Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Are You There Television? It's Me, Aimee!

When I was little, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was a book I read over and over and over again. I was younger than every other kid in my class but nevertheless I tried to convince my body to change along with theirs. Reading this book made me feel like I wasn't the only one who really wanted to need a bra or have my period. My mom used to tell me that I shouldn't be in such a rush. That once I got my period I would have it every month for the next 40 years or more and I wouldn't love it so much then. That as soon as I started shaving my hair would grow in thicker and I'd have to shave every day for the rest of my life. But I was in a rush anyway. Growing up seemed so much more exciting. I felt condescended to and invalidated as a child and couldn't wait to be treated like the grownup I really felt I was. But now, nearly 30 years later, I find myself wishing the same for Thora that my mother did for me. I want her to enjoy being a child while she can. She really is growing and changing so fast. I hope she doesn't rush through her childhood like I tried to.

Anyway, periods and bras aside, that book had an interesting message. For the one or two female readers of this blog who may have somehow managed not to read it during their own tween years, I'll fill you in. Margaret's mom was raised Christian and her dad was Jewish. By marrying each other they decided they were "nothing." And by extension, Margaret was also "nothing." I think her mother said something about "God is a nice idea. He is for everybody if they want him." But they were raising her "nothing" with the option to choose whatever she wanted as she grew up.

Throughout the course of the book, Margaret visits a temple with her grandmother, a church with her friend, and tries out other forms of religion as well. In the end though, if I remember correctly, she says she doesn't feel God anywhere except in her own head when she talks to him directly.

Johnny and I were both raised with different religions and we both agree that we, too, are essentially "nothing" (although I do totally identify as Jewish. Raise your hand if you are Jewish and "nothing" at the same time! There are a ton of us!) and that we are raising Thora as "nothing." I do think religion can be whatever you want it to be, and that spirituality and faith can be found in many things other than a church or a prayer book. I find organized religion to be somewhat troublesome in practice though I do understand in theory why it is attractive to so many people. Still, it is a personal choice and I am not judging anyone for what they believe or don't believe. If she decides to embrace organized religion, that will be her choice.

But... I digress. This is not meant to be a blog entry about religion. What I really wanted to write about was television.

This may be a bit of a stretch and television may be a strange analogy to religion perhaps, but my recent quest for a TV show for Thora seemed desperately parallel to me to Margaret's search for religion.

I was raised with very little television. I watched my PBS shows of course: Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, 321-Contact! and Zoom. (Am I the only one who wanted to twirl my arms like Bernadette?) I also watched The Muppet Show and Little House. But on Saturday mornings, when I was up at dawn and my parents wanted to sleep, I'd put on the television and I remember being absolutely baffled at what I found. No Sesame Street! Nothing for kids on Channel 13 at all, just men in suits discussing the Dow Jones! And every other channel had cartoons. I didn't understand them. Coyotes attacking roadrunners with dynamite, dropping anvils, falling pianos, violent cats and mice, rabbits with weird accents. All of these characters blew each other up and tortured each other mercilessly and were all magically healed and ready for another round after the next commercial. Also, there were kids and a big dog solving mysteries, little blue men, girls that dressed up as cats in a rock band, a whole host of things that confused me. And the commercials: so much junk! Sugar cereals, dolls that peed or cried, trucks and GI Joes. All things that cost money and that I knew I would never be allowed to have, so I just tuned them out.

Sundays were even worse - nothing at all but religious programming. I tried to watch some claymation show I found, thinking it was a fun show about a boy and a dog. But if I didn't understand the Smurfs, I really didn't understand Davey and Goliath.

So I ended up reading. A lot. I'd walk home from school on Fridays and hit up the library that was on my street, taking out as many books as I could carry. They got me through long weekend mornings. I'd blast through a half dozen of them (no kidding!) in a few days and bring the pile back on Monday. I was a fast reader. I read and reread all my favorites again and again. I would get so absorbed in a book that I'd be dazed when I finished it, kind of like how you feel when you walk out of a movie theater and it's dark outside. Books created such clear and strong images in my mind that I didn't even like seeing the movies made from my favorite books because they'd get the details all wrong. That still bothers me. As much as I love the Harry Potter movies, after each one I wax poetic about how much better the book is and why do I even bother seeing the movies at all? And I have about a hundred of my most favorite books from when I was growing up that I've been saving to read to my own girls when the time came.

