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Nashville Scene Winging It

The perils of Paulie

By Margaret Renkl

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  In this house we have a family tradition which I stole from the high-school students I used to teach. It's called pizza-movie night, and it's the single most effective method by which a desperate student-government organization can lure its politically-apathetic and/or homework-swamped constituents into attending meetings: Promise them junk food and a film in which Mel Gibson grabs some woman and puts his tongue in her mouth--and, ideally, one in which Mel reveals at least a fleeting glimpse of some normally covered part of his heart-stopping body.

There were plenty of evenings during my 10-year stint in the girls' school when I ate too much pizza and lusted after Mel right along with my students, but I didn't hang out in the darkened student lounge those evenings because I was hungry or kiss-starved, nor even because my teaching contract called for me to "enter fully into the life of the school."

No, what I loved about pizza-movie night was hearing the unselfconscious laughter of adolescent girls when they can allow themselves--when it's dark and there are no adolescent boys around and the few teachers present are keeping their mouths shut in the back of the room instead of delivering a complicated lecture on which their bewildered students ("All these details! Do we need to know them all?!") will later be tested--to relax for two hours into something approximating childhood. What I loved about pizza-movie night was watching these almost-women slip back into temporary girlhood, braiding each other's hair, lazily and gently scratching each other's back, nestling together in the dark like sleepy puppies.

That is what suburban white girls do when they are lying in a tangle, earnestly watching a story--a magnificent story so much larger than their own circumscribed, still-untested lives, so much more compelling than the Treaty of Versailles or the stages of mitosis or the proper declensional endings of Latin nouns--unfold before them on a movie screen: They braid each other's hair.

Something about the sweetness of it, and the innocence--the taming of all those intricate Mel-tormented hormones into simple kindness and affection and pure dumb animal comfort--always appealed to me. So when our first child became old enough to watch the kind of movies that my husband and I could actually bear to watch with him, when he finally graduated from singalong videos and Walt Disney cartoons to films with human actors who weren't dressed up like yellow birds or magenta dinosaurs, we inaugurated our own pizza-movie night tradition.

Every two or three weeks, usually on Friday night (a night when these particular grown-ups are almost always too tired for the kind of grown-up outings that were possible before there were little kids in the house), we make a pallet on the living-room floor. We order a cheese pizza, lay down all the free blankets and pillows we have, turn off all the lights, and plug in a video of Old Yeller or The Love Bug or Swiss Family Robinson. Then we cuddle. We hold each other's hands during the scary parts, and comb each other's hair with our fingers, and kiss and tickle the younger kids (who at 3 years and 18 months don't follow the story too well) as they clamber all over us. I don't have any daughters, but for the hour and a half it takes for pizza-movie night to unfold, my rough-and-tumble little boys are as sweet and tender as those nearly grown-up girls I taught for all those years.

I had this idea, when I was teaching English, that my typical student's inexperience with books, with reading as a source of profound imaginative pleasure, could be blamed on the fact that they had spent their formative years under the insidious influence of the VCR. Cable television and videotapes had not existed in my own youth, and as a teacher I theorized that I'd come to love books primarily because I'd had no other viable options for diversion. My only ticket out of the dull monotony of the classroom, out of the limited world of the suburban neighborhood, was a storybook.

Consequently, I came to parenthood with a marked prejudice against all forms of electronic entertainment. Books, I believed, were active distractions--a way a child could entertain herself--rather than passive ones--a medium that demanded submission to entertainment. But what pizza-movie night has taught me is that for children, at least, there's nothing at all passive about being entertained. Little kids leap to their feet and cheer when the Death Star explodes into a million bits of harmless light. They weep like the babies they are when a poacher shoots the mother gorilla. They fall on their backs and roar at the funny parts, rolling around the living-room pallet like human flubber.

Best of all, they adopt as personal friends the characters they love. My big boy spent much of his fifth year in steady vigilance against the Dark Side and in the constant companion of Luke Skywalker. He took his light saber everywhere he went. On the swingset this defender against the darkness wouldn't let anyone take the swing next to his; that was Luke's place, and he didn't want anyone sitting on Luke. Every so often he'd leap into the air and challenge Luke to a race around the house. Each heat was a dead tie. "Luke could beat me if he wanted to, Mom," he explained once, "but since he loves me, he gives me a chance."

I don't remember when Luke Skywalker finally went back to his galaxy far, far away, but we have a new family member these days. His name is Paulie, and he's a small green parrot much like the bird in the movie of the same name. He is the continual companion of our middle son--the boy his brother desperately wanted to name Luke Skywalker--and he travels in a small wire cage. Everywhere the boy goes, Paulie goes too (except that he takes his afternoon nap in the coat closet with Jack, the real parakeet in the preschool class our child attends; every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon the teacher takes Jack's cage into the dark to keep him quiet during naptime, and our son takes Paulie's cage into the closet for the same reason). Paulie attended a long-distance family wedding in October and joined us for the drive to Birmingham for Thanksgiving dinner.

Unless he happens not to feel well--"Paulie's sick today; he swallowed some dust"--Paulie's a faithful friend to our 3-year-old. There was a time when he briefly flew away with some migrating starlings, and once he was temporarily killed by our tormenting older son who brought his fist down on the table right where Paulie always sits during dinner, but so far Paulie always comes back--from the sky or the dead.

Last week the 3-year-old came to me with cupped hands. "I caught an imagination bird," he said. "I need a cage to put him in."

"Why don't you let him stay in the cage with Paulie?" I suggested. "He can be Paulie's friend."

"No, Mom," my son explained patiently. "Paulie can't play with this bird. This is an imagination bird. Paulie can't see him."

His father and I spend close to an hour a day reading books to this child--we read before his nap, after his nap, and just before bedtime--but I no longer worry that watching movies will stunt his imagination or turn him into a passive recipient of entertainment.

It's the most important lesson of pizza-movie night: For a few moments on an ordinary Friday night we can leave behind the drear, seen world where rules obtain, where birds don't talk and human beings don't fly through space on jet skis, where you never know which dull details may show up on the test. It makes quarrelsome teenagers sweet again; it turns even parents--worn out and worried parents plodding ever closer to paunchy middle age--into hopeful, dazzle-eyed children. If that's not the definition of magic, I don't know what is.

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