Adult Situations and Language

This is my fiftieth post, which is a lot.  Wordpress gives you little badges for every ten posts or so, and I shouldn’t care about that stuff, but I do.  I get excited about my badges on Livestrong too.  Oddly enough, the spellcheck for WordPress does not recognize the word “WordPress”.  It also does not recognize the word “spellcheck”.

I wrote this essay four years ago, but I took it out and rewrote it over the past two weeks.  It’s long, but I can’t really figure out where to cut it.  I just sent it off for consideration, so tell me what you think.  Special thanks to Christene who took a look at it and gave me some ideas for cuts.

Adult Situations and Language

 

My wife and I rarely argue; most of the time she explains why I’m wrong and I listen and nod.  I’ve stopped pointing out things that annoy me about her.  I might as well pull the pin on a grenade and eat it with salsa. She is, aside from being far more rational, caring, and blameless than I, a world-class arguer at her most convivial; cornered, she’s a wolverine.  She will attack past any and all reason and logic.  She will listen only enough to find things to disagree with.  There is no truth she cannot find objectionable.  There is no hatchet too deeply buried.

She is an artist.

The only argument I am still adamant about is what my kids are (or aren’t) allowed to watch.  My gut reaction is anything with no sexual penetration, but I dial it back to PG-13, except that rare occasion (Aliens, Terminator 2, Die Hard) when the film’s overwhelming quality and life-affirming message trumps the recommendations of the MPAA.

My children are ten, seven, and four.

They are good kids.

As I type this, all three of my children are spending their leisurely Sunday morning with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  It’s rated PG, but the movie is famous for creating the need for the PG-13 rating due to its violence and intense scenes of monkey-brain eating and anesthesia-free heart surgery.  They are unsupervised–which is really the point of putting them in front of the television anyway, right?–and seem completely at ease, even while an evil and overwhelmingly stereotypical Indian reaches into some poor schmo’s chest and removes his still-beating heart before giving him an elevator ride into an active volcano.

“Sweet,” my youngest says, as if he were watching a replay from last night’s 49ers-Saints game.

“Does he eat it now?  The bald guy?” my middle asks.

“No dummy.  Eating a heart’s gross,” says my oldest.

“Don’t say dummy,” I call.

“Sorry!” they all say in unison.

See?

Good kids.

 

All three of my kids have probably seen movies they shouldn’t; my oldest has seen the most, and shows the most interest, followed by the middle, as would be expected.  My middle daughter, however, is the most sophisticated wit and understands the naughty bits more quickly, so we have to be careful.

I’m never that careful.

My four-year-old is still in the early haze of childhood, not quite a toddler, but still seemingly unaware of what constitutes good and poor behavior.   He understands that he can’t shout “poop” at dinner (he does anyway) or play with his scrotum at the park (he does anyway) but he’s still seemingly oblivious to overtly violent or sexual imagery on television.[1]

They have seen, to this point, all of the Indiana Jones movies, as well as Star Wars (the old ones; we pretend the new ones were never made), Close Encounters of Third Kind, Terminator 2, Inception, Batman Begins, Speed, Superman Returns, Spiderman I and II, Back to the Future I, II, and III, and Rocky I, II, III, IV, and Balboa, among others.

They’ve also wandered into Celine and Julie Go Boating, The Seventh Seal, The Conformist, and L’Aventura, as well as suffered an unfortunate run-in with Jackass II, when I thought they were asleep.

Try explaining to a five-year-old why a violently swearing, tattooed putz is taking a shit in a dollhouse toilet.  If you can do it with some modicum of grace, you deserve either a medal or a free pass to hell.  I’m still waiting on the medal.

 

My father and mother let me watch whatever I wanted, or to be fairer, indulged and tolerated my curiosity for film.  They didn’t have much of a choice.  Accessibility to movies, in terms of procuring and consuming, exploded in the early eighties, a time rivaled only now in the free-streaming, online era.  When my parents grew up, and even during the first few years of my life, one saw movies in the theater, or had to wait until they were run on network television years later.  It was a tightly-controlled environment.

