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Behind My Nose

A bitter, yet heady bouquet of outwardly focused criticism, observation and praise.

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Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

I'm a leftist bookseller, writer and sometimes activist. I'm not "high-energy," "outgoing," or "outdoorsy," nor do I enjoy sports (except for watching football) or other pointless activities such as kayaking, entertaining large groups of acquaintances in my home or tossing pointy objects at targets. I love to write short fiction & essays. I love laughing really hard and breathing fresh air. I'm a transman. I live with my partner, Kris, a narcoleptic bulldog, a hound dog and a cat.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Everything I Need to Know I Learned By Watching Little House On the Prairie

If, by chance, you find yourself in front of the Hallmark channel or PBS and Michael Landon drives his wagon across the screen with Karen Grassle DO NOT CHANGE THE CHANNEL. You will never find a series more awesome than Little House on the Prairie. Oh, sure you can compare the enduring sex appeal to that of the Golden Girls. Its edginess rivals Highway to Heaven. And you could even point to Mary Tyler Moore or Cheers and make valid arguments one way or another in terms of character recognition in a television series.

But I defy you to watch one episode of LHOP and come away with less than a church Sunday's worth of life lessons. True, one could possibly discount the filler episodes, like the one where Albert and Laura scare Nellie and Harriet Oleson by making them believe there's a monster in the lake, or the one where Nels Oleson's sister shows up in a circus, but for every crappy filler episode there are at least 3 episodes where our heroes develop the story, fill in their characters, make us ache to hand carve furniture for extra cash when our crops are destroyed by hail.

Sure, the books are classics, and yes, the series doesn't follow the story, strictly speaking. But there's something to be said about growing up with iconic figures such as the Reverend "Comb-over" Alden, and a screeching Harriet Oleson.

I have no doubt the real Laura Ingalls Wilder was not thinking of Michael Landon's bare chest when she wrote about her Pa, and the real Carrie probably didn't spend the first 7 years of her life smearing her food all over her face and avoiding the spoken word. I'm sure the real Mary's life wasn't defined by no less than 3 times by fires that she sets and once by a fire that is set in her house. But such is the magic of TV.

Yes, we were supposed to love little Laura and despise her nemesis, Nellie Oleson. We were supposed to find Nellie's temper tantrums and snobbery grating. But who did we really hate? Yes, you guessed it, Laura. Laura, all jacked up teeth and earnestness. When she'd tilt that freckled face up and with tears in her eyes say, "Oh, Fa" I wanted to personally take a pair of plyers to that mouth. But, it was the prairie, and even though after the first 3 seasons her teeth magically straightened and whitened all by themselves, I dutifully suspended disbelief. It could have been the wholesome milk from their cows and cinnamon chicken from ma's cookstove that made her smile so perfect. It could happen.

But the awesomeness, the unrivalled, unparalelled greatness of this television masterpiece, the reason my sister bought me almost the entire Little House series on DVD does not lie in the fact that Ma looks fetching in her bonnet, or that Mr. Edwards and the widow Snyder make a hot couple. No. The reason this series is a classic is because of the life lessons we can all take from its episodes.

Who can contest the wisdom in Harvest of Friends, the first episode, where Pa plants his Ingalls brood on Plum creek and mortgages the oxen against his promise to fix the mean Irishman's roof and stack his grain. When Pa takes Laura, Mary, Carrie and Ma to an all day picnic and breaks his ribs falling out of a tree, what do we learn? We learn that dads who overwork are raging assholes when they come home. Never mortgage anything and only pay with "cash on the barrel" lest the mean Irishman come and take your oxen from your wife in the field. One good turn deserves another. And finally, and I think this is the most important lesson, if Pa is ever injured 1. it is always his ribs and 2. always send Laura for the doctor.

It is also in this episode where we meet Reverend Comb-Over for the first time. He is angry that some of the menfolk have skipped church. Ma later "loses her temper" when she finds Pa hard at work in the field on the Lord's day. This is only a foreshadowing of her propensity for a short fuse. In later episodes she actually purchases patterned yardgoods to make a dress for (gasp) herself to spite Harriet Oleson, and raises her voice to Mary when she tries to burn down the barn. tsk tsk. When will the violence end?

The episodes never get old to me. The story is never stale. Michael Landon will always be Pa and I will continue to start many conversations with my sister with the phrase, "remember in the episode where" because I know she will always remember the episode. In fact, most people my age remember the episode.

I'm "encouraging" my stepson, Ben, to watch with me on the evenings he's with us. After a particularly special 2-part episode where Charles Ingalls Jr. dies in infancy and Laura runs away to a mountaintop to talk to God, I asked - as I do after every episode - what we've learned from the evening's story. He answered, I think quite correctly, that we learned this: When climbing a mountain, always fashion 2 sticks as a cross necklace with our name carved in it in hopes that it will fall off and travel miles downstream to Pa filling his canteen so that he will know where to look for us.

I was looking for a way to impart my value system to him. Mission accomplished.

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