“Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes.”

We’ve been watching The Good Place with our five-year-old.

Don’t make that face. I see it.

Dena and I are huge fans of The Good Place, just like we were fans of Parks & Recreation, but we were moved to start introducing it to our daughter as a way to prompt discussion with her about being kind, and what it means to think about doing kind things for other people and for herself.

Yes, the show has a lot of fart jokes, but it also has teachable moments about making good choices and being honest.

Some of the stuff flies right over her head, and we’re fine with that. Even when things like this happen:

(Sprout’s grandfather’s iPhone makes the Chimes alarm sound)

Dena: (under her breath, to me) Derek?

Sprout: (enthusiastic, to her grandma) There’s this show called The Good Place and there’s a character named Derek. Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes!

Look… I regret nothing.

Yes, watching this show with her means that we have embarassing moments like that, and it also means we have to watch her imitate Bad Janet farts so, so many times.

But it means that we get to talk with her about big, important ideas about being a good person.

It means she gets to watch a show that had a strong commitment to purposefully diverse casting, showing her a more accurate depiction of the different people that make up our world and our communities.

And it will give us a chance to talk about doubt, and fear, and despair, and cruelty. Because there’s plenty of reason to discuss those things, and to start giving her the tools to call them out and rise above them.

We would never stick her in front of a TV and hit autoplay on this show. It’s a lot, even for grown-ups. If we watch an episode, we usually spend time afterward talking through what we saw.

But the act of watching with her is important. So she sees us actively engaging with the story and the ideas in the story. So she can ask us questions. And so she can get into the habit of treating the media she consumes more thoughtfully.

When I was a kid, I watched movies as a way to talk with my dad about atomic bombs and the Cold War. These were heavy topics, but the giant monsters and cheesy effects made it palatable.

But the message of the act of watching stuck with me: Never take a story for granted, and always ask why this story is being told.

That’s a question I want my kids to be confident in asking.


Subtitles for Early Readers

We leave subtitles on the TV as a default in our home. It started as Dena’s personal preference, but became a necessity in order to keep the volume down due to apartment living and shared walls. Then we had a baby, and we didn’t want to disturb Sprout while she slept.

Keeping the subtitles on became habit, and a useful one. Little jokes didn’t fly by unnoticed. Shows and movies became more quotable.

And then Sprout started reading.

The moment this all came together was while watching the Sesame Street anniversary special. Dena and I watched as Sprout used the subtitles to sing along with a song she’d never heard before, and my heart became a puddle of feelings.

Then came the Sunday morning Sprout tromped downstairs to find me watching Solaris. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled up next to me, and started reading the screen.

“That’s not what they’re saying?”

“No. They’re speaking in Russian. Those words on the screen tell us what the words mean in English.”


(five minutes pass)

“Can I watch PBS Kids?”

The next weekend, she comes down while I’m watching Floating Weeds. She grabbed a blanket, snuggled in, and this time started asking questions about the story.

We watched about a half hour before she got bored and wanted to see if there were new episodes of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum. But for that half hour, we were sharing a lazy morning with an Ozu film.

I know it’s still a long time before she’ll be fully onboard and I’ll get to watch some of my favorite foreign films with her. I’m not expecting to have a five-year-old who wants to start her day watching Wong Kar-Wai or Ingmar Bergman films.

What I want is to plant the idea in her head that the subtitles are just there. They don’t make the movie something other or more difficult. If anything, I hope she’ll see the value they offer, giving her a gateway to stories from all around the world that she wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

We set expectations for kids with what we enjoy and share with them. My parents watched a lot of black and white movies, so I thought it was normal to watch older films. And that habit never really went away for me.

Or when we listen to music, and we pepper in some of our favorites, or some other genres, in with the kid music. It doesn’t always pay dividends, but when I start a jazz playlist during breakfast and Sprout puts down her spoon to snap along, well… It’s a good feeling.

But I need to remind myself with all of this that it’s not about making sure she likes the same things I like.

Whenever I’m sharing music, or movies, or food, it needs to be about the idea of making sure she gets to try new and different things. She’s very five, so she’s not shy about what she does and doesn’t like.

My hope is that she’ll get a strong sense of her personal taste. She’ll be able to explain and understand what she likes and doesn’t like. She’ll seek out and explore. She won’t passively shrug and accept whatever’s presented to her as vaguely okay, but instead, she’ll look for something to love.

Or, at the very least, that she won’t roll her eyes and think it’s weird when I suggest we watch a movie with subtitles.


When writing feels like cutting teeth

My son is teething hard. I had a dream that he suddenly went from no teeth to eight teeth overnight, and some days it seems like he’s determined to make that a reality.

“nom nom nom”

It’s a hard process. Each tooth needs to erupt from the gums, which takes a lot of time, force, and pain.

And when it’s all done, and they get those baby teeth in, that’s not the end of the story. There’s a second draft of that mouthful of teeth, waiting on deck.

If you’ve never seen an image of a child’s skull with both sets of teeth inside, it’s… something else.

