2021年6月30日 星期三

We’ll Get Along … When Pigs Fly

Finding peace with my son in the pages of 'Charlotte's Web.'

We'll Get Along … When Pigs Fly

By Bonnie Tsui

Charlotte Mei

Lately my 8-year-old and I have been butting heads. We're quite alike, as family members go. Not only do photos of Teddy and me as chubby babies, toddlers and grade-schoolers overlap seamlessly — save for my sprouting pigtails — but our temperaments, too, have much in common. We share an easy laugh, a sunny disposition and emotional sensitivity to other people, which is generally a good thing, but lately we've verged into mutual tantrums. Meltdowns had never been my M.O., but they have become his, and he is preternaturally gifted at igniting my fury, so we blow up together.

A dear friend from college, always gentle in face and manner and now applying those traits to the fullest as an Episcopal minister, told a group of us once: "I never knew my capacity for rage until I had children." I'll paraphrase as it applies to me: I never knew I could yell this loudly until children came out of my body.

Like Teddy, I was always soft-spoken, to a fault. I was told to speak up well into adulthood. But when I became a parent, something changed — my diaphragm can now tap into the volume reserve of an opera singer. The caveat is that it can only be activated by my children, or in thunderous incantation of their names: "FELIX! TEDDY! GO TO BED!" Their bickering is incessant in the evening.

Right up until the moment the squabbling starts, however, those same two children are often reading. Reading is something our family agrees on fundamentally, elementally, constitutionally. There is limited couch-related real estate in our living room. My husband and I are always jockeying for the good spot on the love seat by the window. It is ideal for one horizontal body with a book, but can, if necessary, accommodate two bodies and two books, with overlapping limbs.

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We read at all hours of the day. I almost wrote especially in the morning and the evening hours, but that would be a lie. Currently it's lunchtime, and we all have our faces in books. Felix and Teddy have been more than capable of reading to themselves for many years now, but there is something special that happens when a book or author evokes a request for being read to: A tentative peace is restored. It happens when we crack open Roald Dahl, in particular the very juicy and naughty "The Witches"; "The Wild Robot" books by Peter Brown; and Greek mythology. And now, recently unearthed, my ancient, beloved, taped-together copy of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web."

Reading it aloud has done something to us. Teddy and I take turns, alternating pages. I listen to his voice and he listens to mine. We laugh, sometimes in anticipation of what the other is going to say. It's an exercise in empathy — with each other, and with Fern, Wilbur, Charlotte, and the tiny-yet-enormous dramas of the Zuckerman farm. Even with that rather unpleasant rat, Templeton, who nobody seems to like. When I read Wilbur's plaintive cry out loud — "I don't want to die!" — my eyes fill. I remember my 6-year-old self saying those very words to my mother, in full-body resistance to a visit to my great-grandfather's grave. I see Teddy tear up, too. We reckon with life and death, together.

It all calls to mind a very specific feeling from my childhood, after some perceived injustice involving my parents. I recall slamming the door to my room, then writing furiously, righteously, in my diary: "I will never, EVER, forget this feeling of being a kid. I will always remember and I will always understand MY kids, when I have them."

Of course I forget the specifics of the long-ago slight, and the ensuing fight. There is a Templeton-sized hole gnawed into my memory when it comes to what actually happened, but I remember the feeling. The feeling, of course, was what mattered. I wanted to be seen, and heard, and recognized as someone who mattered. And I have been reminding myself, when I am forced to confront a Teddy transformed by uncontrollable feeling, to navigate the space between us with that particular understanding as an antidote secreted away in my pocket.

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Even in the act of doing it, I understand that reading "Charlotte's Web" together is a moment I am freezing in time. It doesn't escape my notice that Teddy is 8, the age of Wilbur's tender fledgling owner, Fern. Teddy's older brother, Felix, is 10, the same age as Fern's older brother, Avery. Felix doesn't join in our read-alouds, but he can be seen lurking around us as the story unspools day by day.

Summer is about to end in the book; in the here and now, summer is just beginning. Charlotte knows she doesn't have much time left to enact her miracle and save Wilbur from an untimely death, before she herself has to take leave of her beloved friend. The crickets are already singing their song of nostalgia. Everything comes to an end, and everyone on the farm knows it.

Me, I'm listening, watching, remembering. Reading each page as slowly as I can.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of "Why We Swim." Her first children's book, "Sarah and the Big Wave," was published in May.

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Tiny victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let's celebrate the tiny victories.

The cleanup after dinner used to drag and be a lot of push and pull. But now that my 4-year-old got a small stuffed animal dog named Snowflake, I just have to say, "Snowflake wants to live in a clean house," and, just like that, he zaps around the house and cleans up. — Nasim Ahmadiyeh, Kansas City, Mo.

