Thursday, July 31, 2008

Our little terrorist understands threats

Recall how, in places like Israel, the cardinal rule is never to negotiate with terrorists? Well, except in dire cases clearly marked off as exceptions? It seems this harsh principle of communication works with Sonny, too (though he's a mite younger than our typical terrorist, at just about 14-odd weeks old).

As chronicled in 'Training our one-armed baby', our son had developed the annoying habit of sucking his thumb - or, at a pinch, any combination of fingers. Since our original post, he had even learned to be ambidextrous about it. Our response had been to use a cloth nappy to bind his arm; at one point, we were restraining both arms at once.

But we didn't just leave it at that. After all, terrorist groups are seldom defeated simply through force of arms: There must be some talking done too. So we would explain to Sonny in a firm but uncompromising tone that he was not to suck his digits, that he should be following his parents' instructions but also that there were sound hygiene reasons for them. The routine, then, became this: Pa would say sharply, "Sonny, no! Put it down, now!", repeating it two or three times to give our youngster a chance to process the threat. If the warning was ignored, perhaps with even a complacent smile, there would be a sudden flurry of cloth and baby. Then the young fella would be left to contemplate his suddenly limb-tied existence. He might work himself free of his bonds, but if he tried to resume the forbidden activity, Pa would swoop down again.

Vicious? After several days of this, amazingly, comprehension took hold. At Pa's threatening "Sonny, down!", there would be a moment of wavering suspense - and then the little arm would creep downward again. This seems to vindicate the claim that even very young babies are clever things who understand far more than they are given credit for.

A few limitations have been noticed, however. First, Sonny will try to resume finger-mouthing after a minute or two, necessitating another round of warnings. Second, he completely ignored Mum's efforts to replicate Pa's success; she is still trying to perfect the right tone of command, but may also have to tie Sonny up a time or two to earn credibility. Third, our success was achieved over the weekend, when we had time to spend rehashing the warning cycle. After a few days back at the child care centre (where the administrator told us that "Sucking is natural, part of the child's exploration"), Sonny again needed to be reminded of the consequences of ignoring instructions.

Still, there's no doubt that communication of sorts has been established with our little insurgent. Tomorrow, we begin a two-part report on some of the research Mum did into an early freeing of Sonny from his diapers. Don't miss it - though that's just a suggestion, not a terrorist's threat.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

New Mr Men characters, anyone?

The other day, Pa was visiting blogger Sydney's lively home base, Deadlines and Diapers, when he noticed the Little Miss Late logo on her sidebar. Turns out it was an in-joke of sorts between Sydney and her pals, but Pa was reminded of the enduring popularity of the Little Miss and Mr Men series, featuring characters named after sundry personal characteristics (hence Mr Lazy, Mr Uppity, Little Miss Wise et al).

No fewer than 45 Mr Men and 39 Little Miss titles have been published. Yet we suspect that anyone who's ever been a parent could cook up a few new characters. So here are two new and updated Mr Men, complete with plot outlines, distilled from the 14 weeks we've spent with Sonny:

(a) Mr Changeable

(inspired by Sonny's wild mood swings)

Mr Changeable, who lives in Alter Manor, takes drugs every few hours to keep his unpredictable temperament within controllable limits. But his friend Mr Clumsy comes to visit, and knocks his supply of pills into the fire. The story develops into a frantic dash for the nearest pharmacy, but before long Mr Changeable's moods begin to switch and succeed each other madly, leading to a series of detours and hairy encounters. It takes the combined efforts of Mr Impossible, Mr Happy and Mr Grumpy to steady Mr Changeable enough to get him to the local Boot's, where a happy ending reinforcing the importance of taking one's meds closes things off.

Visually, Mr Changeable is unlike all the Mr Men who've come before him, in that his essential features morph as his moods change. He can appear like a thunderstorm when unhappy, a huge smile when pleased and a pair of spectacles when meditative.

(b) Mr Whack

(inspired by Sonny's flailing, uncoordinated arms)

Mr Whack is a nice enough fellow. He has a decent job as the village telephonist, but he's always getting into trouble because he has no proper control of his arms. Someone will be talking to him, when - suddenly - his arm will swing out and (whack!) clock the unsuspecting conversation partner. A complete medical check-up at the local GP's has failed to explain why, so his neighbours are convinced he's doing it on purpose and shun poor Mr Whack.

One day, however, Mr Whack has a chat with Mr Clever, who suggests that he go to the big city and take an MRI. So begins Mr Whack's adventure. Along the way, he meets people whom he antagonises through ill-timed slaps and grabs. He reaches the city with a posse hot on his heels, but after many close shaves reaches The Big Hospital - where doctors put him through his paces, scan and diagnose him and are able to cure him.

However, the story ends on a bittersweet note: Mr Whack isn't insured, so he has to sell his house to pay for the bills. Luckily, he moves in with one of the few neighbours who's never avoided him - and indeed always sort of understood him - the accident-prone Mr Bump.

Anyone else have a Mr Man or Little Miss to proffer?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Malaysia and Singapore should be one country

The Chinese concept of yin and yang celebrates the harmony of opposites.

Well, as Sonny grows up, one of our battier hopes is for him to know a world in which Malaysia and Singapore are co-joined in a form approaching political unity. It's a cause with few overt supporters in either country - yet we think a trial balloon ought to be urgently floated.

For one thing, time is working against us. It's hard to imagine Canada and the United States linking up again, whatever their cultural affinities, simply because too much water has passed under the bridge. A few hundred years of divergent social and economic paths, unyoked by a shared political harness, has led to a polarisation of attitudes; each views the other, not always good-naturedly, as alien.

In Malaysia and Singapore, that process is well underway, but it has only been 43 years since political separation, so impregnable psychic barriers have yet to solidify. Yet the differences on display might already seem even more stark than with our North American example. Each country is the mirror image of the other, in terms of the preponderance of one ethnic group vis-a-vis another. Worse, the respective visions illuminating their paths to progress are wildly at odds: One celebrates the importance of merit and ability, the other harks back to historical injustices in enshrining the rights and privileges of one community.

However, there is a remarkable confluence of broad trends evident at the moment, that the more far-seeing leaders from both sides might seize upon as a spur to act. In Malaysia, there is a growing willingness to revise the race-based architecture that has defined the political discourse for decades, in favour of race-blind meritocracy and needs-based assistance. Singapore is reaching the limits of what it can achieve as a tiny spit of land, however competent its leadership and even though incremental improvements may still be possible. There is also a greater desire among its people for a less claustrophobic civic environment. In each case, the arrows are pointing to the neighbour as a source of inspiration, example and simple living space.

Yin and yang, then. If the strengths of the two nations could be fused, the resultant entity would be a far more formidable competitor in the global arena, and - perhaps more importantly - a richer social tapestry for each citizen to weave in his individual contribution. The excessive tendencies of each would be restrained by the other, whether this be a certain coldness masquerading as efficiency or a chaotic joyousness without sufficient direction.

The advice of the cautious would be to proceed very carefully, to first establish greater trust between the elites, then increase co-operation, and so forth. But if Sonny is to hope to ever live in our implausible united country, delay should not be brooked. In the first place, co-operation between the two nations is already far more extensive than newspaper headlines and occasional political eruptions would suggest. More fundamentally, however, this confluence of trends and opportunities will not last forever. If Malaysia stumbles its way towards a new political structure without stitching in a Singaporean contribution, its revised identity will again solidify and the chance would be lost. The same applies if Singapore completes a measure of social evolution and economic transformation in isolation, without bonds being forged with its neighbour as it does so. Make no mistake, changes in both countries are going to happen anyway: It is the chance to use the opportunity to draw the two closer that will evaporate if not seized. The results, if so, would be considerably less satisfactory than if yin-yang unity had been achieved.