VCRs and recordable cassettes changed that, as did pay cable.  I was six when my dad came home with a new television, VCR, and video store rental membership.  It was a grand day.  He rented Old Yeller and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The television was wood-paneled and as big as my current oven, with a screen about the size of, well, the window on my current oven.  Enormous.  We invited neighbors over, air-popped some popcorn, and watched Raiders three times in one night.

Before, movies were a sitter, a car-trip, blankets in the back for the drive-in.  Now film was not performed but procured, a consumable thing, part of the fabric of your home life.  HBO and Cinemax cemented that relationship by showing movies 24/7.

When VCR prices dropped significantly in 1984 or ‘85, we bought two: one to play a movie and another to dub it.  All of a sudden, we had copies of The Godfather, Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, Revenge of the Nerds, and Porky’s just lying around the house.  All a kid needed was a couple hours alone.

My education in the dirty realms of sex and violence was not uncommon, before or after the videocassette deluge.  Print pornography has been around since Plato and before.  Intrepid kids snuck into grindhouses to catch exploitation films.  However, the chance to watch people fuck or kill each other, even in simulation, was never so easy.

It wasn’t parents’ faults, either.  Kids are little spies.  Not in the sense that they are watching and recording everything around them[2], but that they are tremendously sophisticated little actors, and sneaky as hell.

So, given the demonic combination of curiosity, stealth, and opportunity, and suddenly everyone I knew had at his or her disposal a treasure trove of educational sin.

On top of that, my dad was tired of waiting for his firstborn to grow old enough to share all his favorite movies.  Despite my dad’s middle-brow exterior, he was quite the cinephile, and we had afternoons of spaghetti-westerns, gangster movies, and sci-fi spectaculars.  I remember an argument he had with my mom one evening about how I was old enough to watch First Blood.  I was seven.  The only evidence he could provide was that I’d seen all the Dirty Harry movies and hadn’t succumbed to nightmares, so this one would be cake.  An airtight defense.

So, because my life is really all I know, I imagine that letting my kids watch inappropriate films is a necessary step to their self-fulfillment and maturity.  It’s like the cycle of violence or abuse, only on celluloid.  And though I am well-aware that my reasons are as shaky as my father’s that night he convinced my mom to let me watch Sylvester Stallone impale local cops on skewers and lay waste to an unsuspecting town, the alternative is having to watch these movies alone.

That is unacceptable.

 

Truth is, we have great conversations when we watch these movies.  We recently discussed why Indiana Jones seems to have to punch everyone.  Everyone.   In the three films[3] he hits Nazis (shitloads), Egyptians, Frenchmen, Chinese, and Indians (both foreign and domestic); soldiers, policemen, gangsters, sherpas, domestic help, and on one unfortunate occasion an unsuspecting cigarette girl who got in the way while he was trying to punch a Chinese gangster who may or may not have been affiliated with the police, the Nazis, or a random group of sherpas.

Weirdly, it was the domestic–a butler–that upset my kids the most.  Perhaps you remember the scene: it occurs during The Last Crusade, when Indiana and his duplicitous sidekick Elsa infiltrate the Nazi-infested castle where they are holding Indy’s father (Sean Connery).  Indiana Jones is dressed unconvincingly—in fact laughably—as Scottish law, with an accent that would get him tarred-and-feathered in Glasgow.  When the butler calls him on his stupid beret and hambone accent be knocks him out[4].  It’s a cold move, and though you can chalk it up to the stress level Jones is feeling at the time (his father has been kidnapped by Nazis, after all), all three of my kids cried foul.

“Why’d he hit the butler?” asked my oldest.

“The butler wasn’t buying the Scottish law deal,” I reply.

“Punching is mean,” says my middle.  She has some experience with punching, giving and receiving, so she knows of which she speaks.

“The butler is a Nazi,” I explain.

“Oh,” they say, though I can tell they aren’t convinced.

I’ve already had to thumbnail the Nazi movement for my kids.  They were German’s in the 1930’s and 1940’s who killed people for no reason.  When they asked whom they killed, I said “Jews”[5].  When they asked who the Jews were/are, the only thing I could come up with on the fly was that they were a people who didn’t eat pork or shellfish (fucking pathetic, I know, but should I start at Genesis 1:1 and go from there?  Indiana Jones is on!).  Armed with this embarrassingly scant explanation, and deformed by their father’s insistence that they watch age-inappropriate programs with little to no context, they made due.  Immediate synaptic adaptation.

