I'M feeling a bit nervous. I've got the blinds drawn and the front door locked. My daughter is safe in her crib, having her afternoon nap, and to my knowledge not even my husband, who works at home, has an inkling of the scandalous task to which I feel drawn today.
I want to defend Barney.
There, I've finally written it. Of all the grand themes on Earth to expound upon, I pick the unthinkable subject of coming to the rescue of a friendly fangless dinosaur who is the undisputed hero of most preschoolers in North America - and the bane of many adults who think he's moronic and manipulative.
The risks are great, I know. The ink will hardly have dried on this article before my name will be mud at my daughter's play group, despised at the children's library, and only a matter of days before the closet members of the I-Hate-Barney-Secret-Society (there really is one) will egg my car.
In case you are unfamiliar with the lumbering purple beast of public television, most any child between two and five years old can give you a detailed and adoring description. Word among parents is that he and his daily show, ``Barney and Friends,'' has surpassed the Muppets of ``Sesame Street'' in popularity.
According to one news report, some 13 million toddlers regularly tune in to watch Barney cavort, sing, and dance with his child-actor friends.
But recently I read in my local paper that in Galveston, Texas, four teenage boys tried to rip the foam head off a Barney impersonator outside a K-Mart and got arrested. On ``Saturday Night Live,'' I saw basketball's bad boy Charles Barkley challenge the creature to a ruthless game of one-on-one that left Barney teetering with one stuffed eyeball dangling from its socket.
I've also read how computer users hooked into the Internet network can call up a file called ``Alt.Barney Die Die Die,'' where they can exchange sick Barney humor with other Barney bashers.
Why all this heated criticism of a fictional herbivore without a fiber of guile in his whole poly-stuffed body?
I decided to find out, after I discovered to my amazement that my 15-month-old began to yell and wave her arms when she saw ``Barney and Friends'' flash by as I was channel-flipping one day. When I clicked back to Barney, she sat transfixed on the couch the way my husband and I watch ``Seinfeld.''
The show was embarrassingly saccharine: Barney giggles and kicks his floppy feet together like a dope, while his ever-cheery playmates make the Mousketeers of the old Mickey Mouse Club look like morose party poopers.
True, Barney's cloying sweetness can be annoying to adults, sophisticated as we are in our appreciation of things of high value on television - a point illustrated by the millions of ``Oprah'' and ``Wheel of Fortune'' watchers.
But I'm contending that Barney, whose main message to his little viewers is ``I love you,'' may be providing a glimmer of what kids really need and innately desire.
One show included lessons in manners, cleanliness, cooperation, loving our family, and the meaning of ``practice makes perfect.'' Music and dance seemed to be the central teaching vehicles, and though some tunes were tedious to my ears, my daughter never lost interest.
As for the syrupy tone, I'd rather have my child watch beaming faces, courteous conversation, and unselfish behavior than harsh and violent cartoons. Who knows, some children may love Barney because he speaks more kindly to them than their own parents do.
I admit, however, that one part of this half-hour program left me miffed: After the credits rolled by, two reps from the local PBS affiliate appeared on the screen, obviously in the midst of a fund-raising campaign. One of them said, ``Hi, kids! Now that Barney is over, would you do us a big favor? Would you go find either your mommy or your daddy and tell them to come to the TV? We have something very important to ask them! Thank you!''
The little dears probably did. And poor Barney gets the rap for it. Some folks just can't resist manipulating three-year-olds for the sake of a buck.
Which brings me to another point: the relentless marketing of Barneybilia, which has infuriated some parents. It was only a matter of time, I suppose, and millions of dollars in Barney lunch boxes and beach towels later, that a severe backlash against the big purple guy would ensue.
I hear parents tell how their very pocketbooks have been snatched by the hucksters of that insufferable dino. How their children have become walking Barney advertisements, right down to their Barney underwear. No end is in sight: A network special and a movie are coming out soon.
How can any parent with a brain defend Barney peddling?
I'm sorry. I don't believe money flies by magnetic force out of the hands of adults and into Barney's coffers. I don't buy the notion that 12-inch-tall stuffed purple dinosaurs jump of their own accord into grocery carts or that packages of Barney bubble gum scamper independently across electronic scanners.
I bet Barney himself would approve of an effort to teach kids about commercial manipulation, ``moderation in all things,'' and ``buyer beware.'' Rather than caving in to gimmicks or a child's unreasonable demands, adults should seize the opportunity for such lessons. Then there may come a time when we and our kids will see those Barney pajamas on display - and walk right on by.
Strangely enough, I've heard hardly a murmur over the inundation of toy dinosaurs, drinking cups, and other junk from the hit movie ``Jurassic Park.'' Here's a movie with realistic dinosaurs mauling jeeps and viciously killing people - and parents are upset about Barney?
As far as I'm concerned, Barney can go right on kicking up his heels, passing out hugs, and speaking to young children on their level about things important to them.
When the show comes on, maybe it's just time for us adults to leave the room.