Admittedly, with the ruling coalition in Malaysia facing a weakened grip on power, it will require remarkable courage and will to take up the challenge of seeking closer unity with Singapore. There will be those who see any such move as an opening to champion narrow partisan positions. Singapore, too, has made much of its prickly independence, and will have to educate its people quickly on the advantages of seeking exponentially closer ties with Malaysia. One resource to draw on is the many people in both countries who remember the days when the two countries were one. Properly mobilised, they can be an emotional beachhead on which to launch the campaign to convince the young. But it is a beachhead, also, that will be weakened and eroded with the years. In any event, there is no guarantee of success - but to delay is to guarantee failure.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Less food, more worry

Something rather weird is happening with Sonny: The young fella's suddenly gone on a diet.

Well, maybe our 14-week-old isn't consciously worrying about how well he's fitting into his rompers. But since he's begun spending his weekdays at the infant care centre, his milk consumption has tailed off dramatically. The staff at the care centre conscientiously record how much expressed breast milk he glugs down, and the statistics tell the story. He's drinking perhaps half as much as he used to, by our estimates.

Admittedly, about six weeks ago, we blogged about how Pa felt Sonny was getting a little too plump ('So round is our baby'). But this sudden reduction in appetite seemed cause for concern rather than even limited celebration. Some obvious potential causes came to mind: He's unfamiliar with the new environment, strange hands are ministering to him and dispensing his feeds, there are alien fellow babies to get used to. Perhaps, too, his milk is tasting odd: Though we'd taken care to introduce him to bottle feeding, in preparation for the switchover to infant care, he had still been primarily breast-fed.

Still, if Sonny does not revert to something approaching his former intake by another week or so, we'll probably look into monitoring his weight and other signs that would indicate possible illness. Already, his temperature is tracked at the care centre as a matter of course. A visit to the doctor might not be ruled out. In the short term, however, if Sonny slims down somewhat, we're not going to hit the panic button. Babies are changeable beings, by all accounts, and we've been warned many times not to expect a smooth ride... as the jagged edge of surprise traced by many of these meandering posts amply confirms.

So it's about rolling with the punches, gleaning whatever good or benefit that can be offered by our current situation. It's occurred to us that many religions teach the spiritual value of voluntary fasts, to encourage compassion for the downtrodden and focus the mind on things beyond material accumulation. Sonny's a little young for such discipline to be applied, but we're vicariously living out his slashed food intake - and are so reminded that there are families and children in the world for whom 'eating less' is a brutal fact forced upon them by economic circumstances.

Our parenting anxieties and neuroses, however valid in our context, are still ever so minor when weighed against the daily crises that our less lucky counterparts must deal with.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Stolen moments with Sonny

Pa doesn't get a lot of face time with Sonny these days, so he'll take any he can find - even if it means talking to a groggy baby. Funny how our son is always nodding off when Pa's about (see '"Oh, will nothing wake him?"').

Each morning, Pa ferries Sonny to the infant care centre at about 7:30 am, where he is cared for until 7 pm, when Mum races home from work to pick him up. Pa's peculiar job hours mean he only gets back around midnight, by which time wife and baby are snoring peacefully side-by-side. Well, Sonny doesn't really snore, but makes occasional whimpering sounds.

This leaves the short trot from our home to the infant care centre. Most times, Sonny is half-asleep at best, so Pa's attempts at small talk tend to go somewhat like this:

Pa (exiting our apartment with Sonny in one arm and the house key in the other): Alright, Sonny, we're off again.
Sonny: Hmmph [eyes closed].
Pa: Now we're getting into the lift. Hope we don't plunge downward when the cables break, eh?
Sonny: Hmmph.
Pa (crossing our little neighbourhood park and jiggling Sonny): Look at the flowers and the trees. Look at the people doing tai-chi. Look at me. Oi!
Sonny: Hmmph [sways precariously].
Pa (remembering that Sonny seems to like his hideous attempts at a Scottish accent, as reported in 'Who's this Scottish Papa?'): Erm... och, what'd yer say to a wee detour past the basketball court, laddie?
Sonny: Hmmph? [perking up slightly]
Pa: Aye, we've gotta get yer to the ladies at the centre now. Yer have ter behave, or we'll give yer a good hiding, y'hear?
Sonny: Hmmph [eyes clang shut].
Pa (reaching the centre and being greeted by the staff): Alright, wasn't it good to have a wee chat?

At this point, after the handover is effected, Sonny will suddenly revive, attain wakefulness and evince interest in his surroundings.

It's a little insulting really, Pa finds, but tells himself that Sonny is simply comforted to be carried about by his parents.

He's too young to be bored with us yet...

Er, right?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pets can be better than babies

There was a point in our lives when we had hoped to introduced various animals into our household. Among the animals discussed were a dog, a cat and especially chickens, which sadly do not blend well into urban apartment living. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that pets are therapeutic, and then some: Just the other day, a rabbit in Australia fussed and fretted until his worried owners did a check - and discovered a blazing fire. The bunny had saved their lives!

With Sonny's arrival, however, our pet plans have been put on the back burner. In a way, he can substitute for a pet: He may not be furry or feathery, but he can be petted and coddled, fed and watered and otherwise looked after in the way pets are. At the moment, too, it's not as though he's much more interactive than a goldfish of average intelligence, and is considerably more trouble overall. In fact, here's a quick report card on five ways he falls short of pets:

1) Communication. A cocker spaniel, by all accounts, can bark or thump his tail to tell you when he's hungry or needs to be let out to use the outdoor facilities. Cats can scratch at the door to indicate that it's time to go a-roaming. Sonny issues only a more or less general-purpose howling. It can be mystifying, is considerably louder than a dog's yelping or cat's meowing, can go on for much longer and be harder to silence.

2) While we're on the subject of facilities, it is apparently the case that animals will not soil their own nest - something that Sonny has no compunction about. Happily diapered, he relieves himself whenever the mood takes him.

3) Pets can be trained to perform for your amusement (animal rights advocates who think this is cruel should please exit, stage left). Parrots mimic, hamsters run on a wheel, even white mice will negotiate a maze. Sonny can sort of look cute without doing anything, but in no other way does he earn his keep (as pointed out in 'A song of happy uselessness', a half-trained terrier would be more useful, and could at least be trained to bring in the morning papers).

4) Animals are either clean or do not require endless cleaning, by and large. Cats lick themselves. Dogs get by with a bath every week or so. A dusting of pest powder is all a bird occasionally needs, while goldfish admittedly need their water changed every now and again. Sonny, however, needs to be thoroughly refreshed at least twice a day. If bathed in the morning, he'll have contrived to cry himself smelly by lunchtime. We do not exaggerate: He puts his all into these exhibitions of petulance and perspires freely as well as fragrantly.

5) Dogs show loyalty and affection. Allegedly, man's best friend will even sacrifice himself for his owner, though few of us will own a Lassie during our lifetimes. Lower animals at least do not need to be cosseted: Chickens are fine if ignored for days on end (so long as they are fed). Sonny is now able to focus on people's faces, but he's still not showing any real sign of singling out his parents over utter strangers who visit. He needs stimulation but does not return the favour with any overt, sustained shows of friendship. When he feels like it, he will spurn our presence and stare at his reflection in the piano. We're just the hired help who clean up after him, feed him and are occasionally thrown a bone in the form of a few dimpled smiles.

With time, of course, Sonny will surpass his competitors in the animal world. He will be able to hold a conversation, play chess and help sweep up the yard. Meantime, maybe we should get ourselves a parakeet...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Too much, these cluttersome neighbours!

We are sometimes seized with a nightmarish thought: Could we become like our neighbours?

To explain: Our neighbours have a brace of cute-enough youngsters, a few years older than Sonny, who's in his 14th week. These children are old enough now to pedal training bicycles, 'drive' toy vehicles and venture into the pool using rafts or large inflatable animals as flotation devices.

The problem is, these folks - who seem otherwise decent people - are storing all these bulky items on the lift landing that they share with us and two other families. Right opposite the elevator, there's a procession of bikes and toy cars. Even in the riser that accommodates our water meters, sits a large plastic raft.

Things are made worse by how our other neighbours have responded. No doubt driven to rage by the inappropriate parking, are fighting back: There are now stacked stools and multiple shoe racks littering the landing, which by rights should be kept clear of obstructions. In this tit-for-tat grab for space, slippers and shoes are also tossed every which way.

