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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Robocop: An Exploration of Reboots (A Fake Academic Paper Based on Pseudo-Scientific Techniques)

Abstract

I am Robert Cop
Are reboots really always worse then the originals? Do we only think that because they're now remaking movies we remember from our childhoods? Read on as I take you on a fake scientific journey into the mind of the modern American film viewer.

Introduction

It started as it always does, with an argument on Facebook. In March of last year I posted that I liked the Robocop reboot. This comment was met with great derision from friends and family alike. I often find myself alone when it comes to liking sci-fi movies and comedies. Not because my friends don't like sci-fi or comedies, but because my standards are pretty low sometimes. All I want is to be entertained for 90 minutes, usually while doing something else at the same time.
"DMJ: You can like it. You just can't claim that it was in any way A) necessary or B) better than the original
RS: Nothing ruins the original. If you like the original you can still watch that. I think both are interesting. I thought it was a different take on how they stripped him of his humanity, doing it over time instead of all at once. I don't think many remakes or reboots are necessary. And no, it's not better, it's different."
For a long time I maintained that the reason so many adults didn't like the Star Wars prequels was because they weren't eight-years-old when they saw them. My belief was that if you could control for nostalgia and age you would find that the second trilogy was just as good as the first. (My opinion on this has shifted with the release of Episode VII. I'm now just as bitter over the crappy prequels as the rest of you.) This logic led me to see if I could do just that.

Methodology


Like any worthwhile social scientist I decided to experiment on the people close to me. It turns out that my dear wife had not seen either Robocop movie before watching the reboot with me.
"RS: T is great because not only did she watch this with me last night (she hated it) but she's begrudgingly agreed to watch the original with me tonight. This is a great opportunity because she's never seen it, so she can determine if one or the other is better, worse, or just different, without the interference of expectation or childhood nostalgia.
AM: Yes!!!!! Best experiment ever. Please do a full write-up!"
Then T decided to taunt me by proving that having not seen Robocop in the 80s was perfectly normal (it's not). Instead she got me thinking that I could turn this into a full fledged (fake) scientific study. If you're not familiar, this is the kind of study I do as a linguist/general academic, but applied more haphazardly and without institutional review. So basically it's just like most of the crap research you read on Facebook. (I so FLS.)
"Science y'all!"

"RS: Dude, y'all. T inadvertently found me a pool of people who had never seen either movie. Some of them are agreeing to watch them both and then report back. Science y'all! Science!
T: OMG. This was supposed to be "See, I am not that unusual, plenty of people have never seen Robocop," not "Here you go, I found you some lab rats!"


 So in full pseudo-science style I asked a pool of willing friends who had not yet seen either movie to watch both the original and the reboot within 72 hours. I counterbalanced the order they should watch them in to negate ordering effects. I asked them to answer four questions:
1. Was either one a "good" movie?
2. Was one better than the other, or were they just different?
3. Any other comments?
4. Can you fly Bobby?
Results 

I had six respondents, five female, one male, all in their 30s. None of them had seen either Robocop movie prior to the experiment.

1. Was either one a "good" movie?

None of the respondents asserted firmly that either movie was good. Five of the six stated that the original was not good with just one saying, "I found both movies relatively entertaining." This respondent did not state relative to what standard. Other reviews of the original included,
1. "The 1987 version was decidedly bad."
2. "The original was so bad that pretty much anything would have been better."
3. "I give it an "F." How's that?"
A few respondents had positive comments about the reboot, though it still fell short of being a "good" movie. One respondent did give it a B while saying, "I was surprised by how much I actually liked the 2014 version. I wouldn't purchase it or anything crazy like that, but I would probably watch it again." Others noted:
1. "I would say 2014 was approaching good."
2. "The second one was actually pretty good but that could also be that watching it right after the first one skewed how good it seemed."
3. "I didn't think either movie was particularly good, but the remake was certainly more complex and was clearly trying harder."
2. Was one better than the other, or were they just different?