Jews=Awesome.

Nazis=Shit.

Not a bad day’s work, Pop.

Still, the butler is dressed in a tux and looks like a grandpa.  He’s not in jackboots, not goose-stepping, not smoking a cigarette between the middle and ring fingers of a black leather-gloved hand.  They want to know, in so many words, how a butler, some dude trying to provide for him and his during wartime, can be all bad.

“He’s a Nazi butler,” I say again, hoping repetition carries us through.

“He kills Jews?” my oldest asks.

“Well, no.”

“So he isn’t bad?” my middle asks.  I can feel their hero-worship for Dr. Jones fading.  Change gears, fast!

“Well, he cleans and cooks and irons and washes for Nazis, and that gives them more time to kill Jews.”

Bam.

“Does he know they kill Jews?” asks my oldest, who’s seriously starting to get me worked up.  At this point it’s tempting to preface Hannah Arendt and her thoughts on the banality of evil set forth in her seminal work Eichmann in Jerusalem, or maybe the quiet tragedy of the butler in The Remains of the Day, but I defer to a more time-honored approach.  Lies.

“Totally.  Loves it.  Loves that they kill Jews.  Makes swastika-shaped pancakes to celebrate.”

“What’s a swastika?”

Fuck.

Not a shining moment, and I don’t even want to get into the body count in those films, a majority of which are notched by the titular hero, though for some reason my kids don’t get upset about Indy killing the bad guys, just hitting them.  This is a strange and perhaps even chilling paradox, but not impossible to explain.  It’s really about schemata; their concept of hitting has been well established.  It’s bad.  You don’t hit.  If you get hit, you don’t hit back.  If hitting occurs, the punishment is a spanking, which is a parent-approved way of silently asserting: “Hitting’s wrong.  Hit and you’ll get hit.”

Getting hit hurts.  They know this.  Dying—in whatever way it happens—is the undiscovered country and can be explained away.  The guy isn’t really dead; it’s just a movie.  I actually think this conversation, distinguishing the real from make-believe, can only be broached when watching more “grown-up” films.

Maybe it’s because in having such a conversation, I’m not just hinting at the darkest corners of the human heart or the sickest nooks and crannies of the mind, but of my mind, my heart.  I am aware that the world is, can be, such an awful place.  I’m selfish.  I want to keep my kids innocent for as long as I can, but whom am I really doing it for?  My kids make me realize that this planet can be good and funny and hopeful.  They let me reclaim a small portion of innocence.  Despite my somewhat cavalier instincts concerning what they should be allowed to watch, I have rules I follow and lines I don’t cross and rationales for those rules and lines.

Random, contradictory, ridiculous rules and lines, but nonetheless…

And that’s why they aren’t allowed to watch two people fucking.

This is finally a stupid rule, right?   They will, presumably, have a (hopefully) happy, well-adjusted and healthy sex life.  I really, really hope they do.  I hope all three of my kids find someone they love and respect and cherish and fuck that someone stupid.  No joke.  Fuck ‘em blue.  It’s one of the more profound human connections we make with another life form.  Go for it.

But don’t watch it yet.  Please?  Not with me in the room or aware of what you’re watching?  I can’t handle it.

So I let my children watch a human being kill another human being, something I hope they never have to do or have done to them.  But I am adamant that they do not watch one person fuck another person or get fucked by them.  Even though they will, presumably, have that experience (hopefully) more than once in their life?

You bet.

Let’s speak of schema and schemata[6], shall we?  I would argue that most humans could not seriously conceive of, consider, decide upon and undertake killing a person.  We may want to; we may daydream elaborate scenarios; but when it comes down to it, we will probably not get the opportunity, we are respectful of the laws that restrict that kind of behavior, and we just couldn’t actually go through with it[7].

It’s within the realm of fantasy.  That’s true whether it’s Saw or Saving Private Ryan, Amistad or Aladdin.  It’s dismissible because it is, ostensibly, out of the realm of experience of any and all watching[8].

