Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sesame Street not so nice

Hullo there, it's me again: Sonny.

Recently, I've been taking greater interest in the thing called 'the television'. I've been ignoring it up till now since exploring the world around me seemed more urgent - but since my parents give that old box quite a bit of their attention, I figured I shouldn't neglect that part of my researches.

Here's the thing: My parents can't seem to decide whether they love it or hate it. They spend quite a lot of time making dismissive comments and panning many of the programmes ("mindless", "one-dimensional") and even use sarcastic tags like "the idiot box" to refer to it. Yet at the same time, they also seem keen to use it as a form of mind control.

Well, okay, mind control may be a little harsh. But they have bought some DVDs featuring a group of colourful weirdos who live in a place called "Sesame Street" and they've been plumping me in front of the TV and waiting expectantly. So far, I've not been too impressed with these discs: You may find it hard to believe it, but one long segment was basically a full-on musical interlude in which a strange nobleman with fangs, monsters and sundry animals sang up a storm over "The Number 'G'". It's true, I swear it (although I'm not sure what 'swearing' is all about and my parents aren't saying).

If I'm going to be charitable, I suppose I could assume that the TV is something that can "be used for good and ill", as my father sometimes says when he's being especially sententious. It can fulfil some sort of educational function - which is why they can't wait for me to be sucked into the adventures of some puppets and an oversized chicken - but people can also stare in front of it and swap mindless titillation for critical thinking. Secretly, though, I suspect my parents want primarily to use the box as a cheap babysitter. The idea is that I'll be utterly absorbed (picking up words and numbers as a sort of useful by-product) and leave them to do whatever it is they would rather do. I'm not sure whether I ought to be insulted or amused.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll be able to seize control of the TV at some point when my parents aren't alert and look for something that's really interesting. Mum and Pa are getting to be very cagey about what they'll watch when I'm in the room; they don't want me to be 'influenced'. Look, either what you see on TV is utterly fantastical, with no relation to reality (in which case I'd found out soon enough) or it is channelling truth, however painful - and so shouldn't be screened from me. Isn't that obvious enough?

Life seems pretty straightforward for a baby.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Onset of our limpet mine

In wars of yore, a deadly weapon against ships was the limpet mine, which would be deployed by elite commandos. They would swim under a hull and deploy a magnetised explosive charge that would clang onto the maritime metal, clinging on like a malevolent barnacle until the inevitable 'ka-boom'.

These last couple of days, our own 11-month-old limpet mine has been attaching itself to us with a ferocious obstinacy. He's been stuck at home with us (or both of his grandmothers, who rode to the rescue) after he was felled by a nasty virus and had to struggle with a scarily persistent fever. Since then, whenever awake, the little fella can't seem to go 10 minutes on his own before he'll be scuttling along with many a tearful peep, seeking an adult embrace. Not that he used to be stand-offish, but he was never so needy till now, even in previous bouts with illness.

At work, Pa's been preoccupied with how the economic crisis has affected country after country, so the little fella's behaviour has reminded him of the way some populations react. When all is well and the economy is humming along merrily, these folks want their government to leave them well alone so they can go about their own business. But when a financial contagion strikes, they go all limpet-miney and insist on a powerful saving hug from Big Brother, demanding bail-outs, stimulus packages and what have you.

Of course, we know that a limpet mine is so designed that failing to break its grim embrace will be followed in short order by a massive explosion and a speedy one-way visit to the bottom of the sea. Similarly, expecting the government to be an all-powerful life preserver - somehow counteracting problems brought on by unwise economic activity, business foolishness and so forth - can only end in tears. A culture of dependency is swiftly bred, and fiscal irresponsibility could easily take hold.

In our case, Sonny's fever broke yesterday and a fierce rash surfaced in its wake. Seems he had either measles or what is called 'false measles', which may linger for anything from three to seven days. Presumably he can be forgiven for being especially needy - so he's been allowed more than his usual quota of hugs. But once he's well on the road to recovery, the pampering will cease. Which, hopefully, is what will happen with the world's own embrace of big-government rescues.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New tricks for the new kid

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But if the dog is still very young, learning a trick could be even more of a chore.

We have in mind, of course, not a long-tongued, shaggy-coated canine but Sonny, who at 11 months should be starting to earn his keep, in our opinion. Babies, according to a manual we probably read somewhere, are supposed to learn at least one 'adorable trick' per month of life after the first six months (when they are probably too preoccupied with drinking milk and so forth). This rule is meant to repay parents who toil day in and day out to keep the child in clothes and provender, allowing them to show off a few 'surprises' to relatives and friends. "Oh, by the way," the parent is supposed to be able to carelessly mention, "Junior has learned how to say, 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious'. His pronunciation needs work, though." Or: "Incidentally, Junior can walk eight steps now balancing a ball on his upper lip. Pity he can't make it a round ten steps, don't you think?"

