This book is hugely popular with little boys, but insufferably long and detailed, so that Penelope and I get SO tired of reading it. Having company means that Hank gets his favorite story, and we get a night off!
I came of age during Tipper Gore‘s rabid crusade to clean up the music industry for kids by putting warning labels on records, a mission which deeply offended my hair band-loving, pre-adolescent soul. For many people, this was a non-issue (Wikipedia devotes a single paragraph to the debate in its entry on Tipper), but to me it was significant. Significant enough that when Tipper was one of the candidates listed as a potential commencement speaker as I approached college graduation years later, I was still vehemently opposed. (We ended up with Elizabeth Dole, instead, so obviously my opposition won the battle but not the war.)
I am thinking about this today because tonight when I plugged my phone into my car stereo and cranked the tunes the way I often do, something happened that has never happened before. As I was singing along to Rehab’s Bartender Song (a song I love not because of its musical genius, but because it amuses me with its deft and sensitive portrayal of so many of the issues I wrestle with every day at work as a prosecutor), I became aware of a small voice piping up from the back seat, singing tunelessly and on a slight delay, “crashed… sh*t…yay!”
In that instant, I regretted the fact that for years, every single time I have had the choice between explicit and “clean” versions when downloading music, I have always opted for the dirty original. Now I will have a foul-mouthed toddler to show for it.
Luckily, I was driving, or I might have purged half of my digital music library right then and there. By the time I got home, I’d had some time to think about the issue, and to dial back the panic. I’d never given it all that much thought before, but Tipper’s parental notification crusade was just one of several dust-ups I had in my youth with those who would censor young people’s access to art in the interests of protecting impressionable minds.
In middle school, I got in big trouble not once but twice for sharing objectionable material with another student (and I was not a kid who often got in trouble, so I remember both incidents vividly). The first occurred in 1987, when Squeaky Fromme escaped from federal prison in an attempt to reunite with Charles Manson. We talked about her escape in school, where part of each day’s social studies class was devoted to discussion of current events. For reasons I don’t recall, I was fascinated by the story, so when I found my parent’s copy of Helter Skelter on our bookshelf a few days later, I read it cover-to-cover that very night. I was so impressed with it, I passed the book on to my then-best friend. Her mother did not share my enthusiasm, and did not believe this was appropriate reading material for her darling girl. This mom called the principal, and what followed was a surreal blur of visits to the office, teachers and librarians muttering darkly about book burning, and angry parents screaming at each other at PTA meetings. All of a sudden, I was living a scene boosted straight out of the original Footloose, I’m not kidding.
The second incident occurred two years later, when my first boyfriend loaned me a bootlegged copy of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. (Trust me, this was very avant garde in rural Vermont in 1989.) I don’t know that I actually liked it, but it was like nothing I’d ever heard before, so I loaned it to this same friend with the hyper-sensitive mama. Again, Mama did not share my enthusiasm. (It’s not that I’m a slow learner. My K-8 graduating class had only 21 students. My best friend was my best friend, through thick and thin. She couldn’t help her mama, who was actually a very nice lady when she wasn’t freaking out over what her kids were reading and listening to.) Anyway, cue Footloose pandemonium, part II.
I remember thinking, during the firestorm that followed both incidents, that the adults who were most upset about stamping out obscenity seemed a little off balance and more than a little ridiculous. Even at the time, decades away from becoming a parent myself, I sensed that this was an ineffective use of parental zeal. There will always be precocious kids like the one I was, who will expose their friends to books and music of which I, in my new role as protective mama, may not approve. I could spend my energies telling my kids what they can read and listen to and kicking up a fuss at parent conferences about which books should and should not be on the library shelves, but what a waste! Kids will do what they will, and I can’t be everywhere and know everything. (Though you’d better believe I’ll do my level best!)
Instead, I prefer to devote my efforts to teaching my kids how to put their own critical thinking skills to best use, to make open-minded, informed, independent judgments about the books they read and the music they hear. Yes, I will need to find a way to teach Hank that there is a time and a place to sing profane hip hop lyrics at the top of one’s lungs (the backseat of Mumma’s car), and a time and a place to refrain (church, say). But if I do my job well and nurture his natural curiosity and intelligence, he will be able to decide for himself what interests him.He’ll be able to quickly move beyond his initial, normal, predictable titillation with the naughty bits, and to decide whether the things he encounters have intellectual value beyond the mere lure of the forbidden. If I do my job well, he’ll respect the First Amendment as much as I do, and he won’t want Tipper Gore* at his graduation, either.
*Caveat: Let me add, in defense of Tipper, that she is on record as also supporting the First Amendment, and it’s not that I am opposed to the idea of warning parents that music might contain profane or violent or sexually explicit lyrics. I’m all for informed parenting! However, I object to the fact that we all know most parents use those labels to censor their kids’ exposure to the music which bears those labels, when it would be better (in my opinion) for parents to preview the album and have a frank discussion with their kids about whatever specific concerns come up, rather than forbidding the music outright.
