Thursday, March 29, 2012

Because I Said So: Family has advantages in dystopian, sci-fi future

I woke up last Sunday morning and sat on the couch in my office with a mug of coffee, a pencil and a legal pad to write this week's column, just as I do every two weeks. And I wrote it, and I was okay with it. Then I woke up Monday morning with a whole new column in my head.

Dystopian S
It seems there is no escaping "The Hunger Games." Even if you didn't read the book, even if you won't see the film, it's everywhere and in the collective subconscious. So that's where this week's column originates. I had a vision as I came up through the fog of sleep of my own kids involved in such a struggle and how woefully inept they may be based on what I've seen of their exemplary lounging habits here around the house. It was frightening, and funny all at the same time.

I wrote a story for The Commercial Appeal ('Hunger' Fever: Young adult novel of dystopian future headed to screen as next 'Twilight'; March 15, 2012) on the popularity of the book and the anticipation of the film's release. I spoke with adults and teens, and the excitement was the same in both camps. I haven't read the book, but I had Kristy and C tell me about the plot and characters, and the appeal of a story about a child who has to defend her life, and that of her sister, in this dystopian setting. I don't think I'd ever uttered the word "dystopian" until I began writing the story and this column but I bet I've said it a million times since.

The original column for this week, by the way, had to do with The Rolling Stones, their saxophonist Bobby Keys and encouraging our children to follow their dreams and passions, though not too far; not to the point of throwing a television set off a hotel balcony. I may put that column right here in this space next week as a bonus.

Until then, enjoy this week's column from all of us here at Because I Said So:

I'm in the minority in my house in that I don't read young adult fiction. The kids read it. My wife, an English teacher at Central High School, reads it. I think I can't get into it for a couple of reasons. First, I'm a not-young adult. Second, I don't really go in for fantasy and science fiction and the lot. This may put me in the minority of all of today's readers, come to think of it, but I need the action to take place in real cities and countries; I need the plot to twist on something other than time travel, wizardry or the backs of sparkly vampires.

Regardless of my views on young adult literature, there is no escaping the latest craze, "The Hunger Games." There are more than 20 million books in print, and the film adaptation opened last weekend with a record-breaking box office. Well played, author Suzanne Collins.

It seems that quite a bit of such books has to do with a postapocalyptic world, a dystopian future where a person relies on wits and cunning to survive against roving bands of marauders, dictatorial and all-seeing governments, or zombies. My family wouldn't make it very far in such a world. I hope they're learning survival skills by reading these books and watching these films, but if it comes down to who can get to the dwindling food supplies first, we'll starve waiting for 5-year-old Genevieve to find her shoes so we can leave the house.

In "The Hunger Games," children are forced to fight each other to the death for the amusement of television viewers tuning in to the reality show of the same name. When I asked my kids which of them would win, 9-year-old Somerset was the first to exuberantly claim rhetorical victory, followed quickly by, "Wait, what are 'The Hunger Games'?" Seems she hasn't read the book after all.

My children aren't so competitive, and their strategy in such a format, from what I've seen, would involve them walking around the book's setting of the Capitol looking for their mother so they could tell on lead character Katniss Everdeen for trying to shoot arrows at them.

The advantage this family will have in any end-of-the-world scenario is if the new wasteland and societal machinations work more like the world of Mario Brothers than that of AMC's "The Walking Dead" with its abandoned urban landscape and roaming zombie population. When confronted with flying turtles and fire-breathing plants, there really is no one more nimble than 10-year-old Joshua.

Of course, to survive in any such scenario, the basic necessities are first priority, and we have our own version of "The Hunger Games" that plays out around the dining table. The kids are hungry, I know they must be hungry, yet they insist on playing games. "How much of this do I have to eat?" "I don't like this." "What kind of animal does that meat come from?" I'm defeated nightly.

The Mayan calendar predicts the world will implode or explode or freeze or do something unknown this coming December. I just consulted the all-knowing Google calendar, however, advancing the months until I got bored, so I know we'll be around until at least August of 2041. I also found that my birthday that year is on a Wednesday.