But if kids see two people fucking, they’re going to ask their parents what’s going on.  If their parents are honest[9] they’re going to explain.  And somewhere deep in the kid’s brain, in the animal part, the evolutionarily vital part that keeps us, as a race, still here and multiplying, a breaker’s going to flip and the kid’s going to understand.

They will ask, “Do you and mommy/daddy do that?”

And you’re going to have to answer: Not Anymore, because you’re here.  But we used to, all the time, and it was glorious.

Just kidding.  I don’t know what you say, because my kids don’t watch people fuck on my shift.

I think what scares me most is my kids connecting the act to me, my wife, and our life.  We build a wall around us when it comes to that behavior, like most people with kids, and the mixed motivations of our various roles—father, brother, husband, lover, etc.—is a difficult thing to explain.

Enough blabber.  HERE’S what I’m scared of:

What if I’m watching something with my kids, and it gets steamy-dirty-sexy, and my kids get turned on?  They’re not that young, and I’m not old enough to have forgotten that it happens pretty early.  That’s fucking terrifying!

Now there’s all three, four or five of us, sitting in the same room, all of us watching the same thing,[10] and then a scene rolls through, and I’m aware of it, and when it’s going to occur in the film, and I know its coming, and suddenly Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze[11] are fucking, standing up, in the enviably spacious Manhattan loft.  It’s an intense, passionate scene, with nothing that overtly rates an “R”, and yet I can hang a coat off my dick.

What if my daughters, or my son, are feeling the same way?

We ain’t nothin’ but mammals, right?

Can you feel me?

Can I get an amen?

Am I responsible for the budding and awakening tumescence that has made itself known to my children?  Am I the catalyst of their sinful awakening?  The snake in their garden?

Holy shit.  I would be the snake in their garden.

So do I, as the adult, as the responsible parent, consider such things and skip ahead or, God forbid, refuse to screen that particular film for my children?  Of course not.  I wade in, often wrong but never in doubt, Bush on the aircraft carrier, dressed like a soldier, dumb as a corncob, convinced that “certain” is far superior to “right” and hell-bent to sacrifice whomever or whatever I have to, to get what I want.

When it’s all said and done, though, I would probably opt for the dump-truck-sized piles of discomfort I would feel watching two people have simulated, on-screen sex with my kids[12] over watching the overweening, sentimental, LSD-fueled bullshit that television produces for children.

It hasn’t really changed since I was a kid.  There are three kinds, as far as I can tell: hyper-ironic, humorless sitcoms/sketch shows in the Full House/You Can’t Do That on Television vein, scatological nonsense such as Cat-Dog and Gumball, and precious, lesson-driven over-simplications like Caillou, Special Agent: OSO and Dora the Explorer[13].  The last of these are absolute mind-melters and the reason the terrorists are winning.

What really distresses me is the general tenor of self-congratulatory accomplishment theses shows tries to engender.  Tying your shoes?  Acting like a human being towards another human being?  That makes you a hero?

I don’t advocate that Disney start screening Shoah for kids at six in the morning.  But if the people responsible believe that this is really what the incipient generation of Americans can handle and need to accomplish in order to be successful human beings, then we are all truly and profoundly fucked.

It’s finally about connection and discussion.  You can teach a group of struggling learners how to read Shakespeare.  I’ve done it.  It just takes time and the commitment to sit down with them and explain how it works.  They aren’t going to get it at first.  They will have questions.  I’ll need to answer them.  But they will.  They will understand if I put in the time.

Instead, we’d rather give canned lessons that are immediately comprehensible and call it learning.  Then we, as teachers and parents[14] can pat ourselves on the back.  Success!

Nope.  Not even close.

My parents made a lot of mistakes.  Some I know about, others I don’t.  I’m sure, extra sure, that my kids will one day understand the same thing about me.  However, one thing (of many) that they did right is they saw how smart my sisters and I were and did not fear it.  Did not try to fight it with compromise and easy lessons in terms of what we read, watched, or listened to.  They treated us like people.

I mentioned my father’s influence on me in terms of film.  But the most instructive story I can think of is about my mother.  One Saturday evening, we were alone.  I was eight.  I have no idea where my sisters were.  Possibly with grandparents. My father was out of town.  My mom and I went out to dinner[15] and then home to watch the Olympics.  It was the night Mary Lou Retton won the all-around and became an icon.