And all traceable to a few children's toys. As Sonny gets older, we suspect that we'll be buying a few items for him too. But though no doubt the temptation will arise, we have no intention of depositing them anywhere except in our own hall or storage area, though it may clutter things somewhat.

Better that than visiting our chaos on everyone else!


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Our milk connoisseur

What a boring meal schedule, if you think about it!

Sonny starts the day, usually before dawn breaks, with a hearty milk breakfast. By mid-morning, at the infant care centre, he'll have snacked on milk. Sometime past noon, a luncheon of milk is served. You see where this is going. So let's not stop. At tea, it's more of the white stuff. Dinner: Milk. Suppertime? A tipple of milk. Attack of the hungries in-between? No prizes for guessing.

All right, all right. It's true that, apparently, Mum's milk menu isn't strictly speaking a one-item affair. The milk that is first secreted in a feeding is one type, while the milk for the main feed and at the tail end are again different in composition, with different nutrients and antibodies that help promote growth or fight disease. But especially at the infant care centre, which uses milk that Mum has expressed into containers, it's all sloshed together into one liquid mix.

Yet there's more to the matter. The taste of Mum's milk can apparently change from day to day, depending on her diet and how her hormones are doing. Her experience with Sonny suggests that he even has a preference for milk from one breast over the other. So the truth of the business is that Sonny may not need the great variety that we enjoy in our diet, because his powers of milk-enjoyment are exquisitely refined. He gets to enjoy shadings and alteration from meal to meal.

In the end, it may be that he outclasses his parents by a long jog. Neither Pa nor Mum has a particularly superior palate; we can probably tell white wine from red at a pinch but things get murkier after that. It would appear that, as we grow up and choose from ever-expanding selections of food (given the internationalisation of cuisine), we are at danger of losing our early sensitivity to taste.

Maybe we should just drink more milk...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Message: We don't really want you

Since Mum and Pa hail from different countries - though we live in Singapore - we want Sonny to have the opportunity to decide whose passport he eventually wants to hold.

So, shortly after our child's birth, Pa rang up his embassy (the Malaysian High Commission in Singapore) to check about securing Sonny's citizenship rights. To his surprise, the officer told him that since Sonny "had been born in Singapore, and had a Singaporean mother, he might as well be a Singaporean".

This threw us for a loop. We're not claiming that anyone in our family is the next Einstein, but there was something cavalier about the way Malaysia was throwing away an overture towards retaining a future citizen.

Perhaps, though, this particular officer was simply disillusioned about her job. So what about if our son should actually want to remain a Malaysian, Pa asked somewhat testily.

The answer was another shock. First, at any point before Sonny turns 12, we should collect certain forms at the High Commission to fill out. Fair enough. But these couldn't be submitted there. Nope, we would have to return to Malaysia and travel to the administrative capital of Putrajaya to put in our documents. Ever so friendly.

After that, there would be a two year wait while, no doubt, the papers are used primarily as some official's coffee coaster. But maybe we're being too cynical, and this lengthy period is needed for the authorities to thoroughly investigate our longstanding links to international criminal syndicates and spy networks. Of which, need it be said, none exist.

Anyway, Mom recently collected a Singapore passport for Sonny so we can bring him home (to Malaysia). The application had been done over the Internet and collection was fuss-free. We refrain from any redundant comments here. Ideally, a time will come when Malaysia and Singapore will allow dual citizenship. Otherwise, Pa will continue to insist that Sonny consider staying Malaysian.

Though these early experiences hardly count as a great advertisement.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

They steal skulls over there

There are thieves, there are robbers - and then there are the skull stealers.

No, we're not thinking of the recent Indiana Jones movie, which featured an outsized crystal skull along with a lot of hokum about aliens and psychic rays and whatnot. Rather, the Associated Press recently reported on a ring of grisly crooks who would invade cemeteries in the dead of night and dig up graves in order to retrieve skulls and femurs, for US$620 per head (literally). The skulls would be either ground into powder for various potions or used in bizarre initiation rites. Anyway, the police got wise to the operation after people began complaining about relatives' graves being violated: A couple of days ago, eight men were nabbed and a nice stash of human remains recovered.

All this happened in Gabon, in central Africa.

Careful now. What was your response when we fed in that last fact? Was it something along the lines of 'Well, that's just the sort of thing we can expect in the Dark Continent'? If so, you are in danger of failing the little test that we've sneakily set up. For isn't there something just a little bit presumptuous about dividing people up into 'ordinary folks like ourselves' and 'the more primitive lot over there'? No, it's not likely you thought about it in such terms. But that's what it comes down to, surely?

Mind you, we're as prone as anyone else in the so-called developed world to falling into this mental trap. And though our child-rearing adventure has only completed its 13th week, we are on guard - in the hope of transmitting as few of our unfair mental colourings to Sonny as possible. It won't be easy: Skullduggery, so to speak, was only an example. We have a whole soup of prejudices swimming about in the murk of our minds: Hidden bents towards prejudging younger/ older folk, richer/ poorer people, overachievers/ underachievers and Heaven knows who else. Again, we're not carrying about fully-formed theoretical positions towards whole classes of people. It's about broad attitudes that emerge in specific cases - though it's precisely in specific cases that we should be chary of applying generalisations.

By the way, it's no excuse to say that some of our prejudices can be tied to truths. It could well be that a global headcount would show that the world's heaviest concentration of skull-potion drinkers is to be found in central Africa (though it might also be a borough of Queens, for all we know). But when we say something like, 'Well, that's what one would expect', we're really importing a whole web of sentiments and dismissive attitudes. And eventually, these affect what we think about more urgent matters, such as the point of directing aid to Africa, say, or intervening in vicious civil wars, or even the character of immigrants from a given part of the world.

Still, we admit to wondering what one of these skull cocktails would taste like...

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Oh, will nothing wake him?"

It began as a quiet walk, then became a surreal bumper car ride. Yet, in the end, Pa failed.

A patch of rain had just let up, and the evening promised to be pretty, so we had wheeled Sonny out in his stroller for a spin round the park. Only he was so sleepy, his eyes clanged shut before we were in the elevator.

Bother, thought Pa. Let's have him awake so we can point out the sights. He had control of the stroller so he casually jerked it left and right a time or too. Sonny stirred briefly, but then relapsed into slumber.

Suddenly, this was turning into a challenge that Pa couldn't resist. It was inevitable, really: Sonny-in-stroller was now Pa's real-world video game, his dodgem car fantasy. The little jerks on the handlebars became more pronounced. Moving downhill, he deliberately sped up - not enough to tip Sonny out, of course, but enough to be jarring. But darn, the young fella slept on.

The stroller speed was way up now. There were a couple of collisions with Mum's foot, so that the stroller was even airborne for the briefest of moments. Yet the best Pa could do was activate Sonny's startle reflex. The young 'un started, yawned a time or two, then returned to dreamland.

We rounded the park, popped by the video store and even looked in at the supermarket. Sonny woke up only as we reached our front door: Our little stroll had lasted some 20 minutes, during which time Pa had thrown his energy and inventiveness into ever more disruptive stroller manoeuvres. Was he being ridiculously wilful? Quite possibly. Mum had become a little apprehensive about the proceedings.

Still, Pa would claim, it wasn't all in fun. It had developed into a little preview of battles to come, when child and parent will tussle over everything from pocket money to getting home late to the use of the family car. All part of the way of things: Parent wants Child to do something, Child obstinately refuses. Inter-generational combat.

Battle has been joined, then, and Sonny has only won the first round.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reaching out can be hard to do

At fast food outlets and an increasing number of eateries, self-service is the order of the day. You stand at the counter, indicate your preference and then extend your own arm to collect your food. No more sitting in splendour at your table, awaiting a waiter's assistance.

Well, we're waiting for Sonny to begin his first steps towards this self-service culture. And we're really talking baby steps here. You might think that it's instinctive - indeed, automatic - for us to reach out for something that we find interesting, or want to grasp. But not for Sonny. Suppose he's hungry and he detects the approach of Mum the milk dispenser. Well, the young fella might salivate. He might make cooing sounds. He might even flap his arms about frantically - but it would be in a way that's about as directed as a rocker's long hair whirling crazily around in mid-concert. Quite random. Many a time, something will arrest Sonny's attention: Someone's face, say, or a colourful picture. He'll gaze and gaze - but never will he reach out.

