Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Thanks Jo, For the Journey

Sitting in Barnes and Noble the other day, I watched as a fairly "sophisticated" mother sat down in the reading area, with a couple of kids in tow. She opened her "Tao of Zen" (or whatever it was) and sent her oldest (about 9) to help his sister (about 6) select a book to read... "quietly." Actually, that was quite a relief from what usually sits next to me: a passel of incessantly yakking teens, an inconsiderate "businessman" with his portable office speakerphone, or a mother's group who haven't taught their kids the difference between a bookstore and Chuck-E-Cheese's.

When they returned, I learned that "quietly" meant "don't bother me while I read." They didn't seem to make a fuss, so it appeared that they had gone through this before. The girl, in a pretty pants suit which coordinated with her mothers skirt, and red shoes, matching her mothers stiletto heels, "properly" arranged herself to read in the kiddie sized rocker. She had a pull out book, which seemed appropriate for her age, and seemed delighted with the visual story appearing at every page turn.

The boy, bless his heart, had selected a more daunting task... he lugged the orange, three pound, 759 (+) page, book 7 of Harry Potter to his adult sized chair, hoisted it to the seat and climbed in after it.

Looking a lot less "sheveled" than his sister, he opened the cover and began to look for a place to start. Rapidly, his position shifted to balancing the book on his lap and leaning forward to see the page - about the only position possible for him and the hefty book.

I watched as his hand followed across the page, and his lips lightly echoed what he saw. I was able to make out "sev-er-ous" and "vol-dee-more." By this time, I had completely forgotten about the web design books I was trying to decide upon, and felt compelled to watch the drama unfold.

As he turned his first page, his sister had begun her second pass through her book, and decided that something was so interesting her mother would like to see it... she didn't. But that didn't seem to diminish the little ones spirits, for she quickly resumed her journey through the forest's creatures.

Little "Harry" (as I'll call him) was having a different sort of experience. I could tell that he really was trying hard to read and understand the story, and he really wanted to see what everyone was talking about; but, it wasn't "comprehension" that was shown on his face. "What is this word," he very quietly asked his mother.

"Humiliation," she said a bit stiffly. And when he didn't seem to show understanding, she said "it means being made to feel ashamed," and he seemed to understand. "Please let me read," she told him, "I'll explain things to you in the car," so he went back to his book.

Having read the book myself, I knew some of the words he was struggling with in the first chapter: peacock, phoenix, subjugate, imploring, ferocity, wail, slithered, Kedavra... and dinner. His face seemed to tell me that it hadn't become a "fun read" for him yet.

After several minutes of valiant effort, enough for his sister to be on her third excursion through her venture (like only first graders can do), "Harry" seemed to give in to his frustration and closed his book.

I felt both happy and sad to see him give up. I guess I was glad that he wouldn't yet be exposed to the Deathly Hallows' thematic material, which is far too advanced for his age; but, also sad that he hadn't picked up "Sorcerers Stone," an entirely different experience for a nine-year-old,and, of course, that his mom didn't join in his journey.

Sorcerer's Stone seemed to be tailor made to get young ones to read... voraciously! Deathly Hallows seems to take those captured readers, who are now all grown up, and keep them reading - a very noble effort.

A letter from a parent tells it perfectly:

"My life has also gone through a ton of changes in that time, and Harry Potter was a wonderful small part of that. I didn't just read the books for myself, but nearly every night for seven years I have also read them to my kids. The latter is an experience that I would never have given up. It was a wonderful time to share with my kids. But like the book, life goes on and my kids are doing the things that I once did. My oldest doesn't want me to read the last book... he wants to read it himself and is very welcome to do so." Angsoden

I hope that the hoopla over Rowling's latest book doesn't prevent a new generation of readers from beginning a most worthwhile quest the way it should be done - beginning with book one around 9 or 10 then one book a year for 7 years.
[See the parent's guide material for Deathly Hallows at: Dr. Scarpin's SCARPnotes]

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

It's Here: Good, But...

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is here... finally! It didn't suprise me that there was a bunch of "hoopla controversy" a few days before the release. There always is... It's "almost" like it was orchestrated! First, someone releases a bit of the story, ostensibly who shouldn't. Then, the publishers and JKR come out with both barrels blazing, making threats and guilt-tripping with "how could you hurt the kids" stuff; all the time basically "nothing" was really given away, and definitely didn't harm the sales in any way.

