Something Wicked This Way Comes: Kids and Dystopian Lit

As I write this, the latest wave of dystopian young adult lit, Hunger Games:  Catching Fire and Divergent, are respectively on Demand and in the theatres.  Dystopian is a word that means, as I explained to Youngest the other morning, the opposite of Utopian; it pertains to a situation or circumstance that is dysfunctional, dark and bleak.  The genre is nothing new as it offers an opportunity for society to fictionally work through the dark fears and nightmares that concern us.  This might be the long-term effects of radiation that framed some of the better sci-fi movies of the 1950s or the soulless impact of the corporate/big-brother world of the Matrix movies.  Even young adult fiction has had its dystopian elements, but the latest incarnations – coupled with conversation with my own kids – has me wondering what exactly is going on.

Youngest’s reading interests have always been a bit different.  He’s never taken to the Harry Potter books like his siblings but he’s become steeped in Greek and Roman mythologies, with all of the earliest stories of heroism and character failings.  He likewise has taken to young adventure and is an avid fan of Anthony Horowitz’ Alex Rider as well as The Young Bond series by Charlie Higson.  These are classic examples of the good/evil adventure stories with heroes and villains, except that the heroes are in their mid-teens and infinitely more identifiable to the reader.  But several months ago, he began reading another series by Charlie Higson, The Enemy.  The premise centers on the lives of young London tweens and teens trying to survive in the midst of a global zombie apocalyse and each of the books examines the separate lives and adventures of specific characters; the characters – those who manage to survive – don’t meet until one of the later books in the series and it’s this book in which he’s presently immersed.  What’s different about this particular series however, lies in the seeming hopelessness of the struggles that these kids undergo.  Youngest came down to breakfast one morning recently and shook his head as we talked about this particular series.  What was brutal for him was that the author would develop young characters with whom he could identify and appreciate, only to have the characters either die or become infected and become zombies; I really get to like somebody and then *bang* he’s gone.  It’s been rare that I’ve censored a kid’s reading choice, typically opting instead to keep tabs on it and perhaps looking to follow up in later conversation about the topic and that’s the route I opted to take in this instance as well.  I was then relieved when he put the novel aside for a break: but that was shortlived as he substituted another for it, Divided We Fall.  This particular novel is a teen political/action thriller that tells the story of a high-schooler/Idaho National Guardsman who is caught in a blossoming conflict that has the seed of a second Civil War.

It’s the nature of the dystopia that gives me pause.  Youth literature has been filled with dystopic themes for many years but it’s only been in the past few that the shift has seemingly gone from the fantastic – Harry Potter and the Twilight series – to the more realistic political and social realms.  While the rap on the youngsters is that they don’t pay attention, the reality is that they do pay attention; unfortunately, few adults are actually explaining things to them and they consequently suffer from a deficit of both information and the context into which to put that information.  Enough teens are seeing their older siblings and friends return home or scrounge by with considerable debt to understand that things are not going well.  Likewise, they are also learning that their electronic tethers are increasingly monitored by the government that has professed to be their lifetime bud; unfortuntately, that bud is in the process of becoming a confidant as well, whether they wish to share the information or not.  Couple this with the rise of the corporate society – where they aren’t so much a generation as a marketing cohort – and the 1984 parallels are unnerving, if not downright frightening.

The title of the essay, Some thing Wicked This Way Comes, is a classic Ray Bradbury novel that came out when I was a toddler and which I gobbled up in the entirety in middle school.  In the story, the protagonists are young teen boys who must face a terrifying experience that is first portended in quiet, unnerving ways.  Bradbury does a great job evoking an atmosphere of growing uneasiness amidst the promise of garish, carnival-like entertainment long before things spin out of control and it’s this same scenario playing out amongst the kids long before they actually have a sense of what’s facing them. They are surrounded by any number of escapist opportunities via an electronics consumer society, yet they sense that events are coalescing in ways that they can’t immediately understand and it’s this sensibility that is spinning out of the minds of authors for the kids’ consumption.

Today’s stories are a reflection of the fears that face our future adults.  Their problem is that many don’t understand the context of the situations facing our society today and without that understanding, they can’t frame a coherent response to it.  So when you see the tweens and teens reading some of this dystopian literature, consider whether they like it because it’s just a "ripping good yarn" or whether there’s a nugget of something else occurring.  Then take the time to chat with them and see what you can help comb out of their concerns, putting the story into context.  You have the benefit of age, experience and hindsight to help put things in context, while some they might only have a vague uneasiness about what they hear and see.  That is, ultimately, our principal job – to teach them, help them make sense of the world so that they’re prepared for it when they step out into it.