Unfortunately, our little fella seems to have skipped the briefing in which the 'adorable trick' requirement was extensively explained. At the moment, the only thing he can offer in this department is a rather lame "Where's your nose" routine. It is triggered when an adult asks him, preferably in the exaggerated manner usually assumed when addressing an infant: "Sonny, where's your tongue?". This may need to be repeated, or supplemented with a "Sonny, show us your tongue". At a certain point, the little fella - until then either poker-faced or smiling vacuously - will suddenly stick out his tongue. He then cracks a grand smile and awaits fawning praise or breathless clapping on the part of the audience.

Now, you'll have to admit that this is not exactly proof that we have unearthed the next Einstein. And there are two further problems with the routine. First, Sonny apparently has mental storage space for only one trick. Occasionally, after much rote drilling by the infant care staff (who came up with the "Where's your tongue" skit to begin with), he is able to respond to the question, "Sonny, where's your head?" by patting himself on his crown. However, the massive brainpower required for this production means Sonny immediately forgets where his tongue is, and will simply giggle in a silly manner when asked where it can be found. Worse, especially if the audience is larger than usual (where "usual" is a matter of two or three persons), he can become flustered. He will then stick out his tongue when asked where his head is, or nose, or for that matter the location of his kidney or even Osama bin Laden.

Readers may wonder why Mum and Pa should not launch their own crash 'adorable trick' programme. Sadly, it's not as though we haven't tried. Originally, we had high hopes that Sonny would be able to master a goodly portion of the alphabet early on. The little fella even seemed to get a handle on 'A', 'B' and 'C' some months ago. But the 'brainpower for one trick' limitation has since kicked in. Not only has he not learned new letters, but he's clean forgotten 'B' and 'C'. As for 'A' - and, to give credit where it's due, he's forever babbling, 'A' - he seems to associate the sound with anything from food (Parent: "Milk, Sonny?" Sonny: "A. A.") to the meaning of life (Sonny (after seeming to gaze deeply into the future): "A. A.").

The way things are going, the only way we're going to get any 'adorable tricks' going around here is if we get a dog. Old one, young one... it can't be any more challenging than Sonny's been.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Save good money with DIY child distractions

In these economically-challenging times, we've recently found a simple way to shave dollars off the childcare bill. The key insight is this: Basically, kids don't need toys.

That probably needs unpacking (especially since we famously splurged on a 'Big Time Toy' ourselves a while back). The thought crystallised yesterday when we saw Sonny (who's all of 11 months old) converting one of our plastic four-legged stools into his personal walking aid. He was happily pushing it along - making an infernal screeching sound on our second-rate marble, it must be said - and marching from place to place. He managed to stay more or less upright, though at times he ended up on his knees - still manfully shoving his walker in front of him.

It then occurred to us that the same improvisational spirit could be extended to much of the constellation of toys needed to keep the little fella occupied. Remote control units, for instance, seem to hold a special fascination for him; since we have television and air-conditioning controls malfunctioning with boring regularity, a good supply could easily supplied for his delectation. Clean shoeboxes have been known to hold him in thrall for a good spell of time and bottles of mineral water double as 'roll 'n crash 'em' devices as well as handy counting aids ('One bottle', 'two bottles'...). Pa has also experimented with umbrellas, with encouraging results.

Sometimes, of course, a baby will appreciate a purpose-made toy just for variety's sake. Here, the name of the game seems to be 'flexible' (or 'dual use', to use the terminology we employed in 'Big Time Toy still eludes us'). Toys that can only be played one way are quickly discarded. But things that can be come at from different approaches - that make a range of sounds (changeable by pressing an easily-located button) or offer a great variety of textures for happy chewing - are much better value. Then, too, you want toys that can be absorbed into whatever fantasy or elaborate story that the slightly-older child will begin constructing. If you leave the young 'un with more imaginative work to do, he may actually get more fun out of the item.

Naturally, the trouble with DIY toys is that we have to look out for unintended 'side-effects'. For instance, our amazing stool-cum-walker may need to be sparingly used due to the potential for extensive, crisscrossing scratches all over our floor. And some things are just plain dangerous (no plastic bags now! and might Junior gnaw off toxic paint flecks?) for conversion to kiddy-playtime activities. So a good seasoning of good sense should always be on hand - not to mention a good wash to remove any encrustations from the item's previous child-unfriendly existence.

Sounds like more work than its worth? Take it as a parenting game of sorts. How inventive can you get? Everyone can get in a bit of play...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Baby Obama's growing pains

The administration of the new President of the United States, Barack Obama, is poised to hit the two-month mark this week.

A new presidency is very much like a new baby: Everyone is waiting to see if it possesses all the right functioning parts and will tickle it to see how it reacts, trying to work out how clever it's going to be. And of course, early on, any hard-and-fast conclusions would probably be premature.

