Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Eating and Speaking

My son is sitting on the couch, listening to the Bee Gees. He is eating cheerios and raspberries, and I am mesmerized by his perfectly erect toddler posture; his head balanced quizzically atop his fragile, curved neck; the simultaneously intensely focused and utterly absentminded movement of hand to mouth. There is something special about young children eating - it reminds you of their essential humanity, their selfhood. I wonder if I magnified this effect with my decision not give the kid "baby food," not to spoonfeed him rice cereal or purees or mush - he has always eaten "people food" with his own hands. Maybe this is why his eating has always seemed to me to mark him out as his own person, rather than my baby, a signal of his membership in the human race vis a vis himself, unmediated by me.

He asks for cheerios in the morning by pointing at the box on the counter, and he eats them from the box or a dish or my hand like he's hungry, like he's a little boy who just woke up and now wants breakfast. Sometimes he goes into the one cupboard that he's allowed to open, takes out a bag of freeze-dried strawberries, and carries it with him around the house, reaching into it and eating crumbling handfuls as he plays with his broken record player or alphabet blocks or books. When we eat a meal, he eats with us, sometimes in earnest, choosing each morsel carefully, and sometimes for pretend, clanking a fork against our plates and aiming it, empty, towards his mouth. The dog has taken to following him around slavishly, watching intently for any dropped morsels and pouncing on them triumphantly.

When the baby and my husband are home alone together, they do a lot of eating; when I come home, there are often strange combinations of bowls in the sink and unidentifiable crusts on the counter by the baby's clip-on seat. My husband says eating is how they bond. "Yesterday," he tells me, "we ate a big bowl of spicy noodles together. He couldn't get enough of them. He would eat a mouthful, and then cough a little bit because it was really spicy, and then ask for more, and more, and more. And afterwards," my husband adds, looking satisfied, "he took a HUGE SHIT."

Back to now - the baby is sitting on the couch, listening to the Bee Gees, eating raspberries and cheerios. I marvel at his composure, his self-possession. Now he chooses a cheerio, now a raspberry, another raspberry, and now a cheerio. He picks the raspberries out of the plastic clamshell balanced on the back of the sofa, holding them gently so they only squeeze a little pink juice onto his fingers. He pushes them into his mouth one by one, chews thoughtfully. Every so often, he makes a sour face - is it a bad raspberry? - and either ejects the berry entirely or continues to chew with a dissatisfied air.

What is he thinking? I don't know, because he won't tell me. He says "paPA!!" a lot and "mama" sometimes, and "DAH!!" for dogs (and cats, birds, young children, strollers, and nothing) and "mimi" for Limi, the nickname of the other little boy at daycare, but nothing else. We want him to speak to us so much, but he seems essentially uninterested. "Tell me what you're thinking! Talk to me!" I command as he babbles incomprehensibly. My husband implores: "Habla, hijo! Habla espanol, o por lo menos, habla ingles. Habla!"
Perhaps in response to our requests, he did add one more word to his vocabulary this weekend: "NO!" It was "NO!" when he didn't want something we were offering, "NO!" when he did want something we weren't offering, "NO!" as a general comment on any given situation at large. At a Memorial Day picnic in Central Park yesterday, he ran barefoot circles in the grass chanting "nonononononononononnnnNONOooooooo!" While I imagine that I may get tired of the no-ing pretty quickly, I am momentarily charmed by it, and relieved that my son has chosen to very slightly widen the channel of communication between us.

Now, though, on the couch, eating and listening to the Bee Gees, he is silent but for an occasional satisfied "hmph" betweeen bites. I could watch him do this forever, but I can tell that he is about to get bored and move on, as toddlers always do, and I remind myself to put the food away before the dog gets to it.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mr. Gilmore

One thing that I do not really do is keep up with the modern literary scene. With occasional exceptions, I tend to not know anything about new or even semi-new writers of literature, and it is only rarely that I read a novel written after about 1968; indeed, if I were to discount mysteries and hard-boileds and Wodehouse and Mitford(s), that date might be more like 1908. (Nonfiction is, of course, a separate matter.) This exclusivity derives not so much from snobbery as from terror of the wide-open territory that is the current and future literary scene. That is, it seems to me that if I am to delve into current books, there will be no end to it - I will have to be reading everything out there all the time, discovering and evaluating and following new authors and their unceasing parade of new productions. Mining the past, on the other hand, seems much more manageable - all I have to do is go into any old used bookstore now and then, pick out a handful of Penguin or Oxford classics, and stay happy (if somewhat musty) until I have finished reading them.

It is by this procedure that I have ended up reading a truly random selection of 19th century novels. Among these are three by Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone, The Woman in White, and Poor Miss Finch, the last of which is truly spectacular, involving as it does a beautiful blind woman and a pair of handsome twins, one of whom is literally the color purple - can you guess the contours of that plot? (Also filed under "Collins, Wilkie" in my memory are Lady Audley's Secret and Cousin Henry, neither of which are actually by Collins but might as well be, right?) My friend M, a fellow book-devourer, recently got herself onto a Collins kick, apparently feeling shamed by a Facebook list of books that people ought to have read or something of that nature. (This list also included the Harry Potter books and, I think, The Clan of the Cave Bear, so I don't really think it's something to get oneself ashamed over, but there we have it.) After she finished The Woman in White, she lent it to me to re-read, as I had forgotten the shocking and dastardly secrets revealed therein.