The richest woman in the world, isn't inexperienced in controversy. It's happened with nearly every book. From witchcraft to atheism to having anti-American sentiment - people do have their opinions. Her first few books, I've actually found interesting and fairly "uplifting" in "moral's" and story line. They definitely were not in themselves promotional of "witchcraft." They were a bit of a stretch for a second or third grader; but, man what a temptation to read developed for the slightly older child. We all saw photographs of 9 - 12 year olds sitting and listening to a "reading" by the author. What a "photo op."

The books have, as no one will contest, gotten "darker" and more negative as Harry has gotten older, and his adventures more complex. However, there has always been the "mentoring" with Dumbledore - such as it is; and the obligatory heart-to-heart in which the old Headmaster explains moral principles - often love.

Much of the "Potter-mania" has been due to the fact that the book's setting is largely modern day and very understandable. Children can, and do, identify strongly with the main characters, because their activities and thoughts are almost like their own - except for magic, of course. This is in distinction to books like "lord of the rings" which are very dark and do "ring true" in the human dillemma part; but, don't contain characters that a child wants, or is able, to identify with as strongly as Harry. So, when Deathly Hallows goes on and on for chapters without ever "letting up," the little Harry's and Hermione's on your lap could very well get short of breath, be unable to sleep and be emotionally affected. The darkness and negativity of the seventh book is so strong that I have no choice but to say: it is NOT the best choice for children under 12.

I'm actually sorry, because I've been a staunch defender for close to 10 years. But, without doubt, the characters, the action, the story line - were NOT written for the same age-level of child that the first books were! That being said, although, for me, it wasn't a "fun" read, it was, however, compelling and thought provoking. No, it still didn't do anything to promote witchcraft or evil, in my eyes. Quite the contrary. And, Dumbledore wasn't there for his continued assistance. BUT, it did follow the "Joseph Campbell-ian" format, in that: the "mentor" had to leave in order to see if the "hero" truly had learned the "lessons." In essence we learned that Harry had brought the "mentor" inside himself. Truly, through Harry, Dumbledore spoke so loudly on the pages that he might have well been there.

I'm disappointed that JKR changed audiences like that. And, when I watched the camera's scanning the faces of eight to ten year olds in the audience at her "book release reading," to use the words of her Albus Dumbledore to Fenrir Greyback: "I cannot pretend it does not disgust me a little. And, yes, I am a little shocked..." She read the first chapter, where Voldemort (the evil antagonist) had magically suspended a hogwarts school teacher from the ceiling of his meeting room while he and his Death Eaters plotted the death of Harry. Then before his followers left, he cold-bloodedly terrorized her, killed her and told Nagini, his pet snake, that she was its "dinner." Do you really think that is appropriate for an 8 - 10 year old?!

Come on, Jo! I certainly would have never chosen THAT to read to 8 - 10 year olds! And, am sure most parents wouldn't either. Frankly, I'm suprised that you did. Perhaps the audience was really filled with adolescents and adults that weren't shown much; but, the publisher just wanted the "photo op" of little children; and, for us to believe they were the intended audience age. If so, SHAME ON THEM! But, honestly, I'm not sure which chapter in the book, you COULD have read to them. Perhaps, "The Ghoul In Pajamas" might have been nice, where Ron 'convinced' the ghoul who had lived in their attic for years to come down, put on his pajama's and sleep in his bedroom in order to convince everyone that he was sick with 'Spattergroit,' thereby giving him an excuse not to attend school this year. That was a funny chapter and well written.

Does this mean that the books haven't, or won't, be good for children to read? Getting them to willingly read over 4,100 pages! Of course not. The first couple of books, as I have said, are very entertaining, compelling and interesting for young readers, especially if read aloud with a parent or other adult. But, that's just it. They probably should be read just as JKR wrote them; namely, one every year or so, as the child grows and matures. Beginning at age 9 or 10. That way, by the time he gets to Deathly Hallows he/she will: FIRST - be of the appropriate maturity to recieve it; and, SECOND - be experienced and intelligent enough to understand it. I have to say that, in addition to being "exhausting" to read due to it's unrelenting action, this book has one of the most convoluted, complicated, and obtuse plots of any book that I've ever read! But, like the Dementor's kiss, it literally 'sucked' the will to STOP reading right out of me -- until the book was completed. Like I said, the action never stopped, involving characters I could care about and using the most novel of motif's over the most recognizable of themes.

I liked it... but, thank the maker it's over!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Potter Countdown Underway!

It's here again! A phenomenon of nearly bi-yearly cycle: the release of another "Harry Potter and the ..." book. This time is the last, however. The author J. K. Rowling has said that she would write seven books about the "coming of age wizard with the world on his shoulders" who just seemed to "stroll into her mind fully formed" on a train ride. One book, she said, for each year he was at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry. This year he turns 17, is of wizarding age, and graduates from Hogwarts (where he has attended in the north of England) - that is, IF he lives that long! (See book summaries here: SCARPnotes).