It’s too bad that soap operas are a dying breed, because I think they may have been my calling. I have been writing fiction since middle school, but I never finish anything, because I lack discipline. I usually don’t bother to map out my plots before taking pen to paper, and when I do, I quickly toss the roadmap out the window at the first sign of an intriguing plot diversion. I am always sending my characters off on unforeseen detours without considering the long-term ramifications on the story, and it makes for a messy result: sometimes the decisions a character makes to end up on such a boondoggle is not in keeping with her values or motivations; often, the diversion is not in keeping with the themes of the story up to that point; always, always, always the detour sends the plot-train careening off the rails. However, some of those detours bring the plot to places that are better than I could have planned and imagined, and in that case, careful editing/re-writing of the beginning can salvage (and generally even improve) the story.
No, here is my real downfall: my inability to master (or, if I am honest, to even truly attempt) the art of the dénouement. Almost everything I have ever written ends in one of two ways. Most of my stories are truly soap-opera-esque, with a huge cast of characters who flit from one adventure or crisis or romance to another over the course of thousands of pages and the span of decades of fictional time. Occasionally, characters will die off — sometimes as a result of peaceful old age, but more often as part of the drama — but never, ever, ever, does the character arc reach resolution. Just when it looks like there might be a conclusion on the near horizon, there’s a car crash or a meteorological catastrophe or someone will get knocked up, and there goes the crazy plot-train, derailed again. This is the first option, and these stories always end with cliffhangers — not because I plan them that way, but because the plot detours have become so complicated and convoluted that I can’t begin to unravel them, and so I give up and go on to another project.
A few years ago, I decided that I am a grown-up and if I’m going to spend untold hours engaging in a hobby as self-indulgent as creative writing, I needed to be more disciplined. When a new story line would pop into my head, I made myself write it down, map out the dramatic structure, sketch the characters — what do they look like, sound like, what motivates them, what are their backstories, what fears make them lie awake at night, do they have annoying tics or charming quirks, et cetera — and most of all, Plan. The. Ending. Because, without a satisfying conclusion, what’s the point, right? We’ve all read books that are fabulously written, totally absorbing, exciting and delightful and transporting… right until the author gets lazy and writes a slapdash ending that falls flat and kills our pleasure in everything that went before, right? There is nothing sadder, more frustrating, more infuriating to a reader than that! It’s like getting food poisoning from a rich delicacy that tasted fantastic going down, but once it turns on us, our enjoyment of that dish is spoiled forever.
Alas, my efforts at plot discipline often turn out even worse than the stories that just go on and on, careening from climax to catastrophe and nadir to pinnacle: usually, these are the stories that bore me until I give up and abandon them, half-written. I will start with piles of notes about the characters, research about the settings and the plots, sketches of important places and people, and the most beautifully plotted dramatic arc, in which I know in advance the purpose of every single scene of every single chapter, and exactly how everything that happens in the story will lead into the next scene, and the next, and the one after that, until we reach a conclusion which is both surprising and thrilling and yet also, in retrospect, somehow a bit inevitable. -Weeks and months of prep work, in which planning and researching the story has taken all of my free time, has consumed my every thought so that I am wandering around in a distracted haze, and yet….
And yet, somewhere along the line, no matter how promising the story seems to be, no matter how carefully planned, no matter how rigidly I resist the impulse to let my characters tiptoe along the primrose paths of plot diversions, I always become convinced in the middle of the writing that the story is turning out to be utter shite. Boring, lifeless, pretentious, uninspired, ridiculous, embarrassingly horrific drivel. So I give up. Rather than burning themselves out in a blaze of credulity-straining action that is (sometimes) glorious in its absurdity, these stories trip along haltingly until they sputter and die, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
Anyway, it’s too bad about soap operas, because if I could have been a soap opera writer, I wouldn’t need to bother with plot resolution. I could happily send my characters on wildly improbable adventures, let them fall in and out of love on a whim, lift them up and send them plummeting, toy with their emotions, and never worry about where or when the crazy train would reach the station. Best of all, I could have gotten paid for it!
I cry at cheesy movies and even cheesier commercials. It doesn’t take much to turn on my faucet. This being the case, I’m not sure I’ve got the emotional fortitude to read the Hunger Games trilogy. I started last night, and bawled my way through the first three chapters before I had to give up and think happy thoughts in order to sleep.
Penelope’s only exposure to the Hunger Games phenomenon are the dozens of bad book reports she’s gotten from her middle school students, which have killed any desire she might have had to read the books. This being the case, she has absolutely zero sympathy for me, of course.