My Son, the Brit

It’s been more than a month since I posted anything. What a slacker I am! Life has offered my family many changes, and at the same time stayed remarkably similar. Since the Comparative Drama Conference in April, I’ve worked steadily as Music Director on Christian Youth Theatre (CYT) of Fredericksburg’s production of Shrek; I’ve co-moderated a World Religions class at church; I’ve done several performances with Murder Mysteries Will Travel; I’ve rehearsed my Unitarian Universalist choirs and handbell ensemble closer and closer to our culminating performances on June 11 and 17; oh, and two trees fell on our house that, after a month, the landlord or owner have yet to do anything about! There are many things in the world to talk about and on my mind – Star Trek: Discovery, Season 10 of Doctor Who, the Trump presidency, the 2017 Hay House World Summit, my wife’s upcoming trip to London, my own future career plans, new music to compose, the third book in the Love Anyway Series, finishing that 5,000th haiku, my health etc. I think (for today, for this post anyway) I’ll concentrate on my son, the Bup or John Adams, who at the moment talks like he walked off the set of Downton Abbey. Which isn’t really a bad thing when you think about it.

For more than two months now, Bup has been obsessed with the British children’s show, Peppa Pig. For those keeping score, that means we’ve gone through (though still like) our Thomas the Train phase, into a British-dubbed show from Grenada called Pocoyo (narrated by Stephen Fry), into Peppa Pig. All three shows feature incredible diction, relatively good manners, limited sass, and of course lots and lots of British colloquialisms and variations of speech from American to British. The little sponge that Bup is, he is absorbing them all. And it’s often hilarious.

Bup in Shades

Rockin’ his shades and Thomas jammies

At present we don’t take a nap. We take ‘a lie in.’ We don’t get gas. We check to see if ‘we’re out of petrol.’ And when the GPS is talking we ask ‘if the SAT-NAV knows where we are?’It’s also true that, compared to many three-year- olds, his diction is impeccable by comparison. When he is ‘cross’ with either me or Mummy, he hits his final consonants with a venom that could only make the Queen Mum proud. None of this was deliberately planned on my part. However, from little on up I’ve made it a point to police what he watches to make certain that his viewing is not too adversely affecting his behavior, and the harsh reality is that American children’s programming is often (with the exception of things like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers reruns) wise-cracky, mildly profane, mildly sexualized, full of burp and fart jokes, and often features imbecilic oblivious parents with slick, fast-talking children that outsmart them and disrespect them at every turn. And that’s pretty much any channel up to and including Disney Jr.

The best programs that we’ve been able to find for him (after Baby First TV when he was very little) or that he’s discovered on his own, have been either on PBS Kids, like Super WHYY, Nature Cat, and Peg + Cat, or have been British imports like Thomas, Pocoyo, or Peppa Pig. It is also true that we do watch live action shows with Bup like Star Trek, Once Upon a Time, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but we do try to contextualize the violence and fighting between the good and bad guys , and try to explain to him what’s good and bad behavior when given the opportunity. I don’t think we totally live in a bubble, but at least where his cartoons are concerned, the bubble has a distinctly European sensibility, and that brings with it better than average manners. And that is something I can live with.

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Sporting his “Peppa Pig” George and his dinosaur T-shirt

And so, for the moment, I will continue to watch and rewatch the 208 episodes of Peppa Pig, enduring her family fascination with muddy puddles and living on hillsides, until Bup tires of her and decides to move on. At present, he pulls up Calliou on his Ipad (a show Nancy hates) and Ryan Toy’s Review (a show with little to no value whatsoever), but those are minor occurrences in our otherwise well-mannered and well-ordered world of more appropriate viewing. And when his tastes change, I will be the one to have to roll with it. For now, I just love my little Brit, and his ‘please, thank you, and it would be my pleasure’ ways. Case in point: the other day, driving home from Nanny and Pop Pop’s house in Philly I spied a large cross on the side of a church that I knew Bup could see from his car seat.

“Look at the big cross, Bup. There’s no Jesus on it. Where did Jesus go?” I asked.
He thought for a moment and then replied in his best aristocratic tone, “I don’t know, Daddy. Maybe he went on holiday.”

Kids do say the darnedest things.

Peace,
Jason

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But I Repeat Myself aka “I Love Repetition!”

I have errands to run, places to go, things to do. I usher my son John Adams out of the house into “Daddy’s Car.” He has Best Friend Blankie in one hand and his cherished blue juice cup in the other. I open the door for him and hold his stash while he climbs in. I strap him in, hand him juice cup and BFB and go around to my side to get in and drive. I start the car and a voice from the back seat commands, “I want my Nabi!” A cold chill runs down my spine. “How do we ask?” I say simply, wearily. “I want my Nabi please,” comes the response, a touch contrite, but no less an edict from the authorities. I reach next to me on the passenger’s seat and reluctantly hand back the red and white children’s iPad that contains all of John Adams’s videos and learning games. “No innernet in the car,” he says as a reminder mantra to us both. “That’s right. No internet in the car,” I say. With that, conversation ceases, and as I’m backing the car out of our driveway I get my last moment of silence before I’m slammed with the raucous sound of “coustic” guitars, bagpipes, and seemingly angry Celtic vocals. No longer a jaunty adventure mobile shared between Bup and Daddy, the car has been transformed into a Groundhog Day-esque hellscape where only two songs by my son’s currently favorite band, Enter the Haggis, are played over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again!!! My son is three and we like repetition. Loudly!