Even as an adult I can't get into most TV. But it's not for lack of trying. I loved Twin Peaks. That was the first thing that caught my attention, when I was still in high school. More recently, Carnivale. The Sopranos. LOST. And recently we watched a season of Nurse Jackie. But most of the time TV puts me to sleep faster than anything. Even when I like a show, I can't seem to stay awake for it 99% of the time (like The Pacific, which our friends dutifully Tivoed or DVRed or somethinged and saved for when Johnny and I visited, and within seconds of starting each episode I was out like a light). I wondered what was wrong with me when we tried The Wire and didn't like it. I've tried to watch a half a dozen other shows and they're ehhh. Just not my thing I guess. So we don't have cable. And as a result we don't get any regular network channels either. I do love movies though, which we stream on Netflix, and I have a soft spot for Pixar movies.

So now that Thora recognizes television characters, theme songs, numbers and letters, why am I stressing about finding her something to watch? We have embraced the old-school Sesame Street (there is a DVD collection named just that, and it's all episodes from the 70s). We watch those often, as we do The Muppets. But I felt like we might be missing something, so we tried a few episodes of a few different shows that my trusted friends and relatives swear are all the rage with toddlers. And neither of us was too impressed. It's funny though, because I really wanted to find something on TV that would make her happy (and okay, give Mama and Daddy a break too). But try as we might, nothing really resonated with either of us.

I'm sure TV will come later. So why push now? She has shelves and shelves of books that make her happy. She picks out book after book and likes to do more than just listen to us read them to her. She wants to know what each picture is. You can make a game out of reading a book that could last all afternoon. Her G-Ma gave her a baby book about Sesame Street characters' noses and toes, and that book with all of its five pages and fifteen words can provide a half hour of entertainment. "Where's Big Bird's head? Where's Grover's nose? Who's this? Thora, what letter is this?" Or she quizzes us by pointing and shouting out "Bo-ber!" or "Bih Burr eye!" so reading a book sometimes sounds like this: "That's Grover's nose. And that's Big Bird's head. That? That's Zoe. Yep, those are her eyes." Today I picked up Harriet the Spy, as I often like to read a chapter from a bigger book as I'm cuddling her and nursing her before bed. I realized that she knew every letter in the name Harriet, so before we even got to page one, we spend a good ten minutes pointing at letters and getting her to say "H" and "R" and everything else.

And books aside, you can give the kid a spatula and she's happy. She likes to look out the window for buses and dogs, she likes to help push chairs around, she dances happily to all our favorite songs, she runs to the door shrieking if you ask her if she wants to visit her flowers. She brings you her shoes when she wants to go to the park or for a walk (she says both) and now we pass a lot of time saying hi and bye to everything. She says hi and bye to every plant, every tree. It makes separation much less painful to her when she is allowed to say bye to things. (I still crack up when she says bye to my pee when I flush - and yes, she insists on coming to the bathroom with me all the time.) She is learning to play by herself. Everyone says that when your kid is quiet you should worry... but half the time when Thora is quiet and we peer into her room bracing ourselves for the worst, we find her in the corner with a book open and her index finger pointing at something or other that she's learning to recognize.

All this to me is much more fun than plunking her in front of the TV, which I prefer to reserve for when she's up early and we are just not awake enough for books or games or dancing or flowers, or for when she needs to wind down a bit before bedtime. We sing the theme song to Sesame Street together, we make all her dolls dance to The Muppet Show theme. She points and howls when she sees Kermit or Big Bird, and since all the Sesame Street episodes we have on DVD are sponsored by the number 2, it was the first number she recognized. Now she sings and dances along to the Pinball Count song and yells "Doooo! Dooo!" when the numeral 2 comes on the screen and we sing too.

