Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

On Encountering Resistance And Lovin’ It

This morning my four-year old daughter marched into our living room, and clutching a ‘storybook’–a collection of tales based on Disney’s Frozensaid, “Papa, this is my favorite storybook. I like it a lot. I know you don’t like it, because I know you don’t like princesses.” Having made this announcement, she walked over to the couch, sat down, and thumbing through its pages, began ‘reading’ aloud to herself. (My daughter cannot as yet read, but she likes to make up her own versions of the stories she has had read to her; needless to say, some rather interesting plot twists result in her recountings.)

I listened to her announcement and watched her ‘read’ with some pride.

She was right in surmising that I ‘don’t like princesses.’ I’ve often said uncomplimentary things about ‘princesses’ in front of my daughter: they dress up too much; their clothes won’t allow them to play in the playground, or go climbing or hiking; they seem to spend too much worrying about what they look like. When we see a video of a sportswoman or a female performing artists, I make sure to point out that the athlete looks nothing like a ‘princess’; princesses don’t play guitars or the drums; and so on. You know, the usual things a parent concerned about the relentless ideological assault of the pink princess advertising machine–the toys, the T-shirts, the make-up kits, the stories of being rescued by princes, the unrealistic body images of skinny, blond, white girls–would do. My daughter has clearly been listening and watching; she knows her father doesn’t ‘like princesses.’

But she does like the adventures of Anna and Elsa, and all the excitement, magic, monsters, and animals that seems to enter their lives. (I’ve still not seen Frozen and I don’t think I ever will but I’ve read out a couple of the stories from that book to her so I have some idea of what entertains my daughter.)

But over and above the fact that my daughter is capable of spending time by herself with a book, what about her remark made me regard it with some pride? Well, she does seem to have established some crucial distance between what I want and what she wants for herself; she doesn’t seem to be entirely reliant on seeking my approval–she did not, after all, walk up to me and plaintively ask me for permission to read her book. Rather, she acknowledged a disagreement between the two of us, and then went ahead and did what she wanted. (I would like to think she regards Anna and Elsa’s adventures as showcasing activities that the princesses I don’t ‘like’ don’t seem to engage in–those two get up to considerably more action than the typical princess–and so, in some ways, even her liking the tales in Frozen reflected my interactions with her.) I’ve often told my daughter that she should ‘do what she wants’ and not ‘worry about what other people say.’ Today, she did just that, and what’s better, she didn’t care about what someone in a position of authority had to say about what she liked and wanted to do.

The Mad Men Can’t Quite Get Hold Of Me

A year or so ago, I wrote my first brief response to AMC’s Mad Men. Three episodes in, I described it as ‘grim’ and a ‘serious downer’. Now, five seasons in, I’m still inclined to that description. (The fact that it has  taken me this long to come close to exhausting Netflix’s online repository of its episodes should indicate I haven’t indulged in any kind of binge viewing and have been happy enough to suspend watching the show for a variety of reasons–like watching other television series and movies.)

I do not mean to be reductive in my take on Mad Men. I find its writing enjoyable and like many other viewers find Roger Sterling‘s lines particularly memorable (indeed, I often find myself wishing he was given more screen time); I appreciate its careful attention to its ‘look and feel’ – its sumptuous interiors and clothes most notably; I am cognizant the show attempts to highlight the misogyny, gender discrimination and racism of days gone by. This is a very slick and smart show in many ways.

But for all that, it simply isn’t compelling enough. I do not know if there is a story in there somewhere or whether I am merely paying witness to an episodic dysfunction of family, society and business. Perhaps I have made matters worse by watching it in the distracted fashion I have employed, but this consideration seems to involve a rather insuperable chicken-and-egg question: Was I distracted because Mad Men didn’t grab me, or was I not grabbed because I was distracted?

Perhaps it’s because I find Don Draper utterly vapid and uninteresting. I do not know if Draper is supposed to cut a tragic figure or whether my reaction is the appropriate one to have to a man of Madison Avenue. Perhaps the writers of the show have succeeded in making me realize the shallowness of the advertising executive.

Perhaps the show’s attempts to serve as a chronicle of the times don’t always work; I’m not sure why, but its references to, and attempts to integrate, ‘the world outside’ –as in its incorporation of the JFK assassination, the civil rights struggle, the death of Marilyn Monroe–sometimes feel forced.

But in the end, I think the reason I don’t find Mad Men as compelling as many others do remains the same as I articulated in my original post: I find advertising and its business and supposed creativity not very interesting at all. (It doesn’t help I consider mass advertising to have had a ruinous effect on political discourse in the US.) I am not intrigued by the processes that bring ad copy and art to life; I do not imagine those who work in advertising’s creative departments to be inspirational geniuses; (I am intrigued to hear so many of the shows fans say they find Draper’s pitches ‘clever’); I find talk of ‘account servicing’ tedious. These prejudices, I suspect, get in the way of my being able to enjoy the show fully.

Still, the show exerts a peculiar fascination on me; I intend to watch it in its entirety and will write on it again. This post, and my first one, have been rather superficial takes; perhaps my summation will be rather more synoptic and thoughtful.

