The House That Barney Built

If you’re a father, pay attention (obviously) to what you hear and find a meaningful tagline that you can come back to again and again with the kids in order to make a point.  It’s a recurrent phrase or short sentence that makes a point, a rhetorical bumper sticker that you can – with sufficient repetition – hopefully tack onto the kid’s mental bumper for further use as he or she goes through life.  Such a phrase that I’ve adopted for the past eight years is The house that Barney built.

The phrase is meaningless for anybody else out there and even for two of my own kids, but it’s a phrase that has significant meaning for Middle, who first heard it while in fourth grade and then shared it with me one evening after he heard it.  Middle is an arts person, an individual who finds greater meaning in e.e. cummings than in how to perform algebra.  He’s now en route to his freshman year in college to pursue a degree in the performing arts and our response, after a deep breath, is to encourage him and support him in this pursuit.  That said, it was clear years ago that he’d follow this kind of path and I subsequently made it a point to discuss the practical and monetary side of that kind of life to help clarify what issues and life he might encounter. 

The phrase The house that Barney built was something said to him in his first stage production.  After years of requests, we acquiesced in his fourth grade year to let him audition for a professional stage production of Oliver! and to our pleasure, he made the cast.  The role of Fagin was played by a professional actor named Barry Pearl, and he was – from everything we heard from Middle and others – a wonderful person with whom to work; he also portrayed a great Fagin.  But through the various evening practices, he’d find time to chat with the other cast members and impart some professional knowledge to the youngsters, many of whom were enthralled with the notion of performing on stage.  As Middle related to me later that evening on the way home from rehearsal, Pearl had engaged in a conversation on the practical aspects of acting, most especially the handling of money.  Earlier in his career, he’d been cast as a regular on Barney as Professor Tinkerputt and it gave him a steady income for a period of years.  It was during this stint that he took the money that he’d made and put it to paying for a house, a place that he’d be able to reside without having to worry about constantly having to handle a mortgage with what can be a problematic cashflow between acting gigs.  He described it to the group as the house that Barney built and it was a phrase that struck Middle enough that he related it to me verbatim that evening.  Since I’m always on the lookout for taglines that support the lessons that I’m trying to teach – and there are certain taglines for each – this was a wonderful turn of phrase that I immediately put away for future reference.

The phrase is a wonderfully curt response to the want/need confusion that’s been perfected through the past four or so decades by the Madison Avenue apostles.  Our children – hell, sometimes even us – have fallen to the notion that you can indeed have it all and that the want is sometimes as important as the need.  If you don’t necessarily have the assets available to get what you want, you can always borrow a bit more to get it and that way lies the path to debt servitude.  After all, the financial press noted some years ago in a moment of drink-the-kool-aid idiocy that credit is the new liquidity.  The reality is that’s akin to ignoring your own tap when you want a drink of water and instead spending your own money to purchase that water.  No, wait…never mind.  That’s how far along on the crazy train we’ve now come, something unrecognizable to our great-grandparents’ generation.

It’s a phrase that isn’t used often, but has been trotted out through the ensuing years as we’ve talked.  It was the other Saturday morning that it finally made it’s way out again as he and I sat in the living room with cups of coffee and talked money.  Recently, it seems as if that’s sometimes all I discuss and it’s unfortunate that it appears that way.  But my point in the discussion was that he was entering a profession that while it could be immensely fulfilling, it could also be financially insecure.  I believe that the present system – monetary and political – is insupportable and that the change will certainly occur in the next number of years.  I also believe that while the word change comes across on a page as a sterile, unexciting event, the reality will be far more fearful and problematic and that belief colors what I want the kids to learn; after all, my job is ultimately to prepare them to make their way in the world as productive and moral adults and that’s not necessarily what the general system seems to want to teach the kids.

Decide what the most important lessons that you want your children to learn.  Spend time in conversation with them as much as possible when they’re younger because once they begin to plug into the matrix, your window for discussion with them will narrow considerably.  Decide on your tagline, that rhetorical bumper-sticker that you return to again and again and if it’s from somebody or somewhere else that has an impact on them, then don’t worry about ownership but grab it and stuff in your bag-of-tricks for reference.  Because someday, that might be all that you need to say in a pinch to get a point across.

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