As noted above all of the respondents agreed that the 2014 version of the film was better. The reasons mostly dealt with issues of plot, gore, and character development. Respondents did not like the amount of blood in the original, and found the character development weaker. While many respondents noted that both films tried to address problems with mass media and sociopolitical issues of their times, they felt that the reboot did a better job connecting those issues with the plot of the film.
1. "2014 was better. The story was far more developed and cohesive; the emotional thru-line was existent, for one, and it had a more clear (though not totally clear) political POV. " 
2. "The reboot was better. The original? I hated it. Hated it so much that I was a little bitter over the time I spent watching it when I could have been doing absolutely anything else. It was unnecessarily gory, had no discernible plot. It just...stopped. It just stopped at the end. I wasn't sad, but it was still pretty abrupt, like they ran out of red corn syrup and had to stop filming."
3. "Another big factor in why 2014 was better was Joel Kinnaman -- he's a solid actor and that makes a huge difference when you're dealing with cyborg characters. I liked that there was romance and a little sex in it, which, unlike the gore in 1987, wasn't gratuitous -- the bedroom scene served to underscore what Murphy lost when he became a cyborg."
4. "I didn't think one was much better than the other; I don't think the original has passed the test of time very well, but I don't think the reboot will either. They're both basically moral panic time capsules."
There was one fantastic deconstruction of how the films are just different that is shared below in its entirety.

3. Any other comments?

This section primarily explored the themes of the two films and how they related to the sociopolitical issues of times in which they were made. Respondents also explored the differences between the films that related to aspects other than which was better, or whether either was "good."

1. "Several things popped up about race and culture, like how the reboot stated with middle eastern suicide bombing. I couldn't tell if the point was these were "good" guys standing against invasion by foreign rule via the robots or if they were just stereotyped middle eastern suicide bombers thrown in an American film. All the people of color were bad or secondary in the reboot. So there were more Black people in the reboot, but the one "good" guy, Alex's partner, is still just the partner and of course he gets shot. Then the Black female chief turns out corrupt. Still seems, in both films, it's the "strong white male" who saves the day. I feel like, in Detroit especially, it would have been more than believable to have Alex Murphy be an African American police officer. The original did have the female partner and there were no real strong female characters in the reboot, the wife just plays the wife. I even thought that Dr Norton could have been female or a person of color, but nope, still a white guy. It just struck me that both films were "white guys have all the power and money" kind of movies. I am glad I have seen them and see why the original was so popular even though the blood was a bit much for me."
2. "The original relied on a fairly simple plot structure and more gratuitous violence, while the remake presented itself as a more serious drama. It seemed to be sort of drinking from the same cup as the Manchurian Candidate remake, but with less to work with.
Other differences I noticed: The reboot was overall much more heavy-handed and delved into more explicit detail on issues that were only touched on in the original (like unethical experimentation on human subjects). The reboot relied much more heavily on the family, on the importance of emotion, and on neuro-chemical determinism (although with some degree of not quite knowing what to do with neuro-chemical determinism). The emphasis is on the limits of technology and the importance of human relationships and neuro-chemistry (to what end, I'm not sure), while the original more straightforwardly depicts technology as an improvement on human abilities. Conversely, the original was much more heavy-handed about the soulless villainy of both street criminals and weapon manufacturers, so it might even out. 
Actually the reboot seemed to scrap all of the criminal-gang plot and replace it with family drama and science angst, which seems like a wise choice, since when watching the original, all of the criminals' scenes had me thinking "Why am I supposed to care about this? Oh, right, because it's an "80s Street Crime Moral Panic Movie." The use of news show intervals in both movies was also somewhat different; in the reboot they were a sort of expositional device, while in the original they were some sort of meta-commentary thing that's very of its time and wouldn't carry over to a current audience that well."
 4. Can you fly Bobby?

Only one respondent answered this question, which was disappointing. "No, but Kurtwood Smith's performance was one of the few decent things about the original."

Conclusion

 When controlling for nostalgia remakes can be held as being better than the original films. Remakes can achieve their goal of bringing an older story to a new audience by effectively updating the peripheral aspects of the narrative to better resonate with modern film goers. This study provides a small toe hold for the notion that the poo-pooing of remakes may well be the purview of nostalgic fanboys.

Limitations

This study had several limitations. The sample size was small. The participant pool was heavily skewed towards one gender. All of the respondents were in their thirties. This study used only one film and its remake as source material. This study could be expanded to include more, and more varied participants in order to give a more holistic picture of how movie goers juxtapose original works and their remakes.

Other valid questions brought up by reviewers of this project include, "If you're controlling for nostalgia, are you also doing anything to control for advances in film making technology in the last 20 years?" And, "

It's a fake academic paper. You have three children, right? How do you have this kind of time on your hands?"

To the first question the answer is, no. However, few of the comments from respondents included commentary on things like special effects or other aspects of film making that have advanced. One participant specifically noted that they were discounting those differences in their analysis.