Whether the world and our society as we know it ends tomorrow, in December or on my birthday in 29 years, my kids are as ready as they'll ever be. They've read the literature, seen the films, found their shoes and are ready to take on whatever Hollywood, or Donkey Kong, might throw at them.
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Because I Said So: Big family can reward with peaceful little society

I wrote both the column and the feature for today's "M" section in The Commercial Appeal. The feature is on the young adult novel "The Hunger Games" and the upcoming release of the film adaptation. I knew very little about the book going into it, but learned a lot about the the characters, the plot, the genre and the folks who read it.

The "Because I Said So" column today is all about siblings, which I knew a lot about going into. I have two sisters and two brothers, I have a house full of little siblings and I grew up in a big family full of aunts and uncles. I've always admired the way these adults were not only brothers and sisters, but great friends as well. This last year has been a trying time for a lot of reasons, and it is in these times when true teamwork and trust, respect and love become evident. It's been inspirational and made me look at my own kids as a unit independent of Kristy and me. The Quartet will become their own team, they already have in many respects, and my hope is that they'll remain close no matter where life and career and family take them. Siblings are our first best friends and should always remain so.

Big family can reward with peaceful little society

What we create with a large family, other than a large mess and a lot of noise, is our own little society within a society. It has its own rules to be broken and its own hierarchy to be either respected or usurped. It has its own ways of operating to ensure that the machinery of family and home run smoothly.

The best way to keep things operating evenly, of course, is for all of the cogs in the machine to work together, for these brothers and sisters to come together and work as a team, all with the same goal of cleaning the kitchen, agreeing on what will be watched on television or simply passing the potatoes down the table at dinner.

When there is discord, factions develop, and strife becomes the norm; war breaks out over an otherwise peaceful land, and no one is happy. Happiness, and quiet, are the overarching goals every day.

I've been reading "The Saturdays" by Elizabeth Enright to my 9-year-old daughter at bedtime. It's the story of the Melendy family with four children that mirror my own -- two boys, two girls -- living in a Manhattan contemporary to the time of the book's first publication in 1941. Lamenting not having enough money to do what each really wants, the siblings agree to pool their weekly allowance (a total of $1.60) and take turns privately doing what each likes on Saturdays. By the end, they realize they don't want to go off on their own for a day, but decide instead that it will be more fun to have their adventures as a group. It's the story of working together for a mutual cause and respecting each others' wants and dreams.

Much of the time, my kids are at each others' throats with the predictable arguments of sibling rivalry. But there are those moments of peace, a cease-fire as welcome as a clean kitchen when I see them come together in small ways as an older one stops what he's doing to help a younger with homework. There have been our own Saturday afternoons when one child will prepare lunch for all of the others. Sometimes, they pass a dish at dinner without being asked. As a parent, it's what we strive for -- siblings getting along as friends. There is nothing more encouraging for a parent than to see your kids, with ages spanning many years, playing together as a cohesive unit. The only thing better is when they're doing so out of earshot.

There are nights when bedtimes have passed that I hear the kids talking until late, and part of me wants to stomp in there with my scary father voice and tell them to be quiet, to go to sleep and that they have to get up early in the morning. But another part knows that they have many years ahead of waking up early, and I just want to join them, to be a part of the secrets kids tell late at night, the inside jokes passed back and forth and plans being made.

I've witnessed recently that in times of difficulty, brothers and sisters working as a team can accomplish great things; they can oil the wheels of their machinery even as that machinery is coming apart. We should learn to lean on each other and teach our children to look to one another for strength and advice and an ear when times are tough.

Siblings are there for us forever, and sometimes it takes a fictional family to remind us of this, but sometimes it takes only looking to the person beside us at the dinner table and asking them to pass the potatoes. 

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Because I Said So: It's not about who wins -- oh, who are we fooling?

