I’ve been ill for a few days, as have my kids, battling through the sort of persistent upper respiratory infection that almost every household in the Midwest deals with this time of year.
As a result, I have been doing exactly what experts tell you not to do, watching the non-stop media coverage of the horror in Newtown, Connecticut. Immersing yourself in this, psychologists and others argue, causes the event to amplify, seem greater that it is.
In brief, if you watch something hundreds of times over your brain will begin to think that is all there is. You can become angry, paranoid, detached, de-sensitized. For children, of course, the effects are even worse.
I have managed to keep my kids away from the media, more or less, per the “experts,” but I keep coming back even as I try to distract them.
With my son, for instance, I watched the now classic holiday film “A Christmas Story.” As most know, the plot revolves around a young boy’s (Ralphie) desire for a “Red Ryder BB gun” as a present. His mother objects because he will “shoot his eye out.” His female 3rd grade teacher knows well the reckless, self-destructive capacity of little boys (with the help of firefighters and police she helps rescue a panicked little genius with his tongue frozen to a metal pole) and concurs. Even a surly department store Santa issues the same refrain.
The old warning is something of a running joke throughout the film. At moments, the warning takes on darker undertones. Ralphie, angry at being disciplined, imagines the parental sympathy he would receive if actually blinded.
But on Christmas morning Ralphie’s gruff father surprises him and Ralphie’s mother – and, to a certain extent, the film audience – by revealing a wrapped BB gun “left by Santa.”
The moment is moving because throughout the father has been portrayed in a traditionally American male way: angry, detached, de-sensitized and thoroughly self-absorbed in fantasies of his own abilities (a great comic bit has him believing he won a “major award” in crossword contest, an award that turns out to be a plastic lamp crafted to look like a dance girl’s single leg with fishnet stockings). An audience delightfully discovers, then, the father has been tuned in to the son’s deepest desires all along and, in fact, empathizes: he had a BB gun as a kid, too.
Even the anti-gun mother, happy at the paternal bonding, acquiesces, asking only that Ralphie not shoot backyard animals. The father – in a bit of nasty irony I have used myself – says the noisy, ill-trained neighbor dogs are fair game.
So light is the touch in this film that even those who have seen it countless times may forget the near tragic ending. A ricochet off a backyard target almost blinds Ralphie, thus fulfilling his mother and his teacher’s prophecy.
The minor injury he does sustain is instead played for laughs and creates the chaos that leaves the very Midwestern family eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant, laughing at heavily accented English. The last shot shows Ralphie drifting off to sleep, thinking of the “best” Christmas gift ever, dreaming of spectacular “hip” shots and other gun play.
The gun has been the best gift because it is what Ralphie wanted most, but also because it marks his father’s recognition of him.
This was my almost 8 year old son’s second time watching the film.
I, again, encouraged it as a distraction because I like the film and indulge the nostalgia it evokes (my teacher/ mother’s elementary classroom in Detroit looked just like Ralphie’s, and for a long time she had a drawer full of confiscated goods just like Ralphie’s teacher). I can’t count how many times I have seen the film. The first time was in the movie theater at or near Eastland Mall in 1983. I can’t remember exactly. I have a vague recollection, too, that a double-date was involved but such things are hazy for the near 50 crowd like me.
The film, however, is deeply embedded in my psyche, in part because the movie embeds so much of American culture and history in a thoroughly charming way. The material in the film, in other words, was in me long before the film was made -- hence its attraction.
So when President Obama called for America to “change” on Sunday evening at the Newtown High School I understood. But I found the ususally great speech maker utterly ineffective. This is in part, perhaps, because even a great speech maker can’t articulate or measure the depths we will have to go to truly change.