I’m a little sorry if this makes you horrified of small children.

I’ve been focused on new projects lately. First drafts and new collaborations. Ideas pushing hard, trying to break through and emerge.

And there are times when it feels painful. Like things aren’t moving fast enough, and you just wish you could force things along faster, (like how I imagine Button feels when he’s gnawing on a teether).

Yes, it looks like a coffee cup. I am relentlessly #onbrand, even when picking out baby stuff.

Or when you know that you need to choose to put your butt in the seat and get some ideas out onto the page, but you have to choose that over other things that might also be be fun or important.

But I have to remind myself that the work can continue, and the pages will come, and then… well that’s when it’s time for the next draft.

Which brings me back to that baby skull full of teeth.

Because getting the idea out into the world isn’t the final act. Those pages and ideas fall out and get cast off to make way for bigger, stronger ideas.

But trust that even before that first idea has broken through, the full shape of what’s to come is there, in your head. And it just takes time, and force, and pain.


Really Wash Your Hands

It’s not just about fear. If you want to make this about COVID-19 or flu season, you can. But those aren’t the only reasons hand washing is worth talking about.

Go ahead and sing the ABC song to make sure you’re taking enough time to effectively remove germs and bacteria from your hands, but don’t switch to auto pilot while you do it.

Use this time as a moment for meditation.

Think about what your hands do for you. What they touch. How they feel. What the water feels like against your skin, and how your hands feel touching each other.

Take time to think about each part of your hands. The fingernails. The tips of your fingers. The knuckles. The palms. The back of your hand.

How well do you really know the back of your hand?

Are you taking care of yourself? What can your hands tell you about that?

Is the skin on your hands dry or cracked? Are the nails in need of clipping? Are there callouses or sore joints? Minor cuts that you ignored that could use a bandage?

And if you’re ignoring these problems with your hands, take that moment to ask yourself if there are other problems you’re ignoring; other ways you could better care for your body.

This is time to slow down and feel grounded.

This is time to feel gratitude for the soap and clean water that help keep you and those you come in contact with healthy.

This is a time to remember your body needs your attention in ways great and small.

Treat washing your hands like a gift to yourself; a gift of time and presence.

Your hands empty. Your mind focused. You have the chance to reset from a rough day, or to reinforce the calm and focus of a good day.

Commit to slowing down and taking time to wash your hands.


Advertising to the Affirmative Audience

Early on in the semester with my advertising classes, we talk about the relationship between the intended audience and the brand doing the advertising. The idea is that you’re not always trying to change people’s minds, but sometimes you’re trying to excite people who are already fans of the brand.

It’s called advertising to an Affirmative Audience.

It seems on the surface to be a little silly: Why spend money to get the attention of people who already like you and what you sell?

Advertising to the Affirmative Audience helps keep them aware of new products (like, for example, a new iPhone or Playstation). It also encourages them to feel good about their continued use of a product or service (say, if you’re a subscription service like Netflix or Spotify).

It’s a way to get people to reaffirm their enthusiasm, so that they don’t lose interest, and so that they maintain that positive relationship with the brand.

Which is why I want to take a quick moment to talk about foreign election interference.

A possible relationship between disinformation campaigns and advertising strategy

While scanning the comments to a New York Times article on an intelligence briefing about Russia’s desire to interfere with the 2020 election, I saw the following:

Okay, I’ll bite.

Let’s say the point of election interference isn’t about changing people’s minds from one party to another. Let’s take the perspective that the goal is to preach to the choir.

When advertising to an Affirmative Audience that already agrees with you, you strengthen their connection to your message.

The more a message connects with an audience, the more it becomes a part of their personal identity.

You can refute a loosely held belief with some effort, but if a person sees multiple messages reinforcing a misconception it can help to entrench that idea in their mind.

It’s part of how our minds work. The more connections we have in our brains to a central idea, the more likely we are to believe that central idea.

It’s unlikely a dank meme would turn a Democratic voter into a Republican voter, or vice versa.

But if a certain message, targeted at a person who is already predisposed toward the opinions of one party, gets repeated over and over, that becomes easier for them to believe.

If you see a piece of disinformation presented enough times, from what seems like a variety of different sources, it seems more believable. And if it already confirms something you already loosely believed, you’re even more likely to take it as the truth.

The more convinced a person becomes of the truth in a false statement, the less likely contradictory information will have any impact on their opinion—especially if the contradicting, true, information doesn’t agree with their previously held beliefs.

“But this still doesn’t explain how disinformation could affect an election.”

Take somebody who isn’t a regular voter and give them a steady stream of disinformation that supports one candidate while affirming their previously held beliefs, and now you have someone who will show up on election day to cast their ballot.

Take somebody who had an interest in a candidate and regularly present them with disinformation supporting their interest and they’ll be less likely to believe contradictory information that shows that candidate in a negative light.

A disinformation campaign doesn’t need to change minds to be effective. It might be more effective if it works to prevent people from changing their minds.