Preschool Pirating

Have we all gone stir crazy yet?

Imagine if you were on a 17th century ship, with nothing around you but ocean for three months – or six months. Sure, you didn’t have bored kids fighting over whose turn it is with the TV, or a toddler screaming that Tickle Me Elmo is out of batteries again, but eventually that parrot is going to look pretty tasty when all you’ve had to eat is wormy hardtack and stale beer. If you’ve ever been to the Charles P. Morgan at Mystic Seaport, or the Mayflower up in Plymouth, Mass, or Old Ironsides in Boston proper, you know that those ships are pretty tiny on a ten minute walk-through. Now cram them with fifty people for three months, and suddenly your 1500 square foot house doesn’t seem so bad. At least you’re not seasick.

Pirates, whether illegal or privateers working for King and Country, were often violent men – and a few women – who were not very nice. But legends and lore get romanticized, and pirates – whether Captain Hook, Jack Sparrow, Long John Silver, or Blackbeard himself, and kids are attracted to each other the way ants love sugar. Fancy hats, eye patches, wooden legs, cannons, swords, boats, and treasure – how cool is that?

When a new dog-proof garbage can arrived in a box larger than my three year old, it became her favorite toy of the month, and for one of the weeks we turned it into a pirate ship. Anything that keeps a bored three year old busy for a week deserves to be bronzed. We hung a garden flag from a broom handle for a sail, used a brass fastener to make a spinning wheel, dug out costumes from the older kids, watched a lot of preschool pirate videos and read a lot of pirate books. I drew a simple outline map of our living room and taught her to read maps by placing candy in various places as treasure, and marking X on the map. By the third candy, she was proficient on her own. Then we built our finale.

Using balloons, some Cheshire Herald strips, and a little watered down Elmer’s Glue, we made some cannon balls, and then painted them the next day. Then we built our cannon. The cannon balls were about 5 ½ inches, too big for a standard paper tube. But they worked just perfectly for a paint can! So we scavanged a paint can from the garage, which, thankfully, had only an inch of dried paint in the bottom. And these new-fangled plastic paint cans? The paint doesn’t stick! A few taps and peels, and all that dead paint came falling right out. A quick rinse, and we were good. I cut the bottom off with my Ginsu knife (a product that has lived up to every claim ever made on it – thirty years later it still cuts fences AND tomatoes, and plastic paint cans). I strung a piece of waistband elastic across the hole, held tight by Gorilla Tape, and we had our cannon. It was tricky getting the right angle, but pull the elastic back far enough with the cannon ball sitting on it, and we could get the ball to shoot four or five feet, which is plenty inside a house.

We won Preschool Zoom that week.

So scrounge your house, and see what you can come up with! With warmer weather, try staking out a ship outside with lawn chairs or wooden pallets.  Anything that keeps a kid busy and sparks some interest is a good thing – and they just might learn something.  And by the way, Saturday September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day – check out these awesome stories to get you in the pirate mindset:

Pirate’s Perfect Pet        Pirates Go to School               Peter Pan   

Pirates Past Noon           Pinkalicious and the Pirates

Pirates Don’t Take Baths        No Pirates Allowed, Said Library Lou

Pirates Don’t Change Diapers        Sea Queens:  Women Pirates Around the World

  Treasure Island      Pirates of the Caribbean     Jake and the Never Land Pirates 

Strong Girls, Stronger Women

stb-jaylah-3While previewing the DVD for Star Trek: Into Darkness (as if I didn’t see it in the theater and wasn’t buying it myself 5 days later), I realized that Jaylah, the lead female character, is everything I want my daughters and granddaughter to be: strong, brave, smart, resourceful, a planner, a leader, and even when emotionally wounded, she never, ever gives in. Surely one of the strongest female leads ever, without losing her femininity in the process, like Grace Jones as May Day in A View to a Kill, or Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It may even be safe to say that Jaylah’s the strongest female lead ever in Star Trek itself – and no, not even Uhura, who, although she could kick butt, was often saddled with lines like, “Captain, I’m frightened.”

And that made me start thinking on who the strongest female leads might be. By strong I don’t mean nastiest or most vicious goal-driven women, no Joan Crawfords or Cersei Lannisters or Erica Kanes. I mean women or girls who started out ordinary, but when faced with impossible odds, had the grit and determination and education and smarts to work their way into survival.

