Sunday, January 01, 2006


Sweet M. welcomed in the New Year with a double feature of March of the Penguins and The Polar Express. We hadn't planned it this way—an evening that took us from the South Pole to the North Pole, but that's what happened.

I'd tried to get her to go to each of these films when they were in the theaters, but she'd adamantly refused. But the NetFlix and Pay-Per-View double bill that we put together for the evenings entertainment was exactly to her liking.

Ever since March of the Penguins became a surprise box office hit, I'd been wondering what could possibly be so appealing about a film about the mating rituals of penguins. Granted, there is the soothing (some might say cloying) Morgan Freeman voiceover, and the spectacular photography from Antarctica, but still . . . penguins?

But now I get it. Hundreds of these penguins waddle 70 miles across the Antarctic ice shelf to get to their mating grounds, each tries to find a mate, and those who do play an incredible sort of tag team, relay race with their single egg.

In a remarkable display of gender role reversal (at least from our human point of view) and of group cooperation, the males watch over the eggs and huddle together against the storms, each taking turns at the outside of the group, where it's coldest. If they're skillful and lucky, they'll wind up with hatchlings that they have to guard against the extraordinary climate of 80 below zero and 100 mile per hour winds.

Meanwhile the females trudge back to the edge of the ice shelf—now an even longer journey as the ice mass has grown in the dead of the South Pole winter—to feed themselves and then return to the hatchery with nourishment for their mates and offspring.

When the females return, the males pass the chicks to each of them, and the female penguins start their waddling procession back to the ocean, scooting along the ice with a chick under their bodies and on top of their feet.

All along these many long marches there are dangers and obstacles of all sorts—hungry seals and avian predators, shifting terrain, bitter winds, and most of all the climate, so cold and inhospitable that many will perish.

A tale of survival of the fittest through cooperation and flexible gender roles, rather than through individual self-interest and competition, has seized the popular imagination. Sounds like early 21st century North American family life to me. We're doing much the same thing in our household as we sort out who has the better chance of earning a family wage, myself or my husband, and who ought to be home—to pick up Sweet M. if she melts down at school and to shuttle her off to her assorted appointments.

As in the movie, I think it will be me who will be trudging out to the edge of the ice shelf . . . Of course the good point is that I will get to be swimming and noshing sooner than either mate or offspring. (Here, I ought to enter an emoticon of a smiling, winking writer.)

Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, the polar express train has dropped off a group of children who each have lessons to learn. While they all learn to cooperate, the each have their individual lessons: the poverty-stricken boy from "the other side of tracks" learns to trust that Santa will finally deliver for him, the African-American girl learns that even when she's lost and in doubt that she can lead, and the skeptical middle-class boy learns to believe even as he grows into adulthood.

They battle the forces of disillusionment, disempowerment, and disenchantment. And, in the end, they, and the man in red, triumph. Santa, the elves, the train conductor, a ghostly hobo, and the kids themselves solve it all—economic injustice, gender and racial discrimination, and the sad solemnity of the creeping rationalism of the past 400 or so years.

While I was going for the plot and some sort of sense of the zeitgeist, Sweet M. was much more interested in the special effects, with the simulated kinesthetic G-force thrill of the runaway trains. "Wheeewwwww, just like a rollercoaster," she shrieked. And we don't even have a wide-screen TV or surround sound. She really doesn't ask for much, as Kristina points out about Charlie. But that doesn't stop us from often wondering how we will deliver.

While I remain ambivalent about the man in red—who has ostensibly been keeping accounts of whether we've been bad or good—I think about the autism and "special needs" family bloggers out there—those of you who are probably reading this—and imagine that we have found a way to huddle together in the chill of winter.

Happy New Year from Sweet M. and her family to each and all of you . . .


Diamond said...

Happy New Year and I do hope that is brings continued success and joy!!

Octobermom said...

Happy new year to you too! The huddling has certainly made this year a little less chilly for me.


kristina said...

Nesting (if not cocooning) here before heading back out on the ice shelf (I calculate two weeks before I make the journey, over steel and asphalt)---thanks for the trans-global journey, on flipper and on the tracks. I've been wondering about the "penguin movie" for a while too (my husband is not a "nature movie" guy at all--prefers a good urban drama/comedy)---once our Netflix circles round we'll add it to the top of the queue.
Happy New Year from across the Hudson!

Mary said...

Fascinating. I watched March of the Penguins recently (on dvd, since I had to leave the theater with Bud a few months ago because someone decided it was a good idea to show a scary preview for Harry Potter before this gentle little penguin moview) and was absolutely spellbound. I had tremendous respect for the penguins, but could not IMAGINE what kept them going year after year. Now that you've drawn such an eloquent parallel to life on the ice shelf of autism, I finally GET it. When you love your kids, you do what you have to do no matter what it is.