If you want a chance to get your Tiny Victory published, find us on Instagram @NYTparenting and use the hashtag #tinyvictories; email us; or enter your Tiny Victory at the bottom of this page. Include your full name and location. Tiny Victories may be edited for clarity and style. Your name, location and comments may be published, but your contact information will not. By submitting to us, you agree that you have read, understand and accept the Reader Submission Terms in relation to all of the content and other information you send to us.

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2021年6月29日 星期二

Can Isaac Asimov’s legacy be saved?

Taking a break to worry about movie adaptations.
1984's "Dune."Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy
Author Headshot

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

These are terrifying times. Today's column is about how an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party has decided that its interests are best served by making Americans as ignorant as possible. One of the things the G.O.P. wants us to be ignorant about, climate change, is looking deadly real, with the Pacific Northwest — the Pacific Northwest! — experiencing the kind of temperatures we normally associate with Saudi Arabia. And I promise that I'll be getting back to important stuff later this week. But I need a break. So today's newsletter is going to be about … my hopes and fears for two forthcoming film adaptations of classic science fiction novels.

These days science fiction and its not entirely distinct cousin fantasy are all over the culture. But it was not always thus. When I was growing up, serious culturati sniffed at genre fiction, considering it a refuge for nerdy teenage boys — which wasn't entirely wrong at the time.

I was, however, one of those nerdy kids. I read a lot of science fiction, and still do. There were two novels that had special meaning for me — and both have film adaptations coming out this fall.

One of them was Frank Herbert's "Dune," a sweeping epic set on a desert planet, with knife fights, mystical powers and, oh yes, giant worms. It's an amazing piece of world-building; Herbert was clearly possessed by a vision and worked obsessively to get it right. The closest recent equivalent I can think of, in which an author manages to engross readers in a strange world conveyed with almost hallucinatory clarity, is N.K. Jemisin's "Broken Earth" trilogy.

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"Dune" is also an extremely cinematic novel, which has in fact been the subject of two adaptations. Unfortunately, both were terrible. In each case the directors lost all of the novel's subtlety and depth. I don't know whether that was because they didn't get it, or had too much contempt for their audience to believe that viewers would get it.

Anyway, there's a new version — much delayed by the pandemic — coming out soon, and what we've seen in trailers looks true to Herbert's vision. I'm optimistic about this one.

The other great science-fiction novel of my nerdy youth was Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy — I even wrote an introduction to the Folio Society edition. The conceit of the "Foundation" novels is that galactic civilization is collapsing, but nobody knows it except a handful of mathematical social scientists — the psychohistorians, led by a guy named Hari Seldon — who devise a plan to limit the damage. Civilization, their math tells them, can't be saved, but they can limit the duration of the dark age that will follow. The "Foundation" novels trace the progress of their plan across the centuries.

"Foundation" had a huge impact on me personally — you see, I wanted to be one of those psychohistorians, a mathematical social scientist saving humanity. Economics was, unfortunately, as close as I could get.

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The thing about "Foundation," however, is that aside from not being very good literature — Asimov's ideas were amazing, but his characters were as two-dimensional as they get — it's the opposite of cinematic. It's a gripping tale in its way, but there's hardly any action — the handful of space battles that even get mentioned take place essentially offscreen, and you eventually learn that they didn't matter anyway, because the Seldon Plan doesn't depend on heroic derring-do. Mostly the novels involve people talking to each other.

So how could you even try to film the "Foundation" novels? Well, yesterday the second trailer for the forthcoming Apple TV movie dropped, with far more information than the first trailer. And what's clear is that in an attempt to give the story sufficiently striking visuals, the filmmakers have chosen to make some big changes from the original novels. A clone dynasty? Massive CGI space battles? None of that is in the books.

Which might be perfectly OK. Great showrunners can do incredible things with seemingly unpromising material. I saw the original movie version of "Westworld," which was so cheesy it gave Velveeta a bad name (although Yul Brynner was born to be a homicidal robot cowboy); somehow it became a mind-bogglingly good, even profound TV series.

So I'm anxiously waiting to see how this turns out. Will Apple pull off a video miracle, or will it tarnish the memories of my nerdy youth?

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And with that, I'm going back to the many threats menacing our actually existing, merely terrestrial civilization.

Quick Hits

Some people have tried to follow the psychohistorian career track more closely than I did.

Asimov was clearly thinking of the fall of the Roman Empire. But the Romans weren't much like us.

Although their economy appears to have been surprisingly sophisticated.

It pains me to learn that Newt Gingrich was also an Asimov fan.

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Facing the Movies

CGI, Robot?YouTube

Well, this doesn't look like the book. But we can hope.

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