Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fear and Parenting at the Movies

In the small town where I grew up, there was no movie theatre. The closest was a 45 minute drive away in Sudbury and screened films weeks after they'd opened in larger cities, months after they were released in the US. I remember my parents driving in to see the film, MASH. An hour before they were expected home, our babysitter received a phone call asking if she could stay another four hours. The reason: my father had laughed over most of the jokes in the 7 o'clock show. They were staying for the second screening so my mother could hear the ones she'd missed. Aside from too much laughing or terrible winter weather -which was frequent - there were very few things that would keep you from going into Sudbury to see a movie, if that's what you wanted to do. But one thing was certain: if slag was being poured on the way there, the movie was cancelled.

For those of you who didn't have the pleasure of growing up in a town whose fortunes were based on the rise and fall on the price of nickel, the pouring of slag was a hot, bright reminder of our town’s fortune. Ore was scraped from the earth in the mines a few miles below us, fed through screens and crushers until it is the size of a marble and then ground to powder to which water was added to make slurry. Nickel and copper were separated and the waste - or slag - was taken away in special slag pot cars on the railroad and taken about 3 miles to be dumped as waste. This operation took place about every 2 to 3 hours, 24 hours a day using 10 car trains requiring two electric locomotives and poured off of the side of a hill right beside the highway. If it was night and your car was driving by it on the way to a movie you didn't make that damn movie. It was hot, molten slag dropping off a hill, for the love of God! What can beat that? I remember praying to God on the way to my first screening of Star Wars to please, please, please not drop the slag as I didn't want to miss the greatest movie of all times. He took pity on  me and I got to see Luke Skywalker get his hand chopped off by his father. Good times.

In the winter months, however, someone in town came up with the brilliant idea of circumnavigating the mesmerizing allure of slag: they would screen movies in the high school gym. And so popcorn was popped and sold for a quarter, mats were spread over the gymnasium floor for the younger kids to sit on (and the older kids to lay down and make out on) and instead of being pushed out into the yard and told Not-to-come-back-inside-until-I-call-you-...I-mean-it!, an entire afternoon was spent watching films. Genius! And let me be clear: these were not first-run films. The afternoon always started out with at least an hour's worth of cartoons, and not the kind that kids watch today where lessons can be gleaned from a talking aardvark. These were the violent kind where overly dressed-up members of the animal kingdom chased each other off of cliffs with farming implements, their souls drifting dreamily out of heir bodies and into the ether only to return in the next cartoon, newly formed and oblivious. The cartoons were followed by a double feature whose only criteria seemed to be that it contain Judy Garland or Ma and Pa Kettle. I saw more grand-scale MGM musicals on that gym floor than it seems humanly possible and though we grumbled and wished for a Clint Eastwood revenge film, you could have heard a pin drop during most of those movies.
I shared this story with my 12 year old son on the way to screen the newest installment in the Batman franchise after he asked me what "summer" movies we went to see as kids. We didn't categorize films by season back then, I explained. Movies were what you watched when they showed up and you could get in to to see them, provided the slag didn't get in the way. Did you have to worry about being shot at the screening, he asked? His question took my breath away. 
The world my son he is growing up in is not very different than mine on the surface. Like me, he lives in a small-town, surrounded by family and friends and people who love and care for him. But in many ways it is very different from mine because unlike my childhood, his is influenced by the 24-hour news cycle. Despite my best wishes, it creeps into his wet-wear and makes him believe that going to the movies means not just seeing bad guys with hand guns in the screen but imagining them sitting in the seat beside him. I pride myself on not being a fear-based parent. I let my kids walk and drive their bikes to school and go to the store unsupervised.  I don't always trust the world around them but I know that giving in to that fear has a price, and the price, I think, is greater than any of us should be willing to pay. Fear robs us of the profound joy of living in the moment with our children, of experiencing, with guidance and nurturing, the vicissitudes of life that are found in the most ordinary of days and so I thought long and hard before I answered him on the way to that movie.
No, I told him. And I don't worry about it and neither should you. Okay? He nodded and we kept on driving. 
Fear is the only thing I know of that has the power to turn good parents away from the careful, reflective human beings they once were. It has the power to twist their thinking and undermine their behavior and, I believe, it is as fatal to the simple joys in life as it is detrimental to our children’s greater good. As overwhelming as it sometimes is, though,  I have chosen to let go of it. I poured  mine on a slag heap somewhere far, far way and instead of stopping by the side of the road and watching it smolder, I chose instead to move down the road go see a Batman movie with my son in a dark theatre where I didn't know a soul and instead chose to believe that, like me, people want the best for the world. Even at the movies.


  1. Thank you for a great post. I commend you for not allowing the horrible fear that reaches in and unnecessarily touches our lives and those of our children change the way you live. To give horrible events like this the ability to unduly influence how we live our lives with our children makes the effects of this tragedy grow. Also wanted to say thank you for reminding me of magical moments as a child watching from our car at the side of the road as the hot molten slag poured out. It was one of the things that you did when you had visitors having stopped for ice cream on the way. Hadn't thought about that in years. Sorry if at anytime we were one of the ones who made you miss a movie!

  2. Don't apologize! Slag-watchng is what made me the person I am today.
    Thanks for the lovely comments, too.