31 January 2012

Bad Roommate

As we race toward a two-kid household—less than a month out at this point—and all the myriad challenges and chaos that will inevitably follow, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the experience of having this third wheel, our little Doozer, under our roof.

He’s been around long enough now that our differences are pretty clear. Our lifestyle choices, hygiene habits, household preferences. In a way, it’s like having a really bad roommate, only you can’t move out. And neither will he. At least not for many years. How many it is currently too early to tell, and I shudder to consider all the potential increments. You’re stuck. It’s like when you get married or move in with your significant other. All roommates are annoying, but it’s not like you’re going to split up over toothpaste or dirty dishes or laundry.

It’s not like college, where you can just hang in there until the next semester and hopefully end up with somebody else. Or just find another place, like when you were single. And beyond that, you can’t establish normal boundaries the way you would with a regular roommate. There is no such thing as privacy in this situation, no unspoken agreements, as you might have with a college or single, twentysomething flatmate.

“Dada? Why is that sock on the door? What are you doing in there? Dada? Dada . . . ?”

So then, here are some things I don’t always like about my kid—let’s call him the world’s most annoying roommate—in no particular order:

1. Fighting sleep. And then getting super-cranky and overtired. There is a direct correlation there, kid. Figure it out already.
2. When he pretends not to understand me, though clearly he does. Stop being so wily. And crafty. I mean it. Stop.
3. Selective hearing. (See number 2.)
4. We’re still watching the Grinch on January 30.
5. He keeps bringing artwork home from preschool, and though it’s all kind of the same and now there’s way too much of it, I’m unable to get rid of it. The little manipulator is playing right to my pack-rat tendencies.
6. He just requires so much attention. When does he become self-sufficient, so I can just sit here and watch Justified in peace?
7. Diapers. Diapers. Diapers. (And pull-ups.)
8. Unnecessarily early morning wake-ups. Especially on weekends. (I’m pretty sure it's on purpose, though I can’t actually prove it.)
9. His stringent adherence to routines. I mean, stringent. I’m pretty anal, but he makes me look like a Hell’s Angel by comparison.
10. His toys are everywhere. Literally everywhere. If he’d stop being so damn adorable, maybe I’d stop indulging him with all these amusements.
11. Constantly preventing me from listening to songs, or watching shows/movies that feature objectionable material or profanity in his presence.
12. The repeated insistence on hearing five particular songs on extended rotation, ignoring the thousands of others recorded throughout the history of music.
13. I have only seen four out of nine films nominated for Best Picture. (Totally his fault.)
14. I always really miss him when he’s gone. (Jerk.)
15. Repeated, strategic deployment of cuteness to make me forget about all the things that bother me about him.

26 January 2012

Candy Land, the Drinking Game

For Christmas, the Doozer got his very first board game. Board games, actually. Got one from us, and one from each set of grandparents. We’d seen a few and just couldn’t decide, so opted for a selection of games, rather than just a single one. We went with the perennial favorite, Candy Land, obviously. Also, Chutes and Ladders, the one with Marvel superheroes on it (the same guys that decorate the kid’s underwear and that he is mildly obsessed with).

This is a bizarre development. When I was a kid, these two games existed in one version: Regular. Original. Now, you can get just about every variation of each imaginable. Dora the Explorer. Winnie the Pooh. Disney Princesses. Seal Team Six. Fox News Edition.

Okay, so those don't actually exist. Yet. So, we instituted game night in our house. A new ritual to go along with family movie night. The final game we picked up for him was one we found most intriguing: Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It! game.

Since he’s a fan of the Saturday morning cartoon Busytown Mysteries, and several of the author’s tomes, we figured this game would be right up his alley. And it’s interesting. The way it’s structured, all the players work together. As a team. It's not a competition.

But yes, Candy Land remains as cutthroat and ruthless as you remember. And kids learn fast. They don’t like to lose. It’s kind of amazing how quickly this instinct kicks in. Sure, for one or even two losses, the kid is gracious and even congratulatory to his opponent (the wife or me). But then he realizes it’s not quite as fun to lose. And so then he wants to keep playing, until he reaches the end of the board himself. We explain to him that it doesn’t work that way.

“I don’t like this game,” he replies.

But then, surprise surprise, we play again. And again. And again.

Soon, he starts playing on his own. Regularly. Is this what Bobby Fischer was like? Playing chess all by himself, figuring out the angles? Although, with Candy Land, there really is no strategy, no way to improve. The game is completely random. And so simple (ages three and up) that it soon becomes somewhat mind-numbingly boring to the adult participants. I won’t puncture his ambition by telling him that he won’t get better with practice, that this particular game doesn’t quite work that way. It keeps him busy, I suppose.

But then again, losing is good. Losing is important. He needs to learn the world is crappy like that. There’s no way around it. Better start learning now. Of course, during one marathon session of games, I ended up cheating. I slipped a picture card to the top of the deck that vaulted the kid toward the end of the board. So I did it in his favor. I'd won several times in a row and felt like he needed a win. Plus, this would allow the game to speed to its conclusion. Probably because I wanted to stop playing and watch American Pickers or something.

