Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Complete Tales of Stew and Pooh

In my last post I wrote about Max’s affection for board books, and promised a future post about our favorite books to read together. But one book stands out so much that I thought it made sense to dedicate an entire post to it.

As you can surmise from the post’s title, I’m talking about Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh and I have had a long relationship. I was a dreamy child who would happily while away countless hours alone in my bedroom concocting elaborate interactions among my dozens of stuffed animals. They all had names and they all liked to play games with me. But first of course they had to go to school, which consisted of rows of desks I fashioned from hardcover books laid sidewise. They each had homework that they wrote on scraps of paper that they kept under the front covers of their desks. I was the teacher and homework-grader, and while some of the stuffed animals were better students than others, they loved school and their teacher and they especially loved recess.

So naturally as a young child I gravitated to books about personified animals. I loved The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind and the Willows, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and of course Winnie-the-Pooh. I certainly related to Winnie-the-Pooh’s Christopher Robin, who in the books bemusedly oversees the foibles of his menagerie of stuffed animals and is always there to swoop in at the last moment to extract them from their usually self-made predicaments. I was the Christopher Robin for my own collection of stuffed animals and they were just as lovable and prone to pickles as Pooh, Piglet, Roo, Tigger and the other animals roaming Hundred Acre Wood. (As an aside, I will admit that I was completely confused as a child as to why Christopher Robin wore a blouse and wore Mary Janes on his feet. I couldn’t decide if it was more likely that a girl was named Christopher or that a boy actually dressed and went out in public like that!)

While, like any child, I eventually outgrew Winnie-the-Pooh, the series has periodically re-surfaced in my life in delightfully unexpected ways.

When I was in high-school I took a class about the world religions. The teacher took great pains to tout the wisdom of the Eastern religions to us over what he considered to be the oppressive nature of the Western religions -- much to the consternation of his entirely Judeo-Christian class of students, who had yet to reach the level of maturity required to appreciate the pedagogical benefits of an alternative point of view. We thought he was a witch-doctor. In that class our teacher introduced us to the Tao of Pooh, a book by Benjamin Hoff that endeavors to introduce the principles of Taoism to Westerners through the accessible vehicle of the Winnie-the-Pooh series. As explained by Wiki:

Hoff uses many of Milne's characters to symbolize ideas that differ from or accentuate Taoist tenets. Winnie-the-Pooh himself, for example, personifies the principles of wei wu wei, the Taoist concept of "effortless doing," and pu, the concept of being open to but unburdened by experience. In contrast, characters like Owl and Rabbit over-complicate problems, often over-thinking to the point of confusion, and Eeyore pessimistically complains and frets about existence, unable to just be. Hoff regards Pooh's simpleminded nature, unsophisticated worldview and instinctive problem-solving methods as conveniently representative of the Taoist philosophical foundation.

Who knew? Given that my world religions class was in a permanent state of near-rebellion, assigning the class the Tao of Pooh was a brilliant move by our teacher. What teenager could resist reading Winnie the Pooh at the dinner table and sassing back to his exasperated parents that he’s simply finishing his homework?

But my academic foray into the House at Pooh Corner did not stop there. In college I took a small freshman seminar on existential literature. We read Sartre and his lover de Bouvier; we read Camus. The class just screamed “college” and I loved it. For our final paper we were tasked with applying existential theories to some form of popular art. One classmate applied existentialism to Pink Floyd’s The Wall; another to Madonna’s “Material Girl” video. I applied it to Winnie-the-Pooh -- or, more specifically, a poem by A.A. Milne that featured the classic Winnie-the-Pooh characters. (Sadly I cannot remember the title or find it on-line). My paper was ominously called “Childhood: Enter at Your Own Risk,” and was about how while the popular conception of childhood is of care-free frivolity, in actuality, for the child, it is an anxious time of fear and uncertainty -- and thus childhood is like existential literature (cue eye-roll, I know, but work with me here!) Exhibit A for my paper was a Milne poem from a dusty tome I found in the Vanderbilt University library in which the Pooh characters were experiencing their typical angst over some pickle they had gotten themselves into. The kicker was that the poem ended with the characters bemoaning their fate and how they wish Christopher Robin would come bail them out . . . but the poem just ends and he never shows up! (Just like Waiting for Godot!). You’ll have to trust me, but the paper was brilliant and I got an A.

