The misadventures of a first time father

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Mr Rogers 1980sDid you watch PBS when you were a kid?

I did. I certainly can’t remember all of my viewing habits, but I can tell you unequivocally how comfortable, safe, and accepting it felt even as a toddler to be joined by furry friends on Sesame Street every afternoon. Or how I would run to grab my sneakers to tie and sweater to zip up when Mister Rogers would come walking through his door to open up windows to the world around us and remind us what it mean to be a kind, caring person throughout this thing called life.

I remember when Big Bird and I both needed clarity about Mr Hooper not being on Sesame Street anymore and how it’s okay to feel sad about someone leaving our lives, that grieving is a natural part of our emotions when someone dies. To this day I can’t see that scene where the grown-ups tell Big Bird that Mr Hooper isn’t coming back without feeling the same thing I did all those years ago. The handling of the topic, from producers to writers, to cast and crew, remains incredible.

sesame - mr hooper

Goodbye, Mr Hooper.

Beyond those shows, I can’t recall too much else that I watched. Maybe Romper Room, and when I was older a show called Square One, mostly because of a series within the series called Mathnet, a Dragnet spoof where math problems were used to solve mysteries.

And now 30+ years later, I can say with certainty that there’s never been a better time to be a PBS parent.

We still get new editions of classics like Sesame Street, going strong at almost 50 years old and still teaching not only basic skills like shapes, numbers, and letters that prepare a child for school, but lessons to hold onto our entire lives, such as kindness, acceptance, and staying true to yourself. And my wife can attest to the childlike glee I get when we see familiar faces like Bob or Gordon pop into even some of the newer episodes.

daniel tiger shoesLikewise, the values, compassion, and wisdom of Fred Rogers live on in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as the residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, previously known in puppet form on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, spring to life in full-color animation. From sharing, to helping, to dealing with feelings like sadness, jealousy or anger, the lessons of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are essential not just to a child, but to all of us. Our daughter is only starting to speak, but one thing she’s almost guaranteed to utter is the musical tones that accompany the songs in Daniel Tiger when it’s on.

Of course, there’s so much new and exciting on PBS too. While my son enjoys the derring-do and superheroics, I laugh at all the hilarious situations and jokes as WordGirl tries to put villains, bad grammar and misused words to rest.

ready jet goReady, Jet, Go has not only kindled a fascination with space exploration in our son, but it has captured the attention and awe of our not quite two year old daughter as well. And, I for one, feel I’ve learned so much as an adult about our universe and the vast possibilities that await us beyond the stars thanks to Jet, his parents and friends, and Astronomer and Host Amy Mainzer.

Nature Cat revels in its silliness while showcasing how much fun can be had and how much can be learned simply by heading out to one’s own backyard, along with a little help from our imagination. It also features, I’m convinced, at least half of the cast of SNL.

Wild KrattsChris and Martin Kratt leap from live action exploration of the animal kingdom into an animated world that stresses the valuable balance of our ecosystem and the role that each animal plays within it. Along with that, of course, comes with the threats to that delicate ecosystem by human kind and those who wish to prey upon the animal and natural world for their own greedy gain. The Kratt Brothers have not only transformed our son into a walking animal encyclopedia of habits and interaction, but have made him aware at such a young age to think about his actions or the actions of others, affect the world around us.

odd-squad-full-castAnd of course, there’s my favorite, Odd Squad, which I’ve gushed over many a time before, about an agency run by kids that uses math skills to solve problems of oddness in the world. If it’s a man with a fireplace in his stomach, a person with a laugh track following them around, or dog-obsessed villain looking to take over the world, Odd Squad is on the case. With it’s clever writing, excellent acting, and delicious sense of humor, any adult should be watching this show, regardless if there’s a kid in the room with them.

Then, there’s PBS Kids Family Night, which, in our household at least, has become the modern day equivalent of The Wonderful World of Disney that my wife and I enjoyed watching each week as kids. Family-friendly specials, movies, or marathons every Friday night (and rerun Saturday and Sunday night if you miss it) on the 24/7 PBS Kids Channel that have become ritual viewing for us. I pull out the air popper I bought almost 15 years ago, make a bowl of popcorn and we all gather in the living room for anything from Tiger Family Trip to Odd Squad the Movie, or Wild Kratts: Hero’s Journey. Our kids are already chomping at the bit to see the upcoming Ready Jet Go: Return to Bortron 7 coming up on a Family Night edition soon.