First on almost any list is Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, from Alien. While you can say it ec93835d9542a13ce50f467297565f63already took guts and grit to be a warrant officer aboard a deep-space ship, finding out your mission was a suicide run to bring back an alien life form and you’re its food can either send you screaming in helpless panic (as Lambert did), or make you hike your bra straps and shoot first. Ripley is a real woman – no makeup, no unrealistic sexy uniforms, and not afraid to be pushy when she needs to be. And almost 40 years later (can it possibly be that long?) Alien still holds up on every level of film making; truly, a masterpiece.

katniss_prim_hugKatniss Everdeen is also a favorite for strongest female: just sixteen at the start of The Hunger Games, Katniss is already a survivor, having raised a sister and cared for a dysfunctionally depressed mother following the death of their father, in a world where people are kept in line through fear and starvation. Sacrificing herself to the Hunger Games to save her sister is just the start; surviving the Hunger Games not once but twice, surviving on luck, wits, and the smarts acquired through a lifetime of survival makes Katniss a formidable – but sympathetic and realistically feminine – heroine.

Sarah Connor of Terminator fame would round out my top three: a simple waitress who thought she was minding her own business until she’s hunted down by a terminator from the future – because when push comes to shove, Sarah will become a serious survivalist to save her son – a son who will grow up to be the leader against the machines that take over the world. Sarah is thrown into an impossible situation but comes out on top through sheer determination and a survival instinct that won’t quit.

Why so many women from science-fiction? That’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because “strong” women in literature or film are often seen as detestable power-hungry ladder-climbers who will use murder or sex to achieve their goals, and it is only in the realm of “fantasy” that women are allowed to be every-day humans, both strong and vulnerable at the same time, without boob jobs and fake nails. Yet the real world is peppered with incredibly strong women – Anne Frank, Malala Yousafzai, Margaret Sanger, Harriet Tubman, and so many more. Not one of them is sexualized by the media, either.

turn_me_loose_it_s_ashleySo, to be fair, there are literary women who also struggled against formidable odds: Scarlett O’Hara’s entire world was ripped from her by the Civil War: her income, her inheritance, her mother, her husband (whether or not she wanted him alive) wind up Gone With the Wind. She takes charge in a time and place when genteel women did not do that, and through guile and determination pulls her life and the lives of her family back together. And as the anti-Scarlett, I would include Mammy, who carried on through war and starvation, caring for former slaves and slave-owners alike, facing the same dangers as Scarlett but with even less means or social approval. In The Color sofiaPurple, yes, Celie has to survive an ugly life, but to me Sofia is far more of a tough cookie, taking her lumps and even prison because she won’t take the abuse anymore. Sofia is limited by society, but she’s every bit as tough as Katniss.

And moving further away, I would also nominate Maria, from West Side Story. She’s sixteen and stands between two warring gangs for love. The Sharks don’t frighten her. The Jets don’t frighten her. The police don’t frighten her. She gets in the face of each and every west-side-story-1961-dvdrip-moviecenter-avi_snapshot_02-16-56_2016-07-21_15-39-34one, standing up for what she believes in. No one is telling Maria what to think or do.

I could add more – Elizabeth Swan, Marion Ravenwood, Molly Weasley, Natasha Romanov – but if you’re looking for role models for girls and teens, real women who aren’t villainous or overly sexualized or vacuuous but incredibly strong and resourceful, there are plenty to choose from.

Unsung Heroes: The Soundtracks of Your World

Think of your favorite movie or television program. Now think about watching it with the sound turned off. It’s just not the same, is it?

amiv9s537f2i3cn7y4noEvery film, starting with the advent of the movie theater, has some sort of background music that adds to the drama of the moment. You know many of these tunes without even thinking, like Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor. Say what? You might know it better as the iconic Funeral March, parodied in umpteen cartoons and shows. Even if you’ve never seen the films, you can probably recognize the theme from Rocky, or Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Purple Rain. Remember the hits Ghost Busters, Saturday Night Fever, or 9 to 5? Those all began as movie songs. Think of na-na’ing with Batman or to Jaws, Hawaii Five-O, or Bad Boys, the theme from the white-T-shirt-promoting TV show Cops. Soundtrack songs stick in your head, sometimes without you wanting them there.

