Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Children's Corner

Don't look now, but academic research is biting society in its collective societal ass again.  And when I say "society," I mean, needless to say, "SpongeBob SquarePants":


I am slightly late on the uptake of this article, which appeared last week in HealthDay News.  An excerpt:

Fast-paced TV shows like "SpongeBob SquarePants" seem to negatively affect children's concentration levels shortly after watching them, while slower-paced shows don't, a new study suggests.
"We found that young children who had just watched 'SpongeBob SquarePants' were handicapped in what you could say is their readiness for learning," said lead researcher Angeline S. Lillard, a University of Virginia psychologist.
"This included their ability to think and concentrate," she said.

Well.  I don't know about you, but I take STRONG exception to this.  As an American, I like my TV shows fast, furious, and potentially harmful to what you could say is my readiness for learning.  So I hereby blow the Great Horn of Bullshit.  Stand back:


Thank you.

Furthermore, I've got a bone to pick with you, lead researcher Angeline "S." Lillard (supposing that IS your name), if you think you can pronounce on my ability to think and concentrate.  Obviously one's personal capacity for concentration is an individual phenomenon that cannot be evaluated by any objective measOOOOH! LOOK! I CAN MAKE A ROOSTER PUPPET WITH MY HANDS! WHEE HEE HEEEE!*

Another researcher, Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis,** argues that the young mind really can't deal with events at the speed they occur on such programs as SpongeBob.  (An interesting supposition, considering that left unattended for 2.5 seconds, the Young Mind will flood the bathroom, injure himself gravely, smear paint as far away as Sweden, barf copiously on the most expensive piece of furniture around, and traumatize the cat for life, all at the speed of sound.)

"Everything our brains evolved to deal with takes place in real time," Christakis said. "It's not that we can't process these shows, we do, but it may come at a cost [...] potentially a long-term cost as you condition the brain to expect that high level of input, which makes the real pace of the world seem boring and that leads to attentional problems later in life."

So I don't know about you, but here is my scientific rebuttal: compared to SpongeBob, the real world pretty much just plain SUCKS.  The world of SpongeBob SquarePants is WAY more interesting, plus, might I submit for scientific consideration that it involves FAR fewer:
  • insurance companies
  • gynecologists
  • Teaching Assistants
  • scientific researchers
Therefore, it would be excellent, from MY particular scientific vantage-point, if we could all just quit whining our little whiny-pants heads off about it.  Let's just ask ourselves: is there really any value in seeing the harmful and unacceptable in the innocent and goofy? Believe it or not, there might actually be more profitable ways to spend our time. Picking at ourselves on the couch, for one.

Exhibit B is the ongoing intellectual discussion about - No Kidding Alert ahead - Guignol and his baton.  For those of you who don't know, Guignol is a famous French puppet, an absolute rockstar here in France, far more popular than the president,*** and he (Guignol) goes around with a baton, performing the ancient traditional French art of hitting other puppets.

So, it turns out that certain academic researcher types - who, a casual observer might opine, do not have an AWFUL lot to occupy their days - believe strongly that this baton represents the, er, male organ.  Really.  Now my personal**** feeling about this is: as if the male organ needs any help representing itself.  (Although I like the idea of its having impersonators, like Elvis.)  My own belief is that the academic researchers who hold this belief are frankly not getting enough baton, if you get my drift.

Now here's a totally radical out-there revolutionary innovative idea: why don't we all just agree to leave well enough alone?  Why don't we all just decide to look at things that are clearly innocent, and that children like, and take them for things that are innocent and that children like? Can we do that?

Thought not.

The exception to this rule, of course, is: children.  I know this because I am currently a baby-sitter for two small children, ages 5 and 2.  These two keep me honest about what children like, which, for the record, is: random goofy stuff.  The other night, the three of us improvised a puppet show that, not to brag, was frankly cutting-edge theatre.  It was entitled: "Oh No! There's A Shark in the Washing Machine."  Granted, this was in French, but same idea.  Here is the script, of which I invite you to fund a major lavish production, if you simply must:

MOOSE PUPPET: Hum-de-dum-de-dum. I think I will do some laundry today.  La-la la-la laaa!
(Opens the washing machine)
Oh, no! There's a shark in the washing machine! 



(Ten-minute pause to calm down)

PARROT PUPPET: Hum-de-dum-de-dum. I think I will do some laundry today.  La-la la-la laaa!
(Opens the washing machine)
Oh, no! There's a shark in the washing machine! 