Fast forward to commencement weekend 3 years later. My roommate and I are in our room packing up our gear to head home. Lo and behold on my bookshelf I find the very book of poetry that I had checked out freshman year and that naturally had never made its way back to the library. Upon seeing it, I bragged to my roommate about the wildly successful Pooh paper I wrote freshman year, and cracked open the book to show it to him. My roommate began reading the poem, with me reading over his shoulder, and when he got to the end of it he tried to turn the page -- but it was a little stuck to the next page. He slid his pinkie in-between, dislodging them, and flipped over the page. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the poem continued on the other side! I had completely missed the final stanza due to the sticky page! I read along with him in dawning horror as the poem concluded with Christopher Robin indeed coming to the rescue of his little animal friends. In other words, the poem that I had proudly made the centerpiece of my freshman paper about the hopelessness of childhood completely undermined its central thesis. Not to mention that I had defrauded my professor. My A grade instantly turned from a source of pride into a mockery. I was seriously unnerved, as I was graduating that weekend with honors in English and a not small part of my self-esteem at the time was wrapped up in this accomplishment. My roommate just laughed. He was a mechanical engineer. Coincidentally, the English Department was having a cocktail party that evening for all of the senior classes’ English majors and their families. I knew my seminar professor was going to be there and I debated whether or not to tell him. I hadn’t officially graduated yet. Could he change my grade ex post facto? Strip me of my honors? Prevent me from graduating? Absurd through and through, of course. My professor was an incredibly nice man and would have gotten a kick out of it. But still . . . I didn’t tell him.

Now fast-forward 15 years. Your surrogate is pregnant with your child and suggests that you and your husband read aloud to the fetus. A natural reaction to this suggestion might have been, “Say What?” Mine was: Let’s choose Winnie-the-Pooh! You see, we learned very early on in our journey with our surrogate Christie that she knows what she is talking about when it comes to pregnancy (and a lot of other things) that we just . . . don’t know. Christie told us that our baby could hear voices from the outside world starting around six months in utero, and would be able to recognize them once he was born.  So she suggested that we tape ourselves reading a book that she could then periodically play aloud for the baby for the remainder of her pregnancy so that he would feel comfortable with our voices once he was born.

It was a very sweet and thoughtful gesture that Jacob and I enthusiastically embraced. We bought the Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, a digital recorder, and -- get this -- “belly buds” for Christie, which are headphones designed specifically to be adhesed to a pregnant woman’s stomach so that the sound from them is targeted directly into the womb. Seriously. I have learned not to be surprised by anything I see that is marketed towards hormonal pregnant women. That Christie humored us and agreed to use them should alone qualify her for sainthood!

Jacob and I had a great time taking turns reading Winnie-the-Pooh to Max via a digital recorder and emailing the files down to Atlanta for Christie to download onto her ipod. I got surprisingly emotional during the process, and several times had to stop the tapings. Even though Max was over 700 miles away, reading to him was an incredibly intimate experience and brought Max right into our apartment with us. I felt like a parent for the first time, and that is a feeling that Jacob and I had been dreaming about for a long time. That Max’s very first story from his daddies was Winnie-the-Pooh completes a special circle for me that started when I was a little child with a room full of stuffed animals. I know I’ll be romping in Pooh’s Hundred Acre Woods with Max for many years to come, and I hope he gets as much out of the series as I have.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, Stew. I really enjoyed these glimpses into where you were at at different stages of life--particularly the last one about sending recordings for Max. It reminds me how amazing it is that you've been reading to him in person for over a year now. The part about making desks out of books for your stuffed animals made me wonder what kind of imaginary world he'll come up with.