His nemesis, an orphan Tom Riddle (masquerading as self-styled "Lord Voldemort") has tried to do him in, ever since Harry was only a year old. Seven times so far, if you count the first time when his parents were killed. If this book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) holds true to form, the eighth attempt will tell the tale; because, as it is "prophecied," "neither can live while the other survives." So this is it. Harry's mentor, Albus Dumbledore, was killed in the last book by an abusive "professor," Severus Snape, who has brow-beaten Harry for six years every chance he got. Fortunately, I think, for Harry, the wizarding world has several scenarios where "departed" individuals can exist to interact with the living. One such, are the portraits of all the previous headmasters which hang in the current headmasters office. It seems they can move, talk, comment and advise; and they are bound to serve the current headmaster. They can visit other portraits, of both other wizards and themselves, so can "inform" on happenings at locations wherever there is a portrait of themselves. Dumbledore has said that he didn't care what the ministry did to him "as long as they didn't take his picture off the 'chocolate frog' cards" (like bubble gum trading cards).

So, you ask, how does a pediatrician become so involved in Harry Potter? Well, it is children's literature after all. Actually, after the first book, if you recall, there was some amount of either "hype" or "discord" about whether or not Rowling's effort's were either "witchcraft inspired" or, at very least, not appropriate for children. Parent's of patients of mine began asking my opinion to the point that I felt that I needed to actually obtain one. I read the second book, which had been released by then, then needed to go back and read the first. I've read them all to date and somewhere, in the intervening years, my hobby of computer programming led to patient newsletters, then to a medical web site (Dr. Bob's Pediatric Housecalls) and finally a little site which gave my "reviews" of the Harry Potter books. Suprisingly, the web "hits" grew in number, others wanted to help, suggestions were given, even the Potter "franchise" grew; and the rest, as they say, is history.

The web site has grown such that this past week I've spent splitting the "literary" material away from the pure "potter-dom" stuff which has accumulated. So now when parents, or students, want to understand a Harry Potter book (its theme's, motif's, symbolism, quotations and context) they need only to go to one locaton: Dr. Robert R. Scarpin's SCARPnotes. All of my reviews are there, as well as complete summaries of the books, characters and literary background. Students can use it to do book reports, parents can use it to "catch-up" and talk intelligently with their children and teachers can use it in grading or testing on book reports.

Overall the books are good; but, some are for older children; and one shouldn't, I don't think, be read by a younger child alone, without at least some "debriefing," explanation or discussion with a parent. You'll need to go to the site for full information; and, the full epoc's theme hasn't been fully explained yet. Overall, however, the series is a "coming of age" story about a boy who has suffered some abuse but still still grown to have a "quality" type personality and who has been influenced to a great extent (we'll learn just how much this month) by his mothers love. All of which seems to be a refreshing change from the barrage of "crap" being flung at our children these days under the guise of "interesting" movies, television and books. I'm actually looking forward to the release of the last book; and, at the same time, that it is the last book.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Stupid Things Fathers Do

I've written articles on this before: "Unintentional Learning"; but, darn-it-all, this one simply must see the open light. I was walking down the isle at "Sam's" club the other day and came across a most "sophisticated" four or five year old attempting to negotiate with, who I assume was his mother, for some preferred food item. I thought to myself "now that mother has her hands full!" I decided to take a restroom break so headed in that direction and an "old enough to know better" man slightly ahead of me, called to the boy to "hurry up" and the boy came running. They were heading in the same direction as me. I completed my business and was drying my hands on their "blow dryer" when the youngster came out of the stall and headed for the wash basin. His, "I assume it was his father," helped turn on the water for a brief minute then turned it off, much to the annoyance of the child. The boy said "but I didn't get any of that" (pointing to the soap dispenser).

Now here is the rub. His (again, old enough to know better) dad told him "you don't need any of that, just water is enough." Incredible! As a pediatrician, the adolescent stupidity of the interaction begged for some kind of action. And, as a more-than-enough "older person," who needs to be listened to, I didn't have anything to stop me. So, with more kindness in my voice than it deserved I said "That isn't very nice." I got the attention from the man that I was seeking, and he said "what isn't." Silly me, thinking that meant he was receptive, so I ventured further down the path of his enlightenment, and said "Well, I bet his mother goes to great length to teach him to use soap." The man's eyes seemed to explode with condescending annoyance as he said "I think we'll be able to work it out" and quickstepped the youngster out, trying to dry his hands on his pants.