So I am now re-reading The Woman in White. It was not especially easy to get back into right away; the cosmic levels of improbability at which Collins operates are rather daunting at first, and the kind, quivering, sentimentalities of "Walter Hartright, of Clement's Inn, Teacher of Drawing" rather tiresome. After awhile, though, the story does get going enough to keep you roped in, and the narration switches over to "Vincent Gilmore, of Chancery Lane, Solicitor," a far superior narrator. Indeed, I think Mr. Gilmore is my favorite narrator of the book. He is perhaps the closest thing in the book to a real person, and in any case the closest to Collins in education and position and perhaps temperament - possibly even more so because Collins himself read for the bar - and Collins grants him a good-humored voice full of shrewd observations of a type that other, more verklempt, characters haven't the time or sense to make.

To wit, here are some of the Mr. Gilmore gems that I enjoyed today:

I had [unlike the writer of this blog] been favourably impressed by Mr. Hartright, on our first introduction to one another; but I soon discovered that he was not free from the social failings incidental to his age. There are three things that none of the young men of the present generation can do. They can't sit over their wine; they can't play at whist; and they can't pay a lady a compliment.

It is the great beauty of the Law that it can dispute any human statement, made under any circumstances, and reduced to any form.

I liked to feel her hearty indignation flash out on me that way. We see so much malice and so little indignatioin in my profession.

I'm not entirely sure what is happening to me, but there is no denying that these days, my consciousness feels more and more fragmented, and any concept of self more questionable. Often, I feel as though I can barely locate myself in the crumbling pieces of the body and mind that I seem to have once inhabited. Some days, it is only in reading a story, or in watching one on television, that I can escape this incoherence and locate some sort of sense in my own mind and in the world around me. Today, during my free periods at school, I neglected my grading and test-writing in order to enjoy Mr. Gilmore and to allow his clear thinking to, at least temporarily, stand in for my own.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Knock Wood

In the last couple of weeks, I've been told twice that I should knock on wood. Once was when I said that I don't think my husband will get laid off, and once was when I said that I am reasonably sure that I don't need more than one backup doula for the two births that I am scheduled to attend in early May, because the only possible reason I'd need two backups is if I got run over by a bus. On each occasion, my interlocutor (a different person each time) said, with a sharp intake of breath and a strongly disapproving tone, "You BETTER knock on wood after saying THAT." The way they spoke suggested that I had been exceedingly, unwisely brash and that I had better make immediate restitution for my stupidity.

I guess the controlling idea with knocking on wood is that by naming and scoffing at a worst-case scenario, one is inviting that specific scenario to actually occur - whether by the machinations of Fate or fate or God or the gods or some other sentient aspect of the inner workings of the universe. It's similar to hubris, where the most surefire way for a hotpants-clad Greek muscleman to guarantee that he will be devoured by a monster is to proclaim that there is no way in Hades that he could ever, ever be bested by such a puny, pathetic little monster. Once he's said those words, there's no need to continue reading the story - you know what's coming.*

The sharp chastisement I received on both of the knock-on-wood occasions described above made me feel as though I had been very, very imprudent. (I did not, however, actually knock on wood either time, feeling that doing so would somehow undo the last vestige of my dignity.) However, in hindsight, I don't see anything wrong with what I said. The thing is, while I am certainly an anxious person with an overactive imagination, I am not at all superstitious. When I was a child, my parents neither practiced nor preached any superstitions or any other culturally-approved irrationalities. Thus it was that I never truly believed in God or Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, I never truly believed in rabbits' feet or lucky pennies or 13, I never worried about hats on beds or umbrellas opened in houses, I never prayed, and I never knocked on wood.

All that is to say that, while I recognize that it was distasteful of me to name the particular possibilities I named, and that I will feel foolish (also broke or dead) if either of them does occur, I absolutely cannot believe that my naming them actually made them any more likely to occur. The corollary, of course, is also true - I cannot believe that not naming unpleasant possibilities makes them any less likely to occur. Indeed, it seems to me that this is the real nub of superstition - not that certain actions result in ill luck, but that refraining from these actions results in good luck. So if you don't break a mirror, you are preventing misfortune for seven years; if you don't put your hat on the bed, you are warding off death; if you don't number the thirteenth floor of a building, you are permitting prosperity to enter. Superstitions, then, allow you to experience a higher degree of control over your circumstances than you actually have.

I'm not sure what it means that I reject the illusion of control that comes with superstition. It may be because I simply can't accept that kind of responsibility on top of all the other responsibilities that life has brought me. I can do my best to be informed, judicious, thoughtful, data-driven, kind, generous, flexible, reasonable, organized, well-groomed, and clean (though those last three areas are admittedly not my strengths), but I do not have the psychological energy to take responsibility, via arcane behavioral guidelines, for the quality of my fate on the grand scale. I'm not saying that I take this approach because I'm a great person - it's probably due more to sheer laziness as well as my aggressively rational upbringing than to any personal strength - but I do sometimes wish that more people would share it. I wish that more people would pay more attention to living rational, responsible, and compassionate lives and less attention to outlandish and irrelevant rules of conduct meant to somehow simulate the likely result of living rationally, responsibly, and compassionately. So I will, in the future, bring more consideration and restraint to my discussions of what-ifs, but even if I fail in this goal, I refuse to knock on wood, because I know it won't make a difference.

*Not to make light of the Greco-Roman mythological tradition, which was the very bread-and-butter of much of my childhood, and which I am seriously considering getting back into. For whatever reason, The New York Review of Books has had a long run in the past months of classical-scholarship-related articles and reviews, which have made me want to dive with ferocity back into Aeschylus or Virgil, for example, the only problem being that I am considerably hampered by my four jobs and toddler.