To the second question, um...I don't really. But here we are.

 

Appendix: Participant's Deconstruction of How the Movies are Just Different

Overall I think they are very different films with different motivations as far as their place within the culture and era during which they were released. I felt like the reboot had more planned propaganda dealing with the USA and its global role and the problems many of us see with America playing "daddy" to the world with our troops in way too many places. The Pat Novak character was sort of the voice of this issue. There is also more of a sense of the issues presented in "1984" and the ethics of robotics and their role in a human world. I found the Novak scenes a little odd.

The original was very much an "80's" film to me with  the language (could they say "fuck" more? Called each other "buddy" and "mister" in a way that was comical) and gore/violence that was noticeably absent in the reboot. It didn't seem to have as big of an agenda, but more reminded me of a comic-book-turned-movie sort of film. The killing and shooting of people was gross to me - from the first time the ED 209 kills that office guy when it glitches near the beginning - bleck! And how Alex is injured is so much more gruesome in the original. The acting of the "bad guys" is almost comical with the forced laughs and loud declarations of much of what they say. It seemed more a film to just entertain with 80's language and violence, which seemed more prevalent in films then (Terminator, etc). I liked that as far as its seeming intent, but it was just so much shooting and blood. I did also like that Robocop didn't know he was Alex and part of the plot was him figuring that out. I suspect, if I had seen the original when I was young, I would have been irritated by how the reboot didn't do this.

There was the idea of corporate greed that I think was a part of 80's politics more than some of the global issues that are more focused on now. I missed Alex having someone that was "there" for him in the original - like Dr. Norton in the reboot. I didn't like nor dislike his female partner in the original. I just didn't buy their relationship so her being the one human that helped him at the end had kind of an "eh" factor to me. In both films, I didn't like how no one explained what was going on to Alex when he was first "turned on" as a robot. I felt, in the reboot, that scene was less than believable because they just turned him on and unlocked him and let him go without explaining what had happened. I did like in the original how the audience got to see from the robot's perspective as he was created and turned on.

So they were just really different to me. I liked less 80's gore in the reboot (and less of the word fuck to be honest). Novak's string of expletives at the end seems to show his zeal for using robotics and anger that it wasn't happening. But then he supports America even as Americans have denied what he obviously wants. So it seemed contradictory - his desire for robotics with his undying devotion to America

 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bless this Mess and Other Clich├ęs

For years I lamented the fact that I was living in a home meant for three people, but with six people's stuff in it. That was seven years ago when I had two fewer kids and lived 3,000 miles from where I am now. My mother had only been gone for two years and I had become the steward of all her possessions. Hers, and my brother's things she'd been storing and saving along with things my step father had left when he left. I hated the clutter and the expense, I still do.

It wasn't always this way. I used to be a young man, and as is the case with many young men, the state of my home didn't matter much to me. I don't know when that changed. Maybe it was when I found myself living in my mother's house, which had become my house, and losing an entire room and a storage unit to other people's things. These were things I couldn't get rid of. Not because I had any particular attachment to all of them, but because I was legally bound to keep them until they could be gone over and disseminated according to the terms of my mother's will. Nothing changed when I left that house and moved into my own. The things, the things that were not mine but that I held out of a sense of duty, moved with me.

When I left my home town for new opportunities much of the stuff came with me. The rest was left in storage, that I pay for. I'm paying almost $200 a month for things that I'm keeping for posterity. Things that aren't really mine, but might be important to someone some day. Sometimes I think that the biggest curse was finding my mom's old report cards and journals while cleaning out my grandmother's basement. They were a treasure trove, a window into my adolescent mother's mind and heart. The result for me is that I've kept every print copy of everything she wrote. On top of that I kept her files, and notes, and interview tapes. I've also kept as much of my old school work, and my brother's as she deemed worthy of keeping.

It wasn't until a couple Christmases ago that I gave the last box of my brother's things to him to store. It was his old school work and arts and crafts. Things that should be kept by a parent, but were left to me until he graduated college. I could have relinquished them earlier, but I felt duty bound to hold them until he was "more stable." The result is that he's burdened with them in his apartment instead of having them in storage back home.

That was all before we had a third child and moved to a house that had at least two fewer rooms than the one we left. This one is ours though, in as much as a house with 29.5 years left on the mortgage can be anyone's. Now I again find myself lamenting the clutter. We bought the smallest, oldest house on our block. Our neighbors are wonderful people. Our kids all play together, and a few of them have hosted us on multiple occasions. We've never had any of them over. At first it was because we were still moving in. Now, though it's hard to admit, it's because I'm nervous about the fact that my dining room table is always covered in mail and my living room is nearly impassable with crap that my family has dumped on their way from the car to their rooms.