We have basic cable, and when we downsized (long before we had kids), we never looked back, finding all we needed in our television viewing right there on that handful of stations. And when we did have kids, PBS (and now PBS Kids, their 24/7 accompanying channel) became the default for children’s programming.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

PBS matters. It offers a gateway to the world for anyone with a television set. No premium channels and the associated pay along with it. Whether it’s arts and culture, or math, science, and reading – knowledge never goes out of style. It’s what allows us to understand one another, to find new ways to think, to move our world forward. And I can’t think of a greater way to use the power of broadcasting than to by empowering our children and future generations with the tools to keep our world, our society, ever moving.

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larry teaches balki to driveIf you know me, or heck, if you’ve read past entries on this blog, you know how nostalgic I can get – longing for previous times, or pieces of culture from various parts of my life, or even before my time. I admittedly get that way about a lot of things – cartoons, films, video games, comic books, and TV shows.

One of the TV shows that has constantly beckoned with a nostalgic siren’s call to me has been the misadventures of an immigrant and his tightly-wound distant relative trying to integrate into each other’s lives in 1980s Chicago.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Perfect Strangers was an ABC sitcom that ran from 1986-1983 and was about a kind, wide-eyed man from a tiny Mediterranean island (the fictional Mypos) named Balki Bartokomous who came to America with his childlike innocence and wonder and found a far-distant cousin in Chicago – the uptight, jaded Larry Appleton. The Odd Couple-esque set up allowed for many comedic, fish out of water situations as Balki tries to acclimate to America (while embracing its culture to the hilt), while helping his Cousin Larry make it through life without his many neuroses doing him in.

It also had one of the most uplifting, 80s-esque theme songs of all time, which also in 90 seconds set up the show’s premise before an episode would even begin.

I hadn’t seen the show since it was originally on the air but in the past year or so began watching again thanks to the interwebs and the myriad of resources to find just about anything we remember from our past. I can’t even recall what brought me to rediscover it. Likely, it was a passing reference on social media that made me suddenly start remembering catching the show as part of the ABC TGIF lineup of family-friendly sitcoms “back in the day.” Upon some re-viewing, I still enjoy it.

For a show that itself is often remembered as a piece of pop culture, it had many references to already-existing pop culture at the time, through Balki’s overjoyed discoveries of Western pop culture. Balki was often singing songs from the radio’s top 40 of the day, or relishing in something as simple as cartoon character merchandising.

The show is filled with pop culture references of the day, the situations are often based in many of the classic comedic tropes throughout sitcom history or even as far back as vaudeville routines, but there is something about the  madcap hijinks or the charming camaraderie of these two oddball characters and the performers bringing them to life.

Beyond that, though, I feel there’s a bit more to my nostalgic attachment on a more subconscious level.

For me, it’s somewhat of a touchstone/an association with the decade that I grew up in – the 1980s. Now hang with me as I’m going to get a little autoethnographic on you. What’s ethnographic? Good question. I only recently learned myself, but according to Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner, “when researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.”

I’m speaking as part of that culture, as someone who was born in 1980 and whose most influential and cherished years are from that decade and the 90s.

The 1980s. Pre-internet. Cassette tapes. No cell phones, no constant connections. From where I stand now with the day-to-day stress of having to constantly be available, rapidly respond, always connected to something, it all can seem pretty quieter. A nicer time, perhaps greater or simpler, even when awash in the neon glow of yuppies and mass-consumerism and excess that is often associated with the decade today.

But it wasn’t simpler. Or nicer. Or greater. At least not in a larger view with a wider perspective.

We were still in the midst of The Cold War. When I was in first and second grade at Seymour School, I remember us still undergoing the drills you see made fun of these days – crouching under a desk or going to the fallout shelter in the school’s basement in preparation for a catastrophic event.

80s toons

A conversation with my mom about that time has led to remarks about the state of the economy, the cost of milk, and other anxieties that as a young parent were not as enjoyable as the carefree time that I so often subconsciously associated with the 1980s, and thus the media I consumed in that time, like Perfect Strangers.

Why is that?

Much of it comes because my recollections are shaded in rose-colored glasses because I was a child then. No need to go to work every day. No need to pay bills, to be responsible for others. My biggest responsibilities were to get up and go to school every morning, do my homework, and clean up after myself. Aside from that, what did I have to worry about, really? If i was going to play with Ninja Turtles, Legos, or super hero figures? If I’d catch Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward on WPIX or play a while longer and just watch Ducktales on Fox?

Perfect-Strangers then now

Then and now.

