The Robot Unicorn

We recently came across this almost-forgotten testament to my wife’s awesomely resourceful & creative parenting.

When our kids were approaching their fourth birthday, over seven years ago, one of them (I forget which) announced that what she most wanted for her birthday was a “robot unicorn.”

We puzzled over this for a while and I planned to move on to other, more possible gifts.

But Sarah got hold of this small plush unicorn, and sewed on green and red “Go” and “Stop” buttons. (She may have asked what would make a unicorn a “robot unicorn,” and gotten “buttons” as an answer.)

The gift was a hit and became a beloved object.

Sometimes kids can be easier to please than you expect…


Traumatizing the Kids w/ Late Hitchcock



I may have traumatized the kids with my Family Movie Night selection, Hitchcock’s 1964 Tippi Hedren/ Sean Connery film, Marnie.  This was made a year after The Birds (also with Hedren, of course) and contains some elements recognizable from that, as well as from Psycho (twisted secret related to mommy) and Vertigo (ice-cool blond in uncanny duplicate).

It seems that some make claims for Marnie as a late, under-recognized German-Expressionist-styled minor Hitch masterpiece but I would not go that far; for the first 45 minutes or so I loved it but by the end I found it too long and very creepy– partly but not only in the right ways. Hedren plays Marnie, a cool blond kleptomaniac (Grace Kelly turned down the role) who ends up more or less blackmailed into marriage by Connery’s character. There’s something wrong with Marnie; she can’t stop compulsively stealing, and she can’t bear to be touched by a man (not that Hitchcock allows her to stay celibate).

Finally we get a return to/ reenactment of her primal scene, involving her creepy mother (shades of Psycho here), and an exorcism of her demons that reveals the source of her phobic reaction to certain stimuli, including the color red (gee what could that be about?) and the sound of knocking on the door.

Slight spoilers from here on: in the big reveal, as I sat there with my 10-year-olds, it was seeming conceivable that it would turn out that the movie’s repressed secret was that the 6-year old Marnie had been forced to prostitute herself to her mother’s clients.  Now that would have been maybe a 2000s David Lynch movie, not a 1960s Hitchcock movie… But you could tell that Hitchcock would’ve loved to do it that way if he felt he could have gotten away with it.

Re: Marnie’s line in the poster, “I’m just some kind of wild animal you’ve trapped,” Connery’s character alludes early on to a jaguarundi he captured and raised as a pet, but disappointingly, this is last we hear about it; I was hoping for a noir Bringing Up Baby angle there.

Trigger warnings for jaguarundi, horseback accidents, fireplace pokers, wet phallic tree branches crashing through windows, marital rape, and childhood quasi-molestation scenes.

Maybe in France: *A Town Called Panic*

Things that happen in the animated stop-action film A Town Called Panic, featuring lurching plastic toys prone to voluble shouting in French, available streaming on Netflix:

  • For Horse’s birthday party, a little temporary bar is set up in the basement and everyone drinks too much.  Afterwards the policeman’s wife comments, “I should’ve charged more for beers.”  I have never seen so much drunkenness in a kids’ animated movie!  This must have been part of what prompted one dissatisfied Netflix commentator to opine, “This is presented as a children’s movie but it is not. Maybe in France children are exposed to such language and debauchery but not in my house.” Another review: “This should have been called, ‘A Town Called Hypertension.’ It was like being yelled at non-stop by an angry, coke-snorting Frenchman.”  Not coke, though: just lots and lots of coffee.  At one point Policeman devours a piece of toast several times his size spread with Nutella and then actually smashes through the coffee mug in his passionate enthusiasm.
  • Cowboy and Indian go online to order 50 bricks to build a barbecue for Horse’s birthday, but the key sticks and they accidentally order 50 million bricks.  To hide them, they stack them in a huge cube on Horse’s house, which collapses that night.
  • Horse sets Cowboy (which he pronounces “Cowboy” in his old-French-man accent) and Indian to rebuilding the house, but when they wake up, their walls are missing.  It turns out they are stolen every night by sea monkey creatures (with plastic flippers) that emerge from the pond.  The thieves carry down the wall into an undersea world where they construct their own home.  It takes a while to figure this out, however.
  • Oh, I should stop, there is too much.  Eventually Horse, Cowboy and Indian, along with one of the sea-monkey thieves, Gerard, fall to the core of the earth where their cellphone falls into the lava… And then end up on the North Pole, where they discover some brilliant and possibly evil (?) scientists who live inside a giant robot penguin they’ve created, passing their time manipulating the penguin robot to form huge snowballs which they throw hundred of miles at targets chosen for fun.  Eventually our heroes escape by planting themselves into one of these snowballs, which they have aimed back at the bucolic French village where they live (and where Horse is late for his music lessons taught by the sexy lady horse).  But, Gerard the sea monkey has re-directed the penguin, so when they are all tossed through the air, they land in the middle of the sea…