The things is, we're not materialistic. We're just the wrong combination of sentimental and lazy. We've been blessed with a world of hand me downs. We can't get rid of too small clothes because we still have small people. I never used to care about washer/dryer combos and could never understand why the commercials for them were so effusive. Now I feel like I'm running the damn things 24/7 and I would kill for a dish washer to go with them. I felt like a slacker until I realized how many of my neighbors have paid help for cleaning and yard work.I'm not worried about having a perfect home, I just don't want look like an episode of hoarders.

But here's the thing, even though I sometimes feel like I'm at my wits end with clutter and dishes and laundry and gutters and raking a yard even though I have no trees, even though I sometimes want to scream or cry or throw all the crap in the living room in the trash, it's all worth it.

It's. All. Worth it.

Because every so often I look at the ballet shoes in the middle of the living room, or the pots and pans in the sink, or the toys strewn about, and I realize who it is making this mess with me. I have a wife who loves me and supports us. I have three beautiful, maddening, brilliant children who deserve better than I give them. I have the son I always wanted, and who I hope turns out less damaged than myself. I have a little girl who seems impervious and fragile all at once. I have a baby who surprises me with how much she can do each day. Each one of them is infuriating and precious depending on the moment. I couldn't imagine my life without them.

As I fight against the tide of clutter and my own bitterness at feeling like I'm the only one who cares about a tidy home, I remember that the house itself is only as important as the people who inhabit it. I remember to let go of my desire to be able to walk from one end to the other without tripping or having a frozen pea stick to my foot. I remember why I cook each meal, and wash each new set of dishes. It's because I'm exactly where I want be, with exactly who I want to be with.

I love our cluttered little house. I love my little bundles of frustrating joy. I love my wife. I love my life.

I don't claim to have a lot of wisdom to impart to you dear IDL readers. I don't have the answers. At best I hope you take something useful away from the thoughts I share here. But I'll say this, though you've no doubt heard it before: Take time every so often to look at your life and marvel at how far you've come. If you're reading this I'm confident that you've been on a journey from who you were to who you are, and you probably haven't given yourself enough credit for making it this far. So revel in what you've done. Embrace your mess. Love your family. Ignore the flaws and the rough edges of the people around you for just a moment and remember why you still have them near you. Love them all (or at least like them), and remember how lucky we all are to be here.

Happy New Year all.



Thursday, December 10, 2015

Free Range Parent Update

Not a crime


Hi Everyone,

First, I'd like to thank everyone who read the post about the police being called when I let my daughter play in the front yard for a few minutes. Thanks to you and the folks at Life of Dad it's become my most read post ever.

I was surprised that with as many reads as it's had I've received very little negative feedback. In the back of my mind I wondered if someone would think I was overreacting in terms of my fears about how it could turn out. I wondered about it myself. Maybe I was being over the top.

Today I saw this article from Free-Range Kids. They report that the Every Student Succeeds Act, which will be signed into Federal law today, will include the following

“…nothing in this Act shall…prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission; or  expose parents to civil or criminal charges for allowing their child to responsibly and safely travel to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate.”
This is a good addition to the law, though it also includes a caveat that this provision will not supersede state or local laws regarding kids traveling alone.

The most interesting part of the article for me though was a link to a previous story about a family who were charged with criminal neglect and had their children removed from the home by CPS because their 11-year-old was left to play in the back yard alone for 90 minutes. In contrast to my situation, the parents weren't home. Still, the kid was 11 and playing basketball in his own yard. This was in Florida where there is no state law regarding when kids can be home alone. This kind of story is what sticks the minds of parents when the police show up.

A little more digging through the links uncovered this story from June, which details a new ruling from Maryland CPS. The new ruling states that children walking or playing outside is not enough of a reason to involve CPS. Knowing that is a relief, but only a little. We know that police officers aren't always aware of the law, and typically are granted a lot of leeway when faced what they perceive as a criminal situation. So I don't think my fears were unwarranted.

As exciting as today's signing and the ruling from Maryland CPS are, there's still risk involved for parents when the police are called. Please, if you see a child who you think is in danger, approach the child and talk to them. Knock on the door and check in. Be a neighbor. Be a friend. It will strengthen your community.