My point is that we are so prone to looking back at things and associating them with “the good times,” that our minds become clouded to the circumstances that made us think that way in the first place. Thus, the things we consumed or remember from those times become associated in our minds with the corresponding times we were exposed to them.

But those good times – they’re always going to look good when we take out the context of life in those moments. It’s why so many people look back on the 1950s as the perfect time, not because of the fear of atomic obliteration that came following Hiroshima. Not because of the domestic violence that bubbled quietly underneath the surface of smiling, surface-level-perfect families, or the loneliness and isolation that haunted those groups who didn’t work out of the house because of cultural norms. No, they were good times to those who were children at the time, living life with a more innocent view of the world around them, sans responsibility that would come later in life.

Perfect Strangers, through no action of its own, does just that. It opens a door inside my mind and memories to a period of life that seemed much more innocent, because at the time I first enjoyed it, I was.

And while it hasn’t yet found itself amid the string of rebooted/continuing sitcoms in the age of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video like shows such as Full House/Fuller House has, the entire concept does make me think forward to what shows/media my own kids will look back on wistfully decades from now when they reflect upon “the simpler times.” Will it be new shows originating during their childhood like Odd Squad, Wild Kratts or Ready, Jet Go? Or will it be shows that pre-dated their existence that were introduced to them from my generation and handed down (whether in original form or rebooted) in their childhood – like Inspector Gadget or DuckTales?

As Dr. Ryan Lizardi, author of Nostalgic Generations and Media: Perception of Time and Available Meaning puts it, “As older generations of people are encouraged to revisit media and products they loved as children by hyper-nostalgic media companies, through remakes, reimaginings, and re-releases, it leads to a reduction in available meanings for current and subsequent generations who are then all encouraged to attach to the same nostalgia-soaked objects…the cultural rise in nostalgic media has the dual generational impact of making the subjective experience of time speed up for those who are nostalgic, as well as create a surrogate nostalgic identity for younger generations by continually feeding them the content of their elders.”

Perhaps only time (and they, and the media culture existing as they grow) will tell.


When something’s odd in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call?

Nope, not those guys.

Not the ladies currently carrying the torch either.

Nope. You’re going to call a group of kids who work for an organization run by kids to investigate the odd.

You call Odd Squad.

I make no bones about my love of the show, which the whole family watches on PBS Kids. Like many great programs, it’s produced out of Canada (which might also explain the appearances by several members of the Kids in the Hall).

Agents Otto and Olive

Created by Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman, it’s also co-produced by the Fred Rogers Company (you know, of Mr Rogers) and features a cast of incredibly charming young actors who work for the titular Odd Squad, solving odd incidents with the use of math.

What kind of odd incidents? Well, the kind that certainly appeal to the imagination of a child…and most parents with a good sense of humor – people whose heads turn into lemons upon drinking lemonade, giant cat-spider hybrids, voice-overs following you around. If it’s odd enough, you call these kids.

Oscar and Ms. O

Though the series premise allows for various Odd Squad agents to get their day in the sun, the core team is made up of four primary team members, partners Olive and Otto, their boss, the usually yelling Miss O, and Oscar, providing the team with gadgets like a Door-inator, the Shrink-inator, the TV-get-out-inator, and, well, you get the idea.

You notice the O pattern in the characters yet? It keeps going. Octavia, Olaf, Oren, etc.

The kid characters themselves hover just around the pre-teen age or younger, leaving the goofy and often clueless supporting characters of the episode (someone in trouble, a villain, etc) to just as well-cast adult actors.

Undercover Olive up against a bevy of baddies

Together, Olive, Otto, and other members of the team find themselves stopping the plans of villains like Odd Todd (who wants the world as odd as he is), Fladam (who stepped on a cube building block as a child and now sets out to flatten all cubes into flat squares), The Shapeshifter (who can change her shape into anything from a tree to another person), among many many other great adult guest stars.

There’s even one episode, the Agatha Christie/Clue-inspired “The Crime at Shapely Manor” that features 3 out of the 5 members of The Kids in the Hall – Kevin McDonald as Lord Rectangle, Mark McKinney as General Pentagon, and Scott Thompson as Professor Square.

Kids in the Hall Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson

But to stop the dastardly villains, the keys to cracking their schemes usually lie in solving any number of math problems, be it what color will Oscar’s infected hand turn next when one sees blue, blue, yellow, blue, blue…you guessed it, yellow, using measurement to stop an on the loose blue blob, or learning how to use a calendar to send a time duplicate of one of their own back into the past.  And these math problems are often woven into the storyline so seamlessly that even I don’t seem to notice I’m getting a lesson in the subject I needed the most help in back in school.