PracticalDad Price Index/March 2014:  Presenting Stealth Deflation…

It’s a bit later getting the results out than I prefer, but the data has been crunched for the March 2014 edition of the 47 item (37 foodstuff/10 non-foodstuff) PracticalDad Price Index marketbasket and the results show a continuing deflation.  The Total Index of the full 47 item basket dropped from February’s 109.64 to 109.41 while the Food-Only Index of the 37 items likewise dropped from February’s 112.46 to 112.06 (November 2010 = 100).  The upshot is that it cost 9.41% more to purchase the same 47 item marketbasket in March 2014 than it did at the Index’s outset in November 2010; for the foodstuff segment, the cost is 12.06% more than November 2010.  The Food-Only Index is still below the high mark of 114.33, reached in December 2012.

The marketbasket certainly captured the rise in dairy prices as butter, 2% milk and sliced deli cheese (American) all rose; these three were fully half of the six items that had price rises from February 2014.  The rises however, were offset by price decreases in eight other items and as occurred in February 2014, one of the three separate grocery stores saw multiple items with price decreases (versus a rise in butter, a dairy product).  Along with other price decreases in other stores, the differential was sufficient to drive the average cost of multiple items downwards.

Many in the past several years have become familiar with the term stealth inflation, which refers to the producer’s practice of maintaining the nominal price for an item while decreasing the package size; the net effect is a real increase in price for the item and the maintenance of the producer’s profit margin.  There have certainly been drops in the prices of different items, in different stores, since the Index’s November 2010 inception but there have been a noticeable spate in the past three months, most especially within a particular grocery store.  Some are cyclical – milk and eggs are a prime example as their prices yo-yo – but after December 2012, I noticed that prices in fairly common foodstuffs have begun dropping, especially in the one grocery store.  I frankly believe that this is because their usual shoppers are in lower-income brackets that have been particularly hard hit in the past several years and the store is having to find ways to decrease their pricing in order to maintain a sufficient sales volume that allows them to survive.  This is in addition to other stores which are also having some price decreases (mixed in with the increases).

But what we’re now beginning to see is what I’ve come to refer to as stealth deflation.  While it’s doppleganger, stealth inflation, maintains nominal prices by sacrificing the physical quantity, stealth deflation cuts nominal pricing by sacrificing the physical quality of the foodstuff.  To get a handle on this, consider the price decreases in certain items over the past three months (remember that the prices are for items at one or another particular store so the percentage drop is more pronounced here and less pronounced in the final three-store average).

Item                    1/14          2/14          3/14          %

bread, 20 oz     1.19          1.00          1.00          (16)

peanut butter  4.29          3.69          3.69          (14)

can green         0.99         0.79          0.79          (20)


can diced         0.99          0.79          0.79          (20)


can corn           0.99          0.79          0.79          (20)

can chunk        1.39          1.39          1.00          (28)


box generic      3.84          3.84          2.82          (27)

     sugar flakes

An example that caught my eye – and required that I actually revisit the store in order to double-check – was the 28% drop in the cost of a can of tuna at one store.  The confusion resulted from the fact that there was now a store-brand can of tuna (5 oz) at the old price of $1.39 per as well as a can of 5 oz store-brand tuna at the new and reduced price of $1.00; which was the correct can for the index?  The difference was that the reduced price can was still labeled the chunk light tuna, which was the type that I’ve priced across all three stores since November 2010 and the same-priced can was now labeled as solid tuna.  I can’t tell you the exact difference between the two but a reasonable surmise is that the lower priced chunk tuna is now composed of different parts or remains of the tuna, which would go for less money than the higher priced tuna.  In other words, a decreased quality in comparison than was used before.  The same would go for the loaf of bread, peanut butter and certainly store-brand sugar flakes as the product is now coming from a producer with a cheaper, ostensibly lower grade set of ingredients than was available before.

So what’s the upshot of stealth deflation and what does it really mean?  The consumer’s purchasing power is being eaten away by a declining income on one side and a purposeful monetary policy that promotes inflation on the other.  In order to maintain sales volume and affordability, producers will also engage in stealth deflation by decreasing prices at the cost of ingredient quality.  The controversy over pink slime in ground beef is a prime case of the effects of stealth deflation; the additive acted as an extender to the product, allowing the ground beef to be sold at a lesser price than it would have otherwise and when the slime was removed, the cost of ground beef rose.

If parents are truly concerned over what goes into their kids’ bodies, then they’re going to have to pay much greater attention.  On the one side, to ingredients and inputs, and on the other to entire meal planning and food selection in order to make the budget extend further than it has had to in the past. 

Welcome to the future.

Volunteering:  When Did I Become That Cub Scout Guy?

