Monday, December 3, 2007

Misery Is Normal. They Should Write It In The Sky.

I was reading the paper version of The NY Times last Sunday, and they have a new little feature where they put in a couple of reader comments on the editorial page. Some of these comments were about an opinion piece I hadn't read by Judith Warner, "Helicopter Parenting Turns Deadly."

Warner's discussing the unbelievable series of events that happened recently when some parents of a former friend of a 13 year-old pretended to be a Cute Guy on Myspace. The "Cute Guy" made like he liked this 13 year-old, then turned on her suddenly, and the 13-year old killed herself. Like everyone else, I was like, "Parents did this? Adults??"

Warner argues that the main thing going on here is "parents too involved in kids' lives." One of the commenters -- one who was quoted in the paper Times -- said something I thought was kind of astute, that parents these days, having been through therapy, and having talked with one another about how painful it is to grow up, simply can't bear to put their kids through the same experiences.

Indeed, the parents in this case were getting revenge on behalf of their own daughter, who they thought was mistreated by the 13 year-old girl -- who had sort of stopped being friends with her or something.

Insane, but you can see how this happens. We've created this crazy optimistic cultural space these days: You can be anything you want! Achieve anything you want! You're special and great! Everything is possible and you are totally free.

If that's the basic idea you're operating with, then watching your kid suffer from failure and loneliness is going to be a killer.

Thinking about this reminded me of the Times story two weeks ago, about how Sesame Street DVDs of old shows are coming with a warning: "These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child."

Yep. Oscar was grouchy; Bert was mildly neurotic and maybe had a little OCD. No one believed Big Bird when he described seeing the Snuffleupagus. Cookie Monster was a one-dimensional addict. And on "Monsterpiece Theater" Alistair Cookie smokes a pipe and then eats it.

But as Virginia Heffernan says in the Times, there was something awesome about all these screwy things.

"People on 'Sesame Street,'" she writes, "had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you 'out' of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, 'Sesame Street' suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off — taking baths, eating cookies, reading. Don’t tell the kids."

Man, reading that makes the 70's seem so far away.

I'm just the right age to have encountered these early episodes as they were rolling off the rack. And it's impossible to really look back, but I remember just this feeling watching Sesame Street. Oh, yeah, everyone has the same problems. They get bored. Antsy. Mad at each other. Sometimes like Ernie and Bert they live in basement apartments.

Two things on Sesame Street upset me a lot when I was little. One was the guy with the cakes falling down the stairs after the counting sequences. I don't really remember it but my mom tells me I used to cry and she had to change the channel. Eventually I understood it was faked.

The other was a long sort of video just showing a single drop of water going down a plant stem while some quiet, slow, guitar music played. That music made me feel so depressed and sorrowful. I can still hear it in my minds' ear, and it still makes me feel that way. When that came on I was a little older and I changed the channel myself. That one I never grew out of.

Anyway, it was all very reassuring. There's a great comic by the artist and author Lynda Barry about feeling shitty about her teenage love life, and only realizing later that everyone's teenage love life feels shitty. She says something like, "They should write it in the sky, so everyone would know, and wouldn't feel so bad."

Look at that great picture of Ernie and Bert! If this isn't two imperfect people enjoying some of the simpler pleasures in life, I don't know what is.

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