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Playing the “violin” is serious business guys!

In fact, we took the train ride to Repetition Station over a year and a half ago when he discovered Thomas the Tank Engine. There were other cartoons before that – Tillie Knock Knock, Color Crew, Sesame Street – but when Thomas pulled into his life it was love at first chuff, and we have yet to let the boiler grow cold. And so, since that time I have been deluged in Thomas lore, repeating episode collections like Curious Cargo and Thomas and the Runaway Kite over ad nauseum until both Nancy and I can do the dialogue in our sleep. And it’s an interesting and curious thing how the mind works. I find that, one, since I have had to watch it to make him happy, over the long haul I’ve started to appreciate and even like it despite having no initial interest in the cartoon. And, two, again because of the repetition, I’ve found myself curiously drawn to the nuances of the show, often speculating on the timeline of episodes, and of certain island practices that occur with either regularity or normalcy. I confess I have looked up “Thomas the Tank Engine” and related articles on Wikipedia to deepen my experience of the show. (blush) I have – in the comfort of my own home – asked questions like:

  1. Why does Sir Topham Hatt always have two cronies flanking him that never speak, but always seem to be on the lookout for trouble?
  2. What really is the geography of the Island of Sodor?
  3. Why do the train engineers have no authority over their engines? Are they even necessary? They never speak either? Are they enslaved?
  4. Why are diesels generally considered “bad” except for a couple of token “good ones?” What’s that about?
  5. Who really owns the train line? Variously Sir Topham Hatt, Sir Percival, and the Earl of Sodor have all claimed vague ownership in episodes? Do they have a monopoly on transportation that prevents competition?

You get the point.

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John Adams posing with his dear friend, Percy.

Well, actually, my larger point is that, like it or not and often in spite of our selves, repetition is a powerful learning tool that can create both interest and an awareness of the depth of the subject that is not perceived by cursory experience. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, considering the lambasting and de-emphasis that repetition is taking in current educational theory. When I was in school we repeated patterns all the time: word lists, clock faces, multiplication tables, state capitals and the like. True, these were often boring exercises, but I can’t argue with the results. Drilling something actually works. I know it’s not fun, but I’m not sure how the children of tomorrow are supposed to deeply and critically think about a subject for which they have no previous knowledge committed to memory. Unless, of course, we assume that every conversation is connected to the Internet at all times, and we all know how reliable that is for providing only accurate information! Many young people I meet  – not all – can’t spell (“Spell check will do it for me.”), can’t do simple math (“We use calculators in class.”), don’t know the history or geography of their own country (“Well, if I need to know that stuff, I just look it up on my phone!”), and the list goes on.

I’m reminded of the story of naturalist John Muir, how he had the entire New Testament committed to memory, chapter and verse, and large portions of the Old Testament as well. It’s true his father forced him to do so, often with the threat of physical violence, but that aside, the stories of the way he could juxtapose the beauty of nature with his knowledge of the Bible are legendary; that wellspring of memorized verse gave him a unique, unrivaled, educated perspective that served him for his entire life and made him an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I don’t advocate the beatings, but I do see the merit to the memorization, and I worry that without even basic memorized knowledge, a person can’t really think deeply and critically about a subject, even if they think they can.  For myself, I maintain five poems that I have committed to memory and I’m very proud of that fact. And, yes, it was hard work, and was not fun to do. But the pride I feel at being able to rattle off a Frost or a Dickinson offsets the time spent in the rote learning. And that takes me back to my son playing “Turn it Up” and “King’s Daughters” over and over again in the car.

He sits in the car seat and watches the instrumentalists and sings along, and plays his “air guitar” and his “air violin” and he wants a “white ‘lectric guitar” for Christmas because “they do loud, right?” His interest, his repetition of the same, is driving me insane, but it’s stirring and cultivating something deep inside him. His three-year-old mind knows what’s best for its learning process. Now isn’t that a curious notion? I wonder at what age we lose that insight; puberty maybe? But for now he’s learning, he’s deepening his appreciation for the subject, be it Thomas or Haggis or what have you, and who knows where that will lead next. And my job as Daddy is to support and nurture his interest in all things, even if that means repetitively. (sigh) So my car drives on, and I’m slowly losing my mind to a Celtic beat, but at least I’ll go insane with a smile on my face.

The road goes ever on and on…and on…and on…

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Caught in the act of playing his “violin.” The Nabi sits on the sofa streaming Enter the Haggis videos!

