April 9, 2008

"Blatantly Unfocused Play With Their Daddy"

I'm re-reading Calvin Trillin's 1998 book, Family Man, and it's rather more interesting now that I'm a dad. Jim's right, he's the godfather of all typing daddies, not just those who make a big deal about changing tables in the men's room. After reading the Sunday Times makes him worry he's not programming his kids' lives with enough lessons and educational activities, he imagines a grilling by the inspector from the Responsible Parenting League:

"No language lessons. No tennis lessons. Perhaps you'd like to explain the set of blocks that is listed here under 'blatantly unfocused play with their daddy.'"

I could show him the blocks. We still have them. They're stored in a circular receptacle that's about twice the size of a snare drum and has casters on it, so it can be rolled out of storage space underneath the staircase. I still roll out the blocks whenever a child of a certain age comes to visit. The child's parents never seem to mind. Apparently, they're confident that the current events quizzes and riding lessons are all on schedule at home and that my house can therefore be treated as recess.

"The blocks came from a place called Creative Playthings," I say to the inspector. "It may be that you people give parents a few points just for dealing with a place that has a name like that."

Of course, that they bought the blocks at all was an accident...

I remember precisely how it happened. When Abigail was about three, she had a set of rather lifelike rubber figures--a mother and father and a boy and a agirl--whose limbs could be bent into a variety of shapes. While we were out of the city during the summer, both of the female figures got lost. I suppose I could have made a claim to the inspector that our eagerness to find replacements when we got back to New York was based on a concern that the absense of female figures could warp Abigail's perception in the entire area of gender identification, but I think the truth is that Abigail probably said more than once, "I miss the mommy." At the store we were informed that the rubber figures were being phased out, and were available only at the factory in Cranbury, New Jersey. Naturally, after placing Abigail in the care of the words-not-hands people one morning, we made our way to Cranbury, New Jersey. There we found sets of rubber people in great variety--not just family groups but groups of postmen and army officeres and nurses. The sets had splendid names. As I remember, one of them was called "Bendable INtegrated Rubber Work Group." There were also rubber animals, done in the same scale. At the factory in Cranbury, New Jersey, they were all on sale. So were the blocks.

With the blocks, we'd build houses and roads and bridges. Then we'd put in place a parade of rubber people, some of them riding rubber animals. Sometimes for accompaniment, I'd put on one of the LPs of John Philip Sousa marches I'd inherited from my father, or a tape of a New Orleans brass band. The blocks had proven to be indestructible. Over time, most of the bendable rubber people lost thier bendability--you'd push an African-American father's arm to his side and it would suddenly spring up, as if her were Richard Nixon throwing that jerky, awkward wave to a crowd--but we got years of use out of them before that happened. As a friend in Nova Scotia would have put it, those rubber people didn't owe us any money.

"Are you maintaining, then," the inspector continues, "that you were, through supervised block play, teaching the rudiments of how architects use space or laying the groundwork fthat would make it possible for the children to absorb, at a more appropriate age, the principles of engineering?"

"I'd rather not say," I reply."

Buy Family Man at either Amazon or Abebooks


I think Trillin would be comforted by this article:

It basically talks about why blocks, dolls and balls are way more educational than... educational toys.

Is the whole book this good?

[I still found parts of it a little precious, but overall, it's a nice, neighborly read. Certainly a lot less dramatized than parental writing has become... -ed.]

Those excerpts are amazing. I just added this to my "to read" list (yes, I actually have a list). Thanks!

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