I'm getting too old for this! I'm convinced that he never even told the boy's mother of the incident; so, she has no comprehension of the idiocy that she has to "undo" in her boy's upbringing. I hope she does figure it out! And, I hope the "brain-cells-are-missing" dad isn't a food handler somewhere.

Just for the record for all you "guy's" out there: dribbling water over your hands after you have handled your "manhood" isn't much better than spitting on them and rubbing them in the dirt. (Yes, I know some of you do that in the woods when you think no one is looking.) It doesn't "drown" syphillis or gonorrhea germs; nor "float off" aids or other viruses. It doesn't even "make a dent" in the thousands of "E Coli" germs which are found in massive numbers all over your... "stuff." BUT, even if you have no regard for your own hygene, why on earth would you teach it to your child?!!!

Mothers, I'm sorry to say that when you stand there perplexed about some things your boy does and wonder "where does he get this stuff," you often don't have to look very far.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Think It's Funny?

I'm not sure what to make of an article that I read recently (Scientific American: MIND, 18:2 p12). Always considering that I had as good of sense of humor as the next man - I mean... well... I know it's in there somewhere. I don't laugh at odd things, uncontrollably, or at odd times... and that's got to count for something. I have noticed lately, however, that fewer and fewer things seem funny. But, if I listen to Jennifer Uekermann from the Ruhr-University of Bochum, Germany, I might have a brain like an alcoholic. Me, who hasn't even tasted the stuff in all of my fifty(mmmft) years! Ms Uekermann, apparently has developed a test for "sense of humor" and is going around giving it to people. Try as I might, I can't find a copy of the test anywhere - I mean - not in medical journals or psychological supply houses or even the Internet!

It's not that I feel slighted that she didn't give it to me; or, that I want to surreptitiously take it so no one would see if it turned out that I REALLY didn't have one. It's just that I thought it might be a good read. Probably at least as good as the "Garfield" book I got for Christmas; and, yes, I admit it, I've got some surgeons that I want to try it on.

She says: "[We know that] alcoholism is associated with cognitive deficits, which have been interpreted in terms of a specific vulnerability of the frontal lobes to the toxic effects of alcohol." Huh? What she means is that the area of the brain behind your eyebrows is the most easily effected by alcohol; which, as it happens, is the part mostly responsible for "social behavior" stuff like the processing of "affective" (feeling) stimuli. Being able to discern "incongruity," it turns out, is a big part of having a sense of humor; as is, being able to put yourself into another persons situation.

So, she gives people a whole bunch of tests, to make sure they have "Normal" IQ, "Executive Functions," and "happiness" levels; I guess, so it won't foul up her "jokes." Then she gives her "sense of humor" test to groups of "otherwise comparable" people, like: alcoholics and non-alcoholics, old and non-old, hit-in-the-head and non-hit-in-the-head. It turns out that 92 percent of non-drinkers could pick out the only listed multiple-choice "funny" punch line to a "joke"; but, only 68 percent of alcoholics could. Was that statistically significant? Well, WHO KNOWS, because Johathan Beard (poor soul), who wrote the review article, apparently didn't think it mattered enough to include the figures; and, unfortunately, neither did any of the other reviewers who wrote the synopses in any of the more "official" publications that I found on the Internet. There were other publications with articles stating that "old" people lost some of it; but, not as much as those who had been injured in the head (either young or old). And, in fact, keeping a sense of humor was an important factor in "successful aging." Man, I can attest to that.

But, I really wanted to see the test because it sounds kinda neat. Apparently the victim, I mean testee, has to discern body language or voice inflection to interpret which, of several choices of punch lines, makes the most sense or is funny. It's called "prosody." High-falutin' people say that prosody refers to the intonation, rhythm, and vocal stress in speech. Us normal-falutin' people just know that it's the vocal intonation which modifies the literal meaning of words and sentences - like when you use sarcasm. You know, saying: "yea, it's really big!" isn't the same as saying "yea, it's really big!" accompanied with rolling your eyes. And, most surgeons know this. That's why they are usually able to keep a whole set of nurses entertained during long operations on a barely clothed, unconscious patient. You see, us Pediatricians wouldn't even get it — everything is "big" to us. And, of course, I said most surgeons because neurosurgeons would just say "big? In relation to what?" Poor fellows, they don't have any sense of humor at all... ever! Now, if Ms. Uekermann is trying to find a group that would have some statistical relevance for her comparisons, she should come to me. I could tell her.

You see a surgeon, a pediatrician and a neurosurgeon went into a bar...