In sum, this is a truly demented movie and very fun… we all loved it.  As another Netflix commentator observed, “The characters act just as if we are watching children playing with them, wild imagination and all. You have absolutely no idea of where this is going, what is going to happen next. The events only make sense in the framework of some kids playing.”  This is true–  the storyline can only be rationalized as some kind of extrapolation from a crazy kids’ game.

The closest parallel would be the early Aardman Entertainment Wallace & Gromit shorts, yet those are models of sober, careful, traditionally crafted plot development by comparison.  (Of course there’s a certain parallel with the Toy Story franchise, too.)

The Frenchness of it all is wonderful, too.  The drinking, coffee, the “ohh la las!” and “ah no!”s,  Nutella, the charming village in which people get drunk, argue, take music lessons, and bicker about their walls, gardens, and ponds.

Secret winter fairy house

Activity for an MLK day holiday afternoon (no service component here…).

Materials mostly gathered on walk to park:

  • sticks
  • milkweed (or something) fluff
  • seeds
  • berries
  • acorns
  • one round box

Tools: saw, hot glue gun.

And here is the finished product, so far, the house of two fairy children and their pet mouse Rollo (made from an acorn, with felt ears and tail, unfortunately not pictured).

I especially like the seed-pod chandelier, the little canoe-like fluff beds, the leaf rugs, the table, the bowls of seeds…

N.b. I had almost nothing to do with this…

D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths

The girls have been very into the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, which Sarah got out of the library in hardback duplicate.  A little greedy, maybe, but the girls were so excited about it initially that they each wanted a copy to read in bed.  We’ve read through the whole thing and now at bedtime they’re taking turns each selecting a favorite story or two to read again.  Great, gruesome stuff.  Last night I read about Cronus devouring each of his first five children (Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia) out of fear they would overthrow him.  You can see the little babies glowing in his stomach — the drawings are wonderful, rather light and playful, sometimes with a touch of William Blake Songs of Innocence about them.  Cronus’s wife Rhea then tricks him and gives him a rock swaddled in baby blankets, and so the infant Zeus survives.  I think the girls relate to the Greek gods in their playfulness, tricks and plots, and perhaps also the occasional rage and fury.  They especially love the story of the baby Hermes tricking his big brother Apollo by stealing Apollo’s cows.  We all found the image of Apollo chasing him, while Hermes calls out “I’m just an innocent little babe!” or some such, hilarious.  They also especially liked the illustration of Pandora releasing the demons & imps from her box.  Very relatable for a 6-year-old.

I remember reading this book as a kid as well.  The D’Aulaires do a great job of making the stories accessible and appropriate for childen without bowdlerizing to excess.

I wonder how many Classicists were turned on to Greek mythology from it?

Dear Tooth Fairy: I Cannot Find My Tooht, But Pleas Give me a Preset

Iris’s note for the tooth fairy.

We lost teeth on successive days– it’s killing us!  We ran out of cash, didn’t have any ones the second day.  And the worst part is that we somehow got ourselves into this pattern where when Twin #1 loses a tooth, she gets a present (or “preset”) for both twins.  I don’t know why.  I think this was a work-around when they were 4 years old and there was no way Iris was going to be able to handle Celie getting a present when she didn’t.  Now, maybe she could handle it (an open question), but we seem locked into the double-jackpot system.

As this note suggests, the teeth often seem to get misplaced before bedtime, but again, it’s tails I win, heads you lose: double-gift all the same.  Which to me somewhat undermines the model of gift exchange.

Iris noticed a small pad of yellow lined paper on the stairs and observed, “look, that’s the pad the Tooth Fairy uses for her notes!”  This whole pack of lies is due to come crashing down soon…

Recent movies: American Psycho, Heat, Wizard of Oz

In the last couple weeks we saw two movies I’d been meaning to watch for a while.

