Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What is "shunting" and why does it sound sordid?

I apologize to you, my readers, that the posts of late at NTB have lacked both frequency and wit. I have no explanation except that I'm just not "feeling it" right now. (This seems a good time to mention that I have been overusing the phrases "I'm feeling it" and alternately, "I'm not feeling it" since my sister PITA's wedding back in July. Her photographer, who was awesome, narrated his artistic process throughout the day. He was often "feeling it," often inspired to say "bam," and often reduced to merely commenting "f---ing awesome." The day and the photos were f---ing awesome, NTB.) I think the winter weather has left me a little uninspired. Plus, my new year's resolution to buy less crap has kept me out of the stores as has the bub's new tendency to climb out of shopping carts despite being strapped in, resulting in limited new material for any "Retail Beat" posts and few opportunities to get into altercations with Target employees or random conversations with other shoppers.

I do want to share a few thoughts about a new and consistent presence in our household: Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends. Back in the fall my husband received a letter from Toys 'R Us, informing him that as male toddlers near the age of two, they become very interested in playing with trains. The letter included a Thomas the Tank Engine miniature train car and a coupon for additional savings on Thomas products at Toys 'R Us. This is ridiculous, I thought at the time. How manipulative! Do they think I'm just going to start shelling out hundreds of dollars for Thomas products just because Toys 'R Us told me (or rather, told my husband--did they figure dads are the real suckers and may have more cash?) my son should start liking them now. I was also kind of horrified to realize that they would conduct such a targeted marketing campaign to households containing almost two year-olds. But then, we visited an awesome train display and the bub fell in love. We then continued to indulge his obsession with choo choos. Now, thanks to a combination of our consumerism, Christmas, and bub's second birthday, we have no shortage of Thomas products: Thomas pajamas, Thomas sheets for the bub's toddler bed, a Thomas toothbrush, several Thomas storybooks, several Thomas DVDs, Thomas slippers, and about six miniature train cars of Thomas and friends.

I feel no shame about the new presence of Thomas and friends in our home. Many of the Thomas items were gifts. We have not invested in any of the "big ticket" Thomas items of the sort that inspire the horror stories I have heard of parents who have spent upwards of a thousand dollars buying Thomas crap. We're not there. We're not close. We're not even on that track. NTB.

Right now, Thomas and friends and really all things choo choo are giving the bub a lot of joy. For a couple of weeks, he took to taking three miniature train cars to bed with him at naps and nighttime. Let me tell you that it is pretty stinking adorable to hear the bub ask for "Percy" (pronounced something like Poowrcy) and "Toby." There is also a bus named Bertie. We don't have a Bertie car, but the bub speaks of him often--"Boowrty." The Thomas toothbrush has inspired a new dedication to oral hygiene, which is nice. He has several times fished his Thomas pajamas out of the dirty laundry pile and started stripping his clothes in order to put them on.

And, of course, the bub also loves to watch his Thomas DVDs and the episodes of the show that we DVR. The show seems harmless enough, if a little boring. I'm not sure what technology goes into it, but it appears to be just actual wooden trains and people that are just moved around and filmed. The human characters are especially wooden, as in made of wood and rather expressionless. One amusing thing is that the man in charge of all the trains (and seemingly the entire island of Sodor, where the show is set) is called Sir Topham Hat. Sir Topham Hat is short (shorter than Mrs. Hat, I've noted) and a bit plump. He wears a three-piece suit and a top hat and looks like the stereotype of the early twentieth-century industrialist or perhaps like the Monopoly guy. When Sir Topham Hat removes his hat, he is bald. Often when Sir Topham Hat is on screen, the bub calls out, "Da da Da da." Funny stuff.

Here is where I am a little hesitant. The plots of these shows seem remarkably similar. In just about every show, one of the engines makes a mistake or fails to follow Sir Topham Hat's instructions. The engines don't make mistakes just out of laziness though, nor do they blow off Sir Topham Hat in order to shoot craps in Tidmouth Sheds or overdose on coal or anything. The engines are usually careless when they are dissatisfied with the job they are given. For example, Percy is told to deliver coal, but he wants to deliver rides for the carnival like the other trains. So, he ditches the coal and travels around seeing if they other engines with more glamorous cargo (and schoolkids cheering as they pass with bumper cars and such) need any help. Then, all the trains run out of coal and Percy has to hustle to do his original job. The lesson is the same at the end of every show. No matter what engine is featured, he/she learns that what matters most of all is being useful. I would go so far as to say that usefulness is the highest value on the island of Sodor. I don't have anything against being useful, but something about the constant harping on it makes me uncomfortable and smacks of poor Boxer and the glue factory. At this point though, I don't think the bub is actually following the plot so I won't worry that he is being brainwashed.

My only other concern is one of vocabulary. There's a song about Thomas and his friends that is often sung on the show: "They're two, they're four, they're six, they're eight / Shunting trucks and hauling freight / Red and green and brown and blue / They're the really useful crew . . ." See title above.


LAP said...

I wasn't aware of the Thomas mania going on at your house. I live in a girls world (which does include a train or two, but Thomas never really caught on.) I am smiling as I picture the bub pronouncing the names of the engines. Good stuff.

msp said...

thomas mania was in full force at our household about a year ago. eli was quite talkative by then, and there lies the danger of the thomas dvd's. one day eli told me to "shut up!" and then explained that that's what diesel says. lovely. so just a warning: in their longing to be useful, thomas trains can be quite mean and "salty" (that was actually quite an endearing word that was added to eli's vocabulary through thomas). and be on the lookout for the song about sir topham hat, the "fat" engineer. "fat" being another word you may not want repeated, say to a random fellow target customer. but in the meantime, enjoy the songs that will get stuck in your head and the amazing way he will learn the name of every train on the island of sodor!

Actchy said...

Hm. With no offence to our distinguished brethren from West Virginia, perhaps the Bub could find a more environmentally sustainable product for Thomas and his Friends to haul?

M said...

Hopefully the bub will just use the Thomas dvds as background noise and not pick up on all the politically incorrect jargon. Love the pajama search.

CJR said...

All this Thomas stuff strikes me as creeping fascism covered in lead paint. And clean coal is our future. Stop letting these programs crush the human spirit and get the old, banned versions of Sesame Street.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

And here I thought Thomas stories were just about being responsible and helpful. But I can see the wickedness of the message now. Responsibility and usefulness belong to that other generation. Not to worry however. Thomas has been around for many years and I see very little evidence that his beliefs have been inculcated in our politicians, business people or students. Also.. a shunt truck to the Brits is like a switching engine here.

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