Still, Obama seems to be making the right moves. A big economic stimulus package has been pushed through and a diplomatic offensive has been launched, with many a hint that a more inclusive, flexible and multilateral approach will be undertaken. To stick with our infant analogy, Baby Obama has a good, clear voice, isn't shying away when made to take his medicine and isn't thrashing about kicking other folks too viciously.

Yet there will inevitably come a time (say, when a nasty stinging gnat flies too close) when the new baby will need to warn it off or, if need be, strike accurately and swiftly. At the moment, Obama's mouthpiece, Hillary Clinton, has issued the usual pro forma warnings for North Korea to desist from a suspected missile test. But suppose Iran refuses to play ball and is seen as coming closer to acquiring nuclear arms. Or the Russians try to assert themselves. We will then see how forcefully and how subtly the Americans will rally allies, marshal their forces and otherwise behave as the sole superpower must.

Then, of course, there's still Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation, in some ways, is dire - yet heartening too. Some babies, they say, are born old (and if not wise, at least acute), and Obama seems to be approaching this festering problem with maturity and an understanding of its complexity. It is increasingly clear that battling the Taleban can best be understood as peeling off those forces that can be accommodated and isolating the fanatic elements that insist on exporting violence. Luckily, a leaf can be taken from the book of the previous inhabitant of the presidential crib: Baby Bush, who was forced to grow up pretty quick amidst the threat of terror. In Iraq, the once ideologically naive Bush ended up endorsing a strategy of accommodation with multiple armed factions, so that the hard core of the local al-Qaeda was exposed and then bloodied.

Something like that will now be pursued in Afghanistan, along with a surge of fresh troops. We'll have to see if the infusion of new vitamins will boost Baby Obama's defences, so that the rest of the world will be clapping along with his happy gurglings in a year or so.

Precocious little thing, though...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Constipation consternation

We were just trying to fatten him up the right way.

For a few months now, Mum has been joyously loading Sonny up with ever-larger servings of nutritious foods as we've slowly expanded his diet, going beyond milk and entering the realm of chopped vegetables, minced meat and even cheese. After all, we figured, he's about to hit the Big Eleven (months) in a few days' time: It wouldn't do to have him still slurping just the white stuff.

It now appears, however, that we have been a little too adventurous in stuffing him with various solid foods. To be exact, they may have been rather too solid. Over the last few days, the little fella's daily 'clearance' has fallen dramatically. There was even a dramatic episode in which he strained viciously while perched on his little eviction-throne, tears streaming.

Shortly thereafter, our resident wise woman - well, the chief caregiver at Sonny's infant care centre - informed us that we had been feeding the little fella food in excessively-large chunks. Evidently, he had been having trouble digesting; possibly, too, he wasn't drinking enough water, despite our constant efforts to make him guzzle more of it.

Sonny's 'output' has since resumed: We've even cancelled emergency measures like dosing him with prune juice. Still, our plans to wean him completely will now have to be carefully calibrated to ensure that there is a more gradual transition away from purely liquid food. Hey, we've been ambushed once by the Big Bad Diet Monster: We don't want a repeat attack. And who knows what other innocuous changes in the little fella's routine or schedule could portend potential problems?

For instance, he's now sleeping less at night and more during the day: Could this alternation suddenly leap out to somehow bite us? We've noticed little red marks on his back and mouth: They look like a harmless rash, but perhaps danger lurks. Should even his increased tendency to drool (click here for our original lighthearted post) be a disturbing sign that's going uninterpreted? Perhaps it is dehydrating the little fella...

Sure, now we're paranoid. Blame the constipation, won't you?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Big deal, so the fella can walk...

It's one of those critical toddler milestones ranking right up there with the first tooth and first decipherable utterance. Sonny burst past the 'first step' marker the other day, and then some: He managed to plod a couple of footlengths unaided before crashing to the floor.

"Oh," said Mum, who happened to be on hand. Then she forgot about it for the rest of the day. It was only the next morning, on the way to work, that she recalled the occasion - and rang up Pa ("so you'll have something to write about for the blog").

What's this, you cry shrilly? Has some variety of 'parenting fatigue' caught up with us, that we are not prancing about like deer on drugs whenever Sonny ticks one of those 'First...' boxes? Well, it's more like we've become curiously adept at seeing 'the other side' of any supposedly joyous development.

So Sonny has started to walk? Well, break out the party hats and all that, but doesn't that mean there are now even more varieties of 'nasty falls' we need to be guarding against? And it surely means he can poke and pry into even more forbidden zones, necessitating another round of 'moving stuff up higher shelves'?

