Because it’s never too early for a child to learn how to mock the failings of others, and because if I have to endure one more Disney Channel sitcom my brain will burst into flames, and because Kate had already done her reading, her chores, and whatever else she had to do yesterday, and was ready to settle down for a perfectly defensible 45 minutes or so of television time, because of all this…
I let her watch “Wife Swap” last night. I watched it with her, in fact.
The families were a hip, urbane San Francisco quartet of museum-goers and mildly loony (by SF standards) personal habits (feng shui, sage-burning), and an utterly crackpot Iowa farm clan, who practiced “unschooling,” lived like pigs (bacteria is good!) and ate everything raw, right down to the chickens. I try, whenever we watch so-called reality TV, to keep a running director’s commentary going, explaining about editing and how once you allow cameras to record your life, you’re pretty much at the mercy of them, but after a while it trailed off. The Iowans, with their black toilet and raw chicken salad, were clearly insane.
So then you get the next parental situation: The family’s mental illness is, how you might say, sub-clinical. I don’t think there’s anything in the DSM-IV about brushing your teeth with a combination of butter and clay. (“Yeah, it tastes like dirt,” the teenage daughter says.) I know from long experience — in an Iowa-like state that also begins with an I — that this family’s peculiar beliefs and practices, while unusual, are hardly unheard of. If Kate ends up in the world with any sense of adventure, sooner or later she’s going to run across folks like this and needs to learn coping skills, which include the phrases, “No thanks, I’m not hungry” and “How close in the nearest main road, and how do I get there?”
I was pleased to see she picked up the most preposterous statements right away, as when the Iowa dad, in scoffing at San Francisco mom’s neat-freak squeamishness about germs, asked, “Would God put anything on the earth that would hurt us?” Kate, recently recovered from viral influenza, immediately expressed the idea that why yes, God did that very thing, you moron.
Harder to explain was the clear emotional instability in the house, as when the Iowa family went out to eat in a restaurant, consumed fried everything and paid a predictable gastrointestinal price the next day, and dad behaved as though his children had been fed cyanide milkshakes. And the son who couldn’t confront a contrary opinion without tears, followed by a march into the kitchen to gulp down a raw egg.
OK, the part where the Iowa mom goes out to eat in San Francisco, and the husband insists she shave her legs and underarms, and she says, “In that case, I’m gonna need some scissors?” — that was cruel.
So I think we came through the experience OK. I’ll leave the meta issues of what a brush with national TV exposure does to a person for middle school. But since most of you folks are adults, you might enjoy this, from Radar magazine: Prisoners of YouTube, a thoughtful and sensitive look at what this sort of accidental celebrity brings to a person’s life. HT: Eric Zorn.
Did you know that, according to an “unscientific survey,” “the average Grace Lee was a Korean American college graduate who had taken 3.5 years of piano lessons”? Neither did I. The next time “The Grace Lee Project” comes around on the Sundance Channel, we’ll watch that instead. (Demographic note: The name Grace is making a comeback, trend-speaking, but it wasn’t always so. I long ago realized that the only women younger than 40 named Nancy anymore tend to be Asian. My name is too ’50s for words, but Asian Americans, fond of traditional American names, still like it. For about six months I was getting puzzling e-mail from some Knight Ridder internal listserv, and finally realized the computer had mistaken me for one Nancy Na in San Jose, presumably Vietnamese-American.)
Fat Tuesday is extra-fat in Detroit. In Hamtramck, they call it Paczki Day, paczki being Polish for “jelly doughnut.” Think I’ll go get one. At least they’re cooked.