The Terminator came on HBO.  My mom had seen it, so she knew it had about everything you’d want to shield an eight-year-old from: sex, violence, and a twisty, paradox-filled plotline that could induce seizures in an eight-year-old’s brain and murderous urges in a beleaguered mother after too many questions.

She didn’t even hesitate.

“You’re going to love this,” she said.

And I did.  Still do.

It’s my all-time favorite movie; not just because it’s such a well-designed brain-cruncher, but because it’s a memory.  My mom and I, watching a movie, together.

So when I argue with my wife, I bring up this story.  And I can tell she understands.

Then she hops on the internet and tells me that Mary Lou Retton won the All-Around Gold Medal on August 3rd, 1984.

A Friday.


[1]            Not that I’ve done tests.  That would be heinous. Nor do I regularly watch snuff porn when he’s in the room.  But he can wander in, glance at True Blood or Saw III, and wander out without asking questions.  Those days, I fear, are numbered.

[2] They are, by the way.  My kid wrote a story, for a classroom project, about getting me beers from the fridge when she was in first grade.

[3] Like the recent Star Wars prequels, we pretend the fourth Indiana Jones does not exist.  In addition, my kids and I have made a pact that the Karate Kid ends at number 2, Rocky V never happened, there’s no such thing as Grease 2, and Mel Gibson died shortly after Signs was released, in 2002.

[4] Quick side note: Indiana Jones is capable of knocking anyone his size or smaller stone-cold unconscious with one punch whenever the script demands it.  Though I am aware that this is a convention of the 1930’s and 40’s adventure serial that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are celebrating with the films, realistically the motherfucker must have heavier hands than Roberto Duran to inflict so much damage.  Watch the castle scene I’m referring to above; he doesn’t even punch him.  He bitchslaps the poor bastard, and the guy drops like he took the business end of a spud bar.  How many poor, Indiana-Jones-raised saps had unrealistic expectations of such power only to get their heads kicked in after their opponent shook off their best shot?

[5] An obvious and quite possibly offensive oversimplification.

[6] Confession: I don’t know the difference between these two words.  I included both so it looks like I’m being repetitive for style’s sake, but the truth is I’m just hedging my bets.

[7] This is born out by a study I read about former soldiers who fought in World War II.  Almost all (75-80%) admitted they shot to miss and fired high and wide on purpose.  20% said they shot to kill, but imagined that they would be troubled by their actions for the remainder of their lives.  2-5% seemed comfortable with killing, either at home or abroad.  There’s an excellent book by Dave Grossman called On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society that I have not read but showed up on the first Google search I conducted to back up my figures.  Solid research, right there.

[8] I often wonder what it would be like to watch The Godfather with a hit man, or Silence of the Lambs with Charles Manson.  Would they cry foul or complain about the general lack of verisimilitude?  I’ve seen movies about teachers, and as a teacher myself, all I can say is if they screw up slasher movies as badly as they do classroom dramas, there’s a lot of corrections to be made.  I know a cop who won’t watch police procedurals because the sloppy research pisses him off, so who knows?

[9] Or at least strive for honesty…

[10] Dirty Dancing, say.  Or FootlooseGhost.  Something mildly potent.  I just want you to know that I’m not talking about porn.  I’m not watching Jenna Jameson with my kids.  Kids should find porn the old fashioned way: from the skeezey kid next door and his dad’s pile of Penthouse.

[11] R.I.P. Dalton.  “Pain don’t hurt.”

[12] To clarify: I would be watching it with my kids.  I would not be watching my kids have sex.

[13] I’m oversimplifying to make a point.  There are quality programs for kids, both cinematic and televised.  Hugo came out this year.  Pixar, with the exception of Cars 2 (overcomplicated and elitist) is always a homerun despite some troubling thematics.  Spongebob and Phineas and Ferb are first rate.

[14] Same thing, by the way.

[15] Bonanza Bar and Grill: weird that I remember where we ate but not where my sisters were.  Understandable, though: I was a chunky kid.  Food was important.

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Filed under Essays, Film, Kids, My Issues

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