At times, mind you, he can seem to be getting the idea. Consider, as Mum points out, his growing addiction to sucking his thumb (despite our best efforts to foil him, as described in 'Training our one-armed baby'). You might think that if he knows enough to aim his fingers and jam them into his mouth, this must be proof of directed reaching of some kind. If so, however, it certainly hasn't translated into any other sphere of behaviour. We suspect that it's just a habit he's learned and that his arms move more or less of their own accord.

Ironically, we're not actually fans of the way the self-service revolution has spread and deepened. In retail, of course, we've been trained by the emergence of supermarkets to go get our own stuff, rather than be waited on by shop assistants; indeed, there are now automated check-out stations that dispense with clerks altogether. In banking, the proliferation of automated teller machines, cash deposit machines and Internet banking means that we can get by indefinitely without dealing with human staffers. Some of the trains we take are completely driverless. There's certainly a convenience and cost-saving element to all of this, but we dread to think of a time when Sonny will never need to speak to anyone except his own friends and whoever he must deal with at school or work. Imagine not knowing how to chat to strangers, to exchange pleasantries or strike up casual conversations on the fly... how our social world would shrink!

And how sad that would be. Part of what it is to be plugged into one's community is to engage in such interactions, trivial as they may be. So we'll do what we can to keep Sonny plugged in, even down to simple things that encouraging cheery hellos to bus captains (recalling here our post, 'Let's greet every bus driver').

We'll even make sure Sonny is nice to the self-service staff at fast food restaurants.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Growing-up lessons from Batman

Pa had a day off yesterday, and since Sonny was at the infant care centre and Mum only returns to work next Tuesday, we caught the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. Comic-book epic it may be, but it also made us really think about how a person's childhood can shape him.

The film's hero has a cool black Batmobile that is black and sleek, and packs a turbocharged wallop. It's a perfect metaphor for director Christopher Nolan's vehicle, which is grim, stylish and zips along smartly. Both movie and Batmobile are cleverly engineered (Nolan crams in plenty of social commentary along with wham-bang action), yet suffer what seem to be fatal crashes midway - thematic and fiery respectively. However, they emerge, stripped-down, and roar on to a satisfying finish.

There's been much publicity about how well the late Heath Ledger realises his villainous Joker. Still, the movie pivots around the ominous Batman, who never speaks above a growl and thinks he can best serve society by prowling the night in sable armour, terrifying the underworld. As anyone who knows the Batman back story can tell you, he's a billionaire who lost his parents when very young, after the wealthy couple were gunned down by a crook in an alley.

Despite his bereavement, and thanks to his being raised by a implausibly wise butler, the hero emerges with many of the aspects of a well-balanced personality intact: He has a sense of right and wrong, retains the benefits of a good education (including nonpareil fighting skills), is polite to women and can all in all pass for 'normal' at first glance. But, of course, he's actually scarred for life, his darker insecurities and rage expressed as the actions of a larger-than-life vigilante.

Strip away the fictive elements, and we have a story of someone who was deprived of being raised by his parents. These days, of course, millions of real-life children have to do with just one parent, or a cobbled-together family life at best. Many of those who have gone through this will tell you that, though they may have 'come out all right', they longed for the sense of security and completeness that an intact family unit confers. It would have made a difference to their lives, though they may not have ended up vigilantes or master criminals: Certainly, it would have enhanced their psychic defences and given them a better shot at happiness.

There will always people for whom adversity provides the very tools for their achieving glory. Napoleon might not have been the mighty conqueror he became had he not been laughably short, some have argued. But for the great majority of us, contentment and success are cast in more modest terms. We don't expect Sonny to achieve greatness - indeed, the sacrifices required to reach superlative heights might not be worthwhile - but we would be satisfied if we can provide the groundings for a decent life. In the Batman movie, one tragic character is a crusading prosecutor who falls from grace after tragedy strikes.

Perhaps if he had enjoyed a better childhood, things could have turned out different.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Alas, truth no longer matters in Anwar case

It doesn't require the skills of a master political scientist to predict how the Anwar Ibrahim scandal is going to develop. For those who've been living in remote caves, that's the Malaysian opposition supremo and ex-deputy premier who's been arrested (and released on bail) in connection with a sodomy investigation, and who alleges that the whole business is a conspiracy to short-circuit his drive to power.

Chances are, lurid details will surface. We are going out on a limb and predicting that there might even be video footage of some sort - grainy and indistinct, to be sure - along with DNA evidence and depositions by supposed witnesses. Anwar's ex-aide, 23-year-old Saiful Bukhari Azlan, claims that he was sexually assaulted by his 60-year-old boss in a luxury condominium. On the one hand, we're happy that our Sonny is far too young to get caught up in the descent to indecency that is imminent. On the other hand, he's missing out on one heck of a comedy.

Comedy, you say? Isn't all this deadly serious - since Anwar is heading up a clutch of parties that did so well in recent elections, the defection of a few parliamentarians might lead to a changeover in top management? Well, it's just that - whatever happens next - most people's view of what actually transpired in that condominium (if anything did) isn't going to change.

The problem, of course, is that we've been through all this before. A decade ago, Anwar was put on trial for sodomy and - to cut a very long story short -ultimately freed. Anyway, there was testimony then too by alleged victims and confessions later recanted, yuckily-stained mattresses and supposed assignations in buildings that mysteriously weren't even up yet. The upshot of all this is that a large segment of the Malaysan population has a built-up belief that tarring Anwar with sodomy is all part of a cutthroat political game.

And now that it's happening again? Well, so what if DNA evidence comes out, or X-rated footage? Whatever the details, it can all be said to be a set-up. Faked or planted or tweaked or re-enacted. We all know that digital magic is possible. It has already emerged that Anwar's accuser met up with the Deputy Premier before the whole farce began. It's all about appearances, folks. Whether high-level conspiracy is actually going on is totally immaterial. The possibility has been burned so deeply into the Malaysian (and international) psyche that the credibility of any case against Anwar will never match up.

What's to do, then? Well, with Sonny blisfully unaware, we are going to enjoy the whole drama. A lot of honest and hardworking police officers are going to be involved in the case. Plenty of upright and honest citizens from all political persuasions will marshal their arguments (along with, no doubt, more dubious characters peddling chicanery of some sort or another). We'll laugh and gasp and express shock. Perhaps, ultimately, Anwar will be packed off to jail. Or maybe he'll magick up a victory and finally enter Malaysia's administrative capital of Putrajaya in triumph.

Whichever is the scenario that finally comes true, the truth or otherwise of the sodomy claims will not make a jot of difference.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A song of happy uselessness

Some creatures are useless, just like our son - and we don't mind a bit.

At the coffeeshop near our home, a group of songbird enthusiasts congregate each morning. The birdcages are hung on hooks and the feathered choir serenades all passers-by. They're not good for much, these warblers: They don't catch vermin for their supper, they'll never be good to eat (or so we assume!) and you can't even take one for a walk.

But so what if they are ne'er-do-wells? Their song is a great pick-me-up, a great reconnecting with nature - and many sport colourful plumage that is a joy to the eye.

Sonny's useless too. At the moment, that is to say, he can't hold a conversation, play a game of badminton or even be told to go fetch the morning paper. A half-trained terrier, if we are to be clear-eyed about it, is much more useful. Our son needs help with the most elementary of things - his mother must file his nails every two days just to keep him from scratching himself (see our post, 'First blood').

Yet Sonny's a songbird in his own way. Just the other day, Pa called home from work. Mum put Sonny on, and Pa was suddenly treated to a series of mellifluous burblings. It was rendered in perfect baby pitch, which is to say it was a series of totally random sounds that rose and fell, rose and fell, without any artifice. And for all that, it was a happy gurgling, cheery and undirected, without any of the sadness that bitter life experience can bring. No songbird ever sounded more free from care.