Or let's take another example. Sonny can now call for his mother by name (assuming her name is 'Maa'). Sure, drinks all round. But the flip side is that he's that much closer to pummelling us with an endless stream of inane questions and demands. We'll also have to attend to him more closely now when he issues his customary burbles, since he might actually be saying something comprehensible. Of course, 99.9 per cent of the time, it's still nonsense.

Want another? All this teeth-sprouting business (nearly forgot: Huzzah, huzzah) is taking a toll on Mum, even though Sonny only has three for now. Each extra chomper is an additional weapon to be deployed in biting down on the poor woman.

Some folks might suggest that we are assuming too much of a sour disposition. So don't get us wrong. It's great - no, it's marvellous - that Sonny is growing up. But if you think about it, that's pretty much the standard programme for babies, right? No real surprise to be had. Ho hum and all that. Not that we're asking for a nasty shock. But we're still waiting for the little fella to do something that flat-out astounds us, that will have us staring at each other and tossing away parenting books in consternation.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tidal wave of saliva

In some ways, Sonny is less messy than he used to be. He's rapidly approaching the 11-month mark with us, and no longer needs as many diaper changes. He is usually fairly easy to feed, and chomps down mouthfuls of porridge and rice - ladled out by Mum or Pa - without spilling excessively.

Unfortunately, however, the little fella's tendency to drool uncontrollably has not been stemmed. Indeed, it has accelerated, and rare is the hour that goes by without a great overflow of saliva gushing forth to drench floor, clothes, sofa and any item that happens to come into contact with him. We've taken to keeping a bib permanently tied around his neck, but the deluge of goo cascades past that barrier with utter ease to spot our nice marble and stain our fabric.

Now, we've been told that the reason for this perpetual high tide is that he is teething. That's just hard to buy, however. If he had a tooth for every bucket of saliva he's unleashed, he would be some sort of gothic monster by now, with teeth cramming his mouth and dotting his nose, chin and lip. As it happens, however, Sonny only has three teeth showing. At that rate, long before he reaches his quota of milk teeth, a giant puddle of saliva would have had us swimming from hall to bedroom.

A second theory has it that the goo flows especially when he's hungry, so that it functions as some sort of useful pointer to a good appetite. Now, if this is true, Mother Nature sure over-engineered our Sonny: When he's hungry, we usually have no trouble discerning it, since he'll be pawing away at Mum and mewing unstoppably. Salivating needn't come into it. In any case, Sonny can't possibly be hungry all day, yet the overflow seems an all-day thing.

We're left, therefore, with a third theory, that babies simply 'go through this phase'. That leads us to pose this desperate question: When will it end? Just today, for instance, Sonny was tottering about our hall literally splashing gouts of saliva like some modernist painter filling his canvas. One nice new soft toy (with a massage function for Mum's use) is now drying in the hall. Like land mines, a few globules of spit still litter our floor, ready to trap the unwary. We'll get round to mopping them up... but that won't stop Sonny.

He'll just keep pumping the stuff out.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How not to fight the flab

Pa's aunt and uncle dropped by last week to visit, and also get a glimpse of our little fella. But they reserved a little surprise for Pa's appearance.

"Why... you've... well... grown prosperous," they stammered after a pause, during which you could almost see the frantic mental clawing-about for a polite phrase. As in, alternative to 'fat', 'tubby' or 'lardy'.

Unfortunately, any of those terms would have justifiably applied. Pa has certainly gained a kilogram, or two, or dozen, since Sonny joined us (as has been noticed in previous posts; click here for a refresher). The good news is that he's recently launched a carefully calibrated, come-back fitness routine - which is a fancy way of saying that he's tried to trot round the block at least once or twice a week. In case that sounds rather desultory, Pa explains that he is slowly 'building up' to a proper exercise programme, which will presumably feature extensive high-speed workouts and impressively regular explosions of energy.

At the moment, of course, even the thought of such exertion is liable to leave Pa drained. However, as a gesture towards that glorious future, he has resolutely refused to purchase new clothes - not wishing to load up on sizes that will "fairly soon" prove saggy and excessive. There is something of the noble optimist (if not the fantasist) about all this, yet perhaps this is the ideal attitude to which to approach parenting too. After all, we don't want to linger morbidly on the prospect of months or years of being peppered with inane kiddy requests, tantrums and assorted other headaches, so we simply gaze right through them - as though they were transparent - and gaze into the future vista of well-brought up, exquisitely well-behaved offspring that will also fetch and carry on command.

Of course, this will not make the grunt work go away - whether this be the exercise undertaken on the road to flab-fighting or the child-caring that must go into producing the useful errand-absorbing youngster. The best thing to be said about either endeavour is that the first steps have been taken, with many more to come. Best enjoy the enjoyable parts or just push through the painful ones... though Pa might protest that there really aren't too many 'enjoyable' aspects to the dreariness of self-punishment.

Exercise enthusiasts are welcome to contribute proofs to the contrary...