Yes, this show provides some valuable math lessons for little ones in a way so entertaining that they’re bound to remember. My son brings up patterns all the time and I’m convinced that he picked it up from the numerous problems agents have had to solve through the use of patterns in the course of the series. But he doesn’t realize that. From his perspective, he’s watching an action-packed adventure with kids stopping threats to the world. The lessons just happen to come along the way amid the derring-do.

Owen, Oscar, Olive, Otto, Oren, Olaf…see a pattern?

Here, in the world of Odd Squad, kids rule. They’re the ones in charge. They’re the ones you call for help when something is incredibly strange. That sense of empowerment is irresistible to both a child and the child still alive in each of us.

In January 2015, Forbes reported that the show’s special Odd Squad Saves the World reported 3.7 million viewers watching the broadcast on PBS with 44 million others watching the episode online.  It is no wonder that Odd Squad is such a hit for PBS across age ranges, making it no surprise that a second season is now set to get well underway on June 20, 2016.

However, that new season won’t come without changes.

Spoilers ahead!

On Memorial Day, the episode that PBS promos touted as the one where “everything changes” lived up to its hype – with cast members Dalila Bela and Filip Geljo (Olive and Otto, respectively) receiving promotions to become a new “Ms and Mr O” (though, no Otto, you don’t have to get married) to co-run a branch of Odd Squad elsewhere.

Changing of the guard.

I had a feeling this would happen sooner or later, as a show whose entire premise revolved around an organization run by kids can only keep kids in those roles for so long before they age out of them. Though the premise also lends itself to its own self-sustainability. As some cast members grow up and out, the show revolves around the organization, meaning new casts, new agents, new kids can come and go as the series grows. That’s not to say that the fun and charming acting of Bela and Geljo won’t be missed. They are a core reason for the show’s appeal. Though I’m sure both would likely want to be moving toward other material elsewhere in the way of film and television eventually anyway, it would be nice to see them from time to time in a guest appearance if the stars align.

Recurring Odd Squad villain Odd Todd

I should note as well, that this episode that changed it all also could lead one to believe it’s the end (at least for now) for recurring villain Odd Todd, played wonderfully and humorously wicked by young actor Joshua Kliminik. As Olive’s former partner turned bad guy out for revenge, and Olive no longer a regular, it seems unlikely Odd Todd has much reason to hang around so much anymore.

It remains to be seen who will take Olive and Otto’s place as the show’s new primary agents, but while the casting of the show thus far has never failed, those are some big blue suits and red ties to fill. It’s comforting to know that the entire cast is not getting an overhaul, with Sean Michael Kyer (Oscar) and Millie Davis (Ms. O) remaining in their roles, hopefully alongside other characters like the hilariously droll lunch lady Oksana or the incredibly serious Dr. O.

I felt like I was watching a finale to any long-running prime time series where viewers inevitably get attached to the characters. When Otto and Olive hugged Ms. O and resident techie Oscar got ready to send the duo on their way, the often humorous actor Sean Michael Kyer had a twinge of sadness in his voice that echoed the same feeling inside many of us watching at home.

Was I really getting this invested in a live action PBS Kids show?

I was. I completely was. And that is due, in no small part to these wonderful young performers, and the writers, directors, and crew that help them bring this goofy, fun world to life each day.

This is not a kids show slapped together and called a day. It’s a goofy, fun, educational, but always entertaining romp that spans age groups and demographics with evident care put into each and every episode.

This show is so entertaining, so amusing, so well written and well acted (and seriously…the odds of finding an entire cast of great kid actors…it doesn’t happen often), makes Odd Squad so darn charming that you don’t even need to be a parent to enjoy it.

Now how in the world can I play one of those goofy grown ups…


Sorry for the Sinatra (or Sid Vicious, based on your musical tastes) reference, but ever since this weekend, I have carried with me a great sense of regret.

After our boy got his very first bath in the kitchen sink, I sat him down on my lap and watched some classic 1940s Donald Duck cartoons. Even my previous blog post was about cartoon watching, discussing wanting to watch Inspector Gadget with him, only to be disappointed it was no longer on Netflix.

Fate works in mysterious ways, and it’s a good thing it’s not on Netflix, because I have, since that day, deeply regretted exposing my little boy, just three weeks old, to television. I just couldn’t shake the nagging feeling inside me that what I was doing was more for myself than for he, and was nothing but detrimental to his development. “What was I thinking?” I keep asking myself. I fear I’ve made a big mistake, and truly hope that there is still time to make sure he is not negatively effected by this weekend’s couch-potato activity.