Art and great music are 'useless' too, of course, but these are at least the product of conscious minds striving to present ideas, or at perhaps just to provide pleasure. Babies, every bit as much as warbling birds, can't even try for that much. In fact, at least songbirds are presumably hoping to attract mates. As Sonny strikes his notes of incoherent merriment, we suspect that - half the time - there's nothing more to be said but that he enjoys making the sounds.

Well, we enjoy listening to them... and they certainly beat his loud crying!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The reasons we started our blog...

This stream of ramblings debuted in the blogosphere, metaphorically kicking and screaming, on May 9. That's long ago now for a quick reassessment of two obvious questions: Why are we blogging? Has it been worth it?

The first reason we started up was that it would provide a very useful kick to the posterior. By this, we mean that it was a project that would challenge and strengthen our thinking faculties, creative energies and discipline. Sorry if it sounds like a corporate mission statement, but there you go! But of course, you respond, these are also good enough reasons to start any number of activities (from stamp-collecting to authoring a book)....

Secondly, then, blogging seemed something especially suited to our exploiting Sonny's arrival. Our travails and anxieties would provide useful material, and also a framework in which other issues and thoughts could be presented and discussed. Hopefully, too, others would benefit from reading about our stumblings and hard-won (if still totally personal) conclusions.

And there we have our third reason: The project seemed the best way to reach out - to parents, of course, but also others in the Netsphere. Prior to this, we had pretty much never trafficked in either the childcare or blogging realms, so we could at one stroke widen our horizons and enrich our experiences in both. Both Mum and Pa have a background in journalism: If there's one thing that we've learned from our time in the profession, it is that interesting people and unlikely encounters can be found everywhere - and that strangers are just people who've not yet become our friends.

Last - though this is what many mommy or daddy bloggers cite as a major factor - we thought these ramblings might one day be of some interest to Sonny himself. Actually, we secretly suspect that he might be embarrassed by some of it - but we've not held back. Censorship is not something we're very keen on in the broader realm of affairs, so indulging in it in our own writings would seem rather dishonest. So sorry in advance, grown-up Sonny: Journalists are always for the truth!

So why do others do it? We'd love to know! It's been great so far and all our expectations have been met - though it's been hard graft sometimes. We've already linked up with some warm, generous and just darn interesting folk. Oh, and we're getting a kick out of saying - as bloggers are supposed to, or so we're told:

Do look through our posts, support our sponsors and start an honest conversation with us!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why we turned to the professionals

It's been disturbingly quiet at home. Soft toys droop despondently. A rattle lies limp.

Sonny isn't around in the day any more. And all because we had no choice but to act.

Our son entered the world 12 weeks ago. Except for two days in hospital bathed in jaundice-fighting rays, he's been almost constantly with us. But yesterday, he entered infant care - across the road from our home, in a pleasant suite of rooms on the ground floor. He has four other babies for company.

There are two reasons why we turned him over to professionals from 7am to 7pm. First, Mum returns to work in a week: We have no one else who can step into the breach. But the fact is that Mum could have asked for more time away from work, perhaps even taking no-pay leave for a few more months. Here's where the second reason comes in. Mum was becoming more and more attached to Sonny and - more important - he was becoming dangerously used to being with us. So the longer we held off a partial transfer of caregiving responsibilities, the more it was going to discomfit and distress him when it finally went through. That seemed unnecessarily cruel.

Another argument that has been mooted for keeping Sonny away from infant care is that he's more likely to catch a bug from the other babies - not just from the four really young infants, but from older kids who are just a room away. But we've already been taking him out for little excursions - and, in any case, for how long can we keep him sequestered away in perfect health security? The care centre requires that infants that run a fever be sent home. Temperatures are supposedly taken with a thermometer every day. It's more than we do ourselves - and it's not as though Sonny is being paraded about before the general germ-breathing public anyway.

So we've bitten the bullet. There are fancier childcare operations in the general area, but the one we plumped for seemed to have the basics - decent staffing strength and no negative word-of-mouth. What more does a 12-week-old need, who must necessarily be deprived of his parents' attention? Meanwhile, Mum mopes about a bit, but she'll adjust. And Sonny? We're told he was well-behaved and didn't kick up a fuss at feeding time.

That's more than can be said for him at home most days.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The eviction adventure

Mention domestic drama and the mind runs to break-ins, stupendous spousal fights or maybe the TV failing just as 'Lost' airs. In Pa's case, he was peaceably changing Sonny's diaper when he felt the sudden vibration.

By way of background, you should know that Mum had earlier begun training our 12-week-old to 'evict on demand': That is to say, if not quite to be potty-trained, then to not just 'go in his diapers, whenever he feels like it'. It's a tradition in her family: The secret, for those mothers whose eyes suddenly burn with interest, is to gradually get the young 'un to associate the act of eviction with a specific sound, or sensation of effort. So Mum emits a certain grunt around the time Sonny is likely to pass motion (after he wakes up, after meals and so on). She encourages him to mimic this. She does the same whenever she suspects that defecation is ongoing. It's a tedious process, but her relatives swear that - with time - Sonny can be trained to reserve his toilet-related activities for when the signal (the grunt) is given.

We mention all this because, as Pa was changing Sonny's diaper, he was perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by believing the training programme to be at a relatively advanced stage. So he was not as prepared as he might have been for Sonny's deciding, on the spur of the moment, to lighten the load further. Pa's only warning was when he felt Sonny's body begin to vibrate alarmingly. But in a deviation from best diapering practices, the soiled diaper was no longer within arm's reach. Neither was a fresh one.

At that moment, Pa felt like an action hero faced with a quickly-closing trap and a need to innovate on the fly. His eyes flickered round the room, disregarding irrelevant items - a soft toy here, a tube of cream there. Instead, he ripped two kitchen towels off their roll and spun them under Sonny's bottom - folding them in one swift motion for extra thickness. Just in time: The gates had opened and what looked for all the world like dark-coloured toothpaste was already beginning to stream down. Through it all, Sonny managed the most innocent of expressions.

Luckily, one arm still suspending Sonny from his little legs, Pa had bought himself time to stretch for spare wipes, diaper and towels. A brief frenzy of tidying-up later, including the absorption of further evictions, the situation was fully contained. It might not have been worthy of a TV movie, but most us of must take our excitement where we can find it. And, after all, Pa feels he performed fairly well.

Except he never did remember to make any grunting sounds for Sonny's benefit.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rare smiles and bad jingles

A frustrating old friend of ours made a flying visit yesterday.

We're not talking about a human being here, but rather a silly little jingle that we dreamt up years ago - inclusive of immortal lyrics like, 'Guppies, we're such puppies'. For a brief while, we were so besotted with it that we'd stroll down certain narrow streets in Scotland belting it out. But, somehow, we could never keep the tune properly stored in our heads. Maybe it was so awful our brains revolted. In any case, for years now, we've frequently looked at each other and muttered in unison: "Now how did that puppy tune go again?". Efforts to conjure it out of memory inevitably fail. Then, unsought for and once in a long while, one of us will stand stock still and hum the Jingle - igniting paroxysms of shared glee.

Naturally, seconds later, the tune will vanish from our minds, as though someone had wiped chalk off a blackboard. At best, we might have had time to whistle the tune a time or two. By now, however, we're used to this routine - and simply look forward to the next time the Jingle visits.

Well, since we've had Sonny - all of 12 weeks ago now - it's been by at least twice, no doubt to introduce itself to our son as an old family friend. Sonny even has his own version of the Jingle: It's his smile. Many weeks back, in 'Sonny starts to...', we had reported that the little fella had begun favouring us with sudden gleamings of good humour, which came randomly in his sleep. These days, the smile is more focused: It typically comes as a response to our efforts to engage him by making silly faces, talking to him and so forth. It lasts longer now, too, and sometimes we even get a series of smiles, one after the other.

The thing is, however, these visitations remain utterly inconsistent. Half a day can go by with Sonny poker-faced (if not positively grumpy), despite the best efforts of a whole troupe of people to entice the edges of his lips to turn upwards. Energetic story-telling or the brandishing of colourful and noisy objects will have no effect. At other times, we might be half way through a sober chat when that little ray of sunshine breaks forth.