But that's enough, I think, for us, until she decides on her own that she wants to watch more as she gets older. (Or until she's so unbearable as a preschooler that we just need the break.) Dipping my toe in the water that is children's television now, I felt a bit like Margaret testing out her friends' religions and religious practices and coming up empty. I wanted to find something in these TV shows but I didn't. And I was reassured that Thora didn't either. She was absolutely glued to the set the first time we turned on Sesame Street (and still if you say "What does Big Bird say?" to her, she will start to sing the theme song to you.) but she hasn't reacted to anything else like that since. Maybe it's just not her thing either? Maybe not today, maybe not ever. But we have all the Pixar movies waiting if she decides she likes them someday, and I'm nervously looking forward to reading Are You There God? It's Me Margaret with her someday and talking about bras and periods and religion and how we tried to find a TV show for her when she was really little but decided to let her get there on her own.

Here she is, getting better at watering her flowers:

And here, on a recent trip to Central Park via bus with Daddy and new friends Karina, Lina and Kaela:


  1. We didn't know what to show Xavier in terms of TV--I was never around kids, so I didn't know anything about programming for toddlers. Avy figured it out. But we have cable, so that helped. She's been picking out shows for him on Nick Jr. ever since he was just a little guy.

    Obviously, it's a all dependent on what your kid likes... and their level of understanding of what is happening on the show.

    When Xavier was really little, he'd watch Dora like she was the most interesting thing in the world, but he didn't interact with the show in the way the creators intended--he just watched.

    He still likes Dora a bit, and, when he's in the mood to watch, he goes along with the adventures and interacts with the story. I can't say I personally really like Dora very much (too damn screamy!), but, thankfully, he has become a bigger fan of shows like Super Why (it's a PBS show about reading) and anything with dinosaurs (Dinosaur Train--also on PBS--and Dino Dan.)

    He's been known to enjoy Yo Gabba Gabba and dance around the room during the musical stuff, too.

    I think the key is balancing this TV stuff with "real world" activities. For example, while Xavier does love his dinosaur TV shows, he's also a big fan of dinosaur puzzles and the complexities of his dinosaur flash cards. I don't know how many kids can tell the difference between Edmontasaurus and an Argentinasaurus, but Xavier loves to lay those card out and tell me the names of each dinosaur.

    He hasn't seen any old Warner Bros. cartoons, and that's because we pretty much only let him see the stuff on Nick Jr. until it's bed time... In fact, that's kind of his signal for it--a few minutes after we switch the TV to a channel with no cartoons, Xavier usually looks at me and says, "Daddy, I could go night-night. Wanna go sleep in Xavier's bed."

    And I am generally with you on TV shows--most of them bore me. Avy likes some of them, and I usually read while she watches. When I watch TV, I usually look for concerts, real-estate shows or National Geographic stuff. So I guess I basically don't like the writing for scripted shows anymore... and those reality shows are generally horrible. I will admit to watching Dancing With The Stars, this past season, though, mainly because I didn't have a band, so I wasn't out of the house any nights of the week.

    Also... we are raising Xavier to be a "nothing," too. I think of myself as an apathetic atheist--I don't care if there's a god, and I don't want to mess around with religion. Avy is more of a pagan than anything, so we just sort of figure Xavier can make that choice on his own when he thinks he has a handle on things. Even though I was born and raised as a jewish person, it's not very important to me that Xavier does jewish stuff. I mean, I think he should be aware of jewish culture and be proud of that heritage, but I don't think he needs to go to hebrew school and have a Bar Mitzvah if he's not interested in that.

  2. ha! hazel also says "hi" and "bye" to everything. she gets right up in the flower's face. "hiiiii"!

  3. I definitely use TV when you know who is up before 6, which is every. single. day now. But personally I can't get into any shows either, even my favorite 30 Rock was moved to 10 and I'm usually out cold before the credits. Mostly we redbox or let Anna watch movies (current loves include Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Wizard of Oz, Toy Story 1 has a surprising amount of "stupid" "idiot" and "shut up" in it.

    Thanks for the book summary too, I never did read that one.

  4. Have you guys watched Kipper the Dog or the Backyardagins
    ? They are simpler and less crazy than most.

  5. Love those photos! So glad you guys are in our building.

    We have a DVD of Pixar shorts, which we've enjoyed since they are short and sweet and so cute. You are more than welcome to borrow it!


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