There was a recent article which statistically highlighted something that I, like many other involved fathers, have anecdotally noticed.  The number of parents who are willing to volunteer is declining and those of us who participate are being stretched increasingly thin.  The result is that we’re having to continue running activities after our own kids depart lest they collapse and this is leading to some hard feelings.

I’ve been a cub scout leader for eleven years, starting in the program with my oldest son as a den leader and then continuing when Youngest came along.  Along the way, I also became the cubmaster when that person left as her son moved on to boy scouts; it was my intent to do the same last year when Youngest moved up to boy scouts and indeed, I stepped down as cubmaster last winter.  Despite more than year of notices, entreaties and warnings however, no one stepped up to the position for the remainder of the cub scout year.  The pack committee chair also resigned when her son decided to quit scouting and as late summer progressed, it appeared that the pack would fold.  No one else took the positions and scouts left the pack as it flirted with folding for lack of volunteer leadership.  When another scouting mother – who was also an assistant scoutmaster with an Eagle scout son – stepped up to the committee chair and asked me, I returned for a one-year gig as cubmaster, where we’re still awaiting someone to take over as cubmaster.  My expectation/plan/desire/hope is to leave that slot and step up to become more active at the boy scout level where Youngest now resides.

But somewhere along the line, the cub scout gig morphed from being a temporary stint with my son to the apparently permanent job as Cubmaster.  This change was brought home by an encounter at the grocery store last week when I passed a woman whose son is a new cub scout; we glanced at one another in the doorway and each of us muttered a perfunctory hello when she did a double take and blurted out Oh it’s you…I didn’t recognize you without the uniform.  And I suddenly was in an alternate DC Comics universe in which a simple change of shirt hid my identity as Lord Baden-friggin’-Powell.  This isn’t an isolated situation as it’s a scenario playing out across activities and areas.  There are other cub packs and boy scout troops in similar straits and the Girl Scouts are literally dying for want of leadership – on top of the whole interest problem.  The local little league is looking for coaches and the list goes on.

When you review the BLS article, what stands out is that those in the prime parent categories – ages 35 – 44 and kids under the age of 18 – remained strong at 30.6% and 32.7% respectively.  There are plenty of parents who step up but still plenty more who don’t and when you talk to the organization folks at the regional levels and higher, what they’re seeing is that fewer younger parents are stepping up; my suspicion is that this is the early cusp of a trend that will be reflected in the BLS in future years.

One of the comments that I’ve heard repeatedly across years and activities is I don’t know anything about that stuff.  I respect the concern because no parent wants to look like a flaming moron in front of their child but the reality is that we’re all confronted with situations in which we have no real experience.  We do our best and let the chips fall where they may.  But the other reality is that the kids really do appreciate what their folks are willing and able to do for them and as they age, are able to show some graciousness when our team doesn’t do well or something goes awry at a scouting event.  For the kids, it isn’t necessarily how much you know about something as your behavior and manner in dealing with it and that’s the lesson that we need to teach them as they in turn grow into adulthood – it isn’t necessarily what we know at the outset, but how we learn and then act as we move along.

Selfies and the Kids

As the 2014 Academy Awards aired downstairs, I overheard the family’s commentary as host(-ess) Elaine DeGeneres – I don’t even know which title is considered correct anymore – gathered A-list celebrities for what was subsequently billed as the “Best Selfie Ever”.  It’s the latest and most fame-riddled in a long list of shots taken since the rise of the smartphone but the practice leads me to wonder about the effect of such activities on the kids who are now billed as the “smartphone generation”.  What should parents consider about letting their kids have access to take “selfies”?

The practice is here to stay as iPads and smartphones have become ubiquitous in today’s culture.  When I took Middle to the local Social Security Administration office to replace a lost card, he was taken aback by the presence of toddlers – no exaggeration here – who were waiting with their own iPhones; while mothers and fathers plunked away on their own, these kids were swiping away at apps and taking more than a few selfies.  The practice has gained increasing increasing public attention, especially as more parents are allowing the kids to play with the smartphones.  There’s already the question of how much access should a toddler or preschooler have to a smartphone or an iPad, but the ability to take an almost unlimited number of photos of themselves leads to legitimate questions about the impact upon child development.

