Maurice Sendak, Author Who Scared Generations of Kids
Maurice Sendak's untethered landscapes and crazy creatures set a high bar for my own games of make-believe. As a child, I wanted to crawl "Outside Over There." I longed for a "Night Kitchen" of my own. And I was sure that I knew exactly how I'd dance at a "Wild Things" style Rumpus. But as a parent, there's something I love even more than Sendak's imagination. I love his honesty.
Adults like to think that children live in a happy place free from care and worry. We want to protect our kids, to imagine them safe and sound. We speak in hushed tones when we fight with our spouses, and turn off the radio when a news story gets gory. We don't want to upset our kids. But this is our tale, our make-believe. In fact, children live in a confusing and sometimes scary world, and of course they know it.
Maurice Sendak, who died May 8 at age 83, knew it, too, and even in his most whimsical moments, he allowed his characters and his readers a wide range of experience and emotion. However otherworldly his stories got, they were always rooted in honest depictions of the real world. His focus was often the snarls on the inside as well as the outside of his characters.
Decades later, we read Sendak's books as classics. We accept them as sweet and charming. But when they came out they were shocking, and we might do well to reread them, and think about that
Pierredoesn't care. Ida slipping off to "Outside Over There" resents her baby sister, as most older siblings do. Max makes mischief in his wolf suit, and when the world gnashes its terrible teeth, he gnashes back. Nowhere does a parent hold a child's hand. Nowhere does a parent follow closely behind. Sendak's creations are at times petulant, lonely, homesick and angry. They get sad. They shout. They worry. A lot like regular kids.
Then, by the end of each story, the characters are always smarter, better off because of the danger, because of the unpleasant experiences and the frustrations. This is, of course, how actual kids learn actual things. The bowl of porridge "still hot," as it is in "Wild Things" is always more comforting after the frightening adventure, isn't it?
During a recent appearance on "The Colbert Report," Sendak told Stephen Colbert, "I don't write for children I write. And somebody says, that's for children."
Now, I'm not certain that I believe Sendak's soundbite. I'm pretty sure he knew for whom he was writing. But I also think that the essence of the statement is true because I think that Sendak expected children to live in the same world as the rest of us.
Much has been made of Sendak's Jewish background, and the fact that many of his family members died in concentration camps. "The Holocaust has run like a river of blood through all my books," he once said. And I can't help thinking about that now, as I reflect on how much the world has changed since Maurice Sendak started out, as I consider the confusion and fear that must have filled Sendak's youth, and contrast it against the parenting culture of America today in which we work so hard to separate our kids from the hardships of the larger world. Sendak expected children to suffer, as they do. And survive, as they do. I think there's something we can all learn from that.
But there's another side to this story too, a second lesson: If Sendak was writing for all of us, and if Sendak saw children as people, then he also saw the rest of us the grownups as children: petulant and worried and jealous, scared and cranky, too. But also capable of great imagination, of high adventure. Just as children must experience suffering in order to survive in this world, adults must experience adventure in order to make the most of it.
Sendak's legacy is one of gifts and challenges: The challenge to be honest with ourselves always, to see our children as people and to trust them to survive, but also the challenge to find magic in the world, or to make it for ourselves.
I want to believe there is a boat waiting for me somewhere, that will take me "over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night" of my very own story.
"It's true," he said Friday, with a smile and a glint in his eye, during an interview in his small office in the Greek Parliament. "I like to play poker."
While Mr. Tsipras clearly has much of Europe on the run, he hardly seems to be breaking a sweat. "Our goal isn't to blackmail or to terrorize, our goal is to shake them," Mr. Tsipras said coolly of the foreign lenders whose austerity-for-loans deal he wants upended.
"We want to convince them," he said. "They need to change the policies in Greece and change the policies in Europe, otherwise Europe will be at very large risk."
In Mr. Tsipras's view which neatly dovetails with the rising anti-austerity tide across Europe Greece's problem is a European problem that needs a European solution. He insisted that he wants Greece to stay in the euro, just not under the terms of its current bailout. "The euro zone is a chain with 17 links," he said, referring to its members. "Greece is one of these links. If one of these links breaks, the link is destroyed, but the chain falls apart, too."
