behaviors to some degree and then learn them by the parents demonstrating them without realizing it just as well. This weekend offered up just such an opportunity for observation and speculation.

Kiddo, wife, and myself went to the "North Texas Irish Festival" this weekend. While to me, this was merely shades of Hell (AKA Fredricksburg, Texas) revisited, Amy was very enthused about going, and Lucas is enthused about anything, so fine, Dad shuts up, works to make the family happy, and off we go. The drive - about an hour in length - was relatively pleasant, Lucas being a good traveler. As one might have expected, the festival was overrun with people. People dressed in green, people dressed in what they think is period clothing, people dressed in far too little clothing, and of course, hundreds of men running around in kilts talking about how "free" they are.

(Sidebar 1: Gentlemen. While I respect your right to wear the apparel that suits you, I have absolutely no need to know if George is swinging freely through the jungle under that kilt, or if you've got him cinched up and snug. Please do not inform me of your "freeness." Thank you.)

(Sidebar 2: Ladies. Please use decent sense and decorum. While a festival is intended to be a time of enjoyment, celebration, and casual, relaxing behavior, please think of the rest of us. If you would not normally show 80% of your flesh - mostly rammed upward through the boning of a corset - please consider the wisdom of doing so now. Further, placing fake tattoos on aforementioned upward-rammed areas to draw attention does not increase your appeal. The extra glances you are getting is merely the same kind of extra glancing one sees when the horrible train wreck we're all gawking at suddenly adds a four car pileup to the mess. You're still making us uncomfortable. You've just upped the ante. Modesty is not required, but bear in mind the age-old adage regardless of your comeliness:

Less is more. They're not talking about the clothing. Usually.

Thank you.)

Strangely - this not being something I'm used to from various fairs in Florida - people were also allowed to bring their dogs to this particular green-laden gathering. Okay, fine, except that my kid in a stroller and your dog are now on the same level. Given the impressive amount of TEETH in your dog's mouth, this does not make me happy. I'm sure your dog is cute and lovable. I also don't know your dog. So unless you would like to hand my son something very fragile and trust me when I tell you he won't drop it, don't expect me to be happy about your dog near my son's face.

Lucas rode arms, shoulders, and necks a lot that day. Unfortunately, he rather likes to walk now, and this caused a bit of consternation for all involved. Lucas has also displayed a trait that, again, seems to be shared by his father: he has a very strong aversion to crowds and loud noise. This may be because he's rarely around them - mommy only occasionally getting that urge and daddy practically never - but for whatever reason, any time we got vaguely close to a concert venue, he would get noticeably more unhappy.

Eh, fine. Dad's not heartbroken, and mom's just there for the Guiness. (I lie. She was there for all of it, but with a rapidly-getting-unamused child, we took the Guiness and ran.)

And it was in fact during the taking of Guiness that a bit of a parental revelation moment happened. Kiddo, wife and husband were generally strolling towards the exit when we came upon an exhibit with a guy showing off various horse skills. (Lucas interjection: What does the horsey say? "Neeeeigh" in a laughing tone.) Lucas takes interest, over we go. As fate would have it, another kiddo is there. Smaller than Lucas, but definitely a bit older. (This is not an unusual combination with our mini-Shrek.) Other Kiddo is on a leash, and also watching the horses with what appears to be Grandpa.

(Sidebar 3: Leashing your kids. Seriously, people? What better way to say "I want my kid to be able to run around, but I don't want to have to pay attention to them, and I'd really rather not have to put up with the bother of teaching my child to return when I call them." Few things say "Responsible parent" quite like having your DOG and your CHILD using the same kind of restraint. Hey, while we're at it, why don't we get child-walkers like the dog-walkers and hey, maybe we could walk them both at once. There's all kinds of potential for hilarity and cross-species peeing incidents there! Your child is not a pet. Do not put a harness on them and treat them like one. End of sidebar.)

So Other Kiddo takes one look at Lucas, runs up and gives him a solid push to the chest. Lucas, for his part, blinked at this episode, and simply walked a few feet away to another part of the corral area. Grandpa - hurray Leash Parent - didn't even notice the incident at all, even though another set of parents were there and commented rather loudly, "That's not nice." Figure Grandpa probably doesn't pay much attention to his dog, either.

Dad returns with a funnel cake, his one guilty pleasure of fairs. Shows funnel cake to Lucas, who needs very little urging to partake of much fried-dough-and-sugar goodness. (That's daddy's boy, heh, heh.) After the two beasts have sated themselves, Lucas strolls the few feet back over to the corral... where, you guessed it, we have Other Kiddo, Lord of the Leash, still standing.

Lucas takes no note of Leashboy. Leashboy, on the other hand, immediately notes and reacts to Lucas's presence - here's shove #2. This one gets Lucas's attention and he's kind of peering at Leashboy. Doesn't get what's going on. Lucas hasn't offended Leashie, hasn't bothered him in any way that he can tell, so what's up Leashie's bung? (I mean, aside from the obvious, "He's wearing the outfit that Grandpa borrowed from ROVER on the way to the FAIR" issue.) Leashboy, not intimidated by a kid who's about 20% larger, lands a third push, and this one actually makes Lucas step back once.