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. If you don’t read my posts regularly, our new book, Mommy Made a Beastie (But I Love Her Anyway) is now available on Amazon! Here’s the link information: https://www.amazon.com/Mommy-Made-Beastie-Love-Anyway/dp/153932723X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 

My Son, the Train

My son is a train. I know how it happened. I know when it happened. I know who did it to him. But none of that changes the fact that my son is a train. More than a year ago, his grandparents – Nancy’s parents – took our sweet, blond-haired, blue-eyed baby human boy to the Strasberg Railroad in Lancaster County, PA. They left him ride in a car coupled up to an old black steam engine called Old Ninety. They took him in the Thomas the Train Gift Shop and got him a present. Then they took him home to their place, and thought it had been a nice day. A cute, once in a lifetime (or every few years) experience for a small boy. They thought nothing more of it. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

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John Adams and Pop Pop posing with beloved Old 90 at Strasberg Railroad

It’s been going on two years now, and my son is a train. He “woo woos” and “chugga chuggas” around the house. He couples up with his parents and grandparents with a resounding “da-doom!” He watches (for hours) videos of trains – steamies and diesels – on the Nabi, or kids iPad, that his grandparents got for him whenever we go in the car. We have at least six motorized Thomas and Friends engines and their respective coal cars that zip under our sofa in fear and despair. He has at least thirty Steam Team “minis” that he plays with religiously and knows all, ALL, their names! Not a day goes by that Thomas isn’t on our TV, learning how to be “really useful” and getting smacked around by railroad owner-manager and iron-fisted mob boss Sir Topham Hat. Occasionally, it’s Chuggington or Dino-Trains, but most days, hours, minutes. It’s THOMAS!!! Making tracks to new destinations.

Mr. Perkins, the live-action engine driver that serves as a comic relief pitcher between Thomas episodes, feels like an old family friend that comes over for a visit, but never leaves. He’s constantly on the phone with Sir Topham Hatt, (and always shocked by this) sweeps up the Engine Driver’s Common Room, washes dishes, can’t get a vacation, works on his days off (Thanks, Boss Hatt) and makes cakes that look like Thomas the Train. John Adams’s Nanny has already bought the cake pan and, rest assured, next week when our son-turned-train turns three on Sept. 11, he will do so with a Thomas shaped cake as well as Thomas cupcakes. John Adams decided this mind you, and Nanny willingly complied.

We sleep in Thomas jammies, we wear Thomas shirts, we pee in Thomas pull-ups, we eat from Thomas plates. I am reminded of my own stint with Under-roos, but I was more culturally diverse, you see. I ranged from Spider-Man to Yoda  proudly and without irony. I could wear a Superman sleep shirt with Batman underwear and not feel conflicted. Not so my son. And as for Strasberg, well, he’s there again today for his umpteenth time. We have all lost count. He has been to “Day Out with Thomas” there three times! He visits Old Ninety like an old friend. He watches eagerly as the trains couple up. He names the parts – boiler, cow catcher, funnel – with ease. His grandparents lament that they didn’t purchase a season pass. The people that work at Strasberg recognize him and call him by name, like Norm from Cheers. That’s how frequently he is there. He fancies himself to be Sir Topham Hat, and at two years old no one can tell him different. He is the boss of the place.

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Astride Thomas at Strasberg Railroad

All kidding aside, my son, not quite three, has a tremendous imagination. He talks in first person both to and as his trains. He has voices for each one of them, and holds real if simple conversations. We hear him in his bed rallying the team before slumber, and sometimes stifle the heartiest of laughs while eavesdropping. Nancy and I have voices that we must do when we are his trains – Old 90 is a wise Southern-drawled streamie from Strasburg, Charlie of Thomas fame must laugh before each sentence, Gordon sounds a bit like pompous Stan Smith from American Dad – and the list goes on. As the child of actor parents he has picked up our gift of voices and when he does his trains they often have distinct dialects of their own from out of his head. The whole thing is as wonderful as it is exhausting. Sit on a hard wood floor for hours at a time, trying to second guess the hyper-imaginative needs of a two-year old and you’ll see what I mean.

Next Sunday my little steamie will turn three. I couldn’t be prouder of him. He is handsome and headstrong; intelligent and healthy. He has gifted me with his love for almost three years, and with that gift have come the additional presents of play and imagination.  I didn’t play much in the years prior to his arrival. And I pretty much saved my imagination for onstage, where I liked to be paid for its usage. My little man has changed all that, at least for the time being. And I’ve laughed and loved a lot more as a result.

Yes, my son is a train. Nancy gave birth to a 7 pound steamie that day, complete with coal car, and pink tiny, shiny caboose.  Maybe someday, like Pinocchio, he’ll have aspirations of turning into a Real Boy. But I don’t see that day coming anytime soon. So if you happen to see my son next week for his birthday, make sure to give him a hearty Happy Birthday Woo Woo from you. And as for me, I’ll probably be hovering somewhere near the edge of the tracks trying to make myself “Really Useful.”

Oh, the indignity!!!

Jason

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John Adams with his idol, Sir Topham Hat, at Day Out with Thomas at Strasberg Railroad.