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Marx Brothers Guide to Fatherhood

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If books based on traditional Chinese tiger mom tactics or chic French parenting styles are fetching the big bucks these days, why not make a go at it with a fatherhood book inspired by the timeless and home-grown wisdom of the Marx Brothers? They had a lively family life, so there is plenty of material to play with. Plus, as brothers who spent a lot of time together (give or take a brother or two), they could surely teach us a thing or two or three or four about sibling rivalry and ribaldry. Besides, humor is a valuable tool to bring a family together and is more salutary than guilt or fear or forcing kids to play the violin for ten hours straight without any sleepovers. Plus, the book will be cheaper than a plane ticket to Paris to learn how to ignore your kids and leave them at the playground by themselves.

I have been toying with this idea for some time. I am ready to plunge in. Somebody has to do the hard work and balance out the monopoly of seriousness in the parenting genre. The plan is to watch each film, at least ten times, provide a bland summary and the cliche biographical data skillfully plagiarized from the back covers of the DVD's and Wikipedia, then insert clever connections, for example, to Greek history, astro-physics, botany and gastronomy to make sure I come across to the one or two parents who even bother to buy the book or steal it from the library as an erudite and sophisticated author with a rich culture and delicate sensibility. Then, from all the mayhem in their films, I will pluck useful pedagogical lessons and weave them into a stimulating narrative. Among the working titles for chapters: 1) Keep an Eye on your Money; 2) Watch your Mouth; 3) Use your Words; 4) Eat your Soup; 5) Pick up your Clothes; 6) Go to your Room; 7) Empty your Pockets (before you dump the clothes in the laundry basket).

Of course, there is the minor problem that in rewatching Duck Soup, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, Night at the Opera and the other films, I will bump into a conceptual wall: Basically, the "lessons" being communicated will run counter to what is beneficial to parents and kids. So instead of teaching kids how to work hard in order to make money the honorable way, the films teach them how to be sneaky and cut pockets to steal money; instead of instilling in kids a love of order and respect for institutions, it teaches them how be more unruly and disrepectful of the Treasury Department, the fine arts, opera stars and university presidents. Oh well, such is life. Nobody and nothing is perfect.

To be more specific about this conceptual wall, let's take an example of what should be included in Chapter 3 ("Use your Words"). One would think that if anybody would be capable of teaching one how to "use their words" it would be Groucho Marx, the master talker par excellence. Here is one scene from Duck Soup:

Mrs. Teasdale: I've sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.

Firefly (Groucho): Well, that covers a lot of ground (He looks her up and down). Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You'd better beat it. I hear they are going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't leave in a taxi you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.

Such delicious dialogue had my three sons laughing their heads off and our dog jumping for joy. Of course, it might be a problem for my second grader as he walks up to a girl in his class...

Come to think of it, where did the parental mandate "use your words" come from? Who made up this nonsense? Shakespeare? ("words, words words." -Hamlet). For, if I take my kids as reference point, the problem is not that they do not "use their words" it is that they use their words too much as they don't stop asking to buy them stuff or complaining or verbally picking on each other or commenting on what I am now typing on the computer. Oh yeah, "nonsense" will be Chapter 8.

Stay tuned.