Sonny has a whole array of other facial expressions, but the smile - apart from its being recognised as a bestowal of approval to the proceedings - is especially treasured by us precisely because of its unpredictability. The suddenness of its arrival still leads us to call out, "Hey, look, he's smiling!", in a way that we will surely come to miss after its appearances becomes more regular and 'logical'.

Although, of course, we'll still have the Jingle to tantalise us.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

At long last, bath time is fun time!

Caring for Sonny can feel like building sand castles in the surf: Any progress made keeps melting away as though swallowed by the tide. One day, for instance, his feeding habits will seem to have stabilised. Or his sleeping schedule. Or even the cycle of his moods. Then the full moon shines, or maybe the wind changes, and we start from scratch again.

Looking back over the 11-odd weeks we've spent with Sonny, however, one towering achievement seems to have slowly arisen, proof against the ebb and flow of caprice: Bath time seems to be increasingly something that he truly enjoys.

It wasn't always so. As we whined about in 'Seeking the bath time breakthrough', perhaps a month and a half ago, Sonny used to alternate between phases in which he appeared to enjoy being half-immersed and times when he would struggle and fuss from the moment his booties were removed. Even three weeks ago, in our 'Top Ten Babycare Tips (Part I)', we were still advocating 'guerrilla bathing' - whereby we would wait till he was in a pliable mood before hurriedly whipping out the bath cloth and baby soap.

Of late, however, Sonny seems to have turned into an out-and-out bath aficionado. Indeed, Pa now prescribes a bath when Sonny is especially cranky. That's right: Some tub time actually calms him down and leaves him in the mood for a snooze. Not that we're not doing anything new, as far as we can tell. The key ingredients are still a bucket of nice warm water, enhanced with soap - then a little scrub-a-dub and splish-splash, with a vigorous towelling-off afterwards. Sonny might still fidget when his clothes are being removed. But he very quickly regain his composure and positively relaxes when lowered into the foamy water.

Admittedly, he doesn't start hatching giggles and laughs once he's half-submerged. He doesn't even look particularly alert, preferring to gaze about amiably the way spa-goers submit to the ministrations of skilled hands. We've heard that his half-floating in warm liquid might remind him of his time (still so recent) in the womb. Or perhaps the temperature is just right for a relaxing soak, once he became used to this twice-daily routine (and did he ever struggle at first!). We don't really know, but we certainly aren't complaining.

We're now looking out for other tangible signs that we are making our mark with Sonny. Hey, little validations that we aren't complete flops as parents go a long way towards propping up our morale. Hopefully, bath time won't be the only chance we have to make breakthroughs.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The blunderings of a frazzled dad

It all began when Pa rushed out the door the other day, late for work and managing only hurried goodbyes to Mum and Sonny. Maybe that left him struggling to collect himself, because the morning soon yielded two comical missteps.

Incident #1: At the foot of our condo, a small minibus had been idling, waiting to pick up young 'uns and ferry them to a nearby child-care centre. Along came Pa, who - to the consternation of all and amusement of some - scuttled aboard, parking himself on one of the benches. Five or six little faces looked at him, too surprised to say anything. It took him a good minute to realise that something wasn't quite right.

Incident #2: He got it right the next time - and our shuttle bus deposited Pa at the train station without further incident. 15 minutes later, he was again scurrying along, not far from his workplace. But when his foot came down on a drain covering, it gave way and slid aside. "It was probably not replaced properly by the maintenance crew," was Pa's pained explanation to Mum later that day. Whether this was the case or not, his leg certainly shot through with such force that - even though Pa was wearing trousers - the nasty scrape drew blood.

The comparison: And therein lay the difference between the two mishaps - though both were probably partly attributable to that well-known medical condition, Flustered Parent Syndrome. With the wrong-bus encounter, no serious consequences could really be imagined. Beyond, of course, wounded pride. But the business with the drain might easily have turned tragic. Given how deep the drain was and the heaviness of the drain covering, Pa figures that a broken leg would not have been the worst possible scenario.

The further thought: There are obvious lessons to be drawn - that one ought always to be on guard, to be aware of one's surroundings. But these occasion a further thought that is more relevant to us: It's difficult enough to keep oneself out of trouble, especially if one is by inclination a bit of a stumblebum. How much more onerous would it be to maintain that level of vigilance as caregivers of a child? Once Sonny is able to crawl, and climb, and pop any old random thing into his mouth, it's always possible that his next silly exploit could be fraught with danger. A moment's parental lapse might be punished by tragedy. Whether or not we muddle through, then, is partly something that Luck may help determine.

Still, careful parenting can give Luck a nudge or two. Just like getting on the right bus, for instance, makes it likelier that you'll get to where you hope to go.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Training our one-armed baby

We've started torturing Sonny of late - by literally depriving him of one of his arms. All for his own good, of course.

The little critter, you see, has taken to sucking at either his mittens or - if we're giving his hand an airing - his knuckles. It's quickly become an absolute fixation, and not one that is easily discouraged: If we block him by putting an adult hand in the way, Sonny will happily suck at the new appendage instead. This is accompanied by loud and vaguely obscene sucking sounds. Obviously, we had to do something, since his mittens were becoming disgustingly wet within minutes of their being slipped on. And the hygiene risks were obvious.

The thing is, telling an eleven-week-old baby - however firmly - that something isn't to be done proved to have limited effectiveness. So we devised a cruel but effective disciplinary technique: We take a clean cloth nappy and wrap it around his body in such a way that it keeps his sucking arm tightly bound by his waist. Sonny ends up looking like a one-armed baby - more importantly, however, he isn't able to get his fingers to his mouth.

If Sonny's just had a good meal, he takes this punishment well: He simply amuses himself in other ways, such as by cooing randomly or peering intently into his own face, as reflected in the polished wood of our piano. But if he's in a cranky mood, being unable to suck his knuckles can send him into a tizzy. He'll scream, wiggle and half-roll about. However, if we've done our job right and the nappy is firmly wound around him, he will fail to free himself - though he gets maximum marks for trying. And trying. And trying.

Anyway, half the time, we feel rather sorry for the little fellow - and tell ourselves that this is a dry run for all the other times when we must be cruel to be kind: When we must severely reprimand him for his mistakes, teach him the error of his ways or bar his way to illicit pleasures. Truth be told, however, there's also a certain perverse satisfaction in watching him try desperately to free himself. After all the trouble he's given us - the early-morning howling and diaper-wetting - it is not entirely unpleasant to get a little of our own back.

Especially when it's in the name of helping him.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Don't peek, we're feeding

Busy commuters have been known to munch burgers at bus stops, slurp soup out of a cup and otherwise eat on the go.

But they've got nothing on Mum, Sonny and their mobile feeding operation. It has really boosted our willingness to get our more: These days, the refuelling service has become so slick that folks can stroll right past without realising that it's in progress.

Sonny's attacks of the hungries often happen when we are out and about. We could, of course, start hunting about for a little cubicle marked "Nursing room". But that takes time, and thanks to Mum's stock of nursing attire - which allows for discreet baby-to-breast plugging-in - a convenient alternative beckons. Mum will first seek out the nearest quiet corner or - in a crunch - get Pa to provide a few seconds' cover. Her practised fingers move aside certain folds of cloth and Sonny is raised to the right height. He 'docks' and the milk begins to flow.

Seconds later, we're again strolling past the shops, or exploring the alleyway, or whatever it is we were doing before. To casual observers, all that can be seen is a mother cradling her baby close to her chest, with the infant's face turned demurely towards Mum. There's never a glimpse of anything that might offend anyone's sensibilities: Everything is modestly undetectable, unless someone leans in very close indeed. If he does so, and he might just hear the sucking sound of Sonny greedily feeding.

Mum didn't used to be quite so nonchalant about providing in-the-open dining facilities. At home, she's still careful to keep key curtains drawn so that Sonny eats in privacy. And if we're in public and there's a nursing room within easy striking distance, she is likely to head there. But Sonny has shown fiendish cunning in striking up a ruckus when we are midway through an interesting exploration, or running out of time to complete a survey of a given locale. At such junctures, the on-the-go refuelling service makes things marvellously simple.