(Repeat as desired until next Ice Age)

Don't try to tell ME that's not entertainment of lasting value.  And say what you will about SpongeBob SquarePants, I believe the same of that program.  Of course I believe we're all entitled to our own opinions, but that doesn't mean I can't believe that some of us hold only - prepare for scholarly language now - weenie-butt opinions. 

But seriously? Feel free to express them as you wish.  I mean, it's not as though I can stop you anyway.  For one thing, I'm WAY too preoccupied with this shark game.  So opine away, everyone.  That's what makes the world go round, n'est-ce pas?

And if you are truly just too annoying to live, you might do us all a favor and go spend some quiet time with your baton.

* Of course really.  I learned it from watching Shari Lewis on TV as a child.  See?

** Yes, both of these researchers have middle initials.  Do NOT think this is a coincidence.
*** Oh, you know, that guy.
**** Ha ha! Personal! Get it?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ice Ice Baby

Call me a wild and crazy world-traveler if you want, but recently I decided - prepare to be awed - to change planes at Reykjavik International Airport.

As the seasoned geographers among you will know, Reykjavik is located in Iceland, a major world nation which celebrates itself with the proud national motto, "Oh, you know, that little place up there somewhere near Greenland."

"I'VE never heard that motto," you are saying, with narrowed eyes.  To which I say: well, naturally.  It is translated from the Icelandic.  During my flight on Icelandair, I became an expert on Icelandic language and culture via my in-flight magazine and fun facts on my napkins.  This is how I learned that the Icelandic language* is spoken by only 12 people worldwide.  To put that figure in perspective, this is fewer people than watched the wacky in-flight movie featuring Ashton Kutcher.

And I think I understand.  Because, frankly, Icelandic has "problem language" written all over it.  I don't care who you are - you could be an Icelandic baby born in Iceland to Icelandic-speaking parents - assimilating this language is going to give you hernias.  When you're at Reykjavik International Airport, you can't believe how lucky we Anglophones have it, because everywhere you go you see signs like this:

Kjörfnnenbjoörrflokinnennkrönninenflöokinjörginnen - Arrivals

Bjïnninenflöokincöokinsnöokinhjardinenflörpöôöøøø - Departures

No child should have to be born to this.

On the other hand, Iceland** boasts one feature that absolutely no other nation - and I include Poland in this statement *** - can claim.  I speak, as you have no doubt guessed, of impeccable toilets.  My theory is a good third of the national budget is spent on having large, intimidating crews of strapping Icelandic toilet specialists come in**** every 10 minutes to clean every national toilet until it sparkles.

I didn't stay around long enough to see this magical event happen, of course, but there is no doubt in my mind.  You can tell they take their toilets SERIOUSLY in Iceland.  Not like SOME countries (not to name names, but these countries rhyme with "Prance" and "the Punited Ptates of Pamerica").  Any other major world power, bar none,***** would be proud to feature such excellence.

The Reykjavik airport itself (which, contrary to legend, consists of more than just toilets) is all at once the most beautiful and most eerily quiet, lifeless airport in existence.  I have made fun in the past of the Portland, Maine airport for being too sedate, but compared to Reykjavik, Portland is the Lady Gaga of airports.  Granted, I was jet-lagged and exhausted in Reykjavik, but I honestly don't think anyone ever announced a flight.  I don't know how you were supposed to know when your flight was boarding.  I actually ended up briefly following a herd of passengers toward a Stuttgart flight before an airport employee tipped me off.  Had this not happened, I suppose I would still be at the airport, or in Stuttgart, or possibly the suburbs of Alpha Centauri given my comprehension of what was going on at any given moment.

Yes, an Icelandic adventure such as mine will leave you thoroughly unnerved and permanently twitchy, but if you don't take my word for it yet, then let's talk for a moment about currency.

So: currency.  It is worth noting that, in Iceland, you are paying for things, such as badly needed food, in a currency that no one, including Icelandic people, has ever heard of.  That means you have no idea what things cost, so let's say you toddle, hunger-crazed, into an airport dining establishment at four in the morning.  (Of course, YOU have no idea what time it is; it might as well be one or six or even thirty-seven in the morning.)  You are pretty much going to be grabbing your dinner items at random.  One of them might turn out to be Pepsodent.******

Then comes the bad part, when at checkout you are told by the pleasant Icelandic person on duty - and this here is a direct quote - "That will be two thousand, one hundred ninety."  For a time I was pretty sure I bought sushi, yogurt, and popcorn for a mortgage payment.  But - and here's the thing - in such a state, you hand over your credit card anyway.  You don't care.  I, for example, could feel the blank expression on my face - a mix of mild terror with strong apathy and even stronger snack attack - as I handed over the card.  There was no turning back.