Thanks.



Sunday, December 6, 2015

Brush Your Teeth! (The Anthem)


It's interesting to think about where household anthems come from. Sometimes they come from expected places, like my kids loving this rap song about George Mead's horse Baldy from this kindie album. Other times they come from songs parents like and kids adopt, like when I find my a daughter playing alone and singing "wake me up when September ends."

Our most recent household anthem contender came from a much less likely source. If you watch sports online like I often do you may have come across a commercial for the Samsung Galaxy Wireless Charger. It features a song that seemed like something my twenty five-year-old brother might like. Or he might hate that his friends love it. It's hard to say.  Anyway, it's not a terrible song. It's catchy, which is probably why it's in a commercial. The thing is, as anyone who has watched a lot of programming online might know, the selection of commercials run during an online program are sparse so you see the same ones over and over. The Samsung commercial has been running on the online broadcast of Sunday Night Football and it's been driving my wife and I up a wall. It's become a running joke for us as a stand in for anything that seems annoying, anything we don't understand, or anything that makes us feel old.

Tonight I told her I was going to find the whole song and play it for her whenever she did something annoying. "It's not a real song," she retorted, "it's just a commercial." Yeah, bet. Hip tech commercials don't use jingles anymore. Apple crushed that with the iPod commercials. It's all real songs from hip artists these days, which why I don't know any of them. It turns out it's really easy to find things like this. But here's the surprise, it's a fun song, and the chorus is likely one that will be repeated around here for a while.

The song is Queen's Speech Ep. 4 by Lady Leshurr. Her style is interesting and her lyrics are fun and when they're not kid friendly they're at least obscure. One my favorite lines is, "I got a dark-skinned friend who looks like Rachel Dolezal/And I got a light-skinned friend who looks like Rachel Dolezal/Which one's which? Not sure." But the part that made it a new family favorite is the chorus, which involves repeating the phrase "Brush your teeth" ten times. Brush your teeth! Brush your teeth! Brush your teeth! How many times do we say that each week eh fellow parents? Having a song about it might help.

So I've come around on Lady Leshurr and her annoying Samsung ad. The ad isn't her fault and her lyrics are clever. Link to the song is below, enjoy it with or without your kids. Just remember to brush your teeth.



(I should have figured out how to get Samsung or Apple to pay me for this. Dang.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I Guess I'm a Free Range Parent



An odd thing happened here at IDL HQ yesterday, the police brought my daughter home. It was particularly strange because she is four-years-old and was already home. It was roughly 2:00pm and we were getting ready to go to the store. It had been raining lightly for a couple days and Lou asked if she could muck about in some puddles in the front yard while I gathered the baby's things and loaded the car. "Sure honey, you can play in the puddles." My permission brought forth an unbidden promise from her that she would stay within our family boundaries for kids playing in the front of the house. "I won't go past Mr. Andy's, I won't go past the Sullivan's, and I won't go in the street." Good girl. She knows our expectations, and she's always stayed where she's supposed to be.

I was in the back yard letting the dogs pee before we left when I saw a police car drive slowly by. I figured he had seen Lou outside and was slowing down to check on her. I also figured he saw me at the side of the house at the end of the driveway because he kept going. I came into the house a couple minutes later and heard a loud knocking on the door. When I opened it there were two officers there with Lou. She looked, not scared, but shrinking, timid, like she was worried that she was in trouble. I was pretty worried, but I tried not to let it show. From experience I know that interactions with police can go any number of ways and have often gone poorly for me personally, though I've never been charged with a crime.

My first thought was to corral my dogs. The last thing I need is to end up in one of those Raw Story articles about a cop trying to shoot a harmless pup and shooting a kid instead. My dogs truly are harmless, both are chihuahua mixes with the biggest one being barely ten pounds. I stepped outside and instinctively closed the door behind me, something that had become a habit growing up when the police would show up to disperse my mother's birthday parties.

"Hi, is everything OK?" I asked.

"We got a call from one of your neighbors. They were worried that she was out here alone. Maybe she was locked out or something."

I explained that everything was fine. We were going to the store and she was playing while I got everything loaded up. They seemed unconvinced. They didn't say anything else, but they didn't leave either. We all stood there on the porch for what seemed like a long and awkward period of time. I don't know if they were waiting for me to volunteer something else, or if they felt they might have more to say. I'm guessing there was some kind of noncommittal goodbye, but I don't remember what it might have been. The officers turned around and left.