It must be said that, if someone who is deliberately looking out for that sort of thing, it's probably possible to spot a mobile nursing mother. But any such person is probably some sort of pervert, or at least someone terribly ill-adjusted to living in society. We don't see any reason to have such characters - if they exist - crimp our style.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jogger joins the blame game

As a rule, Pa avoids getting himself weighed, claiming loftily to be resisting "society's fixation with body shapes, dieting and self-absorption". But he couldn't duck the scales at a routine check-up the other day - or the verdict that he really ought to lose another 5kg.

His first measured reaction: Blame the baby.

"I was just getting into my jogging before Sonny was born," he insisted to Mum. "It's just that our schedules haven't really settled back into normalcy." Mum was unimpressed. Neither was Sonny, who wheeled his arms about dismissively.

So now Pa plans to relaunch his exercise programme, which involves an hour-long run every other day, with push-ups, pull-ups and various warm-ups thrown in. If past experience is any guide, there'll be some backsliding, but he'll eventually get up to speed. But there's a wild card this time: He's never before had a son to use as a crutch - well, an excuse - for not meeting the mark.

We've certainly known of acquaintances who've wielded their offspring to turn aside blame like fencing champs. That they don't exercise any more is only the littlest of the transgressions they lay at their children's dainty feet. Long after they should have rejuggled their schedules, they no longer keep up with world events, maintain social contacts or worked as hard at the office. It's amazing they don't hold their children responsible for leaking pipes or rotten weather.

We don't doubt that we'll be facing the pressures that come with parenting. But if we end up slackening the pace a bit, it says something not about our children but our own priorities, energy levels or powers of planning. There may be fewer hours in the day, but whatever we consider to be really worth doing can always be squeezed in, so long as we adjust and trim other expectations accordingly. To be honest, we expect to be doing exactly what these pace-slackening acquaintances have been doing - and perhaps more.

But, hopefully, we'll be clear in our minds as to just where the blame lies.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Art for Sonny's sake

It doesn't make sense, really - but maybe that's the point.

Mum's been hoarding her spare minutes to spend on her latest project: An alphabet board for Sonny. Thing is, we could easily have bought an ABC poster for less than it's cost her in cardboard, markers and glue.

We might try to justify the effort by explaining how our ABC board is special. Notice the little doors (one for each letter) that open to reveal pictures of relevant objects. Thanks to our engineering genius, the pictures can be switched out for fresh replacements, to quickly ratchet up Sonny's vocabulary.

To be honest, however, we could probably have bought something like that at the shops too. It's just that Mum wants to do it herself. Put a bit more of her own sweat and imagination into the materials from which a happily-developing, livelier-thinking baby can be moulded.

This do-it-yourself spirit is what animated the absurd white elephant that consumed Mum's spare hours over several months. This time, the founding thought was that it would be nice for Sonny to have a warm blanket. Having never done any quilting before, Mum enrolled herself in a class and picked a design of such humongous scale that the result - as became clear about half-way through - was far too large for Sonny: It would have as likely suffocated him as kept him toasty.

Charming the penguins might have been, and the colours vibrant, but the end product is now stashed away in a cupboard while we work out how best to make use of it. It's just another trivial example of how parents - for all their good intentions - don't always slave away in a way that end up benefiting the child. More insidiously, of course, we have parents who spoil their children rotten, point them in the wrong ethical directions or simply set inappropriate examples.

And Mum? She's going strong. When she's completed the alphabet board, she plans to come up with something that will boost Sonny's counting skills.

No penguins are expected to be involved.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Instant killer, we need you

In the movies, even an ox-tough character will collapse like a sack of potatoes when someone chops him expertly in the throat or gives him a whiff of some concentrated poison.

Not that we want anyone eliminated, we hasten to add. But we have often rued the lack of some sort of instant-killer mechanism that can shut Sonny up pronto when we have company, or are in public. Just today, for instance, we were trying to choose a new settee when the little monster opened up the throttles and gave it his all. The windows didn't shatter, though they might have rattled slightly. However, strangers were looking at us as though we'd been shaving Sonny's skin off with a peeler.

Anyway, to cope with such emergencies, we've developed a few tricks that may not quite qualify as 'instant-killer', but do sometimes startle him into silence. In the hope of helping other parents - and hopefully have them part with even better silencing techniques, here are four tips:

The zig-zag If Sonny is in his stroller (and he's often especially restive when being wheeled about), we've found that his insistence on crying can be broken by abruptly embarking on a series of zig-zag turns. These should be attempted at at least moderate speed. Sonny seems to either enjoy the shifts in balance or find it puzzling: Either way, his wailing is cut off like a switch being thrown. However, if this dodge is attempted more than a couple of times per stroller ride, he becomes immune and will simply keep on bawling.

The harsh hello Facing the baby so he can't miss your presence, one simply says very firmly, "Be quiet" or "Silence". The intended effect should be that of a whiplash: Pa prefers to say "Enough noise now, okay" in the bizarre Scottish accent that we've already blogged about, but it's not so much the words that matter as the tone of command they are cast in. Typically, Sonny is stunned into temporary silence. Again, though, harsh-helloing only works the first couple of times; after that, he ignores our demands - even if the decibel count rises.

The super shush Most of us have read that babies are soothed by the buzzy sound of static, the whistling of the tea kettle or just a gentle sound of shushing. But we've been trying to perfect an instant-killer, industrial-strength version of the basic shush. Standing fairly close to the baby, one barks it out, drawing it out (fiercely: "Shhhhhhhhhhh!") if needed. So long as one can keep this super-shushing, in our experience, Sonny remains effectively cowed. Our lungs, however, soon start to burn - and once we fall silent, its even money that Sonny will get going again.

The stroller spin This is sort of a spin-cycle counterpart of the zig-zag earlier discussed. It helps if you have a manoeuvrable stroller, for what's required is a rotating of the baby - a few revolutions' worth, at least - at a rapid clip. Maybe it gets him dizzy, and maybe he can't both be dizzy and noisy at the same time, but the waterworks tend to be cut off.

Overall, we've found that we have to mix and match these various methods, since any one of them quickly becomes useless if repeated with successive tearings-up. Some of the suggestions may seem rather hard-core (harsh-helloing, for instance, has a certain drill sergeant cruelty), but remember that we're dealing with situations in which we need to immediately impose silence. These tips aren't particularly good for imposing extended periods of peace, but are perhaps most effective when immediately followed-up by a quick feed or a few hugs.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

So pretty, these teardrops

Two of our son's most pleasing features, if you believe his mother, can be glimpsed only when he's crying.

Every baby, it must be said, has his outstandingly cute characteristics. It might be his button nose, his ridiculously long lashes or a dimple that dapples into view when he smiles. But few babies, we wager, camouflage their most adoring aspects as well as Sonny, who hides them within the miniature hurricane that is an infant on a wailing streak.

Once such a streak is underway, one thing that Mum finds ever so endearing are the great big teardrops that get generated. Sure, it's heartbreaking, she'll quickly add... but so cute too.

The display begins when the first transparent glistenings peek out from the lower edges of Sonny's eyes. There's nothing prize-winning about these orbs themselves - they are neither especially large nor unusually expressive. But squeezed out of them, as Sonny escalates his wails, are little droplets of clear liquid that grow larger and more perfectly round. A hypnotic contrast emerges between the chaos of Sonny's agitation and these crystal poolings, which are like ponds in a zen garden. Fleeting is the moment. Soon enough, gravity takes hold and the tears break free - initially fleeing to the bridge of his nose, then - melodramatically - down his face. Wet tracks are left to mourn their passing.

If there is a certain visual poetry to Sonny's tears, the other characteristic that Mum finds irresistible is to be enjoyed by the ear. As the volume of Sonny's protests rises, there comes a point when sobs are woven into yells, and give birth to long gurgling trills that issue from the throat. These may tug at the heartstrings, but they are also strangely musical - like the call of some confused bird that has become utterly lost in an unfamiliar land. Typically, the trills die down raggedly, as though Sonny's spirit has been broken by our cruelty. The silence never lasts, however.