Michael Mann’s Heat was fantastic.  The glittering surfaces of Mann’s fantasy L.A. define a really original noir setting in which Pacino and DeNiro maneuver with melancholy anger until one inevitably destroys the other.  Pacino comments in a DVD extra that in his mind, his character was high on coke half the time, which helps to explain some of his scenery-eating instant-classic rants.  As I watched, I started to realize that 40% of The Dark Knight is taken directly from Heat.  This becomes clearest in the bank heist — the robbery that begins The Dark Knight is practically cut and pasted from one in Heat, including the ominous soundtrack.  There’s also a direct link in the actor William Fichter: he has a modest but important role in Heat and then he shows up as a the mafia bank employee in the opening heist scene of The Dark Knight.  Was this a subtle tribute/acknowledgment on Christopher Nolan’s part?

American Psycho.  Also impressed by this one.  The violence remains disturbing (I actually think it gave me a nightmare), but I found it compelling and original as an exploration of hallucinatory dementia.  It’s also hilarious at moments (Patrick Bateman’s narrated record reviews of Robert Palmer, Huey Lewis and the News, and Phil Collins, whose bland AOR music he seems to require to motivate him to either sex or violence, are very funny) and really interesting as a “historical” film: made in 2000, set in 1987, the representation of Bonfire of the Vanities-era yuppie NYC is stylized and almost cartoonish at times (the giant cell phones) but in ways that I found surprising/unexpected.  It becomes much more than the obvious allegory (heartless Wall Street yuppie as psychopath) you might expect.

The film’s back story is interesting.  Leonardo DeCaprio was set to star until Gloria Steinem prevailed on him to withdraw for the sake of his teenage female fans.  Mary Harron was fired and rehired.  Oliver Stone and David Cronenberg were both attached to it at various times, as was Johnny Depp.  I haven’t read Brett Easton Ellis’s novel, but it seems that Harron did him a real favor by turning it into a narrative that’s at least plausibly feminist.  Easton Ellis, for his part, is still undecided about whether women can be great film directors, because “there’s something about the medium of film itself that I think requires the male gaze.”  Wow: does Laura Mulvey have this to answer for?

We watched The Wizard of Oz with the girls.  I was amused by the 1939 special effects.  Basically, a 12-year-old with a Mac could create more sophisticated effects now (the flowers in Munchkinland are obviously plastic), but here we are, still enjoying it 70 years later, and the Wicked Witch of the West’s sky-writing is still scary.  We had this exchange afterwards:

Iris:  I didn’t think the flying monkeys were so scary.  I would if I saw them in real life, though.  I’d pee my pants off.

Celie, not missing a beat:  If I saw a real flying monkey, I’d pee every piece of pee my body would ever pee.

Snow (day) candles

Our school district closes school at the drop of a hat… or a snowflake.  Last week we had a “rain day.”  To be fair, the predictions were for serious snow, but it was just rain that sometimes got a bit flake-y, with zero accumulation.  Now we actually do have a few inches, so natch, no school for two days.

I was teaching yesterday so Sarah was on duty.  It was apparently a very crafty day.  Among other things, the gals made these Snow Candles.  You melt craft-store paraffin on the double boiler, then pour the wax in an indentation in the snow.  Add some colored crayons, and a wick attached to a chopstick (I think).  Anyway, they’re pretty cool!


Today’s project was making valentines for school (classmates and teachers).  I gave them a big pep talk about how much better homemade ones are — they seemed to buy it.

Target was predictably disappointing.  There’s a whole section of the store now dedicated to Valentine’s Day stuff, but no colored construction paper to be found anywhere.  It’s as if they’re actively hostile to the idea of someone making their own.  We bought some overpriced glitter and went to Dollar Tree, which had good paper for $1 a package, also various stickers and other decorations.  (There are girl stickers — hearts, unicorns — and boy stickers, cars and trucks; I made only the most half-hearted, because so obviously doomed, effort to question this opposition.)

They spent much of the afternoon creating these.

Pretty great, I think.  We also spent some of this weekend painting their bedroom pink, so all in all the household has become significantly more girly.  Out tonight someone observed that I had a single shiny glitter on my left cheek.

Oh, by the way, as we were walking into Target Iris told me that from a nature documentary they watched with mommy they learned about how you shouldn’t leave lights on when you don’t need them: “because if you leave a light on for too long, it makes it easier for the polar bears to catch the penguins.”