Then he became obsessed with the Busytown game. The board is six feet and really detailed (like any Richard Scarry depiction of Busytown). I suppose I should appreciate the curiosity and investigative instincts. Wait until you see Where’s Waldo, that shit’ll blow your mind. Anyway, the point of the game is to advance all the way through Busytown before Pig Will and Pig Won't eat all the food at Picnic Island. (Trust me, it makes sense in context.) So, the spinner has eight options: 1, 2, 3, or 4 moves, two chances for the pigs to eat, and two chances to solve a Goldbug Mystery. This is where you search the board for items like ice cream cones or ladders.

And this swiftly became his first choice, always. So much so that he will keep spinning (if we don’t catch him and tell him to stop) until it lands on where he wants.

If it’s on the line between solving the mystery and something else, he will look up, his face hopeful, imploring, to ask, “Goldbug mystery?” Yes, fine, Goldbug mystery. He is very keen on finding things. Then quickly loses interest. And it's back to Candy Land. Which he can apparently play for hours. And it’s really not that kind of game. It's not like it's Trivial Pursuit. Or Dungeons and Dragons. (Not that I've ever played that.) So to make it interesting . . .

Introducing: the kids’ board game drinking game. No, really. It's simple. Here's what you do. You take a drink:

When you get a double move in Candy Land . . . or a single move . . . when the kid asks detailed (yet inane) questions about the characters on the board . . . when he suddenly decides you should start over because you’ve used up all the picture cards . . . when the kid sprawls on the board and knocks all the playing pieces from their spaces . . . when you win and crush your kid’s spirit just a little bit more . . . when he vehemently contests your win . . . when the kid says he doesn’t like this game anymore . . . when the kid says he doesn't like you anymore . . .

Now . . . I'm a little tipsy. Okay. Perhaps I should wrap things up here.

Don't judge me.

12 January 2012

Family Movie Night

Lately I’ve discovered my new favorite thing in parenting: family movie night. Sure, it’s an old concept and so was probably an inevitable development, but as an avid movie watcher, it’s really exciting to share this experience with the Doozer.

In a way, it’s something that definitely brings me back to my own childhood. I remember the momentous occasion that was the opening of the first Blockbuster in our neighborhood. Or how my parents finally caved and bought our first VCR when Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to be on TV and I perhaps threatened hari-kari if I couldn’t record it and re-watch it one thousand times.

When I was young, Friday night was often all about pizza and a VHS movie borrowed from the library. It’s where I learned to love the genius of Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther flicks and the inspired insanity of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein (“I’ll block the bookcase with my body”). And later, when I was a little older, when my parents let me watch my first R-rated movie: Midnight Run. It was just too funny, they argued, I would enjoy it too much, for them to keep me from watching it because of some extra profanity.

And while we’re a long way off from the Doozer’s first R-rated flick, that doesn’t make our own family movie nights any less significant. Of course, the Doozer is kind of a bookworm and it’s often difficult to get him to commit to viewing a full film. His modern mind prefers the quick hits of YouTube videos and 22-minute TV episodes, like Dora the Explorer or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But I think we may have found our first movie night staple: Winnie the Pooh.

It was meant to be the Doozer’s first movie in the theater. It opened last summer and has a crazy-short running time of something like 63 minutes which made it seem like the perfect first movie to take him to. But he wasn’t having any of it. We talked it up for weeks and then let the idea die a slow, quiet death, because the Doozer had no interest in going to a theater, no matter how much we encouraged it or explained how much fun it would be.

When the movie hit DVD, we got it from Netflix and he was a big fan, once we convinced him to actually watch it. At first, we were unsure of his reaction. It ended and he seemed non-committal. Did you like the movie? Yes, he said. But he didn’t sound very enthusiastic.

But the next morning there were what seemed like a hundred questions about the movie. A continual conversation that seemed to have no end. Though we were mostly done with our Christmas shopping at that point, we decided we’d better pick up the DVD and have it handy, because his interest was definitely piqued.

No dice. The Doozer was not impressed that Santa brought him the Winnie the Pooh movie, that he had his very own DVD copy of it. I don’t like that movie, he told us. Oh, great. I should have known this would happen. He talks incessantly about it, then you hand it to him and tell him he can watch it whenever he damn well pleases and suddenly he’s no longer interested.

Eventually we coaxed him into another viewing. We dimmed the lights a bit (not too much, the Doozer didn’t like the change in environment . . . such a finicky little thing) and made some popcorn. I think that’s his favorite part and perhaps the reason we get him to sit there and watch; he gets to hold a very large bowl of popcorn in his lap during the show.

But he learned the songs and sang along ("Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh . . ."), he asked the same questions all over again, he even laughs at some of the jokes. Our kid gets jokes. Kind of. Sometimes. This just kills me.

Anyway, the film is awesome and I just know the older he gets, the more he’ll get out of it. It has all these jokes about the story being told out of a book and the characters sometimes interact with the text on the pages of this book. There’s a great Raiders of the Lost Ark joke in there, too (things come full circle). The Zooey Deschanel songs don’t hurt either. And the credit sequence that recreates the scenes from the movie using stuffed animals in Christopher Robin’s bedroom is great.