As they were getting into their cars I asked Lou where she was when they approached her. She was defensive at first and I had to reassure her that she wasn't in trouble. She kept telling me, "Daddy, all I was doing was drawing in the mud with a stick." It took a while to convince her that I understood that and that what she was doing wasn't the point, I wanted to know where she was. You might think the level of concern that caused the officers to march her up to the porch arose from finding her a couple houses down the block. In fact, she was squatting on the edge of the sidewalk playing with a mud puddle in our front lawn. She was in our yard. She hadn't wandered off. She wasn't a half mile away like the kids in Maryland who caused a stir earlier this year. No, someone had called the police because my daughter was in our yard for ten minutes.

I have mixed feelings about this. One thought is that I'm happy the neighbors are looking out for our kids. I am happy to know that if one day one of the kids really is locked out, that someone will notice and try to help. I'm not happy about the way they helped. We're neighbors, they know us. Why didn't they come over and talk? There are ten occupied houses on our block and we know and have good relationships with the people in nine of those houses. We thought the last one was unoccupied until it ended up being decorated for Halloween. I've still never seen anyone go in or out of it. Of those nine neighbors five have kids who have played with our children. We're not strangers. Every one of our neighbors has knocked on our door for some friendly reason in the past. So why not on this day? It bothers me because while it shows some concern it also shows some judgement or lack of trust. Why involve the police? Does this person not understand the potential consequences of that call?

Here's what I know from a combination of personal experience, working for Child Protective Services as a contractor, and reading a lot: this could have ended badly.

While I hope no cop in my town is stupid or cowardly enough to see my dogs as a threat, I do think it's possible for one to decide that my daughter playing in the yard constitutes neglect or child endangerment or some other overblown label. I could see CPS being called, and one or both of us being taken away. I don't envision this because it would be justified. I don't say it because I can see that as a valid take on the situation. It's not. I could see it happening because the Silver Spring kids live just one county over. I could see it happening because I have a Spanish last name and a tan complexion. I can see it happening because the kid they brought to my door wasn't my fair haired blue eyed son, but my mestiza looking daughter. Worse, as we know, and even if the chances are slim, I could have ended up beaten or dead. Depending on how they decide to see me, how they decide to interpret my words or actions, I could end up a name on a list of "Not one more."

Not all cops are bad. Not all cops are racist. I have friends who are police officers and they are great people. I do understand the odds. But as the saying goes, it only takes one. All it takes is for me to encounter the wrong officer at the wrong time, regardless my standing as a law abiding citizen. The rhetoric works both ways. The officers I know and the thin blue line crowd on social media are fond of pointing out that any traffic stop could be an officer's last. In a way I understand that sentiment, even though it's never been safer to be a cop in America than it is right now. The reality is, I know I am never ever a threat to a police officer, but there's always the potential that the officer is a threat to me. That's the reality that many of us live every day, and it's stressful. I wonder if my neighbor considered all this before calling the police instead of coming by the house.

Or was the whole neighbor story just a story? Maybe it was just a standard police statement, "Well we got a call from someone..." Could be. Though I don't know why the officer wouldn't just say, "I was driving by and I was concerned." That would be a legitimate action for a police officer to take. I'd really rather it be a patrolling officer showing concern than a neighbor.

I don't think I'm a free range parent. My kids don't wander the neighborhood. They have earned a little more freedom than the other neighborhood kids. They also have boundaries that I can see from my porch or my bedroom window. If they see the neighbor kids in the front yard they ask me if they can go over and say hello. They know 90% of our neighbors, and are known by them. They have a much smaller area of operations than I had at the same age. By the time I was six-years-old I was a latch key kid with a bike and the ability to be anywhere within a mile of the house. I don't want that for my kids. That would scare me. It was normal then, but not now. And I guess I'm learning that even having your kids play in the front yard is considered suspect, though I don't agree.

I don't know what I'm going to do in the future. My wife says we should fence the back and make the kids stay there. It could work, but it would be a fight. And why have that fight? It wouldn't be because I don't think the kids should be out front. It would be because I don't want to have people calling the cops on us. It would be because I was afraid, not for the kids, but for myself. I won't live in fear that way.

I'll close with this open letter to my community, and maybe yours as well:

Dear neighbors,

I am writing this to remind you of why we chose to move here. When we were looking for a new home we found this beautiful block in this quiet neighborhood. We fell in love with the tree lined street and the flat sidewalks that, unlike our previous neighborhood, were totally devoid of broken glass and dead cats. We saw the toys in your front yards and play structures in your back yards and hoped that our kids would find playmates. We thought about knowing all of you and hanging out at BBQs and peewee soccer. We thought we'd found a house that could provide not just a shelter, but a community.

