I've come solidly to the conclusion that the memories of my childhood are best left in a box at the back of my brain, sealed in some kind of titanium container, with a big yellow sign on the front that says "˜do not inspect too closely'. I say this because every time I revisit anything particularly heartwarming, or nostalgic, I invariably discover it painfully flawed and often full of disturbing subtext that I simply didn't recognize upon first viewing. I offer the following advice: don't read the books you loved as a kid, don't watch the shows you watched as a child, don't revisit the movies, the games, and in many cases the friends you held dear as a young, small, impressionable, and most importantly, naÃ¯ve person. It is entirely likely that disappointment and heartache will be your only companions if you do.
I propose this because I made the tragic mistake of watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with my 2-year-old last night. And for a brief and happy time I found my own lost toddlerhood in his eyes as he lounged along the floor, his head propped up on the plastic ball that he uses to strike fear in the heart of our cat. His is the world of ice-cream, and snowmen, and defecating in your own pants without having to clean it up yourself. He's still cute enough that it's very hard not to laugh when we're told that the chicken we've offered for dinner is bad while throwing it defiantly to the floor. And even now he's forming those poorly informed memories of pure childhood that I hope he never revisits with an adult eye.
As he lay before the television, while stop motion reindeer scampered about comically, I was for that brief moment satisfied. And then, the following burst forth from the speakers: Rudolph's mother wanted to help search for him, but Donner said, "No, this is man's work!"
There was a stunned silence before Elysia issued forth a challenging, "excuse me?" Daniel watched on, unaware that anything unusual had transpired, oblivious both to the oddity of such a statement and to his mother's wrathful gaze, which really should have made the television cringe in a kind of fear I've only experienced a very few times – most notably being the time that, by not paying attention, I inadvertently agreed she had put on weight. I was, at that moment, very glad that watching Rudolph had not been my idea. I was incredulous, partly because of the statement, and partly because without a good showing of incredulity some kind of tacit approval would be inferred, and my usually loving and even-tempered wife would pose a significant threat to my safety. But, I was genuinely shocked, reminded of the difference between the time I live in, and the time Rudolph was produced.
Suddenly, Rudolph had been ejected into a kind of anachronistic no man's land along with Star Wars, Tom Baker episodes of Doctor Who, old Disney films, and virtually every book I read before age 10. Now, everything was open to scrutiny and interpretation. I saw casual segregationism with comments like "No daughter of mine will be seen with a red-nosed reindeer!" that smacked too closely of a kind of racism, and sexism in the scene following what appears to be the death of Yukon Cornelius, where the group gets to the more important business of "˜getting the women to safety'.
I realize the problem is largely mine, and perhaps many of you see it as the kind of PC-programmed nonsense that has driven our culture to the hyper-sensitive, overly litigious brink of ruin, but I couldn't escape the context of things and just be a kid again. It has to do with innocence, and naiveté, and a distance from every form of political engagement that only a child and people raised by wolves can achieve. It's the reason that I don't let my son watch the news, and turn off commercials for shows like CSI, and only play games even as benign as Ratchet and Clank after he's gone to bed, because I want him to have that kind of childhood that colors everything in my titanium box rose petal red as long as possible. I want his childhood, which seems to be shorter with each generation, to be even longer than mine.
Of course, that's just setting him up for disappointment in the long run. Because someday as an adult he's going to catch an old episode of a favorite show, or read a once loved book, or watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and know that it wasn't all exactly as he remembers.