I’ve done a bit of reading since the tinge of regret has slipped in, and have come across a great deal of work by Dimitri Christakis of Children’s Hospital in Seattle and how babies can be harmed by watching television and video. Here’s some information on Christakis’ studies from the website www.raisesmartkid.com

According to studies by Christakis, the first 2 years of a child’s life is a critical time for their brain development and watching television takes time away from a child exploring, interacting and playing with parents and other, as well as actively learning by manipulating things around him. These are activities that help your kid develop the skills they need to grow intellectually, socially and emotionally.

A lot more notes on the negative effects of television on child development:

  • When your kid plays, he is actively learning about how the world works.  He wires his brain by experimenting with cause and effect.   When your kid interacts with people, he meets his emotional milestones.   TV keeps your kid away from these activities.
  • The first 2 years of your kid is also a critical time for learning language.  Language is only learned through interaction with others, not by passive listening to TV.  If you not respond to your kid’s attempt to communicate, your kid could miss this important milestone.  Also, your kid will not learn to talk by listening to TV characters baby talk or talk down to him.  Your kid learns to talk by mimicking adult language.  He learns from the adults’ simplified but correctly pronounced speech.
  • Note that when your baby smiles at the TV, the TV does not smile back.  This may affect him socially and psychologically.

Researchers have found that over the last 20 years, an increasing number of 9-month-old children are having trouble paying attention to voices when there is also background noise coming from the TV.  This may affect their paying attention in class when they go to school.

Also, when kids who watch TV go to school, they have to make a change from being primarily visual learners to listening learners.  If a kid watches more TV than interact with the family, he will have a hard time making this transition, and his school learning will suffer.

Dr. Christakis has found that children who watched television as babies are more likely to have shorter attention spans, problem concentrating and impulsiveness by age 7. He also states that although Attention Deficit Disorder is genetic, TV can also trigger this condition because TV rewires the baby’s brain.  The still-developing brain adapts to TV’s fast pace and overstimulation.

Also, in his study, Christakis found that children who watched TV as babies are less able to recognize letters and numbers by the time they go to school.  A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study found that watching Sesame Street before age 3 delayed a child’s ability to develop language skills.  This may be because babies are wired to be active and not passive learners.

  • Many TV shows and videos geared to kids are actually teaching them the wrong things.  They distort reality with their cartoonish and unnatural depiction of the world.  Also, the pacing of these shows is fast and teaches the baby’s sponge-like brain to always expect fast-paced input.  The real world, as they will soon find out, is much more boring and requires patience to adapt to.
  • Many other studies have found that long-term exposure to television diminishes children’s ability to communicate via reading and writing.   It can also lead to attention and learning problems in the long term.

In 2008, France’s broadcast authority has banned French channels from airing TV shows aimed at children under three years old. The High Audiovisual Council of France have found out that “Television viewing hurts the development of children under three years old and poses a certain number of risks, encouraging passivity, slow language acquisition, over-excitedness, troubles with sleep and concentration as well as dependence on screens.”

There are tips that are suggested regarding babies and TV watching:

  • Child experts agree that children under 2 should not watch any TV at all – and this also includes videos, computers and video games.
  • If you have to do work that requires concentration and you cannot multitask, do it at a time when your baby is napping.  If this cannot be avoided, let your kid play with toys on the floor or in the playpen instead.  Arrange a caregiver who interacts with your child if your child craves for human companion (which he naturally does).
  • Interact with your child as much as possible.  He needs this to build his brain.  Respond to his smile, speech and actions.   Entertain, recite rhymes, and sing to him in an engaging way.  No show on TV can beat what you have to offer.  Your voice, touch, smell, and your reaction to things he does are what he craves.  Don’t let your baby be passive.
  • Do not expect that you can use TV and video to tutor your child or will have any positive effect on his brain.  At best, it should be a means for you to take a half-hour break from interacting with your child in a way that will help him developmentally.
  • If your baby has to watch TV, watch with him, and make watching an interactive event.  Reinforce what he sees on TV by talking or singing to him.

I’ve got a lot to learn about the dos and dont’s of parenthood, I fully admit that. However, I hope that I can take these feelings of regret of what I perhaps SHOULDN’T have done, learn from it, and educate myself as to what I CAN do to make sure my little guy becomes the magical child he can, and can live up to all his wonderful potential.



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