We were right! All summer we got to know you little by little. Our kids played together. We shared beers and stories and resources. You became our emergency contacts and our in-person Yelp. We played touch football on the weekends and shared the gossip of our small town. As summer turned to fall our kids rode the school bus together and we all waited out on the corner with our coffee and stories of the weekend. You've seen our kids playing on the block. You know where they go, and where they don't go. You know us. We know you. We trust you.

So please, if you're concerned that one of our kids are alone or locked out of the house, come over and check. Ask the kid if they're OK. Knock on our door. You know us. We're not strangers. You have our phone numbers. Give us a call or a text. Just please, unless you really feel that someone is in imminent danger, please don't send the police. I know that you all likely don't have the same experiences that I do with the police. You've probably never been on the terror watch list, or been held for an hour in cuffs on the curb while they made totally sure you weren't an escaped convict. I know for sure that you don't face the same danger from them that we do. Please consider that when you call the police instead of talking to us you not only break down the good will of the neighborhood, you put my family in a position of facing real danger.

We know you. We like you. Come over.

Warmly,
-Roberto

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thirft Store Holy Grail

The Holy Grail of the thrift store. (Banana for scale)
 Thrift stores are great. They always have been. Long before some of them split off and became vintage clothing stores, long long before Macklemore started wearing your grandpa's clothes, thrift stores were a staple for my family. Where else can you get 3 pairs of gently used size 7T jeans for $12? Or five awesome dress up costumes for $20? How about a New Zealand All Blacks jersey for $6? (OK, maybe a lot of places, but stay with me.) Our family is (by choice) living on one income, and the random money I pull in living the Interdisciplinary Life, so we need to save where we can. One area where we save money is in not always buying new clothes that the kids are going to either destroy or grow out of in six months. (BTW, you ever notice the two or three year cycle of kids looking like 1990s hip hop artists in super baggy clothes that they'll grow into, and then later looking like extras on The Big Bang Theory as they grow out of those same clothes?) So whether it's Goodwill or Value Village I'm all about the thrift stores.

Which brings me to today's tale. The Boy had somehow found himself in a world where he had outgrown his 5T pants and had only 8T pants in reserve, which weren't working. He may actually have been the inspiration for the rebirth of Jnco jeans. So off I went to our local thrift store in search of 7T jeans (he'll grow into them). I brought along Lou an Yo since leaving them at home is apparently some sort of crime.

As soon as we got out of the car Lou was begging me for toys. For some reason she only does this at thrift stores. If I take her to a toy store to shop for gifts for other people she doesn't make a peep. For some reason the allure of second hand Guitar Hero controllers and sandwich bags full of Happy Meal toys is too much to bear. This time it was a full on sob fest complete with a long explanation of how she doesn't really have any toys of her own that she likes because all the toys she has are shared with The Boy. She kind of had a point, but I was not giving in to the tantrum. We whiled away a miserable half hour picking out a few pairs of pants and shoes for The Boy and headed to the check out aisle. The only open register was the one they kept the fancy stuff behind, and that's where I saw it.

If you've ever been to the toy aisles of a typical thrift shop you know that they are a wasteland of plastic crap and two generation old gaming systems. They're terrible. The only redeeming thing you might find is a prefabricated play kitchen that still has most of the decals intact. Despite knowing this I occasionally (every time the kids aren't with me) stroll down the lane hoping for some overlooked treasure. I especially keep an eye out for Legos even though I know it's a fool's errand. No one gives away Legos.

I love Legos. I always have. I had a big Lego suitcase full Legos that I cherished as a kid. One of my fondest memories was a Lego firehouse I got for Christmas one year. I couldn't have been older than five, but I was able to put it together myself. My kids love Legos. Legos have only gotten better over the last 35 years and now that I have kids I have an excuse to play with Legos. The thing is, Legos are expensive. Like, I suffered sticker shock when I started looking for sets for the kids a couple years ago. So our Lego collection is modest and I'm always on the lookout for deals.

All this is to say that what I found behind that counter made my heart leap. There behind the counter was the biggest tub of Legos I've ever seen outside of a toy store. It was one of those clear plastic storage bins people use to store picnic supplies or winter coats, and it was full to the brim with Legos.