Of course, everything turned out okay in the end.  I got back to Paris, which was all I had ever wanted to do in the first place, and I retain, as a proud souvenir of my travel adventure, a snazzy paper bag that reads "Flugnesti: flight take away."  I have no idea how "Flugnesti" is pronounced, and I am afraid to even try saying it, given that I fear the Icelandic feds (they have my info: I bought their sushi) might have wiretapped me.  And you never know how much of a surcharge they might slap me with for each bad pronunciation.  Several "thousand" an hour, is my guess.  How else do you think Iceland keeps running?

* Namely, Icelandic.
** Which as we have discussed consists of the Reykjavik International Airport.
*** Seeing as I have never been there.
**** I imagine them riding in on Icelandic ponies, because, well, why not.
***** What does this expression even mean? Seriously.
****** Or, in Icelandic: "Tjëflohjörnkkenkväakkinnenfjøøpseudöfnoop"

Monday, September 5, 2011


In just a couple of days, I will be returning to Paris, France, where I spent half my junior year of college, experiencing the kind of satisfaction and contentment  that can only come from not being at college.  I estimate that a good 96% of these happy feelings were brought on by the following stimulus:

Yes, that is breakfast cereal, and no, I am not joking.  I do NOT joke about breakfast cereal.  Nor do I joke about yogurt.  It is against the Snark Code.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that cereal and yogurt are all there is to Parisian culture.  Far from it. On the contrary, Parisian culture also consists of the following components:
  • American television
This served as one of my main entry points into Paris life, thanks to my host family's eight-year-old daughter.  It was she who introduced me to French culture by means of inviting me to watch her favorite TV show, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starring notoriously non-French actors Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain.  She was unabashedly in love with Dean Cain, who I understand has since had the nerve to be 45 years old without telling her.  At any rate, she used this great passion as a jumping-off point to explain to me the finer points of French culture.

For example: "Ahhhh, Clark.  Il est très beau."  (Ahhhh, Clark.  He is very handsome.)

Or sometimes: "Il est très beau, Clark, n'est-ce pas?"

I, being not immune to the finer points of French culture myself, can thoroughly appreciate such a cultural nuance when one is pointed out to me.  So I went on letting my little instructor instruct me, and Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain went on nattering away at each other in badly dubbed French, and all was right with the world.

Other times, we would watch Pokémon, which was equally edifying if not more so.  Speaking as one who spent many a youthful morning watching episodes of this program in English, I can honestly say that you have not grasped French culture until you have assimilated the following cultural difference:

WHO'S - THAT - POKÉMON?? (bit of music) (go to commercial break)
(back from commercial break) IT'S - PIKACHU!!! (Pikachuuu!) (bit of music)

QUI EST - CE - POKÉMON? (bit of music) (go to commercial break)
(back from commercial break) C'EST - PIKACHU!!! (Pikachuuu!) (bit of music)

But here's what you don't see on French TV: French TV.  Okay, I admit I'm exaggerating.  There are numerous French networks featuring plenty of domestic programming, for example Les Guignols de l'Info, a show featuring puppets who host the evening news.  (This strikes me as a considerable trade-up from, say, Dan Rather.)

But American programs do seem to predominate - dubbed, closed-captioned, or otherwise.  The same is true of movies.  I would guess that, at a conservative estimate, 113% of the movie posters I saw over my time in Paris were for films featuring one of two Jennifers, Aniston or Lopez.  The last time I checked, "Jennifer" was not even a word in French.  This would appear to be highly suspicious.

When I mentioned this to my sister, she theorized, "Maybe you have to go to the U.S. to see French TV."  This seems at least plausible.  In many places in the U.S, you can get the channel TV5 Monde, which shows multiple genres of French TV and films round the clock.  For example, there is the Movie With Sex Scenes That, In Accordance With French Law, Are Not Sexy But Really Just Kind of Grunty and Unappetizing; the Filmed Stage Play Where People Talk At Inhuman Speed; and of course, most importantly, The Really Boring Navel-Gazing Talk Show Where They Navel-Gaze and Talk About Nothing in Particular.  (However, I do not think this channel has ever featured anyone named Jennifer.)