Now Lucas, you see, has some of Dad's facial structure. (Okay, a lot of it.) He, probably as a result of that and seeing me, wears his emotions in a lot of the same ways. He apparently, at least in part, also has his dad's temper - because he expression went from "puzzled" to "non-existent." For those who know me, this is a danger sign. It's when I'm contemplating, or struggling not to, let the old temper have some room to run.

Lucas looked at this kid again, and now his expression has gone blank. Dad is thinking "Oh boy. This isn't good," because Lucas is NOTICEABLY larger, and this kid is standing by the corral in such a way that if Lucas decides to return the favor, Leashboy is going to get plastered to those metal bars in the finest hockey-check tradition, and with about the same end result. Lucas will then look like a bully, and ah, the world will not be fine.

Instead of making Leashboy into Meatboy - as might've been deserved - Lucas stops and looks over at me with this huge sigh, and breaks into pout face/pout mode. Apparently, while Lucas may have a dose of dad's temper, he possesses some degree of self-control. (This is a good thing.) He also knew that clobbering a kid who had it richly coming wasn't okay. While this may or may not be promising for his future in mixed martial arts, this does make for a proud poppa.

I scooped up the dude, and we finished off some extra remnants of funnel cake while mom and dad scowled heavily at Grandpa. (Who, by the by, barely noticed this incident, and didn't comment or react beyond turning, blinking, and then turning back to the horses.)

Amy is now of the opinion that perhaps we should've given Grandpa an earful. Engh. Maybe. What matters to me is that - right now, anyway - Lucas's character is still on the right track: Unless real harm is done, it is inappropriate to beat the heck out of a jerk. And if you're smart enough to make that decision in front of the right other people, you even get a reward.

I'm just glad that Lucas didn't inherit his mother's temper. He'd have been swearing at Leashboy all the way out into the parking lot.

MT out.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

22 Months and Counting

So the wife harangued me into getting this thing going again. Meh. We'll see how it goes. It's true that I should probably be writing for pleasure again more than I have been. This'd be more pleasureful if I actually got commentary that evoked more desire to write, but hey, nothing like internet-exhibitionism, right?

(Just be glad I'm only exposing myself textually, no? Yeesh.)

Lucas, the munchy dood, the terror on two legs, he-who-loads-diapers, Lord of the Crib, Emperor of the High Chair, Wielder-of-Small-Wooden-Objects, Chaser-of-Dogs, Tipper-of-Plates-of-Food, is now approaching his second birthday. He's becoming noticeably more verbose; I've stopped bothering to find out how this compares to the child average, but somewhere between the ages of one and two, children - or at least this child - starts showing steady progress. I think it's that the brain has figured out the extreme complexity that is basic locomotion, and can now apply itself to more complicated issues like speech and understanding the world around him. We're starting to see a LOT more imitation...

(Pssst. Never use the phrase "Nice boobies" in front of a toddler. S'all I'm gonna say, ya dig? K. It's totally funny but man oh man does your wife give you a LOOK.)

...and a lot more of "I do it" and "I got it" behaviors. He's trying to become like his parents (poor sap, such lousy role models he has, at least for his dad) and it's becoming more obvious. He's even starting to adopt some of the facial expressions and remarks - "Aw, man!" - that he sees around him. I'm sure I've said this before somewhere, but there's something deeply humbling about seeing your own behaviors in someone else who's replicating them as faithfully as possible. Makes you look a bit more carefully at what you do.

Lucas is getting to the point now where playing with him, as a dad, is a bit less silly. He'll show up with a book in his hands and start tapping it on my knee and saying "Book!" until I read it to him. Well gee, darn. I'll just have to read to my kid. The difference now is that you no longer feel as though you're reading into a vacuum. He'll repeat words, point at things, identify pictures.

Speaking of repeating things, I've never quite gotten how parents can stand watching the same film a bajillion times - at least until now. I mean, seriously, how do you not rock back and forth, humming and biting your fingernails the 1000th time Barney prances across your screen? I remember reading an article about a guy who beat up someone in a Barney outfit once; I can sympathize. Anyhow, Lucas, you see, has a certain fondness for the movie "Cars" and all things "Cars" related. (The fact that this may or may not have been introduced/encouraged by his mother seems utterly unimportant to him.) So that movie has graced our television screen more times than adult stars have graced Charlie Sheen's house. (Ha! See, I used topical humor there. Be amazed.)

I've started to notice, though, that many times while Cars is on, I don't watch the film - I watch Lucas. His reactions, his responses, the things he repeats and the things he loses interest in. That changes with every watching of the movie. Used to be, in the big car-crashing scene early in the movie, Lucas got very agitated - he didn't like seeing cars smashed - but later on, that didn't bother him. Now, though, seeing Lightning crashing through Radiator Springs agitated the heck out of him. It's interesting to see what fascinates him one day and becomes old hat the next - and vice versa.

Here's the closing thought that I wonder about, though:

When Lucas is watching a TV show with us (or rather, we're watching one while we eat and Lucas is there), most of our shows go into breaks of scene with a dramatic revelation. (You know, the typical cliffhanger at commercial or end-of-episode.) Here's the thing... there's no way Lucas is following the plot. Can't be, yet. All the same, though, whenever there's a big scene break, he stops watching the TV, looks at us, and says,

"Uh oh!"'s he do that?

I know so little about kids.