It was the holy grail of the thrift store.

I had to have it.

But I couldn't be seen buying toys by my grumpy four-year-old.

So I devised a plan wherein I paid for the bin, brought the kids and clothes to the car, drove around to the front of the store and loaded the bin in the back with no child being the wiser. A man who seemed to be knowledgeable about such things asked me how much I had paid for my bounty. It wasn't much considering the haul. He asked a series of questions that led me to conclude that he was one of those folks who get good deals at thrift shops and then re-sell the items to vintage shops or on eBay for a profit. "Oh no," I told him, "I'm not a collector, I'm just going to throw these in the play room and let the kids have at it."

I'm not actually going to that, though I'd love to see the looks on their faces if they walked in and saw this ark of Lego wonders. The reality is we don't have the space for that right now so I'll have to dole them out in bits while T and I come up with a viable storage plan.

I stayed up late into the night trying to catalog my new treasure. It proved an impossible undertaking for one night. What I was thrilled to find was that whoever donated the bin had been thoughtful enough to include many of the instruction manuals for the sets that I now presume are in the box. It's a fun mix of old and new sets. Sometimes you can hold a Lego in your hand, feel the difference in the plastic and you know for sure it's a brick from your childhood. Overall the box is about 85% Legos, 10% Kreo, and 5% K'nex, including a very old looking Space Shuttle Columbia set. There's a couple of Lego City sets, a couple Star Wars sets, more than a few Bionicles, and even some Lego Friends and a Kreo Barbie set for Lou. Yes, I also kind of hate the idea of Lego Friends, but Lou loves them. in fact, it's the lack of Friends types of toys in our home that had her in a funk to begin with. So I was stoked to find the willowy figures.

Though the sets are impossibly jumbled a quick search of the internet indicates there's likely $800 or more worth of blocks in the box. Thanks to that same internet it may be possible to find the instruction manuals for some sets I can identify but don't have books for. If not, I'm actually more excited at the idea of just having thousands of free play bricks for the kids to run wild with. I'm still debating if I'll try to salvage and build the Republic Frigate myself.

I've been trawling thrift stores for 25 years on my own, and long before that with my mom. I've come up with normal items of clothing. I've scored great deals on a variety of jerseys. I even worked at a vintage store during college. I can say with great certainty that this giant bin of Legos is the greatest thrift store find I've ever made. It's very likely that I'll spend the rest of my life in a downward spiral starting with weekly thrift store trips and ending in blowing the kids' college funds bidding on storage lockers in a vain attempt to recapture this feeling.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Great Green Globs of Teachable Moments


The other day my son wandered into the kitchen singing an old classic for the elementary school set, Great Green Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts (or GGGoGGGG as it's known online by the kids these days). My mom taught it to me when I was around 5 and I guess I taught it to my son a couple years ago. I don't remember teaching it to him, I assumed he'd learned it at school, but he swears it was me. For whatever reason it's become quite popular at our house the last week.

If you're not familiar with the song, it is sung to the tune of The Old Grey Mare*, and goes like this.
Great green globs of greasy grimy gopher guts,
mutilated monkey meat,
little dirty birdie feet!

All mixed up in all-purpose porpoise pus.
Gee I forgot my spoon!

(After a few rounds it ends with "But I've got my straw!" followed by gross slurping noises.)
*If you're not familiar with The Old Grey Mare you really need to brush up on your 1850s civic political operatives.

Beyond the nostalgia factor I ended up being really happy the song came up at this point in the kids' lives. Right now they're really into asking questions about things they don't know. They're not embarrassed by not knowing something, which I'm trying to encourage. It turns out they didn't know what most of the things in the song were.


"Dad, what's a gopher?"
"Dad, what are guts?"
"Dad, what's mutilated?"
"Dad, what's a porpoise?"
"Dad, what's pus?"

I love when my kids ask these questions because it shows me the gaps in their knowledge and the things I have not yet found time to teach them. I also love living in an age where I can go online and show them exactly what we're talking about. It's become such a staple of our time together that in a stunning reversal of the common trope my kids are often telling "just look it up" if I don't know the answer to something.


By the end of breakfast the kids knew four things they hadn't known when they woke up. Not bad for the 90 minutes before the school bus. The best part though wasn't the incidental educational opportunity, it was watching them squirm and giggle as they sang the song while brushing teeth and hair and on the way to the bus stop. Knowing what all those things are made the song all the more disgusting and fun to belt out.

And isn't that really the point of learning?