Sometimes a soundtrack can introduce you to music you wouldn’t normally listen to11avneu. My chances of cranking Mozart in my car are close to zero, but I’ll watch the film Amadeus over and over, reveling in “Salieri’s” moving descriptions of Mozart’s music, and I’ll feel every note of its beauty. I’m not too much into old-timey twangy folk, but the soundtrack to the 30’s-era epic Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? adds an earthy realism to the film. Stand By Me is chock full of pop hits from the early ’60’s. Ditto for Forrest Gump, whose soundtrack is pretty much a history of modern American music. Sometimes the music seems to have nothing to do with the movie but we love it anyway, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s top hits from The Graduate. The folky acapella track of Katniss singing “Hanging Tree” in Mockingjay hit number one on the charts in England. Philadelphia has a nice variety of music, from Oscar-winning pop hits to opera. The old British comedy series Young Ones used to spotlight different songs, and got me hooked on the group Madness.

10-jack-sparrow-pirates-of-the-carribean.w529.h529There are times, however, that the orchestral music in the background of a film or TV series is so beautiful it can distract you from the film itself. The soundtrack to Thor did that to me; the movie was engaging, but the music drew your ear away. Pirates of the Caribbean is another – what is Jack Sparrow without his sneaky tiptoe music? Like Star Wars, the music themes give away what’s coming next. The soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings is majestic, speckled with sung tracks by Bjork, Annie Lennox, and the vastly underrated voice of Billy Boyd – Pippin himself. If you want to find a good one fast, John Williams is probably the undisputed King of Soundtrack music, but also look for Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, and the late James Horner. Every one of them makes soundtrack music look effortless. You may not like “classical” music, but these orchestral arrangements – “modern classical” – can put a different voice to the genre.

Soundtrack music can make or break a film or TV show. I’ve never seen 1981’s ChariotsScooby-gang-1969 of Fire, but that darned theme is still stuck in my head. Whether or not you liked the shows, the title themes from The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Addams Family, and The Mickey Mouse Club remain cultural icons, still widely recognized decades later. It was a song in the middle of the movie version of M*A*S*H* that later became the opening theme for the television series. Forty years later we still know the theme song to Scooby Doo, a show that originally ended in 1976, or The Flintstones (ended in 1966), but no one remembers the theme from Holmes and Yoyo, Dharma and Greg, Eureka, or even Monk. Half of Malcolm in the Middle’s charm was the catchy theme by There Might Be Giants.

Having a “soundtrack” album isn’t just for Hollywood musicals – those are a class by themselves – but for every film or TV series, and most of them, good or bad, have released one, though some may be hard to find (took me years to find the soundtrack to Ladyhawke, a poorly filmed but underrated movie). Check out the film, then check out the soundtrack. You may be delightfully surprised.

What movie or TV music rocks your world?

In Memorium, Ann C. Crispin 1950-2013

Just barely a month ago, I was sitting on a panel next to writer Ann Crispin hashing out issues with the film, Star Trek: Into Darkness. I’d known she’d been battling cancer for some time, but I was surprised how well she seemed.  I guess she was very good at hiding it, for she passed away on September 6, 2013, just 3 days after posting to her fans that she was not doing well after all. She was 63 years old.

Ann was a gifted science fiction and fantasy writer.  She wrote Star Wars novels, V novels, the StarBridge series, and created novels and backstory for Pirates of the Caribbean, but her Star Trek novels, Yesterday’s Son, and later, Sarek, are often regarded as among the best Star Trek novels ever written; they are certainly in my top ten, and I’ve read hundreds. Ann knew and truly loved her material, and it showed in her clever and conscientious works.  Earlier this year, she was named the 2013 Grandmaster by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.

A native of Connecticut, Ann served as Regional Director and later Vice-President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She cofounded Writer Beware, a subgroup of the SFWA, to help writers avoid the myriad con artists and scams aimed at them, and prosecute the people running them. At her workshops she would drill into her students, “Money flows to the writer, never away. If someone is asking you for money up front to publish your work, run. It is a scam.”

Ann was a frequent guest at science-fiction conventions, often running workshops for writers, one of which I attended perhaps 15 years ago. Ann was a tough teacher and a tough editor, which was not unreasonable. Like Hollywood, the writing industry is a tough business, and it’s best to get the stars out of your eyes at the start. While I felt gifted for not getting her “You need to go back and take a class in basic grammar and sentence structure” speech, my hands shook for the next year with every word I put to paper. She helped greatly, but at the time it felt like getting pushed off a cliff.

Ann’s books will survive, but they are a shadow to such a brilliant and talented writer.   

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