The linked article, republished in various forums in the US, raises some of the issues but I believe misses the largest point.  It’s natural that the kids want to see pictures of themselves since children are, by nature, egocentric beings.  All that they know when they are very young is the small world of themselves and their family and because they are incapable of caring for themselves, all obviously revolves around them.  Yes, seeing photos of themselves can help develop a self-image but I honestly wonder whether seeing yet another photo of themselves leads to a healthy self-image.  Perhaps the major point made by critics of the unlimited access to selfies is that it feeds the problem of instant gratification since the kid can see the digital image immediately and then, with a swipe of a finger, make it disappear if it’s not to their liking.  There’s no having to wait for the results and no exercise of the valuable practice of patience.  But I believe that while the self-gratification point is valid, it’s just one more pebble on the already massive pile of society’s practices that already promote instant gratification.  The large issue is that it promotes and contributes to the narcissistic tendencies that already exist in today’s young generations.  Multiple studies support the thesis that today’s kids are far more self-absorbed than previous generations.  The rise in permissive and helicopter parenting, the excessive use of praise and the onset of online social media platforms – remember Xanga? – that allow peers to like their buds for absolutely nothing of value have all contributed to this narcissism.  But allowing the kids to have unfettered access from a very young age will only reinforce the narcissistic tendencies from an even younger age and make the personality trait even more set in concrete than before.

It’s natural to expect some narcissism from youngsters and I remember time spent in my ‘tween/teen bedroom examining my visage and profile, mugging at the mirror and trying on different hats and looks as I explored my self-image and personality.  It’s natural for kids to do that as they pass through various phases until they finally arrive at their adult personality and that’s frankly why I’ve never been terribly upset at the various looks, boyfriends/girlfriends and musical tastes that have come through the PracticalDad household…because what’s happening now with the kids isn’t necessarily permanent.  Wow, he’s been listening to Swedish Death Ska for three months…and now he’s listening to Mumford. But my job as a parent is to raise the kids to make their way in the world as productive and moral adults, able to survive on their own and even make the place a little better, and that requires a person who can look outwards and see what’s occurring around them; this is the antithesis of the narcissistic personality whose insularity keeps them looking inwards and hence unable to comprehend what might be hurtling in their direction let alone how their behaviors affect others.

So what to do?  First, give serious consideration to how much you let the kids handle the smartphone; it’s a convenient, pocket-sized babysitter that’s of value on occasion but the kid won’t learn patience if he’s plugged into the Matrix whenever nothing’s going on.  Second, if you let the kids take some selfies, go ahead and delete their selfies in their presence.  While I don’t have a smartphone, I’ve let the kids mess with my digital camera and take selfies; when I’ve gone back through the memory card and seen them, I’ve deleted the photos in their presence just to drive the point home that excessive use is simply a waste of a memory card that could be taken up with photos of real value and meaning.  Trust me, it’s certainly garnered looks of hurt but a little dose of humility isn’t going to hurt them. Third, make sure that you model appropriate behavior by not engaging in such behavior in their presence unless it’s of merit, such as an event or trip.

A View From the Ridge, Part 4

Tonight was an evening that provided the periodic view from the ridge, an instance at which you move beyond the forest of everyday life and get a sense of where you’ve been, are and are going.

Eldest is home for Spring Break but leaving with her mother to interview in a distant city with someone about a field for which she’s preparing while in college.  The evening was spent however, at the local high school where Middle – a junior – sang the role of Zosar in Elton John’s Aida.  While Eldest’s intentions and plans are crystallizing, Middle’s are clarifying and he’s gaining a greater sense of what he’ll pursue both in and after college as he takes the lesson to heart: there’s very much a role for college but you’d better have a plan lest we needlessly waste funds.  Middle was present the other evening when we ran into one of Eldest’s high school classmates, a young man who is pursuing his Gen Ed credits at a local community college before enrolling in the local state university for a criminal justice degree.  This guy understands that his preferred career as a state trooper, while helped by a college degree, isn’t influenced one way or another by the choice or name of a particular institution.  And in about two months, Middle and I will travel to distant state university for his first interviews and the first of multiple overnight stays.

Time marches on.

And while still in elementary school, Youngest is himself changing.  He’s not yet a teen but has become concerned about his appearance and is, according to several teachers, already in the middle school mindset.  In some ways, he’s also older than his siblings were at his age and that’s partially due to the exposure to older siblings who’ve helped bring him along and partially due to his own personality, upon which one teacher gently noted that he already doesn’t take kindly to fools.  It ought to be interesting moving forward since there’s probably nothing more foolish on God’s green earth than a boy in his early teens.  Youngest still messes with his Legos but only when he and a buddy use them to make stop-motion animation during sleepovers, and the rest of the toys are increasingly consigned to the closet.  Even his choice of sports is changing as he’s planning to spend one more spring with baseball before shifting to another sport for middle school and beyond; while we haven’t talked, I suspect that he’s thinking ahead to college himself.

And as for me, things are also going to change.  While the elementary days are waning, my wife and I still believe that a parental presence and active involvement is crucial so long as the kids are at home and that’s especially in the summer months.  So we’ll see…