Years ago I got caught up in playing chess online. It was a lot of fun, but maybe a little too fun as I found myself consumed with it, having half a dozen or more games going at once. Some matches were quick, back and forth games, while others, those being played with people on the other side of the planet, were longer affairs with turns being taken during each of our waking hours. I finally had to let it go. I finished a final game and never went back to the site. I was spending too much time thinking about my next moves and checking the status of ongoing games.

So when I received an invitation from Andria to play Words With Friends, Facebook's answer to Scrabble, I hesitated (which would be a great Words With Friends word), and when Kristy then joined in the fray, I wavered (also a good play), but I finally had to sip from the pitcher of Kool-Aid being served me.

I've really only dipped my toe into the pool of possible number of games, but I've found Words With Friends to be just as big a time suck as chess was. But it is highly entertaining, and I keep telling myself that I'm using my brain. I'm using language! It's probably educational.

I've won quite a few games while a couple of opponents (Caleb and Steph) seem unbeatable and are probably cheating, though I haven't figured out how yet. My uncle Aldo from Georgia challenged me to a game out of nowhere and thrummed me soundly. In a follow-up game he seemed to have other things on his mind, or perhaps I was actually playing his son, my 7-year-old cousin Aldo, the entire time, because I managed to eek out a win.

It's been fun, if not time consuming. I'm not sure I'll keep up with it, I may just drop it the way I did cyber-chess. Until that time, though, I'll keep searching for the perfect use for this 'Q' and gleaning whatever column fodder I can from the distractions the Internet offers.

Today's "Because I Said So" column in The Commercial Appeal:
It isn't about winning and losing.

I have a child who comes home from school each day, tackles his homework (always homework first!), and then it's straight to the computer or the Wii for an afternoon of video games. Within a half-hour, I can hear his anguished cries of defeat and near, so very near, expletives.

It's an addiction, the video games. I can see the sweat beading on his forehead when he's away from it too long, the trembling in his thumbs. On Saturday mornings, he's the first one up and standing in front of the television playing whatever his current obsession might be. These days, it's one featuring an elf who may or may not be riding on a seahorse and wielding a large butter knife. I'm awakened by the vocal frustrations of his losing a round to a gnome riding a starfish, or something.

The blips and bright lights of this simulated world are all too real for him, the losses far too personal, and this is an issue.

So we stick with the tried-and-true mantra -- it isn't about winning or losing; it's about enjoying the challenge itself. This, of course, falls on deaf ears, or ears too stimulated by the bells and whistles of the game.

I know of what I speak. I should admit to you that I've stopped writing this column no fewer than three times to check on the seven different games of "Words With Friends" that I have going at the moment. I'm happy to say that I'm winning five of them. This makes for a good afternoon regardless of what we, as parents, insist.

If you're not familiar with "Words With Friends," it's the online version of what we used to call Scrabble. Alec Baldwin was recently and famously removed from an airplane for refusing to end a "Words With Friends" game; it's addictive enough to forfeit first class.

As a child, I spent long evenings with my family around the dining room table attempting to parse vocabulary words from the "Q," "P" and five "E's" in my rack. Aunts and uncles would come over, and we'd make a night out of it with snacks and good-natured competition. The adults appeared to be more interested in winning and not losing.
I'm still playing with my uncle Aldo, who is 500 miles away in Cordele, Ga. And I'm playing with my wife and a friend, who are sitting 6 feet away on the sofa (I'm winning all three of these games).

Is this a new era of family game night? Games are being played, perhaps not in the same room, or even the same time zone. The fun is in the games themselves and not necessarily the winning face-to-face (I just took the lead in a sixth game), and my win over a friend in Midtown is no more enjoyable than the experience of the humiliating defeat at the thumbs of one in East Memphis.

My son isn't yet into "Words With Friends," though I expect he will be soon enough. And when he is, I'm sure he'll be a force to reckon with if his scores on vocabulary tests and his skill maneuvering that seahorse-riding elf are any indication.

Until the time I'm able to crush his spirit in cyber-Scrabble from across the house, or across the room, though, I'll continue preaching the ideology we've discussed.

And, of course, to always do as I say and not as I "D-O" (3 points!). 

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.