Often enough, the U.S. even has French television on its own channels.  For instance: French in Action, a television series originally designed to teach people French, aired on PBS and was rerun for years afterward, often shown in all-night marathons.  This series was insanely popular with all kinds of people, including people who did not want to learn French at all.  My intellectual theory is that this was because the series starred Mireille, a French girl featuring large gazombas unencumbered by foundation wear.  The series was filmed in 1987, which means Mireille has now inspired a generation of male viewers to develop a wild urge to conjugate the subjunctive, if you get my drift.

From this state of affairs I can only come to the obvious conclusion: France and the U.S. have switched entertainment industries.  Really.  Think of the implications.  This could very well mean that Audrey Tautou is actually from Omaha, while, say, John Wayne was secretly born and raised outside Marseille. This is troubling, I suppose, but assuming it's true, I ask only two things.  First, a major role in the next Astérix film; and second, that if ever we have to trade industries back, we in the U.S. won't have to give back MythBusters.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Animal Instinct

I used to want to be a veterinarian when I was a kid, and for a simple reason: I had never considered what they actually do.  This is why I ended up becoming a puppeteer.  Puppets are far less likely, statistically speaking, to pee on you, and they rarely have to be euthanized.*

But I still get to thinking about animals sometimes.  One of those times was yesterday afternoon, when an L.L. Bean Hunting catalogue came in the mail, a strapping buck** on its cover.  This would have bothered me a lot when I was a kid.  I would have worried that they felled the deer immediately after taking the photo.  Now, as an adult, I am far more rational, and accordingly, I opt for the far more rational expedient of immediately letting my mind wander back to sex.

No, seriously, what I do (besides immediately letting my mind wander back to sex) is make up a story for myself, wherein the deer turns out actually to be a top client of the Gersh agency, where he wanders immediately after the photo shoot, barges into his agent's office, kicks back in a chair, sips a martini, and drawls, "OK, look here, sweetiecakes: I demand ten thousand clams for my next photo shoot for that trashy L.L. Bean, or these antlers go straight through that darling little pot belly of yours.  Capisce? Also, get me another martini."  And the agent would be so daunted that he would immediately propel the deer to international stardom.  The deer would become untouchable, a global entertainment icon, a mainstay on the Maxim Hot 100 list.***

Of course, some animals inspire more imaginative trains of thought than others.  For example, it is easy to ascribe a highly complex inner life to a Siberian husky, whereas you cannot imagine a Yorkshire terrier wanting to do much more than lick its crotch.  This is of course an unfair bias; in real life, neither dog wants to do much more than lick its crotch.  It is part of the Dog Code, along with humping your leg, which let us face it is famous for being infertile.  (Yes, that's right.  I'm talking to you dog readers out there.  You are fighting a losing battle.  But oh nooo, you will never learn.)

Here's another example of a totally uninspiring creature which nevertheless manages to maintain rockstar popularity among pet owners: parakeets.  We had parakeets for years, despite the fact that they never did anything interesting except poop in their living quarters and screw like bunnies.  At least they differed from college students in that occasionally they would molt.  We had one guy parakeet named Angelo who generally looked normal until one day, every year, when without warning he would suddenly transform into a beaked rat with mange.  It didn't matter to him, of course; as far as he was concerned, he was Fabio.  His self-image was helped along by his groupies, namely all the other parakeets in the cage, who had all turned out to be female.

So of course Angelo was also a sex maniac.  We humans, in an eternal but hopeless quest to find other males for the cage, instead just kept populating the cage with young hens, feeding Angelo's habit to a degree that Hef himself could only dream of.  Personally, I imagined him not as Hef but as Quagmire from "Family Guy," going around gleefully chuckling, "Aaaall-riiiiight."

I fully believe that Angelo and the hens could have gone on to be major reality television stars, especially in today's sucktastic entertainment climate where the average TV program is something like like Obese Teen Bachelor Stage Moms Dance with the Stars and Eat Their Children for Money, then Cover Neil Sedaka Hits.****  Unfortunately, the parakeets never got a chance at this kind of stardom, because when my family moved from Florida to Maine, we gave them to a friend on a farm who had a gigantic aviary full of parakeets.  This new group consisted largely of - you guessed it - very young hens.

I don't think Angelo could possibly still be with us, but there is no question in my mind that he went happy.  I like to think he departed this life smoking seven or eight little birdie cigarettes at once.

* Unless they get uppity.
** This is an objective description, you realize.  I mean, he wasn't my type or anything.  Really.
*** Yes, I realize this was a buck.  Just seriously, don't hassle me.
**** Who do you guys think will get voted off next week?