Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Penguin, a Sleazy Lawyer, and The Truth(tm)

I am listening to my two sons read to each other from my Bloom County books in the living room.  This is an uncomfortable thing.  Why? Because they are 12 & 13 (6th & 8th grades) and I remember being in middle school when my friend Tony introduced me to Bloom County.

Tony was my sidekick and constant companion during my 5th & 6th grade years at Northwest Community Christian school - he was the fabulous cartoonist in Fatman's Lament, and we both enjoyed the same radio that led to "The Thriller" incident. He also introduced me to Garfield, and secretly kept a stash of recent Mad Magazines which I borrowed surreptitiously until my dad caught me with one.

Clearly, as subversive literature goes, Mad Magazine was a "bridge too far" - it was what my dad called "sick jokes," and it was part of the culture my folks were trying to protect me from when they moved me from public school to NCCS in the first place. I wouldn't out my source, because Tony was the closest friend I had ever had, and I didn't want to risk losing access to him.  But dad kept an eye on my reading material for a while.

Strangely, he never had a problem with Bloom County.

Bloom County (for those who don't know, and couldn't be bothered to follow the link above) was a comic strip by Berke Breathed which ran from December 8, 1980, until August 6, 1989.  It examined events in politics and culture through the viewpoint of a fanciful small town in Middle America, where children often have adult personalities and vocabularies and where animals can talk. (thanks, Wikipedia)

Tony and I loved the hilarious send up of demon rock and roll that Mr. Breathed brought to life in the disgusting character of Bill the Cat (fine example here).  We disintegrated into giggles over the band, Billy & the Boingers, with Opus the penguin on tuba, and Bill playing his tongue.  And while we didn't understand most of the references, we were intrigued by the political humor.

As I listen to my boys reading these old strips out of my battered copy of Tales Too Ticklish to Tell, I wonder how many of the names mean anything to them.  It was Bloom County that told me who Pat Buchanan was, and why he was ridiculous (and a little scary); it was Bloom County that made me question my undying devotion to St. Reagan by calling out his aides (like Jeane Kirkpatrick and one Richard Cheney) for their foibles; and it was Bloom County that formed my concept of what a "liberal" was as that became a term that increasingly used in the early 90s to describe anyone who strayed from the increasingly curmudgeonly conservative party line.

As I got older, and really started to struggle with what kind of man I wanted to become, Bloom County continued to be an influence on me.  I remembered some of those strips for the questions they raised.  I remembered some of the targets of those jokes, and went back to look at who they really were.  I wouldn't exactly say this comic strip was the formative influence of my political personality, but it did set me up to appreciate political humor and made me want to understand politics at least well enough to get all the jokes.

So I wonder how hard it will be for my children to "get" what I got out of the whole Bloom County experience. Part of me wants to step in and educate them not only on the who's who, but on the spin and bias that one has to take into account to understand what is behind the jokes. I want to help them make sense of it, and help them learn what I learned from questioning my assumptions about what was going on in the political realm of the day, and avoid some of the intellectual pitfalls and ....

But I can't do that.

The most valuable thing about these books, the reason I read them, the reason I still have them, is their ability to provoke thought.  They made me laugh, then they made me question.  And I see them making my boys laugh. The only way they will get around to the questioning is on their own. If I try to tell them what I think, then I'll turn off whatever is being turned on in their heads right now.

And I won't do that.

Sometimes, the hardest thing a parent has to do is step back and give a child room to figure things out for himself. I may not like what he learns, and I may not agree with the conclusions he arrives at - I know my dad feels that way about me, sometimes - but I won't accomplish anything positive by interfering.  I have to trust that I've done my job, and take the interest in ticklish tales as an indication that I have.

As for Tony... I lost track of him.  I hope he's still a fan.

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