If the revelation of Sonny's 'cutest aspects' proves anything at all, it may simply be that beauty can be found in the most unlikely places and moments. In even the densest of concrete jungles or harshest of deserts , surprises to gladden the heart may await. But the innocence of infancy is perhaps especially likely to harbour unlikely moments of magic: An adult in tears, all else being equal, will likely call forth quite a different aesthetic response. The chances are good that, within a few months, the mysterious allure that attaches to Sonny's crying jags will have dissipated.

But at least Mum's had her chance to savour it.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Missing something, Pa?

"You should blog about how you miss Sonny while at work," Mum told Pa a couple of hours ago.

Something stirred within Pa then. Just how much did he miss his son, when sitting at a computer terminal on the other side of the city, tapping away? Here's the answer he arrived at (hold on to something if your nerves aren't what they used to be): Pa doesn't really miss Sonny all that much.

That's to say, his thoughts don't wander away from the stuff he's working on, slinking home to rest lovingly on his gurgling bundle. Pa doesn't worry about whether Sonny's been crying too much, drinking too little or not getting enough morning sun. Mind you, if someone were to ask about how the little one is doing, Pa would be happy enough to dwell on the subject: While it occupies him, feelings not unrelated to pride and pleasure well up.

But oughtn't the thoughts of any new parent be continually returning unprompted to the new addition to the family? This seems more or less expected in our kinder, gentler era, so Pa's formulated a theory to explain why missing-itis seems to have passed him by. He calls it the Reservoir Effect, and here's how it goes: When he's home, he makes sure to spend quality time with his baby. Just today, he gave Sonny his evening bath, noting with a thrill of pleasure how - at 10 weeks and change - the little critter is now energetic enough to splash and kick in the tub. Pa also chats with Sonny, treating him like a conversational partner and filling him in on some of the things that have transpired earlier in the day.

Well, in doing all this, Pa - without thinking about it - is actually refilling his reservoir of Sonny-sentiment - of affection and fatherly feelings. By the next morning, when he leaves with a cheery "See you later, Sonny", he's topped off the tank before heading out the door. Then, for the rest of the day through till evening, this reservoir of stored sentiment is continually being drawn on. It keeps Pa's unconscious self from getting too restive and starting to agitate for news about Sonny.

There's one obvious way to test this rather fanciful theory: Give Pa no access to Sonny for more than a day - two days, say - and see what happens once the reservoir runs dry. Then again, there'll be a second test subject soon, so that more evidence can be gathered: Mum is returning to work in a fortnight or so - and Sonny will be starting at infant care. Will she be able to keep Sonny-thoughts sufficiently at bay when at her workstation? Will she have to consciously top off her reservoir with some extra farewell hugs?

In fact, is there any way of upgrading to a larger reservoir... just in case?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A formula for patience

Any parent knows that choosing breast milk over formula brings manifold benefits - from money saved, to convenience when on the road, to (most importantly) the amazing mix of nutrients and germ-fighting antibodies.

But thanks to breast milk, too, Sonny is already tuning in to one of the defining trends of our times. And we don't like it one bit. We're talking about what has been called the cult of instant gratification. Patience is a rare virtue these days (if acknowledged as a virtue at all); instead, the message being hammered home by the advertising industry, credit card companies et al is that what we want, we get - and pronto.

"Relevance?", you demand, like a seasoned TV lawyer. Well, consider first how breast milk is always on tap for Sonny. Here's the progression, more or less in real time:
(1) Sonny wakes up and starts to fuss.
(2) Mum swiftly removes any impediments to feeding.
(3) Sonny gets thrust at Mum's natural milk faucet - and starts drinking.

Now suppose we were relying on milk formula instead. Unless alerted earlier, there would have been a built-in lag once we realised that Sonny was hungry: We'd have to boil water, sterilise the bottle, spoon out the powder and so on. Not rocket science, but the important thing is that Sonny would have been forced to wait. He mightn't be overjoyed - but our guess is that, with time, he would have become used to it. Instead, of course, what he's become used to is broadband-connection speeds of service. And it shows. His 'fidget and fuss' stage, which precedes his 'turn on the waterworks' stage, has been squeezed till it hardly exists.

The best move on our part may be a cruel one: To refuse to respond immediately to his requests for milk - which are issued, after all, in the only language a baby can employ. We might start with a delay of just a few minutes, then slowly drag it out further - all the while firmly assuring Sonny (the tone might come to be understood, if not the words) that food is on the way. A messy business? That was our point to start with: It would have been a lot easier had necessity (and formula milk) enforced the discipline that's required.

Still, since instant gratification seems to have sunk its first talons into Sonny's psyche, perhaps we'd best launch this remedial training at once. It'd have been better to have started earlier - but there's no point crying over spilt milk.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Who's learning from whom?

Pa's a little spooked these days.

In the natural order of things, young children derive habits and characteristics from imitating their parents. Other traits they exhibit as part of their genetic heritage. But who's ever heard of parents copying their young 'uns?

That's Pa's question, because he's noticed that Mum is beginning to behave in ways that are suspiciously similar to Sonny's. There's that stretching thing, mainly. When Sonny wakes up, he never does it all at once. He goes through a rigorous series of stretches that involve shooting his arms into the air at certain angles and yawning noisily. Well, Mum is beginning to shake off sleep in almost exactly the same way - right down to the angles of the arms when they rocket skyward. Even the little half-yawns she does are like adult versions of Sonny's.

In an earlier post, we discussed how Mum had seemingly become psychically connected to Sonny - so that when he cried, she would feel an attack of colic coming on. That's still going on, but this behavioral mirroring brings things to a whole new level. Who's to say that her emotional maturity won't start to decline as she aligns it to that of our 10-week-old? Will her language skills take a dive? Or might she begin to sleep many more hours every day?

Admittedly, there are various plausible-enough explanations for Pa's observations. One, preferred by Mum, is that he's simply got it the wrong way round: It's Sonny who's yawning and stretching and so on like his mother, in a straight genetic pick-up. Pa, of course, claims these characteristics simply weren't there before - but he might simply not have noticed them till they began to remind him of Sonny. An even more prosaic explanation would be that the two sets of behaviour aren't even all that alike, and that Pa's simply seeing what isn't there.

He's not buying it. And, really, is it so hard to believe that parents can absorb a few mannerisms, cocks-of-the-head or stretching patterns from their children? Why does it all have to be one-way traffic?There's no scientific reason that we've found to say it can't happen. Mum's not hung up over it and certainly doesn't think it makes her less her own person. It's even rather endearing, in a way - a further sign of the invisible ties that bind mother and child.

Well, make that visible ties, in this case.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

First blood

We were probably supposed to have felt a gush of distress and cry out, "Oh no, you poor thing!" But our response was better captured by Pa's ejaculation: "Oh, you silly baby!"

Yep, Sonny has received his first injury - and it was self-inflicted. Left to his own devices for just a few seconds, he managed to swish his hand to his own face - and gouge a deep scratch just below his left eye. Mum, close at hand, heard a scraping sound, then Sonny's wail. The blood flowed freely, and we had to apply pressure to the wound using cotton balls.

It was not a week ago that we were blogging about Sonny's sharp fingernails. His mittens are therefore seldom left off, but he certainly took his chance when it came. Thanks to his strike, persistent redness and his continual worrying at the site with his hands, we took him to a doctor a few days later.

"It shouldn't leave a scar, but if it does, it's all right. He's a boy," the medico said unsympathetically, before prescribing an anti-infection cream. Cheers, doc!

Later, Pa wondered briefly whether his primary initial response - one of annoyance - made him a less than ideal parent. Where was his instinctive anguish, or any automatic rush to protect one's child? On nature programmes, we see hurt geese drawing off predators to save their little goslings. No stirrings of such heroism on our part.

Who's to say, however, how individuals will react when faced with genuine threats to their nearest and dearest? Folks who seem meek as mice become lions; blustery tough guys fail the test when it really counts. We see it every time unlikely heroes emerge out of some disaster - and, more quietly, in households around the world, when parents take on massive loads to provide for their offspring.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. But until that time of testing, second-guessing is pretty pointless. A nick that heals, or even a little scar, won't retard a child's progress in life.

Whether that child's a boy or a girl.