It’s one of those splendid German borrow-words we can’t use in real life, due to pronunciation insecurities (and the fear of sounding like Frasier Crane).  Schaden=harm + Freude= joy. Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others explains a lot of the stories we love to hear, read, tell and retell.

I came home super late from my moms’ group dinner on the weekend, and realized the next day that I’d been utterly enchanted by all the parenting horror stories. For seven years I’ve been telling myself my friendship with these eight women is about mutual support. But let’s face it: my delight over dinner at hearing about nightly bed-wetting, fussy eating and foreign objects lodged in nasal cavities was pure, unadulterated schadenfreude.

It could be worse, schadenfreude assures us. Which of us hasn’t felt comforted when someone tops our agonized confession? Who amongst us doesn’t secretly thrill to news coverage of a (foreign) natural disaster, a good divorce saga or job-loss yarn? It’s not malicious, it’s just human nature.

What else can you call it when Toronto Raptors fans out-and-out celebrated the defeat of Chris Bosh’s new team? “What goes around comes around,” I heard one guy crowing on the radio. “Toronto can take solace in the fact that he’s not the big man down there he was up here.” The video below focuses on Dallas’s victory, but its Youtube title points up the reason it’s gone viral: schadenfreude!

the original

My dad read me The Hobbit when I was ten years old.  I barely remembered the story, from back then–just the pleasantness of the together-time, and the fact that my little brother got scared at one point and left the room.

But when I read Eragon to my own ten-year-old, I kept having deja vu.  By the time we got to the scene with the precarious ledge around the lake leading to the dwarves’ caves, where the menacing battle-trolls are bearing down on the heroes, I remembered where I’d heard it before.

So I pulled out The Hobbit.  Some of it we read aloud, and some we listened to in the car (a strategem I should add to the list for reluctant readers) after I downloaded the audiobook.  And yup: this book clearly struck the precedent for all kinds of fantasy that has followed it.  Some of Dr. Tolkien’s bar-setting renditions of mythological motifs include the unlikely hero, the band of helpers, the magical object, tunnelling into the dark, riddling with the enemy, thieving from the hoard, and rescue from the skies.

But in my opinion Tolkien’s highest accomplishment is his narrative voice: that benevolent, fatherly, omniscient voice that guides us with wisdom and humor through Bilbo’s adventure.  And when it comes to voice, a truer inheritor of Tolkien than the author of the Eragon books is Neil Gaiman. 

Reading The Graveyard Book aloud, as with The Hobbit, I felt powerful and wise, like I was wearing the mantle of a fireside grandfather.  

If you (or your kids) are dragon fans, or series fans, you’ll read Paolini sooner or later.  But don’t let The Hobbit give you the slip.  And regardless of your tastes in fiction, don’t pass up The Graveyard Book–it’s very, very special.

Ask Dr. Freud: the trouble with the tooth fairy

Dear Dr. Freud,

I’ve heard you disapprove of childhood myths like Santa and the Easter Bunny.  Why are you such a wet blanket?

Sincerely,  An Earnest Parent

Dear EP,

Over the course of my long and illustrious career listening to people complain about their parents, one thing I’ve noticed is that children resent being lied to.  You think you’re telling them pretty stories that prolong the innocence and enchantment of childhood, but as an adult, EP, you understand the symbolism of those stories and your children don’t, so what you’re effectively doing is keeping them locked out of a whole set of important, shared knowledge.

When you say to Johnny that his little sister was brought by the stork, his natural curiosity about the deep mysteries of pregnancy and birth is thwarted.  Later, he’ll remember the thwarting, not the cuteness of the fable.

In fact, this is why a lot of people stop going to church.  We don’t understand what’s behind the symbols and myths of religious doctrine, and we begin to resent what feels like obfuscation.  If religious systems can’t share a sense of the overwhelming, awe-inspiring mystery of the creative eternal, they won’t keep us interested past childhood.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a big fan of myths in general, especially Greek ones.  But when myths stop pointing at deeper truths–when they stymie questions rather than lead to more–then we need to set them aside and find better ones.

Wishing you all the best, EP (although you do realize your kids will hate you no matter what, right?),

Dr. Freud

Reluctant-reader subterfuge, Part II

Okay, your kid is reading now, thanks to your faithful adherence to the seven Minor But Magical Adjustments laid out in Part I.  Or maybe you’re not quite there yet, but you happen to know that reading and writing are flipsides of the same skill set.

So here’s another seven MBMAs, focused this time on getting the kid’s pencil to paper.  Same caveat applies: patience and good humor, people!

1. Pass notes.  No, really: get a paper and a pencil, and write a naughty little note (preferably one that demands a naughty response), fold it up really small, and pass it under the table to your kid.  Do this with lots of winks and nudges, and do it often.

2. Create scavenger hunts.  Note #1 says, “Look in the bathtub,” wherein Note #2 says, “Look in the washing machine,” and so on.  Leave a treat in the final location. (If you have bad knees and a row house, use this tactic under advisement; your kid will send you on twenty hunts for every one you create for him!).

3. Make wish-lists from Toys R Us flyers or from the website. Birthday lists, Hanukkah, ideas for gifts for so-and-so’s upcoming birthday party–any excuse is good.  Laborious copying-out is excellent practice, and if the next day you bring home the ZhuZhu he wanted most, the reinforcement will sear it into his brain forever: writing=good!

4. Get a label-maker and let him label everything he owns.

5. Get a second-hand electric typewriter.  They still sell replacement ribbons!  This ancient technology has an instant-gratification factor for a kid that the laptop just can’t offer.  Let him write out the words to a song he’s not allowed to sing, and watch the magic happen.

6. Find comics templates like this one online, print them out, and let the kid fill in the text.

7. Rediscover the lost art of pen pals.  Have a friend or grandparent write the kid a letter (no cursive, please!) that contains candy and concludes with, “If you write me back, I will send you another letter and treat!” (Note that you’ll have to rig this.  A one-sentence letter from the kid has to suffice, and you may have to give the pen pal the script and/or the candy).