July 27, 2021 | Rome, Italy

Mowgli

By | 2018-03-21T18:50:27+01:00 July 29th, 2012|Features Archive|
If it's Baloo the Bear singing "Bear Necessities" while shaking down a banana tree, so be it.
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our toddlers sit around an iPad, 100 percent of their attention focused on a song being sung by a lion and two of the jungle’s lesser beasts, a warthog and a meerkat. The song is “Hakuna Matata,” a charming ditty known to every human born since the mid-1990s, parents included.

The last year or so has seen the rise of Disney films in our household. It was something I had feared, but in the end knew was inevitable. You can’t avoid Disney as a parent unless you live in, well, the jungle.

I didn’t grow up with Disneyland. I grew up in a galaxy far, far away called Baltimore. I guess my parents just weren’t the Disney type, since I’d never seen such classics as “The Jungle Book” and “The Aristocats” — until now.

Sure, we watched plenty of television at home. I remember “Romper Room,” “The Electric Company” and “Sesame Street.” As I grew older, “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and “Who’s the Boss?” followed. The last shows we watched as family were “Beverly Hills 90210,” “The Wonder Years” and “My So-Called Life.” Then I left home.

As for movies, we usually took to cable or the same VHS cassettes over and over. There wasn’t a shred of animation among them. Instead, there was lots of Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel and skateboarding videos.

I’ve always held a slightly negative mental image of Disney, later exacerbated by James Ellroy’s noir novel “L.A. Confidential.” The book contains a subplot about a character based heavily on Walt Disney. (Incidentally, the entire subplot was cut from the 1997 film.) As I remember it, Ellroy portrayed Disney as a slick gangster up to his ears in Hollywood’s seedier side. He painted a picture in stark contrast to the lovable children’s idol and creator of Mickey Mouse. Ellroy’s fictional genius biased me against everything Disney for years to come.

Not that the films should suffer even if old Walt was a philanderer, a murderer or a drug kingpin (it seems he was not). They are quite brilliant in my opinion, and my appreciation of them is just beginning to take shape.

This of course, is the result of my daughter’s Spock-like hold over me. Anything that makes her smile makes me smile, too. If it’s Baloo the Bear singing “Bear Necessities” while shaking down a banana tree, so be it. I’m game.

This is what having children will do to you. It’ll turn the most uncompromising punk into a marshmallow cream puff. Everything you do will be for the sole purpose of keeping a smile on your child’s face.

But the funny thing is how you get into the groove and begin to enjoy those new things as much as the old things. Some of this might fall under the rubric of “rediscovery,” such as the fact that these days I read more Dr. Seuss than Philip Roth. When I was a toddler I’d never quite grasped the full glory of “Green Eggs and Ham.” Now, as parent and teacher, I’ve really begun to appreciate it.

My daughter has transformed every aspect of my life. Hot dogs and ketchup have reappeared at the dinner table. “Wow!” has reentered my daily vocabulary. I now find it necessary to divide the world into two categories: “toys” and “not toys.”

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Take the iPad I mentioned earlier. It’s an expensive piece of technology, which fascinates adults and children alike. Our friends with iPads let their toddlers loose on them. I, however, won’t even let Melissa touch my smartphone (my wife is not so cruel.) This must be vaguely puzzling for a two-year-old who thinks the world is a gigantic daycare center.

So I don’t blame her when she brings my phone to me, looks me deep in the eye, and asks hopefully, “Toy?” I simply answer, “Not a toy” and that’s the end of it. Dream on.

It takes finesse to get back such an object without reducing a child to a puddle of tears. (Hint: you must offer something of greater value to the child.) The most reliable solution in our home is the two-syllable question, “Mowgli?” She will drop everything, run to her chair, and plop down in it in wild anticipation of a film she’s seen a hundred times and counting.

And I can put my feet up and tap a tweet or two.

About the Author:

Marc Alan Di Martino runs a small language school in Perugia where he teaches English as a Foreign Language. He wrote the "Man About Rome" column from 2008 through June 2013.

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