And the whole movie, the entire plot, is based on a mix-up of words. Words. I can’t say enough about how great this movie is and how glad I am to be able to share it with my kid.

If I have any complaints it's that the film itself doesn’t feature this track from Keane, which so beautifully captures the tone of the flick and its simple pleasures.

Man, I love family movie night . . .

03 January 2012

Holiday Television Special Review Spectacular!

Ed. Note: This post was originally composed in the weeks leading up to December 25 and should have been posted at that time. However, the author fell headfirst into the black hole of the holiday season and finds himself now beleaguered, unshaven, and unable to button his jeans, with a sizable holiday hangover and a to-do list a mile long. Including uploading this post, which he winced and did just now, still not certain it was quite finished. Merry 2012, everyone.

It’s that time of year again. The season of joy, giving, familial obligation, and excessive gift-giving. Not to mention, holiday season TV specials. One of the special joys of my own childhood, as well as my wife’s, and pretty much everyone else I know that is my age, is that yearly two- to three-week period when the networks roll out the old standby kids’ holiday specials, occasionally tossing in a few new ones, which invariably pale in comparison to the so-called classics of the genre, particularly those produced by the geniuses of Rankin-Bass.

Of course, like everything else Christmas-related, the slalom of holiday-themed television specials has grown increasingly frenzied over time, to the point where this cycle of shows begins as early as Thanksgiving and spans the entire month of December. And where in the past we typically viewed an average of three or four such specials (from experience and memory, I’d say How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman were the main attraction), it seems everyone has gotten in on the act and there has been an explosion, not necessarily of creativity or quality, but definitely of quantity, when it comes to these holiday specials.

And since the advent of basic cable, they now play in an almost constant rotation, with networks like ABC Family touting their 25 Days of Christmas programming, featuring multiple showings of each holiday special or Christmas movie, and TBS featuring 24 hours of A Christmas Story, on December 24 and 25 (admittedly, perhaps the single greatest idea in the history of television).

And so, we have begun the indoctrination of the Doozer into the tradition of holiday special viewing. We watched a few last year, but his memory is hazy, and so we started again this December. So far, here are some random observations from our family viewings, a rundown of the kid-friendly, parent-approved (somewhat) programs we have watched (or repeatedly been subjected to). Merry, merry!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — There's a pretty dark moment in this one where Yukon Cornelius goes over the side of a mountain with the abominable snow monster and everybody thinks he is dead. Burl Ives, in voice-over, says, "They are all sad at the loss of their friend." This is dark for this kind of show, right? Luckily, the Doozer has never asked. Obviously he knows now that Yukon is okay. But that first time? What was he thinking when this happened?

How the Grinch Stole Christmas — Okay, so when the Grinch realizes that the Whos are still celebrating, even though he took all their stuff, he has a line where he says, in disbelief, that Christmas came without packages, boxes, or bags. Every time he says this, our son completely loses it. Who knew this was the funniest line ever written by old Theodore Geisel? I mean, if the Doozer’s reaction is anything to go on, it’s a one-liner on par with anything Woody Allen ever produced.

A Charlie Brown Christmas — Is it just me or is that little shoulder-shrugging, feet-shuffling dance they all do just about the greatest bit of animation ever committed to film? And what’s the deal with Woodstock? He’s in the Thanksgiving show, but not the Halloween or Christmas one. Where did he go? Did he fly south for the winter . . .?

Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas — The Doozer is a big Curious George fan. There's a moment in this where the Man in the Yellow Hat says that George is really thoughtful. Which is weird to me. Because he’s a monkey. This is a weird relationship. The Doozer, however, sees nothing strange in the cohabiting of the Man in the Yellow Hat and George. At what age will he question this arrangement?

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town! — Another Rankin/Bass one, this one featuring the Burgermeister Meisterburger, perhaps the greatest named character in the history of television. But alas, it is stuck in DVR limbo as we are unable to rouse the Doozer’s enthusiasm for this one. I tried telling him Fred Astaire was in it, but he just stared at me blankly.

Mickey's Christmas Carol — You forget what these stories are like. You see Disney characters and you’re like, This is fine. Then Tiny Tim dies and Scrooge McDuck is thrown into an open grave, about to be engulfed by flames, while a maniacal, cigar-smoking dog looks on and laughs. And your kid says, “What is that mouse doing?” as Mickey Mouse (as Bob Cratchit) sets Tiny Tim’s tiny crutch by his grave. And you’re like, “Umm, well, he’s . . . oh, look it’s Christmas morning and Scrooge is back in his room!”

Dora’s Christmas Carol Adventure — Much like the regular Christmas Carol, they travel through past, present, and future. In the past, there's an entire sequence of babies crying that we must always fast-forward through. Every time we watch. Which is now . . . too many times to count. Look, kid, I have some bad news. That little brother we keep telling you about, the one that’s in your mama’s belly? Yeah, it’s going to be kind of like that.

On second thought, maybe we’ll put a pin in that conversation for now. We'll talk about it after Christmas.