Poker references aside, Mr. Tsipras insisted that it was really the financial markets driving much of the crisis, not him or Greece.
"They don't have any moral scruples, and if they push Greece out, they'll just move on to the next country," he said. The next countries in the firing line, he added, happen to be Italy and Spain both too big to fail.
While other political parties in Greece are now also calling to renegotiate the loan deal, it is Mr. Tsipras, an untested leftist who could well become Greece's next prime minister in elections on June 17, who has positioned himself in a showdown with Greece's lenders.
In the interview, he said he would not veer from pledges to repudiate terms of Greece's bailout that forced wrenching hardship on average Greeks, a stance that may lead Greece's lenders to withhold further aid and set off a default.
But as far as he is concerned, negotiations over Greece's debt deal "have already begun," he said, largely because European leaders are already showing signs of being more lenient on austerity. "The red lines from before no longer apply," he said.
But while Mr. Tsipras has sometimes been portrayed in the European news media as a wild-eyed radical he even seems at times to delight in that caricature he is a cool strategist playing a game of brinkmanship with the rest of Europe, and particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. In the past, German and other European leaders have made last-minute maneuvers to keep Greece in the euro, precisely because of fears that an exit would carry too high a cost, from bank collapses across Europe to destabilization of the global financial system.
Mr. Tsipras seems to be betting that they will blink again, but whether they will is far from clear.
Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform in London, said, "The Europeans may blink, but this time they might not blink enough." He said that European leaders might propose a "mini-Marshall Plan" to stoke growth in Greece, but that what was needed were political changes to promote closer bonds among euro zone countries. "People are fed up," Mr. Tilford added. "They would prefer that Greece stay within the euro zone, but they won't take the political steps to make Greek membership sustainable."
Mr. Tsipras agreed. "The message we're giving to the G-8 is that we have to press Mrs. Merkel to follow the example of America, where the debt crisis wasn't tackled with austerity measures but with an expansionist approach," he said.
He added that Europe needed a more federal system, like the United States. He likened Greece to debt-ridden California, only that the United States would never allow California to exit, and has the federal structures to keep the union together.
Mr. Tsipras's strategy of calling Europe's bluff has been a winner at home as well. Some polls place his Syriza party first and others second in the campaigning for a second round of elections, which were called after he and other political leaders failed to form a government after May 6 elections.
An engineer by training, Mr. Tsipras said he had also studied economics and learned in the trenches with his "comrades" on the economic committee of Synaspismos, a proto-Communist strain within Syriza in which he came of age.
Lean, affable, yet somewhat inscrutable, Mr. Tsipras says he does not like wearing ties because they remind him of his days in the navy, where he did his mandatory military service. In recent speeches, he has said that the "terrorists" in suits and ties who are deciding Greece's fate are worse than the anarchists in hoods. Some compare him to Andreas Papandreou, the founder of the Socialist Party and a gifted populist.
Mr. Tsipras may be riding the tide of anti-austerity, but it remains to be seen if he has what it takes to steer the ship. Pressed to present an alternative to the current loan agreement or his plans for restoring Greece to growth while keeping it in the euro zone he offered few, if any, specifics.
His party seeks a three-year suspension of loan payments until the Greek economy can recover, a reversal of the terms of the loan agreement that call for slashing wages, scaling back public employees and undoing collective bargaining agreements. It has also called for nationalizing banks in order to control their lending policies as part of a recapitalization now under way as part of the debt deal.
Critics say that under the guise of change, Syriza may offer little more than the status quo or more state control in a country with a dysfunctional state. Indeed, business owners are particularly worried that Syriza's plans for more state control would stifle growth further, transforming Greece into a kind of Bulgaria.
Mr. Tsipras said: "The healthy businesses here have nothing to fear from a government that's going to try to stop this poison. Healthy businesses understand that austerity curbs consumption."
Although he conceded that the Greek state had "significant dysfunctionalities and a need for deep structural changes," he did not offer specifics beyond faulting the Socialists and center-right New Democracy for building up a jobs-for-votes system that helped Greece's public debt balloon.
Instead, he kept repeating the mantra that he hoped would help him consolidate power in just over a month, in the form of a stark warning to Greece's European partners: Pushing Greece out would be "cutting the branch that we're all sitting on."
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