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Believe it or not
On the myths we tell our children, and ourselves
We’ve crossed into summer holiday territory. Weekend rules are in full effect, Monday through Sunday. That means if the kids get up at a reasonable time—a shifting definition, but generally anytime after 7 am— they can head into the living room and watch TV.
I use “watch TV” loosely. We haven’t connected an aerial, set-top box, or anything that resembles a live feed into our TV for years. Kids today—my kids, at least—don’t experience television in the linear way we once did. It’s no longer a collection of channels but a constellation of apps; it’s everything you ever wanted at your fingertips, 24/7/365, so long as licensing deals haven’t expired: a troubling time where close friends like Finn and Jake vanish until we realise they’ve moved from “the red one” (Netflix) to “the purple one” (HBO Max).
The 7 am rule was hard fought. Who could possibly remain in their bed with all that content a click away? I was an early riser, just like her, but there was little to do back then: no endless terabytes of dormant entertainment, waiting to be awoken like a mythical beast of old. If you were up before cartoons commenced—fairly probable, given the small window they were broadcast—you were shit out of luck. Your morning experience differed depending on where in the world you grew up, but for those of us in the UK it was slim pickings. Many mornings were spent watching Trans World Sport—a hodgepodge of whatever random activities from across the world could be easily licensed and packaged up to sell to broadcasters.
I spent an ungodly amount of early hours watching Teletext—a precursor to the modern internet—with a world of information hidden behind a seemingly dreary “text” button on the clicker. Please don’t ask me how it worked: I am confident explaining how the words I am writing will, very soon, turn into the words you are reading, but I cannot understand the near-witchcraft of Teletext. It was something to do with messages hidden in the lines of the screen you can’t see, which sounds like the start of a grand conspiracy theory, or a convoluted plot device to explain how FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder finally managed to converse with his missing sister Samantha. I would read Teletext for hours. Video game charts, album reviews, and a daily quiz called “Bamboozle”. These low-pixel screens were my window into another world.
It’s hard to believe what used to pass for entertainment. It’s no wonder my kids question every “back in my day” I throw their way. A few months ago we were walking past a charity shop and Padme’s attention was snagged by a collection of Pixar characters taking pride of place on a set of plastic oblongs. “They’re DVDs,” I offered. “In the days before Netflix you needed these to watch films. Each disc was one film. And before those discs, we had even bigger plastic things. Guess how much you had to pay for them.”
“Try twenty. If it was a new film, like Super Mario Bros.”
“TWENTY EUROS?! TO WATCH ONE FILM?”
“Well, you could watch it again afterwards. Or you could go to something called a ‘video shop’ where you could borrow one for a night or two. And that would be a few euros.”
“Oh.” She seemed to relax. “That seems better.”
“BUT IT WASN’T EASY.”
I wasn’t letting her off the hook. I told her the whole ordeal—we’d head to the rental store on a Friday night and HOPE they had the film we wanted. Because if someone already had it, we’d need to pick something else. "Do you have Jurassic Park yet?" I'd enquire, heart brimming with hope. "Nope, not this week; we've only got two copies, and they're both out." Cut to a few hours later, watching Willy the orca leap to freedom once again.
I never thought I’d become a “you think you’ve got it hard?” dad. Yet here we are. Like Morpheus told Neo all those years ago, "Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.” I now regularly tell her, “You don’t know how hard we had it,” and it’s a roll of the dice whether she believes my tales or not.
One example, amongst many: for a short while, we had a “man with a video van” who would pull up in a modded Ford Transit every Friday night. He’d fold out the steps, before we’d pile in to see what AV treats were inside. Even as I write this, I can hardly believe it—a man comes around the house in a van with blacked-out windows, promises exciting things within, and the children would all head inside, rats following the Pied Piper. It sounds like a story you’d use to teach your kids to stay safe.
We’re big fans of myths at home. One of the earliest essays here was on a beautifully illustrated book of Greek mythology that has been in constant rotation ever since. We’re currently working our way through a bedtime book of Irish myths and legends, which has been as educational for me as it has for my eldest. (Did you know pumpkin carving was originally an Irish tradition? Me neither.)
We have myths embedded in our lives through beliefs, traditions, and stories passed down through generations. But there are myths on a tighter timeline, ones that have been in your family for decades, or mere years. Whether a myth is fresh-faced or as old as time, they invite us to explore their meaning, use them to make sense of our world, and help us better understand our place in it. They allow our children to do the same, but carefully paired with the requisite caveats, and the dangers in accepting them without question.
“Why do you have so many grey hairs?” is a question I’m regularly asked, mercifully, only by my own children. I have a stock answer: “Because of you two.” There’s an element of truth there, even if it was only recently that researchers proved the link between greying hair and stress. Whenever I think of hair changing colour, I remember a tale about my grandfather who saved a friend from drowning in a lake. He was almost pulled under whilst dragging his friend to the shore, and over the proceeding week his hair turned from a deep shade of brown to a brilliant white.
I recently regaled my daughter with this tale. She didn’t believe it. Finally, at the ripe old age of 40, I have started to question it myself, wondering if it might be a story better suited to our collection of historical Irish ones. I asked my dad if it was true, and whether he remembered telling me all those years ago. “Never heard that one”, was his reply.
“What do you think the moral of this story is?” is a question Padme will regularly ask after we’ve finished a movie or short story. Usually, I’m eager to offer an answer, but I’m not so sure this time. Was this myth was offered to keep me and my sisters away from dangerous depths? Or maybe the moral is that blindly believing what your dad tells you isn’t always the best idea.
Perhaps that’s one I’ll keep to myself, for a while.
3 things to read this week
“What’s Gone Wrong For Men And The Thing That Can Fix Them” by Caitlin Moran in The Guardian. I’d normally avoid anything with as wild and clickbaity a headline as this one, but coming from Caitlin Moran—writer of the fantastic books How to Be a Woman and How to Build a Girl—has turned her formidable talent to the myriad issues facing modern men and boys with her upcoming book What About Men? This essay gives a taste, and lands on the (not entirely incorrect) observation that “It’s so much easier for women and girls to show love and support for each other than men. Men do not have an equivalent of the “Yass, Kween!” or the “dancing girl” emoji, or “Watch my girl go!”, that women get when they post something brave, honest and bold about her life.
“Yearning to Be a Father, but Still Waiting” by Holly Burns in The New York Times. The NYT shines a light on the lesser-heard stories of dads-in-waiting who are having difficulty conceiving, adopting, or following other potential paths towards fatherhood. This article highlights a recurring theme here—the problem is clear and present, but as men, we refuse to talk about it, and need to battle generations of social conditioning to do so. “There is an outdated notion that fertility is only a woman’s problem, Dr. Williams said, but in about 50 percent of infertility cases, men are either the sole cause or a contributing one. Those infertility issues can lead to depression, sexual dysfunction and marital strain.”
“Summer (un)Schooling” by Austin Kleon. Kleon is another dad deep in summer holidays and offers a list of ten things we could all do during the period—for kids and adults alike—to enjoy this “time for living and learning outside of the classroom, a time for self-guided education, for slow learning, and also a time for plain old rest and relaxation and play.”
One thing to watch this week
How Do You Measure a Year is a short documentary by experimental filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. He interviewed his daughter on her birthday, every year from aged two until eighteen, with the end product nominated for an Oscar earlier this year. Available to stream now on HBO Max (or whatever they’re calling it in the US this month). If you’re video averse, check this NPR write-up instead.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
Trans World Sport is, incredibly, still being broadcast in over fifty countries almost 40 years later.