The Baby Industrial Complex

When you bring home a baby, you bring home something else as well: a subscription, a ticket to a strange new domain, one populated by goods designed and manufactured for babies–and their parents–to better equip them for all of life’s supposed challenges, to train, dress, entertain, edify, and amuse them. An industry of industries churns out one product after another, first placed on baby registries, then procured and presented, and then, sometimes, handed on down, to the generations to follow. They cater to many, many needs, some imagined, some real; they cater to anxieties and insecurities; they reassure, comfort, sustain; they prop up the edifice of upbringing and rearing.

There are wipes, fragrance-free, made of the right chemicals that won’t corrode skin; high-technology diapers that could soak up a mid-grade tsunami; breast-feeding aids, boppies, that promise comfort to the exhausted mother; ointments, creams, lotions, shampoos, all carefully calibrated for the tender infant’s epidermis; towels that will dry and warm; rattles that will distract and amuse; books in bright and dark contrasting colors, all the better to train babies’ eyes with; cribs and cots with adjustable bottoms and padded walls; bottles of plastic and glass sporting a dazzling variety of nipples and shapes; bottle cleaners and sterilizers; breast pumps, which introduce a new sound, disturbingly industrial, to the daily rhythms of the household; hand sanitizers to ensure the non-transmission of germs from caretakers and enthusiastic visitors to the baby; food processors for blending, whirring pureeing, and chopping, to prepare those mysterious concoctions that babies so happily and messily consume; musical toys, sometimes classical, for the more refined sensibility and the more ambitious parent, sometimes plebeian; talking toys, sometimes jocular, sometimes perky; toys with flashing lights; video and audio monitors; diaper changing tables; diaper pails, which, sadly, need to be emptied periodically; strollers and perambulators, their sizes ranged along a spectrum marked out by gigantic, tank-like behemoths at one end and slender whippets at the other; baby carriers for placing the infant in front, at the back, or on the side of the parent’s body and then carrying around; car seats for safe automotive transportation–you can’t bring home your baby from the hospital without one; high-technology noise machines to ensure an undisturbed daytime nap while the sounds of the city–the fire engines, the ambulances, the road construction crews, the police cars, the sanitation trucks–rage outside; bibs to keep the soon-to-be-soiled cute onesies and dresses clean; the high chairs for dining; the door swings; the rocking chair; the plastic tub and rubber duckies for the bath; the numbered blocks for learning to count; the snot-suckers; the thermometers; the pediatric vitamins.

The list goes on; you get the picture. A dazzling array of products conceived and constructed with every need, every eventuality, every possibility, seemingly kept in mind, anticipated, and catered for. And then, placed on the market, advertised and hawked as indispensable aids for life’s journey.

Tiny creatures; but ones apparently requiring a complex, expensive, and intricate infrastructure, all made available for the right price.

The Mad Men Are Serious Downers

I’m only three episodes deep into Mad Men, and I’m already struck by how grim the show is. There’s misogyny, sexism, racial and ethnic prejudice, sexual prudery (of a kind), depressing suburban life, loveless marriages, loveless affairs, rigid gender roles, corporate language, the vapidity of advertising, and smoking indoors. And alcohol, lots of it. Mainly martinis and scotch, consumed at all hours of the day, in offices and homes, and during kids’ birthday parties. (I’m not sure if I’ve missed out on anything; I’m sure fans will correct me if I have.)

In using ‘grim’ as a description for the show–which I intend to keep watching for the time being just because it is morbidly fascinating–I do not mean to look past the stylish dressing, the carefully designed interiors, the loving caresses of the whisky and martini glasses, the nostalgia for a time when boys could be boys, white folk could be white folk, and women knew just how to be women, that apparently captivate so many of the show’s fans. Rather, I find that adjective appropriate because despite the apparent cheeriness and cleverness of the office banter, the endless drinking and dining in fashionable Manhattan restaurants, and the freedom to drink in one’s office, no one in the show seems to have had the most minuscule ration of any kind of happiness doled out to them. This is one serious downer of a show.

This should not be entirely surprising. Advertising consumer products requires the careful manufacture and sale of a fantasy, one underwritten by a corporate imperative. What Mad Men does quite well, whether deliberately or not, is to depict participation in that fantasy-mongering as an ultimately soulless, dispiriting enterprise. After all, if you’re shoveling it all day and all night, wouldn’t you find your life a serious drag? Once this is realized, the near-constant drinking suddenly becomes much more understandable; who wouldn’t need a few stiff ones to navigate through the lives these folks lead? Pour me a large one, please.

The dispiriting effect of Madison Avenue is not restricted to the office and the boardroom; it spreads out into homes and suburbs too.  As an advertising account executive, if you spend one-third of your life talking in platitudes, and spinning yards and yards of not particularly clever mumbo-jumbo, there is a good chance you’ll bring home that contagious emptiness with you and let it infect everyone and anyone around you. Resuming drinking at home seems like a good way to deal with these domestic blues.

The show’s writing is clever in parts, and the pretty displays of archaic behaviors and attitudes are certainly generative of the morbid fascination I mentioned above. For the time being, I will plough on, hoping that the Mad Folk don’t harsh my mellow too severely in the weeks to come.

Note: I read Daniel Mendelsohn‘s memorable review of Mad Men a while ago, long before I had seen a single episode of the show. I intend to reread it once I’m a couple of seasons deep.